Remembering: Rick Wakeman, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1973)
All those discoveries, all those revelations. The heady seventies seemed, to this newly addicted progger, a time when music was becoming something very important, and something very Other than whatever it had been before. It was as though my listening knew a simple filing system reflected in the arrangement of bins in the store where I bought most of my records. Classical, Jazz, and something like “Pop/Rock,” where the prog seemed mostly to fall back then. January of 1973 had not yet been shaken by Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (coming later that same year), which would bash against the sides of the existing bins even more forcefully.
But then there was Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII. The historical record now seems to show that marketers and critics often didn’t have much of a clue what to make of it. I remember the first time I saw it at the store, displayed prominently among “recently released” titles. I thought of myself as being hooked on almost anything that involved synthesizers, and being very much under the spell of Fragile, I bought it without hesitation. I knew that Henry VIII had been a King, but not much more than that.
I remember listening multiple times, and being convinced that I liked what I was hearing. In retrospect, however, I think it was a fairly long time before I had anything that would qualify as an understanding of what I was hearing. The continuities with Yes were palpable enough to confirm my favor immediately, but I know that I first heard them as something like isolated moments. It was as though I had to wait between them, and I didn’t notice for a while how impatient and superficial was that waiting. I also didn’t notice until later how momentous an impression was growing within me of that music through which I initially “waited.”
I cradled the album cover so reverently in my lap, poring over that center picture of Rick looking so cool and so totally at home in that nest of keyboards. I’m quite sure that I had looked at it more times than I could count before I really noticed one day that there, so dominant in that nest, was the keyboard of a grand piano, the most-emphatically-NOT-a-synthesizer presence once I had really perceived it there. Indeed, it may not have been until after a few spins of Tubular Bells (with that very British voice, announcing: “Grand Piano!”) that I went back and really saw it.
I now see my belated noticing of the grand piano as a sort of marker for my beginning to notice just how rich was the instrumentation, how complex and layered were ALL of those keyboards, and how they were layered with ALL of the other instruments.
I’ve already alluded here a number of times to the “between” character of what we were then calling “progressive.” It was with Six Wives, its completely unapologetic thematic immersion in the grandeur and tradition of British monarchy, and its continuity with Fragile‘s explicit embrace of “classical,” that I really began to find my feet in what became a lifelong love of what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “blurred genres.”
Yeah, I was just as taken with Journey to the Centre of the Earth when it came out in 1974. But now I would say that Six Wives has held up much better with the passage of time. Compared to Journey, it seems not to have aged. In fact, if anything sounds a bit dated now, it’s those synthesizer moments that first stood out to me, for which I found myself “waiting” at first.
Wakeman’s output has been huge, and I’ll confess to not having heard ALL of it. But it’s difficult for me to imagine him ever really topping this masterpiece. When I saw Wakeman live with Yes in 2004, and they played that wonderful acoustic “shuffle” version of “Roundabout,” I felt like I was back in Henry’s court.