RICK WAKEMAN - The Six Wives Of Henry VIII (A&M Records SP 4361, 1973)
In early 1972, Yes were touring America to promote their fourth studio album "Fragile". On a stopover in Richmond, Virginia, Rick Wakeman, who had joined Yes in August 1971, and made his debut on "Fragile", was perusing the airport bookshop. Eventually, Rick bought four books, including Nancy Brysson Morrison’s The Private Life Of Henry VIII. On the subsequent flight from Richmond to Chicago, Rick began reading Private Life Of Henry VIII. As he began reading about Anne Boleyn, Rick remembered a recording he had made in 1971. Since then, Rick had done nothing with that piece of music. After recording the music, Rick had been struggling to come up with lyrics to accompany it. This being the age of the concept album, what Rick was looking for, was a theme that could run through the recording. Not any more. Suddenly, everything came together. The notes Rick made about Anne Boleyn on the flight to Chicago were just the start. Over the next few weeks and months, whether at home or on tour, Rick focused on each of Henry VII’s six wives. At his piano, he continued to make notes. Eventually, Rick’s notes became the thread that ran through his sophomore album, "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII", which was recently reissued by Commercial Marketing as a double album.
Prior to the release of "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" in January 1973, Rick Wakeman had only released one solo album, 1971s "Piano Vibrations". However, controversy surrounds "Piano Vibrations". Rick doesn’t even consider "Piano Vibrations" as part of his discography. Rick’s involvement was minimal. He neither wrote, nor chose the material on "Piano Vibrations". Eight of the ten tracks were cover versions of popular songs, and the two other tracks were cowritten by producer, John Schroeder. All Rick who was working as a session musician, had to do, was turn up and play piano. The result was what is best described as a cheesy sounding album, that failed to chart. This was the polar opposite to Rick’s sophomore album "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII". Having joined Yes in August 1971, Rick played on their fourth album, "Fragile". It was released on 29th November 1972 in Britain, reaching number seven. This resulted in "Fragile" being certified silver. Across the Atlantic, Fragile was released on 4th January 1973, and reached number four in the US Billboard 200. "Fragile" was certified double platinum, and became the most successful album of Yes’ career. This would also be the case with Rick’s sophomore album, "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII".
Recording of "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" took place between February and October 1972. A&M Records gave Rick an advance of £4,000 to help with recording of "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII". That wasn’t going to go far. Luckily, Rick was a multi-instrumentalist, who could rely upon members of Yes, and his former band The Strawbs. On "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII", Rick played Minimoog and ARP synths, Mellotron, Hammond organ, church organ, electric piano, grand piano and harpsichord. Accompanying Rick, who produced "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII", were some of the top musicians of the early seventies. Among Rick’s band were what can only described as prog rock royalty. This included Yes’ rhythm section of drummers Bill Bruford and Alan White, bassist Chris Squire and guitarist Steve Howe. They were joined by The Strawbs bassist Chris Cronk and Dave Cousins, who played electric banjo. These were just a few of the musicians who played on "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII". Other musicians who played a part in the making of "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" were drummer Barry de Souza, bassists Dave Winter and Les Hurdle and guitarist Mike Egan. They were joined by percussionists Ray Cooper and Frank Ricotti and vocalists Laura Lee, Sylvia McNeill, Judy Powell, Barry St. John and Liza Strike. Once the six tracks were recorded, the cost of "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" had risen to £25,000. A&M Records’ advance hadn’t come close to covering the cost of "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII". Rick needed "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" to be a huge success.
Prior to the release of "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII", Rick was booked to appear on BBC TV’s The Old Grey Whistle Test, where he would play excerpts of "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII". That should’ve given "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" a huge boost. However, back then, there were only three television channels. On one of the other channels, ITV a documentary about Andy Warhol was scheduled to be released. The documentary was much anticipated, and as many as ten million viewers were expected to view it. Luckily, at the last minute, it was banned. With ten million people looking for something to watch, many turned to BBC 2, and The Old Grey Whistle Test. That night, excepts from Rick Wakeman’s sophomore album, "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" were heard by a huge audience. This was just what he needed. Reviews of "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" hadn’t been good. Only Time magazine and Rolling Stone seemed to appreciate "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII". They published glowing reviews. However, they were the only ones. Other critics weren’t won over by "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII". Neither were many people at A&M Records. Behind the scenes, staff at A&M Records referred to "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" as “unsellable.” They reckoned that an instrumental prog rock album was unlikely to sell well. So, only 12,500 copies of "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" were pressed prior to release. How wrong executives at A&M Records were.
On the release of "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" on 23rd January 1973, it topped the charts in four countries. "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" reached number seven in Britain, and number thirty in the US Billboard 200 charts. This resulted in "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" being certified gold in America. However, things would get even better for Rick Wakeman. By July 1973, "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" was certified platinum, having sold two million albums. Eventually, "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" sold over fifteen million copies. As 1973 drew to a close, Time magazine named "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" as the best album of 1973. Since then, it’s attained classic status. What was described as an “unsellable,” instrumental prog rock album is now regarded as one of the genre’s best examples. No wonder. Over the six tracks on "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII", Rick Wickman manages to do what is seemingly impossible, paint pictures with what are, six instrumental tracks. From "Catherine Of Aragon" right through to Catherine Parr, Rick’s music has an unmistakable cinematic quality. A case in point is "Catherine Of Aragon".
In the space of three minutes and forty-six seconds, Rick manages breath life, meaning and emotion into the story of Henry VIII and Catherine’s marriage. To do this, he uses a wide palette of instruments. This includes piano, synths, a rhythm section and harmonies. They’re Rick’s musical palette, played by what were some of the most talented, and sought after musicians and backing vocalists of the early seventies. What follows is a heart wrenching portrayal of a doomed marriage, which promised much, but sadly, was sabotaged by obsession. As "Catherine Of Aragon" unfolds, Henry VIII and Catherine’s marriage is young, and there’s a sense of hope and joy. Henry VIII hopes for a son and heir. As time passes, this becomes more unlikely. The one thing he longs for, he can’t have, a son. Despite his wife giving birth to a daughter, Henry VIII becomes melancholy and maudlin. This is reflected in the music. Soon, the melancholia leads to drama and sadness. The understated arrangement veers between wistful and ethereal. It translates what Henry VIII and Catherine must have been feeling. Later, as the music becomes dark and dramatic, Catherine is asked to leave the court, her eighteen year marriage at an end. In just under four minutes, you experience despair, drama, heartache, hope, joy, melancholy, pain and sadness. You find yourself empathising and sympathising, mostly, with Catherine. Her marriage had been ruined, ruined by her husband’s obsession for a son and heir. This heart wrenching, cinematic tale is just the start of what is, without doubt, an innovative, influential and ambitious concept album.
Over thirty-six minutes, Rick tells the story of "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII". Inspired by Nancy Brysson Morrison’s book, The Private Life Of Henry VIII, Rick Wakeman takes prog rock in a new direction. To do that, he combines various musical genres and instruments. Listen carefully to "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII", and elements of classic rock combine with classical music, folk, jazz and prog-rock. Sometimes when you hear the synths, there is even a funk influence. Another musical influence is the music of the church. Given the role it played in Henry VIII’s day, that is quite fitting. Two of the most obvious influences of the church can be heard on "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" are on "Jane Seymour" and "Anne Boleyn". When Rick was struggling to find the right organ sound for "Jane Seymour", he headed to St Giles-Without-Cripplegate church, in London. The engineers setup the recording equipment, and Rick played the church organ. It plays an important part in the track’s sound and success. Another influence of the church can be heard on "Anne Boleyn ‘The Day Thou Gavest Lord Hath Ended". It features an excerpt from St. Clement, played to the tune of the hymn The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended. Rearranged by Rick, it was an important part of "Anne Boleyn ‘The Day Thou Gavest Lord Hath Ended", which is best described as a genre melting track. It’s bold, dramatic, elegiac, energetic, ethereal, flamboyant and spiritual. These are just a few of the words that describe "Anne Boleyn The Day Thou Gavest Lord Hath Ended", which like the rest of "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" marked a first in prog rock.
Before "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII", the synth had struggled to be taken seriously in prog rock. It was almost frowned upon. The synth, to some, was prog rock’s bastard child. That is, until they heard it played by Rick Wakeman. This proved an eye opener. Suddenly, the synth gained legitimacy within prog rock. Before long, most self-respecting prog rock group had a keyboardist, playing a bank of the latest synths. That wouldn’t have happened without Rick Wakeman, and "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII". That is why, forty-two years after the release of "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII", it’s now considered a stonewall prog rock classic. Rick Wakeman is now perceived as a musical pioneer. After all, "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" is also the prog rock album that legitimised synths in prog rock. Without Rick Wakeman and "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII", maybe, things would have been very different ? Certainly, prior to the release of "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" very few people thought that it would prove such a landmark reviews. Neither critics, nor many of the staff at A&M Records foresaw the commercial success of "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII". Only Time and Rolling Stone recognising that "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" was a future classic. Even they never thought that Rick Wakeman’s sophomore album would become one of his best selling albums. Eventually, however, that proved to be the case. Since its release in 1973, "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" sold over fifteen million copies. Rick Wakeman, a true musical pioneer, had the last laugh, when what many considered prog rock’s ugly duckling, "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII", turned into a swan.