Now that I have a streaming music service, I am discovering plenty of new music. I am also discovering a few surprises. Within a couple of weeks, I discovered two very belated rock and roll sequels from artists I had tuned into during my formative years in the 1970s.
Return to the Centre of the Earth (Rick Wakeman)
Rick Wakeman first came to mass attention as a keyboardist, composer and songwriter for the rock group Yes. By the early 1970s he had tired of Yes and struck out on his own. In 1974 he put out Journey to the Centre of the Earth, a hard to describe but definitely unique concept album that combined the classic Jules Verne book with his moog synthesizer, the London Festival Orchestra and narrator David Hemmings captured in a live performance. I was seventeen at the time. This album fused a number of genres amazingly well. Because of Wakeman’s often over the top antics on the moog, this album got plenty of play on my record player and grew somewhat beloved. It is an arguably a noteworthy album in the genre of progressive rock. He made two other attempts at similar concept albums during these years, one on the six wives of Henry VIII and another on King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but of the three this middle album is definitely the best.
By 1999, a full quarter century later, the moog was desperately old fashioned. This didn’t stop Wakeman from issuing a sequel that year, Return to the Centre of the Earth featuring himself again on the moog still sounding so very 1970’s-ish. This version takes us on a similar journey of the imagination that is more homage to the old album than something new in the way of story. It is also longer, somewhat better and classier. The orchestra got upgraded to the London Symphony Orchestra, and the narrator upgraded to Patrick Stewart. Listening to Stewart is like listening to Morgan Freeman: his voice is naturally compelling so you just cannot not pay attention. Despite the repetition in story, tone and music it is a fun journey of the imagination through music and a grade letter better than the original album. Wakeman also got a number of his peers to contribute to the vocals of the album including Justin Heyward and Ozzy Osbourne.
Today progressive rock seems the opposite of progressive. It seems antiquated, but for us middle-aged folk it is still quite a lot of fun. This album is actually about twenty minutes longer than the original album and proves that Wakeman’s still got it, both as a composer and a master of the moog. It’s a fitting but comfy sequel to the original album that is hard to dislike.
Update 12/9/14: Apparently the original Journey to the Centre of the Earth was re-released and extended in 2014, and even went on tour. My music service clocks this version at 1 hour and 48 minutes. You can find a number of excerpts from concerts online including this 27:41 excerpt performed in Buenos Aires with narration in Portuguese.
Thick as a Brick 2 (Jethro Tull)
In the early 1970s the competition was on to create the world’s most outrageous rock album. At the time arguably no album came closer than Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, released in 1972: an in-your-face and often patently offensive screed against God and organized religion. This one-theme album is framed as music the band wrote around a poem by fictional eight-year-old child prodigy: Gerald Bostock. His poem looked brilliant until it was actually analyzed and discovered to be completely antisocial and antiestablishment. It was so over the top that Ian Anderson expected that no one could possibly take it seriously. As a work of art though it was quite compelling and the lyrics, while often offensive and even outrageous, had resonance both then and today. For example, thinking of today’s Republicans, I can’t help but recall these lyrics from the album:
Really don’t mind if you sit this one out.
My words but a whisper your deafness a SHOUT.
I may make you feel but I can’t make you think.
Your sperm’s in the gutter your love’s in the sink.
I played it many times anyhow, and enjoyed it with a rebellious glee as it coincided with my loss of faith. It was often puerile, but it was for a good cause. But mostly it was great music. Take out the lyrics and you are still left with an amazing musical roller coaster from the rock and roll talents that was Jethro Tull. They were centered, of course, on Ian Anderson and his flute, who is always the primary artistic force for the band.
A full forty years after the album’s release in 1972 came Thick as a Brick 2, which is a rumination on Gerald Bostock forty years later around the age of fifty. In tone this 2012 album has a lot in common with the original album, but this is not particularly an anti-religious screed. Rather it is an examination into Bostock’s many possible life paths: as a banker, a homosexual and homeless man, a preacher, a soldier and a shopkeeper. (I’m betting Bostock would have been the banker.) Only when examining his life as a preacher does it resonate with the original album. As a work of music though it’s a reasonably close homage to the original, full of sardonic lyrics, occasional bars from the original albums and some quite memorable songs and tracks. (I particularly like “Adrift and Dumfounded”.) The original album really had no songs. It was issued in two parts, separated only because of the need to flip the record over.
So this forty year later homage to the original album is not really a homage, but a rumination of a fictional character navigating midlife. However, it is equally as clever lyrically and musically than the original album, if not more so. It is both different and the same and worth a lot of spins even if it won’t inspire you to start burning Bibles. It’s sardonic and at times melancholy, but rarely nasty. A sixty-something Ian Anderson (with some lyrics contributed by his son) proves that a forty year later sequel can still be damned good and fun, just a lot less in your face than the original, which is good.