An in-demand session musician, the classically trained pianist Rick Wakeman had been a member of folk ensemble The Strawbs before joining prog rock juggernauts Yes in 1971.
The album The Six Wives of Henry VIII established him as a solo performer in early 1973 but it was Wakeman’s first post-Yes release, Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, that gave him his biggest commercial success and became a cornerstone creation of the symphonic rock genre.
Wakeman’s plans for a musical interpretation of Jules Verne’s celebrated science fiction novel involved a cast of thousands, including the London Symphony Orchestra and Blow-Up (1966) star David Hemmings as narrator.
However, the British arm of Wakeman’s record company, A&M, weren’t convinced by the idea and gave him such a meagre budget that he was unable to meet studio costs.
Determined to pursue the project, the musician remortgaged his house, raising sufficient funds to instead record the work live at the London Royal Festival Hall on 18 January 1974 – the same day that he received a writ from his local dairy for non-payment of his milk bill.
The huge financial gamble paid off. Though UK A&M were reluctant to release the work, Journey To The Centre Of The Earth – a suitably epic combination of prog rock pomp and classical arrangements, with Wakeman’s virtuoso synthesizer work always at the heart of the matter – topped the British charts on 25 May and made #3 in America, where it was quickly certified gold.
Wakeman spent two-and-a-half years working on his interpretation of George Orwell’s 1984 and came up with a work of art. Featuring Chaka Khan, Jon Anderson, Kenny Lynch and Steve Harley providing the vocal pizzazz, it was a dramatic album of orchestral splendour.