Written by Rick Wakeman
Performed by Rick Wakeman, Bill Bruford, Mike Egan, Seve Howe, Alan White, Dave Winter, Dave Lambert, Chas Cronk, and others.
I was, and still am, a fan of progressive rock of the 70s. It’s fashionble to scoff at it, calling it bombastic (which was part of what made it great) and self-indulgent (a code sneer for mucians who produce songs that last longer than four minutes), but the concept of melding rock with classical and jazz is exciting; rock can be more than three chords (though three-chord songs can be great, too). One of the landmarks of the genre was Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII.
Wakeman was a keyboardist and first came to prominence as a studio musician* and was first credited as a member of the folk-rock group, The Strawbs. He backed David Bowie and joined Yes for the Fragile album, where he became known to the public.
During his years with Yes, he decided to do a solo album, which became Six Wives. Wakeman had read a biography of Henry VIII and he realized something he had been working on would fit in with what he was reading about Anne Boleyn. Wakeman gathered musicians he worked with with Yes and The Strawbs and put together the album.
Each of the six songs are named after one of the six wives. They are musical impressions – there are no lyrics, though some songs have vocals. The order is a bit odd: it’s not chronological.
My favorite is “Catherine Howard,” which starts out with a beautiful melody before going off into other directions. The songs all switch from rock, to classical, to waltzes and is always interesting.
A&M Records, which distributed, thought it would be a flop: an instrumental album of a melding of classical and rock. But they were wrong. It got a big boost in the UK when he performed it on The Old Grey Whistle Test.** Wakeman got lucky: the show competing with his performance – a biography of Andy Warhol – was cancelled at the last minute and the audience turned to – and loved – Six Wives. The album caught on in America and went gold.
Wakeman continued success with other themed albums: Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but he made his mark with Six Wives.
*That’s his piano on Cat Stevens’s “Morning has Broken.”
**A UK music show that concentrated on more serious rock music.