By ProgBlog, Apr 6 2014 10:49PM
The blog has been off-line for a few weeks, partly because we’ve put a great deal of effort into changing sites to www.progblog.co.uk and I’ve had two nightmare weekends on-call but also because the annual skiing trip occurred in March. This year the destination for the ritual excursion in search of snow was La Plagne, France, and the conditions were pretty good all over the ski area and over in Les Arcs, apart from some slushy reds and blacks on south-facing slopes later in the day.
This got me thinking about prog and snow, and apart from South Side of the Sky which relates the story of the perils of blizzard conditions, there’s only one album in my record collection that really covers snow-themed activities, and that’s Rick Wakeman’s soundtrack to the official film of the 1976 Innsbruck winter Olympics, White Rock.
I consider this as something of a return to form, much better than predecessors No Earthly Connection, Myths and Legends and Journey. My problem with what is indisputably classic Wakeman is his lyric writing and sub-standard vocalists. Six Wives stood out because it was a fully instrumental interpretation of historic figures, with some good, wordless vocalisation from female session musicians and the individual tracks were sonically quite distinct. Journey has a more restricted keyboard palette though the orchestra adding appropriate colour and there are recurrent motifs throughout the whole piece that hold the concept together. However, it’s the singing that lets the album down. The poor quality vocals are addressed on the 2012 studio release of Journey but the lyrics still don’t stand up to scrutiny. Then there’s the new Quaternary Man section, which (forgive me for saying this) I think sounds like something that could have been written for a Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. The lyrics and the singing were the main reason I didn’t own a recording of Journey until the early 1990s.
I did own a copy of Myths and Legends, bought when it was released, which I thought was better than Journey. The singing was improved but the lyrics were still rather poor but, when I listened to it fairly recently, I wasn’t convinced that it withstood the test of time; I wasn’t really sure that it was prog. The presence of Wakeman’s usual co-conspirators meant that I also didn’t buy No Earthly Connection, though I jumped at the chance to see him live at Leeds University in 1976, where brother Tony was a student.
I remember that this gig was really enjoyable, with dry ice spilling over the stage into the audience sitting attentively on the floor and Wakeman playing some very, very low notes on his Moog that hit the resonance frequency of my internal organs. The instrumental pieces were obviously the best...
White Rock wasn’t Wakeman’s first venture into film soundtracks. On Ken Russell’s 1975 film Lisztomania he was credited with ‘producer’ and ‘arranger’ of the music and though he appears on two instrumental tracks, he has since asked that his name be removed from the credits. However, White Rock was one of the first sports films that featured rock music rather than classical music.
My favourite track provides the music to the collage of sports that opens the film (after James Coburn’s bob sleigh run and piece to camera.) This is Lax’x, which is the opener on side 2 of the original vinyl and my next favourite is the definitive prog track on the album, Ice Run, which plays to a succession of clips of two- and four-man bob sleigh runs. The sequence of songs in the film doesn’t match those on record but it doesn’t matter and there are a number of snippets of music used in the film that form a sonic link between the different Olympic disciplines that don’t appear on album tracks, some of which are very Yes-sounding. The title track, a 12 bar Blues work-out played on Moog hardly features in the film (to clips of the Women’s Slalom) and Searching for Gold is only played over the closing credits. Wakeman’s sense of humour is evident, giving one track the title Montezuma’s Revenge. Before seeing the film, many years after its release on late-night TV, I had no idea why a euphemism for violent food poisoning was the name of a track on an album about the winter Olympics but the scene it accompanies is an explosive piece of Russian paired ice skating.
The instrumentation, keyboards and percussion (with some choral backing), maintain a narrative that works well in both formats, cinema and audio. Tony Fernandez’ percussion is really fitting and effectively exemplifies the speed of blades over ice. There’s a melodic keyboard motif, the ‘searching for gold’ riff that links the pieces together and helps to give the album a feeling of a conceptual whole but it’s the full use of the range of keyboards that make the album stand out from its immediate predecessors; there’s a much broader range of tonality, even though there’s no guitar or bass guitar.
The return to form lasted another album, Criminal Record, recorded in Switzerland at the same time as Going for the One. This also had similarities with Six Wives, comprising six tracks loosely connected by the theme of crime and punishment and featuring his Yes band mates Chris Squire and Alan White. Sadly, record company interference would adversely affect Wakeman’s next album, Rhapsodies, his last for the A&M label.
On a political note, I'd have liked to have seen a boycott of the Sochi games because of the anti-gay rhetoric and legislation and human rights abuse coming from the Kremlin. There are many voices that suggest sport should remain separate from politics but I think that the global image of high-profile sporting events makes them an ideal lever for facilitating political change. Also, the appointment of Russia and Qatar to hold major events are straightforward examples of geopolitics. I understand there are very few athletes who would agree with me because they've worked towards this goal over the preceding four years. However, I would have liked to have seen a united, principled stand and though they may have missed out on Olympic glory, there are always world championships.