Album review: Rick Wakeman - White Rock (1977)
A family skiing holiday to La Plagne in France 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, The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth. My problem with what is indisputably classic Wakeman is his lyric writing and use of sub-standard vocalists. The Six Wives of Henry VIII stood out because it was a fully instrumental interpretation of historic figures, with some good, wordless vocalisation from female session musicians and individual tracks which formed sonically distinct vignettes of the different wives. Journey has a more restricted keyboard palette, though the orchestra adds 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 and, 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 until 2017, though I jumped at the chance to see him live at Leeds University, where my brother was a student, on the tour promoting the album in 1976.
I remember that gig as being 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, but the instrumental pieces were 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 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 White Rock track provides the music to a collage of sports at the beginning of the film after James Coburn’s bobsleigh run and piece to camera. This is Lax’x, which is the opener on side 2 of the original vinyl and more experimental than my next favourite, the definitive prog track Ice Run, which plays to a succession of clips of two- and four-man bobsleigh 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 piece accompanies 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 cinema and audio formats. Tony Fernandez’ percussion is really fitting and effectively conjures mental images of the speeding 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 good form lasted for one more album, Criminal Record, recorded in Switzerland at the same time as Yes’ 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 band mates Chris Squire and Alan White though it wasn’t entirely instrumental, with a comic vocal provided by British comedian and ornithologist Bill Oddie on The Breathalyser. Sadly, record company interference would adversely affect Wakeman’s next album, Rhapsodies, his last for the A&M label. He wouldn’t reach such heights again until 2020’s The Red Planet (see the review at https://www.progblog.co.uk/copy-of-rick-wakeman-the-red-planet)