Review: Rick Wakeman – The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1973)

The Six Wives of Henry VIII is often regarded as keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s first solo album. Actually, whether this is true is a matter of opinion. After all, an album under Wakeman’s name, Piano Vibrations, was released back in 1971, with Wakeman playing cover songs alongside studio musicians. Wakeman himself does not credit that album as his debut and at least The Six Wives of Henry VIII can be considered the first Wakeman album to contain original music.

And very fine music it is! Where keyboardist Keith Emerson had a chance to shine in the spotlight on all the albums of the three-piece Emerson Lake & Palmer, Rick Wakeman was inevitably somewhat sidelined in the five-piece Yes, ”humbly” working as part of a team with guitarist Steve Howe grabbing most of the band’s instrumental solo space. On The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Wakeman then really lets his nimble fingers loose and finally gives Emerson a real challenge in the battle for the prog keyboard title. Wakeman’s soloing on the album is impressive to listen to and, for the most part, tastefully executed. And most importantly, the album is not only based on Wakeman’s virtuosic dabbling with a wide arsenal of keyboards (including grand piano, Hammond, Mini-Moog, harpsichord, RMI electric piano and Mellotron); the songs Wakeman composed for the album are all of real high quality.

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The album features six upbeat and mostly quite rocking prog instrumentals. Wakeman’s keyboards are of course the protagonist in every track, but a few also feature an electric guitarist. Steve Howe makes a guest appearance on the opening track ”Catherine Aragon” which also features Yes’ original rhythm section Bill Bruford and Chris Squire. Bruford also plays on one of the album’s highlights, the leisurely swinging ”Anne Boley ’The Day Thou Gavest Lord Hath Ended” and Bruford’s successor in Yes, Alan White, also plays on three tracks. Barry De Souza, the third drummer on the album, plays on one track. Other musicians on the album include Wakeman’s old Strawbs mates Dave Lambert and Dave Cousins (electric banjo!). The album also makes successful use of wordless vocalisations from a couple of female singers on a few tracks. 

One of the strengths of Six Wives, apart from the powerful songs with excellent melodic hooks and edgy keyboard riffs, is the quality backing band. This was certainly not a given in Wakeman’s later career. His rhythm section, in particular, was often quite.. let’s be frank: boring. Partly, perhaps, because of Wakeman’s rhythmically square compositions. On this album, however, there is no such problem and the compositions are also rhythmically vibrant and fluid.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII is, like a significant proportion of Wakeman’s later albums, a concept album. As the title makes quite clear, the theme is the wives of Henry VIII, King of England in the 1500s. In his own words, Wakeman’s music seeks to portray the character traits of these women, most of whom suffered tragic fates. To be honest, this aspect of the songs does not come across to me at all, and the whole concept seems to me to be rather superficial. Perhaps, however, the subject really did inspire Wakeman. I don’t know. In any case, the songs are good.

All in all, the 36 minute album is a really strong and smooth whole. A few songs stand out a bit, but the material is of high quality throughout. The album is topped off with an efficiently working sonics. Wakeman’s keyboards sound crisp, but the low frequencies sound suitably sultry.

To everyone’s surprise, The Six Wives of Henry VIII was ultimately a huge success. The record company had expected to sell between 12 and 50,000 copies, but the album ended up selling millions of copies (some sources say as many as 15 million, which I personally find hard to believe) and made Wakeman a superstar for a brief period. In fact, Six Wives sold more than any Yes album so it was no wonder that Wakeman was reluctant to leave the band in May 1974 when the band’s last album Tales From Topographic Oceans (December 1973) had failed to appeal to him stylistically. The world was open to Wakeman. Unfortunately, his solo discography eventually became very uneven and Wakeman never really fulfilled the promise of this fine debut album.

Best songs: ’Catherine of Aragon’, ’Anne Boleyn ’The Day Thou Gavest Lord Hath Ended’, ’Catherine Parr’

****½

Author: JANNE YLIRUUSI

Tracks:

A side

1. ”Catherine of Aragon” 3:44
2. ”Anne of Cleves” 7:53
3. ”Catherine Howard” 6:35

B side

1. ”Jane Seymour” 4:46
2. ”Anne Boleyn ’The Day Thou Gavest Lord Hath Ended'” 6:32
3. ”Catherine Parr”

Musicians:

Rick Wakeman: keyboards Bill Bruford: drums Ray Cooper: percussion Dave Cousins: electric banjo Chas Cronk: bass guitar Barry de Souza: drums Mike Egan: guitar Steve Howe: guitar Les Hurdle: bass guitar Dave Lambert: guitar Laura Lee: vocals Sylvia McNeill: vocals Judy Powell: vocals Frank Ricotti: percussion Chris Squire: bass guitar Barry St. John: vocals Liza Strike: vocals Alan White: rummut Dave Wintour: bass guitar

Produces: Rick Wakeman

Label: A&M


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