(Pictured: Rick Wakeman takes a bow after a performance of King Arthur on Ice, a real thing that happened in 1975.)
Forty years ago this spring, former Yes keyboard player Rick Wakeman continued his solo career with the release of the splendiferously titled The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Sometime in the summer of 1975, I was at a party when I heard it for the first time, and I was knocked sideways, gone, hooked. I raced out and bought a copy, which was rarely off the turntable for the next several years. My original copy perished in the early 80s after I accidentally left it in the sun over a long weekend, but I replaced it, and although I went for a long stretch in the 90s and 00s without listening to it much, I find myself frequently returning to it now, 40 years later.
The album is a rough biography of Arthur, starting with the stories of the Sword in the Stone and the Lady of the Lake. He encounters Merlin the Magician, is challenged for Guinevere’s love by Lancelot (who also does battle with the Black Knight), and he sends Sir Galahad on a quest. The story ends with “The Last Battle,” in which Arthur is slain by Mordred and shipped off to the Isle of Avalon, where he sleeps until, it is said, he will return, “to save Britain in the hour of its deadliest danger.” Like any good concept album, it has several main themes that recur throughout. The Arthur theme is a magnificent thing, so quintessentially English-glorious that the BBC uses it as the theme for its election night coverage. Merlin the Magician is invoked by themes both ominous and crazed. Guinevere is represented by precisely the sort of sweetly lyrical theme you’d expect for a woman as beloved as she.
Fooling around at YouTube recently, I found a video version of the King Arthur album. (The preceding paragraph contains links to segments of it.) I have not been able to track down much detail about it. It seems to have been made sometime in the late 90s or early 00s, and it mixes stills from the original album package and 1975 concert footage with clips from movies, including the 1981 Arthur movie Excalibur and an Italian film called The Church. Most of the concert footage comes from Wakeman’s 1975 King Arthur on Ice tour—yes, it was staged as an ice show, but you can’t tell from the clips used in the video. The concert footage is beautifully lit (beautifully treated in post-production, actually), and Wakeman, with his trademark long hair and caped, sparkly costume behind banks and banks of keyboards, is every inch the prog-rock god.
The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table rose to #21 on the Billboard album chart in a 15-week run that began in April 1975—one of seven Wakeman albums to chart between 1973 and 1979; only the 1974 release Journey to the Center of the Earth, which went all the way to #3, charted higher. In the intervening 40 years, Wakeman has remarkably prolific. His discography at Allmusic.com shows literally dozens of releases over the years. He’s also an amusing follow on Twitter.
It’s not surprising to me that I’d fall so hard for this album when I was 15, for at that time, I was obsessed with all things English. I am not sure where my Anglophilia began, but I could have told you the whole Arthur story (and many, many other tales from English history) long before I ever heard the album. I watched every British TV show on public television from Monty Python’s Flying Circus on down. I even considered my English accent as good as a native’s, which it certainly was not. As far as I was concerned, England was the center of the world.
But that was then. Now, I listen to the King Arthur album because it’s really, really good.