We’ve seen sales of George Orwell’s dystopian nightmare scenario 1984 peak in recent months. Millions of readers seek to understand the brave new world we live in through Orwell’s vision. Parallels abound. We might reasonably ascribe to the ruling party in the U.S. and its media apparatus the slogan “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.” But our experience of reality never fails to validate that old saw about truth and fiction. As Case Western Reserve professor of history John Broich writes, “2017 is stranger than Orwell imagined.”
The state doesn’t need a Ministry of Truth to censure the information that reaches us. We are simply overwhelmed with “alternative authorities and realities” who delegitimize the facts and accelerate “the decline in standards of evidence and reasoning in the US electorate.” A sad state of affairs. But in every decade since the publication of Orwell’s novel, critics, journalists, and pundits have seen evidence of his dire forecast. In the titular year itself, Manhattan College professor Edmond van den Bossche summed up the general tenor in The New York Times: “In our 1984… the warnings of George Orwell are more than ever relevant.”
Van den Bossche wrote of NATO and the UN. But he might have written about MTV and CNN— both in their infancy—who birthed 24-hour cable news and reality TV. What Orwell understood about state power, later thinkers like Guy DeBord, Roland Barthes, and Jean Baudrillard built careers writing about: the importance not only of surveillance, but also of spectacle that blurs the lines of truth and fiction as it overwhelms our senses. It’s largely this key theme, I’d argue, that has rendered 1984 so attractive to some of the most spectacular of musicians, including David Bowie—whose attempts to make an Orwell concept album formed part of his Diamond Dogs—and Rick Wakeman, the virtuoso prog-rock keyboardist of Yes fame.
After releasing as a solo artist such rock-literary adaptations as 1974’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and the following year’s The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Wakeman turned Orwell’s classic into a rock opera. The 1981 production is an extravaganza of musical excess, with lyrics and vocals by Tim Rice, riveting performances by Chaka Khan (above) and Wakeman’s former Yes bandmate Jon Anderson, and eclectic orchestral instrumentation woven in with Wakeman’s battery of keyboards and synthesizers. The record has become a fan favorite and Allmusic describes it as one of Wakeman’s “most well-rounded albums.”
The perfectionistic Wakeman himself looks back on his 1984 with embarrassment. “In retrospect, a mistake,” he has said. “The wrong album at the wrong time, with all the wrong people around at the time…. I formed the wrong band, (the worst I have ever had), the deal for the stage show fell through and all in all I listen back to the music with my head in my hands.” Luckily, we are not bound to respect an artist’s assessment of his work. Wakeman’s music and Rice’s lyrics take the leaden, gray world of Winston Smith and Julia and turn it into a carnival, moving from soaring ballads to rockers with the sneering vaudevillian satire of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (See especially “The Proles,” above, the penultimate number before the final title track.)
Orwell’s novel is not what one would call an entertaining book; it is gloomy—though not without its own kind of dark humor—and its monochromatic tone was perfectly captured by Michael Radford’s 1984 film adaptation. But it heavily suggested the world to come, one constantly illuminated and obscured by mass media, with screens in every home and pocket, forever broadcasting some colorful distraction. In the videos above, you’ll see excerpts from the movie mixed with dazzling live performance footage of Wakeman and band playing their 1984 live, synced to the studio recordings, courtesy of Youtuber ROLT (Ronaldo Lopes Teixeira.) Watch his full project at the top of the post. The mash-up suitably shows how these very different interpretations—the more straightforwardly dour and the prog-rock operatic—somehow both do justice to Orwell’s prescient novel. Just above, you can hear Wakeman’s full album on Spotify (whose software you can download for free here).