Rick Wakeman’s Prog-Rock Opera Adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984

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).

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Bowie Dreamed of Turn­ing George Orwell’s 1984 Into a Musi­cal: Hear the Songs That Sur­vived the Aban­doned Project

Hear the Very First Adap­ta­tion of George Orwell’s 1984 in a Radio Play Star­ring David Niv­en (1949)

George Orwell’s 1984 Staged as an Opera: Watch Scenes from the 2005 Pro­duc­tion in Lon­don

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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