Among the musical talent assembled on this record, you get Manfred Mann, Gary Brooker, Gary Moore, Alvin Lee, Stephane Grappelli, Chris Spedding, Brian Eno and Keith Tippett. Oh, and the drummers deserve their own mention: that would be Bill Bruford, Phil Collins, Jon Hiseman and Cozy Powell. Not exactly a pub band, then…
Peter And The Wolf. You know the one. I can imagine some people already thinking back to half-remembered primary school music lessons, as the piece in question, by Prokofiev, was written expressly to introduce children to the instruments in the orchestra and the world of classical music in general. It told the – admittedly rather thin – story of the boy, Peter, who manages to capture the wolf which is terrorising his friends, namely Bird, Cat, Duck and the sole human representative, Grandfather. Great literature it is not, but its lasting influence and particular brilliance lay in the fact that each instrument was assigned to a particular character in the story, giving them a unique identity to young children listening. Over the couple of centuries since, there have been plenty of adaptations (Disney unsurprisingly got their mitts on it in the 1940s), but perhaps none so radically different as this rock treatment of the piece conceived by Jack Lancaster (Blodwyn Pig) and Robin Lumley (Brand X) in 1975.
Lancaster and Lumley were the men behind the concept and creation of the piece, arranging some of the Prokofiev original while also adding a lot of new music composed by themselves. A splendid job they did of it, certainly – but the headline story here is undeniably the stellar cast of musicians assembled to perform the work, themselves taking different character parts in the same way as the original. There have been plenty of ‘all star’ recordings over the years of course (Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds, Mandalaband’s The Eye Of Wendor, the Phenomena albums from the 1980s and, more recently, several of the Ayreon concept albums, to name a few), but it is hard to imagine one to beat this particular roster. Among the musical talent assembled on this record, you get Manfred Mann, Gary Brooker, Gary Moore, Alvin Lee, Stephane Grappelli, Chris Spedding, Brian Eno and Keith Tippett. Oh, and the drummers deserve their own mention: that would be Bill Bruford, Phil Collins, Jon Hiseman and Cozy Powell. Not exactly a pub band, then…
What of the music, then? Well, the first thing to note is that, despite the roster of musicians involved, this isn’t exactly what you’d call a prog rock album. In fact, it’s only sporadically a rock album in the purest sense. The diverse influences of the creators and musicians have – probably intentionally, to widen the potential audience – touched various bases including some prog sections, some jazz and jazz-rock, a couple of slices of straight rock and more funky basslines than you could shake a fretless neck at. In one particular piece, Rock And Roll Celebration (coming after the wolf’s capture) we have what amounts to a balls-out glam-rock rave-up. It’s a long, long way from Prokofiev, yet conversely very true to his original intent. Large chunks of the original are superbly rearranged, in particular the very familiar Peter’s Theme (trust me, you WILL know it), which is a brilliantly effective collaboration between Manfred Mann and Gary Moore, backed by a rhythm section of Percy Jones and Cozy Powell. You don’t get that every day of the week. Some of the new compositions are perfectly judged in the spirit of the work as a whole, including the short yet heartbreakingly moving Threnody For A Duck (no, I didn’t think I’d ever type that phrase either), and it all hangs together very well. The narration of the story is handled by none other than Viv Stanshall, most well remembered for his time in the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and his timeless appearance on Tubular Bells as the ‘master of ceremonies’. He plays it straight on this occasion, and yet does a great job of it, with just the right amount of speech to keep the listener invested, and yet never overloading it and making the record lurch toward being a spoken word piece.
Don’t expect any long, rambling solo excursions here: the material is all kept to short pieces, though making up a single whole as per the original work. Despite being divided up into no less than 21 tracks, the album is just under 40 minutes in length, and only one piece – the closing Final Theme – clocks in at over five minutes. This is as it should be for a cast such as that assembled here, as there is no room for anyone to dominate above the surrounding talent, though there is an argument that even in the days of vinyl duration restrictions, another ten minutes would have been welcome just to develop one or two of the themes a little further and flesh it out. A double album would have had an argument for it, but that might have been spreading the jam a little too thinly.
The packaging of the original vinyl included a booklet with ten pages, each carrying a beautiful illustration and section of the narration text. All of that is reproduced here as the second half of the accompanying booklet, following the detailed history of the album and its making. We also get a gatefold, thanks to the digipak design, which was denied to the original release, so that the full wraparound of the cover painting can be appreciated in full. It’s a quite lovely thing, and long overdue for this treatment.
All in all, don’t go into this expecting a prog rock epic, or some kind of jazz fusion masterclass, or you’ll be disappointed, because that is not the ambition or target of this work. Rather, just approach is as a meticulously well-performed piece of work which has the breadth to appeal to listeners across the board, and enjoy the way the themes of the original are translated into the contemporary format we find here. Revel also in the sheer off-the-wall eccentricity of even attempting this at all, let alone assembling a cast which reads like a mid-’70s Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. I confess that I’d never even come across this back in the day, but I’m glad I got the opportunity to this time out. Plus, in the same way as the original work, your kids might well love this – and it will introduce them to some great musicians into the bargain. And that can’t be a bad thing, now can it?