As the cost of recording the album in a studio was too high, the music was instead recorded live in concert. After a number of problems were resolved during the mixing of the album, Journey to the Centre of the Earth was overall well received by music critics. The record topped the UK Albums Chart, the first album from A&M Records to do so, and peaked at number 3 on the US Billboard 200. It was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America in October 1974, and earned Wakeman an Ivor Novello Award and a nomination for a Grammy. A total of 14 million copies of the album have been sold worldwide. In 1999, Wakeman released a sequel titled Return to the Centre of the Earth.
Keyboardist Rick Wakeman had wanted to make an album that told a story with its music after his father took him to see Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev. In November 1971, he started work on a record based on the 1864 science fiction novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne. He put the project on hold until recording for his debut studio release, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, had finished in October 1972. He performed at the rock opera concerts of The Who's Tommy that December which featured the London Symphony Orchestra, the English Chamber Choir, conductor David Measham and arranger Will Malone. Producing the shows was Lou Reizner, who learned about Wakeman's idea for Journey and put him in contact with Measham. Wakeman made a demo tape for Measham that contained a rough outline of the structure of the music using a Minimoog synthesiser, Mellotron, Rhodes piano and Clavinet while indicating where the orchestral parts would come in. After Measham agreed to take part, Wakeman met with his manager Brian Lane to pitch the idea of performing Journey in concert with an orchestra, choir, and a rock band. As the cost of producing the album in a studio was too high, A&M Records agreed to record the album live. To help finance the project, Wakeman sold a few of his cars and "mortgage [himself] up to the hilt to help finance the whole thing", which had cost around £40,000.
Wakeman received help with the score from Malone and arranger Danny Beckerman. The original version had a running time of 55 minutes, but it had to be reduced due to the time constraints on vinyl records. In selecting the musicians for his band, Wakeman chose people he used to play with at a country pub in Buckinghamshire called the Valiant Trooper. Said Wakeman, "I'd played with them for fun quite a bit on Sunday evenings...I was playing keyboards with the lads when I thought, they could play Journey for me. I'm sure they could do the concert and do it well". He picked vocalists Ashley Holt and Gary Pickford-Hopkins, drummer Barney James, and bassist Roger Newell. Guitarist Mike Egan, who had played on Six Wives, rounded out the band. A&M Records had wanted Wakeman to pick more well-known musicians, but he intended to make the album known for its music rather than its performers.Richard Harris was the first choice to narrate the story, but he was unavailable. Actor David Hemmings was then chosen, and agreed to take part.
The Royal Festival Hall where Journey was recorded.
Two sold-out concerts were held at 6 and 8 pm on 18 January 1974 at the Royal Festival Hall in London to 3,000 people each. Performing with Wakeman and his band was the London Symphony Orchestra and the English Chamber Choir conducted by Measham. The music was recorded with Ronnie Lane's Mobile Studio which featured a 16-track studio fitted inside an Airstream trailer. Wakeman had hoped to have both performances recorded, with the better of the two being used for the album release. However, as the London Symphony Orchestra requested double pay if both shows were to be recorded, Wakeman took "the frightening decision of only recording the second performance and hoping there weren't too many mistakes". The shows opened with "Catherine Parr", "Catherine Howard" and "Anne Boleyn" from The Six Wives of Henry VIII, followed by a comical rendition of "Twelfth Street Rag".Journey was performed in the second half. After permission was granted from 20th Century Fox, screens were installed to display excerpts from the 1959 adventure film of the same name to accompany some of the music, including footage of mountains and underground caves.
The recordings were taken to Morgan Studios in London, where they were mixed by Wakeman and engineer Paul Tregurtha between 21–29 January. The two encountered a number of problems. Wakeman explained, "Someone in the street had accidentally kicked out the vocal mike cable just before we started recording. So we boosted up the vocals that were picked up on the other mikes". A snare drum and its microphone also broke during the performance, and Hemmings recorded more narration in the studio after it was found that a tape change occurred in the middle of one of his passages.
Upon its arrival at A&M Records, the finished album was poorly received among management; they refused to sell it. However, as Wakeman was under contract with A&M in the United States, a cassette was sent to co-founder Jerry Moss in California, who subsequently agreed to release the record. Released on 18 May 1974, Journey to the Centre of the Earthtopped the UK Albums Chart for one week, the first album from A&M to do so. It peaked at number 3 on the US Billboard 200 chart for two weeks in July during a stay of 27 weeks. The album became a multi-million dollar seller in six weeks. Wakeman received an Ivor Novello Award for the album, and it earned him a Grammy Award nomination. The record was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America in September 1974, and a year later in Brazil. It was subsequently released in the four-channel Quadradisc CD-4 format. The album has sold 14 million copies worldwide.
In 1999, marking the album's 25th anniversary, Wakeman released a sequel titled Return to the Centre of the Earth. The story follows a group of adventurers who attempt to follow the previous expedition to the Earth's centre as discovered by Saknussemm.
Wakeman presumed that the original conductor's score was lost when his record company MAM collapsed in the early 1980s. However, a "huge cardboard packing case" arrived at his house in 2008 which stayed in his garage for "about five months" before he found the score at the bottom which was damaged by water. A year was spent digitising and forming the complete score with conductor Guy Protheroe. Wakeman re-recorded the album with an orchestra, choir, and members of his English Rock Ensemble band as a studio album, incorporating 20 minutes that was previously cut. As Hemmings died in 2003, the narration is voiced by actor Peter Egan. Released on 20 November 2012, the new album is packaged with a one-off magazine published by Classic Rock and a copy of the 1974 Royal Festival Hall concert program.
The album received some negative reaction upon its release, with music critics having described the record as a "classical pastiche...genuinely appalling" and "brutal synthesiser overkill".Journey however, was well received by others. A journalist for The Sunday Times missed the Royal Festival Hall concert, but thought on record the music "comes over magnificently ... a striking work which only occasionally lapses into pretentiousness". Music journalist Chris Welch of Melody Maker thought the album was "entertaining, fresh and disalarmingly unpretentious ... This could be a score for a Hollywood musical – tuneful, but with epic overtones". Welch noted Wakeman's "familiarity of the story" and his "close observance to detail engenders a warmth to the work, which made it a resounding success as a concert performance". In a retrospective review, Mike DeGange of Allmusic called the album "one of progressive rock's crowning achievements" and noted "interesting conglomerations of orchestral and synthesized music".