So begins Richard Burton’s narration of Jeff Wayne’s musical version of H.G. Wells’ classic, The War of the Worlds.
Given that this is my first blog entry on the ‘Eclectic Authors’ group blog, I thought it fitting to pay a tribute to one of my earliest influences. As a science fiction author, it’s very easy for me to pinpoint two seminal works that originally got me interested in the genre. One of them was Star Wars. The other followed only a year later and came in the form of Jeff Wayne’s musical version of “War of the Worlds.”
As a child, my father would often play WOTW on long journeys in the car. From Burton’s opening lines to the end, I was always captivated. The opening orchestral strings still give me goose bumps to this day. A real treat would be to go over to my friend’s house whose father had the double album. I would pull it from his record collection and stare at the stunning yet disturbing artwork of Michael Trim, Geoff Taylor and Peter Goodfellow.
Jeff Wayne was born in Queens, New York. He spent four years of his young life in the UK when his father, Jerry Wayne, an actor, singer and theatre producer played Sky Masterson in the original West End musical production of Guys and Dolls. After moving back to the US, Wayne completed a degree in journalism, supporting himself by playing keyboards in bands and coaching tennis.
In 1966 Wayne composed the score for his father’s successful West End show “Two Cities,” based on another classic, Dickens’ “A Tale of Two cities.” He returned to the UK and became a record producer, helping to produce David Essex’s album “Rock on.” He would later collaborate with Essex again on the WOTW project.
Through the course of the 1970’s, Wayne wrote thousands of advertising jingles as well as a number feature film and documentary film scores. He was also a musical director for various artists. It was his father that introduced him to Wells’ War of the Worlds.
Wayne’s WOTW was really a product of the times. In 1978, progressive rock (prog rock) was popular and the concept album – an album with a running theme – was in its hey-day. Electronic keyboards gave musicians access to a plethora of (other wordly) sounds and the vocoder was the perfect tool to give the martians their voice. With all the ingredients in place, Wayne took on the science fiction classic.
Despite Wayne’s long list of credentials, for his project to have success it needed credibility and that credibility came in the form of Burton and his supporting cast who read like a who’s-who of popular rock and pop artists of the 70’s.
Burton was arguably one of Britain’s finest actors and a household name on both sides of the Atlantic due to his seven academy award nominations and his turbulent relationship with Elizabeth Taylor.
It is through Burton and his understated yet sympathetic portrayal of the journalist that we witness the invasion.
Scattered through the musical score, the journalist drops anecdotal narration, describing the scenes of horror as he witnesses them, the world being systematically over run by the martian invaders.
The secondary cast gave the album huge amounts of kudos just because of their standing in popular culture at the time, but the fact of the matter is they were all perfectly cast. Justin Hayward (Moody Blues) is the sung voice of the journalist, with Chris Thompson (Manfred Manns Earth band/”Blinded by the light”), starring as the voice of the people. Hayward performs the ballad Forever Autumn which alone went on to be a top five hit in the UK chart, while Mann sings Thunder Child, a lament to the loss of a warship that would symbolize mankind’s last stand.
As the journalist struggles for his own survival he meets secondary characters, the late Phil Lynott of the band Thin Lizzie putting in a star turn as the deranged Parson Nathaniel, a man driven mad by the events around him that are inexplicable within the framework of his religious beliefs. To him, the martians are just “demons in another form.”
Lynott is joined in his duet “The Spirit of Man” by Julie Covington (Evita/”Don’t Cry for me Argentina”) who plays Beth, his wife, a woman desperate to make him see reason again. Essex plays the artilleryman, a character we meet early on in the piece when his unit is “wiped out” fighting the martians on Horsell common. It is the first time the humans square-up against the invaders and an indication of the shape of things to come. He travels briefly with the journalist to London where the two are separated during a massive martian attack but they are reunited later when Essex lends his gravelly vocals to the rousing “Brave New World,” a battle cry for human resilience. At this point it is hinted at that the soldier has also become slightly mentally unhinged, a Victorian victim of post-traumatic stress perhaps.
When you’ve listened to the musical WOTW a few times it’s hard to imagine anyone else bringing these characters to life, but the real genius of the work lies in Wayne’s composition – a seamless melding and layering of acoustic, electric and orchestral arrangements. Sure, there’s the occasional twangy guitar in there but this was the seventies man, and if the musical style dates the work a little I would argue that it is all the better for it.
Much of the album’s success lies in Wayne’s ability to use music as a medium to bring WOTW to a wider audience. For every die-hard sci-fi fan who was an instant convert, there were probably many others who didn’t like science fiction or weren’t big readers but who found the album an attractive alternative because they were more inclined toward music and the spoken word. Maybe they were just tempted to give it a listen because of the big names associated with it. Whatever the reason, to quote Burton himself, “from that moment, they were doomed.”
As mentioned before, WOTW was first released in 1978. It spent 235 weeks on the UK chart and sold more than 13 million copies. In 1995 a special edition featuring remixes and additional concept art was released and in 2005, the original album was digitally remastered.
Each re-release of the album has touched a new generation and garnered Wayne’s version of WOTW a legion of lifelong fans. The interest generated in the work has spawned a number of spin-off projects.
In 1994 and 1998, computer game versions of WOTW were released and a PlayStation game is also available. 2007 was supposed to see the release of an animated movie version, although at present it is still in the production stages. Test animation footage can be seen here
A live tour of the production began in the UK and Ireland in 2006. As well as featuring some of the original voice talent (Justin Hayward, Chris Thompson) It includes a holographic projection of Burton and a gigantic martian fighting machine. The orchestra is conducted by none other than Wayne himself.
The show has proved to be such a huge success that it has toured annually since, visiting Australia and New Zealand, Germany, Holland and Belgium. You may want to prepare yourself, it can only be a matter of time before the martians invade US shores.
Wayne’s “War of the Worlds” will always hold a special place in my heart as one of my earliest influences. Like Star Wars, it has survived the test of time remarkably well. I still listen to it on a regular basis and digital technology allows me to skip to a favorite track if time is short but that’s never as satisfying as hearing Burton’s opening lines and listening to it in its entirety.
If you have not yet had the opportunity to experience Wayne’s War of the Worlds I would strongly recommend you do so. It’s a great piece of work.
Stuart Clark is the author of the Project U.L.F series of science fiction adventure novels.