Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds (Columbia – 1978)

To paraphrase the concerned Nun at the start of The Sound of Music, how do you solve a problem like reviewing a prog rock double album interpretation of a classic science fiction novel that features the vocal talents of a world renowned actor, two stars of a hit West End Musical and Phil Lynott out of Thin Lizzy within a self imposed 5 paragraph structure? The short answer is that you can’t. It’s impossible. You cannot convey all that is great and all that is wrong with such an artistic endeavor within such constraints. So how did we do it? As with any of life’s problems we turn to Captain James Tiberius Kirk for our solution. We tackled this as our own Kobayashi Maru. Cheat? No, we just don’t believe in the no-win situation. Here is our solution… Two reviews of the same album each looking at different aspects of it; the music and the narrative structure. And no this paragraph doesn’t count; it’s a preface.

The Music

D minor D minor A7; A7 A7 D minor. Orchestral strings usher an invasion. The chord sequence staggers to a dramatic climax before the theme is picked up and propelled up by smooth disco hi-hats, fuzzed out guitars and layers of synths expanding in a firmament of wow and flutter. There is no great skill in applying some strings to a pop record to try and implant in the listener a dignity and maturity otherwise missing but Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds (now shortened to ‘War of the Worlds’[now shortened to WotW]) was obviously written and conceived with orchestration in mind, paying homage as it does to traditions of Romanticism in its vision and portrayal. Listen to that ominous intro again and you can hear traces of Wagner’s dark bombast, concentrating as it does on the low violins, cellos and contra-bass for its throaty and Gothic representation of the Martian military operation. The layers of harmony, the inspiration from the fantastic, from a subject matter from an art other than music are all Romantic traits. This a canny move by Wayne given that the Romantic movement would’ve been a contemporary of this Martian invasion, giving its setting an air of authenticity. While telling a story with an orchestra was nothing new in 1978 its incongruous combination of that with the rock aesthetic of the time was, making this a baffling millions selling album.

The use of leitmotifs and instruments being assigned characters reveals further this classical aspiration. While Grieg, Prokofiev and Saint-Saens have endured beyond their years, giving us themes that we forever associate with a particular animal or place, rock musicians have often suffered when attempting such lofty feats. Wayne’s overture is already punctuation for threat in pop culture. Perhaps the vocodered ‘Ul-la’ of the Martians equally so, however, it would be folly to think that characterisation ran that shallow. On ‘Forever Autumn’ the hope of the hopes of humanity’s survival are voiced the traditional and Earthy muted drums, acoustic guitar, flute and mandolin. The Martians by the comparatively modern heavily effected guitar, synthesizers and drum setup, the 16th playing hi-hats in particular signal that Martian craft are nearby, in doing so preparing the listener for danger of some form, like the low bass rumbles that pre-echo attacks in ‘Jaws’. The opening bars of Horsell Common and the Heat Ray have the alien invaders seemingly stumble to life as the bass line comes to terms with the effects of Earth’s gravity, the rest of the tracks awash with new sounds, none of whom are particularly comfortable on the ear.

It would be foolish to think that entire of this undertaking is executed successfully. For a double album it is at least one side (possibly even one disc) too long. While fans of prog-rock may have been long accustomed to long songs and story-telling this is often simply too repetitive to maintain interest, WotW suffers in the same way as its neo-rock-classical cousin Tubular Bells, the rapid expansion in technology both in instrumentation and recording is embraced with open arms rather than used to full effect to further the narrative. Synths slightly different to last answer the strings, a newly effected guitar tones, such as phasers, chorus, fuzz and vox-wah are frequently introduced into the already sonically crowded diorama seemingly only there to pass time between the narrated passages. Playing, particularly from the rock side of things, seem to lack emotion, hitting the notes rather than creating the mood. While the chilling introduction and ‘Ul-la’ have gone on to be timeless certain sections seem ill-judged, even the keyboard breakdown of The Eve of War may act to add some light to the threatening shade of the rest of the piece, it goes too far, being reminiscent of a 70s cop show, specifically the part where it shows the protagonist’s skill in attracting the ladies or giving an example of their likeable humour and charisma. Unfortunately this trend continues throughout the record, from sections of Forever Autumn then through much of the 2nd disc the terror of the rout of man fail to convey the battle, underselling the immensity of the scene at hand. This recalls sci-fi wrier Brian Aldiss’ criticisms of his peer John Wyndham; ‘An invasion in a tea cup’, the trend of chocolate box funk and introspective synth jazz give no gravitas to this imagined alien holocaust, instead the listener wonders if for all the copies of this album sold, many of the 2nd discs are listened to only once.

With Brave New World, the central piece to disc 2 the lines of menace previously established are blurred as we hear the threat that Man poses to the Earth, how the hopes for the future may not be preferable to Earth under the Martians (coming as it does before the narrator decides to throw himself to his inevitable death in front of a Martian machine) and this is shown as the backing to David Essex’s main feature is scored in a way similar to that of the Martians, but one with all threat of a Paul McCartney Bond theme. Interesting as this is the track is it also makes this critic wonder if rather than classical Romanticism the main influence on this endeavor is the West End musical, with David Essex and Julie Covington at the time starring in Evita and this interpolation of the previous themes being a mainstay of musical theatre. This could go some way to explain the album’s otherwise confusing success, musical theatre (rather than opera) has been much derided as being of low cultural value while simultaneously selling out both live performances and recorded versions, ultimately for this album’s veneer of ‘newness’ it is a conservative record obeying various musical rules that even then were decades old. What is it about records telling stories that we just cannot get enough of? Whether this is Cats, Peter and Wolf or WotW it seems that listeners respond most to directed listening, while Tubular Bells (for the sake of this example) may have been a success, it pales next to the no more plausible concept of WotW.

As the story ends with Dead London it is one of fatigue not joy that overwhelms the listener, the return of the main theme, now with added fanfare as the humans have ‘won’, confuses the narrative more. Was this ever a Martian theme? Was it ever a human theme? Was this just a melody for the piece? Perhaps Wayne was simply just aware that the theme is one of the album’s strongest melodic sequences and after 80+ minutes which precede it, asking the listener to try and comprehend another new theme could be a step too far. The sense of disappointment is highlighted in the two epilogues, both punctuated by treated radio static percussion, teasing the listener with a flourish of creativity that had it been incorporated throughout could have resulted in a much more even weighted album. However, much like Mike Oldfield before him, Jeff Wayne may well laugh off this criticism while diving into his swimming pool from the elevated height of his wallet. That this curio of an album continues to sell despite all its flaws is disconcerting, that few similar projects have been undertaken since is reassuring. If like the animated Lord of the Rings feature of 1978 Wayne had been forced to abandon the project due to lack of funds after disc 1, this record would no doubt be a cult classic but instead as a whole of uneven quality it has become classic in its own right, thankfully without peers.

The Adam Hiles

The Narrative

No one would have believed, in the last years of the 1970’s that Richard Burton would appear on a Prog-Rock album. Why? How? Richard Burton? Seriously? These are all legitimate questions when it comes to WotW. It would be easy to write off my love of this album as childhood sentimentality and indeed I have fond memories listening to my Dad’s worn out cassette tape repeatedly as a child, scaring the bejesus out of myself even though I knew it almost word for word. But this record has prevailed where other Prog-Rock imaginings of other fantasy/sci-fi classics have not. On paper this is no more ridiculous that Rick Wakeman’s Henry VIII/ Centre of the Earth/ King Arthur trilogy and yet copies of those records now take up huge amounts of shelf space in charity shop warehouses whereas live performances of WotW can pack out arenas.

Success is perhaps due largely to the source material and Wayne’s reluctance to alter Wells’ prose. Indeed the record is split in the same manner of the book, the first disc (2 sides) dealing with The Coming of the Martians and the second The Earth Under the Martians. All Wayne has done is to edit down the text so that all that remains is key to the plot. Strip away the music and what you’re left with is a version of Wells’ original re-written as a Graham Greene short story; no syllable or consonant used unless absolutely necessary. Wayne resists the temptation of filling in the blanks of the source material. The Martians here still have no purpose, their invasion of Earth a meaningless assault on an inferior race. We the listeners are allowed to draw our own inferences, meaning the themes of Wells’ original book are not lost. How easy it could have been to add and embellish as in the 1953 Cold War influenced B-Movie version of the book which presents the invasion as an unprovoked pre-emptive strike. Wayne also allows the Science vs. Religion point of the book to play out in full. Phil Lynott’s maniacal Parson unable to stop the Martians with prayer and cross; the aliens eventually defeated by micro organisms. The 1953 Movie doesn’t credit it’s viewers with any intelligence and refuses to accept that Science may have won the day pointing out that the Martians had been defeated by the tiniest of creatures that “God in His wisdom had put upon this Earth.” That Wayne has continued to resist the temptation to play around with this record to cash in on its continuing popularity is commendable. Yes, there are remixes, live shows, outakes and documentaries but the original body of work remains intact, the audience given the choice of whether to access these extras or not. Parallels might be drawn with Star Wars released a year earlier. In its original form A New Hope allowed the viewer to interpret concepts such as The Force, parsecs and the Kessler Run within their own imaginations. Since the Phantom Menace most of us now know more about The Force and midi-chlorians than necessary and one can only assume that the next edition released by George Lucas will have Han Solo delivering a PowerPoint presentation on the Millennium Falcon’s schematics to Obi Wan and Luke in the Mos Eisley Cantina.

Even taking into account the above, the album’s continued success, not just commercial but artistic, owes much to Richard Burton in his role as the Journalist. In the hands of another actor (or musician), it’s easy to see how the rest of the album might fall apart. Here though Burton treats his script with the same reverence as he might treat Shakespeare. His delivery is earnest and wired, never tongue in cheek, never overplayed and never verging on pastiche. When a Martian claw grabs his boot in the dark of a coal cellar we feel his fear and when he walks into a deserted London and offers himself to the Martians his desperation and sense of loss are palpable, regardless of what the music may be doing in the background. Sadly I cannot find reason to praise either David Essex or Phil Lynott, the latter reeking of stunt casting. There is nothing necessarily wrong with either but like the gas station attendant at the end of Wayne’s World 2 you wish they’d put more effort into the casting.

The telling of the story is by no means perfect throughout. There are two particular points where Wayne and lyricist Gary Osborne misread the tone. Thunderchild sounds like a prog-creation but the name of the warship is lifted directly from Wells’ text. It offers hope that Man might overcome the Martians and their machines and this is echoed in the driving promise of the music. The hope of the people watching is captured well enough in the lyrics but when the Journalist reveals that the ship has been brought down there is no change in either the tone of the music or the manner in which the lyrics are delivered. This “mighty metal War-Lord” that once promised to deliver the Earth from Martian dominance has been defeated, the last hope of Man sunk without a trace… “Lashing ropes and flashing timbers/ Flashing heat rays pierced the deck/ Dashing hopes for our deliverance/ as we watched the sinking wreck.” From the music and almost joyous singing you wouldn’t know that all hope had been lost and so the lyrics become an almost Pythonesque parody of all that has gone before. The same can be said of David Essex’s plans to repopulate the Earth in Brave New World. Essex’s character tells the Journalist that with “just a handful of men, we’ll start all over again.” Biological impossibility aside, it is hard to ignore the homo erotic undertones; Essex, with raised expectant eyebrows, propositioning the Journalist when he sings “it’s going to have to start with me and you.”

This record is far from perfect and there are times when the Wayne over indulges himself, adding little to the telling of the story. However when listened to in its entirety, with the lights turned down or driving through winter fog, it still has an ability to scare the bejesus out of me. It’s difficult to know whether this is psychological trauma retained from my childhood or perhaps it’s because, aside from the Journalist’s opening monologue, there is nothing within the telling of the story that dates it (although one might wonder why David Essex has to walk to headquarters to report back rather than picking up a radio or satellite phone). Maybe this, most of all, is why the record still affects me as a listener. This could happen. It really could. Tomorrow. Or the next day. Maybe you’re sceptical? What are the chances of anything coming from Mars? A million to one? Ha. D minor D minor A7; A7 A7. D minor.

The Cameron R. Black

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