Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds

“It was the beginning of the route of civilization… of the massacre of mankind.”

September, 1978.  The little science fiction juggernaut that could — Star Wars — raged across the globe for over a year with no signs of slowing down.  Knock-offs popped up out of nowhere, seemingly overnight, to ride the coattails of success.  Star Trek began ramping up what would become a big screen revival while Buck Rogers rebooted itself for the small screen.  Doctor Who staffers decided the series needed a little robot sidekick simply to stay relevant.  Science fiction as a whole was on the rise, but none yet knew the years to come would be shaped by this little movie that virtually no one had believed in from the start.  But it wasn’t just the screens, big or small, that opened the path for more science fiction, and 1978 was an anniversary year for something far more venerable.

Superman.

Just kidding.  While it’s true that was a big anniversary year for the Man of Steel, we established in the title that’s not what this blog is about.  Besides, I’ve already done that one, you see.

In 1898, H. G. Wells released his science fiction masterpiece, The War of the Worlds, to an unsuspecting public, a novel of social allegory whose subtext is lost to most of its readers today.  The martian invasion was brought forward to listeners of radio in 1938 by the great Orson Welles and his Mercury Radio Theatre On the Air, proving to governments and industries alike the undeniable power of mass media, and reminding audiences that fear lives in the mind.  Another 40 years later, this is this kind of storytelling that Jeff Wayne would bring to his debut studio album, a concept album built on the visceral power of music and the popularity of one of the best-known stories in sci-fi literature.

The tale of this album’s creation begins in 1969 with the most unlikely of sources: a jingle for a toy commercial that Jeff Wayne wrote for Lego (today branded as LEGO, the popular construction brick toys).  Gary Osborne — who would go on to write many of the hits for Elton John that we know by heart — and his collaborator Paul Vigrass performed the original jingle, eventually adding more lyrics and recording it for their 1972 album Queues.  The song was called “Forever Autumn.”  It would find moderate success, mostly in Japan.  While writing The War of the Worlds, Jeff Wayne decided he needed a love song to contrast with and to underline all of the world-ending disaster.  First rule of epic drama: humanize it, make it something to which audiences can relate.  He decided he wanted one that sounded like “Forever Autumn,” and ultimately he decided he wouldn’t find better than the original.  Then he decided it needed to be sung by “that voice from ‘Nights in White Satin.'”  Accordingly, Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues was brought on board, and the song was recorded in 1976, first released as a single.

The subtext of the lyrics, of course, would never be the same again once this album was released.  From these humble beginnings, The War of the Worlds took shape as a fully-realized audio experience with Osborne’s lyrics complimenting Wayne’s musical compositions.  The narrating character, the Journalist, would be performed by two people.  The primary voice would be provided by Oscar-nominated Shakespearean dynamo Sir Richard Burton, while the sung thoughts of the Journalist would be performed, of course, by Justin Hayward.  The album’s primary format is progressive rock backed by string orchestra.  It was something of an odd duck at the time as nobody could really claim to have heard anything like it before that point.  It wasn’t a rock opera, it wasn’t a Broadway musical, and it wouldn’t really allow itself to be shoehorned into a category even from the start.  Further updates and tweaks over the years led to it evolving with steampunk elements, resulting in The War of the Worlds becoming its own self-referential musical genre.  Just for the sake of geekery, I can name only one other piece in the history of music than can claim to have done that: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, which mounts the precipice between the Classical and Romantic eras.  In no way am I comparing Jeff Wayne’s musical to the majesty of Beethoven, let’s just be clear about that.  I cite this only to demonstrate the rarity of compositional style.  But I’ll let you in on a secret.  The two pieces have a similar effect of emotional overwhelm on me for entirely different reasons.

The original album release of The War of the Worlds was accompanied by several paintings by Peter Goodfellow, Michael Trim, and Geoff Taylor, marking this as a true multimedia production right from the start.  But even that was only the beginning.  The success of the album led to radio edits of the tracks for promotional purposes being compiled into a highlights album of its own, three different video game releases, a stage tour that just kept going, various remixes that also got their own album, various cover versions of the tracks, and the possibility of an animated version that would never be fully realized.  In 2011, Wayne put the tour on hiatus and revamped it from the ground up, releasing The New Generation version in 2012, with Liam Neeson stepping in for the late Richard Burton in the form of an interactive 3D hologram, and Take That vocalist Gary Barlow taking over for Justin Hayward.

To my unending delight as a fan of this story in its various incarnations, this musical rendition largely follows the original novel, with some minor differences that I’ll discuss, consisting of two parts that roughly correspond to the two books of Wells’ classic.  If you’re already familiar with the novel, you’ll instantly recognize the individual story elements.  The CD album release that I have breaks down like this:

Disc One – The Coming Of The Martians

1-1. The Eve Of The War
Vocals – Justin Hayward (the sung thoughts of the Journalist)
Voice – Richard Burton (the Journalist)

1-2. Horsell Common And The Heat Ray
Voice – Richard Burton

1-3. The Artilleryman And The Fighting Machine
Voice – David Essex (the Artilleryman), Richard Burton

1-4. Forever Autumn
Lyrics By – Gary Osborne, Paul Vigrass
Vocals – Justin Hayward
Voice – Richard Burton

1-5. Thunder Child
Vocals – Chris Thompson (the Voice of Humanity)
Voice – Richard Burton

Disc Two – The Earth Under The Martians

2-1. The Red Weed (Part 1)
Voice – Richard Burton

2-2. The Spirit Of Man
Vocals – Julie Covington (Beth), Phil Lynott (Parson Nathaniel)
Voice – Richard Burton

2-3. The Red Weed (Part 2)
Voice – Richard Burton

2-4. Brave New World
Vocals – David Essex
Voice – Richard Burton

2-5. Dead London
Voice – Richard Burton

2-6. Epilogue (Part 1)
Voice – Jerry Wayne, Richard Burton

2-7. Epilogue (Part 2) (NASA)
Voice – Jerry Wayne (the Voice of NASA)

As mentioned, there are some differences between the original novel and this musical version.  The biggest one, of course, is the lead character of the Journalist.  His role in the book is split between two characters: a philosophy writer (the primary narrator of the book) and his brother, a medical student (narrator of the Thunder Child sequence, which I consider to be the highest point of the story).  The narrator in the book has an unnamed wife, who is replaced in this story by the Journalist’s girlfriend Carrie, primarily as sentimental leverage for the tune “Forever Autumn.”  The character of Parson Nathaniel has no name in the book; he’s known only as “the curate”… because there’s a term you hear everyday.  His wife, Beth, is also not in the book.  And finally, the martian machines are a bit different in the book.  The tripod fighting machines are used to collect humans, the handling machines don’t have collection baskets and are largely used for construction, and we see no digging machines in this musical version.  Also, there is at least one machine in the book that flies, suggesting others, which prompted the idea for the versions we get in the 1953 feature film because flight was easier to achieve on screen in those days than to realize the tripods.

On the musical storytelling side of things, Wayne uses the concept of leitmotif to really make character themes and ideas stick.  It’s a concept that’s been used throughout classical music, opera, and film scores, an idea re-popularized in this latter field by John Williams in the groundbreaking scores he composed around this time: Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Superman.  Using this kind of audible meme, Wayne is able to give themes to the martians invasion that really make this story come to life.  More than that, there are sound effects in the instrumentation that will stand out, such as the unforgettable howl of the fighting machines via the talkbox (“ULLA!”) and the use of electric guitars to underscore the devastation of the heat ray.

The following video is from one of the stage show presentations just before the hiatus and transition to The New Generation.  Many of the CG elements on the 100-foot “animation wall” were already in place before that transition.  Richard Burton passed away in 1984, but his presence on stage is depicted by a younger version of his disembodied head floating above the stage.  His vocal performance is overlaid accordingly, which a superimposed, similar looking actor’s lower face lip-syncing to the original tracks.  Personally, I think this is a bit creepy in the wrong ways, but I do respect the desire to keep Burton’s performance going for as long as they did.  For my money, Liam Neeson was an excellent choice to later step into the role.  That said, while the music alone depicts the martian invasion quite admirably on its own, I thought it’d be interesting to share it in conjunction with how things unfolded on stage, partly because most people today simply don’t seem to have the ear for radio, and partly because the stage show is a lot of fun.  There is some unfortunate editing in the center, and the ending is truncated for some reason, but this should otherwise help bring the music to life for those who have yet to experience it.

I remember when I was walking out of the theater following a screening of Steven Spielberg’s 2005 version of The War of the Worlds.  The biggest criticism I heard from the younger audiences was how “lame” the ending was.  They didn’t get it.  And why would they, really?  You can’t really modernize a story like this beyond certain limits.  There are certain conceits that modern storytelling won’t allow to work, and that science can readily explain away.  Ironically, that ending is the most scientifically sound aspect of the story.  Regardless, the suspension of disbelief needed to pull this off properly is one of the reasons I love that this story evolved into steampunk territory.  H. G. Wells and Jules Verne really laid the groundwork for that entire movement a century before.  Steampunk as its own genre first popped up in the 1980s, in the wake of Jeff Wayne’s concept album.  Coincidence?  I doubt it.  Some older science fiction really does work best when viewed through nostalgia goggles.  It’s fitting that everyone in the steampunk crowd now brings their own.

The story is classic, the idea is kitsch, and the presentation is over the top.  What’s not to love?

UUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUULLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

6 thoughts on “Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds

  1. There was a time (back in the day) when I knew every word of that recording, and still like to scare the girls sometimes with the introductory passage and other snippets for good measure, haha. “Good Heavens, the artillery man! I thought you surely burned!”

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