A worthy adaptation of a classic
Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds
By Jeff Wayne
No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space. No one could have dreamed we were being scrutinized, as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets and yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely, they drew their plans against us.
Ever since its publication in 1897 (1898 if you don’t count serialization as publication), H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds has been adapted to a variety of media: stage, radio, comic book, and, of course, movies, each one worse than the one before.
And of course, there was the concept album, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds, whose introduction I quote above.
To quote Wikipedia:
A concept album is a studio album where all musical or lyrical ideas contribute to a single overall theme or unified story.
And while such albums arguably go back as far as the 1940s and continue to the present day, the 1960s and 1970s were something of a golden age for rock, and in particular progressive rock, concept albums. It may just be nostalgia talking, but I remember this double album as one of the better examples.
I have absolutely no idea what inspired me to pick this up. Unfortunately it’s not listed on ISFDB, so I cannot check to see if it was reviewed somewhere I was likely to see the review. I expect that the cover had a lot to do with it. And the connection to the group Moody Blues. And of course having Richard Burton as the narrator helped.
The album retains the original setting and in its broad strokes, the album tells much the same story as Wells’ novel : although they do not understand what they are seeing, observers on Earth see the Martian fleet launch from Mars. Some time later, objects crash to Earth; these are clearly artificial and once they’ve cooled enough for the occupants to exit, prove to contain a small but sufficient invasion force armed with advanced weapons and fighting machines. Human resistance proves futile; the only strategies that don’t result in painful death are flight and hiding.
Our hero being a journalist, he does his best to document the invasion from its beginning to its unexpected end. For the most part, there isn’t much the humans can do to resist the alien invasion; their reactions do serve to illuminate their characters.
Since this is a concept album, a lot of the story is delivered in song form. Wayne assembled a pretty impressive team for this world. In addition to Richard Burton as the Journalist, the cast included Justin Hayward, David Essex, Phil Lynnot, Julie Covington. and Jeff Wayne himself. Music was provided by the Black Smoke Band, which consisted of Jeff Wayne, Chris Spedding, Herbie Flowers, Ken Freeman, George Fenton, Jo Partridge, Barry Morgan, Barry da Souza, Roy Jones, Ray Cooper, Paul Vigrass, Gary Osborne, and Billy Lawrie.
The tracks on the double album were (lifted from Wikipedia, because I only have the CD now):
Side A (Tape 1, Side A)
1. “The Eve of the War” Justin Hayward and Richard Burton
2. “Horsell Common and The Heat Ray” Richard Burton
Total length: 20:42
Side B (Tape 1, Side B)
1. “The Artilleryman and The Fighting Machine”
David Essex and Richard Burton
2. “Forever Autumn” (lyrics by Paul Vigrass and Gary Osborne)
Justin Hayward and Richard Burton
3. “Thunder Child” (lyrics by Gary Osborne)
Chris Thompson and Richard Burton
Total length: 24:29
Side C (Tape 2, Side A)
1. “The Red Weed (Part 1)” Richard Burton
2. “Parson Nathaniel” Phil Lynott and Richard Burton
3. “The Spirit of Man” (lyrics by Gary Osborne)
Julie Covington, Phil Lynott, and Richard Burton
4. “The Red Weed (Part 2)” Richard Burton
Total length: 24:23
Side D (Tape 2, Side B)
1. “Brave New World” (lyrics by Gary Osborne)
David Essex and Richard Burton
2. “Dead London” Richard Burton
3. “Epilogue (Part 1)” Richard Burton
4. “Epilogue (Part 2)” Jerry Wayne
Total length: 25:34
Yeah, yeah, our storage media of the Olden Days were hilariously limited.
The sound of the musical was rather reminiscent of the Moody Blues, not surprising given who was involved. The highlight of the album (at least for me) was the late Richard Burton’s narration, right from the moment he says “No one would have believed […]”. That’s not to put the music down; Wayne just made a really good call getting Burton to play the journalist.
As I recall, the Red Weed leitmotifs go on a bit long (I notice the CD version seems much reduced where they are concerned) but there are some fine songs on this to compensate: “Forever Autumn” is the song that spent the longest on the hit charts, but I am also very fond of “Thunder Child,” which details the desperate attempt of an ironclad torpedo ram to buy a ship full of refugees time to flee, “Brave New World,” in which a surviving soldier proves to have ambitions somewhat in excess of his actual abilities, and portions of “The Spirit of Mankind,” although I will admit that, in his first verse, Nathaniel makes my list of people with whom I don’t want to be trapped in a collapsed building during an alien invasion.
In its day, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds was extremely popular. I believe it is in the top 40 for sales overall in the UK. This success was entirely deserved. It has appeared in a number of editions; I would recommend editions as close as possible to the double album (I am not keen on the CD edition I actually have, but it was all I could find at the time).
1: As a classmate of mine discovered (to his chagrin), the album differs from the book in some particulars; you cannot substitute listening to the album for reading the book if you’re going to be tested on the book.