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ReListen: Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds

ReListen: Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds



Really, when you look at it, this is an absolutely ludicrous concept. “Let’s adapt a perennial science-fiction classic into a two-disc musical epic with spoken narration, progressive rock and orchestral bombast”. It should never have worked. It would be like remaking 2001: A Space Odyssey as a dance-pop album (which Lady Gaga is probably working on somewhere in her underwater alien lair, actually). And yet, the pieces all coalesce so well that not only is it the a great adaptation of the source material, it’s the downright best adaptation.

There are certain people whose voices you could just listen to all day long, and elevate the material beyond what it should be. Would the Harry Potter audiobooks have been half as good had they not been narrated by the inimitable Stephen Fry? Absolutely not. And the voice you’ll be listening to most on this album is that of Richard Burton, who nails the narration perfectly. Dramatic, concise, clear, and a complete joy to listen to. It helps that the lines he’s reading are mostly adapted straight from HG Wells‘ novel, so he’s working with some excellent material. The opening narration, where Burton‘s Journalist describes the genesis of the Martian’s attack, is instantly iconic, and easily stands amongst the best monologues delivered on film.

The ending, where the Journalist is overcome by the silence, loneliness and depressive isolation of the abandoned, dead London, is breathtaking. You can really feel the darkness within the Journalist take over after all that he has seen and realising that he’ll be the only person who can ever record it. Not to say that the rest of the voice cast are less worthy of note. In particular, the late Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott‘s crazed evangelist Parson Nathaniel is honestly stunning in all of his manic, husky-voiced preaching glory. David Essex does an admirable turn as the everyman Artilleryman, whose grand ambitions for saving the human race vastly outshine his ability to even save himself.

But of course, a musical would be nothing without good music, right? Thankfully, there’s a reason why that opening sting of DUN-DUN-DUUUUUNNNNNN has been permanently etched in the minds of generations of science-fiction fans. The album uses several leitmotifs throughout to represent various story elements, with sound effects and background music augmenting the narration. The creeping bassline first heard in “Horsell Common and the Heat Ray”, together with the grinding sound of the cylinder’s hatch unscrewing, produce an aura of tight-chested fear and tension, leading up to the fateful moment when the lid falls off with a great thunk (a part which always used to terrify me as a child).

The songs in the album were so popular that several of them were eventually released as singles. Justin Hayward’s vocals really bring the Journalist’s inner thoughts to life, from the tender loss evident in “Forever Autumn” to the soaring vocals of man’s last stand against the fighting machines in ‘Thunder Child’. The other cast members are fantastic on their songs, with Julie Covington playing the Parson’s wife Beth, trying to bring her husband back from the brink of insanity by not only invoking the good left in the hearts of man, but embodying that purity herself. David Essex‘s ‘Brave New World’ speaks to the Artilleryman’s grand ambitions, but his faltering voice in the repeated line “All over again” shows the failure of his ambition.

The whole album is available on Spotify, so there’s no excuse not to listen to it, but if you don’t have the physical version you’re missing out on one of my favourite parts of the whole experience: the artwork. The booklet is filled with stunning depictions of the invasion, from the glowing cylinder at Horsell Common, to the destruction of Victorian London by the fighting machines. My personal favourite pieces are the gruesome, sickening spread of the decidedly organic-looking Red Weed (organic as in ‘oh my god, gross, the Red Weed literally looks like organs’) and the silent, devastated landscape filled with derelict fighting machines, with a crow picking Martian flesh out of the cockpit of a fighting machine after the Martians fall prey to human bacteria.

At this point, I do want to mention that Jeff Wayne did an updated version of this album, with an all-new cast and new versions of the songs. using the advances made in electronic music over the decades since the original’s release, Wayne incorporates a lot of electronic and dubstep beats to push the sci-fi elements even further. While this will be divisive to some, I actually like the music of the new version, as it’s a nice update while still being instantly recognisable. The new voice cast make a good stab at it too, including Gary Barlow, Joss Stone, Ricky Wilson of The Kaiser Chiefs and some rapper called Maverick Sabre. Taking the role of the Journalist is Liam Neeson, who does a fantastic job but… come on, even Liam Neeson can’t hold a candle to Burton‘s narration. While the new cast have the talent there, it just feels wrong to hear someone else deliver the lines. Overall, the original is still the better version by far, but the newer version is a worthy diversion for the curious.

Honestly, listening to it again, you realise there’s no way that Spielberg‘s Tom Cruise-led adaptation could never have been as good as this. Looking back, I realise that this album might very well be the reason for my love of sci-fi now. That incidental moment of a five-year old finding this CD case on his mum’s shelf, his curiosity piqued by that image on the cover of the fighting machine melting the Thunder Child’s valiant heart, grossed out and intrigued in equal measure by that painting of the Red Weed inside, enraptured by the narration, the story, the music. In a way, this album was a huge part of who I am today, and revisiting it now means I can look at it through the lens of an adult and realise exactly why this album means so much to me and millions of others. Even now, it remains one of the best-selling albums of all time, and who thought we would ever be saying that about a narrative-based progressive-rock/orchestral album about the Martian invasion of Victorian London? As I said above, it’s available on Spotify. Just… listen to it, and hopefully you’ll see and feel what I and millions of others do.