Looking Back At Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds

Tony’s trapped under rubble, hardly daring to move.
HG Wells’ The War Of The Worlds has often shocked, scared, moved and otherwise discombobulated its audience. While it was much read and loved on its initial publication, there was shock at some of the brutal elements of the Martians’ treatment of humankind (and indeed, of humankind’s treatment of other humankind). The 1938 Orson Welles radio version, though it probably didn’t really create the public panic suggested by headlines, was still a dramatic delivery of the idea of invasion from outer space. And so it has gone on down the years, the Martians usually symbolizing the things we fear that are the not-we (as in the 1953 movie version, where the Martians were symbols of communism, and in the 2005 movie version, where the Martians were powerful symbols of the enemy within – terrorists among us).

All of this is a touch ironic, since Wells clearly meant the Martians to be avatars of ourselves in the West – imperial powers that imposed their will on other people, with different languages, customs and skin colours. He intended The War Of The Worlds to show imperial Britain how it could be perceived by anyone who wasn’t a part of that empire, so the constant externalizing of the threat the Martians pose remains surprising, and not a little disappointing.

Here’s the thing. From the very first seconds of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds, not a jot of that matters at all.

It’s a version almost entirely free of literary subtext. Its only purpose is to make you FEEL like you’re in the middle of an unexpected Martian invasion.

And by all the gods of Mars, it does that probably better than any other version of The War Of The Worlds ever created. In terms of sheer dramatic clout and emotion, it may even surpass the source material from which it is drawn.

Richard Burton as “The Journalist” combines a couple of characters in the novel into a single coherent voice – and, incidentally, WHAT a voice. Burton had a rumbling Welsh burr, trained into received pronunciation and punched through with power. The fact that his voice starts the whole thing off as if from a silent void is enough to give you shudders immediately. And when The Eve Of The War starts up with sharp, portentous violin strokes immediately after his first speech, it makes a very clear statement.

Something is coming.

Something terrifying, and powerful, and unstoppable.

And so begins a war drawn mostly with musical leitmotifs. Themes, if you like, underscores and evocations of mood that merge from one to the other as the story advances. What really makes Jeff Wayne’s version of The War Of The Worlds work as well as it does is that with a little guidance from the narrator (usually Burton), you know what you’re SUPPOSED to be seeing, and the musical themes match that expectation absolutely perfectly.

Horsell Common, when the first Martian cylinder has landed, is rendered mostly by low, almost ticking bass guitar and an occasional grim unscrewing noise. It streeeeeeeetches out your patience, and you’re immediately in that sense of expectation, watching, waiting to see what happens next. Once the cylinder is open, there are tones of potential hope in a guitar theme that sounds wary and unearthly, but not overtly hostile. But once the first Martian heat ray is used, the pitch is raised and takes on an urgent, angry, gritty rasp, a distinct “Keep Away” present in the theme. It’s scared, and alone, and angry, and powerful, and the sound of that is perfectly rendered in the heat ray theme.

The same is true, but in different directions, consistently throughout what rock operatic version of The War Of The Worlds.

When the military of the British Empire take on the Martian upstarts, there is militant music with more stiff upper lip than a Brexit broadcast – swiftly melted to uncompromising death by the arrival of the Martian fighting machines. The triumphalism of those fighting machines is given a truly alien quality by the “Ullllllllaaaaa” sound in Jeff Wayne’s version – it’s quite enough to saw across your synapses and shudder you to shaking. And sure, if you want to be prosaic about the whole thing, you can say it’s just a couple of sung notes with an electronic effect on them.

You’d be wrong.

Just as the voice of the Daleks is really produced by one man with a ring modulator, it’s not JUST one man with a ring modulator – it’s the unmistakable voice of the Daleks.

So in Jeff Wayne’s version of The War Of The Worlds, everything in you, everything that’s ever been frightened and small, fights against the reality of that “Ullllllllaaaaa” being just a couple of electronically altered sung notes. That – and for many people who grew up listening to the album, ONLY EVER THAT is the voice of the Martians. More than forty years on, hearing that sound can bring you a shudder.

Likewise when the story comes to describe the Red Weed, the Martian vegetation that colonizes the planet. For the most part, the theme is much more soft and organic, using pipes to establish the innocence of the plant, just trying to live so far away from home. It’s almost dreamlike, hypnotic – until it’s in a position of dominance, when imperialistic horns crash in to announce its conquest of the Earth. Again, the music from the first moments to the last in The War Of The Worlds is extremely, exquisitely evocative of what you’d normally be called on to witness with your eyes.

If Richard Burton is an immensely powerful narrator, the rest of the cast do well to keep up with him. David Essex as the Artilleryman has quite a journey, from the shattered soldier, devastated at the destruction of his troop, to where we hear him at the end, as a proto-Fascist leader of the literal underground resistance (Oh yes he is – “the weak fall by the wayside, but the strong shall be saved, in a brave new world…”).

Phil Lynott, lead singer with popular 1970s Irish rock band, Thin Lizzy, makes for a gloriously deranged Parson Nathaniel, believing the Martians are demons, and that it’s his job to cast them out. Julie Covington, famous for her work on Evita, joins this telling of Wells’ tale as Beth, a wife for Nathaniel who doesn’t appear in the book, and she joins to extraordinary effect, as Nathaniel and his wife argue over the spirit of man and the reality of the Martians.

It’s tender and powerful stuff, and it adds action to what is, if anything, the novel of The War Of The Worlds’ only real fault, which is that for large chunks of it (amounting to two weeks), the protagonist is trapped under rubble with the ranting, delirious curate, so that much of the action of the wider war is kept hidden from us. The battle for the spirit of man takes only minutes, shows two lives standing for many shattered by the invasion, and summarizes the whole two-week stretch.

Apart from the narration from Burton and some active interplay with other characters to push the action along, there are a handful of songs in The War Of The Worlds that help encapsulate moments of terror or power or plea. The ‘Sung Thoughts Of The Journalist’ are given voice by Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues, and through him, we get the incident of HMS Thunder Child, the warship that protects a boat full of passengers heading out of England – towards what are at least presumed to be safer shores, given that the Martians’ first cylinders landed in the UK. While it delivers the momentary hope and triumphalism of the British before being tuned to sinking, hissing slag by a fighting machine, Thunder Child as a song belongs only there – just as David Essex’s solo, Brave New World does at the end.

The exception to this rule is Forever Autumn, a haunting, touching and simple love song of loss and remembrance that is as evocative today as it was in 1978 when the rock opera was released. Sung as the thoughts of the Journalist to his fiancée, Carrie, (another character invented for this version – in the book, the narrator has a wife), it adds to the ache of uncertainty about what the future holds, and gives us really the only touch of the original text’s social commentary, the couples, their plans, overturned as though they were nothing by the invading forces. And it, alone of all the songs, works when divorced from the context of the wider narrative.

The important thing about the book is that the narrator struggles and suffers as part of what he calls ‘the massacre of mankind’ – and has what is more or less a nervous breakdown on the way to the end. Burton delivers this faithfully in a narration that soars when it needs to, but otherwise does its best to depict the narrator as an everyman.

By the end, he determines to invite death at the feet of a Martian fighting machine, only to discover that while he’s been running around, the Martians have been dying, having injected human blood into their veins and been slaughtered by nothing more powerful than microbes – bacteria, to which they have no immunity.

The end of the musical version of The War Of The Worlds is a piece of genius on a par with the rest of the album – after the planet returning to normal in the wake of the invasion, we almost pull out from the late 19th century world of the Journalist, and slide into audio of a supposed 20th or 21st century mission to Mars. All goes well until – there’s a green flash. And the tracking stations on Earth start winking out, going silent. The Martians… are coming back.

Since the launch of the 1978 double album that was Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War Of The Worlds, it has been re-engineered and tweaked many times. A new generation cast has been recorded, and at least two complete iterations of a stage show based on the original have won armies of adoring fans around the world.

Call me a purist if you like, but for me, in seeking to expand the scale of it into visual media, you lose something of the brilliance of the original. You do you, obviously, but for me, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War Of The Worlds is best experienced alone, through earbuds, where the music and narration paint the terror of invasion across the biggest canvas there is – the human mind.

Dig it out today. Take some time alone. And remember how pin-perfect scary and wonderful the musical version of The War Of The Worlds really is.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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