REVIEW: Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (1978, 2009 CD)

JEFF WAYNE – Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (1978, 2009 Sony CD reissue)

Simply put, it’s one of the greatest rock musicals ever: Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds.  Not as well known as, say Jesus Christ Superstar, but it is essential ownership for fans of:

  • both science fiction and rock musicals
  • concept albums
  • H.G. Wells
  • Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues
  • Phil Lynott

That’s a lot of niche.  Composer Jeff Wayne wrote a musical that spans multiple genres.  Progressive rock, Disco beats, space rock, spoken word, symphonic rock…there is a foot on all those bases.  A theremin-like synth hook recurs through the album, increasing the tension.  Richard Burton is featured as the narrating Journalist, speaking the words of Wells, creating the necessary serious tone.  Meanwhile Justin Hayward is featured as the main lead vocalist, singing as the Journalist in a shared role.  It is he that delivers the catchiest of refrains on the album:

“The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, he said.  But still they come.” 

The story has of course been streamlined down from the original 287 page novel.  The plot remains the same, as do the major setpiece scenes.  The opening of the first Martian capsule in “Horsell Common and the Heat Ray” is impeccably narrated by Burton.  This also introduces a guitar theme that pops up again and again on the album.  And now it is clear the visitors from Mars have hostile intent, and weapons beyond those known to human science.

David Essex joins Burton on “The Artilleryman and the Fighting Machine”.  He plays a young soldier, survivor of the first Martian attack.  “They wiped us out.  Hundreds dead, maybe thousands.”  Guitars and synthesizers mingle in haunting fashion.  Dramatic strings emphasise the danger, as it quickly becomes an action piece.  Another recurring musical theme is introduced:  the terrifying Martian cry of “Ulla!  Ulla!”

Hayward resumes his role as the Journalist on “Forever Autumn”, a ballad memorable for its lamenting chorus of “Now you’re not here.”  But the destruction also resumes with the refrain of “Ulla!  Ulla!”  Then “Thunder Child”, featuring vocalist Chris Thompson, describes a counter attack by the ironclad ship Thunder Child.  She puts up a valiant struggle, managing to damage one of the Martian fighting machines, but succumbs to the heat ray.  Collapse is imminent, and Earth now belongs to Mars.

The second disc, subtitled The Earth Under the Martians, continues the story with Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott as Parson Nathaniel.  A foul red weed has claimed the land.  The mad Parson barely survived a Martian attack and is discovered by his wife Beth (Julie Covington) and the Journalist.  Lynott portrays the character with manic delight, as the Parson is convinced the Martians are the devil.  His feature lead vocal is “The Spirit of Man”, where the Parson blames the death and destruction on the sins of all mankind.  They witness a new Martian machine that pursues, captures and harvests humans for their blood.  The Parson thinks he can destroy the Martian demons with prayer, but fails.  The Journalist survives, and meets the Artilleryman down the road.

The Journalist is delighted to see a familiar face again.  The Artilleryman is the polar opposite of the Parson.  He believes mankind can survive underground.  “Brave New World” is a dramatic Floyd-like ballad in tribute to the new life the Artilleryman sees for himself.  The chorus of “We’ll start over again!” is infectious like all the others on this album.  “We’ll even build a railway and tunnel to the coast!  Go there for our holidays!”  He makes the future underground sound like a paradise, but the Journalist doesn’t believe such grand plans can be accomplished by just the survivors.  Instead, he returns to London.

The city is blackened, looted and abandoned.  Darker music accompanies the narrator/Journalist on his journey through on “Dead London, Pt. 1”.  Then he notices two massive fighting machines, making sounds but unmoving.  Then the machines goes silent, and the string section from the opening track “The Eve of the War” returns to dramatic effect.  This is when he discovers that simple Earthen bacteria and germs have killed the Martians.  They had no immunity to our diseases, and so the Martian invasion was stopped not by man, but by the smallest living things.  “Dead London, Pt. 2” is a triumphant refrain symbolising the victory at hand.

Life eventually returns back to normal, and the Journalist is reunited with his love.  There remains a question of a future threat from Mars.  The epilogue conclusively answers that question….

The highly recommended 2009 CD reissue has an unlisted bonus, a medley of two of the big Justin Hayward pieces, “Forever Autumn” and “The Eve of the War”.  There is also a 2009 re-recording of “The Spirit of Man”.  This set comes recommended mainly for its lavish booklet, with full colour illustrations and pages of art.  It also has full credits and lyrics for every track, including dialogue.  The remastering is full and clear, without any obvious sonic flaws.  You can buy this album in a number of editions, with loads of remixes and outtakes, but this simpler 2 CD remaster is the ideal entry point.

Though the musical chapters are long, War of the Worlds flows by rather quickly.  Sometimes it bears sonic similarity to Alice Cooper’s elaborate Welcome to My Nightmare.  But it is far weightier and more expansive than that.  You can finish the album in a single sitting quite easily.  In fact, you probably should.

5/5 stars

Advertisements

27 comments

  1. I saw an arena production of this about 6 years ago with Jeff Wayne playing in it, it was very entertaining, the staging was brilliant, but it was essentially very cheesy too. I must dig out the LP, I was given a copy of it years ago but haven’t spun it many, many years ago. Thanks Mike, you’ve inspired me.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Get out of it you big flatterer, you. It is at once so cheesy and so effective, it’s great. The LP is a real work of art too, a great big booklet full of ace illustrations.

        Plus it all really happened and it is important to remember and learn from history. True story.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I bought this on vinyl a few years ago, but I just didn’t like it. I gave it to a pal who was fond of it and I’ve never missed it. I appreciate the review, but the album is a bit too dull for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There’s a generation of us in the UK who hold this album in massively high regard. It’s been a constant part of life since it came out and it’s always been there. Life-long friendships have grown around this sucker.. It’s unique and not even Jeff Wayne himself has managed to top it, even though he tried in the early 90s with “A Musical Version of Spartacus”. What he has done is steadily re-release versions of War of the Worlds every few years!

    It’s an incredible record though and even the slower bits on the second record are great. Lynott is phenomenal on it, as are the other artistes. Chris Thompson’s Thunderchild vocals are stellar. I caught the first run of the arena show with Thompson taking the vocals on that and live he kicked it right out of the arena.

    For best results with this album, ignore the re-recorded version since the original doesn’t need Liam Neeson or Gary fucking Barlow, it’s got Phil Lynott and Richard Burton, and grab a vinyl copy with the full colour art book and listen whilst looking at the gorgeous paintings.

    If you can find the anniversary edition from 2005 with the six disks and a DVD as well as a massive hard-bound book. Get that too. You can hear all the outtakes and foreign versions which are interesting.

    (Apologies if this posted twice, my PC went mental. Must have been that green flare that erupted from Mars this morning…)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I DO want that 2005 edition. But I couldn’t buy that as my first War of the Worlds. I wasn’t even sure it was up my alley yet when I clicked “buy”!

      I do kinda want the Liam Neeson version. I don’t care about Gary Barlow, but Liam I do like a lot.

      Like

      1. I got the new version of WotW as an Xmas pressie, so I can’t complain :)

        For me, the original album was so ingrained by the time the new version came out and was perfect enough that a remake seemed a bit pointless. I couldn’t see how a new version could top the old. Basically, it was a bit like George Lucas making Greedo shoot first.

        I must break it out in the spirit of (man?) fairness and give it another go.
        (Adopting a Neeson voice) I will find it and I will listen to it…

        More on this later!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Funny you should mention Greedo, I was watching that last night. Put on the wrong version though! Han shoots first — period.

          Re-recorded albums are rarely my thing, but I do like Liam. Gary Barlow can fuck off but Liam is the man.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Just listened to the re-recorded version again and I can see why I played it twice then never again. The production is all moderned-up and the performances are fine, but I just found myself wishing that I was listening to the original thus making the re-recorded version rather pointless.
    Neeson is in fine form, but he’s not Richard Burton. My aforementioned high-point of Thunderchild is OK, but the performance is flat compared to Chris Thompson’s incredible turn.
    So, as an exercise in re-recording, it’s OK, but ultimately a bit of a waste of time.
    Maybe I’m just too attached to the original?

    Like

Rock a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s