If you speak to anyone born in the early 70s, they’ll always have a soft spot for Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds. That’s because there was a copy in almost every house in Great Britain; it might be your Dad’s or belong to an older brother or sister – or if you were really lucky, it might be yours! But like a Martian invader, it insinuated itself into every household. The only LP that was more omnipresent in British homes was the movie soundtrack to Grease and that was best enjoyed with one hand on the stylus to skip past all the Sha-Na-Na shit and onto the songs people actually liked – Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds had to be listened to whole; all 100 pulse-pounding minutes of it. And it wasn’t always what you would describe as easy listening. Yet people loved it, even if they had no interest in pop, even if they had no interest in sci-fi – they still loved it.
When I was 8 years old, my brother (13) borrowed an LP of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds from a friend and copied it onto cassette. Let’s be honest, a lot of time has passed, that’s what everyone did in the 70s – hell, it’s what kept record libraries in business! Being a talented artist, he sketched a Martian Fighting Machine for the front of the cassette box. He would then play his cassette at night, in the dark, in our shared bedroom, which scared the hell out of me. The Eve of the War didn’t bother me so much, I was very familiar with that song; it was all over radio and TV in the 70s, even being used as the theme for tennis coverage on ITV at one point. It was Horsell Common and the Heat Ray, with its heaving, pulsating Martian, that made me pull the covers over my head. We rarely got any further than Side 2 before my Mam would come in and tell him to switch it off.
My brother soon got bored of War of the Worlds and moved on to listening to Meat Loaf and other things. Then one day, aged about 11, I was rifling through some old cassettes that had been abandoned or donated by other members of the family (it could be a real mixed bag: Neil Diamond from my Dad, Gilbert & Sullivan from my Uncle Gordon) when I found an unmarked cassette with no slip-cover. When I popped it in my portable cassette player, I was immediately assailed by lots of wailing and screaming about destroying the devil. What on earth was this? But when Julie Covington’s voice pleaded ‘no, Nathaniel’, I suddenly realised that I was listening to Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds. It was an epiphany – I remembered this; it had terrified me when I was 8, but since then I had become obsessed with sci-fi and had read the comic strip adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds in Doctor Who Weekly.
Very quickly, I became totally obsessed with Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds. My brother’s old tapes were incomplete, but a friend loaned me his Dad’s LP and I, of course, taped it, drawing my own Fighting Machine for the slipcase (not as good as my brother’s, but there you go). But my Mam, always a keen observer of what her children were interested in and therefore a flawless present-buyer, noticed that I would probably like my own copy of the LP. She ordered it from Easy Listening Records & Tapes, an amazing stall in Jacky White’s Indoor Market in Sunderland that could order you everything from Al Jolson to the Sex Pistols, and gave it to me for my birthday. It was one of those examples of just the right present at just the right time and I was absolutely delighted with it.
I was now more obsessed with Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds than ever and I listened to it over and over, examining every detail of the amazing illustrations in the accompanying booklet and building pictures in my mind as to how it would look. Even though it had terrified me that way as an 8-year old, I liked to listen to the album in the dark, usually whilst lying in bed, with no distractions from the images in my head. Even now though, the album was not without its terrors. My family used to frequent a cottage in the Scottish Borders, which was out in the middle of nowhere and the night-time brought a level of absolute darkness that a dyed-in-the-wool townie like me just wasn’t used to. I recall one night as I tried to get to sleep alone in one of the bedrooms, in total blackness with no sound but the bleating of the odd sheep, playing The Red Weed over and over in my head. I’ve always found that piece of music thoroughly eerie and it’s a wonder that I ever got to sleep at all that night.
In my early teens, I wasn’t really that much of a pop music fan; I was a bit of a geek and mainly listened to movie soundtracks and TV themes, but Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds opened musical doors for me and directly because of it, I became interested in The Moody Blues, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and – in particular – Thin Lizzy. Phil Lynott passed away in 1986, a victim of his history of rock ‘n’ roll excess, at the height of my War of the Worlds obsession and from a personal point of view, it hit me harder than the death of John Lennon just a few years earlier. I grew to love Thin Lizzy and was amazed to learn, many years later, that Phil almost didn’t play Parson Nathaniel. I suppose when you think about it, the hard-drinking, mixed race, Irish heavy rocker was not the obvious choice to play a Victorian clergyman, yet somehow it works perfectly, especially when contrasted with the angelic tones of Julie Covington.
Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds is the gift that keeps on giving and various new material kept on trickling out as the years went on. I remember buying the 12” single of Ben Liebrand’s remix of The Eve of the War at the local Asda in the 1990s and, as the age of digital technology inched inevitably closer, I eventually supplemented (it can never be replaced) my beloved vinyl LP with the 1996 Special Edition double CD release. This version also featured 4 remixes, which led the way to ULLAdubULLA – The Remix Album in 2000, about which I have mixed feelings. I’ve never been a massive fan of House Music, so a lot of this just seemed long and repetitive to me, but most of all, I miss the narrative element of the original album. I kinda feel the same way about the Highlights from Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds single album, which has all the great songs, but doesn’t really flow the way I like.
I’d like to make a quick nod of the head here to Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of Spartacus, the 1992 ‘sequel’ to The War of the Worlds. I remember first hearing about this when Catherine Zeta Jones, then known mainly for bucolic TV drama The Darling Buds of May, was a guest on some TV show and she mentioned that this was what she was working on a project with Jeff Wayne, which I found tremendously exciting. I bought the new album on cassette on the day of its release and listened to it as soon as I got home. Although it comes in for a lot of stick and generally sounds more dated than the much older War of the Worlds, I do really enjoy Spartacus; Catherine Zeta Jones and Alan King are excellent as the two leads and Sir Anthony Hopkins, in the role of Roman senator Marcus Crassus, puts in a remarkable performance that could probably be best described as… unrestrained.
In 2008, for the 30th anniversary of the original album, Jeff Wayne released a boxed set 7-disc collector’s edition of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds. It was a gorgeous-looking product in a 12” sized hardback book cover and although I couldn’t really afford it, I knew I had to have it. Along with the remastered album, the set included a disc of remixes including the Ben Liebrand remix (yay) and some from ULLAdubULLA (meh) and a DVD including an interview with Jeff Wayne. Best of all though are the three discs of rare and unused material including demos, alternate mixes, foreign language mixes and some completely ditched songs, such as the wonderful Parson Nathaniel. These are a treasure trove for fans of the album and open up a whole new world of the album that might have been and the unlikely origins of some of the songs that we all know and love. Did you know, for example, that Forever Autumn started life as a TV commercial for Lego?
In recent years, Jeff Wayne has reinvented and re-imagined his magnum opus in a variety of different ways. In 2012, he completely re-recorded the album as Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds – The New Generation (bit of a mouthful, but what can you do?) with Liam Neeson, Ricky Wilson, Joss Stone and Gary Barlow. I quite enjoyed it and it’s basically the same album, but I always felt that Neeson’s delivery as the Journalist is a little flat in places. It’s amazing when you read about the original that Richard Burton basically went into a studio in the USA with Jeff’s father Jerry Wayne and banged out the lines, yet still manages to give a powerful performance with such a sense of urgency. Yet, somehow Liam Neeson, who presumably had a lot more prep, sounds for all the world like he’s reading from cue cards.
In recent years, much of Jeff Wayne’s time has revolved around various stage productions of his album, starting with a 2006 tour of the original album and more recently touring with a staged version of The New Generation, both of which featured a ‘virtual’ version of their respective narrators. I would love to have been able to see Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds on the stage, but have never been able to afford to. Still, filmed versions of both shows have been released on DVD and I own both of them. When I first heard that they were going to adapt the musical as a stage show, I was a little uncertain as I’m sure a lot of gen-1 fans were, but I have to say that it looks absolutely spectacular and I have enjoyed them both to differing degrees (though I still have difficulty getting past the insufferable arrogance of ‘star’ tenor Russell Watson in the behind-the-scenes footage from the original show).
Most recently, I have enjoyed Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds: The Musical Drama, released exclusively through Audible, which is essentially an abridged reading of H.G. Wells’ novel with background music. Although I enjoyed it (you can read a review here), the music is, if anything, distracting, so it really falls into the same sub-genre of the Musical as the 1998 video game and the 2019 immersive experience. If you asked me which was my favourite version of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds, I would unhesitatingly reply the original 1978 version – it’s an absolutely astounding album and as fresh and vibrant as the day it was recorded 43 years ago. I still listen to it whenever I get the chance and it still sends a shiver down my spine every bit as much as it did when I first heard my brother’s cassette recording all those years ago. Now, what are the chances of that?
‘Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds’, ‘Highlights from Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds’, ‘Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds – ULLAdubULLA: The Remix Album’ and ‘Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds – The New Generation’ are all available on CD, Vinyl and Download from Sony Music Entertainment. ‘Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds: The Musical Drama’ is available through Audible.