‘The War of The Worlds’: Jeff Wayne In His Own Words

❉  As Jeff Wayne’s phenomenally successful musical epic celebrates its 40th anniversary, we chat with its creator.

“It’s been described as prog rock, it’s also been described as electronic. There are reasons for that. I realised when writing for the Martians, I would write from an electronic or rock sound, while when I wrote for the humans, I went with more of a folk or symphonic structure. So, I don’t know how to describe it, however it’s described and as flattering as it is described. That’s why I called it Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of The Worlds“

 

Rare has a book gravitated to the minds of the cultural psyche in the manner H.G. Wells’ The War of The Worlds (1897) has. Byron Haskin and Steven Spielberg brought it to life for the eyes of cinemagoers, Star Trek and Justice League turned to it for aestheticism and design and Orson Welles famously scared much of America with his eerie 1938 radio broadcast. TWOTW was also instrumental in igniting Jeff Wayne’s creative muse. Wayne is stoic in his response.

“It’s going back a long time, but my dad and I read a lot of books because he knew that as a composer and musical arranger I would like to have a musical story. We read a bunch of books and the day before I was about to go out on tour, he presented me with H.G. Wells book. I took to it immediately reading it, I could hear the sounds and see the visuals of the story”.

Just as parenthood is an important theme of the book, Wayne is quick to emphasise the importance of father-son relationships in the process of the work. “We had to track the rights down to Frank Wells [H.G. Wells’ son] and we got in contact with his agent” Wayne explains:

“My dad and I were keen to stick to the Victorian England of the book and keep to that atmosphere, which impressed Frank, but it also impressed him that it was a father-son project, like his was. When we got the project rolling, my dad was very instrumental to the project. His second wife, my stepmum, was a writer and a journalist, so he worked closely with her in adapting the story. When it came to getting painters, artists and visual designers, he helped a lot in that department too, while always being in the studio as my ears”

WOTW is not an easy album to pigeon hole. It’s a soaring mix of disco, rock, blues, folk and classical influences, many coming together in one track.

“It’s been described as prog rock, it’s also been described as electronic. There are reasons for that. I realised when writing for the Martians, I would write from an electronic or rock sound, while when I wrote for the humans, I went with more of a folk or symphonic structure. So, I don’t know how to describe it, however it’s described and as flattering as it is described. That’s why I called it Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of The Worlds

There’s a regal sound to this classic album, unsurprising since much of the musicianship is made up of rock’s royalty. Guitarist Chris Spedding (Frank Ricotti Quartet) plays with the thriving drive of stadium elasticity and boldness, ably supported by bassist Herbie Flowers (Cat Stevens, Lou Reed) and drummer Barry Morgan (Tom Jones, Blue Mink). George Fenton (future Planet Earth composer) aids with santoor, zithers and tars, with Ray Cooper credited as one of the percussionists. But it was Ken Freeman who provided the most enduring aspect of the album’s music. Searing through sways of siren soared synths, Freeman’s keyboard wizardry plays through the leitmotifs with the mastery of opera, strings synthesise with the stifling symmetry of an extra-terrestrial massacre. It’s an exhilarating listen, the ominous Thunder Child and the off-beat Horsell Common and the Heat Wave stand on a progressive rock opera with the savagery of Welles’ prose and the dynamism and funk of seventies standards, an opera of human survival in the wake of an arduous ordeal. Who better to narrate it than the mellifluous Richard Burton?

“We had the good fortune to get Richard, a tremendous actor and true professional. We had him contracted to record for five sessions and he had everything finished by the end of the first! It was a different approach with him given that he was a real actor, where the other voices were singers who also did some acting. As for Ken, he was a keyboardist I worked with before TWOTW, a genius at interpreting electronic sounds. He and I worked together four to six months after the band sessions ended, where I’d arrange a part and ask him to come up with a bubble sound, for example and direct him, telling him something was fantastic or if we needed to go in another direction. He invented a synth string machine that I think is still heard in music. Ken contributed the synth sounds and I played the other keyboard parts”.

TWOTW featured an impressive cast list. Seventies rock God Phil Lynott plays Parson Nathaniel, Chris Thompson does his job as the voice of humanity nicely. Evita star Julie Covington brings the necessary voice of optimism as Beth and long-time Wayne collaborator David Essex takes the mains of The Artilleryman with gusto and ballast. It was Justin Hayward (famous for fronting symph blues band The Moody Blues) who performed what would become the album’s calling card, a fabled folk tale with the celestial nature only a lament of regret could bring. Forever Autumn, a UK top five hit, the song became a generational gift for street buskers to sing the passing of age into sadder days. What is less often commented about is that Hayward’s version was not the original recording of the song.

Forever Autumn was a piece I originally did with Gary Osborne and Paul Vigrass on their debut album. A chunk of the music came from something I wrote for Lego Toyland. I wrote the music and they wrote the lyrics. When we fast forwarded in time, and I wrote about The Journalist [Burton’s character] returning to find his fianceé and her father, Forever Autumn was the song that kept coming back to me to fill that space. I rejected it because it wasn’t a new piece, but eventually I put up the white flag and gave in and put it on the album. Justin sings it beautifully. Gary wrote the lyrics for a lot of the album, I wrote the lyrics for The Eve of War, Gary and Paul wrote the lyrics for Forever Autunm, but much of the album lyrics were Gary’s”.

TWOTW was a monumental success, and another musical album was an inevitable project. In 1992, Wayne released Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of Spartacus. “This was another musical work” Wayne describes. “This time it was a true story, not sci-fi. But the principles of writing it were similar, how the musical styles and story bounce back and forth from slave to master”. A testament to the power of Wayne’s original work, the Spartacus cast includes Catherine Zeta Jones, Anthony Hopkins and Marillion’s Fish.

The success of TWOTW continues to grow. In 2008, a 30th anniversary tour occurred with Justin Hayward and Chris Thompson reprising their roles. Wayne re-released the album with Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of The Worlds – The New Generation featuring the vocal talents of Liam Neeson and Gary Barlow. But there’s something unimpeachable about the original work, empowering, soaring and haunting even after forty years. But at its heart it’s a work of survival, peace and as Wayne points out, family.


❉ Wayne’s classic 1978 album was re-released on vinyl January 26 2018 via Sony Music to mark its 40th anniversary.

❉  Buy tickets for Jeff Wayne’s The War of The Worlds from Ticketmaster UK.

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1 Comment

  1. Good to read the back story to Jeff Wayne’ s iconic work. Especially interesting is the creation of the music. The reference to family is a nice insight too.

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