Back in 1976, an unassuming and seemingly esoteric rock opera revealed itself to an unsuspecting music scene. The year so far had been dominated by the raucous emergence of Queen; ABBA were tightening their grip on the charts and Hi-NRG pop was enticing millions into clubs. By 9 June, just a few days before The Wurzels would top the charts with The Combine Harvester (Brand New Key), the last thing the average pop-fan expected was a double album combining a spoken word narrative, progressive rock and bombastic orchestral strings which drew inspiration from a Victorian sci-fi classic.
Yet, 45 years on, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds has become a generational institution. “I had a simple hope that we’d see the album in the charts for one week,” Wayne tells me. “Then I could be happy.” With 15 million copies being sold worldwide, the dream has been far exceeded.
Being a producer and composer endowed him with plenty of contacts so the performers list on The War Of The Worlds is almost as impressive as its arrangements and ambitions. The original recording drew together Richard Burton as The Narrator, Broadway star Julie Covington and a range of rock talent including Chris Thompson from Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, The Moody Blues’ Justin Hayward, Phil Lynnot, David Essex and Sussex legend (and ubiquitous 70s bass-playing presence) Herbie Flowers.
The work revolves around Burton’s character travelling across a devastated nation in search of his partner, his instantly-recognisable tones detailing the surrounding chaos and destruction against an emotive, soaring soundtrack. “That period in the mid-70s, we had the disco revolution and punk music exploding, then I came along with this very grand scale double album, which had a story being told by someone who’d survived a Martian invasion.” At the core of Wayne’s sonic creation of this landscape is the juxtaposition between an orchestra and rock band. He describes the arrangement as being like a ping pong match. The organic harmonies of the string section represent the ebb and flow of human experience in the face of overwhelming terror, while the angular, almost industrial, sounds of the band’s instrumentation recreate the cold technological might of the invading aliens. It’s a simple, yet elegant, contextual device which is used with overwhelming effect.
While sheer innovation alone could have sealed this unlikely work’s reputation amongst the rock zeitgeist, the legacy has been further developed with spectacular, award-winning, live audio-visual experiences. Starting in 2006, with Wayne conducting a 48-piece orchestra and 10-piece band, along with a virtual representation of Burton, The War Of The Worlds has spawned a series of productions embracing the latest music-tech; especially when trying to ensure audiences hear the performance with an optimum clarity. “That was part of the goal. We started back in 2006 with surround sound to ensure there’s a good quality of sound wherever you sat in these arenas. It was probably one of our largest investments. It’s changed and grown substantially over the years because of new technology.”
Touring for the past 15 years has kept him fascinated with what such advances can bring to the production and how audiences react to them. The crystal-clear sound is now augmented by special effects, three panoramic screens and an impressive 30ft-tall ‘Martian Fighting Machine’ firing real-flame heat rays at the audience.
It’s a sizeable operation, which requires up to 12 lorries to carry everything between venues. And the shows are only getting larger, setting out once more on the Life Begins Again tour across the UK in March. There’s been considerable lessons learned from audience reactions at London’s The War of The Worlds: The Immersive Experience. Based in an old metal exchange on Leadenhall Street, this permanent exhibit brings visitors close-up to Wayne’s adaptation across its 21 rooms. “We didn’t expect it to do quite as well, but then I never expected my original double album to be 330 weeks consecutively in the album charts. This has taken on a life of its own and is still growing.” There are now plans to open similar attractions at locations around the world. Taking technology like VR and 5D to a new level, it’s offered plenty of inspiration for what can be introduced into the touring production.
Although adopting plenty of new tech to enhance the shows, Wayne has been eager to remain faithful to his original work. In turn, he was also determined to honour the source material during the album’s composition, meeting with HG Wells’ son to secure blessing for the project. “He wanted to know what we would be doing with it. His father was never keen on what had previously been done with his novel, versions of it were always, for some reason, in contemporary America.” A glaring omission by many adaptations was in the title’s definitive article. Wells had created his story as being the ultimate conflict between planets.
Away from the shock and awe of the set and special effects, there are several new introductions within the show’s cast. Liam Neeson replaces Burton’s The Journalist, who’s prescience is lent by cutting edge holography. The Hollywood star spent five days in New York being filmed and recorded, allowing his image to roam the show’s stage and appear to be interacting with other cast members. It’s an inspire choice of casting. His recognisable voice offering the same level of gravitas as the original narrator. Wayne says he’s one of those people who command any room they’re in. “There’s been a couple of occasions, where I’ve been having meals with him, and strangers would stop dead in their tracks. When you see that, you know he can reach people.”
Joining the onstage performers is Blue singer, and rising West End star, Duncan Blue, whose displaying new levels of versatility in his tole as Parson Nathanial. “I’d much earlier gone to him with a different role, but he was scheduled to have his debut solo album released. His record company wouldn’t release him to do our tour, so it didn’t work out then. He had a great pop-type voice in Blue, but now he’s a lot more ‘rock’.” The Parson is a man on the edge, the invasion’s unspeakable horrors making him question everything he held dear. Clare Richards from Steps plays his wife, attempting to comfort him in this darkest hour. “I’m being surprised by so many of the new guest artists, who’ve come from a different area.”
Another familiar face joining the cast is dancer, Kevin Clifton. Instead of impressing the judges on Strictly, he’s now planning humanity’s fightback as The Artilleryman. This TV favourite’s cheerful demeanour perfectly fits the role of the optimistic soldier, who is convinced the fight isn’t over. “When he came to visit and talk about the role, he just had ‘it’. You want people who can interpret the character in their own way, and he’s just nailed that.” Returning from the 2018 tour is the prodigious talents of Nathan James. The frontman of hard-rockers Inglorious, he brings sheer power to the Voice Of Humanity role. Keeping one ear on the regional recordings, the show welcome back Justin Heywood. Previously performing on the initial five tours, he’s made The Sung Thoughts of The Journalist’s part his own over the last 45 years.
Like its source material, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of ‘The War of The Worlds, both as a recorded work and in the live arena, keys into very primal fears. We all worry about the unknown or suffering at the hands of forces many times bigger than ourselves. For many, it’s been the first orchestral work they’ve listened to, and perfectly demonstrates the ability of huge arrangements to create an emotional response. At the time of recording, it could be viewed as a response to the cold war. Wells’ original text certainly was a reaction to a rapidly changing world, where humans were being side-lined by technology.
Even in the time of Covid we could draw analogies, as we struggled to understand a new threat, and society is forced to adapt. “It’s such a parallel to the world we’ve been living in during the last two years. There’s a whole sequence on the album where one of the survivors walks through an empty city wondering if it will ever come alive.”
If Martians and their assortment of terrifying war machines will ever land in Surrey and take over the Earth remains to be seen. But this work isn’t so much a prediction as an exploration of a civilisation struggling with mortality and paranoia about the unknown. Which is how it’s become such an enduring part of the music landscape, still winning and captivating new audiences across this fragile planet “Looking back over forty years, especially with all these tours, we’re seeing three generations of people who are showing up. It’s one of these things which seems to have carried on. I feel very proud.”
Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds sets off on a UK tour in March 2022, including visits to The Brighton Centre on 27 – 28 March, and London’s The O2 on Sat 9 April.