Not Forgotten: Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of War of the Worlds

Imagine for a moment the pitch for this album to Columbia Records in the mid 70s. A guy best known for advertising jingles and writing light-weight pop-rock hits turns up at the office one day, saying he wants to record a musical version of H G Wells’ science fiction classic, War of the Worlds. He wants to use top session men, a couple of his mates from musical theatre, fashionable rock stars, unfashionable rock stars, massive orchestras and an unfeasibly vast amount of studio time. The cost of all this? Well over £200k. Oh and Richard Burton is going to narrate it. You can imagine the hysterical laughter…

Actually getting the vocal talent of Richard Burton in to narrate War of the Worlds was Jeff Wayne’s first stroke of genius, as it instantly gave the entire project a weighty integrity that it may have otherwise lacked. Wayne’s second stroke of genius was the caliber of session musicians he had recruited for the album, chief among them being bass player Herbie Flowers (the guy who wrote the bass line for “Walk On The Wild Side” and “Grandad” for Clive Dunn) and session guitar supremo Chris Spedding, whose combined musical skills gave the album a solid musical backbone and feeling of unity.

Of course for the individual character roles Wayne had looked to his contacts in musical theatre and various rock and pop singers, each of whom dealt with the material they were given to perform with varying levels of success.

David Essex performed admirably, but given his background in musical theater, he probably found it easier to switch between singing and straight dialog than anyone else. Although he over-cooks his vocals on”Brave New World”, it’s a solid performance given that he only got the job because Wayne had worked with him before.

Moody Blue Justin Hayward was of course assigned the two most memorable numbers on the album, as he was singing from the point of view of the narrator. “Forever Autumn” is one of the key songs in the history of prog-rock, and “The Eve Of The War” has the most memorable musical motifs on the album. Hayward sings both songs beautiful and well within his range on both numbers, and it’s fitting that he is associated with his work on War of the Worlds almost as much as he is being the vocalist for on of the biggest bands of the 60s and 70s. By contrast, one of the most underrated vocal performances on the album is by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band vocalist Chris Thompson, whose crystal clear delivery gave a dramatic song like “Thunder Child” the edge it needed, and what could have been a disastrously over-egged number, instead turned out to be a huge success.

At the opposite end of the scale is Phil Lynott’s performance as The Parson. Not being an actor, Lynott’s amateur dramatic delivery of his dialog meant that Burton’s thunderous tones comprehensively buried him. When it came to singing “The Spirit Of Man” he was again hopelessly outclassed by the pure-voiced Julie Covington whose duet with Lynott only highlighted how much he struggled performing any material that wasn’t his own.

Sound wise The War Of The Worlds is a thing of wonder, and it is evident that Wayne was not scared of taking a risk. After Burton’s classic spoken intro a massive string motif rises like a monolith out of the speakers, only for a disco beat to pulse in a short while later, making the opening track one of the most terrifyingly groovy moments in the history of popular song. Much of the first disc is propelled by Flower’s sinister crawling bass lines, and the guitar work by Spedding and his understudies is exemplary throughout. The sonic upgrades on subsequent remasters of the original album have only underlined how massive the sound of this album really is.

The War Of The Worlds is vast, astoundingly ambitious, and the kind of project that people are only stupid enough to attempt once. Luckily for Wayne and Columbia it sold beyond anybodies wildest dreams and it remains a milestone in the prog rock genre. Nothing has ever sounded like it before or since and it is one of those albums that has remained with me since my childhood.

… and I’ve still no idea what “Uuuullllaaaaahhhhh!!!” means.

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