Blast From The Past
Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War of The Worlds (1978)
Richard Burton as The Journalist
David Essex as The Artilleryman
Phil Lynott as Parson Nathaniel
Julie Covington as Beth
Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War of The Worlds is something any ordinary rock fan (certainly of my generation) wouldn’t look twice at. Indeed, if it weren’t for the multi-million “epic” new film, extremely loosely based on the original story (ha! I spit on you, Spielberg!) the album would still be dwindling in the ‘Insignificant’ section of HMV. But to me, this record is the greatest record of all time.
My mum was given a version of the original for her birthday in 1978; a highlighted version, including just the songs and very little commentary from Sir Richard Burton. Her original interest was solely in the great gravel-faced, gravel-voiced gypsy-boy David Essex, but her love for the record soon extended further than “the lovely way he says ‘metal’”. Gimme a break.
Thus, the record was repeatedly and sometimes painfully inflicted upon her children, and through years of indoctrination, we’ve grown to love it too. The record is certainly a journey, lasting a full 90 minutes. That’s 90 minutes of pure musical and lyrical talent, as well as education on what to do if Martians happen to land in a town near you. Richard Burton’s “voice of God” introduces the story, with the timeless opening speech movie buffs might recognise as being similar to the one in the film, and more well-read people will recognise as being similar to the one in the original H.G. Wells novel. Once he’s stirred up a sinister atmosphere, string orchestras and guitars and drums and synthesisers burst into life and create en enormous backdrop for the story to be told through narration and song. Now this is epic.
I think this record can confidently be described as a rock album, and part of the reason for this is the inclusion of David Essex, Phil Lynott and Justin Hayward. Hayward is the first to be heard, not with a part in the story as such, but as the voice of the pain and desolation of the people as they have to separate and flee from the alien intruders. ‘Forever Autumn’ is a highly emotional love song, with The Moody Blues’ lead singer expressing perfectly the sadness in the lyrics. The song was one of the six to be lifted and released as a single, becoming a huge hit.
Phil Lynott has a duet part with Julie Covington, as a Parson and his wife. The Parson believes that the Martians are in fact demons that humans have drawn from Hell because of their sins, and eventually has all his blood drained by them. Nice.
As a rock god, Lynott gets the rockiest song of the album, his distinctively gruff voice contrasting with Covington’s silky smooth warble. Their duet is where the lyrics stand out most: “Now darkness has descended on our land, and all your prayers cannot save us; like fools we’ve let the devil take command of the souls that God gave us; to the alter of evil like lambs to the slaughter we’re led; when the demons arrive the survivors with envy the dead!” …Pure frikkin’ poetry.
Essex has the role of the slightly mad Artilleryman, hell bent on surviving in the “brave new world” he’s planned out. Unfortunately, as I say, he’s a bit of a nutter, and through the eyes of the Journalist, the listener realises that his plight is hopeless. Still, Essex’s Artilleryman is played flawlessly; which is a quality shared by each and every person involved in this project. There is a certain amount of acting skill required for something like this, and every singer and musician rises to it, taking on their roles as their own. Not like that poncy Tom Cruise.
This is an album that must be listened to solely in ones own company, with eyes closed and brain mostly switched off. The haunting aura of the music, and bellowing cries of “UUULLLLLLLLAAAAAAAAAAA” from the Martians’ fighting machines can only fully be appreciated this way, and the story be absorbed. Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War of The Worlds is a completely different listening experience. It’s not like a CD you can just flick through if you get bored – so take heed; it’s not for the impatient if you’re a first listener. But it’s definitely worth serious attention. And you get to feel all smug and cultured afterwards.