Jeff Wayne (2008)
I wrote this piece for Death Ray 16, back in 2008. The War of the Worlds is the best science fiction album of all time (er, not that it’s a massive field), so it was a great interview to do.
It’s the 30th Anniversary of one of the most successful music albums ever: Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. Wayne himself opens telephonic communications and humbles us with sound.
We see more stories told with pictures and words in these pages, but there are other ways of conveying a tale. SF stretches its oily tendrils into all arenas of popular culture, including music.
Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds is one of the most popular records of all time. It has spent 260 weeks in the UK top ten. It has sold 13 million copies worldwide. It’s right up there with Michael Jackson and Abba, an astounding achievement for a musical retelling of a story now over a century old. 96 minutes long, a collision of disco electronica, stentorian narration, symphonic orchestration, song and bleeping sound effects, The War of the Worlds is an unlikely candidate for one of the world’s best loved musical works, but somehow it is thoroughly brilliant.
The man behind this towering achievement is composer Jeff Wayne. He was born in 1943 in Queens, New York, the son of Jerry Wayne, a multi-talented Jewish immigrant who was an actor, singer, musician and producer. Despite his US roots, Jeff Wayne has spent more than two thirds of his life in the UK. Perhaps this Anglo-American identity gives him some unique insight into British culture, because he’s one of the few adapters of Wells’ story that chose to keep its Victorian setting.
Wayne junior had his first big break in 1968, when he wrote the score for his father’s musical, The Tale of Two Cities, to great acclaim. He built a career round composing music for TV shows, films and adverts, until, in the 70s, he began to produce the work of other artists, a path that led, indirectly, to The War of the Worlds.
“One of the first artists that I ever signed to my fledgling label was David Essex,” he says. “We had a great run together. I toured with David for the first two years as his MD, did his keyboards, did a bit of harmonies, put the bands together. It was great fun. But somewhere toward the middle of that period my dad reminded me that one of my own aspirations as a composer was to find a story that I might feel passionate about and that would really challenge me to try and find a sound for, so we started reading books of all genres to find one.” It wasn’t until his father gave him The War of the Worlds to read just before he left on another tour with Essex that he found what he was looking for. “I was taken by it, I could hear sound immediately, not compositions, you know, but sounds, things started popping in and out of my head. I loved the thread of the story, the characters. there were a lot of things that immediately impacted on me, and that was it.”
Discovering that the book was still in copyright, It took Wayne several months to locate who held the rights. Fortunately, all but the film rights, bought by Paramount many years before, were resting in “a little box”. Impressed by Wayne’s faithfulness to the original, the estate of Wells were convinced to back his efforts.
“We’ve had a good relationship with the Wells family since,” he says. “They’ve always said that my The War of The Worlds was the truest and most honest version, and that’s what it was intended to be.” It was important to Wayne to keep the setting. According to him, the story remains popular because of its perennial theme of alien invasion, and Wells skillful use of analogy to challenge empire and religion. It doesn’t need updating.
“I think it is things like that that just resonate whatever age you are and that’s why it gets rediscovered generation after generation. I like it being set in Victorian England. It has a far greater impact. Armed with cannons and rifles against these aliens with super brains and incredible machines and weaponry, man had no chance. If it happened today we’d hopefully have more of a level playing field! So I liked this vision of looking through Victorian eyes. But it was questioned by the record companies, and my family, because here I was, in truth a Yank, trying to interpret this seminal English author’s classic work. In the record world at that time punk was at the height of its revolution, and disco was king of the dance floor, and here I am coming out with this continuous 96 minute Victorian tale, trying to tell a story through music. It wasn’t going with the tide!”
He wasn’t even following that other 70s trend, the concept album.
“The term concept album never entered my mind!” he insists. “It was a musical interpretation. I did not want to rely on people ‘getting into your concept, man’. I was trying to challenge myself as a musician, as a writer, as an arranger, as a producer, but I wasn’t trying to create a rose in the middle of the desert that no-one would know about. The pop industry hasn’t changed, like today, I was hoping that my compositions would have one or two tracks that would stand out and become singles. But I also grew up with my dad being in musicals, I was always impressed by articulate storytelling. As long as what you say really communicates, whether it is through song, through acting, through sound. I think the War of the Worlds gave me that chance to take that challenge. But the fact that it has a major story is no different to the four-minute pop song. It matters little whether a piece is a rap tune or a love song. Good song-writing is about communication.”
In some regards The War of the Worlds hearkens back to the symphonic past, though large-scale musical storytelling does still exist in film. But to see the The War of the Worlds as a soundtrack without a movie would be a mistake, it has much more in common with earlier works like Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, or Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt. Wayne took such works as a style guide, he says, which accounts for The War of the Worlds‘ strong usage of leitmotifs – strings for humanity, electronics for the Martians – adding to the form by introducing musical sound effects.
Wayne is still passionate about the War of the Worlds, it has been, after all, something of a family affair. His father was his partner in the venture, his step mother wrote it, his wife designed the sound effects. Three of his four children appear in the stage show, a spectacular event that comes back for a new run in June 2009 [incidentally, it’s running for the final time this year, which is at the time of writing 2014]. This show, which is quickly working itself in to the public consciousness as THE War of the Worlds, came about when Wayne was asked if he’d like to put on a concert of the album at the Royal Albert Hall, with singers in dinner jackets and the like. With his background in musical theatre, Wayne suggested something rather more visual. The show features a full orchestra, multiple actors, a 100 foot screen upon which a prequel and key scenes from the story are played out in a CG animated film based on the original album’s paintings, a 30-foot tall martian tripod, and masses of physical effects. It’s hard to overstate just how extravagant the show is, it even resurrected Richard Burton, first as a giant moulded head with a motion captured graphic projected onto it, then as an 11-foot floating hologram that interacts with the rest of the cast. When this holograph was introduced last year, it was a world first.
“The first time we actually put it into a show was in Perth,” says Wayne. “It was so questionable as to whether it would work, so we took the previous year’s head with us just in case it all went pear-shaped. We literally hadn’t tested it until it arrived in a hard disc the day before the first show. It was that close to the wire.”
After such an impressive, and risky, addition you’d forgive Wayne if he took it easier with this next tour. Not so – he’s already thinking our some new tricks to wow audiences.
“The War of the Worlds: Live on Stage is a living work, and I guess just from a creative point of view, I like to challenge things. I don’t want to give too much away, but the areas we’re working on, one is with a company which is a specialist in illusion and magic, and there’s a range of ideas on our wish list. We are also adding things that are called drops. Last year, we had flame boxes that were concealed from the audience, and they suddenly engulfed the performers, the musicians, and were synchronised to the heat ray on the screen, so it became very three dimensional. So we might add drops coming from the sky, whether it’s leaves or red weed. They’re not always dramatic, some of it is just to make it look more beautiful.”
Each of these tours takes a year to plan, but Wayne has other things on his plate. In the early 90s he produced an album that told the story of Spartacus along similar lines to the The War of the Worlds, and he has another in the making – Call of the Wild, Jack London’s dark Darwinist fable of a pampered dog kidnapped and struggling to survive the Alaskan Gold Rush.
“I’m hoping after next year’s tour that I will have a chunk of time to really get to grips with it,” he says. “I’ve done a bit of composing for it already, but The War of the Worlds has been so dominating my life for the past few years that I haven’t been able to break away, not only to do something of my own work, but also take a few other opportunties to get involved with other artists. I am also hoping to revisit Spartacus both in its content and the possibility of taking it into the arenas. It’s a very visual story, it’s a big canvas, the story of master and slave, quite different from the other two. It was my goal, in fact to create three musical works and then take them into other media.”
A goal we hope he succeeds in. ULLLLLAAAAAA!
You can buy tickets for the arena tour here.
A timeline of War of the Worlds
1897 The War of the Worlds is first published as a serial in Pearson’s Magazine. Aliens from Mars attack the Earth, concentrating their efforts on the superpower of the British Empire. Even the might of Victorian Britain proves inconsequential in the face of the aliens’ superior technology. The aliens begin to terraform (um, Marsform?) the Earth, and devour its inhabitants. All seems lost, until the creatures are brought low by terrestrial viruses and bacteria.
Within weeks Edison’s Conquest of Mars begins running in the New York Journal American. It is the first in a great many unofficial sequels, and features inventor Thomas Edison taking the fight to the Martians.
1898 Wells’ story is collected and published as a novel.
1938 Orson Welles’ radio adaptation is broadcast in the US. Welles moves the action to contemporary America, and broadcast it as if the events were occurring live. There is a mass panic (subsequently somewhat exaggerated). Militias are formed to combat the non-existent alien threat.
1940 Orson Welles meets H.G. Wells, who is touring the US. The two appear on a radio programme together, where they discuss Citizen Kane.
1946 H.G. Wells dies.
1950 The BBC produce a radio play. Stop motion guru Ray Harryhausen, fresh off Mighty Joe Young, does concept work for a film that is never made.
1953 George Pal’s The War of the Worlds is released. It makes a number of changes to the story, relocating it to 1950s California. The tripods are turned into floating craft, as despite the production’s strenuous attempts to depict the original war machines they prove too problematic. The black smoke becomes a secondary beam weapon. The aliens are protected by a forcefield, while the Martians themselves are shown as tripedal, leathery creatures, not octopod brains.
1967 The BBC make another radio dramatisation. Samuel Youd begins his Tripods series under the pseudonym John Christopher, inspired by Wells’ book.
1968 Another US radio version is made.
1978 Jeff Wayne produces his musical The War of the Worlds. Richard Burton plays the role of the journalist, David Essex the artillerymen.
1984 The first computer game based on the book is released.
1988 A TV show, a sequel to George Pal’s film, begins airing in the US. It features several of the same actors. Originally conceived of by Pal, it is not made until several years after his death. It runs for two seasons, which are famous for being wildly inconsistent with the book, the preceding film and one another.
1996 Independence Day, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s alien invasion flick, mops up at the box office. It borrows heavily from The War of the Worlds. In it, the aliens are defeated by a computer virus.
1998 Jeff Wayne rejigs 45 minutes of his music for a real-time strategy game inspired by the musical.
2002 Ian Edginton and D’Israeli publish Scarlet Traces, a comic follow-up set ten years after the invasion where a resurgent British Empire dominates the world with back-engineered Martian technology.
2002-2003 Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill cleverly reuse The War of the Worlds storyline in their second League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series.
2005 Three The War of the Worlds films come out. Only one, directed by Stephen Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise, gets a theatrical release. This, like many other adaptations, moves the action to America, and draws detail from both Pal’s film and Wells’ book. Mystifyingly (and improbably), the alien war machines have been hiding on Earth for thousands of years. One of the other films, directed by David Latt, is also set in America. The third, a UK venture, stays true to Wells’ original setting.
2006 The War of the Worlds: Alive on Stage!, goes on the road for the first time.
2008 David Latt’s 2005 film gains a sequel.