Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds is for many – including myself – the best retelling of the classic H.G. Wells story that has yet been produced (particularly in comparison to the Spielberg film, which we will never mention again). With a mixture of disco and strings, along with the haunting voice of Richard Burton – now replaced by Liam Neeson – the album’s headline tracks such as ‘The Eve of the War’ are still instantly recognisable today.
Live tours based on the album – and conducted by Wayne – started in 2006, with a short break while a sequel album (subtitled The Next Generation) was developed in 2011-2012. I went to one of the last shows – at Birmingham’s LG Arena in December 2014 – which was based on the TNG (The Next Generation) album. Wayne has indicated that the musical will be taking a different, as yet unannounced direction, and it seems like he may be taking a step back.
On the whole, the show is great, and an improvement upon the already excellent original show. The opening three notes of ‘Eve of the War’ are described so ably in the following image, which I love:
The second track, ‘Horsell Common and the Heat Ray’ is haunting – with the use of the sitar representing an other-worldly presence among the synthesisers and strings. ‘The Artilleryman and the Fighting Machine’ marked the introduction of Shayne Ward of X-Factor fame/infamy, and the first Martian war cry, “ULLA” – a piercing wail which still holds a special, terrifying place for anybody who first heard it as a child. On the studio album, I’m less convinced by this track compared to the original – but live it knocks you flat, and shoots fire at you.
Oh, did I mention that a 35-foot tripod appears during this bit? Because a 35-foot tripod appears during this bit.
This was no disciplined march; it was a stampede, without order and without a goal…It was the beginning of the rout of civilization – of the massacre of mankind.
The love song, ‘Forever Autumn’, actually achieved success as a single and made it to 5 in the charts – but The War of the Worlds’ album version is spectacular, weaved in with powerful narration which details the flight of London’s population, and building towards the first act’s denouement, ‘Thunderchild’, where the ironclad HMS Thunderchild (surely a candidate for most epic ship name ever) takes a last stand against the invaders, depicted in the main image on this article.
I’ve always thought that the lyrics to ‘Thunderchild’ were a little bit ropey, and Liam Neeson’s voiceover for this track is probably not as good as Richard Burton’s original – which is not a major criticism by any stretch. However, the track – helped substantially by the visuals – was bursting with energy and tension.
The second half of the musical is of a significantly different tone to the first – setting the scene for a world which has been subjugated both under the Martians’ military power and their vegetation. The visuals on screen for ‘The Red Weed’ are trippy enough to match the music, and smoke billows off stage, illuminated by fiery red lights to emphasise the soothing but entirely alien presence overwhelming and dominating the earth’s surface.
Compared to the first half’s coverage of earth (or at least England) being conquered by the Martians, ‘Spirit of Man’ and ‘Brave New World’ focus on more individual stories – of Parson Nathaniel’s descent into madness, and the Artilleryman’s futile attempts to remake the earth in a new, hopelessly idealistic image, one shovel-load at a time.
The temptation is to compare Jason Donovan as Parson Nathaniel (‘Spirit of Man’) unfairly with Phil Lynott, whose distinctive voice on the original album easily remains the gold standard. I thought he was good, as was Carrie Hope Fletcher’s Beth. My favourite line still remains, after the death of ‘Beth’, when Nathaniel loudly proclaims “Why?! Satan, why did you take one of your own?!” After a song in which she repeatedly attempted to snap Nathaniel out of his despair, the implication that Nathaniel still saw Beth as an agent of Hell is deliciously dark.
‘Brave New World’ depicts a slightly different descent to madness, as the narrator stumbles across Shayne Ward’s artilleryman digging a hole in the ground and proclaiming his ambitions of restarting civilization underground. I remember, when I was young, having visions – helped by the wonderful album art – of huge, industrial 19th Century underground cities. Like myself, and as described by the narrator, the artilleryman was a “strange dreamer”, not least conveyed by the deranged tone which Ward deploys in the song. The reference of the ‘aging Empire…of man” is a clear foreshadowing of the end of the British imperialism, and the artilleryman’s insistence that mankind will not be content to coexist with the Martians is again an indication that perhaps there is more in common between humanity and their conquerors than he might wish to admit. His line, “the weak fall by the wayside, but the strong will be saved, in a Brave New World” ignores the fact that, as far as he’s aware, the Martians are the stronger force. The Brave New World already exists – under the dominion of the Martians.
“Maybe one day we’ll capture a fighting machine eh? Learn how to make them ourselves and then…Whallop! Our turn to do some wiping out. Whoosh, with our heat ray! Whoosh!….Man on top again!”
The weakest song, in my view, is the newest one: ‘Life Begins Again’, which seemed like it was added specifically for that tour and is perhaps intended to reflect the moving on of Jeff Wayne to pastures new. I hope this isn’t nostalgia for the original album talking, but I’m really not sure what it adds, apart from bringing the narrative to a complete halt for a few minutes and giving the cast another song. This is a shame, because the mournful transition from the artilleryman’s final “…something beautiful will grow…” to ‘Dead London’ is truncated and disrupts one of the strongest parts of the show.
The epilogue, a somewhat comedic finale, still includes the original recording of Jeff Wayne’s father, a neat little tribute both to the man and to the original album. This part is much more creepy on the album, as it implies that the Martians are returning in the modern day with a score to settle, leaving the album on an ominous note. On stage that’s not as easy -so it’s played more for laughs as the NASA scientist’s desk explodes.
The show was good – great in fact. Typically in a given musical I find there’s a couple of tracks where I’m just waiting for them to finish so I can get to the good stuff. This isn’t the case with The War of the Worlds. The visuals were spectacular, and the projected on-screen action was much better than I recall – with gun crews firing cannons at the fighting machines (and corresponding explosions lighting up the tripod above the musicians). The first half of the show is a visual feast – especially the Red Weed tracks.
I think something is lost between the album version and the live version. This may be that my recollection of the album from my childhood is one where my brain was much more malleable and my imagination could run riot. The weird synths and the haunting Richard Burton voiceover was enough to conjure an incredibly vivid impression of the story in my mind that no live representation could really compete with. When you’re in the arena, you’re aware that you’re watching a musical – as a young boy listening to an album on your own, you might as well be on Horsell Common, desperately fleeing the heat ray.
I wandered through the weird and lurid landscape of another planet.
I don’t think the Martians were helped by being shown on screen in the flesh. On screen the Martian of ‘Horsell Common and the Heat Ray’ looks suitably disgusting, but not terrifying. I almost wondered if it would have been better to only show the reactions of the crowds, rather than the aliens themselves. I also thought that the heat ray looked a bit more ‘sci-fi’ than the industrial ‘funnel’ it is described as, but this is a minor quibble. What is a slightly larger quibble is the way the heat ray on screen is synced up with the guitar solo, firing when the guitar is playing. I can see why it’s done, and on the album this is effective – but on screen it looked a bit comical and actually started to bother me after a couple of minutes.
The new album presents itself as “The New Generation”, and I can certainly see why it was done. While aficionados of the original album might initially rebel at the new singers and instrumentation, I think it’s superior once you’re used to it. Going back to the original actually sounds rather quaint, particularly once you’ve heard the new one live. However, I can’t imagine that the “New Generation” necessarily refers to a new generation of fans coming to like the musical. I’m not sure I know anybody at my age who likes it, and an awkward car drive down to Cornwall with an ex-girlfriend (we didn’t make it further than ‘Thunderchild’ – which is probably 2nd base in baseball terms) suggests that it’s very much like a certain yeast extract spread, even if you make somebody listen to it. Peter Bradshaw and Ian Gittins of the Guardian have described the music as “bizarrely counterintuitive” and “slightly silly even a third of a century ago“, respectively.
There’s no disputing its popularity though; it is currently the 39th best selling album of all time in the UK and the arenas for the live shows were packed both times I went. As I’ve already mentioned, ‘The Eve of the War’ is definitely well known, as is ‘Forever Autumn’. You may also remember my short review of ‘War of the Servers‘, a machinima homage to the musical created in Garry’s Mod.
But maybe from the madness, something beautiful will grow…
What next for Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds, then? This was announced as the final arena tour, and Jeff Wayne’s programme notes emphasised further that the show will be moving on to new things. The War of the Worlds and its subsequent derivatives represents his crowning achievement, but it’s understandable that, thirty-seven years on from the release of the original album, he’s ready for to move on. What the show moves on to is a good question, and the answer is set to be announced in early 2015. It could be a feature film of some sort, or perhaps another iteration of the live shows. There’s clearly a popular demand for more, and a top notch feature film might be what it takes to really capture that new generation. The new album, and the live show with it, are as exciting as The War of the Worlds has ever been – I can’t imagine they’ll let it stagnate at this point.