Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (CBS Records, 1978) – REVIEW

war of the worlds logo‘Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds‘ is a concept album by Jeff Wayne, re-telling the story of the 1898 novel The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. It was released in 1978 as a double vinyl album by CBS Records (now Columbia). It features Academy Award nominated actor Richard BurtonJustin Hayward (of The Moody Blues), Chris Thompson (of Manfred Mann), Phil Lynott (of Thin Lizzy), Julie Covington (of Evita and Rock Follies), and David Essex (of Evita and The China Plates).

Wayne conducts what would come to be known as the ‘Black Smoke Band’ and the ‘ULLAdubULLA’ string orchestra. Most of the lyrics on the album were written by lyricist Gary Osborne.

Jeff-Waynes-musical-version-war-of-the-worldThis fantastic album is  based mainly on progressive rock and string orchestration and uses narration and leitmotifs (in particular the martian “Ulla!” cry) to carry the story forward via excellent rhyming melodic’s and lyrics that express the feelings of the various characters. It remains a bestseller, having sold millions of copies globally. Indeed, it is the 39th best selling album of all time, with UK sales in excess of 2.5 million alone, spending 290 weeks in the album charts. It has been in the top 10 in 22 countries and reached number 1 in 11.

The album is also accompanied by a beautiful booklet which describes the story as well as featuring wonderful paintings of the various ‘chapters’ by Peter GoodfellowGeoff Taylor and Michael Trim (see below).

It has since spawned multiple versions of the album, video games, DVDs, and live tours.

The story of the martian invasion is split over the two records, with the first recalling the actual invasion and the second the earth under the martians.

Record 1 – the coming of the martians (contains spoilers)

The prologue has Richard Burton recalling events before the invasion and recounting that no one could have believed the possibility of life on other planets, let alone consider that they were being watched by such beings with envious eyes.

The story begins with the narrator/journalist (Burton) recalling that at midnight on the 12th of August a huge mass of green luminous gas erupted from Mars, speeding towards Earth. This happened for the next 10 minutes, whilst Ogilvy, the astronomer, assures that there is no life on Mars.. ..”the chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one“, he said.

The first of these missiles lands on Horsell Common and is revealed to be a large metal cylinder. As a crowd gathers the top of the cylinder begins to unscrew (this bit use to give me goosebumps as a kid!) and falls off. A large alien creature, larger than a bear, emerges.. has large luminous disc-like eyes and skin like wet leather; its writhing tentacles lift it from the cylinder. As some curious on lookers approach the cylinder a tall funnel appears and they are disintegrated by an invisible heat ray. The journalist, along with the other members of the crowd, flee.

Musically – this section sets the tone of the album combining synthesizers for the main melody along with more traditional instruments, such as the harpsichord. The second movement has bass guitars creating a menacing groove whilst homemade sound effects – created by scraping two saucepans together  – set the scene of the Martian cylinder lid slowly unscrewing.  

Hammering sounds are then heard from the pit as the martians construct machines.. ..fighting machines. A company of soldiers is deployed on the common, but one of them, a now wounded artillery man (Essex) enters the journalists house on Maybury Hill. He recounts that martians have wiped his company out.. ..”hundreds dead, maybe thousands”. The martians have built giant walking machines – tripods which they occupy and fight with. The soldier also says that another cylinder that landed last night was bound for London, which immediately alarms the journalist as his lover Carrie is there.

They both head off bound for London, the journalist to ensure that his lover is safe and the artillery man to report to headquarters.

One the way they become separated by fighting between the martians and soldiers and general panic in the streets. For the first time the journalist sees the fighting machines and recognizes, in horror, the heat ray ‘funnel’ that each one uses to cause destruction. As five of the machines unleash hell they roar with a thunderous cry “Ulla!“. The journalist arrives at Carries house but she has already fled.. ..”Now you’re not here”.

JWWOTW Booklet

The beautifully illustrated book that accompanies the album © Columbia/Sony Music Entertainment

He then attempts to leave London by steamer and sees that Carrie is already on board.. ..he desperately tries to board but the gangplank is raised just as he gets to it. As the steamer departs fighting machines start to surround it, but between one of them and the steamer is the Royal Naval battleship ‘HMS Thunderchild‘. A naval battle ensues and the dreadnought destroys two fighting machines allowing the steamer to escape, but ‘Thunderchild’ succumbs to the heat ray and sinks, taking with her humanities last hope of victory.

Musically – this section is more symmetrical with the love song (by Justin Hayward) sandwiched between two battle scenes. The pace slows distinctly for the middle section, becoming noticeably more nostalgic.. acts as a welcome rest-bite from the intense action. The ‘Thunderchild’ piece is a climatic full on rock song in 7/4 time signature which creates a powerful rolling feeling of being out in the open sea. The close is broody and ominous leaving us to dread what is coming next.

Record 2 – the Earth under the martians (contains spoilers)

The following day the journalist wakes up to a fiery red dawn and wonders through a lurid landscape as the vegetation that gives Mars is red colour is now taking root on earth, even choking the rivers.. ..”as man has succumb to the martians, so our land has succumb to the red weed“.

The journalist then notices the body of a parson (Lynott) lying in the ruins of a church yard.. ..out of compassion he decides to give him a decent burial, instead of falling mercy to the red weed. Suddenly a woman (Covington) calls out “Nathaniel, Nathaniel!” and the parsons eyes flicker open.

The parson rejects Beth’s comforting, not recognising her as his wife.. ..thinking instead she is “one of them.. ..a devil“. He believes that there was evil present all along in humanity, waiting for a sign.. ..the green flashes in the sky. Although Beth tries to comfort him explaining that they are not devils, but martians, he refuses to listen.

They take refuse in their cottage, which still stands.. ..the martians yell “Ulla!” and emit black smoke which traps them in the cottage.. ..Nathaniel takes this as the end to all hope, to which Beth explains there must be “hope, somewhere in the spirit of man“. He continues to blame himself for the invasion.

A martian cylinder then lands, smashing into the cottage and killing Beth. The martians start to build a squat and spider-like handling machine.. ..used to collect humans. They hide for nine days under the martians construction pit and witness them feeding on humans, injecting human blood into their own veins. This is too much for the parson, who believes this is another sign and resolves to confront the ‘demons’, believing god has chosen him to destroy them with his cross and prayers.

To protect them both the journalist knocks him unconscious, but the commotion is heard by the martians, who send a mechanical claw to investigate.. ..and take the body of the parson. The journalist avoids detection and continues to hide until he realises the martians have left.

Musically – this section follows the same bookend format as before, however this time it’s the uptempo rock duet ‘The Spirit on Man’ that is sandwiched between the avante-garde soundscape of ‘The Red Weed’. The duet of Lynott and Covington is both powerful and complicated, exemplifying the different attitudes of the parson and his wife. Finally we are left returning to a slightly more subdued red weed soundscape.

He makes his way back to London and reflects that the martians never seem to tire, sleep or suffer having long eliminated bacteria and other pathogens on their own planet.

He is then abruptly stopped by the artilleryman he met earlier.. ..claiming this is his territory. They soon recognise each other.. ..”I thought you surely burnt“, “I thought you surely drowned“.  The artilleryman soon discloses his plan to build a Utopian society underground, containing everything humanity needs, even cricket grounds.. ..whilst evading the martians. He even dreams that one day they might catch a fighting machine and strike back at the martians with our own ‘reverse-engineered’ heat ray.

He shows the journalist what he has done, a tunnel scarcely ten feet long, which has taken him a week to dig. The journalist, realising his ambitions are unrealistic, leaves him to his dream.

The journalist continues onto London feeling increasingly depressed and suicidal. He passes bodies, their outlines softened by the black smoke and looted shops.. ..with jewellery scattered on the pavement.

Upon reaching London he hears the painful cry of a martian.. ..”Uuullllaaa!” and decides he will sacrifice himself to it, instead of continuing to live in this desolate, lonely wasteland.

As he gives himself up to the martian, it dies in front of him and he then notices other lifeless fighting machines. He then explains that the martians have been killed by bacteria.. ..our microscopic allies attacked – as soon as they started to feed and drink.. ..the martians were doomed.

In the epilogue he reflects that now life, people and loved ones (including his beloved Carrie) will return as he watches hungry Crows feeding on the dead martians.

As life returns to normal there is speculation that this might simply be a reprieve and there are worries of future attacks.. ..perhaps the future belongs to the martians?

Musically – the main section of this part is sung by Essex, who exquisitely alternates between singing and the delusional rhetoric of his character. ‘The Spirit of Man’ is also excellent with the military band section by Ken Freeman being meticulously arranged. ‘Dead London’ is a repetitive jangled piano piece, played by Wayne, which paints a vivid picture of dereliction. Finally, we hear an optimistic reprise of the upbeat military band sections from ‘Brave New World’ – a celebration of life returning to normal.

In modern day a NASA spacecraft lands on Mars, but soon encounters trouble.. ..they seen green flares coming from Mars and loose contact with ground stations at Houston and Bermuda as well as various other tracking stations around the globe.. ..we then hear the now familiar leitmotifs of the martians and the album ends in abrupt silence – this latter piece was not in the original novel, but was included as NASA had launched two Viking lander probes to Mars a few years before the release of the album.

Retrollection recommendation?

This is an album that doesn’t really need a recommendation from me.. speaks for itself, as does its success.. ..if you are one of the few remaining people who has not heard it – I wholeheartedly recommend you give it a listen.. for rest of us.. ..listen to it again; it is easy to forget how good this album really is!

Fair use ‘CBS’ ™, images & logo © 1980 Columbia/Sony Music Entertainment, All Rights Reserved. Used under fair dealing and fair use for research and commentary purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended. Please refer to the ‘Welcome to Retrollection‘ page for full terms and conditions.

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Page layout, original text, images and design are © 2015 Dr Woody and Tube Avatar


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