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Were you thrilled by Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds?

PUBLISHED: 12:27 24 July 2018

Jeff Wayne's studio album hasn't aged - and the touring shows are still popular

Jeff Wayne's studio album hasn't aged - and the touring shows are still popular

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Forty years on and it's still fresh and fabulous, reckon three fans

Richard Burton. His narration made a stunning impact in Jeff Waynes Musical Version of The War of the Worlds. Picture: PARichard Burton. His narration made a stunning impact in Jeff Waynes Musical Version of The War of the Worlds. Picture: PA

Sometime in the summer of 1978, I returned laggardly to my bedroom after tea – a 15-year-old not at all enthused by the prospect of homework. I opened my maths book and flicked on the radio. What I heard blew my socks off. And sines and tangents were forgotten for the night.

Eighty years earlier, HG Wells’s 1898 sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds must have proved a publication beyond scary for Victorians reading about Martians landing on Earth in cylinders and making three-legged machines in which they could march across the country and fight to seize the planet. Many humans perished under their death-rays.

In 1938, a clever but too realistic radio adaptation narrated by actor Orson Welles caused a degree of Sunday-night panic among listeners who really thought they were being attacked by monsters from space.

In 1978, the debut studio album by a composer with thousands of advertising jingles to his credit trumped all that had gone before.

David Essex was The Artilleryman on the 1978 album. Picture: 
Keiron TovellDavid Essex was The Artilleryman on the 1978 album. Picture: Keiron Tovell

Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds was (to this teenager’s ears at least) unlike anything he’d heard before: a powerful weaving of strong music, repeated themes and evocative narration. The composition’s pace built a growing sense of panic as it told the story. Our minds painted the pictures to complement this masterpiece.

It’s easy to forget how different the world was then. No mobile phones. Computers filled whole rooms and weren’t for the home. We had three TV channels. No world wide web to speed information and images. There was no BBC local radio where I lived in East Anglia, and commercial radio had arrived less than three years earlier.

That station was playing the album that evening. It’s my recollection – and it could be wide of the mark – that it played half the album the whole way through, without a break. If so, it would have lasted as long as a half of a football match. It wouldn’t happen today, but in the summer of 1978 that uninterrupted airtime let the piece create its wonder.

Everything came together: composition, musicianship, the authoritative tones of actor Richard Burton and an accomplished cast whose own words and songs made the emotion and fear utterly believable – well-known names such as Justin (The Moody Blues) Hayward, David Essex, Phil (Thin Lizzy) Lynott and Julie Covington.

Look, kids! Old tech! One of the Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds cassettes from 1978. Goodness knows where the other one has got to... Picture: STEVEN RUSSELLLook, kids! Old tech! One of the Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds cassettes from 1978. Goodness knows where the other one has got to... Picture: STEVEN RUSSELL

To call it “progressive rock”, the “official” label, is to shoot well wide of the mark. Friends also heard that broadcast, and like me later went to the shops (no Amazon, then) and bought the two-cassette album.

Jeff Wayne’s gift to us spent an astonishing 240 weeks in the UK top-100 album charts, peaking at number five. According to the oracle that is Wikipedia, it had sold 2,561,286 by 2009 (over 15million worldwide, now).

The beautiful but mournful Forever Autumn, sung by Justin Hayward, was a top-five single.

A live tour began in 2016, later going to Australia and New Zealand.

Justin Hayward had a hit with the single Forever Autumn. Picture: Matt BeckerJustin Hayward had a hit with the single Forever Autumn. Picture: Matt Becker

A new arena stage-tour begins in November to celebrate the 40th anniversary – London and Birmingham the closest to us – with Jason Donovan in the cast, an arched bridge running through the centre of the arena and a 35ft Martian fighting machine firing real-flame rays towards the audience. (www.livenation.co.uk)

BBC Radio Suffolk’s Stephen Foster says: “I remember how Jeff Wayne’s masterpiece more than held its own alongside all the punk, new wave and disco records that were dominating the charts at the time.

“It was the era of the double album, but unlike Grease and Saturday Night Fever this was one you had to listen to from start to finish. The narration by Richard Burton is, if you’ll pardon the pun, out of this world and for me will never be bettered.”

“I had the pleasure of seeing the live concert version in London a few years ago and hearing it in that setting takes some beating. The War of the Worlds is the ultimate concept album and 40 years on remains an essential listen.”

“It was a ground-breaking all-star venture that functioned more as a musical talking book than a rock opera like The Who’s Tommy or Quadrophenia,” says our arts editor, Andrew Clarke.

“As a young teenager it was great lying in my bedroom, shrouded in darkness, listening to the magnificently deep Welsh tones of Richard Burton reading HG Wells’ magnificent book while the atmospheric rock score blasted away in the background.

“Like all good radio, the album allowed you to conjure up mind-pictures as you listened.

“The double-album was incredibly evocative; the cover art and gatefold sleeve became an instant classic.

“Inside was an extensive, large-format booklet of illustrations, and in addition to the lyric sheet, a theatre programme sheet giving potted biographies of the performers. It was clearly a huge undertaking for Jeff Wayne, and what a brilliant idea for a musical – something so epic that it could only work through music and in your mind’s eye.”

“It’s hard to imagine anyone doing anything like this today, but we are the poorer for that.”

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