Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds is one of the most successful and celebrated concept albums of all time. Released in 1978, the album is a masterpiece, that enjoyed instant commercial success. The album has gone nine times platinum in the UK and sold more than 15 million copies worldwide.
Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds has become iconic. Its celebrated status is illustrated by many different versions, which include DVDs, video games, a complete re-recording in 2012, stage show adaptations, and a hi-tech extravaganza called The Immersive Experience that opened in London in 2019.
The music, narration and lyrics of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds form a seamless whole. Everything is held together by Richard Burton’s reading of excerpts from H.G. Wells’ legendary science fiction novel The Wars of the Worlds (1898), which is the story of a Martian invasion that intends to wipe out humanity and take over planet Earth.
A STEP FURTHER
Concept albums became popular with rock acts in the late sixties, with the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), Frank Zappa’s Absolutely Free (1967), and The Who’s Tommy (1969). Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar (1970) introduced the concept of the rock opera.
The emerging prog rock genre, with its love of long-form music, classical music influences, and grand ideas, took to the concept album like a fish to the water, leading to an avalanche of prog concept albums in the seventies, by the likes of Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Yes, Rick Wakeman, Genesis, Alan Parsons Project, and many more
Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds was influenced by many of the above-mentioned albums. The War Of The Worlds takes the concept a step further by including sung and spoken parts for several characters from H.G Wells’ book, performed by well-known artists like The Moody Blues’ Justin Hayward, David Essex, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s Chris Thompson, Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott, and Julie Covington.
In retrospect it is astonishing that Wayne, who was relatively unknown at the time, managed to compose a timeless masterpiece. Wayne was born on July 1, 1943 in New York City, to Jerry Wayne, a singer, actor and theatre producer. His mother was a dancer and a poet.
By the mid-sixties, the family had moved to London. Wayne decided on a career in music, and attended Trinity College Of Music where he studied piano, composition and conducting. Wayne went on to write music for commercials, TV and film. In the early seventies, Wayne also produced several David Essex albums, including the singer’s seminal debut album, Rock On (1973), and he acted as the singer’s musical director.
By the mid-seventies, Wayne’s father reminded him of his aspirations to write a big piece of work in his own name, and suggested The War of the Worlds. Wayne junior recalled, “I envisioned my version of War of the Worlds as an opera: story, leitmotifs, musical phrases, sounds and compositions that related to the whole. I handed my scribbles to my father’s wife, Doreen, a writer and journalist. I then started composing the score for the album, while she began work on the script. This was in early January of 1976.”
The story of the The War of The Worlds is told by a journalist. Wayne wanted only English voices to represent the quintessential English characters in the book, and considered the voice of actor Richard Burton ideal for the part of the narrator. The actor’s participation added greatly to the credibility of the ambitious venture.
All music and lyrics for War of the Worlds were newly written for the project, with the exception of one song, “Forever Autumn.” In 1969, Wayne, together with singers and songwriters Paul Vigrass and Gary Osborne, had written a jingle for a Lego toy commercial. Wayne judged the song a perfect fit for the dramatic scene in War of the Worlds where the journalist cannot find his fiancée, and decided to adapt and incorporate it in his new work.
CBS Records invested nearly £35.000 in what was to be a single album, but the record company later agreed to raise their investment to £75.000. However, the money ran out fairly early on during the recording process, and with a final budget of £240.000, it meant Wayne had to invest nearly £170.000 of his own money.
The project ended up becoming so expensive because Wayne and his collaborators spent more than a year recording the album, working with the latest 48-track recording technology, as well as with an orchestra, and several star singers, including the aforementioned Justin Hayward, David Essex, Chris Thompson, Phil Lynott, and Julie Covington. Richard Burton also had to be paid.
Most of the recordings took place at Advision Studios in London, starting in May 1976, with Geoff Young as engineer, assisted by Laurence Diana. At the time, the studio sported Neve and Quad Eight desks, and it had been among the first to acquire 24-track analogue tape machines. It was also one of the first studios in the world to acquire the Maglink device that could synchronize two tape recorders.
Wayne also assembled many star session musicians, including guitarists Chris Spedding and Jo Partridge, bassist Herbie Flowers, drummer Barry Morgan, percussionists Barry de Souza, Roy Jones and Ray Cooper, George Fenton on tar, santoor and zither, and Ken ‘Prof’ Freeman on synthesizers.
Some of the rhythms on Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War Of The Worlds are obviously influenced by the disco music that was popular in the mid and late seventies, leading some people to call Wayne’s album prog disco.
Wayne commented, “Some of my compositions were arranged around the rhythms of the day and I hoped the work would reach out like great pop albums do. We thought in terms of singles and accessibility, without losing the integrity of this 96-minute musical work.”
The striking and pioneering synths sounds on the album were created by Ken Freeman. Naturally, given that the project was built around a science fiction story featuring extra-terrestrials, Wayne was keen on unusual, other-worldly sounds. Moreover, in keeping with the Leitmotif approach of his compositions, with certain characteristic sounds and melodies returning, he asked Freeman to imagine sounds that were specific to the Martians and their machinery.
The synths Freeman used included an ARP Odyssey Mk1, a Mini Moog, a Yamaha CS-80 that he modified, and a prototype Freeman string synthesizer that he had designed. In addition to the alien sounds, Freeman designed and played all the flute, whistle, pipe, oboe, and brass sounds, as well as some snare drums and special effects.
On the opening track, ‘Eve of the War,’ the horns and pipes are made with the CS-80, modified by Freeman so he could stop the second bank of oscillators from responding to the Initial Bend slider. The contrast between the two oscillator banks created a more realistic horn attack. The military drums in ‘The Artilleryman And The Fighting Machine,’ also were created by Freeman using his synthesizers.
Wayne was surprised that the alien sounds connected so much with audiences. However, one of the most distinctive alien sounds was not made by Freeman, but by guitarist Jo Partridge. Wayne explained, “The ‘ulla’ sound that the Martians make when they’re terrorizing the earth and when they’re dying at the end, is a combination of a talkbox and the performance of Jo Partridge who played it. I’ve heard of many people that get terrified by it.”
MICROPHONES IN THE TOILET BOWL
The two guitar players were extremely creative in conceiving other parts as well, with for example the Heat Ray theme in the track “Horsell Common and the Heat Ray” being played by Jo Partridge on a guitar on which all strings were tuned to the same note, creating a fuzzy and large sound. In the same track, bassist Herbie Flowers repeated the same trick he used on David Essex’s hit single “Move On,” by doubling his bass line an octave higher.
Wayne in general tried to avoid special effects, preferring unusual sounds to be created musically by the synthesizers, but his wife Geraldine did find a number of foley effects, or co-created them with him. In one case, the sound of the cylinder with the Martians landing on a house was created on a synth, whereas the unscrewing of the cylinder was made by Wayne scraping two saucepans together in the studio toilet, with two microphones in the toilet bowl as well.
Wayne went to Cornwall for two weeks to write out the string arrangements, and returned to conduct two evenings sessions at Abbey Road’s Studio One. According to Wayne, he used a “48-piece string orchestra led by Pat Halling, with 24 violins, 12 violas, eight cellos and four double basses. The sound was fantastic, and when I heard the opening chords of ‘The Eve Of The War,’ I got a chill down my back.”
Throughout the recordings, Wayne and engineers George Young and Laurence Diana were struggling with the novel 48-track format. “It was a tremendous hassle,” Wayne explained. “No-one else had tried it at that point. Advision had the prototype of the Maglink, that we used to synchronising two 24-track tape machines. We were doing something that no-one had yet done in production terms. Technically we were pushing the limits.”
“However, the Maglink kept breaking down, and nobody really knew how to repair it. We lost literally months! Once you start on 48-tracks, you can’t stop. You can’t say: Let’s scrap one of the machines and start all over again,’ because you’ve got half the orchestra on it!”
Over the course of the year that it took to record the entire project, Wayne, Young, and Diana filled an astonishing 75 two-inch, 24-track masters and 372 quarter-inch masters. Clearly, when it was time to mix in May 1977, it required an enormous amount of comping, pre-mixing, and editing to make the material fit on four sides of viny.
Wayne, Young and Diana took a week to mix a vinyl side, with each of them operating the faders on different sections of the desk. Effects used in 1978 included two reverb plates, one delay, a Harmonizer, and a phaser. Advision had two EMT plates, one long and one short.
When the project was finally finished, Wayne had one more hurdle to clear, that left him more petrified than anything that had gone before. The contract with CBS did not in fact guarantee a release, and given how unusual the project was, and the absence of three-minute singles, he feared that CBS would shelve it.
the bigshots at CBS were pleasantly surprised by the unique project, and conceded that it “had a great story and unbelievably good performances by fabulous singers,” but it took them two months to finally declare themselves enthusiastically behind the project.
On June 1st, 1978, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds enjoyed its official premiere at the London Planetarium. The next day, the first single of the album was released, an edited version of “Forever Autumn,” sung by Justin Hayward. It went to number five a month later. The album was released on June 9th, to widespread critical acclaim, with qualifications like “magnificent,” “superb,” and “four sides of sheer excellence.”
Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of War of the Worlds went on to win two Ivor Novello Awards, and in 1979, it received the Best Recording in Science Fiction and Fantasy Award. The judges included Alfred Hitchcock, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg.
In 1981, CBS released an album of Highlights, which contained shortened versions of the tracks with the narration removed. Spanish and German versions were released, and in 1989 Dutch DJ Ben Liebrand created an unauthorized electronic dance remix, which went to number three in the UK charts.
In addition, there were computer game versions in 1984, 1998 and 1999. It took until 2006 before the first concert tour saw the light, with Wayne conducting the string section. There have been several more stage adaptations since then, with extensive special effects. The Life Begins Again Tour of early 2022 was the latest live incarnation.
On top of all this, Wayne re-recorded the entire album in 2012, with Liam Neeson as the narrator, well-known singers like Gary Barlow, Joss Stone, and largely the same band members as on the 1978 version.
Jeff Wayne’s The War of The Worlds: The Immersive Experience is still playing in London, and is described as combining “immersive theatre, virtual reality, augmented reality, holograms and cutting-edge technology, all set to Jeff Wayne’s iconic score; giving audiences the chance to live through the Martian invasion of 1898.”
Clearly, the legacy of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds is still alive. It has become part of popular culture, and its celebrated status looks set to continue well into the 21st century.