Audible Ear: The Musical Version of The War of the Worlds

Is awesome.

Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds

I first heard of Jeff Wayne’s The Musical Version of The War of the Worlds through my friend Bryan, back when we were both in high school.  His father had the LPs of Jeff Wayne’s classic, and it was a tape of this that Bryan shared with me when we were riding on the bus on one of the innumerable School of the Arts field trips.

What he was fascinated with about the music is the same element I try to inculcate others with: the sudden shift in tone between…. well, perhaps it’s better that you hear it for yourself. (Hint: Click the play symbol to hear the sound file!)

The Eve of the War

There!  You see?  The classical sounding opening chords, the sense of orchestral grandeur, and then the sudden devolvement (or evolution, if you prefer) into synthesizers and a wokka-chikka guitar.  The whole affair still strikes me as immeasurably silly and, after my second listen, irreparably brilliant.

Ah, Jeff Wayne, who is know only for The Musical Version of the War of the Worlds and, in that case, by only a few (if I should judge from the people around me), how is it that you created something so wonderful once and never again?  But we’ll get to that specificity in the next installment of Audible Ear.  In this one, just a bit of ear-basking glory.

In the past, I’ve been embarrassed when introducing someone new to Jeff Wayne’s masterpiece.  Why?  I suppose because it’s so wonderfully strange that I think I (and Bryan (and Megan (and Jason Myers))) must be the only one(s) who might appreciate it.  I feel as though my love of the musical (version) might be a fluke.

Although I know that’s not the case, as the concept album was a big hit when it was originally released in 1978 (ah, now the musical choices begin to make some sense, no?) and one song on it – sung by Justin Hayward, the lead singer of The Moody Blues – was somewhat of a large radio hit, and since then the album has been spun into video games, endless remixes, and a successful live stage show (of which, naturally, I have the DVD).  But still, no one I know has heard of it unless through me.

To satisfy your curiosity, here’s a bit of “Forever Autumn”, the song that was all the rage in 1978.

Forever Autumn

Now, I’ve given you a taste of the music and a taste of the songcraft, but what you probably don’t realize yet is that The Musical Version of The War of the Worlds is just that: a musical version, not a musical.  There is more time spent listening to Richard Burton (Richard Burton!) talk as the Journalist then there is listening to singing, and there’s more time spent listening to soundscapes then there is listening to Richard Burton (Richard Burton!) talk.

Jeff Wayne makes the music stand so well on its own, so much that the singing and the words are not unnecessary, no, but they are not the focus you might expect.  In a musical, you expect the focus to be on the songs.  In a musical version, apparently, one should expect the focus to be on the music.

(In college, I wanted to do a stage version of this.  I couldn’t figure out exactly how, since so much of it – on-stage – would be dead space.  Dancers?  Okay.  But that’s still wouldn’t be enough to keep attention for the length of the piece and, besides, I’m no choreographer.)

Wayne takes the elements of H.G. Wells’ novel and creates, as with the story overall, musical versions of them.  In this selection you will hear the unscrewing of the cylinder and the Martian heat ray.  The heat ray is that electric guitar that slices through the conglomeration of sound.  Each time I listen to this, I’m affected by the sound, imagining each burst of guitar the embodiment of another young man turned into a living torch.

Horsell Common and the Heat Ray

Later, there are musical equivalents to the Martian cries of victory, the spread of the red weed, and the emptiness of a dead and gutted London.

Invariably, when I introduce someone to The Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, and I’m there listening to it with them, I find myself wondering at how emotionally affected I am by the work.  There is so much in it that’s… well, overblown.  Stylized.  I don’t know – too much to be believed?

But I think what holds me in Wayne’s creation is the honesty of the emotions involved in both the songs and the music.  The story runs very closely to Wells’ original, so I’m not sure if I can lay the accolades purely at Wayne’s feet rather than Wells’, but I can say that Wayne is deserving of respect for making such a faithful, and such an unlikely, translation.

The only song that fails for me – or at least throws me out of my trance whenever I’m listening – is “Thunderchild.”  This song tells the fateful story of the Thunder Child, an ironclad ship that takes on the Martian war machines in order to give a refugee ship enough time to escape to the open sea.   It, of course, is defeated quickly by the Martian’s superior technology, but not before achieving its purpose.  The song, however, is sung from the plural POV of those on the ship watching the Thunder Child at work.  In short, it’s a little silly.

Other bits of silliness I take in stride as aspects of character.  Such as the way the Artilleryman’s voice breaks in his song “Brave New World” or the wheeze of the Parson that sounds as though he’s been smoking too much weed, and not of the red variety.  But then there’s the beautiful clarity of Beth’s voice and the strange, jubilant, utterly weird cry of the Martians: Ulla!

I wish I could just put the whole recording here for you, but you’ll have to be seduced (or bewildered) by fragments instead.  Two final soundbites for you to mull over.  The first is a selection from “The Red Weed (pt. 1)”, included so you can have a taste of what the musical interludes (outerludes?) are like.

The Red Weed

And I’ll leave you with what I think is the centerpiece of The Musical Version of The War of the Worlds.  This is the complete song “The Spirit of Man”.  It’ll be up here at least as long as it takes for someone to tell me to take it down.

The Spirit of Man

What I connect with in Jeff Wayne’s The Musical Version of The War of the Worlds is what draws me to most works that I treasure, namely an acknowledgement of the horrors of life while still holding to the idea, if not the actuality or the eventuality, of hope.  The music and the songs constantly flirt with hope, the struggle to hold onto it in the face of constant failure, and the beauty of that struggle.

A last note: If there’s a theme here, it’s the everpresent struggle between self-deception and truth.  In all the songs except “Forever Autumn”, the song charts the refusal of people to accept what is before them.  In “Thunder Child”, the people on the ship unreasonably hope that this one ship will turn the tide for humanity against the Martians; in “The Spirit of Man”, the Parson refuses to accept aliens as reality and falls back upon what he knows, religion, since he has power over that; and in “Brave New World”, the Artilleryman believes that he alone can restart civilization, all the while unaware of how much work that would take, and unwilling to really start in on it.

I lied.  Here’s one more sample.  It’s part of the Artilleryman’s dream.

Artilleryman’s dream

Okay, okay, poems and rubbish, sure.  I see your point about science.  But do you have a plan?

I’ve got a plan

I wish that happened whenever I had a plan.

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