No one would have believed in the early years of the 1980s that young me would have been listening to this prog-rock concept musical adaptation of H G Wells’ tale of the timeless worlds of space.
No one could have dreamed I would scrutinize the album’s artwork as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.
I was completely captivated by the possibility of life on other planets and so, across the gulf of space, a child’s mind, immeasurably impressionable compared to ours, regarded this tale with astonished eyes as slowly and surely it seeped into his consciousness forever.
Celebrating its 40th Anniversary this year, I can’t really remember when I first listened to “Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds” but then I also can’t really remember ever not knowing of it. It fascinated and frightened me in equal measure, from Wayne’s rock opera songs with their clever and frequent use of leitmotifs to the spectacular artwork by Peter Goodfellow, Geoff Taylor and Michael Trim, I can still remember the giddy – and slightly terrifying– thrill of placing that shiny black disc on the turntable and gently placing the needle onto the spinning vinyl only to hear the rich, velvety tones of Richard Burton as he begins the narration.
While the songs, and the music, stand on their own merits and the rest of the cast – including Justin Hayward, Phil Lynott and David Essex – are superb, it’s Burton who gives the whole tale a sense of gravitas and authority which the other, more showy roles are able to play off. It’s through his voice that we experience the amazement and curiosity of the first landings, the terror of the initial invasion, the panic and crushed hope of escape and finally the despair and renewal of the Martian’s ultimate defeat. It’s a profoundly impressive and absorbing performance, giving everything he reports an air of authenticity, heightening the emotional impact of the music and lyrics and deepening the dread and foreboding of the world under Martian rule.
As creepy and unnerving as I always found the story – for me a horror story as much as a sci-fi yarn, the album’s end always scared me the most with a coda set during man’s first landing on Mars hinting that the whole nightmare is about to start again. But whenever I think of the album, though, it’s Burton’s opening lines that spring immediately and vividly to life. The richness of his voice is both a nostalgic comfort and a gripping introduction to the tale, augmented by the occasional pop or crackle from the vinyl. Oh sure, you can listen to “Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds” on CD and cassette and it’s on Spotify if it takes your fancy (although the version Spotify has is one of the later remix/ remastered versions which, because the original is so indelibly seared into my psyche that I can’t fully enjoy it because the sound mix, arrangement and tempo are all screwed up) but the best way to enjoy one of Burton’s finest performances – and the spectacular artwork – is on vinyl, the older the better. I do like Ben Liebrand’s ever-so-nineties remix of “Eve Of The War”, though.
Jeff Wayne’s musical has long been my favourite adaptation of Wells’ novel and none of the filmed versions have yet come close. It’s also, I think, responsible for me yearning for a proper period-set filmed version of the book, something neither George Pal or Steven Spielberg delivered. Perhaps one day we’ll get a filmed version of this musical version – it would be quite something to see those illustrations spring to terrifying life on the big screen.