Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds stubbornly remains as bad as it is beautiful, writes GARY STEEL, who reveals its magic formula.
It’s not something I listen to with any regularity or enthusiasm. Jeff Wayne’s opus never struck me as particularly compelling, despite its stellar cast. When Wayne’s musical adaptation of HG Wells’ sci-fi novel came out in 1978 it had the rank odour of progressive rock about it, and that genre had burnt out a few years before with the advent of punk. I was familiar with the two singles lifted from the album – the lush ‘Forever Autumn’ with vocals by The Moody Blues’ Justin Hayward and the disco beats of ‘The Eve Of War’ – but was never tempted to sit through the whole thing.
Clearly, however, I was in the minority. Over time it became the 11th best-selling album of all time in New Zealand… which means more than Thriller or Rumours even.*
The same year Kate Bush released her wonderful debut and at the time, that held no interest for me either: too much prog-type bombast, with a little too much of the feel of a musical. That was the other problem with War Of The Worlds: in some ways, it was a rock record, but its starring roles for the likes of David ‘Rock On’ Essex and especially Julie ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ Covington gave the game away. Yuck!
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It wasn’t until 2005 when Jeff Wayne stopped off in New Zealand on a promo tour around the remastered surround sound reissue of the album that I found myself quietly appreciating the album’s craft and ambition. Wayne was an affable interviewee but I was always more intrigued by the technical ambition of the project than its artistic vision. The details of putting together a project like this in a UK studio in the 1970s were fascinating. On top of that, the recording featured a bunch of legendary session players, including the likes of Chris Spedding (guitars) and Herbie Flowers (bass).
Even so, despite revisiting the album for my story on Jeff Wayne (see that story here), I stopped short of giving it a forensic listen. There was too much new music to listen to warrant spending serious time with what amounted to a novelty from the late ‘70s.
But yesterday, for no other reason than my psyche was unravelling from having to spend two whole weeks with the little rascals (3 and 7), I found myself picking Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds from the nether regions of my CD collection and surrendering to its charms properly for the first time ever.
While it is deeply flawed – mostly for the reasons outlined above – nearly every track held some audible fascination for this old coot. Both Spedding and Flowers are superb and the former performs some especially stinging lines to illustrate the dangers and the death rays in the story. Somewhat bizarrely, George Fenton contributes an almost psychedelic array of exotica in the form of tar, santoor and zither. But the revelation is the stellar synth work of Ken Freeman. I would go so far as to state that the real magic of the album resides in Freeman’s synthesizer lines; so much so that it’s impossible to imagine the album without his contributions. It’s not just the sounds he makes on his synths – some of them whizzing around and single-handedly creating the sense of sci-fi dread while others play a more orchestral role – but the melodic contours he uses to shape the compositions.
Despite being a long-time synth fan I’d never heard of Ken Freeman, but it turns out he’s an absolute legend not just as a manipulator of synthesisers but someone who, having been initially fascinated by the sound of the Mellotron, was behind the creation of the first real string simulators. Those wanting to delve into Freeman’s bio should check this (and this) out.
In short, despite the mad conceit of the theme, the deficiencies of plot due to Richard Burton’s brief narrations, heavy-handed orchestrations that give ELO’s Eldorado a run for their money and the fact that memorable songs are few and far between, Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds makes for a fun listening experience. And it’s much, much better than the inevitable stage show or the Tom Cruise movie.
I was 19 when it hit the market and it felt bloated and old-hat at a time when raw rock and roll energy had been renewed by punk and post-punk musicians were on such a creative roll. As a 63-year-old I can view it with a long lens and appreciate it for what it is: deeply flawed, kind of ridiculous, but also amazing.
* Thanks to Michael Brown, Music Curator at the Alexander Turnbull Library, for that amazing fact.