The story of how one man brought together Richard Burton, Phil Lynott, and some members of the Moody Blues to record an epic prog rock musical version of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds
My parents were always willing to indulge my state as kind of a weird kid. One year for Christmas, they got me an LP with which I would become obsessed as a kid, and one that continues to find its way into my playlist. It was a bizarre amalgamation of rock opera and old time radio play, featuring the voice talent of none less than Richard Burton: Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds. It was an impressive package for a young lad to receive, with artwork that spanned the entirety of the gatefold cover and a full-color booklet of more artwork and the story of how the record came to be. War of the Worlds was, at the time, one of my all-time favorite books, or as all-time as you can have at the age of eight or nine. It was one of the first novels I read, along with probably something involving Encyclopedia Brown. I reveled in the utter decimation of my planet, the desperation of mankind on the brink of extinction. I watched producer George Pal’s War of the Worlds film adaptation, and while I loved the movie, I was disappointed that it wasn’t the same as the book I’d grown to adore. Similarly, I used my grass-cutting money to buy a copy of the infamous Orson Welles radio broadcast of the story on cassette. Again, though, while it was great, it wasn’t exactly War of the Worlds — in that it wasn’t really HG Wells’ War of the Worlds.
And then came the Christmas I got Jeff Wayne’s album. I was excited immediately, of course, because I loved anything War of the Worlds. And the cover was incredible, featuring for once a scene that looked like it had come straight out of the book, with a towering Martian tripod melting the deck of an ironclad with its heat ray. As I flipped through the included book of artwork, my hopes steadily grew. It was full of paintings of tripods blasting old-timey looking British people. Now that was what I’d been wanting from a War of the Worlds adaptation! Once Christmas festivities wrapped up, I retired to my room to put the album on — only to be interrupted with a reminder that it was time to get dressed so we could head over to my grandparents. Living as they did an hour or more away from us, plus the time we’d actually spend over there, I realized it would be late in the evening before I got to listen to my new record. Never has a little kid wished so hard for Christmas to actually be over.
The hours dragged before we finally made our way back. As soon as I got home, I rocketed into my room and fired up the rickety turntable. Back then, I knew nothing about anyone involved with the record or how it came to be made. I was vaguely familiar, perhaps, with Richard Burton from historical epic movies, but none of the other names meant anything to me. From the opening narration until the final sound effect, I was rapt. I listened to it more times that night than I can remember. It was everything I wanted plus a load of what was, to my young ears, utterly bizarre yet instantly catchy music. In the heat of that era’s Star Wars mania, I forgot about that movie in the blink of an eye and pronounced Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds to be the single greatest thing ever. I played it for every friend I had. A few of us even memorized every line and lyric, performing it live in my friend’s basement (my basement was too creepy at the time and contained a gateway to Hell) for an audience of…well, like four or five. ButI assume they were rapt.
Slowly and Surely, They Drew Their Plans Against Us
The production of Jeff Wayne’s bizarre experimental foray into recorded musical theater ended up nearly as vast and complex as if they’d been doing a film adaptation. The budget was sprawling and, like any good passion project, kept growing to the point that Wayne augmented the budget with his own money. It was a tremendously risky project on just about every level. And it all started when Wayne decided that he wanted to do a musical concept album based on a work of classic fiction. At the time, the native of Queens, New York was working primarily as a writer of music for British television shows and commercials. His father, Jerry Wayne, was a theater actor and fostered his son’s early interest in music. When Jerry was blacklisted during the 1950s, he sought opportunities in England. His son, Jeff, eventually returned to the United States to complete his education and began working in the pop music business, until 1966, when his father offered him the opportunity to come back to England and work on a stage adaptation of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Jeff’s compositions for the play met with controversy, hailed by some critics and panned by others. It was enough success, though, to convince the younger Wayne to remain in England, where he began his career as a jingle writer and TV music composer.
It was during this time that Wayne first met and began working with singer David Essex, best known for his role in the stage version of the Who’s rock opera, Tommy. Together, Essex and Wayne wrote and recorded a few hits, but Wayne’s foray into composing for the stage had left him with a desire to create something gigantic, epic in scope, with the grandeur of a Queen concert on steroids. Working with his wife, Geraldine, and with the encouragement of his father, Wayne scoured libraries looking for the appropriate literary inspiration. Initially, they were planning to use a classic children’s novel as source material, but when none of them caught the couple’s attention, they movies on to science fiction. The Day of the Triffids and Brave New World were both early contenders, but in the end Wayne found that no story spoke to him with musical potential the way War of the Worlds did.
With the subject matter settled, Wayne started the production ball rolling. He got a record deal through Dick Asher, a producer at CBS Records who had previously worked with Wayne on the David Essex recordings. In order to help sell the concept, Wayne commissioned science fiction artist Roger Dean to paint the cover and do interior artwork. Dean did a lot of work on album covers during the 1970s. His style was very much the definition of ’70s style sci-fi and fantasy artwork, which was heavy on the weirdness. Unfortunately, Dean’s vision didn’t jibe with what Wayne was hoping for. Dean’s massive tome of artwork, Wayne felt, would overshadow the record, turning it into a sideshow to the main event of Dean’s artwork. When the two couldn’t come to an agreement, Dean left the project. I have no idea if any of his original sketches have surfaced anywhere, but in the 1980s Dean did do a lot of War of the Worlds artwork for Omni magazine, some of which was repurposed for book covers and even the box art for the video game Terrorpods.
With Dean off the project, Wayne decided to go instead with a collection of artists rather than one guy. Mike Trim, an artist who had worked previously with producer Gerry Anderson on the supermarionation sci-fi shows Thunderbirds and Stingray as well as Anderson’s live-action UFO, painted the dramatic cover depicting the battle between a Martian tripod and the ironclad Thunder Child, establishing the tone and look of the tripods for other artists to follow. Although Trim didn’t have a background in album covers, his experience designing ships, bases, and equipment both fictional and real — after UFO was canceled, he went into doing illustration for educational and technical books on aerospace — made him more than qualified to realize the nightmarish inventions of HG Wells. Working on what would become the sixteen-page interior booklet were artists Geoff Taylor and Peter Goodfellow. The booklet they produced was pretty fantastic, depicting the fighting machines, the destruction of London, fleeing Victorians, mad parsons, underground utopias — just about everything from the story with one notable exception. Jerry Wayne, and probably Jeff as well, insisted that there be no illustrations of the actual Martians. Some things, he felt, were best left to the imagination.
The Eve of the War
While the artwork was being developed, Jeff began work on the script, with most of the writing being done by his father’s current wife, Doreen, based on passages from the book selected by Jeff based on how well he thought they would work musically while also maintaining the integrity of the story. Jerry worked as editor. There were necessary changes to the novel to be made in order to translate it to this new medium. The novel relies primarily on two narrators: the journalist, who carries the bulk of the story, and his brother in London. For Wayne’s version, elements of the brother were simply rolled into the journalist. Although a compressed version of the novel, the script eventually assembled by Doreen and Jeff remains so far the most accurate retelling of Wells’ original, maintaining the Victorian setting (which has been jettisoned in every cinematic and TV adaptation in favor of a modern setting), the tripods, red weed, black smoke, and most of the major events from the book.
As a young fan of the book, I was thrilled to finally hear a version of the story that reflected what I’d read. I loved the War of the Worlds movie from producer George Pal, but I enjoyed it as I enjoyed most sci-fi films; not as an adaptation of the book. There were simply too many changes, from the tripods being abandoned in favor of the more 1950s-friendly flying saucers, to the modern setting, to the heavy-handed suggestion that the power of Christian faith has as much to do with defeating the Martians as did the microbes that eventually became the invaders’ undoing. Also gone from that version, made as it was in a climate of political hysteria over Communism in the United States, was Well’s sharp criticism of empire and the treatment of indigenous peoples at the hands of European colonizers. That isn’t just subtext in the novel — he states it flat out. Such a critique of empire and xenophobia could easily have found itself into a modernized adaptation, but such a critique also would not have flown in the days of McCarthyism and blacklisting. One of the things that drew Jeff Wayne to War of the Worlds was this very message, which reminded him of his father who had been blacklisted. Wells’ jabs at colonialism aren’t as obvious in Wayne’s finished script as they were in the novel, but neither does he attempt to underplay the notion that, in some degree, human hubris bears a healthy portion of blame for the tragic fate that befalls mankind.
George Pal’s original idea for the movie had been a more faithful adaptation, complete with tripods and the Victorian setting, but the studio refused, insisting that he tailor the film to more closely reflect the current trends in science fiction. It would have been nice to see what Pal could have done had he been allowed to realize his original vision. Still, at least the movie still had some recognizable elements. The big-budget 2007 film from Steven Spielberg wreaked even more terrible havoc with the film, including focusing on two genuinely horrible, whining, spoiled children (to say nothing of Spielberg stating flatly that it would be set in modern times because he hated Victorian period pieces). So Wayne’s musical version remains to this day the closest in spirit and content to Well’s original story, even if it was eventually communicated to us with a background of synthesizers and prog rock. My own dream project never happened; that being Warner Brothers dumping a ton of money into the lap of Hammer Films and telling them to make a faithful adaptation starring Peter Cushing as Ogilvy the Astronomer, Ralph Bates as The Artilleryman, Christopher Lee as mad Parson Nathaniel, Caroline Munro as Beth, special effects by Ray Harryhausen, and Oliver Reed as the Journalist. But when I get my time machine…sorry; wrong HG Wells story.
In its way, though, Jeff Wayne’s eventual finished product is as reflective of the sci-fi trends of its time as was George Pal’s movie. In the wake of the 1960s’ cultural revolution, the “mainstream” of science fiction underwent a transformation. The “science and authority will guide us all to safety” mentality gave way to the doubts, suspicion, and causes of the counter-culture. Science fiction began to experiment with itself, resulting in a lot of really weird stuff. Even big budget cinematic science fiction was infused with the rebelliousness of the counter-culture. This is the era of Solyent Green, A Clockwork Orange, and Logan’s Run — all high profile films that regarded authority, society, the mainstream with a dubious and often highly critical eye. In the world of music, people were experimenting more and more with bizarre concepts and new instruments. Session musicians like Keith Mansfield and Johnny Hawksworth, and higher profile performers like the prog rock artists, leaned heavily on themes of space and the future. So while Jeff Wayne’s work may, in retrospect, seem fantastically out there and weird, it wasn’t quite as bizarre and out of place as it might seem without the proper context.
With the artwork and script dealt with, it was time to focus on nominally the most important part of the ambitious project: the actual composing of the music and recording of the entire thing. And it is during this phase of the project that the troubles began.
The Coming of the Martians
I haven’t read in any history of the project how Jeff Wayne came to focus on Richard Burton as the man to play the journalist who narrates the entire story. Burton was, at that time, pretty far gone into his personal collapse. The days in which he had been a formidable superstar were past, and his life had instead become defined by the personal scandal and alcoholism that had plagued him for so long. At the height of his career, Burton (himself an avowed Socialist, just to keep with the Red Scare theme) was the highest paid actor in Hollywood, racking up an impressive seven Academy Award nominations, six of which were for best actor, and none of which he won. He did, however, collect himself a BAFTA and Golden Globe award. But as impressive as his resume may have been, the thing for which he is probably best known these days is his stormy relationship with frequent co-star and second wife Elizabeth Taylor. The two lived an extravagant lifestyle, the cost of which eventually meant both Burton and Taylor had to work in a number of less than stellar movies just to pay the bills.
Liz Taylor was a famously difficult woman, but her temperament pales in comparison to Burton, who was prone to fits of rage and had a somewhat dubious grasp of supporting your spouse when he said, of Taylor’s legendary beauty, that to call her “the most beautiful woman in the world is absolute nonsense. She has wonderful eyes, but she has a double chin and an overdeveloped chest, and she’s rather short in the leg.” After a decade together, the mercurial couple divorced — only to remarry a year and a half later. The second marriage didn’t last very long, though. Burton eventually married two more times, and during that time his temper, drinking, dependency on painkillers, and problems with paying his taxes escalated to the point where people were hesitant to work with him. He was also plagued by a number of ambitious but failed films, including vanity projects like Doctor Faust. In 1974, he was banned outright from working with the BBC after publishing a couple fiery screeds about what an asshole Winston Churchill was — on the centenary celebration of Churchill’s birth and not long after actually playing the man.
When Jeff Wayne came calling, Burton was in the United States, appearing in the stage production of Equus. As the story goes, Wayne didn’t really know how to get in touch with Burton or Burton’s agent, but knowing a thing or two about the way theaters worked, he got the script for War of the Worlds passed to Burton through the stage door before an evening’s show. It’s likely that the script would have gone the way of every script passed to a famous person in such a casual manner (into the trash), but Burton had been keeping himself busy backstage by reading a pile of books, one of which — his favorite — happened to be War of the Worlds. It was a moment of synchronicity, and Burton enthusiastically signed on to the project.
For the rest of the roles, as well as the music and the recording, Wayne leaned heavily on his friends in the industry. Most of the lyrics were written by friends from his jingle days. Gary Osborne and Paul Vigrass had not only worked with Wayne in the past, they had also performed together as part of a psy-folk band which recorded, among other tunes, a song called “Forever Autumn,” which appeared on the album Queues. The song was reworked and incorporated into the War of the Worlds project, becoming the central musical accompaniment for one of the record’s most dramatic moments (the attack on London) and becoming a hit single. The original version is pretty similar to what it became after being reworked by Jeff Wayne. Making the story of that song slightly stranger is that the original tune was written by Wayne to be used as a jingle — in a Legos commercial. John Lodge of the Moody Blues recorded several takes of the song “Thunder Child” that were never used, and his bandmate Justin Hayward recorded both the record-opening “The Eve of the War” and the new version of “Forever Autumn.” Bad Company member Paul Rodgers began recording the role of Parson Nathaniel but no-showed after two days and was replaced by Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott, who also recorded the song “The Spirit of Man” alongside Julie Covington as Beth.
The Spirit of Man
Burton was scheduled for four days of recording in California, and there was some trepidation about what it would be like to try and wrangle the infamously self-destructive fallen star. But according to Jeff Wayne, who was on hand in California to oversee the sessions, Burton was so committed to and passionate about the project (and well-supplied with beer) that he threw himself into with professional gusto, completing his entire recording in a single day. Burton has always been one of my favorite disgraced stars. The decadence of his life, especially his time with Liz Taylor, is the stuff of legend for good reason. There’s a sun-drenched romanticism about it all, despite how ugly it could get. So much of it played out against a backdrop of glamour, such jet-set stylishness and European villas. I don’t think any couple has ever done scandal better. If you had to live a tumultuous, self-destructive life, you could do worse. And even in his decline, Burton could suddenly reignite and deliver a performance that reminded you why he was at one time the biggest star in the world.
His work on War of the Worlds is fantastic. The man was prone to scenery chewing and bluster, and the story he was telling on this album certainly could have leant itself to cartoonish bombast. But he doesn’t succumb to that temptation. He reels himself in — a steady, but not lazy, performance, infused with gravitas. The opening narration, his reading of the line “And yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this earth with envious eyes. And slowly, and surely, they drew their plans against us” is chilling. And later, when Burton tells you this is “the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind,” you believe it. He also shines during the record’s desperate finale, in which the narrator can no longer shoulder the grief and hopelessness of the situation, without ever lapsing into the realm of histrionic scenery chewing. Without Burton’s voice and performance, I don’t think this record would have been anywhere near as good. The later works of a disgraced actor are often used to deride and mock them, often rightfully so, but Burton has nothing to be embarrassed about with the War of the Worlds. He rises to the occasion and delivers wonderfully.
His fellow performers — singers, mostly — tend toward the slightly overwrought, but most of the time they fit the music and are anchored by Burton’s steadiness. Phil Lynott is beautifully unhinged as a parson driven mad by the invasion and convinced that the Biblical End Times are upon humanity. David Essex appears as the artilleryman who hatches a daft scheme to rebuild human society underground. Musical theater veteran Julie Covington is great in her role as a woman trying to serve as the voice of reason to Lynott’s delirious holy man. Their style of acting is a bit over the top, but they have to keep pace with Jeff Wayne’s beautifully bombastic compositions.
The recording sessions, by all accounts, were excruciating and plagued with mishaps. Wayne was a driven perfectionist, demanding take after take. As the studio time dragged on, the budget ballooned. CBS was willing to do an initial increase, but when even that didn’t cover the cost of the lavish recording sessions, Jeff himself (and most likely his father) threw their own money into the project, tapping their savings and whatever they could mortgage. Wayne’s demanding vision was hardly the only problem that plagued the production. The master tape began to decay rapidly, necessitating an emergency salvage and restoration project. The master tape for the fourth and final side of the record was accidentally shredded when a technician mistook it for a reel of outtakes. And then, just when all of the technical hurdles seemed to have been cleared and the project was finally nearing completion, CBS America announced they had no interest in the album and would not distribute it in the United States.
This was a devastating blow to Wayne. So many people had poured so much into the project, but without distribution in the United States, there was no hope that the record could recoup its costs. It had become, by the end of the project, the most expensive album ever recorded. The previous king of cost, Queen’s A Night at the Opera, cost £45,000 to produce. War of the Worlds wound up costing £240,000. You could make a movie for that price! Undeterred by the Americans’ abandonment, CBS UK promoted the album in Britain. In July of 1978, this massive labor of passion and more than a little madness was finally released.
Come On, Thunder Child
Strange though the end product may be, it struck a chord with people in the UK. The record did remarkably well — so well that CBS in the United States reconsidered their earlier unwillingness to release it in America. It generated hit singles, was translated into multiple languages, and even became a stage production. And so it eventually fell into my own hands. Over the years and decades since it first so enthralled me, I don’t think my fondness for it has ever wavered.
It’s fitting that a record that bested Queen for most expensive recording should sound like this. War of the Worlds is a near non-stop explosion of bombastic sound, a thunderous combination of symphony, power ballads, synthesizers, sound effects, wailing guitars — think of the most theatrical, booming composition by Jim Steinman, then amplify it tenfold. From time to time, the music shifts to a more subdued, haunted tempo, driven largely by the synthesizers and working perfectly with Burton’s narration. It seems to me that there’s almost no conceivable way these disparate styles and emotions should work together, and yet somehow Wayne combines them expertly into one swirling whole that can excite, terrify, and even tug at the heart. The most emotional punch comes from the “Forever Autumn” sequence, in which the narrator joins the refugee masses fleeing London and catches only a glimpse of his beloved before she is spirited away by a steamer — which is heading straight toward waiting tripods. The combination of music — the folksy ballad with the anthemic, pulsating synthesizers — and Burton’s reading of the material stands out as stunningly emotional. It exquisitely communicates the desperation, fear, and heartbreak of the scene, both for the individual and for the more epic scope of humanity as a whole.
This sequence leads directly into perhaps the record’s best-known sequence, in which the battleship Thunder Child takes on a host of tripods in order to facilitate the escape of the passenger-laden steamer. It’s a thrilling sequence that generates all the fist-pounding excitement of a rock anthem or an action setpiece from a movie. And when the entire battle — and the first two sides of the record– conclude with Burton saying, “The Earth belonged to the Martians,” it’s powerful stuff. The second half of the record is highlighted by the thunderous “Spirit of Man,” and “Brave New World,” both of which are wild fist-pounders planted amid the slower, creepy compositions that accompany the narrator’s aimless wandering through the red weed-choked countryside and ruins, until everything finally wraps up with the his dramatic, manic descent into suicidal mania — and the emergence of the one ally of humanity neither we nor the Martians had anticipated.
If there’s any misstep on the record, it’s in the second of its two epilogues, a throw-away “modern day” scene in which Earth is landing it’s first probes on Mars — a scene which, apart from breaking with the feel and setting of the rest of the record, makes almost no sense at all unless the people in this epilogue had totally forgotten about the time that humanity was attacked and very nearly exterminated by the Martians. But it’s really only a minute or two of the overall project, and easily skipped or disregarded. Everything else is fantastic.
The original book was written at a time when people were caught up in centennial hysteria; for some reason, we as a population seem committed to the idea that every time the last two digits of a year are 00, it means the world will end. In the latter half of the 1970s, when Wayne was composing the album, we were caught up in a similar hysteria, though this time it was the assumption that humanity had wrecked the earth to the point that it was on the verge of environmental collapse. And I listened to the record most intently during the 1980s, when we were all convinced the world was going to end in nuclear annihilation waged between the United States and the Soviet Union. Granted, I don’t think there’s anything particularly coincidental or prescient about any of this. I think humanity is just prone to doing the same stupid things over and over. And it makes sense that War of the Worlds often finds itself at the center of such fears. It was the modern era’s first tale of global annihilation, written at a time of colossal upheaval. As oddball as it sounds, Jeff Wayne did the story proud in a way no one else has ever achieved.