Combining music and a classic Science Fiction story, Jeff Wayne’s album found amazing success
In 1978, I was thirteen years old. Star Wars had been released the year previously. Superman: The Movie was just around the corner and there were more wonders waiting for me in the future.
But I was unaware of that and besides, I had discovered record albums.
Before getting heavily into soundtrack albums thanks to the original Star Wars soundtrack double album (which I bought before even seeing the movie) my musical tastes tended to be understandably juvenile. Early Beatles were about the extent of it.
But thanks to some friends who were older I was introduced to the musical movement that defined the 1970`s – progressive rock.
Progressive rock (or prog rock) was a movement that was intent on fusing rock-and-roll with classical and eclectic influences. Prog rock albums eschewed 3 minute pop tunes and produced long and intricate albums which featured extended solos, fantasy lyrics and an obsessive dedication to technical skill. Pompous and overblown were words often used to describe this style of music by its critics.
1978 had seen the pinnacle of this musical style. These were the final years before the spectre of punk rock and New Wave was to frighten the last of it away. Bands like King Crimson, Yes and Jethro Tull were no longer the centre and the genre was fragmenting into sub genres.
Into this milieu came an album that caught my attention and the attention of a lot of kids my age. It was a double album – a concept album – heavily illustrated. Best of all, it was based on one of the best known works of Science Fiction ever written.
Jeff Wayne`s musical version of The War of the Worlds hit record stores in a very big way. It was the debut studio album from Jeff Wayne, an American-born naturalized British composer, musician and lyricist. Using narration and leitmotifs to carry the story, the two-disc album soon became a bestseller. It would go onto sell millions of records around the world and by 2009 it was the 40th best selling album of all time in the UK. It has since spawned multiple versions of the album, video games, DVDs, and live tours.
But back in 1978 this album was a revelation. It deftly combined my twin loves of music and Science Fiction. The album came packaged with a booklet that featured amazing artwork by Peter Goodfellow, Geoff Taylor and Michael Trim that illustrated the story. The music was a lush combination of classical pieces and overpowering prog-rock tracks interspersed with dialogue, singing and a narration by the incomparable Richard Burton.
So, how did it all come together? How was it that a musician who had previously composed little else other than advertising jingles and television show themes would go one to produce one of the best selling and most loved albums ever made?
Jeff Wayne was born in Queens, New York in 1943. His father was an actor, singer and theatre producer. He spent a lot of his time in the UK with his family touring with various shows. Jeff grew up between London and New York. In 1966, he worked with his father on a West End stage musical at the Palace Theatre in London called Two Cities which was based on Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
While in the UK, Wayne became a record producer and helped record David Essex’s album Rock On. That was the beginning of a very profitable run as David Essex’s producer and arranger. “…but my composing side had diminished.” Wayne once wrote. “My dad reminded me that I’d always wanted to write some sort of musical story, so the two of us started reading books of all shapes and sizes. He came across one by H. G. Wells about a Martian invasion of Earth. I was hooked.”
Wayne envisioned his version of Wells’ The War of the Worlds as an opera. “Story, leitmotifs, musical phrases, sounds and compositions that relate to the whole.”
In 1976, Wayne began writing. He scribbled out notes about the script and handed them to his father’s second wife, Doreen, who was a journalist and a novelist, to turn it into a script. Then Wayne started composing the score. It was January and, feeling that he worked better under pressure, he booked a studio for May – London’s state of the art Advision Studios – which kept him focused. He wrote the first draft in six weeks.
It was during the composing period that he decided that the character of the Journalist should be the key character, the thread that ran through the entire thing. But he needed someone with a voice that was distinctive, powerful and would take the listener right inside the story. To his mind the only actor who could do that was Richard Burton.
“In my view, Richard Burton’s voice was like a musical instrument,” he said. Indeed, Burton’s resonate voice lends a huge amount of gravitas to the production.
As this was long before e-mails or Facebook, Wayne wrote a letter to the actor who was in New York, starring in Peter Shaffer’s Tony award winning play Equus. While he was in New York Burton spent a lot of time reading. In a fortuitous happenstance one of the books that he had just finished happened to be Wells` War of the Worlds.
A few days later Burton’s manager called him. Burton loved the idea.
Unfortunately, from New York, Burton was scheduled to go to California to shoot Exorcist II: The Heretic. So Wayne did the only thing he could do. He took his dad and David Essex and flew out to California to record with him.
The full story of how this seminal album was recorded and its rocky road to success is outlined fully in in the third issue of Dark Worlds Quarterly. The magazine is also chock full of other amazing stuff and it is available as a FREE download from Rage Machine Books.