Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds is a classic of our time. Nobody knows this album better than I. In fact, not many know this story better than I – I’ve read it dozens of times and I consider it to be one of my three or four favourite ever novels. I have been listening to the album regularly since 1978 when it was first released, and I know it inside out, upside down, back to front, note for note. As a child I would sit for hours poring over the accompanying booklet (in glorious LP size), singing along while totally engrossed in the story. The art direction for this album was just perfect and for me (and I’m sure many others) there can be no better representation of a Tripod than those devised by John Pasche, who incidentally designed the Rolling Stones’ ‘lips’ logo. All other Tripods, before and since, are vastly inferior. Growing up in and around Woking (where the Martians first land), even the locations have special meaning to me. In short, War of the Worlds is a significant part of my life and is sacred to me.
Naturally, when I discovered (on Spotify, where else?) that Jeff Wayne had done a ‘new’ version of this epic, with different performers, I was a little alarmed. Sceptical. Horrified, even. I know there have been dancey remixes of a lot of the tracks over the years, they never really bothered me because they were really just dance tracks with samples from the album thrown in. This however, stood a very good chance of being an excruciating car crash of a project. You can’t remake something like this. You don’t need to remake it. There was no way I was going to like it, that’s for sure, especially when I saw the list of performers. Gary Barlow for fuck sake? Joss Stone? And then after a bit of Googling I discovered that there was a stage show, no less, featuring Marti Pellow and Jason Donovan. Sacrilege doesn’t even begin to describe it. Definitely awful and worth avoiding like the plague.
Or is it? Like rubber-necking at the scene of a car crash, or sniffing your own farts, there is something that draws you inexorably towards it when you know you shouldn’t, when you know that it will only end in tears. So cautiously, I gave it a go.
And how glad I am that I did, because it is brilliant. Abso-fucking-lutely brilliant.
The new cast were clearly given copies of the original version and told to learn it off by heart. The rhythm, the cadence, every nuance in timing of the singing is faithfully reproduced. The music (more on this later) is mostly the same, albeit with some updated sounds. Hence, it’s like they’ve just ‘modernised’ it with the minimum of changes, and retained (almost) all of the original charm.
Obviously, having listened to Richard Burton, David Essex, Phil Lynott et al play the parts for the last 30+ years, those voices ARE War of the Worlds. Even though David Essex wasn’t even that good, he is the artilleryman, the only one I know. The casting for the ‘New Generation’ (hereafter known as TNG) is spot on though, pretty much perfect.
There aren’t any voices around these days that can compete with the rich, milky smoothness of Burton’s narration, but casting Liam Neeson as the journalist was a good call. He possesses the gravitas necessary to convey the doom and terror convincingly, without overacting, and his faint Irish brogue neatly fits the hole vacated by Burton’s South Wales tint.
Gary Barlow as the ‘sung thoughts of the journalist’ is a masterstroke by Wayne. His voice is absolutely perfect for The Eve Of War (‘…the chances of anything coming from Mars’) and Forever Autumn. He has exactly the same sort of singing voice as Justin Hayward, the same range, tone, timbre and everything, and it is such a faithful rendition it’s almost like ‘Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be Justin Hayward in War Of The Worlds’. I take back everything I said about the lardy boy band goon. Gracious, n’est-ce pas?
Ricky Wilson is also brilliant – again, Mr Wayne has cast a voice that is very similar to the original, albeit slightly less hammy. Wilson’s spoken dialogue is markedly better than David Essex’s, and the singing is very, very close. I’m a long time fan of the Kaiser Chiefs, but I would never have guessed that his voice would fit so well in this environment. Neither would I have guessed that someone so ‘yoof’ as the singer of one of the biggest indie bands around would deign to appear on something so uncool as a ‘rock opera’.
Perhaps the most surprising is Parson Nathaniel, played by some bloke called Maverick Sabre. Wikipedia tells me he is some class of a rapper so obviously I’ve never heard of the fellow. This bloke is really good though and he conveys ‘tortured’ and ‘slightly kooky’ exceptionally well. I’m not sure either he or Phil Lynott particularly spring to mind when you read the novel though.
The weak point for me is Joss Stone’s Beth. Her spoken dialogue is fine, although she sounds a little young for the role compared to Julie Convington, but it’s her singing that grates – it’s just a little too soul-like for my tastes. A bit on the warbly side, if you will. It’s not bad, it’s just not as good as the others.
Musically, Jeff Wayne has kept the changes to a minimum. The most noticeable is that the synthesizer sounds have been updated. I would love to have seen the setup they used in 1978, I imagine an entire studio full of Moogs, Synclaviers and giant hand built synthesizers. This was even before the days of the Fairlight, so any sampling would have been by tape loop. However, the synth parts and all the sampling and effects on TNG have probably been created entirely on a laptop. I’m slightly dis-chuffed that he has allowed dubstep rhythm to encroach upon some of the synth parts in The Artilleryman and the Fighting Machine, but it’s used reasonably sparingly. I now realize where the inspiration for this probably came from – it made me do something of a double take last year when I discovered it. Thankfully, the luscious string sections that sweep throughout the entire work have been preserved – I’m no orchestral expert but they still sound ‘real’ rather than ‘synthesized’. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that they are the original string tracks remastered. The guitar parts sound fresher, perhaps it’s just the 1978 tracks with some more modern effects plastered on them, perhaps they’ve been replayed note-for-note faithful to the original.
I have listened to TNG a good half dozen times since I discovered it, and although I’m sure it will never take the place of the original version, it’s still definitely worth having, and I’m really quite glad it was made. What Jeff Wayne needs to do now though, is collaborate with someone like HR Geiger or Tim Burton on a movie version of the musical version of the book version. Set in the Victorian era. Set in Woking. Not starring Tom Fucking Cruise. And it would have to be using John Pasche’s design for the tripods, or there’s no deal. That would be a movie to see.