Saturday, August 31, 2013

Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds (1978)


Deep breath… and now, an exorcism of sorts.

A piece of classic 19th-century science-fiction - and one that probably stands as my favourite – that I’ve steadfastly refused so far to review is H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (WOTW, as I’m going to call it). I’m not really sure why this is. Perhaps I’m just scared of getting bogged down in a marsh of Wells’ metaphors. WOTW is after all a thematically rich story that manages to comment on science, evolution, religion, colonialism, and the human condition. I have a lot to say about the book. It’s not easy to write an effective piece of commentary on such a dense work by scribbling furiously on the back of a beermat in the downtime between organising interplanetary smuggling runs and solving supernatural-related crimes for beautiful widows, all over the course of a burboun-soaked weekend (that’s how I’d like you to imagine I write all my reviews).

Instead I’m going to take the easier option first and talk about a later adaptation of the book: Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds (or JWMVOTWOTW, as I’m probably not going to be calling it).

Which is a 1970s progressive-rock opera retelling of the tale.

With disco elements.

Oh yeah, and it’s set in the original Victorian time period.

Maybe this isn’t really the easy option.

Well, I’m going to make things slightly easier for myself by talking about how I first came across this batshit crazy musical. As a kid in the early 90s, I had a neighbour whose older sister knew that we liked a bit of sci-fi. Back then, sci-fi in movies or other media wasn’t really easy to come by though, and besides a few blurry, overwatched, taped-off-the-English-channels VHS versions of Jurassic Park and, um, Innerspace, we didn’t get exposed to an awful lot of scifi. Okay, there was Star Trek The Next Generation, but every eight-year-old knew that Star Trek wasn’t real sci-fi because there was too much talking and standing around and their ships moved real slow like submarines instead of fast with pew-pew-pew lasers like the ships out of Star Wars. And besides, there weren’t any dinosaurs or giant robots. Note that these are all lessons Star Trek itself has learned since: JJ Abrams’ new Trek has lots of creatures and fast ships and no people standing around talking whatsoever, and definitely nothing that would make you think above the level of an eight-year-old. That’s called progress.

So the sister, bless her, presumably hearing the bizarre combination of Richard Burton’s drunken ramblings, blood-freezingly terrifying string music, and mysterious alien encounters that opens Jeff Wayne’s opus, didn’t think gee, that’s fucked up, what the hell was wrong with people in the 70s like any normal person would, but instead thought hey, my little bro and his weird friends sure would like this, where’d I put that Jason Donovan cassette where he vomits during the hidden track? I sure could tape over that shit!

So yeah, big thanks to her. We used to listen to the cassette in a garden shed that was our hangout. It had nice chairs and a boombox (well we probably called it a ghetto blaster back then, but you know, the world has changed for the better since then, so let’s get with it, yeah?). The album went on for what felt like hours.

And we usually emerged completely traumatised.


Seriously, I don’t think I ever equated horror with sci-fi before hearing Jeff Wayne’s lunatic endevour. Perhaps I was just a bit too young to deal with it, but for whatever reason the story always struck me as being very disturbing. I’d heard of War of the Worlds before and was desperate to read the book, but I’d never come across a copy of it, and the Jeff Wayne version was the first time I heard the story told in any detail. And was it ever heavy: Martians land in Woking in Surrey; cold, inscrutable and utterly alien Martians that set innocent people on fire and burned them to a crisp with weapons no humans can understand. Then they proceed to destroy (English) civilisation, leaving mankind a shallow wreck of its former self, peopled by lunatics and delusionals, with no hope of victory or redemption. There is the infamous 'happy' ending of course, though as a child I found it somewhat tacked-on. I found the description of the alien invasion chillingly realistic and believable, but found the quick-fix-it ending (nothing the humans do succeeds; the Martians are killed by bacteria) unconvincing and therefore unconsoling. And all of this set to the most otherworldly sounds that British 70s prog-rock could offer.

The red weed: H. G. Wells was ahead of the game with the whole 'invasive alien species' thing.

 A couple of years later, we discovered that another neighbour living down the road had the actual LP from the 70s. This opened a whole new level of trauma: the paintings of the Martians themselves contained within the booklet and on the front cover. The tripods just looked so alien; they seemed so organic with their insect eyes that we were unsure whether they were supposed to be the Martians themselves or if they were machines controlled from within, which only added to the horror. This lunatic notion, though clearly contradicted by the text, was due largely to one image of crows tearing bright red strips of flesh from a fallen tripod. But for me, the most stirring illustration was of a tripod destroying a London street, with Victorian pedestrians fleeing in terror, passing so close to the ‘camera’ that we can see the blood and sweat and fear on their faces. Horrifying. When I read the book now, I see it as an ingenius and original book in which the Martians are stand-ins for various issues that troubled the Victorian psyche. Back then, I couldn’t see anything other than the sheer horror of the invasion.


And possibly the most important factor that made this traumatic for me was that it was all happening in the 19th century. I was deeply troubled that these people were being confronted by a horror that they had no means of understanding, never mind combating. They used useless superstition (ie, religion) to try to explain what was happening, because the truth was beyond anything they could understand. I found this incredibly sad.

Partly because of this exposure at an impressionable age, and partly because unlike virtually every other adaptation (that shitty Asylum movie never happened lalalala I CAN’T HEAR YOU) the album keeps the Victorian setting of the original, it has always stuck with me as being the definitive version of the tale. Even as I read the book, and I’ve read it many times, when I imagine the Martian tripods wreaking havoc on small-town Surrey, it’s Wayne’s iconic silver green-bug-eyed tripods that I see. When the tripods raise their hoods to utter a call of triumph across the Home Counties landscape, it’s Wayne’s terrifying UULLLLLAAAAAAAAA that I hear. And I know that I’m not alone: a quick gander at the Amazon review for the album confirms that for many people, Jeff Wayne’s War remains a disturbing and definitive retelling of Wells’ original.

Years later, I bought a 2-disc CD version of the album at HMV out of curiosity. It had always remained in my head as this incredibly spooky, terrifying story. And when I put on the disc that first time, I was absolutely flabbergasted …

…at how disco it was.

It’s amazing how things affect you as a child, and it’s amazing how your mind filters out the stuff that’s not meaningful to you. Back then, it was the visceral alien-invasion stuff that resonated. I didn’t really know or care what disco was, so that part of the experience simply washed over me. There’s no denying that the album is very 70s. But once Richard Burton’s stern (though surely not sober) voice began that ominous narration that I still know off by heart so many years later, and those eerie strings started their staccato wailing, something deep inside rumbled, my spine tingled with real fear, and I looked to the skies with trepidation.

SHE'S BEEN TAKEN... by the Martians.


  1. Great piece, spot on about the disco but I guess one can make the argument that the 70's disco movement is just as alien and out of place as the martians themselves in 19th century Surrey. Imagine being a Victorian gentleman, out for a leisurely jaunt in the countryside on your penny-farthing when all of a sudden you see a meteorite crash in the fields yonder, slowly a tripod begins to rise up from the ash & debris, the whole scene orchestrated to Mussorgskys Night On Bald Mountain

    Now imagine the same scene except this time to David Shires Night on Disco Mountain

  2. based on william burroughs
    cities of the red night