Interview: Jeff Wayne on War Of The Worlds

The man behind one of the most successful concept albums ever chats with us...

Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds

The interview with Jeff Wayne the composer of one of the music industry’s biggest selling albums ever, The War Of The Worlds, was set for 5pm and I was excited. I had loved this musical double album since I was a child. Its eerie subject matter of evil aliens invading Earth from their home planet of Mars has held the attention of young and old alike since its original author, HG Wells, wrote it back in the 1800s.

Next came the radio interpretation by a then unknown actor Orson Wells, which was aired on the dark night of 30 October 1938 as a Halloween special, acted out as sporadic news bulletins spread out over 60 minutes. These were so authentic that many of the American public listening in actually believed that a Martian invasion was happening.

It was to be another 15 years before our next Martian encounter when, in 1953, director Byron Haskin took us by the hand and led us into the visual nightmare world of a Martian attack.

So, who better to ask when the Martians are due to arrive at Heathrow Airport then Jeff Wayne himself, the man behind the musical version of The War Of The Worlds, now available live on stage!

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Hi Jeff, its a great pleasure to be speaking with you today.

Its a pleasure to be here…

So, this is the 30th anniversary of your legendary take on HG Wells classic novel. Originally you were a well-respected composer in the TV, film and advert world, as well as producing for the likes of David Essex. What made you want to take on such an ambitious project and did you ever think that it would ever be held in such high esteem, as it is today…?

Well, back in the 1970s, when I was working with David Essex, he asked me if I would be his musical director, which meant I had to find a full band to put together for touring, amongst other things. That was actually a big job at the time for me to take on, but later on my father reminded me that one of my aspirations as a composer at the beginning of my career was to find and interpret two or three stories that I felt passionate about and to conceive my take on them. It was in the second year of touring with David that someone passed me a copy of the book of HG Wells’s The War Of The Worlds to read and what I discovered was this fantastic Victorian tale that had great vision and I just fell in love with it.

Yes, your take on the story is now legendary and after 30 years its a testament that your version is still as powerful and gripping as it was when it first appeared…….

Thanks, that means a lot.

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One thing I love about your original production is that you used lots of synthesizers, which was a brave move in the 1970s, seeing as the era was very much guitar orientated. Was the decision to include them made because of the sci-fi connection to the project or was it just because they were there in Advision Studios at the time and you thought it was a good idea?

Well in truth, neither. The synthesizer period was really starting towards the end of the 1960s and this was when my career really started to take off. I was always interested in blending unusual sounds with traditional sounds and the Moog 3C was the biggest, most adventurous synth out there at the time, around 1968 to 1969, and I was one of the first few to actually get one, and by the time the mid 1970s came around, when The War Of The Worlds was my challenge, I was by then familiar with not only the Moog 3C, but all the synths that were growing out of those first generation of synthesizers and The War Of The Worlds was the right story to blend both worlds, meaning that when the story is being seen from the human characters’ eyes the music was all orchestral and organic, whereas when it is seen from Martian eyes, with all their weaponry & machinery, it was all about the synths and the guitars. That was what was going on in my head! 

Well, I for one thought it really worked! One image that stands in my mind is the front cover of the album as well as the accompanying booklet where we see the now iconic Martian fighting machines, which, for me, is up there with HR Giger’s Alien design. How did that all come about and were you very active in its creation……?

We knew that we wanted to work with painters and artists that had an understanding of science fiction and the Victorian age, and the art director my father and I chose to work with was a guy called John Pesche who had an amazing understanding of what we wanted for the album and booklet, and to give you an idea on just how diverse his talents were, and still are, he’s the guy who created the famous Rolling Stones tongue!

Wow!

Yeah, so John Pesche designed the logo which says Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds and he also introduced us to the traditional Victorian writing we used. He also put us together with other artists and animators, but they all had to be skilled enough to work with paint.

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It was Michael Trim who created the Martian fighting machines, which started life as pencil sketches that I still actually have to this day, and eventually they ended up as finished paintings. With all the other artists, they came in and we went through the whole structure of what I wanted and then everyone went away, read the book and all came back with ideas.

Basically, it took about a year to get the full artwork finished and packaged, but I think that they all created an image that has lasted 30 years. In fact, we have a full-scale Martian machine around 30-feet high in the show that is based on the paintings and it actually functions in a way that the audience actually becomes part of the whole show. It’s really quite an amazing piece of engineering, but if it wasn’t for Michael Trim and his paintings, we wouldn’t have the Martian shipthat we havetoday!

On the original album you had the likes of David Essex, Phil Lynott and the legendary Richard Burton who’s take on the narrative was amazing (and who is still heard on this tour). Other than the return of some favourites, such as the Moody Blues’ Justin Hayward, what made you decide on the current cast?

With the exception of Justin Hayward and Chris Thompson, who were originally on the album and whose roles were really non-age specific, the other main parts were age specific. The part of the young artillery man, which was originally played by David Essex, is for someone in his early twenties. Like me, David is now 30 years older, so it was really a non-starter to have him back to play this role. In fact, we had quite a laugh about him coming back on stage today to play this role live again and there are actually three characters like that, the part David played, the part Phil Lynott played (MH: For those that don’t know, Dubliner Phil Lynott was the front man to one of the 1970s most popular rock acts Thin Lizzy, but, sadly, he died of a drug overdose at a very young age) and the part Julie Covington played, so they were all pretty much age specific, so that automatically opens the gates to casting the parts as best we could for each of the tours that we do. 

Obviously, not everyone is available for each one that we do, so it’s a nice challenge to have new actors come in, put their take on the role, which in turn gives you a new spin on what to me is a 30-year-old piece of work.

Yes, but what a piece of work it is, and as I mentioned earlier in this interview, the piece has stood the test of time due to the fact that the sales figures for the album show that it has spent a staggering 30 years in the UK album charts since its first release and has never moved, which I think is probably something that we will never see again due to the current era of poor record sales mainly due to illegal downloading. But do YOU ever think that this type of project could ever happen again and if so, what advice would you give to the next budding Jeff Wayne?

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You know, I think that you’ve asked me a really good question, Michael. The answer would have to be probably unlikely. In truth, to even get it out 30 years ago about two thirds of the costs came out of my own life savings, so I didn’t even have the full backing of the record label. When we handed it in, they said they believed in the project, but there were no guarantees that they would put it out. If I walked into a record label with this project today, I doubt that they would even gamble on something that didn’t fit in with the format of the day. I think that the options for today’s Jeff Wayne, who would have the passion to do something like The War Of The Worlds, would be to find your own way of recording it, release it on the internet or have it backed as a live piece to start, then hook up with a record label to see if they would support it.

Yes, but even then it would be pretty hard to even get the chance to have it released in today’s climate, as the record companies all seem pretty much out of touch with what the public actually want…

That’s right, but don’t forget that we had two hit singles, Forever Autumn and The Eve Of The War, that gave the opportunity for radio to play those cuts as normal releases instead of just having to play a full concept album, so we were lucky in that sense. So I would say to anyone aspiring to take on such a project today, keep your eye on reality and don’t just hope that the public tune in to your vision. Back then, I was just a hungry musician who wanted to reach the widest possible audience that I could without giving up the credibility or challenge that may never come again in my whole lifetime.

I’d like to move on if I may to the CGI head of the late, great actor Richard Burton who not only supplied the voice of the narrator on the original release, but his image and voice is also used for the live show. Everyone now agrees that this is just about as an iconic image as the Martian fighting machines. Has this design changed for this tour or are you a believer in the ‘if it’s not broke don’t fix it’ way of thinking?

Well, this time around we have used a combination of two technologies, instead of just the still motion capture of Richard’s head with only the mouth moving from back in 2006. These are motion capture and computers both of which we used to bring him to life based on how Richard looked in his mid-thirties, which, incidentally, is the age that our journalist is meant to be, and then the image is projected as a 3-D holographic performance which stands at about eleven-foot high.

It also turns completely and even interacts with the characters on stage that perform with him, this we couldn’t do on our first tour. You really have to see it in its live form as it is spellbinding because of its three-dimensional qualities and because it hovers above the stage!

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And I think you’re absolutely right that it has now become as iconic as the Martian fighting machines.

Sounds amazing…

It is!! The one regret is that we never got to film Richard Burton performing the part, we have a few snap shots, but to have taken live footage and put it through CGI for the tour would have been amazing.

It would have been great, yes, but back then how could you have known that your musical version The War Of The Worlds would be held in such high and be one of the biggest selling albums of all time, you just wouldn’t have guessed, right…?

You’re absolutely right, Michael, we didn’t have a clue. I think that in today’s world of multimedia you would probably, even from just a commercial point of view, be filming and taking more images of all the people participating for websites, TV and digital stations that would be relevant for their particular medium. You would definitely do it a lot differently now compared to back in the mid-1970s.

 Lastly, there have been some innovative remixes done by dance acts over the years of War Of The Words, especially of The Eve Of The War. Would you welcome another interpretation on the theme, or are you done with all that?

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Well, since 1978 we’ve had around 300 club remixes done, and if you stand them up against each other and played them back-to-back you can almost tell the year that they were done, because the beats per minute change, the grooves, the atmospheres and technology change, but if I were remixing it today I would probably leave the club beats and work with R&B or hip hop that I am currently composing & producing for people, as that seems to be the beat of the day and that’s exactly what I was doing back in the 1970s, using what was happening at the time.

Also, I think that if you were going to go back into the club mix arena I would have to think about the current atmospheres and textures they are using and work versions around those. But there is always a life for the next remix to come along and for others to interpret it in their own particular way. As an example, my son is a DJ and he’s done a hip hop/rap version but instead of it being about Martians invading Earth, he’s turned it into a country invading another country, so there are so many ways to interpret it I think.

Jeff Wayne, thank you very much!

For more info on the live stage version of Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds, check out the official site.