Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds Revisited
No one would have believed, in the last years of the 1970s, that musicians' affairs were being listened to from the timeless realm of cyberspace. No one could have dreamed that they were being scrutinized as an archaeologist with brush and chisel studies the shards of and middens of forgotten civilizations. And yet, across the gulf of decades, minds not measurably more arrogant than their own regarded those years with the condescension of history and slowly, and surely, passed their judgements upon them.
— (With apologies to the shade of H.G. Wells)
Sometimes we outgrow the art we loved in our childhood or youth, but sometimes we lay aside a book or an album without fully intending to, until it is simply forgotten, like an old cup left outside and covered with the detritus of years.
But every once in a while, and more as if remembering a box long stored in the attic than unearthing something buried in the back yard, we come upon something we'd very nearly forgotten and find that it is unbroken, just waiting for re-connection.
And so it was that I recently re-connected with both Jeff Wayne and H.G. Wells — not to mention with the genre of 'progressive rock'. One of the fundamental roots of modern science fiction and one of the bizarre mutant descendants of rhythm 'n blues — how could I resist?
And how can you? But be warned: there is a sample on auto-play in the main story. If don't want to listen to it, look below the image at the upper left for the "off" button.
The War of the Worlds, the musical (no, really!)
|The dramatic cover to the awkwardly titled, Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of the War of the Worlds.
Click the 'stop' button below to turn off the sound.
As I always have, I missed out on this year's free comic book day; more than ever, I doubt it was much of a loss for me. As I coincidentally re-discovered on Monday afternoon, the stock at Ottawa's Silver Snail doesn't seem to extend much beyond the range of the long-underwear set, a genre which I mostly outgrew quite a few years ago. (Though I admit that, on my way out, the buck-a-book box near the front cash caught my attention in a pretty big way and I very nearly came away with an issue of Batman that I'd once purchased new back in 1979.)
Some long-underwear comics
I'm not ashamed I like
I know, it's a pretty short list. I'm sure I've missed some worthy comics, but I am also equally confident I haven't missed many.
Not so much because super-heroic figures are by their nature trivial fantasies (though they are, and it's a hard thing to make something more of them), but I rather because corporate properties are corporate properties and you need not only an exceptional artists to do something with them, but the happy coincidence of a wise steward at company HQ, willing to risk a drop in a cash-cow's productivity. But that's another column entirely.
Regardless, as with C.C. Beck (see sidebar, right or my recent ), some of the flotsam and jetsam of one's youth holds up better than others.
Take The War of the Worlds as a fer'instance.
That's right. That Richard Burton: Liz Taylor's ex.
Of course, the beast wasn't called Richard Burton's Musical Version of the War of the Worlds, but Jeff Wayne's — but I knew Burton's name (if not his work) and to my 12 or 13 year-old Inner Snob, it was a name added more than a dollop of respectable gravitas to the project.
Mind you, I would probably have sought it ought without Burton and despite the fact I had no idea who Jeff Wayne was. I did know who Justin Haywood was, because The Moody Blue, I thought then, were heirs to The Beatles. And more to the point, because (I think it was) Spider Robinson, writing in the late, lamented Galileo magazine.
Robinson (if it indeed was he; if I still have my copy it is packed away in a box), waxed enthusiastic indeed about the double album. He praised the music, the lyrics and even the artwork contained in the accompanying 16-page(!) booklet, not to mention Burton's narration.
Rock and roll, science fiction and Spider Robinson says it's really good? Sign me up!
But I was a poor young teenager in those days, and by the time I managed to acquire a copy, it was on a pair of cassettes, with a cover vastly reduced in size and with no booklet whatsoever.
|Primitive times in the annals of musical appreciation. The cassette tape is one technology I don't think anyone misses. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. (And pictured quite a bit smaller than life.|
But what the hell. Then as now, it was the music I was most interested in, not the extras, no matter how pretty.
Wayne's rock opera was definitely a product of its time. And at that time, I thought it a wonder. The mere fact of it — of 80 or so minutes of coherent music telling the story of H.G. Wells' famous novel was in and of itself an amazing thing, almost unique in my experience. I think at that time I was familiar only with Rice and Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar and, just possibly, with The Who's Tommy.
So like the proverbial dog passing out hors d'oeuvres without eating any of them, Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of the War of the Worlds impressed the hell out of me. It had excellent source material and treated it with respect; it had excellent production values, virtuoso musicianship and, y'know, some pretty catchy tunes along with what I thought was a very creative and convincing use of music as auditory special effects. Compare the sounds of the Martians triumphant death ray as their tripods crush human resistance, to those they make when the aliens are dying. One doesn't expect to feel sympathy for the invaders, but that dying howl would move the stoniest heart.
I listed to those tapes quite a few times over two or three years but, as usually happens, the album slowly dropped out of rotation.
And I admit, peer pressure had something to do with that. I played it for a couple of friends in high school, musician-types themselves and had it soundly mocked for my efforts.
In my crowd, raw and ragged authenticity was in, preferably with a dollop of political message — Lennon, not McCartney; Billy Bragg, not Elton John; The Clash, not The Police. Slick and polished entertainments was definitely out.
And so Wayne's opus became not just a guilty pleasure but a secret pleasure and that secrecy soon enough gave way to embarrassment and then to blissful amnesia.
The return of the Martians
|One very bad thing deserves mentioning, especially if you haven't yet listened to the album but intend to.
Do yourself a favour and just skip the second epilogue, okay? In our world, there was no Martian invasion in 1898 and, if there had been, NASA wouldn't send a god damned unarmed space ship to Mars! Ret-conning Wells' story into the present is just silly instead of scary or creepy.
I guess at this point it's pretty obvious that I stumbled across the album again the other day, isn't it?
And you know what? Fuck my snobbish authenticity-is-all high-school friends; and fuck my self-conscious teenage self, too. The record actually is a well-crafter 80 minute entertainment and one that has aged better than many artefacts from the 1970s.
It's still a coherent musical narrative that (I think) quite faithfully adapts Wells' vision to a late-20th century musical style. It boasts some strong songs and very good players and Burton, slumming though he probably was, was the consummate pro in one of his final performances.
From the opening lines, "No one would have believed, in the last years of the 19th century ...", Burton owns the role and the listener is happy to settle in to listen to the story. Somehow, Wayne's score fits the clash of steam and space and the ensuing destruction beautifully.
Is it a classic record, which you must rush out to buy? (Or try to get a ticket to the stage show? Who knew?)
Well, no. Not quite, not necessarily.
The underlying musical theme suffers from an unfortunate, robotic disco-style back-beat that grates after a while, and only a couple of songs approach the best pieces that grace, say, the aforementioned Jesus Christ Superstar; not even "Thunder Child" can stand up with "Strange Thing Mystifying" or "This Jesus Must Die", let alone with or "Everything's Alright" or "Blood Money".
But "Thunder Child" is a powerful song in its own right, the others bear repeat listening and I can't think of one that's a genuine dog.
So all-in-all, this was a happy rediscovery. If you're partial to rock operas, Wayne's is a superior example of the form and if you also enjoy science fiction, you're pretty sure to enjoy it.
But if hip hop or aye-tiddley-aye music is your preferred genre, Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of the War of the Worlds probably isn't the cross-over record you need. Regardless, I'm not going to let it fall out of my rotation any time too soon, even if its orbital years is on the order of a terrestrial annum.