Saturday, July 17, 2010

Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds - (1978, double LP)

click to enlarge

Click: "No one would have believed..."

In the early 80s there was a radio station in San Antonio with the call letters KLLS, which played what I think they call "adult contemporary" music. I listened to it a lot between the time that I got tired of listening to what was passing for "country" back then and before I started really listening to rock. Anyhow, one day as it was approaching Halloween they had an announcement that beginning at 10:00 PM on Halloween night they were going to play this album in full (Halloween being the time of the broadcast of the old Orson Wells radio adaptation). At the time, I had never heard of it, but they did a good job of talking it up and everything they said about it made me want to hear it.

So at ten o'clock on Halloween night I was ready, with my boombox set up with a couple of fresh cassettes, and I taped the whole thing. They did indeed play the album in full, with no commercial interruptions, which seems quite amazing now since this album runs more than 90 minutes. And since no one at any record stores had ever heard of this thing, those radio tapes were the only copy I had of it for several years. Any time I ran into someone with whom I'd have a conversation about music, I made it a point to ask if they had ever heard of it, always seeking information on it. No one ever had.

Jeff Wayne has an entry on Wikipedia that can fill in lots of blanks. As a quick summary here I can say that he is a musician (keyboardist and composer) who has written many theme songs and jingles but has produced only two albums, of which this is one. The other is a musical version of Spartacus which apparently is no longer in print and available only as a collector's item.

The mid-80s came along and one night at work I was talking music with a co-worker who had also become my friend (Babel and Brer might remember shift leader Greg) and I was surprised and delighted to discover that he had actually heard the album! A friend of his from high school had bought it and he had made tapes of it for himself but eventually wore them out.

More time went by, several months at least. One night at work he told me that he had seen the album at Hastings that day! He said he almost bought it, but he knew how badly I wanted it so he had left it there for me, and if I didn't buy it the next day he was going to go in and get it himself (if no one else had bought it, either). I thanked him profusely and hurried in the next day to buy it for myself. The one I bought was the only one on their racks, and it was never replaced after I bought it.

This is a rock musical adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, of course, and you can read all about it at the link. It was ground-breaking in its use of electronic orchestration. It is also unique, I think, in using rock music to adapt a classic of literature. I don't think there is any other album like it (except perhaps for the out-of-print Spartacus, which I have never heard).

There are several recurring motifs used throughout the album, and I have included clips of two of the most famous here. The first is an ominous-sounding monophonic synthesizer portamento that signals the approach or nearby presence of Martians: ominous. In this version from the beginning of the story there are background sounds like a heartbeat and crickets chirping (or something). Later versions have a repetitive staccato synthesizer pulse that follows the "ominous" sound.

I think the most famous motif, and the sound by which secret fans of the album recognize each other (joke--sort of), is the "ulla" sound. This is how it's spelled in the liner notes, but it isn't a very expressive spelling. I think a better way to spell it would be "OOOOHHHLLLLLLAAAAAAHHHHH!!!" The album credits state that this is performed by Jo Partridge and is "The Heat Ray," however whoever wrote the credits made a small mistake here. This is not the sound of the actual heat ray, but the sound the Martians howl as they are attacking. Click to listen: ulla. The last time we hear this sound, it is no longer a blood-curdling attack howl, but a ghastly death moan as the Martians lie dying from Terran diseases against which they have no immunity: ulla death.

Some of the performers on this album are still unfamiliar to me, though I know they are much more well-known in England: the aforementioned Jo Partridge as the voice of the Martians; Julie Covington as Beth, the parson's wife; David Essex as the Artilleryman; and Chris Thompson who sings one of the album's two singles, "Thunder Child." However other names are known to me and probably to you as well: actor Richard Burton plays the Journalist, who narrates the story in first person; Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues sings two pieces, "The Eve of the War" and "Forever Autumn," the latter of which was another single released from the album; and Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy who plays Parson Nathaniel and sings a duet with Julie Covington in "The Spirit of Man." Here's another quick sound clip of Lynott as Parson Nathaniel: devil. I've been considered loading this one onto my phone and turning it into an interesting ring tone.

The album is long even for a double LP, running about 94 minutes total. I worked with special care on this one because I wanted to get a really good rip. This time I did something I hadn't done before: after I had finished working it over, I burned the wavs to CD so that I could re-rip them and go back and fix any new noise that I might have missed. Of course I then converted the wavs to mp3 so I could play them on my computer or mp3 player.

The album was later released on CD and still later re-released on enhanced CD with lots of extras. If any of this sounds even remotely interesting to you, I recommend that you buy it, and I don't think you will be sorry for it.

Amazon link: Jeff Wayne


  1. Good stuff, Maynard. I just recently listened to my copy all over again.

  2. I was exposed to this in the mid/late 70's and looked for a copy of my own for years. I got my first of several in 1995 on ebay. I bought the original album on vinyl. Picture book and all. I am glad that I was not the only one who remembered this great piece of Musical history. I had a great moment a few months back while listening to "Forever Autumn" on my MP3 at work (remodeling an appartment complex) a resident came out side and called up to me and said 'You are listening to Jeff Wayne aren't You?' Yes I was. I was surprised How Young this Hippy lookin' dude was to know This music. But Maybe his Dad had the album. (?)

    Anyway Good on Y', C