I remember being utterly enthralled on first hearing Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of H.G. Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds’. It was back in 1978 not long after the album had been released that our next door neighbour, who had a copy on compact cassette tape, let my mum know that I should really take a listen to it because it was ‘my kind of thing’ – I was 12 years old at the time and very much into science fiction. The experience of listening to the musical (in stereo!) over headphones was spell-binding. Richard Burton’s narration had me hooked from the start and the combination of his resonant voice with the beautifully orchestrated rock performances of Phil, Lynott, David Essex, Julie Covington and Justin Hayward made it magical and compulsive listening.
Wayne’s big score musical interpretation and arrangement of Wells’s visionary novel is more sophisticated and involved than a typical rock or pop song. There’s much happening in terms of dynamics and movement within the composition as sections and motifs recur and keys and time signatures shift and change. The beauty is that this all works and sounds natural and unforced, unlike some progressive rock music which more often than not sounds contrived – being clever just for the sake of it. What follows is a deconstruction of the musical arrangement to reveal it’s structure and hopefully shed some light on the compositional processes Wayne employed to bring Wells’s novel to life.
The first side of the album could be considered as being based on symphonic form where ‘The Eve of the War’ is the first ‘movement’ in the key of Dm. The piece immdediately sets the tone with a pace of urgency. Wayne uses heavy and bombastic of orchestration and synthesisers to carry the main melody whilst also capturing a mood of Victorian nostalgia through the use of harpsichord. The main riff (lead motif) is played against a pedal note and the dissonance between them creates a dramatic air of tension. Wayne’s approach here was to utilise traditional orchestration of string sections and wind instruments such as the oboe to represent humanity and play these instruments against the latest (often customised) synthesisers along with heavily fuzzed guitar riffs to represent the Martians and their mighty heat ray weapon. Other motifs of what’s to come can be heard in this piece including the ‘woo, woo, woos’ where pure sinewave tones just hang in the air. This is reminiscent of the melody for BBC television sci-fi drama ‘Doctor Who’ theme music where composer Delia Derbyshire utilised a test signal generator to achieve this effect.
The pace slows down but the tension moves up a notch in the second movement, ‘Horsell Common and the Heat Ray’ which is in the key of G#m. Bass guitar lays down an unrelenting and menacing groove whilst homemade sound effects – created by scraping two saucepans together and close micing them in stereo – set the scene of the Martian cylinder lid slowly unscrewing in the pit. The cylinder opens and the Martians make their appeareance. Wayne describes this piece as his, ‘fat man theme’, where he uses a combination of Tar (an ancient plucked instrument) and wobbly synth sounds to convincingly depict the huge, bulbous and clumsy bodies of the Martians. The ‘War of the Worlds’ was originally serialised in an adventure magazine before it was first published as a whole in a book. Each episode ended as a cliff-hanger and Wayne took his cue from this. Side one leaves the listener in suspense wanting to hear more…
The structure of side two is symmetrical with the love song ‘Forever Autumn’ bookended between two battle scenes. The first battle scene, ‘The Artilleryman and the Fighting Machine’ begins in G#m (following on from ‘Horsell Common and the Heat Ray’) and then key changes to Db at around 3 minutes into the piece. This creates a sense of tension and movement as the artilleryman and the narrator make their journey across the landscape of a battle-scarred London. The tempo also increases at this point alerting the listener that something is about to happen. And it does – a Martian fighting Machine appears. At this point, Wayne makes another key change to Dm and recapitulates the main theme. From here on the rest of side two is in Dm.
The next piece is the beautifully crafted song ‘Forever Autumn’ sung by Justin Hayward. This is the romantic element of the album. Here the pace slows down and becomes sadder and more nostalgic. It’s apparent that Wayne has put considerable thought and care into ensuring that this musical is well balanced and not running at full steam continuously. ‘Forever Autumn’ is a respite from all the intense battle action.