“a ‘Lights Out’ television show, and ‘Amos and Andy’ on the radio”
– Gene Cotton, “Like a Sunday in Salem”
When people think of rock operas, they normally think of Tommy, Ziggy Stardust, I Robot, maybe even Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (the movie version of which nearly killed the careers of Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees.) Who would have thought that “War Of The Worlds” would have been ripe for rock opera? Jeff Wayne did.
Released in the United States in 1978, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War Of The Worlds features movie legend Richard Burton as The Journalist, with performances by Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, Chris Thompson of Mannford Mann’s Earth Band, David Essex, and others.
The plot is a fairly standard retelling of the original H.G. Wells novel set at the turn of the century. The Martians invade. We don’t have a chance.
Richard Burton’s reporter is one of the first people on the scene when the cylinders begin landing on the Earth, and he wanders through the English countryside following the devastation caused by the Martians. For the most part, Burton provides a strong performance. At times though, he seems detached, as though he’s reading words on a page, not witnessing “the rout of civilization, the massacre of mankind.”
Julie Covington steals the show as Beth, the wife of Parson Nathaniel, who is played by Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy. Her crisp, impassioned voice coupled with her lyrics in “The Spirit Of Man” provide the psychological and emotional underpinning of the entire double album, and provides a counterpoint to Lynott’s over-the-top performance.
Musically, JWMVWotW betrays its mid-1970s roots. It’s heavy with synthesizers and tends to fall into a disco-like beat from time to time. But there’s a little bit of something for everyone. More than 20 years later it still sounds fresh. Just as with any good opera, the music establishes moods and becomes an uncredited actor in the proceedings, filling in gaps that aren’t spoken, sung, or otherwise voiced.
The initial uncapping of one of the Martian cylinders and the attack of the heat ray are absolutely hair-raising, and the spread of the red weed is decidedly eerie. At first, the voice of the Martians is goofy and somewhat annoying. But soon, it becomes terrifying and ominous.
“Forever Autumn” (which was released as a single) and “Thunder Child” are the centerpieces that bring hope and ultimately hopelessness. Later, with “happy” arrangements of most of the musical themes, David Essex explains his vision of a “Brave New World”, which is both stirring and sad.
Overall, JWMVWotW is a nearly flawless synthesis of a strong narrative and an equally strong musical score.
Disc one: The Coming Of The Martians
- The Eve Of The War (9:07)
- Horsell Common and the Heat Ray (11:36)
- Artilleryman and the Fighting Machine (10:37)
- Forever Autumn (7:42)
- Thunder Child (6:07)
Disc two: The Earth Under The Martians
- Red Weed part 1 (5:53)
- Spirit Of Man (11:38)
- Red Weed part 2 (5:25)
- The Artilleryman Returns (1:27)
- Brave New World (12:15)
- Dead London (8:35))
- Epilogue part 1 (2:31)
- Epilogue part 2 – NASA (1:50)
Released by: Columbia
Release date: 1978
Disc one total running time: 45:10
Disc two total running time: 49:36