Sci Fi Genre Gems: Nuggets from the worlds of science fiction and fantasy that may have slipped under the radar or faded from our memories but that are still deserving of our attention.
Original Release: 1978
Performances: Richard Burton (The Journalist), Justin Hayward (Vocals), David Essex (Vocals and The Artilleryman), Phil Lynott (Vocals and Parson Nathaniel), Julie Covington (Vocals and Beth)
What Is It? In 1978, musician Jeff Wayne put together an ambitious project to produce a musical version of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. This recording, which spanned two LPs (link provided to that term in Wikipedia for those younger readers), combined an orchestra with rock musicians and adapted Wells’ tale using narration, dialogue, and music. Actor Richard Burton voiced the role of the central character from the novel and musicians David Essex, Phil Lynott, and Julie Covington played additional characters and provided vocals for the songs. Moody Blues lead singer Justin Hayward also contributed, providing the vocals for the song “Forever Autumn” which became a worldwide hit single. The album itself was a huge hit upon release and has since sold into the millions and ranks as the 40th best-selling album in the UK.
Why It Stands Out: At a time when science fiction was experiencing a renaissance in a large part because of the Star Wars phenomena, Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds allowed the genre to briefly take over the world of music and to revive interest in the classic tale by H.G. Wells. Up to that point, Wayne was known mostly for composing jingles for advertising and television. But he had bigger aspirations and those came to fruition with this orchestral rock suite that brought together several well-known musicians and actors.
Revisiting it today, modern day listeners may wince from its overbearing 70’s pretentions and cheesiness. This came out at the waning end of the first progressive rock movement and this album gleefully incorporated all of the bombast and pomposity that we saw from the prog/art rock bands in the late 70’s. But the album also has a definite charm to it as well as an addictive quality. You may cringe at times on the first listen (or re-listen for returning fans), but pretty quickly you will find the album’s catchy, poppy tunes buzzing through your head. And it does do a decent enough job of adapting the original story even if it takes some liberties and adds some new characters tailor made to the guest appearances. It’s definitely 70’s cheese from start to finish, but it never sinks under its own weight and in fact rises to the level of guilty pleasure. Just call it H.G. Wells-lite wrapped up with radio-friendly pop tunes.
Interesting Facts: Two video games were released in 1998 based on the album. The version for the PC was a real-time strategy game that allowed the player to take the role of either the defending humans or the attacking Martians. The version for Playstation was a third person shooter game from the perspective of a human fighting the Martians. Plans for a CGI animated film version of the album were announced in 2004, but nothing substantial has come from that announcement yet.
CD/MP3 Availability: The album had a CD re-issue in 2005 which included a 7-disc box set special edition. That set has since gone out of print, though you can still download the entire recording on MP3 or buy the import CD.
Buy the Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version War of the Worlds from Amazon.com: