If that brings back memories of soul-numbing fear, you and I are on the same wavelength.
In the history of British music, has there ever been anything more charmingly bonkers produced than Jeff Wayne’s musical The War Of The Worlds?
I first discovered this musical insanity when I was a kid, going through some tapes (remember those?) my uncle had left behind on one of his infrequent visits to the family home (he was a jetsetting chef, working contracts in chain hotels all over the world). Being familiar with television adaptations of Wyndham’s The Tripods, which the Martian war machines on the cover reminded me of, I thought I was putting on an audio book of that story. It took about fifteen seconds before I realised how wrong I was.
The other day, in a fit of nostalgia (and also, for various reasons, because I needed to get into a Victorian mindset), I picked the remastered version of this bizarre rock opera off the shelf at HMV, and have been listening to it since. It’s easier to see its flaws today, but that doesn’t kill the love. Firstly, there’s Burton’s fabulous performance, straight out of old style radio drama. Forget your James Earl Joneses and Morgan Freemans – if the end of the world needs to be narrated, Burton is the one I want to hear do it. His performance is what binds the whole thing together – the utter obliviousness to the fact that he’s in an opera at all is what sells the story. His crisp, matter-of fact narration is perfect, making the most of some gloriously evocative bits of text, and when he ups the drama with just a vocal twitch (the quaver when he describes a war machine over Big Ben, or the tiny break when he sees his missing love pulling out of a harbour on a heaving ferry), it’s perfect.
As is the story, but do remember to read the book. The musical only hints at the horror of the martians rooting for human bodies, or the doomed, heroic last stand of the Thunder Child and her crew as they try to defend the last boat out of England against five war machines, or the madness of Nathaniel, a man of God struggling to rationalise the demons he sees around him with his faith. Consider this the Cliff Notes, set to prog-rock…
Because, yes, it’s all surrounded by the most bizarre studio rock you’ve ever heard. Some of it is brilliant – the soundscaping around the first Martian crash on the common, or the red weed growing over the earth, for example. Some of it is horribly over-earnest, like the saccharine Forever Autumn, played over the Burton’s otherwise intensely evocatve descriptions of six million refugees running headlong through the streets of London.
Somehow, it all works. It really shouldn’t. I absolutely should not feel an intense joy as I listen to it. My partner’s right – it’s an embarrassing mess.
But I adore it.
Now, if I could only remember where I put those William Shatner albums…