HG Wells' The War of the Worlds: the greatest story ever told

Jeff Wayne's adaptation of The War of the Worlds was the most unlikely musical phenomenon of the Seventies. With a blockbuster film version set to invade cinemas this summer, he explains why HG Wells' tale of alien conquest remains the greatest story ever told
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The Independent Culture

I find it hard to believe that it was 30 years ago, almost to the day, that my father first handed me HG Wells's story. He wanted me to consider turning this seminal English author's visionary work into a musical interpretation. After one read I was hooked.

I find it hard to believe that it was 30 years ago, almost to the day, that my father first handed me HG Wells's story. He wanted me to consider turning this seminal English author's visionary work into a musical interpretation. After one read I was hooked.

Wells's tale of Martian invasion must have been utterly terrifying when it was first published in 1898. Victorian readers must have thought the Martians were the devil incarnate, wreaking havoc on all mankind. The world then was a more innocent place - Queen Victoria presided over a huge global empire, it was the height of the steam age and the mid-point of the greatest period of industrial expansion.

I found this fascinating. To me, the concept of alien invaders from Mars during the late 1890s was a far more terrifying prospect than were they to arrive today. Earthlings now can defend themselves far better with their modern weaponry. Nineteenth-century armies had only rifles and cannons with which to resist an attack. The Martians, though, had an incredible array of weapons - fearsome fighting and flying machines, deadly heat rays, the lethal black smoke and their beautiful but slimy vegetation of death, the red weed.

My father - Jerry Wayne - was a singer, actor, songwriter, author and theatre producer. He first came to England in 1953 when he played the romantic gambler in the original West End production of Guys and Dolls. He was a brilliant man - a big personality with an equally big baritone voice that required no help from a microphone to reach the very last row of the theatre. But his true passion was The War of the Worlds.

Before he gave it to me, I had never heard of it. Nor was I familiar with Orson Welles's 1938 radio production, which had scared the wits out of some very naïve Yanks, or the 1953 Paramount film also set in America - which didn't scare anyone. What inspired me about the book, other than its possibilities from a musician's perspective, was its underlying theme of man's struggle on Earth.

I started work on my musical version in 1975, my father having convinced me that I had enjoyed the pleasures of "rock 'n' roll" a little too much. He also reminded me not to lose sight of the power of "big stories" that could be brought into the public arena. He thought that, through my music, I could not only express myself honestly as a musician, I might, with good fortune, communicate how I felt about the world. The War of the Worlds became our platform to do just that. We were fortunate to acquire - with the exception of the original feature film rights (which are owned by Paramount) all the other rights attached to the story from the estate of HG Wells.

Three years later, in June 1978, in the middle of the punk revolution, my musical version of The War of the Worlds was released. And to everyone's surprise (mine especially), it became a major international success.

No one would believe that a continuous work of 96 minutes - edited down from about two hours and split on to two LPs - could be a commercial success. We also enjoyed two international hit singles, won two Ivor Novello Awards and the USA Best Recording in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Its judges included Alfred Hitchcock, George Lucas - and Steven Spielberg.

Most importantly for me, its success meant that it was also accepted, both as a large scale musical interpretation of a wonderful tale, but as the musical score embodying the era. It was, after all, the Seventies.

Jump forward to late 2002 and I was asked by my record company, the now super-sized Sony BMG, to revisit my old Martian friend and bring it up to date. In addition, they wanted me to make a DVD about how the project came together.

The opportunity to take my Seventies work and put it under the modern microscope was irresistible. And, for me, the DVD was a great chance for a trip down memory lane. Hence, I decided to revisit all the places from the book that inspired me while I was making the record, not just for myself as composer and producer, but also to help find the "spirit" of HG himself.

My first port of call was Primrose Hill, where HG's Martians die at the end of his story. I would go there with my old English sheepdog Oliver almost daily during this period for what became a ritual. While Ollie ran free, I would get caught up in my own world, usually sitting at the top of the hill overlooking London, imagining what it must have been like to live in the Victorian England of the book's setting, facing an invasion from a supremely intelligent force.

My next stop was Horsell Common in Woking, Surrey, where the first cylinder lands containing the initial batch of Martians and their amazing fighting machines. How clever these Martians were, I thought, with no sat-nav or traffic control bringing them in for a perfect landing. But land perfectly they did, right on Horsell Common's most open field with their cylinder pointing right-side-up.

It was here I realised that these were incredibly smart dudes who had the ability to plan precisely not only where they wanted to land, but a place they could safely leave their cylinder and set up camp to begin the process of taking over the Earth. And if anyone was to get in their way, well, they would have produced their heat rays and it would have been game over.

It's easy to forget that in HG Wells's England there were no mobile phones, e-mails or modern transportation, so word of the impending alien onslaught would have initially spread very slowly. In the novel, as word gets around, the streets suddenly turn humanity into a herd of cattle, fleeing London for the seafront in search of route out of England and away from the ever-pursuing Martians.

Next up was the Essex coast. Wells had described not only the area itself perfectly, but all the roads that led to the shore. His images live with me today - of the exodus from the towns turning into a stampede. Six million people unarmed and unprepared. It was a rout of civilization, a massacre of mankind.

Flight and pursuit - conquest and the conquered - these are realities of the modern world. It's hard to tell such stories without using simple analogies, and, I think, it's for exactly this reason that this tale has continued to hold us all in its thrall.

But, then, HG was a very clever bloke - his wasn't just some story of fantasy to pass the readers' idle time, but an analogy for evil and shameless power that would penetrate straight into our moral consciousness.

Every day we read and see in the news of invaders from one nation into another fighting for or against democracy, or in the name of a particular God. It's not a new theme, either - history has repeated itself time and time again. But if those in high political or religious positions cannot solve the world's problems, who then do we believe in? And how many of us would actually stand up and be counted for what we believe in, or for those we loved, even laying down our lives for a principal so others could live?

In The War of the Worlds, HG Wells offers us a curate, or as he was in my musical version, a parson named Nathaniel, a man of the cloth, someone whom people should be able to rely on for physical and spiritual support.

As it turns out, even parson Nathaniel was just as human as the rest of us. In fact, he fails his flock long before the others give up their souls to the Martians. Only his wife Beth knows the essence of life: "There must be something worth living for, something worth dying for, and if one man can stand tall, there must be hope for us all - somewhere, somewhere in the spirit of man."

Another Wellsian character brought into my musical version was the artilleryman (portrayed by David Essex). On my trip back from Southend to London, I kept thinking about how Wells and, later, our team, had wrestled with trying to convey how a common artilleryman could envision a world of survival when parson Nathaniel fails so miserably. In fact, it was this young soldier who had a plan to take the best of those who survived the initial onslaught and rebuild a perfect and brave new world...underground.

What a great idea he had - choose the elite from all walks of life and start all over again! But the thought worried me as well. Who chooses the elite? The artilleryman? Or how about Adolf man? Or Stalin man?

HG Wells didn't just write some simple tale of the shoot 'em up, knock 'em down kind. He wrote about strong themes like the survival of mankind, of evil power unleashed, not by Martians, but by humans here on Earth. Perhaps that's why The War of the Worlds survives today, long after so many other stories of science-fiction have long departed.

When I started working on the project I was a single guy facing the biggest challenge of my career. Today, I'm married with four wonderful children, and look back with great pride on a work that has enjoyed success all over the world.

While some of those who I worked with are now no longer alive - Richard Burton, Phil Lynott, our script writer Doreen Wayne and my father - our collaborations live on. But without HG and his incredible vision, this collaboration of talents would never have happened for me.

Even my 20-year-old son Zeb, a DJ and musician in his own right, tells me that the two tracks from The War of the Worlds he's remixed with a hip-hop/R&B slant have been going down a storm at some of the London clubs he gigs at. At last I've got some street cred with him.

It wouldn't be right not to mention the new Spielberg/Cruise War of The Worlds film. Even with two of the world's most famous movie figures, a $150m production budget and $100m spent on marketing, it seems no one has heard of the film, even though it's opening in a couple of weeks. So let me give it a plug otherwise it may go straight to DVD.

Are you thinking I may have a slight block in accepting this new rendering? Now why would you think that? It's certainly not because they left the "The" off the title, even though HG conceived it as the definitive war of all. Or that it's set in contemporary USA, or that the invaders aren't even from Mars and the red weed is no longer a vegetation of death but some kind of chemical agent. No, it's none of those reasons. It's because I haven't been invited to the premiere.

The War of the Worlds, Double CD and Collectors Edition pack, by Jeff Wayne, is released today on Sony BMG

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