I was thinking of this album only a few weeks ago after I bought a second-hand record of Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the World and was comparing the two. They’re very similar in terms of concept and approach, putting to music a classic of early sci-fi literature, but with different degrees of commercial and critical success. In fact, given that Wakeman produced his prog-rock-sci-fi-high-concept opus four years prior to Wayne he would be forgiven for being pretty miffed at the latter’s greater success.
So why has this progtastic magnum opus, spawning top 40 singles and touring sell out shows with an all star cast (well hello again Jason Donovan) done so well when Wakeman’s has become an interesting footnote in the more conceptual end of the concept album oeuvre? Well, it’s largely because of the tunes. Waynes has loads, Wakeman less so. Plus this has a driving rhythm and energy, excellent adaptation from HG Wells’ novel by Doreen Wayne, as well one of Elton John’s lyricists, Gary Osborne, on song-writing duty, and a talented and diverse cast of singers (Justin Hayward, Phil Lynott, David Essex and Julie Covington). Plus of course the unmistakable tones of Richard Burton as the narrator.
(If you’re going to be so bold as to take on a story that had already been so infamously adapted for radio by Orson Welles (scaring the he-jeebies out of listeners at the time – it was so convincingly real) then you’ve got to have a voice with sufficient gravitas to take on Welles. Burton is that man.
War of the Worlds is much more radio friendly than Wakeman’s similar tales of Victorian derring-do, but also far less musically and orchestrally complex than Rick’s offering. This is probably also one of the reasons it is more popular, it’s an easy and extremely fun listen. That’s not a criticism, the music is excellent and there’s never a dull moment or dud track. You get everything from great guitar riffs, expert orchestration and scintillating synths – producing the fantastic fantasy sounds of Martians, such as the infamous ‘Ulla!’ sound. There’s even the traditional Persian instruments of the Tar and Santur on there somewhere adding to the mix. Wayne has also mastered the feat of delivering just three notes which are utterly unmistakable and equally thrilling to hear. This beats Beethoven’s previous four note record from his 5th Symphony.
I have two copies of this album. The original gatefold vinyl release and a beautifully remastered and repackaged double CD, with detailed booklet (with all the words) and some unreleased drafts of some of the fantastic art that contributes significantly to the overall immersive experience, by Peter Goodfellow, Geoff Taylor and Michael Trim. Whereas the 2005 repackage is splendid the art is so much better appreciated in glorious gatefold, but (not cheating!) that’s not the record that came up on the randometer, so I’ll save that for next time.
Ultimately, there’s nothing quite so invigorating about an impending apocalypse.
Best Bits: “The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, he said.” Famous. Last. Words.
Genre: Pop-Lit Sci Fi High Concept Heaven
Like This, Try This: Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the World
Postscript: There was a fantastic radio programme about the making of this record on BBC iPlayer a few years ago, which made a comeback for the album’s 40th anniversary earlier this year. It’s currently no longer available, but here’s the link in case it makes another reappearance.