Interview: Jeff Wayne

Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds combines H.G. Wells’ science fiction narrative with obliterating every single convention of popular music. Opening the record with the steady pound of Disco, a symphonic orchestra, elongated guitar solos and mind-bending sound effects: it could only have come from the madness of the 70’s. (Or Mars.) War of the Worlds was the kind of album that your mate’s dad had on in the car while you sat there thinking, what on Earth’s this? Now, Impact meets the man behind the madness, to find out what this actually is.

First up, what are you currently working on?

Since June 2013, I’ve been working on the production of our The War of the Worlds tour which starts in mid-November, it’ll be the sixth time we’ve played in Nottingham. It’s pretty much full-on because every production I’m adding new ingredients from a special effects point-of-view, or for instance I’ve written a new song bringing HG Wells to life live on stage to have his say about why he wrote The War of the Worlds. We have a lot of new CGI so a new production has a lot of new ingredients that demand a lot of time.

Seeing as your Call of the Wild musical has often been mentioned, how is that going? Is it still a plan or has that been shelved?

Not shelved at all no. It’s just, what I couldn’t have told you first time round with my double album in 1978, much less when we started touring the arenas in 2006 that so much of my life would be involved with The War of the Worlds. I’ve actually composed the first piece to The Call of the Wild. That’s a story, unlike The War of the Worlds, that I grew up with. I hope it’s very much on my horizon and it’s just a matter of having the right amount of time to dedicate to a project as big as The War of the Worlds was.

I took the risk of booking the band and the studios and unless I had the parts ready I wouldn’t have had the sessions when I got there, and we then just kept going at it.

How long does the music side of these things generally take?

I started with a book. We had a script writer – she was my mother in law in fact. She adapted the novel into a script. I handed her notes and she had all sorts of ideas and she took them and wrote the script that we worked from but at the same time I was composing the first draft of my score which took about six weeks. Then I started doing the musical arrangements and I started composing in early January 1976 and finished Febuary/early March and then the band sessions were May 18th of 1976, I will always remember that date. I took the risk of booking the band and studios and unless I had the parts ready I wouldn’t have had the sessions when I got there, and we then just kept going at it. Casting, I was doing my string orchestrations, and loads of other musicians came in. One piece of music I chucked out because it sounded great when I was composing it but, when we recorded it, it turned out not to work. It was an evolution just under three years.

Do you ever get at all tired of the War of the Worlds thing? You’ve done other projects like Spartacus, so do you ever get tired with all the attention that is given to TWOTW and not other things, or are you content with the response it has gotten?

Well I’ve been thrilled inevitably from the time it came out to where it’s going to be heading. I had no idea it was going to reach so many people around the world, not just as an album but singles, club renditions, computer games and arena tours, so I couldn’t have predicted any of that but I’m always excited about participating and very appreciative of the support the public and the critics have given to The War of the Worlds and I don’t take it lightly, which is why I’ll spend a year and a half creating a new production. For me the payoff is at the end of that time where I’ll be conducting the music on stage. For me it doesn’t get much better than that, so I’m never bored with it. I would never take on something as important as The War of the Worlds if I wasn’t going to give it 100%.

In the mid-70s there was no internet, no google, so I had to arrive physically on the door of their agents and hope that they would allow us the rights to do what would become my musical version of The War of the Worlds

Do you have much say in the extended life of the TWOTW, for instance the ULLAdubULLA remix album and video games, or are you happy for the project to take on a life of its own?

No, it never goes out without my involvement. Me and my dad were partners and in order to do The War of the Worlds we had to get the HG Wells’ estate, of course HG Wells died in 1946 and his estate had agents. In the mid-70s there was no internet, no google, so I had to arrive physically on the door of their agents and hope that they would allow us the rights to do what would become my musical version of The War of the Worlds in all of its forms. And the thing I will always remember the most is that the agents didn’t know what I’d done, which was my career, though I had produced a number of hit singles and TV themes, but the thing that convinced them was that I wanted to stay true to HG Wells’ work and interpret it in the way he wrote it, as a dark Victorian tale, and I felt 100% protective from that day forth and always will be so I would never knowingly… even if it meant less commerciality, I stay very much involved in it and it’s become very rewarding because of that.

What compelled you to go back in 2012 and do the ‘New Generation’ album (with Liam Neeson, Gary Barlow, Ricky Wilson and Joss Stone)?

It came from over a fair amount of years, particularly since the arena tours where I was fairly often asked ‘would I ever revisit? Would I ever want to?’ Over the years, up till the point where I was convinced that it was worth doing, I felt it wasn’t broken so if I was going to try and do something it wouldn’t be about fixing it; it would be about doing something to expand on. I went on a holiday and took the original script and recording, with Richard Burton, with me and in revisiting it came to be reminded that there was about as much that we recorded that didn’t make it onto the original albums as that did. Some of it was because it didn’t work and some was because it was the years of the black vinyl disc and there was only so much material you could fit on those discs, but the heart of what we had as the full length script was some wonderful stuff. The result was the convincing factor that if I was gonna tackle it, the story, which is what motivated me the first time round, would be the same motivation the second time round. The hardest part was accepting the fact that I would have to part company with Richard Burton who passed in 1984, and his performance was finite. I had 74 sequences which he recorded that wound up on the album and his performance was turned into a three-dimensional head for the first 5 tours we did. So it took me a while to say okay. The only justification for doing it was expanding the story; I had no other way of going with it now in any impactful way. And once I made that decision we wound up working with Liam Neeson and I thought ‘gosh, what a lucky circumstance the second time in my career to have someone of that stature’ and we wound up with 90 sequences, which gives you an idea of how much we expanded the story.

Listening to the two side by side it is noticeably more modern sounding in instrumentation and effects, were you influenced by any music or artists since the original 70s recording?

Well I’ve been a professional musician my whole working life and the first time round I was very young and was influenced by every musical style and artist around me – and that was contemporary and classical – and they all must have seeped into my soul to come out with whatever I’ve done in my career and so the second time wasn’t really much different. I think the influences on the new recording was part of the reason I did it so once the story was expanded I didn’t just want to add that onto the existing sound, what would be the point? So I’m challenged the same way as a musician would be starting with a new recording. A large part of the compositions are the same but there’s a lot of new, more out-there and subtle material. Yet the idea wasn’t to mash it up like a remix but to say to someone who was comparing them “yeah that’s a natural evolution rather than revolution”.

Did you have any fear of retroactively tarnishing the reputation of the original if the New Generation had not worked out?

I was very conscious of it, that it could. It wasn’t one of those things where I could look into a crystal ball, I’d have to do it and construct the tour around it to find out whether those who have been very loyal to my musical The War of the Worlds were put off or excited by it. It turned out to be the latter. The last tour was by far the most successful in terms of quantity of shows and the amount of people and this one is already succeeding that. It was worth it for me because it gave me the ability to grow it. If I was to start it today without the limitations then I would probably be thinking more expansively and do it the way I’ve just recently done it, because I didn’t have the limitations in technical terms that I did. I hope and believe I did it for the right reasons. I wouldn’t have given it a shot if I didn’t make sure it was the right decision.

He felt expanding into another man’s territory was wrong, that faith versus faith was wrong, very modern themes

Are there or have there ever been any such plans for a similar treatment of Spartacus, post the resurgence of interest in classic epic tales (Gladiator, Troy, 300) and mythological stories?

I would love to, I would love to find time to revisit it, it’s a natural canvas for a live presentation without doubt and like the call of the wild, I hope I get the opportunity to do it. Once I get over this 24/7 life I have with The War of the Worlds, I’m hoping during that period that’s where other works of mine will start to emerge.

With WOTW, Spartacus and Call Of The Wild, what is it about adapting existing texts and stories that interest you as a creative starting point?

Well those three all have themes and storylines; beyond being entertaining and exciting they have, I think, meaningful subject matters. With WOTW was alien invasion, but HG Wells was taking a pop at the expanding of Queen Victoria’s empire. He felt expanding into another man’s territory was wrong, that faith versus faith was wrong, very modern themes. HG’s science and maths was quite visionary. Spartacus was about master over slave, which we still have in the world today. With all the similar TV and film today it’s actually probably more relevant now than it was. Call of the Wild was about man’s greed in the wilderness, a subject matter that again is very realistic. Greed is everywhere in the world in its own form.

I don’t think anybody who sets out to create something is looking for it to not work, from total disaster to medium sized hit

Do you prefer this approach of adapting texts over original storytelling?

I guess if I was a story writer id give it a go. I guess for me it’s easier to find stories that resonate to me and then adapt those. Spartacus is no one book, I spent three years researching it. It was one of those trails that never ended.

So after all that work, time and effort going in to Spartacus, were you at all disappointed by its lesser success in relation to WOTW or was it an understanding that the latter was just in the right place at the right time?

I don’t think anybody who sets out to create something is looking for it to not work, from total disaster to medium sized hit, as Spartacus was considered in record terms. So my goal was to achieve as much as The War of the Worlds did, yes, I do feel that there were reasons for it not doing so on several different levels. But yeah I would’ve loved for it to explode the same way The War of the Worlds did but it didn’t disappoint me in a sense that it wasn’t a worthwhile time, because I worked with fantastic talents. I found the research fascinating – I didn’t expect to spend three years on it before writing a note of music. And if i do The Call of the Wild or return to Spartacus then I will do it with as much love and attention as I have done with The War of the Worlds.

I wasn’t thinking of my personal style or ‘I am prog rock’, that was just what came out of me

In 1978, given the rise of things like punk and the relative trashing a genre like prog-rock got, what do you think, besides the resurgent interest in science fiction, played a part in the album becoming one of the most successful and arguably, save for perhaps Pink Floyd, the most popular prog-related album of all time?

Well I had a story that had resonated since 1898, generation after generation, so I wasn’t the only person who fell in love with it. But I’d also like to think that the way that I composed and produced the interpretation of the story seemed to resonant. I wasn’t thinking of my personal style or ‘I am prog rock’, that was just what came out of me, working from a classical background and with a lot of rock musicians and being one of the first in the UK to work with synthesisers. What came out of me was I guess the mixture of all my abilities as a musician to work in the areas that I did and just being a young guy who had the same angst as a punk rocker I was just saying it in 96 minutes rather than a three or four minute song.

Tom Watchorn

Tom is listening to: Scott Walker – ‘Farmer In The City (Remembering Pasolini)’

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