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Jeff Wayne
War Of The Worlds Daniel Ross , June 18th, 2009 11:45

Hot on the heels of the 2005 Special Edition, the 2006 remixes and the 2007 highlights packages comes this 2009 30th Anniversary edition of Jeff Wayne's long-cherished opus, this time as a USB memory stick with myriad extras. First things first: the USB, apparently supposed to resemble a Martian craft, looks like a grey turd and has the leaden lug of a corporate paperweight. Plug it in and it lights up with barely-registering green lights. So far, so unimpressive. The content itself is going to need to be pretty exceptional to warrant this hoo-ha and weighty box with magnetic flap, so what, exactly, do we get? The original album, obviously, the best of the many remixes, a game called 'The Last Artilleryman', ringtones, wallpapers, an e-book documenting the story of the recording, a video greeting from Jeff Wayne himself, and the chance to enter a remix competition. Wow! Sounds exciting, doesn't it, my fellow TWOTW geeks?

Second things second: the USB is useless. For the extortionate sum of £30 you can marvel at a game that rips off old BBC game Tanks, a shockingly poor music video where a Victorian woman walks around a park, a smug and blink-quick chat with Jeff Wayne ("we used to have vinyl . . . now we have memory sticks."), a collection of already-available remixes, a book you can already read online in which Herbie Flowers says things like "I was STRAIGHT out of the room, mate", and an album you already own. It looks as if you'd be better off with the alternative package which features, alongside a DVD of the reportedly stunning live show, a copy of the original H.G. Wells novel.

Before turning into the prog rock version of the Which? guide, it's probably advisable to praise the album itself which, although patchy and dented by visions of forty-year-old men crying because their only son prefers Transformers, has weathered well. Compositionally, it will never escape comparison to Wagnerian leitmotifs, which is unfair on Wagnerian leitmotifs. Wayne's are painfully simple, though effective enough, and the voice-acting remains truly diabolical with the exception of Richard Burton. As a whole, the work creates terror superbly well — show me a man of a certain age who doesn't feel a chill when an unexpected "ULLA!" rips across the Surrey of their mind. It's an undeniably atmospheric work, cheesy as it is, and the playing, production and execution are all excellent.

The main thing that goes unnoticed, however, is the shocking way in which Wayne has appropriated the Wells material, and almost billed it as his own. If one thinks of The War Of The Worlds today, the Wells original must come into third place for most people, behind Wayne's and Spielberg's interpretations. This is understandable, but would be more acceptable had Wayne and his father 'n' wife team of story consultants not hacked the book to pieces quite so much. The narrator's tenure with the priest in the pit below the Martian construction site is swift, unlike the book's fortnight of psychological, religious and violent horror, and the narrator is swiftly absolved of any guilt when we hear Burton intone "there was nothing I could do to stop it". Furthermore, what the hell is that NASA conclusion? Don't they remember when the world was blown to shit last time? What are they doing poking around on Mars anyway?

All this is by the by. The only way to enjoy Jeff Wayne's Musical Version Of War Of The Worlds to its optimum potential is to listen to it without ever having read the H.G. Wells original. Outside of these circumstances, it's a confusing, sporadic joy that has been marketed too much, with this latest slew of commemorative releases being the most heinous offenders. It's very, very difficult to make a fair assessment, being so familiar with the record's charms and embarrassments, but its sufficient to conclude that, despite what's been said above, the version to go for is the live DVD edition that comes with a copy of the novel. It may taint your enjoyment of Wayne's work, but at least you'll understand why he got some of it wrong. And you can always throw the DVD away. To anyone who already has a copy of the album, don't bother with the USB; it will offer you precious little extra to what you already love.