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Wayne's Worlds: Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds Revisited
Jimmy Martin , August 5th, 2009 03:43

The last refuge of Dungeons & Dragons fans and lonely men who can quote from Red Dwarf? Not so! says Jimmy Martian. Let him explain . . .

It may well be, beyond the tangle of half-received wisdom and primal satisfaction that constitutes a near-belief system we live our lives by, that the purest form of musical appreciation harks way back to a childhood era before we really understood what was going on at all. Before any of us even really knew what the pop charts signified, when Top Of The Pops seemed almost like some freakish transmission from another galaxy. Heavy Metal was just a noise that made no sense, and music videos were filled with unearthly images that haunted our dreams, with those creepy schoolboys from Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart’ video lurking in the recesses of our consciousness, where indeed they dwell to this day.

Maybe this goes some way to explaining why thousands of people are prepared to congregate in enormous auditoriums to watch what seems, by any standards, one of the more ludicrous and ill-conceived works of the last thirty years of rock history. Why they are prepared to tolerate a holographic head of Richard Burton, projected high above said auditorium, his jaws snapping up and down like some kind of retro-futurist ventriloquist’s puppet as his recorded voice intones a sombre dialogue of extra-terrestrial annihilation and human desperation. Why they blanch not even a tad at appearances by the like of Jennifer Ellison and Russell ‘The Voice’ Watson. Maybe, just maybe, Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds got us all at an impressionable age.

Of course, when we were but mere nippers, entranced by the gaudy, vivid paintings of terrified Londoners running screaming from the heat ray, and scared out of our wits by the eerie rattling and scraping of the Martian spacecraft, nobody had told us that concept albums were frightfully outmoded indulgences perpetuated by long-caped wankers more interested in their own egos and instrumental prowess than the boredom thresholds of their audience. We weren’t to know that Justin Hayward, he who crooned the mawkish centrepiece of the whole shebang, ‘Forever Autumn’, was the mainstay of one of the most relentlessly unfashionable bands of the last thirty-five years. It never occurred to us that perhaps the best way to sum up the nameless terror of the Martian heat-ray might not be ten minutes plus of rollicking, quasi-Blaxploitation funk, replete with wah-wah guitar.

Yet the quandary remains: Who’re the mugs: the naïve ingénues of then, or the hardened cynics of now?

Despite the fact that it came out in 1978, when, if one’s to believe the revisionism that runs rampant among rock historians, punk ought to have exterminated such trifles much like a Martian spacecraft on Horsell Common, Wayne’s …Worlds stands proud as one of the greatest the 70s rock follies, Yet it’s possessed of a gauche and gaudy splendour that elevates itself way above those artefacts that have given the sprawling concept work its bad name. It’s largely devoid of the foolhardy hubris of Tales From Topographic Oceans, the brain-atrophying sef-absorption of The Wall, or the sheer tedium of Myths and Legends Of King Arthur And His Knights Of The Round Table.

Mind you, despite its pomp, its self-importance and its muso hue, in a sense what we’re dealing with here is just as akin to a West-End style musical, what with a solid narrative courtesy of yer man Wells meaning we’re free of the head-scratching convolutions of the likes of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, and a colourful cast of characters, not to mention an almost pantomime sense of drama taking precedence over instrumental virtuosity. In fact, if you could accuse Wayne’s …Worlds of anything, it would be more a tendency to take a halfway-decent musical idea and mercilessly overextend it until it’s screaming for mercy: ‘Eve Of The War’ may well be a stirring and gloriously grandiloquent theme, but by the end of al four sides of thick vinyl, the average listener will have been so bombarded by it at regular intervals that they’ll be happy for those six chords to go the way of the Martian invaders themselves.

Of all the many aspects of Wayne’s ...Worlds that have dated, some are more palatable in the here and now than others. Whilst the backing band is plagued by the same kind of club-footed pub-rock gracelessness that haunts a number of other contemporaneous classics (it’s the Achilles heel of Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside, for example), the synth work, presumably intended to convey some spooky, otherworldly influence, still works wonders, whether down to retro-futurist chic or simply the fact that keyboards in general have arguably never sounded better than they did in the seventies. Yet it’s the sheer gall required to even attempt such a thing in the first place that really dates the whole farrago. In a subsequent era in which punk rock genuinely had realigned the sensibilities of a generation, the whole notion of anyone attempting such a grandiose elevation of rock shapes to the level of theatre or classic literature would naturally be laughed out of sight, and not without good reason.

The question that needs asking here, though is what exactly has replaced this kind of grandstanding sensibility? Moreover, is there any reason why, when Muse decide to make videos showing them piloting a spaceship through an asteroid belt, or writing songs like ‘Knights Of Cydonia’, or the forthcoming three part saga ‘Exogenesis’, many of us find ourselves half laughing and half applauding at the sheer unselfconscious chutzpah and cojones of it all? Why is Zombi’s outlandishly pompous interstellar keyboard-prog opus Spirit Animal one of the albums of 2009? It seems all too plain that one of the more unfortunate legacies of the punk sensibility ultimately amounts to just one more rulebook. A belief that it’s unwise to have too many outlandish ideas, to attempt things above your station: An all-consuming, self-conscious fear of pretentiousness and pomposity that only serves to keep your music earthbound at all costs. What’s more, when a band breaks the mould, it amounts to a curious thrill of transgression the like of which a punk band would love to achieve in the here and now.

Of course, not everyone has paid lip-service to such a hipster-aligned code of conduct in the last thirty years, and there have been just as many abominations as triumphs from the bucking of this trend. For every Muse, there’s been a Coheed And Cambria, whose whiny concept sagas and obsessive fan base mark them out as a hair‘s breadth from an unfortunate resemblance to a 21st century Marillion. And how the indie kids laughed back in 1998 when Mansun, always a band with a baffling and slightly refreshing disinclination to be looking over their shoulder for hipster brownie points, came out with 6, replete with a Marillion-esque eyesore of a sleeve, a rock interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy’, and narration by Tom Baker. The album was about half serviceable, and half clearly the product of the kind of drug and ego overload that blights many a successful debut’s follow-up, but the sheer spectacle of the band’s plummet into career-decimating uncooldom still marks them out as no ordinary bunch of indie timewasters. And, indeed, is enough to make some of us a little saddened that Klaxons’ apparently ludicrous and self-indulgent sophomore prog opus has apparently ignited enough ire at their label to ensure it lurks despondent on the cutting room floor.

And no, few of us really want to be reduced to listeners with the understanding and worldview of overexcited innocents, with nightmares of heat rays and Martian invaders vying for attention in our imagination with Disney films and the Chronicles Of Narnia. But as a conveyor belt of schmindie hopefuls pout their way through photo sessions and try to summon the requisite reference points to second-guess their way to unchartered heights of interview cool, and the hipster circle revolves around the ‘Losing My Edge’ roll call of immaculate collections, it would do us well to remember more foolhardy, more unselfconscious pleasures. Like hearing the bearded fella from Manfred Mann’s Earth Band bellowing his way manfully through ‘Thunderchild’. Like the feverish Russell Watson, attempting harrowingly to inhabit the shoes of the late Phil Lynott, crucifix in hand.

Earthly bacteria be damned, the Martians have managed to survive three decades of fashion, not to mention the best efforts of the likes of Apollo 440 and Dario G in the remixology stakes. And sure, Jeff Wayne never managed anything of any musical significance ever again, his 1992 version of Spartacus lurching to ignominious obscurity despite the presence of Anthony Hopkins, Fish and Catherine Zeta Jones. Yet against all odds, War Of The Worlds will still loom large, a veritable beacon of anti-cool, lofty and impervious to all. And, even with the help of holographic ventriloquists dummies and former Brookside starlets, long may it remain so.

Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds has been reissued by Sony