Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Scarier than the IMF

Jeff Wayne was the guy who composed the famous 1970s Gordon's Gin ad jingle that was sampled by the Human League so often (recognise this?). He also happens to be the guy who composed the iconic musical interpretation of HG Wells's War of the Worlds into a double album in 1978. I got to meet him when he was in Dublin in March of this year - today's Indo carries my interview with him as he prepares to bring the War of the Worlds to the 02 on November 29. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

UNHEAVENLY CREATURES: Why the War of the Worlds still frightens the bejaysus out of us.

A RACE of terrifying creatures with “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” are set to invade Dublin next week. Relax. It’s not a second batch of IMF officials coming to town - just some deadly 35ft-high Martian killing machines.
They are part of the War of the Worlds stage show, inspired by the 1898 HG Wells novel of alien invasion and the iconic soundtrack recorded by composer Jeff Wayne exactly 80 years later. Wayne’s concept album, full of terrifying Martian war cries, synthesizers and hit singles, sold 13 million copies and stayed 235 weeks in the UK charts after its release in 1978.
A colleague mentions how he was left alone in the sitting room as a child in the early ’80s with the album playing. His mother returned 20 minutes later to find him hiding behind the couch, sobbing that the Martians were coming. Audiences should be afraid, very afraid.
War of the Worlds and its central premise in which Martians attack an Earth powerless to defend itself has inspired films, artworks, video games, TV series and at least one very powerful radio play (see panel). Wayne, 67, who still conducts the stage show himself, says there are reasons why War of the Worlds still resonates.
“HG Wells was a very young man when he wrote this story in 1897, created these Martians with extendible tentacles,” says Wayne. “What he was doing was taking a pop at the ever-expanding British empire, these tentacles of power.
“Power, even if it’s used by your own nation, if it’s wrongly used, then it’s just wrong. It’s relevant today: Look at the world we live in. It’s about territorial expansion and one faith against the other.”
It also has some resonance in Wayne’s personal story. His father Jerry was an actor and singer of some note in the States in the 1950s. “In his heyday in America, he was a pop star,” says Wayne. “I’ve a poster in my studio of a No1 he had and in order of billing: he is above Frank Sinatra.”
Unfortunately for Jerry, he was blacklisted by the House of Un-American Activities Committee for performing at a benefit concert for another victim of the Committee, singer Paul Robeson. He went to England to play Sky Masterson in the original West End production of Guys and Dolls and brought Jeff with him for a few years. His father introduced Jeff to music production, and he became business partner with him on the War of the Worlds album. He had been the one to hand Jeff the Wells book to read for inspiration.
“He knew as a writer and a composer that I wanted a challenge that would go beyond my career.”
Wayne had to that point made a lot of money from composing advertising jingles – “I did about 3,000 in one 10-year period” – and theme tunes to TV shows like BBC’s 60 Minutes, The World of Sport and Good Morning Britain.
War of the Worlds was a different, well, world. In the 1970s, he had to literally invent sounds to bring Wells’ novel to musical life. “I was there, looking for ways to make the sound of a snowflake!” laughs Wayne. Gongs submerged in a tank of water, a saucepan rattled against a toilet bowl, electronic voiceboxes – all were used to generate the unsettling soundtrack that sent my colleague diving behind his mother’s sofa.

Now it is the stage show breaking new techy boundaries – a 35ft Martian that shoots death rays at the audience, CGI graphics from an animated feature version of the story that Wayne still hopes to make, pyrotechnics, a 3-D hologram of Richard Burton. Burton is 26 years dead but the miracle of modern geekery has him return to the role he voiced as The Journalist on Wayne’s 1978 album.
The Artilleryman, originally played by David Essex, is filled by Jason Donovan. Thin Lizzy’s Irish frontman Phil Lynott played the original Parson Nathaniel, a clergyman sent crazed by the invasion.
“He just had it in his voice and character to play this mad Parson,” says Wayne, “Phil Lynott had that something singular about him.”
So who could possibly replace him? For this show, it’s X-Factor Welsh signer Rhydian with a dark dye job. There truly are greater things on heaven and earth to fear than the IMF.
• Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds is at the 02 next Monday, November 29. Tickets from Ticketmaster.

A WORLD AHEAD: Influence of Wells’ novel through the years…
• HG Wells’ novel War of the Worlds in 1898 was a metaphor for imperialism, religious mania and Darwinism: it also played on the Victorian fear of ‘fin de siecle’, a superstition that the apocalypse would arrive at midnight on December 31, 1899. It didn’t.
• Robert H Goddard was 16 when Wells’ book was published. It inspired him to invent rockets: the Apollo moon landings were the culmination of research he began.
• Orson Welles recorded an infamous 1938 radio broadcast of the War of the Worlds, reading it as a series of news bulletins set in contemporary America. Many listeners believed a real alien invasion was in progress. Adolf Hitler would claim that the public panic the radio play had caused was “evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy”.
• At least six ‘faithful’ movie adaptations have been made of the novel, including Steven Spielberg’s 2005 version with Tom Cruise. Spielberg kept the screenplay secret from the actors, only emailing the bits of it that were relevant to them on any given day.
• Spoof films like Scary Movie 4 and Mars Attacks have had a field day with WotW. Jeff Wayne says that even Independence Day, “in its way, is a send-up of War of the Worlds”.