In 1975 a young composer named Jeff Wayne had an unusual idea - a modern musical version of H.G. Wells' science-fiction novel about an invasion of Earth by Martians - and made it reality. When it was finally released in 1978 it shot to the top of the charts. Now, two and a half decades later, the album has yet to drop off the UK music industry's list of the top 125 best sellers.
It's a sad that the word "classic" has been so badly diluted by contemporary usage. The word used to be reserved for truly exceptional works by great artists - artists like Beethoven, Miles Davis and Led Zeppelin. It's sad because when the time comes to proclaim Jeff Wayne's extraordinary sci-fi electronic-rock-opera a classic, the word no longer does justice to this great work.
What makes this album so extraordinary? So many things. First and foremost its ambition - its daring. How many producers today would back a concept album based on a 100-year-old science-fiction novel? How many would not be scared away by the idea of using a brand new technology - analog synthesizers - in a way that had never been tried before? How many would combine long form narration with music on such a scale? And lay down 48 tracks of such an unlikely experiment?
But ambition is nothing without the talent and passion to make it real. Luckily Jeff Wayne and his collaborators possessed plenty of both. From the incomparable Richard Burton as the main narrator, to Moody Blues front-man Justin Hayward on vocals and the eclectic Jo Partridge on guitar - Wayne's entire ensemble have talent to spare. Still,even surrounded by such luminaries, Wayne's own abilities as a composer, conductor and producer are the beating heart of the album.
The War of the Worlds is also a fascinating piece of history. While most other musicians were bemused or disgusted by the idea of synthesized music, Wayne embraced the new technology. He was convinced that the temperamental Moog synthesizers could, and should, be made the centerpiece of a composition and not relegated to the auxiliary role of "making weird noises". As always Wayne put his money where his mouth was and helped start a whole new chapter in modern musical history.
Historical as it may be The War of the Worlds would never have survived this long on novelty value alone. Though it may take some getting used to, the combination of music and narration is brilliant. Lush '70s style guitars soar alongside violins and the unsettling otherworldly strains of the Moog - all of them counterpointed by the warm, rich tones of Richard Burton's narration. The result is that the music becomes the story, and the story the music as it carries you along in its majestic arc.
Another reason to buy this re-released version of The War of the Worlds is the fabulous packaging. Adorned with beautiful full-colour paintings and drawings, the 2005 release features two CDs and 47 pages of liner notes - all held together by solid but silky cardboard. It's a real collectors item - even for those fans who still have the original vinyls.
Above all these things The War of the Worlds is a unique piece of pop-cultural art. After 27 years the music is still as fresh as the day it was released. At times majestic, at times sentimental, it's nearly impossible not to be carried along by the epic sweep of this album. Do some of the passages sound a little dated, some of the synthesizers a little silly? Certainly. Does it matter? Not a bit.- Alistair Fairweather
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