War of the Worlds: Classic Album Remake
One of my favorite books, the classic H.G. Wells novel War of the Worlds, was adapted as a musical prog-rock album in 1978 by Jeff Wayne.
I’ve listened to Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of War of the Worlds hundreds of times. Richard Burton narrated. A dedicated ensemble of string and other musicians gave the score a very steampunkish rock-orchestra sound.
Two of the tracks became minor classics after the album’s release. Forever Autumn and Thunder Child still receive some airplay, and deservedly so. The album still sells, to this day, and there is even a stage production.
Weeks ago, I learned the War of the Worlds album had been remade with ‘The New Generation’ added to the title. This time, Liam Neeson performs as the narrator, and the music has been rescored.
I ordered the new album — but not without some trepidation.
Remakes are a tricky business. If you retain most of the original work’s character and detail, making only minor tweaks, well, what’s the point? From a technical standpoint, the audio quality of the original Jeff Wayne version can’t really be improved on. If anything, technical standards for music reproduction today are far inferior than they were in the 1970s. The market has shifted to emphasize casual listening — i.e., ear-buds and Bluetooth speakers with the dynamic range of half-thawed trout.
On the other hand, anyone daring to take significant liberties with an established classic is sure to face the irrational wrath of, um, me. I love the original, and I’m well aware my knee-jerk reaction to change is likely to be a mixture of ‘Hey, that’s not the way I remember it’ and ‘How DARE YOU DESECRATE THIS TIMELESS CLASSIC YOU RUFFIAN!’
Thus, before the new work even sounds a note, it’s got baggage to contend with.
Prior to sitting down for my first listen, I had a long talk with myself about the value of remaining objective About being open to a fresh interpretation of a beloved old standard.
Unfortunately, I wandered off while I was talking and grabbed a beer, so I missed most of that lecture.
Before I dive into the music and narration itself, a word about how I listened. I bought a CD, because the vinyl version isn’t out yet (and may never be). I don’t use downloads for serious listening, because I’m old and I have actual hair in my ears and music deserves a physical medium of some sort you whipper-snappers.
I have a 5-speaker setup with a Yamaha amp. I like it loud. I set the soundstage for Hall, with minimal echoes and reflections, and I pressed play.
Liam Neeson opened with the familiar monologue, which goes like this:
No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched by intelligences which inhabited the timeless worlds of space. No one could have dreamed that we were being scrutinized, as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets and yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely, they drew their plans against us.
The music swells, and off we go.
The big question — does Neeson fit the role as Wells’s un-named journalist?
My reply? Yes. Yes he does. Of course Liam Neeson is not Richard Burton. But Richard Burton is no Liam Neeson, either, and I found Neeson’s performance just as engaging and convincing.
The words lost none of their power. For me, this new journalist’s recounting of mankind being pushed to the brink of extinction by the merciless Martians is every bit as chilling as was Burton’s.
So, if the narration was as good or better than the original, what about the music?
My biggest fear was that the majestic, sweeping orchestral feel of the original would be replaced by some wretched attempt at ‘updating’ the score by transforming it into something contemporary. I do not want a metal version of War of the Worlds. I do not want a countrified twang included, or hip-hop, or pop. One of the things I loved best about the original was the album’s clever ruse of using 19th century musical sensibilities to create a prog-rock sound. It was akin to listening to Nicola Tesla use the instruments of his day to throw down with some Pink Floyd.
Did the new album maintain this practice?
Yes. I loved the music, which honored the original, but incorporated some new elements. There is some great guitar work. A faster pace. The grand sweeps are still there, but with just enough funk added to make it fresh and exciting all over again.
Now, anyone out there reading this who is also a fanatic about the original work has one question at this point — what does the new version do with the Martian’s exultant battle cry, the much-maligned ‘ulla?’
I know people who truly hated the ‘ulla’ sound the Martians made during a battle. I liked it, myself. They were Martians. It sounded alien. But hey, art is subjective.
I waited for the first battle cry on the new album with curiosity. The moment came and went, and there was no ‘ulla.’
I can’t argue with the decision to shelve the battle cry. The lack of it doesn’t hurt the new work, and keeping the original wouldn’t have fit this new sound anyway. Creating a new one would have been risky too. And maybe the cry was a flaw in the original, so highlighting that flaw just isn’t a good idea.
The next pair of touchstones arrives with Forever Autumn, which is followed immediately by Thunder Child.
In Forever Autumn, our heroic journalist makes his way to London in search of his fiancee. He fights his way through the packed crowds fleeing the besieged city, only to find Carrie’s house empty. She is gone, perhaps dead, and all hope seems lost. That is the part of the story carried by Forever Autumn.
Thunder Child finds the journalist amid a panicked mob trying to board the last steamships departing England. He doesn’t make it onto a boat — but he does see Carrie on the packed deck, just as three Martian walking machines stride out to sea, cutting off the steamboat’s only path to safety.
But the steamboats aren’t the only craft in the harbor. A single ironclad warship, the Thunder Child, confronts the Martians, and in a moment of good fortune the Thunder Child’s cannon manage to bring down a Martian war machine.
That moment in the song is powerful. There’s been so much loss, so much destruction — but finally, a victory. Cheers and shouting rise up from the mob still assembled at the dock. For a moment, there is hope. Humanity has hit back, and hit back hard.
Then the remaining Martians turn their heat rays on the valiant ironclad and send the glowing remains to the bottom. The steamboat escapes, and Carrie with it, but as the last warship sinks, it’s obvious humanity has lost not just the battle, but the war.
That is the song Thunder Child.
I’m happy to report that the new versions are every bit as powerful as the Jeff Wayne originals.
Once that moment passed, I was able to settle back and simply enjoy the new album.
There are a couple of chances taken by the producers that may emerge as the new ‘ulla’ cry. For example, at one point, the narrator dives into a stream to hide from the rampaging Martians and their heat rays. As he plunges in, the music becomes muffled, distorted precisely as it would be if the listener were suddenly submerged. My initial reaction was ‘sheesh, what’s wrong with my amp?’ but I’ve actually liked the moment on subsequent listenings.
If you’re a fan of the 1978 version, the new one is a worthy successor. If you’ve never heard of either, they’re both well worth the time.
Here are links to both versions:
WILD WILD WEB
Here’s tonight’s Wild Wild Web link. Enjoy!