Didn’t I warn them?
Be on your guard, I said,
Because the evil one never rests!
— Gary Osborne, probably after a prophetic vision of a 3 AM Donald Trump tweetstorm.
A full-sized prop tripod is lowered onto the stage and proceeds to rake the audience with its floodlamp “heat ray” to the “Ulla!”s of the band. It’s a sight to see. I wonder where it goes when they lift it off the stage. The physical tripod is a close approximation of the CGI ones which appear on-screen, themselves drawn from the cover art of the original 1978 album by Michael Trim. The design is lovely, evoking so many things all at once. The fundamental inspiration is clearly insectoid: they look rather a lot like a large, mechanical water strider, with a small, ovoid cockpit atop long, straight legs that turn sharply inward to attach at the sides of the cockpit, looking a bit like flying buttresses, but with a cross-brace extending from the cockpit halfway down the leg. Two large, green dome windows at the front resemble not only insect eyes, but evoke, deliberately, I think, the pulsating green dome at the front of Al Nozaki’s war machine design from the 1953 film version. The heat ray takes the form of a spotlight attached at the front of the cockpit, strangely, in direct contradiction to the narration, which, like the original novel describes the heat ray as funnel-shaped and held in the tripod’s “hand” (Most adaptations give the tripods three limbs in total, but the novel’s descriptions imply that in addition to the three legs used for locomotion, the fighting machines also have an unspecified number of tentacle-like manipulator arms). All at once, they have a steampunk look, while simultaneously evoking a sort of ’50s sci-fi monster movie feel, nodding to the iconic 1953 movie. And the design has a physicality to it that you rarely see in these CGI-heavy times: aside from the lousy reflections and bump mapping on the CGI models, the design, whether in static art, animation, or a giant metal prop, look and move like they are physical things that could be physically built and really exist. The prop reappears in the New Generation stage show with imrpoved pyrotechnics. The Farewell Thunderchild tour added goofy “pupils” to the dome windows.
The CGI backdrop movie features a very old-school 3D-movie style “hucking stuff at the audience” scene with debris of a tripod destroyed by cannon-fire, but the humans are eventually routed. There’s a musical theme that accompanies the battle, and the original version is the best use of an orchestra to represent a battle since Tchaikovsky, mixing in the ch-chews of the heat ray and the “Ulla!”s of the Martians as instruments. The New Generation version loses its sense of restraint and ends up sounding more like the music coming out of a video arcade, but, again, ass-kicking guitar riff added. The Journalist narrowly escapes both the heat ray and being stepped on by a tripod. One New Generation choice that is clever, even if it doesn’t actually make the music any better, is that when he jumps into a river in his escape, the music is muted, as though heard under water until he comes up for air. He eventually makes his way to London, only to find that his fiancée Carrie and her father have already evacuated, which sets the stage for the musical centerpiece of the album.
Due to the vagaries of time travel, we have, of course, heard “Forever Autumn” before. Luka Kuncevic’s version served as the opening theme to War of the Worlds: Goliath. It’s a haunting and melancholy tune that speaks to nostalgia and lost love and lost youth. Wayne had written the melody back in 1969, for of all things, a Lego radio commercial. It sounds like a strange fit, but I can kinda see how it would work as an appeal to the pastoral simplicity of youth or something. Gary Osborne and Paul Vigrass performed the jingle, then in 1972, they came up with some lyrics for it and released it on their debut album, Queues (Osborne also wrote the lyrics for the three other proper songs in War of the Worlds, and the duo sing backing vocals on the album). Vigrass and Osborne didn’t have much of an impact in the west, but “Forever Autumn” was released as the B-side of their single “Men of Learning”, and made it to number 2 on the Japanese charts. Gary Barlow’s interpretation is okay. The arrangement is closer to the Vigrass and Osborne version and feels retro, surprising given the misguided attempts at modernizing so much of the other music. Both he and Marti Pellow give the song a more mournful tone than Justin Hayward. Pellow especially, who slows it down a lot. His performance is the saddest of the three; it’s not bad, but I think he goes too far with it.
“Forever Autumn” is pretty much the reason Justin Hayward is in this. Jeff Wayne wanted a love song to go at this spot in the story, and he wanted it to sound like the Vigrass and Osborne song, and also to sound like “Nights in White Satin”, so he did the obvious thing and had the guy who sang “Nights in White Satin” sing the Vigrass and Osborne song. As a single, Hayward’s version of “Forever Autumn” made the UK top 5 and edged into the top 50 stateside. The Moody Blues would later put the single version on disc four of their box set Time Traveller, and as a result, it’s well enough known that you can find a karaoke version of it.
It really is quite a nice song. Very straightforward “fall is like a lost love” symbolism, a lovely flute bit in the middle, and Hayward’s performance is fantastic — the Vigrass and Osborne version puts the stress on the wrong part of the, “‘Cause you’re not here” refrain, and their version is a bit too mellow. Omitted from the version released as a single is an interruption for some more narration which is a bit poetic itself: “Fire suddenly leapt from house to house. The population panicked and ran, and I was swept along with them, aimless and lost without Carrie.” In fact, there’s an entire extra scene inserted before the last verse as the Journalist makes his way to the coast in hope of catching a boat out of England (As in the novel, there is no mention of aliens invading outside of England. The stage show prologue hints that the Martians were specifically targeting London as the world’s de facto commercial hub, assuming this would destabilize global economies to the point of collapse).
But “Forever Autumn” also demonstrates the extent to which Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds was composed as an album rather than a theatrical production. Because when you get right down to it, “Forever Autumn” fits the surrounding musical motifs perfectly, but it has balls-all to do with the story. The song is a lament for a long-lost love, reflecting back on the happy times. It’s really straightforward: “Through autumn’s golden gown, we used to kick our way / You always loved this time of year. / Those fallen leaves lie undisturbed now / ‘Cause you’re not here.” This is a song told from the point of view of someone revisiting a place that was once special to him and his lost lover. It’s… calm. A song about solitude and loneliness. But it’s inserted here in a scene of chaos: the Journalist isn’t walking through the still and lonely woods, and Carrie hasn’t died or left him. They’ve been separated in the chaos during a disaster. It’s a wonderful song, but for all its relevance to the plot here, they might as well have brought out Peter, Paul and Mary and had them sing “Leavin’ On a Jet Plane”.
Also, there’s nothing to earn the song here. The relationship between the Journalist and Carrie has been established by nothing more than one line of narration where the Journalist learns the Martians are heading for London and is all like, “London? Crap, that’s where my girlfriend lives! I’d better get there!” Compare that with the Asylum adaptation, where we establish George’s relationship with his family before we introduce the Martians, and he basically never shuts up about them for his whole trek to DC.
The narrative style of this adaptation makes it hard to convey something like that. If I were trying to turn this album into a musical, I’d want to do more to establish that relationship. The New Generation version of the stage show adds a small bit where holograms of the Journalist and Carrie separately lament on whether they’ll see each other again — it reminds me a little of the scene from 1776 where John and Abigail exchange letters — but it’s really not enough. What I’d really want is to introduce Carrie early on, back during the whole “A million to one / but still they come” business. In fact, as it is, it really makes little sense that the Journalist is the one who sings Ogilvy’s observation about the chances of anything coming from Mars. But you could rewrite the scene as the Journalist reassuring his girlfriend, telling her not to worry about the mysterious green flashes in the sky because he’s just spoken to an important scientist and, “The chances of anything coming from Mars / Are a million to one, he says.”
You wouldn’t want to lose “Forever Autumn”, of course, because it is brilliant. But I think you have to push it back to the second act. Y’know, the part of the story where there are long stretches of the Journalist walking through quiet, empty countryside, preoccupied with his own loneliness. In fact, it might work best all the way at the end, as a build-up to the suicidal decision to go find a tripod to throw himself in front of.
The end of the song is also the end of the “Sung Thoughts of the Journalist” role — he does not appear in act 2. Which I guess means that Justin Hayward gets to beat the crowds home if he skips his curtain call.
Before the last refrain, the Journalist has made it to the coast. By an unlikely coincidence, he shows up in time to see Carrie on a steamer about to depart, but can’t force his way through the crowd to her. Tripods arrive as the steamer leaves port, leading into the next song.
There were ships of shapes and sizes,
Scattered out across the bay,
And I thought I heard her calling,
As the steamer pulled away.
The invaders must have seen them,
as across the coast they filed.
Standing firm between them,
There lay Thunderchild!
“Thunderchild” is performed in the original version by Chris Thompson, then of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. The New Generation version is sung by Alex Clare on the album, and on tour originally by Will Stapleton of Jettblack, then later by X-Factor competitor Joseph Whelan. Thunderchild is the first place where I think the New Generation version gets the better of the original. Chris Thompson’s version is very very good, and it feels like a solid sort of Cameron Mackintosh-style musical number. But it modernizes really well in the remake, and Alex Clare’s version just has more power to it and captures the excitement of battle really well. Will Stapleton’s version adds a bit of a Hair Metal quality to it that’s really interesting, and I’d have no complaint if it were the dominant version, though I don’t like it quite so much as the previous two. Joseph Whelan’s version for the Farewell Thunderchild tour finds a sweet-spot between the Thompson and Clare versions, incorporating Clare’s dynamism with a more theatrical style, and it might be my favorite if I could find a high-quality recording of it. The “character” is credited as “The Voice of Humanity”. That is, the singer of the song is himself an abstraction, representing the way in which the hopes of humanity rest on the ironclad (Unlike the novel, Thunderchild is not a torpedo ram but a more traditional 19th century battleship), yet another weird and unamenable-to-the-stage decision.
“Forever Autumn” is an objectively superior song, but “Thunderchild” is my personal favorite. It conveys a big range of emotion, it actually goes along with the events of the story, and “Thunderchild” is just a wonderful progression of syllables to sing, especially with the sustain and emphasis at the end of the verses: “Sensing victory was nearing / Thinking fortune must have smiled / The people started cheering: / Come on, Thunderrrrrrrrrr—CHILD!”
The song, intercut with narration between the verses, tells how the Thunderchild cuts down one or two tripods (I’m not sure if the lyrics and the narration are describing two attacks, or the same attack twice. Probably the latter) before Martian heat rays, “melted the Thunderchild’s valiant heart.”:
Lashing ropes and smashing timbers,
Flashing heat rays pierced the deck,
Dashing hopes for our deliverance,
As we watched the sinking wreck,
With the smoke of battle clearing,
Over graves and waves defiled,
Y’know, I’d love to see someone adapt this from the perspective of the crew of the Thunderchild. Something that conveyed the idea of them fighting on, knowing that they absolutely were not going to survive this, but just had to hold out long enough for the civilian ships to get away. The Journalist sees the steamer reach the safety of the horizon after the battle and is reassured that Carrie is safe, but the destruction of the Thunderchild marks the effective end not just of the organized military response, but of any resistance to the Martians whatever: we’ll see no one trying to fight them on disc 2.
Now, my almost complete ignorance of music theory is going to show here a bit, because I’m aware of something that happens musically after the “Thunderchild”, but I don’t have the language to explain it. The main recurring leitmotif across much of the album is this complex musical phrase that is split into two sort of competing melodies. The string section plays this sequence of six descending notes, then the synths plays a set of three rising notes twice in rapid succession, then the strings plays their six notes again. And I think that in this bit of music, the first part is representing the Martians (for instance, the heat ray is an electric guitar), and the second is representing humanity’s response.
After the battle, this bar of music comes up again, but the second melody is absent. Earth has no response. Act I ends with the Journalist’s observation that, “The Earth belonged to the Martians.”
- Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds is available via iTunes and Amazon.
- Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds: The New Generation is available via iTunes and Amazon
- Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds: Live on Stage and Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds: The New Generation: Alive on Stage! are available on DVD in region 2 only.