“Every week, every month, I was doing something new… but fighting Martians has become a lifestyle for me”: Jeff Wayne on waging the relentless War Of The Worlds

Jeff Wayne
(Image credit: Future)

Composer, conductor and producer Jeff Wayne created what is arguably prog’s most well-known conceptual album – certainly the one that had the most mainstream appeal. 2018 marked the 40th anniversary of his Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds, and while he prepared for a new UK tour, he told Prog about the album’s enduring appeal.

Mild-mannered Martian-fighting maestro and occasional tennis ace Jeff Wayne’s symphonic conceptual prog masterpiece Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds may be 40 years old, but it’s still going strong.

Reinvented as a live experience in 2006, when he took inspiration from his dad Jerry Wayne – easy-listening crooner and musical star of stage and screen – to transfer the 95-minute double album to a stage show, it’s now on its seventh UK tour. The show has also invaded European territories and its tentacles have stretched as far as the Antipodes. Wayne has never missed a concert, having conducted his massed orchestra at every single one.

Because of his dad’s peripatetic career, Wayne travelled widely in his youth, and it’s his sense of upheaval that fed his talent. Born in Manhattan, he spent his early years in the suburb of Forest Hills, Queens. He relocated to London when his dad played Sky Masterson in the original stage musical of Guys And Dolls, following its transfer from Broadway to the West End.

Back in New York four years later, Wayne Jr honed his precocious teenage musical chops before moving out west to study journalism in Los Angeles, paying his way through college by moonlighting as a tennis coach – another skill inherited from Jerry.

The lure of music was too great and he abandoned a promising career in investigative news journalism. Forming a couple of bands before joining an early pre-Guantanamera incarnation of The Sandpipers, he eventually moved back to London in time to catch the swinging 60s.

The high-water mark of all conceptual prog rock albums, The War Of The Worlds has now reached sales of 15 million. It remained in the album chart for a remarkable six years following its original release. In 2012, on the back of 88 shows over 11 weeks at London’s Dominion Theatre, The War Of The Worlds – The New Generation was released, with electronic music and synthesisers playing a greater role.

Reinvention of musical themes, genres and instruments themselves is in Wayne’s blood. He was an early adopter of the synth in the late 60s and still pushes the envelope both on record and on stage.

I was also doing tons of music for advertising, TV themes and film scores. But Dad knew I always hoped to find a story that I would fall in love with

Appropriately, he was awarded Showman Of The Year at Classic Rock’s 2007 Roll of Honour Awards. Even on this year’s tour, he’s still pushing the boundaries by refreshing the stage show with some interesting new developments.

Congratulations on turning 75 years young. Did you do anything special?

Thank you, that’s very kind of you. I had a large family visit!

And presumably in June you celebrated the 40th anniversary of The War Of The Worlds?

Yes, the release of the original double album was Father’s Day, 1978. I’m amazed I’m here talking to you about it. It’s been a thrill to see its life and all the changes that it’s gone through over the many years.

It’s an album that subsequent generations are still buying their dads for Father’s Day now!

I guess it’s a good marker of a date when people grow up, and if their dads have been loving, it’s something children remember.

How did you first get into music?

I started taking piano lessons at the age of 5 when I was still in New York. I took about 16 years of lessons consecutively, including the first four years of living here in England. When we moved back to New York, I later moved on to jazz. My teacher was John McKeegan, who taught at Juilliard.

What was the first record you ever bought?

It was the theme from the TV series Robin Hood! [Robin Hood with the B-side The Ballad Of Davy Crockett reached No.14 on the UK singles chart in 1956.] It was sung by Dick James, who went on to become the publisher and owner of his own label [DJM].

Was it your dad’s idea for you to do The War Of The Worlds as an album?

It was. During that period in the early 70s, I was producing, arranging and touring with David Essex, as his musical director. I was also doing tons of music for advertising, TV themes and film scores. But he knew I had always hoped to find a story that I would fall in love with.

We started reading a range of books. It wasn’t just science fiction – it was any genre with a story that was potentially great. My dad found The War Of The Worlds by HG Wells. I was going out on another tour with David and he came over, wished me luck for the tour and handed me the book. It was an easy read. Not very long – only about 150 pages – but it hit me in one read. It just struck me in a range of ways.

Wells dedicated the book to his brother Frank for “this rendering of his idea.” That impressed me so much that when my musical version was released, I dedicated my work to my dad: “to my father Jerry, this rendering of his idea.”

You mentioned that you wrote music for advertising and TV. What were some of your most well-known scores?

Well, including movies, TV, film and radio scores, I’ve done over 3,000 productions – and probably the A-Z of every product that’s ever existed! A few stand out. In around 1969 I did an ad for Gordon’s Gin. It was a combination of synths – the Moog 3C – and a small band, a string quartet. I had to match images to the commercial. It really resonated and became a well-known piece. 

In fact, some of the guys who were among the first in pop to start working with synths, The Human League, covered it on their album Travelogue. Their following album, Dare, was produced by Martin Rushent, who happened to be my recording engineer at the time of the advert. For some reason, their cover became a disco hit in Spain!

Didn’t you have the first Moog synthesiser in the UK?

It wasn’t the first and only, but one of the first shipment. I believe the late Sir George Martin had one too. Possibly the Stones. It was some heavyweight musicians at the time who took delivery. I think there were only five or six that came over at the time and they were very expensive.

Wells wrote ‘alloo!’ when the Martians are terrorising Earth. When they’re dying, he turned it around to ‘ulla!’ I thought, ‘That’s got to be some form of composition’

The Moog 3C was one of the breakthrough synthesisers. I remember Robert Moog coming over to help install my new Moog 3C system. The most vivid memory I have was that he couldn’t figure out a UK plug, particularly the green wire among the three. I remember him, bum in the air, on the floor with a screwdriver – stuck in space, so to speak – wondering what this green wire represented.

As well as the ads, you also scored a film – 1977 Alistair MacLean action thriller Golden Rendezvous, starring Richard Harris. Was scoring movies not an area that interested you?

I’ve done around 16 films, including documentaries and features. Golden Rendezvous was an okay film. What I remember the most is being thanked by the producer for a great film score, being given a print of a Lowry, and then he proceeded to bad-debt me and a number of the stars from the movie. Then he disappeared.

Jeff Wayne

(Image credit: Getty Images)

I should have remembered the best advice I had when I was starting out in the UK from the head of A&R at CBS Records, who was Dan Loggins [brother of Kenny Loggins]. He said, “Don’t ever forget, the music business is two things: it’s music and it’s business.” If I’d remembered that before doing that film score, I would have been in a better position.

By then I was a well-established musician and producer and owned a production company. We paid for everything in advance and then collected it back. But it was at that point that they ‘relocated,’ which is the politest way I can describe it.

At that time in the 70s, did you go to see many prog bands?

Yes, I did go and see a fair amount of live work. I can’t say I had any one favourite artist. I had quite a catholic taste; I judged music and artists by whether they really moved me. I knew a couple of members of Yes, and Emerson Lake & Palmer
happened to record at the main studio that I recorded at, which was Advision.

Some of the sounds throughout TWOTW seem unconventional and leftfield now, let alone for the late 70s. What inspired them?

It was going back to the story. HG Wells wrote a compelling story – certainly one that excited me. He wrote a word: ‘alloo!’ when the Martians are terrorising Earth. At the end when they’re dying, he turned that word around to become ‘ulla!’ I thought, “That’s got to be some form of composition.” It was such an exciting challenge. But I chose to only use the word, ‘ulla,’ and hoped that my music – the composition, the arrangement – would convey two extreme emotions: one terrifying humanity, and the other dying on Earth.

So, the end part is more like a death wail and the earlier moments of ‘ulla’ are that of an alien force taking over our world. But it’s the arrangement: when they’re terrorising the Earth, there are more harmonies; it’s more open. The tempos are driving. When they’re dying at the end, there are only a couple of harmonies, it’s a much slower tempo and it allowed the performance to sound more like a death wail. 

That’s the background. How it came out was a combination of how I scored those harmonies, which give either a dissonance or more openness. Other than the notation itself, which was scored out, the production and the performance by the musician who performed the ‘ullas,’ it was a collaboration from composition to performance that just seemed to work. I was proud of it; it didn’t sound earthly – which was the object.

It was polar opposites that I wanted: you had fire and brimstone with Phil Lynott, and love and belief with Julie Covington

How were the ‘ullas’ made?

The first attempt was a complete failure. The idea was to build a dedicated synthesiser which would then be played through a keyboard – in the way vocoders came about – by mouthing the words as you’re playing. It got to the point where you could hear the ‘ull…’ but not the ‘…la’. So I abandoned it.

Jo Partridge (guitarist) had a voicebox with a tube – like Peter Frampton. The word was mouthed into the tube while the notes of the tune and the harmonies were played.

Was the sound of the unscrewing of the Martian cylinder an effect?

Yes, but there was no glamour to the way we did it! Essentially, I nicked my wife’s two best kitchen pans and took them to the studio. I set up two microphones to create a stereo image. The bass was already recorded, so I just scraped the pans together in time to the bass riff. The stereo amplification and the mixing turned it into a very giant-sounding cylinder unscrewing!

How did you choose the singers for the specific parts? Phil Lynott was of course an incredible vocalist, but not someone you would normally consider as a clergyman…

Phil was a delight! His management company liked the idea because it was so different to anything he had done as a musician. I liked the sound of his singing voice with Thin Lizzy in a major way. But I heard a song called Fools Gold [on Lizzy’s 1976 album Johnny The Fox]. It starts with Phil speaking, acting dramatically. I thought, “Crumbs, that’s not something you’d associate with Phil Lynott.”

Parson Nathaniel was a man of the cloth who you’d think would be the comfort to his local community, but he’s the first one who goes bonkers. He thinks the Martians are the devil and only he can save the world – or not.

And Julie Covington as Beth is the opposite to his character: she’s the face of humanity and its ability to overcome.

Absolutely! And it was polar opposites that I wanted: you had fire and brimstone with Phil, and love and belief with Julie; things worth living for that she’s trying to instil in him do he doesn’t lose all control of his belief and thought processes – and that’s what The Spirit Of Man is all about.

The core of that duet is really the core of HG Wells’ story. The heart of the story is about faith and religion, invasion and hope. And that’s what I fell in love with. It’s written with exceedingly unusual imagination from HG Wells, who puts the Martians in the visual context as the invaders; those who destroy faith.

For a 40-year-old album, that description is very topical in the current climate.

I couldn’t agree more. It’s been a major contributing factor why I’ve stayed with it all these years. I just keep developing it and seeing the life it has had. That’s it – spot on.

Have you ever considered putting your musical version of The War Of The Worlds to film, or creating an animation?

I’m on record for many years now saying that one of my dreams in life is to take my musical version and have an animated film set to it. Today’s world of animation is also combining reality and fiction into a blend of the two where you’re not even aware which is real. As a medium it’s grown and gives you greater scope.

Spartacus sold surprisingly more than people might think. But was it The War Of The Worlds? No

Since we started touring arenas in 2006, we’ve worked with pretty much the same animation company, and we’re always delving into CGI or immersive animation. I still have that dream; anyone who comes to see the next tour will see five screens – a giant one in the back and four in the audience, which is a first for us. Essentially it will be a film along with the live action. It’s become a living work and so many styles of technology have become more and more combined.

When you finished the album, did you know you’d created something special?

I would like to say I could have foreseen its popularity, but the truth is that at the time, I didn’t even have a record contract that guaranteed its release! I handed it in as a finished piece, including the artwork and all the things that made up the total package, and CBS had a 30-day period to come back to me and say, “Yep, we like it, we’re going to release it,” and give it support – or not. I waited very nervously for 30 days and they did come back to me, but they weren’t sure! So they asked for another 30 days.

So it was a gamble – because you’d put your life savings into it.

Yep, that’s true. But it’s not that CBS didn’t back me. They backed me, but only for a single album cost of £70,000. And after everything, the album cost £240,000. So the difference between the two figures was my life savings.

Jeff Wayne

(Image credit: Getty Images)

In 1992, you followed up TWOTW with a musical album about the story of Spartacus. Were you disappointed that it wasn’t as successful?

Yes, absolutely. It had quite a tale of twisting and turning. There were fallouts with the record company. I left and signed with Universal, then I went back to Sony when it all worked out with them. It’s a different story to The War Of The Worlds. It’s historic and a story of truth. I spent three years just researching it, going back to my journalism degree.

The one thing I really enjoyed and took hold of was getting detail accurate – don’t presume what you’re learning from one person is correct. I had those disciplines and enjoyed it. But I did put three years into it before the first note was written. I had a great cast, but it had some creative flaws that were a result of these conflicts between moving from one record company to another and back.

It’s all down to me – nobody forced me to keep going with it. It sold surprisingly more than people might think. But was it The War Of The Worlds? No. I might revisit it, but fighting Martians has become a lifestyle for me since we started touring in 2006! Spartacus might have a life in live form because it’s a natural story.

You might do Spartacus live?

Absolutely. I’ve been approached over the years to consider that but I never imagined in my wildest dreams that the life of The War Of The Worlds was going to be what it has become. If I’ve not been on the road, I’ve always known that I’ve had another tour or other extensions to resume after finishing. So the non-Martian things I’ve done are few and far between simply because all I ever do now is fight Martians.

Fish played the part of Crixus on the Spartacus album, – what was he like to work with?

He was great fun. I have a proud moment in association with the Classic Rock Awards in that I was surprised with an award for Showman Of The Year for the 2007 War Of The Worlds tour, and the surprise award presenter was Fish. Working with him on Spartacus – he’s just his own person. He’s a unique character. His passion was there right from the start.

Are you still working on a musical adaptation of The Call Of The Wild?

From the time The War Of The Worlds was released and the time I started preparing the tour, I hardly ever returned to it

I haven’t gone back to it for a few years. It still remains a story that I think would work – visually as well as musically. It’s simply the same thing about The War Of The Worlds dominating my life.

From the time that The War Of The Worlds was released in 1978 and the time I started preparing the tour in 2005, I hardly ever returned to it. I was proud of it. It spent six years in the charts – you couldn’t avoid it. But every week and every month I was doing something new; now, it’s the complete opposite.

I still love The Call Of The Wild. Interestingly, it was published in the USA at almost the same time as The War Of The Worlds, and its author, Jack London, knew HG Wells!

How many more tours do you think you’ll do?

Who knows? Personally, I’d like to keep going until I fall off the podium. Some musicians who conduct have a very great career and great longevity. Whether it’s the same thrill of conducting live music as it is for playing and singing, there’s something about live music that really keeps you going. It’s my favourite form. I have no end in sight.

Has The War Of The Worlds become a millstone or do you still embrace it?

I would extend millstone to milestone. In my life, it certainly was. Why would I even want to think of it as a millstone? I feel privileged that I’ve got a work I hope I will be remembered for. And it’s still going strong; it’s remarkable. I would have never known that at the time.

Alex Burrows

A regular contributor to Louder/Classic Rock and The Quietus, Burrows began his career in 1979 with a joke published in Whizzer & Chips. In the early 1990s he self-published a punk/comics zine, then later worked for Cycling Plus, Redline, MXUK, MP3, Computer Music, Metal Hammer and Classic Rock magazines. He co-wrote Anarchy In the UK: The Stories Behind the Anthems of Punk with the late, great Steven Wells and adapted gothic era literature into graphic novels. He also had a joke published in Viz. He currently works in creative solutions, lives in rural Oxfordshire and plays the drums badly.