Jeff Wayne on his musical version of The War of the Worlds: '˜It had a lot of really wonderful themes'

Jeff Wayne admits that he finds it hard to believe he is still talking about his musical adaptation of HG Wells' novel The War of the Worlds almost 40 years on from its game-changing release.

Martian rock: Jeff Waynes musical version of The War of the Worlds returns to the First Direct Arena.
Martian rock: Jeff Waynes musical version of The War of the Worlds returns to the First Direct Arena.

“I was just wondering if I’d get a chance to release it and to recoup all my investment,” he admits. “I didn’t even have a guaranteed release in my contract, when I was composing and producing the original double album, as much as there was enthusiasm from the label. The process then was that you’d hand your record in and wait 30 days to find out whether they liked it enough to release it. And on that 30th day, they came back and asked for another month. They thought it was brilliant, but they had no idea if anybody would buy it or if radio stations would play it.”

Their – and Wayne’s – faith has been rewarded over the past four decades. The War of the Worlds remains one of the biggest records of all-time, a phenomenal catalogue seller and a seminal work in progressive rock. Yet its origins are relatively more humble, rooted in an idea spawned between the 75-year-old composer and his father Jerry.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“My dad and I were partners on The War of the Worlds,” he states. “He put forward to me the idea of finding a story that appealed to us so passionately that I would want to compose and produce a work based upon it. I wasn’t necessarily thinking of a concept or double album; we were more just looking to interpret it in my own way.”

Jeff Waynes musical version of The War of the Worlds

How did they come to settle on the HG Wells classic? “We had over about a year, read a number of brilliant books – some of them anyway – but they were either too long and I couldn’t find a way to penetrate them. And then along came The War of the Worlds, which my dad literally handed to me the night before going out on tour with David Essex. On this one, I got excited about it, it had a lot of really wonderful themes about life, invasion, faith, hope, dressed up beautifully in the imagination of a dark, Victorian tale. I came back to my dad and said ‘This is it. If we can make this happen, I want to give it a go.’”

The pair had to obtain permission first from Wells’ estate to use the novel as the basis of their work, he notes. “He’d passed away in 1946 and had left the rights to his son Frank. It took us about three months to locate him and to present ourselves, to try to explain why we wanted to do this. I think we impressed Frank, not just with our ideas, but because we were a father-and-son team. I think, given he was the protector of his dad’s legacy, he felt a kinship with us.”

Such was the subsequent success of The War of the Worlds, with its who’s who of musical talent and narration from the actor Richard Burton, demand ensured that the record received several further rereleases in foreign languages. “We had a Spanish one, an Israeli one, a Dutch one,” Wayne recalls. “In Germany, there was a production with an actor called Curd Jurgens, who was very much a Richard Burton of the day in his country. He was a big star internationally. We had Anthony Quinn play the role of the journalist for some of the Latin America countries. We were going to do a French version with Yves Montand, but that fell apart after the label head over there suddenly departed.”

Wayne re-recorded the project in 2012, dubbed The New Generation, and has toured it since, with a new UK leg this winter. In terms of bringing together his cast for the live production, he admits it is something of a balancing act. “You think about the type of artist that might be right for a given role, you gain an introduction and you hope they express an interest. You never really know until you make an approach to find out who’s interested, who’s available, who’s affordable because we don’t have an open-ended budget. If you’re involved in it, it’s usually because you want to do it.”

Jeff Waynes musical version of The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds has come to define Wayne’s career, though he did give similar treatment to a retelling of Spartacus in 1992. Was there anything else he wished to adapt, or is planning to do so? “There’s a Jack London story, The Call of the Wild. It’s got a companion title called White Fang that I read as a little boy. I’ve even mapped out ideas for it; in today’s world, there’s so many opportunities and visual terms that I don’t even know what it could be yet.”

Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War of the Worlds is at First Direct Arena, Leeds on December 4.

Composer Jeff Wayne