A Conversation with Jeff Wayne
|INTERVIEWS - FILM|
As The War of the Worlds: The New Generation show is released on Blu-Ray and DVD, Shadowlocked's Richard Cosgrove talks to Jeff Wayne about music, theme parks, Spartacus and, of course, all things Martian...
Thirty five years ago my world was well and truly rocked by what has become one of the best loved and successful concept albums of all time, Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of the War of the Worlds. I was introduced to Wayne's magnum opus when one of my junior school teachers took it upon himself to play us one side of the long playing record (no CDs in those days) in each of his lessons for four consecutive days and then getting us to talk about what we'd heard and translate this into our own words and pictures.
Wayne managed to rock my world once again when he finally brought the concept to life on stage in 2006 at London's Royal Albert Hall, a show that I'll never forget as he conducted a live band and orchestra accompanied by stunning visuals which included an actual thirty foot high Martian war machine.
In 2012 Wayne updated his original album in the form of The War of the Worlds: The New Generation, expanding the narrative and revamping the music, again to critical acclaim, and took this new production on the road, with stars of the calibre of Jason Donovan as Parson Nathaniel, Ricky Wilson (Kaiser Chiefs) as the Artilleryman, Will Stapleton (Jett Black) as the Voice of Humanity and Marty Pellow (Wet Wet Wet) as the Journalist. With bigger and better effects, this update toured to packed arenas around the world (and yes, I was there again, this time at London's O2 Arena).
This production of the New Generation has just been released on DVD and Blu-ray, and as part of the promotional activity for it back in September I was lucky enough to be given the chance to speak to Jeff Wayne one on one over the phone. Every bit as pleasant, friendly and interesting as he always comes across in print or on the TV or radio, Jeff graciously answered some decidedly fan based questions about the creative process, his other oft overlooked concept album Spartacus, the possibility of an animated version, and the rumours of a War of the Worlds theme park.
Richard Cosgrove (RC): It's 35 years since your War of the Worlds came out. Did you ever imagine back then that it would still be popular all these years later let alone be considered arguably one of the greatest albums ever made?
Jeff Wayne (JW): I had no idea in truth whether it would even see the light of day. It was mostly funded by my life savings with some support by CBS. I had to finish it first and hand it in and see whether they'd even like it enough to release it. They eventually did; it didn't come quickly but they eventually did agree to it and then when they did it was only then that I knew that the public and the media were accepting it and found it engaging, and as a musician, as a composer, producer that was the greatest sort of response. It made up for three years of effort.
RC: Did having Richard Burton on board help in getting it out to the public consciousness?
JW: I think there's no doubt that having someone of Richard's stature on board (helped) but it was also the chemistry of the musical guest artists because albums, singles, things that a record buying public would want to hear, I think comes from it having to live in a music environment. Even singles and what then were disco versions, and now we're in the club world, so I think it was the totality, you know. Also there I was interpreting a dark Victorian tale, a continuous play double album that had no cuts on it, I was taking whatever risks I knew I was taking and there was no assuredness that it would have an audience, so everybody who came on board - Richard and the other musical guest artists - they were hearing and listening with their own ears as to whether they felt they wanted to be involved in it and I was just so fortunate to attract the people that I did.
RC: Today we're in the world of iTunes etcetera, but back then a concept album was more of the norm really. With the New Generation you've managed to do it again, but do you think you would have been able to get something like War of the Worlds off the ground today?
JW: I think it would be either impossible or so difficult that the answer is probably the odds would be against. If I was walking through the doors today with the same idea I would probably not even try it first as a recording. I would probably put my energies and life savings again into doing what we do in our arena tours, as it's got such a natural placement in large spaces and then try to secure a record release because of the arena production.
I say that spontaneously to your question but I think you raise a very good point. When I composed and produced War of the Worlds music was perceived entirely differently. There was no such thing as streaming or the iTunes digital world and everything else that we know about. Record sales have changed (but) what I do know is that we've enjoyed hit singles, we've had over 300 club renditions, some have turned into big club and pop hits, so the fact that it's worked on a musical level means I think that it keeps getting reinvented and reinterpreted in the modern world, but starting it off I don't know.
I know I had a very good track record as a producer with CBS and that was largely why they expressed initial interest. If I had no track record at that point I probably wouldn't have gotten the War of the Worlds off the ground even to the level of their funding. CBS, now Sony, invested about a third of the total cost and the rest of it was in fact my life savings and there was a lot riding on it. But we are talking thirty five years or so ago and a completely different world, you know, the format of the day was the black vinyl disc, and look at what we have in today's world.
RC: Speaking about the live show, I remember coming to the Royal Albert Hall for the first one back in 2006. It was quite a spectacular and emotional night, but it took nearly thirty years for the technology to be right to actually do the live show justice. Since then each tour has added more impressive effects and technology, but is there anything that you can't do yet that you'd quite like to do in the future?
JW: I think if you're a travelling circus, as the arena shows are, whether you're a band or a solo artists or something of the scale of the War of the Worlds, you have to design a production that can...and although we do multiple shows in certain cities we are largely in a city one evening and your show is up and running the next night somewhere else so you're confined to what you can travel with which still has given me a huge scope in the scale of the show and each production just keeps growing, but I think it's only one's imagination and pocket book in today's world that effectively allows you to do anything you want.
I'm just looking at the next tour that we're going to be doing which will be announced next month (the final arena tour, announced last week – Ed.), it's got stuff in it already planned that wasn't available from our last tour and our last tour was twenty months of preparing a true reinvention, so when you compare 2006, the show you mentioned at the Royal Albert Hall, and the last production it's quite a remarkable growth and that's because things keep moving on and you can afford a bit more, but you're still travelling, you're still a travelling circus.
If you were in like a West End production, although the space is smaller, you're in a fixed venue and you could do things that you couldn't do on an arena tour. But for arenas, stadiums, the type of venues that the War of the Worlds is designed for, other than the ability that you have to achieve to move it from night to night you're only limited to, I think, your imagination and your pocket book these days.
It would have been Britain's first genuine comparison with something like a Disneyworld and the War of the Worlds was going to be one of the themes
RC: Talking about moving it, I do seem to remember years even before the Royal Albert Hall show there was talk about doing an outside performance, I think it was Hyde Park, some talk of a residency with fighting machines among the trees etcetera. Was that anything that was ever really seriously discussed or was it something that might be a possibility for the future to have a bigger production but in a fixed space?
JW: I think what you're referring to was I was involved in a project that was about thirteen, fourteen years in its making called Wonder World. It would have been Britain's first genuine comparison with something like a Disneyworld and the War of the Worlds was going to be one of the themes which included a giant fighting machine that inside had around a five thousand seat venue for putting on the War of the Worlds and other shows. Restaurants, a science fiction museum, shops, you name it and outside was a bubble that was going to be a thirty thousand seat stadium and lighting rigs, everything about what was several acres of development was all built around the War of the Worlds....fighting, handling machines, flying machines, everything that become known with the album's original artwork, and we would have been running the War of the Worlds as a regular show there.
But this was (back in) 1987 that the people were developing it and after developing in for thirteen, fourteen years the funding was half coming from private finance, which it had achieved, and the other was going to be through a public offering which unfortunately clashed with a small (stock market) crash that started in the US and trickled into the UK and it put them out of business essentially, and it never happened. It was so close and there were so many people involved in it, but I'm pretty sure that's what you were referring to.
RC: There's long been talk of an animated movie – obviously the CGI projections on the animation wall are very impressive – but are there still plans to do this at any point?
JW: Indeed, and the original tour, even what you saw at the Royal Albert Hall, the animation – just under two hours at that point is now just over two hours – was the result of an arrangement with Paramount Pictures where the only set of rights that my dad and I who were partners on the War of the Worlds originally didn't have was the feature film rights and the book publication rights. Those were both sold off long before we came on the scene, in 2004 as part of a deal with Paramount Pictures and Steven Spielberg's company because they were making a modernised version of the War of the Worlds, they needed certain rights from my company and in exchange we got the right to make an animated feature film and TV series and started immediately on it with a brilliant team of animators here in the UK. Not knowing that about a year later the War of the Worlds which I was remixing and remastering, and a collector's edition of multi discs and a DVD of how I made the War of the Worlds and a box set type of arrangement...but the remixed stereo album went into the top ten of the UK charts and in other countries and stayed there for about ten or eleven weeks in a row and became a huge hit again all over and it was that which, the first – the show that you saw at the Royal Albert Hall – is what the first live show grew from and it was because I had been working with this animation team that we were able with the deadline of that first tour to have all this animation.
Every tour since we've added to, expanded again, you know animation like all things technological has grown, our very next tour is going to have even more 3D elements within it but the core of it came about from the original work that I did with this animation team. I had no idea the life of these tours was going to grow substantially to the point where we're about to do our seventh tour, we've been as far as Australia and New Zealand, it looks like we're going play the States for the first time and my dream still is to return to take the best of what we have already in animation form and to interpret it as an animated feature film (or) possible TV series. The team that we work with are brilliant and they're British and they love the War of the Worlds as a great classical story, so yes. The short answer is yes, I hope that this will be another dream fulfilled.
RC: Given your love and clear understanding of the War of the Worlds have you ever thought about a non-musical faithful telling, with you as the composer of the soundtrack, because certainly in my opinion I don't there's yet been a definitive version of Wells's tale put on screen.
JW: Well that's what I hope to do whether, you know, when we talk about an animated feature film we have the ability to use certain live action sequences where relevant and I think it would be a mixture of pure animation and elements that embody some live action. I think if this is what you mean about a definitive take up on the screen, the versions that have appeared either as feature films or go back to 1938 when Orson Welles did quite an amazing radio production everything is set in contemporary America so the impression by audiences, or the listeners to that radio production, get an impression of a story that actually is not what the War of the Worlds is about.
HG Wells wrote this incredible dark Victorian tale that was taking a pop at the expanding British empire with its tentacles of power reaching all over the world, hence HG's martians with tentacles, he was critical of such expansionism, territorial invasion, questioning one's own faith against others. There's a lot of themes that I fell in love with which to me just resonated best by keeping it in the way that HG Wells wrote it, so everything I do and have ever done or ever will do in the future with the War of the Worlds will stay true to that.
RC: With interest recently in A Game of Thrones and the brace of Spartacus series do you ever wonder what you might be able with you own Spartacus given the technology nowadays and the arena set-ups?
JW: It's an interesting thing and there's no doubt that my musical version of Spartacus didn't reach the level of success that the War of the Worlds has done but I think also when I look back and aside from things that I will be doing creatively to it and I am going to be returning to it funnily enough after the very next tour, because of the ability to take it live and the type of canvas that the story, which is a true one, is built around...if you were to check...there's two parallels about good timing and bad timing that... not that I knew it at the time when the War of the Worlds was about to come out there was this sudden rediscovery of science fiction with movies like Close Encounters and E.T. If you check back in that period, and TV series like Star Trek etcetera, and the Star Wars movies of course, the world was suddenly rediscovering science fiction and there I came out with a musical work based upon the very first science fiction story ever written.
Jump forward to Spartacus and bad timing, for whatever reason the historical subject be it based upon fact or fantasy but still based or perceived to be in a historical setting, I was about six or seven years in front of Gladiator and some of the things that have followed ever since, Braveheart, you name it and the ones you've just named now, even Spartacus the TV series, you know who knew? I don't think I had the rub of the green in terms of my own timing. A lot of people at the time from the record company and the media even asked me why didn't I just do a follow up to the War of the Worlds, another science fiction story or a sequel to the War of the Worlds. My answer was, well, I'm a composer, a creative person, I'm not looking to mass produce a format, I'm looking for stories that move me.
The War of the Worlds was a story that moved me and Spartacus is a true story. It took me about three years to research, I could go on Mastermind even to this day about that subject and the period of time that it was all taking place in, so that's what moves me is the story, not some commercial formula that assures you a more logical progression. So who knew? Who knew that six years later the historical subject would become a very viable rediscovery in the way science fiction was when I did the War of the Worlds?
RC: Despite the huge success and cultural impact of the War of the Worlds, you've managed to reasonably retain your anonymity. Have you ever overheard or been in a conversation about the War of the Worlds where people haven't actually realised that you are Jeff Wayne?
JW: (laughs) No, I haven't, No, I can't say that I have. I've been in many places where my name is seen on, I don't know, a credit card or something like that and then there's an awareness that I'm the person involved with the musical interpretation of the War of the Worlds and all that's grown from it. My sport is tennis and I've been the captain of Hertfordshire County for some twenty-three, twenty-four years and we play fixtures, we have national championships twice a years, indoor and outdoor, and a lot of the players, and these are all guys between seventeen, eighteen, right up to maybe early thirties, and they've gotten to know me over the years and sometimes you can see that they're scratching their head trying to relate to this guy that’s hitting tennis balls one day and the next day is seen somewhere involved in something that's not related to tennis and in the world of music and all that but I guess I've chosen a path. I'm not sure it's helped me at times, but I like the normal life when I'm not working professionally and particularly when I'm conducting and performing with the and obviously you're in front of a lot of people and there's a lot of people that are interested in talking to you as we're talking now, but when there's nothing else in my career going on that warrants that I like that privacy.
With the interview was over we said our goodbyes but not before Jeff graciously asked me to let him know if I was going to be at a show on the next tour so that I could have a chat with him in person. Here's hoping that happens next December, but regardless it was a genuine pleasure to ba able to speak with one of my all-time heroes and an artist whose work has inspired not only me but countless others over the years.
Many thanks to Jeff for his time, and to Mark Collins at Mark Collins PR for arranging our chat.
“Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of 'The War of the Worlds... The New Generation', is out November 25 on DVD and Blu-ray through Universal Pictures. Tickets for the brand new 2014 live tour go on sale November 22 priced from £38.50 and will be available via thewaroftheworlds.com/tickets or at www.livenation.co.uk.”
IF YOU ENJOYED THIS ARTICLE, PLEASE HELP SUPPORT OUR SITE, AT NO COST WITH ONE CLICK ON THE FACEBOOK 'LIKE' BUTTON BELOW:
If you're interested in writing for Shadowlocked (disc and screening reviews, etc, or just getting some extra coverage for your extraordinary writing talent, get in touch with us.