War Of The Worlds goes live

Come on, Thunderchild! As the Martian groove machine prepares to enslave the nation once more, SFX caught up with War Of The Worlds musical supremo Jeff Wayne to talk about his new arena-conquering live show, how to survive in the age of Spotify and why he’ll never do a sequel to that classic 1978 album…

So you’re back on the road. What changes have you made for this tour?

So far we’ve done three tours – two in the UK and one in Australia and New Zealand. Each tour we’ve done we haven’t just taken it out of the box and presented it the same way. We don’t want to shortchange anyone who’s given us their time – and particularly their money for a ticket – by just doing it all the same way. That’s an easy way out. And creatively we need a challenge: what can we do to top the previous one? So this next tour that we’re going to do in the UK – and then a couple of countries in Europe, and then Dubai – we’ve got a couple of new cast members, we have some new special effects and one major illusion, all that we hope will fit seamlessly into the story.

An illusion?

When I say an illusion it’s not like we suddenly stop the show and a magician comes out and takes a Martian out of a hat! But it integrates into the story. We previously did it in a simpler way – in fact it’s quite possible that it wasn’t even noticed, whereas this, if it works, will definitely be a major moment that we hope will give the audience even more interactivity. We’ll have huge special effects that will, again, create more of a three-dimensional atmosphere in the show. There’s a couple of technical things that will make us move more elegantly as a show. I’ve also expanded a bit on the score, and there are a few upgrades to the CGI.

You’re always very faithful to the original album.

Well, that’s the heart of it. It’s a musical work – I never forget that. But it has such a canvas that, aside from a budget point of view, it’s almost limitless as to how you can keep exploring it. We have a section that’s not on the album that starts the show off, an animated scene with the Martians – we try to get a handle on why the Martians actually wanted to invade planet Earth. We said ‘What would HG think about this?’ and we concluded that they were destroying their own planet ecologically in a way that we’re doing to ourselves here. It’s a three-minute animated sequence and as it ends we see the first cylinder leaving for Earth, and that connects into Richard’s first speech, and then off we go…

They say Bob Dylan never plays the same song the same way twice. Do you ever feel tempted to tinker and change things?

Well, I am a tinkerer, and that’s why this tour will have a few new musical ingredients. I’ve extended one section – for the first time all of our guest stars will be seen in a sequence at the very end, reiterating something that we’ve heard earlier on. There are a few twiddles with sounds. I hope I always tinker for the right reasons; I’m a musician, I’m a creative person, and I think repetition is absolutely boring. It doesn’t mean that you digress so far that the heart of what you created isn’t still there.

And you still want to surprise the War Of The Worlds fanbase, we imagine…

Yeah. When we started touring in 2006, none of us had any idea how many seats we’d sell. It started off as one show, as a concert rendition at the Royal Albert Hall, and it sold out so quickly that our promoters offered us to play some arenas – but they didn’t think that arenas would be right for just doing a straight concert rendition. Years ago my dad and I tried to visualise a large-scale production… not necessarily what we’re doing here, because the technology has changed so much, but really taking the story and its canvas to what in the day would have been as cutting-edge as possible. Even in 1984 we were discussing this talking head technology with Richard Burton. It’s not a new technology. Now we’re working with holograms and motion capture with Richard’s performance. It just kept growing and growing. And there was a demand there. Ok, we thought, is it the people who supported us first time around? And it turned out that there was an element of absolute fans who knew the album better than I did, and I think we didn’t disappoint them in the live interpretation on our first tour. But then we started looking, and there were children, some of them four or five years old, who had somehow heard about this three tonne Martian fighting machine that descends onto the stage about half an hour into the story and fires heat rays into the audience and scans them with its bug-like eyes… So this had nothing to do with a hardcore fanbase of an album, or even a single. It’s across the board in terms of age groups. There are club renditions that people had become familiar with. It surprised all of us, and I guess that’s why it grew into the arena tour, because it wasn’t just one audience. And it seems to be growing. We’re doing more shows in the UK this year than we’ve done in the previous two. So fingers crossed it keeps expanding and we can keep entertaining people. And I can keep tinkering!

How would you describe the original sound of the music? Disco-prog?

Yeah, I think you’re right! When I composed The War Of The Worlds I was a young guy. I was composing a piece that was at the height of the punk revolution and disco was the king of the dancefloor. So my musical influences were going to be whatever was out there at the time. And I liked to dance – I still do – so having a groove within the opening composition helped it along. I had the angst of a young guy, you know, so while I wasn’t doing three minute punk pieces the feel of “I wanna smack you in the face” was definitely there [laughs], and I think it came out in what HG gave me – a story that was human as well as alien. The alien side was the electronic and aggressive side. The human side was the more acoustic and symphonic string writing. So as a composer, arranger, producer I had everything there as a palette that HG gave me, basically.

Do you see the album in the tradition of musical theatre or stuff like Emerson, Lake & Palmer, that ‘70s craze for SF concept albums? Where do you think it sits?

I never actually thought of the term concept album during the whole time I was writing and producing it. I just had this opportunity as a composer and a producer to interpret this amazing story. So what came out of me was a reflection of what I heard as a sound, the guy that I was in that world. Yes, I was interpreting a story, no doubt about it, but I never really thought too deeply about that – the truth was I was just trying to compose an honest piece of music. I was very fortunate to attract not only the guest stars – every single one of them was at the peak of their game – but the band were also the guv’nors of the live and session world. So to attract everybody that I did, and to get such a positive vibe off them as collaborators… it’s unique to my life. I know why I wanted to do it, and look at the people I wound up working with…

You were so lucky with your timing. The album arrived just as Star Wars ignited that whole late ‘70s SF boom.

Yes, that’s absolutely true, and I like to say “Wasn’t I clever, the way I timed all that?” [laughs] The truth was I had no idea about half of those things coming out. But Star Wars had broken big, of course, Star Trek was coming back, Close Encounters and ET followed… The whole science fiction genre had been rediscovered all around the world. Whereas if you want to look at the opposite side of that, when I did my musical version of Spartacus, the whole historic genre was not out there at that point. Six or seven years later you started seeing Gladiator, and more recently Braveheart, Rome… it’s a long list. So that was not great timing. I was not in the groove on that one!

War Of The Worlds demands to be listened to as a complete piece – but are we seeing the death of the album in 2009? How are things like iTunes and Spotify changing music?

People who make music have to think about those things, because this is the world we’re living in today. As a composer, as a producer, I’m no different. Would I be able to do The War Of The Worlds today? I’d probably meet with tremendous resistance – or even no interest whatsoever. What I would have to do is find a way of writing and producing it and getting it launched in a way that is relevant to today’s world. The world of MySpace, where you can find thousands of unsigned artists and bands – I think that’s always existed, but there’s technology now where you can actually listen to them and find them, a delivery mechanism. And I think that’s actually pretty good – it gives options that didn’t exist before. From an industry point of view I’m not sure yet if there’s a real solution, but I think now, after a long dozy spell, the record companies are starting to live in today’s world, and dealing in digital rights, linking up with promoters and management companies. It’s not just the future, it’s now, and the future will probably change just as dramatically as technology keeps changing with it.

Spotify is giving music away for free. Does that scare you?

That’s a good example of a changing world. In truth it’s only in the last two weeks that I was told about Spotify. But what they’ll do is sell advertising, and as long as there’s a fair share back to the record companies, the publishers, the authors, the creative people then it’s just an alternative way of selling the music. So yes, while the music is free, there’s got to be a revenue stream that equates in some way, because everybody has to eat. There’s no magic in the world, you know? We all have to put food on the table. You can say that you’re a creative person and therefore you just float through life, there’s no real world behind you – but that isn’t true. We all have to eat. I’ve had to raise four children with my wife, and we all face these issues. If you can’t put food on the table then how are you going to survive?

Do you ever find yourself wishing that Wells had done a sequel?

No, I think it’s actually a perfect work. Yeah, you can come back and revisit it and say right, here’s The War Of The Worlds II – 2009…

Ever been tempted, Bat Out of Hell II style?

I have been asked on a couple of occasions. Personally I’ve not been attracted to do a sequel, and that’s why I went on to do Spartacus – and I’ve got another story that I’m hoping to go onto after this tour’s finished. I’ve started composing a bit of it. I like a fresh approach to the next thing. I’m not sure there’s anything unique left to say about War Of The Worlds.

You planted the seeds of a sequel with the NASA epilogue on the original record…

Yes, we did. That doesn’t mean I want to do a sequel! I think what I’d be challenged by is taking the same score and putting it into the sounds of today. If I was writing it today, which grooves would I be working with? Would I be delving into hip-hop or R&B, or whatever’s out there that’s the common groove of the day? The way certain instruments sound – drumming and bass sounds and plug-ins I’ve got here in my studio. In fact we just finished mixing a single here on Monday night – The Spirit Of Man, and it features our two new guest stars, Jennifer Ellison and Shannon Noll. Shannon was our Parson Nathaniel in Australia and New Zealand. So far everyone’s said it sounds like the record was made today. It’s still got the same original strings, and the parts are all the same, but the way we treated the sound is different – we did new drum sounds to match the performances – and it really sounds fresh. I could see myself doing that to the whole recording of The War Of The Worlds, adding on my little prequel at the start… I just want to challenge myself to see whether I can do something of merit that gives this generation people, performances and sound that relate to their world. It’s a temptation to the tinkerer in me…

Nick Setchfield

The War Of The Worlds 30th Anniversary tour begins in Aberdeen on 10 June. For more information head here .