Books are great. World Book Day is upon us and people are using the day to celebrate books by dressing up as their favourite characters, sharing their favourite stories and buying tons of new ones. Many of the greatest books are adapted into other media, mostly onto film or TV, but that's not all. Books have inspired countless songs; Metallica's 'For Whom The Bell Tolls' is based on the Ernest Hemingway novel of the same name, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights was the basis for the Kate Bush song, and it's genuinely difficult to count the number of songs by Iron Maiden that have been inspired by books.
But no-one else has musically adapted a book - in this case, H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds - quite like Jeff Wayne. Far from trying to cram the entire story into one song, he decided to make it a feature-length concept album, using music to evoke the tensions and emotions that come with the invasion. He recruited only the best for this task, including Academy Award nominated actor Richard Burton, Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy, David Essex and more. It's a Hell of a 'cast', and coupling that with the absolute cream of the crop of session musicians certainly paid dividends. The music is simply brilliant. From the melodic tension of 'The Eve of the War', to the sci-fi effects plastered throughout and even the slightly more mainstream section of 'Forever Autumn', it provides a raucous backdrop to the chaos of the lyrics and narration. Wayne's music brings an atmosphere to the world that is difficult to achieve through words alone, giving you a real sense of the fear and shock that humanity is feeling as the martians invade. Though it never gets aggressive, the music brings an aura of terror, tension and emotion to the words, perfectly supporting the likes of Burton, Lynott et al. as they lament about their impending doom.
Wayne's music includes a lot of interesting features, such as call-and-response moments (be it the iconic string melody or the guitars in 'The Artilleryman') and wah-guitars that sound like they've been plucked directly from a 1970s American cop show. Its ability to be versatile without sharply changing direction is impressive, enabling the record to remain an intriguing and entertaining listen throughout. Indeed, for a 90-minute record, it flies by and it's surprisingly repeatable; it's easy to listen to on a weekly basis despite its rather extended length. It never gets old or dull; the music is riddled with small details that can often slip under the radar, giving the listener an incentive to come back and hear it again.
In a way, this can be seen as a precursor to the modern-day audiobook; indeed, there is a new version specifically for Audible, featuring the likes of Michael Sheen and Taron Egerton. Though it doesn't narrate the entire novel verbatim, Richard Burton's baritone gracefully takes us upon the apocalyptic journey as the music rolls on behind him. It's a fascinating and unique record, prog-rock in genre but like nothing else that has ever been done.
It's fair to say that this album has been rather successful over the years. It has sold 15 million copies worldwide, becoming one of the best-selling records in the UK in the process, and Wayne has taken it on tour a number of times, bringing in the likes of Liam Neeson, Netwon Faulkner and Carrie Hope Fletcher over the years, depending on the tour. It has itself been adapted into numerous video games, a virtual-reality immersive experience and the aforementioned Audible version. Its legacy still stands tall today, so it's no wonder the Wayne has done little else since, apart from a few TV themes and a musical version of Spartacus, which received much less fanfare despite starring the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
A unique and marvelous record, Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of the War of the Worlds stands the test of time, a fact made obious by the constant reappraisals of its work. But nothing since quite stands up to the original, and if you're the type of person who hates reading books but loves music, this is the perfect album for you. Wayne's music is the perfect soundtrack to the book, allowing the listener to become encapsulated by story whilst also engaged in the music. It's a magnificent record, so sit back and prepare yourself to fear those iconic tripods all over again.