So, I think the record will show that I like War of the Worlds. A lot. And of course, this love extends to the famous rock opera by Jeff Wayne et al. Sure, it takes some liberties with the book, but of every adaptation I’ve ever seen, Jeff Wayne’s version is the only to be faithful while still being enjoyable. Some of the changes even improve the story a little – having the Journalist witness the events of Thunder Child doesn’t make sense geographically, but it’s better than Wells’s admittedly clunky idea of switching viewpoint to the Journalist’s brother. So yes. I like it.
But now there’s a new version! With Oskar Schindler himself, Liam Neeson! Kaiser Chief Ricky Wilson! Anne of Cleves impersonator Joss Stone! Dubstep Microsoft shill Alex Clare! X-Factor bastard and David Cameron’s best mate, Gary Barlow!
Is it better? Well… not really.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t compare them! And we’re going to do so in ridiculous detail, because that’s just how much I love War of the Worlds.
One of the most famous things about Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (JWMVOTWOT) is the narration that links, and sometimes augments, the songs, as read by Richard Burton/Liam Neeson (of which more in a minute). The words were adapted (sometimes quite loosely) from Wells’s, so there’s only so much that could be done with them.
The problem with the words in The New Generation are that… well, let’s just say it’s very obvious Jeff Wayne has spent the last 30 years obsessing about every word. Sure, there were occasionally odd moments in the original, but you wouldn’t necessarily hear them on the first hearing, or even the fifth.
Burton: “At midnight, on the 12th of August, a huge mass of luminous gas erupted from Mars and sped towards Earth. Across two hundred million miles of void, invisibly hurtling towards us, came the first of the missiles that were to bring so much calamity to Earth. As I watched, there was another jet of gas. It was another missile, starting on its way. And that’s how it was for the next ten nights. A flare, spurting out from Mars. Bright green, drawing a green mist behind it; a beautiful, but somehow disturbing sight. Ogilvy, the astronomer, assured me we were in no danger. He was convinced there could be no living thing on that remote, forbidding planet.”
Neeson: “At midnight, on the 12th of August, a huge mass of luminous gas erupted from Mars and sped towards Earth. I made contact with Ogilvy, the astronomer, and hurried to his observatory. Across two hundred million miles of void, invisibly hurtling towards us, came the first of the missiles that were to bring so much calamity to Earth. As we watched, there was another jet of gas. It was another missile, starting on its way. And that’s how it was for the next ten nights. A flare, spurting out from Mars. Bright green, drawing a green mist behind it; a beautiful, but somehow disturbing sight. Ogilvy assured me we were in no danger. Perhaps a huge volcanic eruption was in progress. But he was convinced there could be no living thing on that remote, forbidding planet.”
Now, perhaps you might have noticed the original is a little clunky. Ogilvy appears suddenly, and declares abruptly that it can’t be aliens. The New Generation clears up those plot holes – the Journalist ran to Ogilvy’s observatory to watch the flares, and Ogilvy now has an alternative explanation for the flares. But the listener could have figured both of those things out for themselves, without having to say “Perhaps a huge volcanic eruption was in progress”. This song is “The Eve of War”, it should be tense and epic. Everything that “Perhaps a huge volcanic eruption was in progress” is not.
Later on, the Journalist and the Artilleryman are traipsing across country, and…
Burton: At Byfleet we came upon an inn, but it was deserted.
Essex: Is everybody dead?
Burton: Not everybody, look! Six cannons, with gunners standing by.
This is a bit weird, in that it’s had to pin down where it’s actually happening – the Journalist finds a deserted inn, and the Artilleryman asks “Is everybody dead”, which sounds like it refers to the inn, but then the Journalist points out the gunners, who are surely a long way from the inn (since they didn’t notice the massive cannons before entering the inn), in which case, why mention the inn at all?
The new version both improves and ruins this scene.
Neeson: At Byfleet we came upon an inn, but it was deserted. The Artilleryman found the kitchen, and we filled our stomachs, and then our pockets, with all we could carry.
Wilson: Look! A bottle of whiskey! That’s a lucky find!
Neeson: We hurried onwards. There didn’t seem to be a living soul anywhere.
Wilson: Is everybody dead?
Neeson: Not everybody, look! Six cannons, with gunners standing by!
The inn and the cannons are now clearly separate, and there’s the nice detail of raiding its kitchen. But why does the Artilleryman have to find the whiskey? Yes, it happened in the book. Yes, it foreshadows “A Brave New World”. But it doesn’t fit the song at all.
Covington: But they’re not devils, they’re Martians!
Burton: We must leave here.
Stone: But they’re not devils, they’re Martians!
Neeson: Yes, they came from Mars, not God!
The music of JWMVOTWOTW is (to modern ears) straightforward enough – most of the tracks are epic synth, squealing guitar and chugging bass, in some combination. The new generation spices this up, effectively remixing the tracks with hints of techno, dubstep and (on “The Spirit of Man”) folk. Whether or not you like this is up to personal taste, so these are just a few personal likes and dislikes:
Likes: The MIDI sawtooth sound of the synths on tracks like “The Artilleryman and the Fighting Machine”. Some of the dubstep flourishes. The way the music is muffled while the Journalist is underwater. “MORNIN’ PAPER: MEN FROM MARS!”
Dislikes: The reverb effect on random lines, which I guess is meant to represent madness. The synthesised choir on “The Spirit of Man”. Joss Stone’s reprisal as a ghost(?)
Burton vs. Neeson (The Journalist)
Come on, how can even claim one is better than the other? They’re different, sure, but come on. Richard Burton and Liam Neeson? Consider us blessed we have both.
Essex vs. Wilson (The Artilleryman)
Oh man, guys, oh man. David Essex is not the best actor in the world, but at least he tries. There’s a charm to Ricky Wilson’s performance, but that comes solely from how badly he does the spoken word portions. At least Essex doesn’t sound like he’s about to burst out laughing when she says “I’ve got to report to headquarters, if there’s anything left of it”. Songwise, Wilson is not so bad, but he doesn’t throw himself into it like Essex did.
Hayward vs. Barlow (The Sung Thoughts of the Journalist)
I literally cannot hear any difference between these two. Possibly because in my mind, all I can imagine Gary Barlow saying is “This is a singing competition!” in a peevish voice a hundred times.
Covington vs. Stone (Beth)
Joss Stone holds her own, but Julie Covington is great too. Let’s call this a tie.
Lynott vs. Sabre (Parson Nathaniel)
Again, there’s not a great difference, but I don’t think Sabre is quite hammy enough to be the Parson. His “WHY, SATAN? WHY DID YOU TAKE ONE OF YOUR OWWWWWWN?” is more of a “Why, Satan? Why did you take one of your own?” I do kind of like how he makes the Parson sound just a little whiny in “Red Weed (Part 2)” though.
Thompson vs. Clare (The Voice of Humanity)
I think Clare’s voice is a little nicer than Thompson’s, and more importantly, he’s probably responsible for putting the dubstep in “Thunder Child”, so it’s a yes from me!
So there you have it. All in all, The New Generation is not as good as the original. It was never going to be. But it’s enjoyable, and that’s what counts. Even when it’s bad, it’s good.