An Interview With Jeff Wayne: “when somebody calls it “War of the Worlds” I’m on them, because it’s “THE War of the Worlds”. That’s what HG Wells wrote. It was the definitive war of all worlds.”

Had the world been in a normal place for the last 14 months, legendary award-winning composer Jeff Wayne would have spent much of last month on the road, touring the UK with the latest version of his renowned Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of The Worlds stage show, based on the 1978 album of the same name; a show which has delighted fans across the country and beyond since 2006. While that tour of course never happened thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe, Wayne has since announced an entirely new production dubbed the “Life Begins Again” tour set to head out in March & April of 2022, and was gracious enough to set aside time to speak to us about it, as well as the enduring legacy of the original album.

So, I want to start with what’s probably the most obvious question in the world. How much of a relief is it to be back to talking about touring again?

Jeff Wayne: I think, you know, anybody from any walk of life that’s had a huge gap in their lives. And professionally, you, you just miss it terribly. So I’m no different than the fact that, in fact, in fact, we would have been touring right now at this period of time, had the lockdown not happened. But I’m thrilled that it was only a postponement. A year is a big chunk. but we’re back on the road next year.

And of course, this next run isn’t what this year’s was meant to be. Because this year, it was meant to be “The True Story of The Martian Invasion”.

JW: Yep.

And now you’re rolling with “Life Begins Again”, which I know is taken from the show, but it’s just about the most appropriate thing you could have picked, isn’t it?

JW: Well, thank you for saying that. Yeah, I felt that it was the right thing to call it. I wish we didn’t have to call it that, because it would have meant we didn’t have the perils of the last 14-15 months. “The True Story of the Martian Invasion” was what it was going to be called. But it didn’t seem appropriate for next year.

And so obviously, you’ve have this year off in a sense now, I suppose. How much work then has to go into planning and staging for what’s essentially a new production with a new cast, and then getting it out on the road?

JW: It always takes us about 12 to 15 months to take it out of the box, and essentially say, right, what could we do with it next time out? And it’s because we don’t just take it out of the box and do it again, that it takes that long. It can be on a musical level, a technology level, because there’s so much that keeps changing in the world of technology, that I’m always like a little kid in a candy store looking what’s new, how many things can I get my hands on that I’ll be allowed to spend the money on type of thing. So it takes about that period of time.

I recall, there’s a stat somewhere in the press release that says something like it takes twice the amount of trucks to get everything as it did 15 years ago when you took the first version of the show out…

JW: Absolutely. When we started out, it was, and it was already at the giant shows scale. We were fitting it all into six giant trucks. We’re up to twelve or thirteen for next tour, so it gives you an idea just on stuff how the show has grown. It’s unrecognisable in many areas. Some things have been replaced because of   better ways of doing the same idea. So it’s a real mixture and the show is giant.

You mentioned there the show shifting and changing over the years. But there’s obviously a few big new additions to it this time that have been sort of advertised everywhere. I’m just wondering what you could tell us about some of these new things that have been mentioned for this run?

JW: Well, some of the existing items starting with those that have evolved over the years; what I mean by that is different from where they started out. When we started touring in 2006 we had a physical, it’s called a Martian Fighting Machine. It’s a machine straight out of HG Wells and the story. And about half an hour into the show, it’s been hidden from the audience, and descends on the stage. And it fires its main weapon, a heat ray. And now all these years later, next time out, not only does it land and fire heat rays that’re real flames that go straight out and over the audience, it sort of shakes and and sort of turns and wobbles, as it goes from being a terrorizing machine of absolute terror to, because the Martians are in the machines, to when they’re dying, now it sort of has a death wail, it’s sort of stuttering comes to a halt. And it’s got all sorts of lighting effects in built. But that’s been with us now, and has evolved over all these years. We have a new one that is going into the show. It’s called The Flaming Man. And it’s fitting into one, maybe two places, where we have three giant screens now, I should also add, we started with one that was the whole width of the stage. But now we have three that are positioned in different places. And when the story is telling us of the population fleeing from the Martians, and you see them in flight, some are being struck by the heat ray. But what we’ve never had until now is an effect that shows humans on fire, and it’s hopefully a bit scary. It’s quite unique in the way it looks. And that’s added in. We mentioned the name of the tour, “Life Begins Again”, that started out, in fact, as a secondary theme in my original score, at the point in the story when we do learn that it looked like the Martians were dying, and mankind may survive, and people are starting to return to their loved ones and to their homes. And I just as a title gave it the name “Life Begins Again”, all those years ago you know, not knowing the relevance that it would be today in 2021. In 2014, it grew into a full length song and piece performed by all of the guest artists. And now it’s being updated in some of the sounds, and the visuals to represent life beginning again. And so I’m very, very pleased with that. So our changes are ranged from technology and special effects,   to the score. Some of the characters are going to be new in putting in their own sort of imprint as performers. It’s a real mixture.

That leads on to something I was going to ask – speaking from a more strictly conductor-oriented view, what’s it like and how much of a challenge is it for you to do your thing when you’re surrounded by all these visual effects, the 30 foot fighting machine, and all the live performance elements as well?

JW: Well, the hardest part is ducking the heat ray, so I’ve learned to dive! *laughs* But other than that, it’s, it’s a real joy. Because I’m on stage, I’ve got the best seat in the house on this podium. And I get carried away, I’m conducting my own work. It doesn’t get better than that. And I’m conducting world class musicians, you know, great performers. And as I said, I’ve got the best seat in the house. So it doesn’t get much better than that.

In terms of the musicians side of it, is it still is it still the Black Smoke Band and the string section, like it’s been for the last however-long?

JW: It’s always been the Black Smoke Band and the UULAdubUULA Strings. Always, yep.

Best named string section in the business…

JW: That comes from, by the way, I did a double album of remixes some years ago. And it was called UULAdubUULA. So that’s where the name came from.

I really loved that record, just as an aside,

JW: Thank you. Thank you very much.

And so obviously this show is gonna be going out in 2022 now, which will be something like 44 years since the album and 16-odd since the first big UK stage version. Do you still get that same excitement every night performing the show as when it first went out?

JW: Yeah, every time without fail. I would have packed it in years ago, if I didn’t have that feeling it. I, about 10 minutes before the show actually starts, I make my way up to the back of the stage. And when I’m cued to go on, I come down a ramp. And I take a bow to the audience. And then I go over and shake the hand of the string leader, come back, have a wave or two to the band, they do the same back to me, and then I get up on the podium. And the second I hit that stage, I’m more like a hovercraft, you know, where my feet don’t touch the ground for the next two and a half hours. It’s wonderful.

I mean, I’ve spent obviously the last week or so leading up to this rewatching as much footage of previous tours as I can just to see how it’s evolved. And you just get that sense that you are having the most fun, it’s possible to have, just from watching you…

JW: Well, thank you, to say that you picked that up. It’s only what I’m feeling. I know, in fact, half the time, I don’t realize what I’m doing. I’m doing proper conducting, because I’ve been trained. But I also know I started moving and grooving and swinging. And I don’t know what I do from show to show. But I also know when I’ve watched back some of the film recordings, I am smiling and in acting in a way that’s like “is that me, I’m really doing all that?”.

So for this tour, obviously it’s still quite far out at this moment, which means we’ve only had two bits of casting publicly announced so far. We’ve got Claire Richards from Steps as Beth, The Parson’s Wife, and Kevin Clifton as The Artillerymen. I was wondering whether there’s a timeframe where we could expect a bit more news, or whether you can sort-of allude to what we might be able to expect, without me getting killed for breaking embargo..

JW: *laughs* Well, you won’t get killed because I won’t let you get killed. We’re gonna announce the last four, all in one go. And it’s getting close, we still have the fifth and the sixth to absolutely sign on the dotted line, two are already signed. And we’re going to do it all in one hit. In fact, if I was to name one thing that is the item that gives us the least ability to be controlled by is this – we can control the show and the production but what we can’t have really any knowledge about is when we’re going to be fully cast. We always get there and we’re always thrilled by the people that have agreed to come on board. But it’s one of those things. It’s as long as a piece of string. Until we have the right person who’s interested, available and comes into the studio & tries it out and we know yep, that’s great. So at this point, we’re close to the remaining four – two are definite, but we’ll let you know, as soon as we know.

I had to try in some way to get that in… 

JW: Good try!

I know for a fact you’ve had like your daughter in the show and that kind of thing before with regards to people involved – it must be it must be really cool every time you get a new cast in to have things like that be a possibility…

JW: Yeah, it is. Anna-Marie’s her name, she’s been in every production. She’s been a child actress from about the age of 13 and she did a couple of big TV series, and has done a lot of work throughout her life. And she’s she plays Carrie, who is the fiancée of The Journalist. And our Journalist is the 3D performance of Liam Neeson. So seeing her on stage, as her pop, as her dad. That’s a great feeling.

I’m really excited to see the Liam Neeson thing you just mentioned, because obviously that was meant to be billed last time and it’s been sort of done before, to an extent but I’ve never had the opportunity to see the show myself in persons until hopefully this next run… 

JW: Well, I hope you do come and most importantly, you have a great night out coming to see it and experience it. Liam’s performance we did five days of filming with him in New York, some time ago, and it’s a full body. It’s not just him, say his head and shoulders, there are scenes where he’s in full body. And there’s certain tricks that he does that The Artilleryman has survived the first thrust of the invasion. From near where The Journalist lives, he thinks he’s crawling into an empty house. And it’s not, it’s The Journalist’s house, and he sees this soldier crawling in, and he sort of gives them comfort. And they talk for a bit, and he offers him a drink. Now, remember, this is a 3D visual, you know, it’s not a live performance. But somehow he offers the full view of the audience, a glass of water, and The Artilleryman takes the glass and says thank you. And there’s a couple other tricks like that, but it’s very effective. It’s one of those things that we know that the audience are like “how do they do that?” You know, there’s a bunch of things like that in the show.

It must be amazing to have obviously worked through the entire transition of the show from the very start to now being able to do these kinds of things with technology.

JW: For sure, and that’s where, you know, we’re chatting about how technology just keeps moving on. It’s never ending, and what we’ve done last year, say, may be out of date this year, because something has just knocked it out of the box. And it could be done the same but a lot better or differently. And so off you go.

I just want to quickly loop back to talking a bit more broadly about the music of the show itself, because obviously, when your original score came out all the way back in the 70s, I’d argue it was kind of basically unlike anything else before it. And for it to obviously have endured, well nearly 50 years at this point…

JW: Oh no, no, no, don’t say 50! *laughs*

NEARLY fifty…

JW: Fine, I’ll buy that.

What do you think is the reason for the enduring longevity of this album for that amount of time?

JW: Well I think, for me, in truth, it’s responding to you in hindsight, in that when I finished it, I truly had no idea that it would have any audience much less the life that it’s had not just here in the UK, but around the world. But it seems to have resonated. I mean, it came out when it was the height of the punk revolution and disco was king of the dance floor. And here I come out with a double album, nearly two hours in length, continuous play. And although we had some hit singles, I had to edit them from this long piece. But it seemed to fit in it was accepted. I guess it was seen and heard as something different but musically credible. It’s also a great story, and I like to feel I’ve interpreted it and protected it all these very years. And even to the point when somebody calls it “War of the Worlds” I’m on them, because it’s “THE War of the Worlds”. That’s what HG Wells wrote. It was the definitive war of all worlds.

And obviously, back then you were working with this amazingly diverse cast, which has obviously sort of changed over the years. You know, back then you’re working with all these amazing people like Richard Burton and Phil Lynott. I mean, it’s, it’s just incredible in retrospect.

JW: I was very fortunate without a question of a doubt, to attract all of those that were on it that played the main roles. Richard was appearing in a play in New York. At the time that we approached him. It just happened by coincidence that we were having dinner with some friends, who had just come back from New York and mentioned they had seen Richard in a play called Equus, and I was just about to start approaching all the potential guest artists for all the roles, but we only had a list of about one person for the role of The Journalist, Richard Burton. And the idea that now I knew where he was, I wrote him a letter. No internet those days, you know. No technology as we’ve gotten so used to. So I wrote him a letter introduced myself as a composer, producer, explained to him that my dad and I had acquired the rights to The War of the Worlds from the estate of HG Wells, which was HG’s son, Frank, attached the first draft of our script, and asked him whether he’d consider playing the role of The Journalist. I sent this little package to him to the stage door of the theater he was appearing at and, you know, talk about as good luck as you can get, about three days or so later his personal manager rang me from New York saying he loved the idea and to count him in. “Count him in dear boy” was his exact words. And my dad did the deal with this man, and suddenly we had Richard Burton and off we went!

And then that essentially goes on to define the next, I won’t say the length of time again…

JW: Yeah, other than that, I’d have to start lowering my age as I’ve been doing it for such a long period. I’m now claiming to have been a three year old child prodigy when I composed it, so I don’t know where I’m going to go after three more years! 

And I mean, obviously from that point on, there’s a pretty strong arguments to be made that you in a sense, you could class most of The War of the Worlds as one of, if not the most successful example of arena prog rock ever…

JW: Well, you know, I’m not gonna argue statistics. I think it’s certainly enjoyed a life way beyond what I and my family ever anticipated. I feel, you know, so lucky and so blessed to have enjoyed such acceptance. Interestingly, your reference to prog-rock, others have called it a concept album or double album. I only wrote it, I’ve never called it either of those things. And it’s just my “Musical Version Of…”. Probably I never thought about or I didn’t have an idea myself what box it fit into.

That’s probably just me talking from a horrendous music snob perspective…

JW: No, no, no, it’s all through the years. It’s been called all those things like “Rock Opera”. It’s even won an award in the world of prog-rock. So I’m not offended by it at all. I’m just saying, I never thought of it like that. So to see or read about somebody’s definition of it always surprises me.

I suppose it goes to that many different places musically doesn’t it? In a way, it is difficult to try and put it into a box as a whole.

JW: I think you’re right. All I can say about that is, like the people we meet along the way are, you walk down the street, you’re gonna see all different sorts of people. The story goes through all sorts of towns and villages and people that you meet along the way. And therefore, to me, as a musician, I needed to interpret it in musical terms in that same way. So depending upon if it was the story through the eyes of the Martians, it’s much more aggressive and electronic to score, and when it’s through more of the eyes of humanity it’s more acoustic and string orientated. That was about the closest I could say that was my concept, if you want to call it that, because I knew I wanted the sounds of two different approaches to represent which side of the story we were telling at that moment in time.

And I suppose that comes in with the fact that you’ve essentially got the two separate bands we spoke about if you need to interpret things like different perspectives, doesn’t it?

JW: Sure. And even on the stage, you know, when people have come to see the show, it’s not set  traditionally. I have the entire band; if I’m on stage with my back to the audience, I’m on the podium, the band is on the extreme left, and the symphonic string orchestra is on extreme right. Because of that, as you’ve just said, the sort of two different ways that the story is being told musically.

Switching gears ever so slightly here. We spoke before about sort of the timelessness of the story and everything. And that stands for the most part for the music side of it. I mean, really, you’ve only sort of gone back and tinkered with it in massive depth I would assume for the “The New Generation” rework, which was 2012…

JW: No, you’re absolutely right. The entire cast was changed, but the changing of the cast was because over the years of touring from 2006, I was starting to get a feel for how audiences were responding to it. And in the era, when I released The War of the Worlds it was the era of the black vinyl disc. So there’s sort of a maximum amount of sound that you could get on each side of a disc. Whereas digital technology, DVDs, and of course live performance, there is no limit, so I started adding back some of the original script that we didn’t have the ability to keep on the original double album, some of it was even edited out of Richard Burton’s part. And so we expanded it out, and therefore, recasting became essential. And with it came Liam, and I feel like I’ve struck gold twice between him and originally with Richard Burton. At the same time, many of the sounds I reinterpreted from the point of view of the world of 2012 music, musically, but the heart and soul of it is still The War of the Worlds. And I think because it doesn’t have a sound that says “all right, that’s like a dance track from name-a-year”. It’s not that we don’t use say in certain pieces, club grooves. But those are the things that I have sort of touched on as the years have changed even right up to now.

And I mean, obviously, that was then, and that’s sort of been the framework, I would imagine for the show, basically, ever since from that musical standpoint. Do you think there’s ever a scenario where you go back again in the future and tinker with it more, or is The New Generation closer to being the definitive now, of what The War of the Worlds sounds like, modern day?

JW: I think while I’m still breathing, no, because I’m always going to tinker with stuff. So I think that’s the most straightforward answer, I can give you on that one. 

I guess my next question would be, obviously, this is coming out coming over again, in the start to the middle of next year – do you have much in the pipeline past that, be it The War of the Worlds or the various other things you do? Or is it just full focus on this for the forseeable future?

JW: Not by intent, but the Martians have sort of taken over my life since we started touring, because of new productions and a new one, in fact, opens tomorrow night in London. It’s called The War of the Worlds: The Immersive Experience, and it’s a completely different way of presenting my musical version, but it really encompasses you, you’re  totally immersed as an audience. You travel through two hours of different rooms, and you go up, you go down, you go through every sort of human experience you can imagine, while the music is setting the tone, and the songs and all that. These things are continually coming along, but I I do take on occasionally a new project, because there’s a moment in time when I can do that. So, I’m always keen to but the Martians and I seem to have been going down a long path together for for some time now.

I mean, that’s virtually me running out of questions here, because you give such incredible answers…

JW: Thank you. Great fun talking to you. 

I just want to cap this off in the way I normally do for all interviews, which is to sort of open the floor a bit. Is there any message you’d like to give to the readers of Rock Sins who might be fans of the album, or thinking about coming out to the tour next year?

JW: Gosh, anybody who comes to see the show, I just hope you have the night of a lifetime. It won’t be for lack of our effort to entertain you and to take you into another place for those two and a half hours. Anybody who just knows about the album or is hearing about it for the first time. I hope you’ll be captured by it, and to anybody that has just given me great support over the years, thank you.

And watch out for the heat ray, right?

JW: Yeah! *laughs* Just let me know. I’ll teach you how to duck and dive!

Like I say, I look forward to hopefully catching it as soon as it’s back on the road.

JW: I look forward to it and I hope we get to meet. Good luck to you again. Cheers!

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