No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space. No one could have dreamed we were being scrutinized, as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets and yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely, they drew their plans against us.
If you spent big chunks of your childhood in a cosy living room, being enjoyably frightened by Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, then the chances are that you heard the paragraph above in the oiled saddle leather tones of Richard Burton. You may have also mentally appended a couple of beats of silence before hearing a dramatic orchestral chord, not unlike the opening to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. I know I did.
A couple of weekends ago, my brother came for a visit, and in the course of a wander around the city, we ended up at the The Diskery (an excellent second-hand record shop and Birmingham institution) for a browse. The Diskery has an unbelievable volume of stock, and while it is categorised into genres, the best thing to do is just to flick through the vinyl and see what catches your eye. We had been doing just that for quite a while, and was thinking about seeing if my brother was ready to go, when a flick uncovered that unforgettable sleeve: The War of the Worlds! I had been looking for a vinyl copy for ages, having stupidly decided against buying the copy my brother and I had found in Swordfish a few years earlier1. This time, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake, especially as it was only £6. Uttering an exultant ‘ULLA!’ (in my head and not out loud, you’ll be glad to hear), I checked it over quickly for scratches and warping and paid up.
Progressive Rock (or Prog Rock) is somewhat ridiculed for being pompous and overblown. The War of the Worlds is both of those at times, and yet I love it to bits. My brother and I used to listen to it on winter evenings, learned a lot of the lyrics off by heart and made fun of David Essex (“Bows and arrows against the lightning!”). We hadn’t read H. G. Wells’ book, so we thought that the Martian’s war cry was ‘OOO-LA!’ not ‘ULLA’, which made the spine-tingling moments slightly more camp. Or French. Nevertheless, we loved it in all its over-the-top symphonic glory. I hadn’t heard it for many years, so I was curious to see how it had held up. Well, I’ve been listening to it quite a bit, and it seems that my affection for it hasn’t dimmed.
I think that Richard Burton gave the whole enterprise a lot of much-needed gravitas. His voice is so rich and wonderful and authoritative, that it tends to act as a kind of counterbalance when the twiddly synthesiser parts get a bit out of control. However, I do like the twiddly synthesiser parts. One of the things that surprised me, hearing it again, was how rich and layered it was. I enjoyed the repeated musical themes, and there is a wonderfully sinister ambience about the whole thing. The performances are great too, though my favourite is the incomparable Phil Lynott as Parson Nathaniel, ranting about how the Martians are really demons to be exorcised. I’m sure that my enjoyment is somewhat coloured by my affection for the album, and associating it with with cosy winter evenings, but I’m really glad that I didn’t let this copy get away.
- Yes, we do often end up in record shops when he visits. ↩