Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Immeasurably superior - and that's just the music

For a genre that’s all about fresh ideas, science fiction has seen more than its fair share of lazy reboots, remakes and reimaginings (and you can thank Tim Burton for that particular piece of word-fuckery).  Paul Verhoeven’s futuristic triptych of RoboCop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are all in various states of reinterpretation, Star Trek 2.0 is getting its own sequel, and there’s already talk of turning the underwhelming Prometheus into a stand-alone trilogy.

But none of these would-be franchises can hold a ray-gun to H.G. Wells’ classic story of Martian invaders, The War of the Worlds. In the 115 years since it was first published, this interplanetary variation on the ‘neighbours from hell’ theme has been through more incarnations than Madonna, although on recent evidence, it’s holding up a lot better than she is.

As well as the official adaptations, including two movies, one infamous radio play and an aborted TV show, its simple but compelling plot has inspired a whole alien invasion sub-genre. V, Independence Day, Mars Attacks, Falling Skies, Skyline and Battle: Los Angeles all owe Wells’ masterpiece a considerable debt. And in some cases, a grovelling apology. Skyline, I'm looking at you. 

In the 52 years that elapsed between George Pal’s original big-screen interpretation, and Steven Spielberg’s re-do, special effects technology evolved beyond all recognition. And it’s fair to say that both films have their respective merits. So why is it that the most evocative, haunting and consistently compelling adaptation of this enduring tale has no effects at all? In fact, it’s not even a film.

To give it its full, unwieldy title, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds is something of a curiosity. Equal parts audiobook, musical and concept album, it's 100 minutes of dialogue, duets and disco. So it's no wonder that the shelf-fillers at HMV have no clue where to stock it, usually lumping it in with the 'soundtracks' and hoping for the best. 

Now, purists might argue that I should actually be doffing my cap at Orson Welles’ notorious radio broadcast – the one that drove a nation of panicked listeners into the streets in abject terror, as if they'd been forced to listen to Katie Price reading excerpts from Angel Uncovered. But I’ve listened to the radio play and, pop cultural anecdotes aside, it’s a rather dated product of its time. Jeff Wayne’s tuneful retelling, on the other hand, is a stone-cold classic.

As a child, I wasn’t allowed to touch my dad’s record player. It was an enormous beast, with sliding equalisers and a cassette deck with gigantic buttons that took two fingers to press. I used to spend hours in front of that massive hi-fi, transfixed by the metronomic needles that danced in time to whatever music was playing. However, the songs themselves were entirely incidental, until the day he finally agreed to let me listen to War of the Worlds.

The album had sat for a while on the shelves, tantalising me with its lurid sleeve that depicted a vast battleship being melted by a towering fighting machine. At that age I knew little about music. But since the rest of his record collection favoured whiskery folk singers, with just a splash of Boney M, I was certain that this mysterious album would be a far cry from the one with four Afro-Carribean gymnasts dangling from a sparkly rope.

He carefully lowered the needle onto the vinyl, and the album crackled into life; Richard Burton’s booming but tender voice instantly drawing me into an epic tale of invasion and destruction. The voices were chanting about the million-to-one chance of anything coming from Mars, but I was already lost in the colour booklet of gruesome artwork that had been tucked inside one of the sleeves. A glowing disc embedded in the misty English countryside. A towering machine, mercilessly blasting the terrified civilians who ran for their lives. And that final, haunting image of a bird pecking the still-moist flesh from a fallen tripod’s bulging green eye.

By the time the needle automatically lifted from the end of the first side, I realised that I’d barely heard a word, and demanded that we go back to the beginning. Thankfully, my Dad was already caught in the album's spell, and was more than happy to hear the opening twenty minutes all over again. Before too long, I’d lost count of how many times I’d pored over Mike Trim, Geoff Taylor and Peter Goodfellow’s illustrations. Or marvelled at the haunting sound of the missiles whistling through the timeless worlds of space. Ultimately, the songs and sounds of that album formed the unofficial soundtrack of my youth; from the aliens’ unworldly “ulla-ulla” cry, to The Spirit of Man – perhaps the catchiest song ever written about the annihilation of the human race.

At the time, I neither knew nor cared that it was the most expensive album ever recorded, or that Burton managed to record his unforgettable narration in a single day. I had no idea that it had spent almost six years in the UK album charts, or that Forever Autumn originally started life as the jingle for a Lego ad. And it probably would have spoiled my enjoyment to know that the sound of the lid slowly unscrewing from that silver craft embedded in Horsell Common, was created by grinding a saucepan against the inside of a toilet bowl. The fact is, none of these things ever occurred to me because I was too lost in the music.

Impeccably cast, perfectly paced and boasting some of the most ingenious sound design of the last forty years, it still holds up perfectly well today. Sure, the pace flags a little in the second half, and I doubt whether The Red Weed features on too many iPod playlists. But when it comes to demonstrating the power of great music to fire the imagination, little else comes close.

Even now, the orchestral burst that punctuates Burton’s narrated introduction has the power to transport me back in time. And my six-year old self is still sitting on a worn brown sofa, trying to take in every minute detail of those glorious images, even as those melodic, malevolent Martians slowly draw their plans against us.

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