With the latest adaptation of The War of the Worlds due in the North West later this month MALCOLM WYATT had a close encounter with its creator Jeff Wayne
More than 35 years after Jeff Wayne’s first adaptation of HG Wells’ classic 1897 tale, it appears there’s still plenty of life in The War of the Worlds.
Jeff is about to embark on the show’s sixth and final UK arena tour, his most ambitious yet.
This time we get Liam Neeson in 3D holography, a cast including Jason Donovan, Westlife’s Brian McFadden, X Factor winner Shayne Ward, Les Miserables’ Carrie Hope Fletcher, a 36-piece string section and nine-piece band.
Remarkable special effects are promised, including a three-tonne 35ft tall flame-firing Martian fighting machine, a 100ft wide animation wall and two hours of cutting-edge CGI.
Even HG Wells is involved, brought to life by Callum O’Neill, aged 33, 53 and 79, spanning the era he wrote the story and two subsequent World Wars.
Jeff’s original 1978 double album version saw huge global success, selling more than 15m copies and spending more than 330 weeks in the UK album charts.
It also spawned two hit singles, topped the charts in 11 countries, and won various awards.
And this 17-date final tour coincides with a new live highlights CD, featuring Liam Neeson, Gary Barlow, Joss Stone and Ricky Wilson among others.
New York-born Jeff, now 71, came to The War of the Worlds relatively late, aged around 27, while working with David Essex as his musical director and studio arranger.
“As a composer and producer, I was reading a lot with my dad, all genres, and The War of the Worlds was the only book that in one read I was hooked by.”
His musical version finally saw the light of day in 1978, his English step-mum Doreen Wayne adapting Wells’ story in a version featuring, among others, the voice of his dad, US actor Jerry Wayne.
“Everyone of those voices in that NASA sequence is my Dad’s, and he remains to this day on every one of the tours we’ve done.”
Jeff was already close to David Essex, having produced his breakthrough LP Rock On in 1973. And they remain in touch.
“Very much so. Socially and occasionally professionally. We had dinner together a few weeks ago and I’m going to see him in about 10 days. He’s having a documentary made about his life, and I’m a guest.”
So how did this boy from Queens, New York, end up in Hertfordshire?
“Good question! I moved here as a little boy with my parents. My father at that point was a singer and actor.
“He had quite a successful career, and when a musical called Guys and Dolls transferred to London he was the original romantic lead, Sky Masterson.
“We stayed for around four years. Dad carried on over here after Guys and Dolls, doing various work before an opportunity to go back to New York.
“We went back for another three or four years before TV and film work and a record contract took us to Los Angeles.”
But Jerry Wayne’s career soon saw his UK return, taking a musical based on Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities to the West End.
And Jeff – making his name in LA as a musician while studying and working as a tennis coach – soon got his big break.
“It was pure nepotism that this 18 or 19-year-old starting off in life should be handed the commission of composing the score for a West End musical.
“I have no hesitancy stating my Dad believed in me, but I didn’t warrant it by my CV.”
Did he see a lot of his Dad’s acting as a child?
“I have very clear memories of some things he did, and inherited pretty much all the clippings, photographs and films when he passed away.
“I’d forgotten what a major artist he was in the United States. He was brilliant in Guys and Dolls, was in 1954’s Royal Variety Performance, and did a lot of good work.
“He and I would fight over our piano when I grew up in Forest Hills. I started at age five taking lessons, and loved it.
“He had to learn his songs and routines for his live act, and I have that piano here in my studio to this day.”
Jeff studied journalism to degree level. Did he think that’s where his future lay?
“My goal was going into what today would be called investigative journalism, and I got a degree at Valley Junior College over two years.
“I coached tennis and played gigs in the evening, writing songs as a vocation. But when I completed the course I realised I got it the wrong way round.
“My real passion was music. So I switched colleges, but never got a degree because when I was in my second or third year my Dad was doing Two Cities.
“But I did go to Trinity College of Music in London and took advance classes in conducting, orchestration, and so on.”
As a journalist, Jeff’s high point was a runners-up award in a national college award for coverage of a campus visit by civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King.
But by 1966 he was back in London, experiencing first-hand the height of the Swinging ’60s era and a nation on a high after a World Cup win.
Jeff scored Two Cities, with Edward Woodward in the lead role, and that led to one of the show’s investors, Frank Streich, hiring him for an advertisement.
“By good fortune, there was very little voiceover in it, and at an advertising awards ceremony I won the best music award.
“That led to lots of other commercials, TV and film scores, and I started producing some artists.
“I was also going out with a dancer in Two Cities who went on to Godspell as an understudy. And hanging around the theatre, I became friendly with David Essex, who was playing Jesus Christ.
“I asked if he fancied doing some sessions, and we did lots of media work. He’d had a few singles out which weren’t quite breaking through.
“I asked what sort of songs he wrote and he said, ‘I’ve got one here’. I presumed he was going to the piano we’d used for the session.
“But he walked straight past, picked up a trash bin, turned it over, emptied whatever was in it and started banging away like a bongo or a conga, singing Rock On.
“It had this hollow quality about it. My engineer put on a ‘50s repeat echo, and that was the beginning.”
Jeff ended up putting up his own money to do a deal with David’s label, producing his first four studio albums and involving him in his next big project.
That first The War of the Worlds production was a big gamble, involving Jeff’s life savings. How close was he to pulling out?
“I had a deal with CBS to produce and compose a single album of pretty much thematic pieces, without major guest artists and artwork.
“I realised very early on this wasn’t as simple as that. It grew quickly into a double album with guest artists and commissioned artwork.
“CBS’s investment was around £70,000, and the end product cost around £240,000.
“I remember sitting down with my wife, my Dad and Doreen, saying, ‘Guys, we’re now out of their money and either into my life savings and probably a bit more, or we raise the white flag of surrender to the Martians.
“They were very much for me continuing, and felt as a composer and producer I may never get another chance to essentially start with a blank page.
“I was a working musician and composer in all these other areas. But the cost was substantial.
“The irony was that I didn’t even have a contract that guaranteed a release. So if I finished it there was no insurance it would come out.”
And after 60 days waiting on a decision, he finally got the backing, his cast including many established stars, not least Richard Burton as the narrator.
“I was very fortunate to attract him. We had to go to California, because he was making a film there. But he completed it all in one day.
“He came back around three months later to London, for a little repair work, but it was only around another three hours.
“He was fully prepared, took whatever direction was necessary, and enjoyed the experience. And we have an out-take of him saying, ‘Oh, those are delicious words!”
Jeff also managed to woo Justin Hayward, lead singer of The Moody Blues, David Essex’s Godspell co-star Julie Covington, and Thin Lizzy legend Phil Lynott.
“I was a fan of Justin, and a mutual contact led me to him. I sent him a letter and a cassette recording of the demo, and he was up for it.
“He recognised Forever Autumn as a song for him, and ended up doing a second piece which also became a hit, The Eve of the War. And right up to two times ago he was with us on every tour.
“Julie was, like David, doing a lot of media sessions for me, while a mutual contact got Phil into the studio to hear the demo.
“I went to a couple of Thin Lizzy concerts to check him out live. We got on great, he was a real passionate bloke and true rock’n’roller on the surface but actually a very soulful guy.
“On my last session he handed me a signed book of his own poetry, which still has pride of place at my home.”
If The War of the Worlds defined Jeff’s sound, you can also hear it on his TV work, not least his ‘80s twist on ITV’s The Big Match and TV AM /Good Morning Britain themes.
Meanwhile, The Human League cut their own version of his Gordon’s Gin ad, and his Turkish Delight ad from that era is highly recognisable.
“I’ve good memories of many of those experiences. Whether it was TV, film or ads, it’s always been about making music and working with creative people.
“At the time you don’t even know if you have a signature, but I guess that whatever the size of the piece, you can put a stamp on something.”
In the 1990s, Jeff adapted Spartacus for the stage, working with another iconic Welshman, Anthony Hopkins.
“Sir Tone – who wasn’t a sir then, but getting close – was from the same village as Richard Burton. Both had magnificent voices.
“The textures on a microphone are actually quite different, but they’re both brilliant actors and I’m fortunate to have worked with them, as with Liam Neeson on the new version.
“Liam speaks fairly quietly, but the bass end in his voice fills up the whole space.”
A planned CGI animation of The War of the Worlds has also been incorporated into his stage show.
“I’d been working with an animation team, particularly improving the Martian fighting machinery, how those tripodian devices and something that big could actually walk and move.
“Those have progressed ever since. And this new tour is so advanced, it’s almost a feature film in itself.
“Something of the scale and complexity we do now in the arenas was either impossible then or would have been too expensive.
“Jump forward to 2006 and the technology changed to such an extent we could get it on.
“If you were to compare every production since we started – and this is the biggest super-sizing we’ve done – the technology and effects just keep changing. It’s almost been a living work.”
So why is this the final tour?
“The promoters say in the 60 years they’ve been going they’ve never known a show of our size to come back so often.
“We toured in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012 and now 2014 in the UK, plus Europe and as far afield as Australia and New Zealand, and on this tour added six shows.
“But I’ll be announcing in the early to mid-part of next year a new direction for my musical version.
“Nothing‘s for sure yet, but it seems the arena tours – for the foreseeable future - will end and we’ll be into the next chapter, wherever that may take us.”
Jeff’s also working on a production of Jack London’s Call of the Wild, another classic book from that same late Victorian era.
And while he has no intention to step back, it appears that the next generation of the Wayne dynasty is now coming to the fore.
Jeff and his wife of 37 years, former CBS assistant Geraldine, have four children who have all inherited that creative spark, with one daughter an actor, another a published writer, and his sons a DJ/musician and a tennis player.
And does he see himself as more British with the passing years?
“I’ve lived in England for more than two-thirds of my life, so I have to call myself far more Brit than Yank.”
Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds final arena tour includes shows on Friday, November 28 at Liverpool Echo Arena, and Sunday, November 30 at Manchester MEN Arena.
Tickets are priced from £38.50 and on sale via http://www.thewaroftheworlds.com/ or www.livenation.co.uk.