Hear the Prog-Rock Adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds: The 1978 Rock Opera That Sold 15 Million Copies Worldwide

Since the 1950s at least, Amer­i­cans have embraced sci­ence fic­tion of all kinds—from the high con­cepts of 2001 to the high kitsch of Bar­barel­la—even if some­times only among devot­ed cult fans. The Queen-scored Flash Gor­don, for exam­ple, did not do well in U.S. the­aters on its release in 1980, though it was a hit in the UK. But not long after, its icon­ic, puls­ing theme song, with its oper­at­ic blasts, became an unmis­tak­able call­back to the final days of 70s rock opera’s glo­ri­ous excess­es.

And yet some­how, anoth­er equal­ly bom­bas­tic sci-fi rock opera pro­duced in 1978, Jeff Wayne’s musi­cal adap­ta­tion of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, has been denied prop­er cult sta­tus in the States. At the time of its release, U.S. audi­ences, primed by the pre­vi­ous year’s colos­sal hit, Star Wars, per­haps sought more swash­buck­ling fare, not prog-rock dou­ble con­cept albums based on clas­sic nov­els. Amer­i­can indif­fer­ence, how­ev­er, in no way hin­dered the album’s pop­u­lar­i­ty abroad.

Accord­ing to its clunky web­site, Wayne’s adap­ta­tion, “is one of the best known and best-sell­ing musi­cal works of all time.” This is no emp­ty boast; it had “sold approx­i­mate­ly 15 mil­lion records around the world” by 2013 and in 2009 was named the 40th best-sell­ing album ever. And for good rea­son! While you may nev­er have heard of Wayne—he wrote music for TV com­mer­cials for much of his career, and once struck it big by pro­duc­ing David Essex’s 1973 hit “Rock On”—you know the “cast” of his War of the Worlds.

Richard Bur­ton nar­rates, lend­ing the pro­ceed­ings the grav­i­tas Orson Welles gave The Alan Par­sons Project’s adap­ta­tion of Edgar Allan Poe (and, many years ear­li­er, brought to his own infa­mous War of the Worlds adap­ta­tion). The songs promi­nent­ly fea­ture Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott and The Moody Blues’ Justin Hay­ward, both huge stars at the time, as well as David Essex, “musi­cal the­ater vet Julie Cov­ing­ton,” writes Dan­ger­ous Minds’ Ron Kretsch, and “gui­tar ace and Sex Pis­tols demo pro­duc­er Chris Sped­ding.”

Sup­ple­ment­ing the album’s musi­cal charms, and they are many, the orig­i­nal LP also came “pack­aged in a gate­fold with a book con­tain­ing the com­plete script and some awe­some paint­ings, most­ly by not­ed Lord of the Rings cov­er artist Geoff Tay­lor.” For many of us, Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds will seem like a lost mas­ter­piece, a bril­liant­ly kitschy sci-fi, prog-dis­co clas­sic that nev­er got its due. For fans, how­ev­er, in “no less than 22 coun­tries,” as the album’s site pro­claims, where it chart­ed, reach­ing num­ber one in half of them, the strange­ly inspired rock opera may well be very famil­iar.

You can hear the com­plete dou­ble LP at the playlist above (or click here), along with two more “sides” of alter­nates, out­takes, and demos. (If you need Spo­ti­fy, down­load it here.) One of the songs, Hayward’s “For­ev­er Autumn,” above, was orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten for a “late-‘60s LEGO com­mer­cial,” but war­rant­ed inclu­sion because “Wayne sim­ply want­ed a bal­lad to be includ­ed.” The move is typ­i­cal of his more is more pro­duc­tion approach to War of the Worlds, and yet, some­how, it all comes togeth­er into an engross­ing expe­ri­ence. For some rea­son, in 2012, Wayne decid­ed to remake the album, with Liam Nee­son tak­ing on the nar­ra­tion duties. Judg­ing by its Ama­zon reviews, the new ver­sion is just as beloved by many fans as the old.

via Dan­ger­ous Minds

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Orson Welles’ Icon­ic War of the Worlds Broad­cast (1938)

The Very First Illus­tra­tions of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897)

The Great Leonard Nimoy Reads H.G. Wells’ Sem­i­nal Sci-Fi Nov­el The War of the Worlds

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Tom Taylor says:

    This came out when I was in col­lege. For­ev­er Autumn was one of my favorite songs. In the days of juke­box­es we played it over and over. I knew it came from a larg­er work, but was nev­er able to find War of the Worlds.

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