Interview with Jeff Wayne (The War of the Worlds)

The War of the World’s has sold over 15m copies and now creator Jeff Wayne has recorded a new version, The New Generation and is about to embark on a huge UK tour. Mick Burgess chatted with Jeff prior to rehersals for the tour.

In a few weeks your new album, The New Generation, will be released. This is a new version of the classic The War of the Worlds that came out in 1978. Are you looking forward to finally getting it released?

I’m thrilled. It represents just under two years of continual work and before I took it on I had to convince myself it was worth doing. I had certain boxes to tick to prove it to myself like, how would I approach the score and production; it had to be a contemporary recording if I was going to do it but I wanted to keep the compositions familiar but produced in today’s terms. I wanted to look and see if the story was expandable. We’ve toured this since 2006 and I’ve learned what dramatically works in terms of how it plays out on the stage.

What made you decide to re-record the album?

I revisited the script that I’d recorded with Richard, went back to the HG Wells novel and I looked at the album and our show and felt what we could add to it from a story point of view was well worth doing. When I originally did the album there was a finite amount of time that you could cram onto each side of a record so I was constrained by the format of the day. Those restrictions aren’t there now and it’s opened up so many more possibilities for the album.

Is this a full scale re-record rather than just a few tweaks here and there?

That was one of the boxes I had to tick to be fully convinced that this was worth doing. I think the presumption, certainly at the record company level, was that I was just going to get in new guest artists and put them on the original recording and re-mix it and that was the most opposite you could get from what I wanted.

The music and the vocal parts are all totally new but I have kept some of the iconic sounds like the Martians “Ullah” call, not that we didn’t try to replace them. We did try to see if we could trump the existing ones but we couldn’t but we enhanced it so the sound is a bit thicker. Some of the string orchestrations and a few iconic sounds have remained but other than that is 100% brand new recordings.

In musical terms there’s a lot of new sounds, extensions of pieces, new compositions and new arrangements so we’ve added an extra 10 minutes or so of musical content to the original and this includes the expanded story as well so the score had to be opened up to include everything that we wanted the story to be. Just as a statistic, Richard Burton on the album and on all of the tours has 74 sequences and now with Liam Neeson there’s 90.

Nearly 34 years have passed since the original album was released and technology has come on so much since then. How different was the recording process between the two albums?

It’s unrecognisable how music is produced these days. I challenged myself by asking if I was starting fresh with all the compositions and I was looking at starting the recording session, would I book the band or would I start in a technological way and build it from there. The first thing we did as a team was to spend three months tempo mapping the production. Everything in today’s world is computer tight and as a result, beats and grooves are equally tight so that was the starting point. It’s not that the original wasn’t tight, we were very proud of that as a band but it was human tight playing as a band rather than playing to a click track. I just came in with my hand written score and counted the guys in and off we went and we did it over and over until we got it tight.

Did the new technology make the recording process easier for you?

With the original recordings there were multi-track tapes, a mag link that connected two 24 track machines that broke down almost every day. We used razor blades to edit the tapes. It bears no comparison to the way music is made today. You still have to hopefully make good music and I don’t think anything has changed in that context but if you use tools to make it easier and make your music sound better then I’m all for that.

Did your experience of producing other artists yourself help you in this process?

Yes, indeed. Everything you do in life professionally gives you a different viewpoint and you come back with those experiences and use those on your current work.

How long did the recording process take?

Recording started around 6th January but I’d started speaking to Sony Music long before that and we’d done the tempo mapping before the tour at the end of 2010. The first thing we recorded were the drums, both electronic and live and we built it up from there.

How do you get the drummer to lay down the drums before there’s any music?

Well the tempo mapping had brought the whole thing together and we had guide tracks that he could play to and the original recordings of course so he had a guide of what to do and there were also plenty of ideas that I was explaining along the way. There was a plan, there wasn’t an abstract sort of situation. The script had already been worked on so he knew where the musical ideas were coming in.

When the original album was released it featured that wonderful gatefold cover and great booklet. In the CD and digital age it’s harder to make such an impact. How will you incorporate the new artwork into the new version to maximise its impact?

There will still be a physical double album that will exist, I’m not sure how many people will buy it compared to downloading but there are plenty of people who still like vinyl. The artwork is stunning and will be seen on TV ads and the live show will look like the new artwork. When I listened to the vinyl version I was so stunned at how it sounded. Vinyl has its own unique sound and depth.

Were the original artists involved in the new artwork?

It’s all new artwork but the inspiration has come from the original so they are credited and the logo is entirely redesigned but it’s the same font as the original so there’s lineage and respect tipping the hat to where we’ve been and hopefully we’re going down a new road without alienating, no pun intended, anyone along the way.

The deluxe reissue you did a few years back with 7 discs is one of the best box sets around. Do you have a vault full of outtakes and alternate versions that could feature in a collector’s edition at some point?

There is a special collector’s edition planned sometime next year. If you compare it with the 2005 box set the content will be different because of the efficiency of the technology as there weren’t countless takes and retakes of material. There is some good funny stuff from Liam and some of the guest artists inevitably make mistakes along the way but there’s not the volume that there was with the original album as it’s a more efficient production.

The original album is one of the biggest selling albums of all time selling over 15m copies and spent almost 7 years in total on the UK chart. Has this put some pressure on you to match this?

I’m excited about it coming out but when I took it on I discarded everything including the inevitable such as why am I doing this and how could I justify replacing Richard Burton or Justin Heyward. I’m content in my soul as to why I’ve done this and I’ve also disregarded the sales of the original, the awards it’s won and the hit singles. This has to stand on its own merits and I hope those that have enjoyed The War of the Worlds will come along and see that this is a worthy companion and hopefully people will understand why it’s the New Generation and our new production is built all around that. I know people really like the original and this is exactly why I have taken this as seriously as I have as there’s many people who feel a lot for it and I certainly don’t want to let them down and I want it to be a true companion and hopefully you can see the differences.

The original album featured a host of big names such as Phil Lynott, Justin Heyward and David Essex. This is the New Generation so there is a totally new cast. How did you sit down and decide who you wanted?

I started by thinking about the role of the character and I assembled a list of names that I thought would work and we discussed those individuals and listened to their music and those that I thought would work we contacted. I have been very fortunate to have attracted the range of talent that I have. Each has given their own solid performance and that’s all I wanted.

Certain characters are so closely linked with the original album. Did you want the new characters to forget about the original version and to interpret the part in their own way?

I told them to think that the baton was being handed over as the starting point. I told them that they were coming aboard for their own talents so I wanted their own interpretation.

Who would you say was the most difficult part to cast?

There were challenges all along the way. Just like it was with the original version I found artists that were available but where the management wanted more than we were getting from our record company for the whole album or they were making albums or touring but I think I wound up with an ideal cast that’s everything and more that I was after. I think there’s a good blend of artists on there and all are relevant in today’s terms.

Only Ricky Wilson from the Kaiser Chiefs was able to do both the album and tour though?

That’s right. There was interest from some of the others but they were either touring or working so could not make the shows.

Richard Burton, who played the journalist on the original, had such an imposing voice. Liam Neeson is an inspired choice to play that part. How did you get him involved?

I sat down with my team and made a list of the great actors that we appreciated. We then went on YouTube to check them out and the list didn’t really alter that much but we did eliminate a couple who didn’t quite work in terms of what I was trying to hear. The thing that was most interesting was when I shut my eyes and just listened to the voice I ended up with a list of just one name and that was Liam. I had the same feeling as I did with Richard and I was so lucky that I’d be able to attract him to my project. With Liam, I had no idea if he’d be interested and we got to an agent of his in New York and it turned out that he was immediately interested. We flew to New York within a 2 day notice period and met him at his office and we asked him what had attracted him to this. He said that he’d actually bought the album on cassette when it first came out and he still has it. That blew me away when he knew it and he wanted to do it. He’s in the $20m movie league so he’s not doing this for the money. He’s not doing it as a genuine commercial project, he just wanted to do it. I was so thrilled when he came aboard as I wouldn’t have known what to do if he’d said no, as I didn’t have another name on my list. He’s never appeared in a production of this sort before so I think it’s just something a bit different for him to do.

What about the musicians? Last time you had Chris Spedding and Herbie Flowers amongst others and they also played at the live shows. Do they perform this time or is it an all new musicians cast too?

In the live show, they will be returning again. Their style of playing is just as relevant and they can play anything. We have three new band members on the tour. We have gone down from a ten piece band to a nine piece band as the sound has changed. We’ve dropped what we called keyboard four who’s been on every tour so far, that was Gaetan Schurr, who also played guitar. I go back 20 years or so with him but the straw unfortunately went to him. It wasn’t a lucky dip, it was the reality that the new score could be played by nine musicians and there’s a different sound so we needed to look at the sound from fresh and who could play what. There’s some that’s familiar but there’s a lot of new parts distributed differently. With a new drummer and guitarists the sound and vibe is going to be different so we didn’t need that extra musician with us. Julia Thornton, our harpist, will be back too and she’ll be playing some new percussion and keyboards too.

The live show has been such a popular feature of the touring circuit since you first took it on the road in 2006. Are you looking forward to taking the new version around the UK venues in December?

The live show is the fun part. There’s been two years of effort and the live show is the pay off. There’s absolutely nothing like that. There’s just so much energy and emotion involved in those shows.

When I started touring I had no idea there’d be more than one tour. I was asked when the tour returned whether I’d just be taking it out of the box and doing it again like some shows do and I said that I didn’t want that, I wanted it to be a living work. I wasn’t thinking about it from the recording point of view but the more I toured the more I realised that it was a living work no matter what form I did it in. Sadly Richard passed away in 1984 so from his view it was finite. I didn’t have options to go back to what I now have of 90 sequences of Liam. Liam’s voice has a different sound to Richard’s but it’s quite beautiful and it’s in a different range but you will appreciate the difference. He has such a poetic yet imposing voice.

What did you feel like after your very first show?

That was just amazing. The first show was in Bournemouth on April 13th 2006 and I remember that as two of my four children have a birthday on that date so it’s very much cemented in my head. At that show I had in-ear monitors in so it’s like having corks in your ears and you can’t hear a sound. When the show finished and it was my turn to come off the podium I headed off the stage. The promoters were standing in the backstage area and I couldn’t hear what they were saying. They signalled for me to take my monitors out and asked why I wasn’t going back out. I told them I thought we hadn’t done very well but they pushed me out and I could hear all the cheering and applause. I had no idea that they liked it so much. I was overwhelmed; it was an absolutely incredible feeling. So now I always take one of the ear piece’s out at the end of the show so I can hear the reaction.

Did you ever have any doubts before your first tour?

I certainly wondered if anybody would actually remember the album. I had originally agreed to do a concert rendition at the Royal Albert Hall. There was going to be no costume or multimedia stuff, just a straight rendition of the music probably in tuxedo’s. I got a call from the box office telling me the entire show had been sold out in two hours and there was enough demand to do another 10 or 11 shows. Unfortunately we couldn’t get any more dates booked in but the promoter said that if we could do more than just a concert rendition then they thought they could book us into 6 or 7 of the biggest arenas in the UK. I already had some ideas for a production and had some models already made in my studio and I discussed my thoughts with the promoter who were really enthusiastic to do a big production with characters in costume, a huge Fighting Machine and bringing Richard Burton back into the show in some way. Once I committed to it they put the tickets on sale and they sold out in a couple of hours. We ended up doing 15 shows around the country so I think we must have done something right.

You’ve toured 3 or 4 times with the original version and you must have got that show running like clockwork. Do you feel nervous about the new show?

I don’t get nervous but I get excited. Maybe I’m not nervous out of stupidity or supreme confidence with the people who are part of the production who are world class and I don’t just mean the performers but the production crew too. Everyone that builds and makes the show are so important too. They have worked with some of their biggest artists around every week of their lives and nothing throws them even when there’s a crisis, they always find a way round and they make it look easy when it’s not. It always gets very exciting as show time approaches and I always go and sit behind the stage before the show for 15 to 20 minutes to get my head into Martians and to get ready to go out on stage.

How long do you have to rehearse for the tour?

It’s changed over the years. This new production has different things to previous shows but we are down to 8 rehearsal days with the band and in parallel to that our directors are rehearsing with the guest artists. At the end of that we move to another rehearsal area and the whole show comes together, fully performed and we run it for three days in a row twice a day and on the second and third days it’s with costumes as if it’s the real show and perform in front of a small, invited audience so we have some humans to perform in front of. Then we’ll have a day to travel and then it’s show time. For the first tour I rehearsed the band for 21 days and now it’s down to 8 so we’ve got a lot more efficient over the years.

With each tour you’ve topped the production each time whether it was the hologram of Richard Burton or the animation, the illusions and the pyrotechnics. What are you planning for this tour to make it the best yet?

The artwork, costumes and the show is a little more SteamPunk. We’re hoping the moment our audience arrives they are feeling that. We have performers wandering through the audience and get the audience into the mood. The show starts off with a new scene and goes into the prequel. There’s a range of new things that accumulates throughout the show to create the New Generation. Hopefully people will enjoy all of the new stuff.

Talking of the hologram, that was such a groundbreaking special effect and it was fascinating to see how that evolved over subsequent tours. The big challenge for you there was that Richard Burton was no longer with us so you had to improvise. With Liam you were able to develop the hologram concept so much further. How did you work with Liam to perfect the hologram?

We’ve been able to expand what we can do as Liam is a living actor. With Richard, in the show his 11 feet hologram was above the stage to the right but Liam is a similar size but is more dimensional; he’s standing, sitting, holding props and things. You feel more engaged with him. That’s one of three ways he’s involved. You also have a full sized Liam on stage where he’s actually performing and interacting with the live actors on stage. He’s also on the big screen in a range of scenes in a way we couldn’t have done with Richard. His presence and performance has contributed immensely to the show.

Was there any point where Liam might have taken a live role as the journalist?

That was never going to be a starter. It wouldn’t have worked as he goes from one movie or project to another as he’s in such demand. When we met him he’d just finished a movie and he had a short space of time with his sons then he had another four movies to do in a row including Taken 2 that’s just come out. Were so lucky to get the time with him.

He’s also given us time just before the launch of the tour and the album, I’ve done a day with him in Dublin about six months ago and also spent time doing an interview for the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 when the official announcement was made. He’s given his time and he’s a good friend of mine.

Marti Pellow was originally down for the Voice of Humanity but he’s now playing the part of the Sung Thoughts of the Journalist. Why the change?

To start with he was. He came into the studio and he sounded great but the more we talked the more he expressed an interest in the Sung Thoughts of the Journalist that Justin Heyward originally played, was probably something he should consider. He came back into the studio and tried out “Forever Autumn” and “The Eve of War” and he was dynamite, absolute dynamite. He does it his own way and doesn’t try to mimic the way Justin did it. He has a tremendous stage presence too. Our director was blown away with his professionalism, not only as he has a great voice but he learned the art of live performance from a characterisation point of view.

Gary Barlow plays this part on the new album. How did he become involved?

The first time I realised he was familiar with The War of the Worlds was when I first met Jason Donavan for our 2010 tour when he played The Artillery Man. Jason came over to meet me to talk about the part and at the end of the meeting he said he had a copy of The War of the Worlds for a friend and asked if I could sign it for him. I said of course and asked who it was for and Jason said that it was for an old friend of his who was also a musician. I asked if I would know of his work and Jason told me he is in a band called Take That, his name is Gary. I suddenly froze and thought that here I am signing an autograph for Gary Barlow. That’s how I knew he knew the album and liked it. When we started making The New Generation album I got in touch with Gary and he was very responsive but he was just about to start his first series of the X Factor. He was also touring and working on an album with Take That. So, I thought that was that. The album got put back from last June to this coming November so as soon as I knew Sony had made that decision I thought I’d give Gary another go. I made contact with him again and within 10 minutes he came back to me and said he was in.

How was your first meeting?

We had lunch together and we discussed the time needed in the studio. That’s a bit like asking how long is a piece of string. I said that as the role required his own harmonies that if he came in on the first day and allocated 10 hours or so to do the lead and harmonies on the first track. He would then go home and I would work in the studio putting it together. He would then return on the second day listen to the song and decide what changes were needed if he didn’t like a line or a particular harmony, then we could redo that. We could then start on the second track and come back and do the same with that. He thought that it sounded like a good plan and if I needed a fourth or fifth day he would make it happen. It was around the time he was producing and performing for the Queen’s Jubilee but he made sure he would give me all the time we needed. I allocated around 30 hours of studio time and it turned out that he completed it in eight and a half hours. When I played him back the assembly of the work from the previous day he said that he didn’t have any comments to make and I looked down on a blank page as well. I said to him that I would have loved to have driven him crazy by making him redo this, that and the other but there just wasn’t anything there that needed redoing. He was just brilliant and he felt the same we could move on. It was great working with Gary and it was a cheap date too as he even comes with his own food!!

Jason Donavon has on previous tours played the Artillery Man but this time he’s Parson Nathanial. What was the reason for that reshuffle?

The latest album and production is meant to be by people who haven’t performed it before. Jason has performed with us before but he’s coming back to do a different role. He was challenged to do something that’s quite different from his normal personality. He has to go a bit crazy and use different emotions and that’s why he wanted to do it. He’s a great performer and a great singer so he brings something that’s quite different. I think with Kerry Ellis, who is performing Beth, she also has a West End background, it’s going to work so well

That change left a space which Will Stapleton from Jettblack has just filled. What was it about Will’s voice that you felt was right for the part?

Will came in and tried out the part and he was absolutely fantastic. He sings very passionately, it was as simple as that. We were all so impressed when he auditioned and the part was his. He’s a little like Ricky Wilson. There’s some artists that are fantastic in their own comfort zone. I recently went to see a Kaiser Chiefs gig and Ricky just commands the stage and I think he’ll crack the part of the Artillery Man. Will has that style too and sounds fantastic.

You recorded the first live tour of 2006 for DVD release. Do you have any plans to do the same with the first tour of The New Generation?

I think there is. Damian Collier is looking into this and there’s the potential for a TV and a 3D special too. I think filming will take place at the O2 in London which is just about sold out now. We’d love to do it as it’s such a new production and a different cast and it’s just the right time to film it.

Does The New Generation mean that the classic show has been retired now or have you got an open mind about bringing some of the old characters back?

I don’t know the honest answer. All the stage show is still there ready to be brought out again if there is a reason. Maybe we would do a double anniversary edition performing both shows back to back. I honestly don’t know.

By the end of December you’ll have done The New Generation tour. Have you ever considered doing maybe a one off Originals show featuring the likes of David Essex and Julie Covington alongside Justin Heyward and Chris Thompson? Maybe next year for 35th anniversary?

It’s quite possible. With the exception of Phil Lynott who is no longer with us and Richard of course is a technological recreation, it’s close to being achievable and maybe we could bring back Phil technologically in some way. I just saw David the other day at an awards ceremony and we chatted away, he knew Ricky was the new Artillery Man. You never know what might happen in the future.

You talked a while back of an animated CGI movie of The War of the Worlds. Is this still in the pipeline?

My dream has always been to do an animated film. The new production has so much more additional animation than the original show and 3D layering too. The team has been working so hard on this. We want to get the tour finished first but we’ve already been offered to come back to tour the UK in 2014, this is the first time we’ve been invited back before we’ve even toured!! There seems to be such a good feeling about the new album. We’ve also been offered tours in countries we haven’t been to before. There’s a good chance we’ll go back to Australia and New Zealand in 10 months or so. There’s possibility of a tour in the Far East and also The States. It’s impossible for me to say that after this tour finishes we’ll have a little break then we’ll start on the animated feature film as every time I’ve said that I end up doing something else. We have also had interest from West End producers and also a major theatre group from The States so there may be opportunities there for us.

There are a few App games featuring different elements of the story and in the past there was a PC game. Have you been approached to do a tie in with one of the major games designers to bring The War of the Worlds to the XBox and other games consoles?

There has been some interest in listening to and seeing the new production. It’s a whole new scenario. I think they want to see how we are going to do it, how we are going to sound and how it’s responded to and develop it from there.

Do you have any plans to do any production work with new or established artists?

I do get approached to do production work. The number of approaches involving artists and films and project work has increased since I started touring in 2006 and I’ve been very fortunate to be so busy with The War of the Worlds that I haven’t been able to take on some potentially very rewarding working situations and I’ve been privileged to have been made these offers but I’ve been so busy fighting Martians that I haven’t been able to take up these offers.

Your tour runs from 29 November in Dublin for 16 dates in the UK ending on 17th December in Brighton. What are your thoughts at this point just before the album is released and the tour starts?

We’re at the stage now where we have been working for almost two years on the album and the production and we are at that stage where we are about to rehearse it, perform it and enjoy it because if we enjoy it hopefully our audience will enjoy it too. It’s such an exciting time for us and I can’t wait for the album to finally come out and to get out on tour again.

The War of the Worlds live show starts on 1st December at The Echo Arena, Liverpool and ends on 17th December at the Brighton Centre. See for more information.


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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