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Love Letter to a Record: Spiderbait on Jeff Wayne’s ‘The War of the Worlds’

Music Feeds’ Love Letter To A Record series asks artists to reflect on their relationship with music and share stories about how the music they love has influenced their lives. Here, Spiderbait guitarist, Whitt, confesses his love for Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War Of The Worlds.

Spiderbait celebrated the 25th anniversary of their breakthrough studio album, Ivy and the Big Apples, in 2021. The retrospective celebrations continued into 2022, when the trio of drummer and vocalist Kram, bass player and vocalist Janet English, and guitarist Whitt released the compilation album, Sounds in the Key of J. The band’s ‘Tour in the Key of J’ visits Sydney and Melbourne in early July.

Whitt from Spiderbait on Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War Of The Worlds

“Two luminous disc-like eyes appeared above the rim. A huge rounded bulk, larger than a bear, rose up slowly, glistening like wet leather. Its lipless mouth quivered and slathered, and snakelike tentacles writhed as the clumsy body heaved and pulsated…”

I was 11 years old in 1981 when I first heard Jeff Wayne’s musical version of H.G. Wells’ classic novel, The War Of The Worlds. Released in 1978, the first side of the double album describes the Martians landing on Earth (England, August 1904 to be precise) in giant cylinders and building ferocious walking machines in order to destroy us and take over our planet.

I was listening to it alone in our lounge room in the evening after dinner. It was dark outside and even though I could see the shapes of adults through the double frosted glass doors that led into our living room, I felt as though I could have been light years away witnessing something extraordinary. 

I’d been completely absorbed into another dimension. Such was the power of this magnificent piece of dramatic musical theatre. Fifteen minutes in, track two, ‘Horsell Common and the Heat Ray,’ had me absolutely gripped. That track alone remains possibly my favourite moment on any album. The sound of the cylinder’s lid unscrewing – O.M.G.

What a great bass line. And those synths; what drama. Within 15 minutes I was moist-eyed with terror, excitement and electric curiosity, completely lost to wherever this experience was taking me. I also felt like I was in danger. I had no expectations as to what was unfolding. 

Jeff Wayne, Richard Burton – ‘Horsell Common and the Heat Ray’

After dinner, my sister in-law had simply handed me a copy of the original recording on double cassette and said, “Here, you might enjoy this.” The Martians go on to take over the planet and feast on the blood of humans by draining it and injecting it into their own veins, all the while annihilating everything in sight with the dreaded Heat Ray. That’s the first side of four…

Up until that point, my experience of albums had only been music made by groups. I’d never had an experience such as this just from listening to a recording. It was a musical version of a classic book accompanied by original songs performed by an array of accomplished rock and theatre professionals, most of them English. 

It’s narrated by Richard Burton (Google him), whose character is a journalist who is trying to track down the love of his life amid all the chaos of The Martians invading Earth and wiping out humanity. The instrumentation is a wonderful mix of drums, bass and guitars with beautiful sounding analogue synthesisers being the stars. It was recorded on 48-track analogue tape with all the glory of late 1970s super production.

The cast includes Philip Lynott (Thin Lizzy), who plays Parson Nathaniel. David Essex plays The Artilleryman. Julie Covington (who had a hit with ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’) plays Beth. New Zealander Chris Thompson (Manfred Mann’s Earth Band) plays the ‘Thunder Child’ synth. Justin Hayward (Moody Blues) sings and plays some guitar. Jeff Wayne, who curated and produced this masterpiece, also does The Epilogue voice at the end.

Jeff Wayne, Richard Burton, Phil Lynott, Julie Covington – ‘The Spirit of Man’

The beauty of this version of War Of The Worlds for me lay in the format. It wasn’t a book, it wasn’t a play, it wasn’t a musical or a film. Somehow it seemed to be all of those things but none of them at the same time. It was totally unique. However, similar to a book, in the absence of any visual stimulus, my imagination was given free rein to play out all the drama so vividly. What a joy. What a ride. 

I sent away for the accompanying illustrated booklet which arrived about two months later by snail mail from the UK. The paintings contained therein by Geoff Taylor are magnificent, but nothing could compare to the orchestra of images and colour that played out in my mind on that night of the first listening.

All three of us in Spiderbait love it, each of us having had our own experience discovering it as kids. Recently we were at Canberra airport waiting for Fiona, our wonderful manager, to pick up the hire car and Janet decided to play the opening track on her iPhone while we were waiting. We all gathered around to sing/narrate/gesture along to that monumentally theatrical opening of the story, dripping in all the suggestion of the impending doom that is to come.

Thinking back to that night in the lounge room of our old house, I can still feel that green carpet under my feet, the amber light from the triple bulb light fitting (with just one or two of them working) hanging from the ceiling and the warm smell of timber and plastic from the stereo… and the sonic fragrance of a beautifully ominous Martian cry ringing out: “ULAAAHH!!!”

Further Reading

Spiderbait Announce ‘Tour In The Key Of J’ Headline Shows

Kram On The Past, Present & Future Of Spiderbait

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