SUNNY SIDE UP | War of the Worlds & Me

One Halloween, when I was maybe ten years old, Bradford’s Pennine Radio broadcast the Mercury Theatre’s version of The War of the Worlds in its uninterrupted entirety. Even forty years after it sent gullible US citizens scurrying for the hills, it managed to scare the Hell out of me!

I was already familiar with the tale of invaders from Mars, having seen the 1953 film version with Gene Barry. Although I was really small when I saw it, and haven’t seen it in years, I have an image of the Martian invaders in their glowing kazoo machines with heat rays that look more sparkler than laser. There is a great moment where the hero [1] and his girlfriend, trapped in the ruins of a smashed house, manage to elude being detected by a creeping Martian probe. The device looks more like a dentist’s overhead lamp, attached to the end of a vacuum cleaner hose, than advanced alien technology, but somehow it doesn’t matter. I trace my phobia of dentists and hoovering back to that early television experience.

By mid 1978, I was punk and proud. In Jon Savage’s words, I felt ‘other.’ [2] I also felt shame at my excitement on reading the news that there was to be a musical version of The War of the Worlds. (I had kept quiet about my love of single Forever Autumn taped off the radio.) Richard Burton was to play ‘The Journalist’. He was the actor who killed Nazis and blew up Alpine cable cars on Screen Test. The rest of those involved drew more of a blank. Was Jeff Wayne the son of John Wayne, I wondered? I was desperate to listen to the album. Only I didn’t. At least not straight away.

Hard to imagine in these days of plenty cheap, but albums cost a relative fortune back in the 1970s. Buying one was a serious undertaking for anyone on pocket money rationing and The War of the Worlds being a double album only made things doubly difficult. In any case: Buzzcocks, XTC, Talking Heads, Wire, all put out great records in 1978; buying a double LP of prog disco felt like a bit of a retrograde step – although it does sound pretty cool to me now as I type the words!

Pennine Radio played excerpts from War of the Worlds on what seemed a nightly basis and it sounded ace! (I credit / blame Pennine Radio for my love of Oxygene and Equinoxe by French keyboard wizard™ Jean Michel Jarre as well.) Overlooking the fact that it was usually the same few tracks, I grew more and more obsessed with owning the album and a plan started to formulate. I would pool my meagre savings with my friends Gaz and Dave and we would own the album jointly on a timeshare basis, each having custody for a fortnight at a time on a forward rolling basis. Genius!

So that is what we did. Obviously we had to buy the album from the WH Smiths in Leeds, the counter staff at HMV being way more judgemental in those days. (They actively went out of their way to sneer at your choice in music. Now you are lucky if you can drag one of them away from their iPhone long enough to serve you!) Gaz had first dibs. He was into Blondie though and wasn’t really that convinced. Pretty soon he was looking for someone to buy him out of his share of the deal.

When I got my hands on the album, I copied it onto audio cassette using my mum’s Sanyo tape recorder and a microphone shoved up against the left hand speaker of the family record player. Recording a double album like this is a laborious process (Instant Rip was alien technology) and you are forced to keep up your concentration. As the inevitable aching numbness set in, I began to realise that Messrs Wayne and Co. were running out of tunes and ideas pretty quickly. If you are familiar with the War of the Worlds album at all, you will know that by the time the vessel Thunderchild slips beneath the ocean waves at the end of side 2, it’s not just Mankind that has lost all hope, but the listener also! I was crushed. On the appointed day, I handed the album over to Dave, telling him there was no rush to give it back.

There is a coda to this tale. In 1991, I moved from Scotland to Leicester to train as a teacher. En route I stopped off in my home city of Leeds to catch up with everyone. Dave was his usual welcoming, loving self. He had saved some records for me. Amongst the motley collection of stuff he had acquired from me over the years (Floy Joy?) was the copy of War of the Worlds, looking a little the worse for wear. Smeared across the front was a stain of coagulated brown that might have been blood or ketchup. Both records were squeezed into the front pocket of the cover, one without its protective inner sleeve. When I tried opening out the gatefold I was met with resistance. There was an ominous ripping sound like Velcro as I slowly prized the two surfaces apart; across a scene of Horsell Common was the congealed remains of a fried egg, mattified to a grey and ochre haze! I asked Dave about it later that day. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I was going to mention that…’


[1] For some reason the makers of the film decided to change the main character from a journalist to a scientist. Perhaps they wanted to replace the former’s incomprehension with the latter’s rational certainty? Could be there was a Cold War subtext I was missing? Or perhaps a journalist just wasn’t heroic enough a character? (In the most recent version, Tom Cruise plays him as a dock-worker – ‘scientist’ being a bit too close sounding to Scientologist presumably?) Another departure from the original story was a love interest. Even as a kid, I understood that this was a thankless role for any actress, the only requirements being an ability to scream on cue and a failure to defy gravity in moments of peril. I’ve not looked her up, but I’m betting the actress concerned has a pretty brief IMDB resumé!

[2] England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock (Faber and Faber, 1991)

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