The Eve of the Final Tour – the Jeff Wayne interview

1461154_10151772466369290_804135728_nMore than 35 years after Jeff Wayne’s first musical adaptation of HG Wells’ classic 1897 science fiction tale, it appears that there’s still plenty of life in The War of the Worlds.

But while Jeff is about to embark on conducting the show’s sixth UK arena tour, deemed to be his most ambitious yet, it’s also the final one.

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 too, 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 of the story saw huge global success, selling more than 15 million 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.

So how old was New York-born Jeff, now aged 71, when he first read The War of the Worlds? I asked down the phone line to his home studio in Hertfordshire.

“Actually I was around 27, in a period when I was touring with David Essex and arranging for him as his musical director in the studio.”

Common Ground: The Martians' arrival in Horsell, depicted in picture postcard form (Photo montage: Lucy Reynolds Art c/o http://robotmafia.com/))

Common Ground: The Martians’ arrival in Horsell, depicted in picture postcard form (Photo montage: Lucy Reynolds Art)

Did it spark your imagination right away?

“Absolutely. 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.”

At this point, I mention my own link with the book, telling Jeff how my great-grandad was three years younger than HG, and moved within two streets of his home in Maybury, Woking, while the author was writing The War of the Worlds.

Mind you, I add, I’m not sure if – in his work as a jobbing gardener – Alfred Ernest Wyatt felt the same need to obliterate large parts of his adopted town as Herbert George Wells.

“Well, there was the red weed the Martians brought in plant-like form as seeds to grow, although it was a deadly weed. It looked beautiful, but its purpose in life was to smother.”

Jeff’s take on the story first saw the light of day in 1978, his English step-mum, Doreen, adapting HG’s tale in a musical version featuring, among others, the voice of his Dad, US actor Jerry Wayne.

“Every one 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.

“Doreen came to London to open a script-printing and typing service, and my Dad was producing plays at that point and would go in as a customer. They started going out and that sort of transformed their lives.

“Doreen was an excellent writer and journalist, and we asked her to adapt the novel once we’d acquired the rights.”

Creative Science: HG Wells was living in Woking when he wrote his science fiction novel The War of the Worlds

Creative Science: HG Wells was living in Woking when he wrote his science fiction novel The War of the Worlds

Was the making of your first version a long time in coming?

“From that first read to the time it came out was in and around three years. But there were about three months after we read the book tracing who inherited the rights from HG Wells, who passed away in 1946.

“There was no internet or emails in those days, so it was a ‘hunt in packs’ search, and  wound up with a husband and wife literary agency.

“They represented Frank Wells, HG’s son, who he left everything to. So while we searched high and wide, it ended in London, and that’s how we started the ball rolling.”

Jeff was already working with David Essex, having produced his breakthrough LP Rock On in 1973 and going on to produce his first four best-selling albums. And the pair remain in touch to this day.

“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 first moved here as a little boy with my parents. My father at that point was a singer and actor.

0033“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, 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.

“My high school and college days were spent there, my father returning to solely produce plays, some going to the West End, including a musical based on Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

“So while my career as a musician started a couple of years before, truth is that 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 in stating my Dad believed in me, but I didn’t warrant it by my CV.”

Jeff had been making his name in LA as a musician at the time, while studying and working as a tennis coach, including a spell in The Sandpipers.

“I put myself through college in two ways, playing in bands and doing musical arrangements for TV composers, and through coaching tennis, having played to national standard. And one of my pupils was a screenwriter involved with The Sandpiper, which ironically included Richard Burton. Not that I would have been able to forecast all those years later we would work together!

“The movie wanted a song of that same name as a title track and were prepared to support a group of the same name to promote it.

Major Artist: Jeff's father, Jerry Wayne

Major Artist: Jeff’s father, Jerry Wayne

“I was starting out as a musician and arranger, and I played keyboards. And in The Sandpipers I also played percussion, zithers and one-off instruments too.

“A song was written, recorded and submitted, and we were doing gigs when the film was completed and they brought in a film composer, who submitted Shadow of Your Smile.

“That went on to be used in the film, won the Academy award, and The Sandpipers as I knew it were no more.

“But one of the originals then reformed the band, got a contract and one of their first records was Guantanamera.

“So yes, I can claim to have been in The Sandpipers, but unfortunately pre-fame!”

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.

“In reviewing them, 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 laid?

“Yes, my goal at that point was going into what today would be called investigative journalism, and I got a degree at what was then 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.”

Jeff’s journalistic high point was a runners-up prize in a national college awards event for coverage of a campus visit by civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King.

Pod Above: Jerry Wayne's NASA role gets a modern makeover (Photo: Roy Smiljanic)

Pod Above: Jerry Wayne’s NASA role gets a modern makeover (Photo: Roy Smiljanic)

But by 1966 he was back in London, experiencing first-hand the height of the Swinging ’60s and arriving in a nation on a high after a World Cup win.

Jeff scored Two Cities – for which Edward Woodward in the lead role won a best male performance gong in the Evening Standard Awards, now known as the Olivier Awards – and that led to one of the show’s investors, film director Frank Streich, hiring him for an advertisement.

“By good fortune, there was very little voice-over 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.

“It just happened that around then I started 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 David if he fancied doing some sessions, and he ended up doing lots of media work for me.

“He had around three or four singles out at that point, which weren’t quite breaking through, although very well done, and suggested maybe we could work together.

“I asked what sort of songs he wrote and David 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.

Big Break: David Essex's Jeff Wayne-produced breakthrough hit

Big Break: David Essex’s Jeff Wayne-produced breakthrough hit

“And maybe because there was no instrument you could play a chord on, it had this hollow quality about it. My engineer put on a ‘50s repeat echo, and that was the beginning.

“The end result was the first record that we ever did together, I put up my own money to sign David, doing a deal with what became his ex-label. We made a couple of songs then went off with a new record company.”

Those first fruits of that new partnership remain pretty timeless, maybe because of that classic rock’n’roll feel to the recording.

“Yeah, and I have to always think back to the belief David had in the production of that song. The concept was to keep those hollows and echoes.

“There’s no instrument on that record playing chords – no guitars, no piano.

“The backing track was played by Herbie Flowers on bass, then Barry Morgan and Barry D’Souza on drums and percussion. I remember them sitting there with David, saying ‘when’s the rest of the band coming?’

“I said, ‘Guys, you are the band!’, and tried to explain what I had in my head. It was all written around a guitar riff that Herbie expanded on, and he tracked his guitar line up an octave to give this very hollow wobble to fill the space.”

Jeff ended up producing his discovery’s first four studio albums, before David assumed those duties himself while his mentor was busy with The War of the Worlds.

And again it came down to Jeff using his own money to help fund the project. That was a big gamble. How close was he to pulling out?

“Well, again, it was in stages. I had a record 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 that this wasn’t as simple as that. It grew quite 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. And there was no doubt there was a moment in time fairly early when the money had been used.

Fighting Machine: Artwork from the 1978 musical version of the book

Fighting Machine: Artwork from the 1978 musical version of the book

“I remember sitting down with my young 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 and pack it all up.

“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 and let whatever comes out of me come out.

“We weren’t going to starve. It wasn’t as dramatic as that. I was a working musician and composer in all these other areas. But the cost was substantial.

“And the irony was that I didn’t even have a contract that guaranteed a release. So beyond the money, there was the knowing that if I finished it there was no insurance it would come out.

“Once it was complete I had to hand it in, and CBS had a 30-day period to make a judgment call on it. And after 30 days I got a call saying they needed another 30 days.

“So it was quite a period of trepidation to say the least. But after that second period they were well on board and the rest was … well …”

And they were right to be on board about it.

“Well, thank you, but it was nerve-racking, having to wait around two months to see if they even liked it.”

How was it working with Richard Burton? A consummate professional, or a hard man to please? I believe he was up for the task from the start.

“I was very fortunate to attract him, and once he was on board, we had a contract that allowed us to call him for five days in a row – full studio days of 10 to 12 hours.

Vocal Performance: Richard Burton with Jeff Wayne and David Essex, at work on The War of the Worlds in 1978

Vocal Performance: Richard Burton with Jeff Wayne and David Essex, at work on The War of the Worlds in 1978

“We had to go to California, because he was making a film there. But to give you an idea, there was what wound up on the album and about as much again that didn’t, but he completed it all in one day.

“He then came back around three months later to London, where I needed a little repair work for certain sections, but it was still only around another three hours’ work.

“He was fully prepared, took whatever direction was necessary, and was very much into it. He enjoyed the whole experience. And we have an out-take of him somewhere saying, ‘Oh, those are delicious words!”

Jeff also managed to woo Justin Hayward, lead singer of The Moody Blues. Was he a fan at the time?

“I was, and the reason I approached Justin was because I loved his voice generally. Nights in White Satin was of course a classic recording.

“We had a mutual contact that led me to him, so I sent him a letter and a cassette recording of the demo, then waited.

Autumnal Touch: Justin Hayward

Autumnal Touch: Justin Hayward

“He came back pretty quickly, was up for it, and recognised Forever Autumn as a song for him, ending 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.”

From Julie Covington to Phil Lynott there was an accomplished support cast too, and Jeff continues to attract the big stars for his productions to this day.

“Julie was very much like David, in Godspell and doing a lot of media sessions for me. But neither was a pushover. I had to submit demos and tell them about the project. It was easy to get to them though.

“I didn’t know Phil, but a mutual contact got him into the studio to hear the demo. I then went to a couple of Thin Lizzy concerts to check out how he was on stage, once from the audience, once from the side.

“We got on great, he was a real passionate bloke and true rock’n’roller on the surface but actually a very soulful guy who on our last session handed me a signed book of his own poetry, which to this day still has pride of place at my home.

“He was in a huge rock band and I think the lifestyle and whole flavour of that appealed to him, but underneath all that he was very easy to work with.

Phil Lynott: Soulful Side

Phil Lynott: Soulful Side

“His mum, Philomena, has come to see our tours when we’ve played Ireland, so I’ve got to know her too. And she handed me a letter he wrote to her after working on the project.”

If The War of the Worlds defined Jeff’s sound, you can also hear it on his TV work, not least a very-1980s twist on ITV’s The Big Match and the first TV-am themes.

Meanwhile, The Human League cut their own version of his Gordon’s Gin ad, and his Turkish Delight advert 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.

“If it’s a good collaboration it usually sounds good as well. Some you mention are favourites of mine, some are of their time, but others survive to this day, and the emails I get and forum posts about them are extraordinary.

“Today you don’t quite get that longevity. The TV-am theme lasted around 10 or 12 years first time and involved every piece of music on those programmes.”

Watching your Turkish Delight ad recently, it’s so clearly Jeff Wayne! I wondered how could I have not noticed that before.

“Well there you go! 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, with another acclaimed cast, not least Sir Anthony Hopkins, and former Marillion front-man Fish, another recent writeyattuk interviewee.

That was a move back into that world, wasn’t it?

“Yes it was. It was a long time in coming for various reasons, but again I look back on working with ‘Sir Tone’, who wasn’t a sir then, but getting pretty close, and was actually 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 very fortunate to have worked with them.

“The same goes today with Liam Neeson, who speaks fairly quietly, but the bass end in his voice fills up the whole space.”

Touch Down: From the TWOTW arena tour (Photo: Roy Smiljanic)

Touch Down: From the TWOTW arena tour (Photo: Roy Smiljanic)

While a planned CGI animation of The War of the Worlds never quite happened, that work was also incorporated into the stage show.

“It never got shelved, it just moved from film to the stage. When the tours came up I’d already been working with an animation team, particularly improving the Martian fighting machinery and how those tripodian devices and something that big could actually walk and move.

“When the tours came along, I was able to take what we had developed. Those became among the main ingredients of our arena tours, and have progressed ever since.

“And this new tour is so advanced, it’s almost a feature film in itself. I do hope it will have a proper release and be finished off in line with its potential.”

Indeed. It’s fair to say that the technology has moved on a great deal in the past 35 years.

“The first tour was in 2006, and it was only around nine months prior to that that we got to grips with it. I know from having tried before, something of the scale and complexity we do now in the arenas was either impossible then or would have been too expensive.

“It wasn’t the right time then, but jump forward to 2006, and the technology had changed to such an extent that we could get it on.

jeff-wayne-1352377355-article-0“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. For me, it’s almost been a living work.”

So why the decision for this to be the final tour?

“Well, we’re selling out, and 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.

“So it’s not about a lack of success! It’s more about me announcing in the early to mid-part of next year the new direction for my musical version.

“Nothing‘s for sure yet, but it seems at the moment the arena tours – for certain for the foreseeable future – will end after this tour and we’ll be into the next chapter … wherever that may take us.”

Aside from that, Jeff’s also working on a production of Jack London’s Call of the Wild, another classic book from that same late Victorian era.

“It’s interesting that only in the last couple of years when I returned to planning out The Call of the Wild, I discovered both – albeit one being British and the other American – were published within nine months, and the authors knew each other quite well.”

While he appears to have no intention to step back from his own career, it seems that the next generation of the Wayne dynasty – Jeff and his wife Geraldine’s four children – are now coming to the fore. But there’s always been a fine line between career and family.

Studio Tan: Jeff Wayne takes a break at home in Hertfordshire (Photo: Wade Laube/ Sydney Morning Herald/Melbourne Age)

Studio Tan: Jeff Wayne takes a break at home in Hertfordshire (Photo: Wade Laube/ Sydney Morning Herald/Melbourne Age)

“When I went into CBS to do my deals for David Essex and The War of the Worlds, Geraldine was an assistant to the business affairs director there.

“She then left and got an executive position in licensing, a great advance in her career, and later my own production company was looking for someone, Geraldine came in and got the job.

“Six months later we started going out. And we’ll be coming up to 38 years of marriage next January.”

And it appears that the next Wayne generation are following in those footsteps, all inheriting that creative spark – with one daughter an actor, another a published writer, and sons a DJ/musician and a tennis player.

“Every Friday night when they were growing up we had a dinner together – as we still do – and were interested to see what their interests were.

“Geraldine always emphasised a career-based life or work in the community and for good causes. But then they’d all look at me and I’d just sort of shrug my shoulders.

bs-0“Now our eldest daughter is an actress and going into production, while our next daughter down is a very successful journalist in her own right, has just had her debut novel released and is at work on the second.

“Then our eldest son is a very successful DJ on the international scene and a musician in his own right, and does all the play-out music for our tours, and our youngest son was on the full-time tennis circuit then went to university, graduated in philosophy and has just started a law degree in London.

“And I’m proud of every one of them.”

So does he see himself as more British than American 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.”

Tickets for dates on Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds final arena tour are priced from £38.50, with more details here.

This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post, first published on Thursday, November 13. For the original online version, head here.

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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