Reissue: War of the Worlds

When I was 11 years old we lived in a bungalow on a road called Slag Lane, presumably named after the pit that was some five miles down the road rather than the women who lived on it. It was too far away from Lowton St Marys for me to walk to school every day, so I caught the bus—a privately owned purple coach that was driven by a man with wild, curly hair and glasses so thick they made his eyes look mental. I realise now that he was probably high every day. He sped through the back roads as if he was riding a motorbike, and forgot to stop for as many kids as he picked up. If he realised in time, he slammed on the brakes, threw the coach in reverse, and manoeuvred backwards down the street like he was parking a yacht. He was terrifying.

However, he did give me one of my best musical memories, which always seemed to occur in vehicles. The first time I heard Pink Floyd The Wall, for example, was in my uncle’s TR7 on a weekend trip to Leeds to watch a theatre performance of The Elephant Man. It blew my mind. Back in 1978 the album of the moment was Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. I was aware of the single, Justin Hayward’s Forever Autumn, but I didn’t hear the album until crazy eyed bus driver played it. Every single day. For months. Except that when I got on the bus each morning the album was at the same spot—Horsell Common and the Heat Ray. So I was never really fully aware of what it was that I was listening to.

The music was amazing though, and so was the story—what I could make of it. Richard Burton was already one of my favourite actors. His movie with Clint Eastwood, Where Eagles Dare, was at the very top of my list. But even he excelled on WOTW, as the journalist/narrator who keeps his head while everyone else is going absolutely bonkers.

I never heard the whole album. Not on the bus, anyway. The trip to school wasn’t long enough. And wild-haired, crazy-eyed coach driver made it even quicker. So it became my most treasured birthday present that year. And I still remember the sight of it, wrapped, sitting up on the back of the couch, after Dad had said over and over that they hadn’t been able to find it.

This past January, the album was reissued on vinyl to mark its 40th anniversary, and the packaging is exactly as it was, including the booklet with the epic artwork and the full libretto. And the sound … man, it’s still so good. Who said the fusion of prog-rock and full orchestra was dead? As a kid, I never had a system that took advantage of the record, so to hear for the first time the full expanse of the soundstage and the power of Richard Burton’s voice is something else. I’ve owned it on CD before but it’s not the same—the booklet is a waste of time and the sound is cold. The record envelopes you, so by the time the story moves to London, which has been devastated by the red weed and the green ray of the tripods, you’re there. It’s cinematic. I went to London regularly as a kid, so these scenes were close to home for me. The thought of the Martian tripod appearing over Big Ben wasn’ t something that was difficult for me to imagine. Hearing it again as it was meant to be heard has brought it all back.

Anyway, today was a rainy day and a flu day. A great day for records. A great day for Phil Lynott, David Essex and Richard Burton. And remembering a mad bus driver who gave me a musical memory that’s as powerful now as it was then.