So, after listening to Under Milk Wood and thinking about Richard Burton, I was reminded of his role in Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds.
It's not an album I can ever recall hearing in its entirety previously, though I do remember hearing snatches of it at other kids' houses around the time it came out in 1978.
(btw I know nothing about Jeff Wayne --- who is he? All google searches seem to lead to War of the Worlds -- yeh, I know he did it, but who IS he?)
So I searched WoW out and lo and behold, it's astonishing. The album was regarded as the last hurrah of prog (after this, it was only the Alan Parsons Project, i.e. all the bombast and virtuosity-fetishism but none of the overreaching anti-commonsensical absurdity Mark s rightly celebrates in prog proper), but blimey if all prog albums were this good then the whole genre really would be in need of urgent rehabilitation.
Burton's cigarette and whisky-soured narration is of course crucial. But what is most impressive about the whole album is its consistency: sections flow into one another seamlessly, sonic figures differently repeat. No obtrusive tempo changes, no displays of fretwankery that dissipate any incipient plateaus into ego platforms. No: it's virtuosity in the service of consistency.
If someone like John Zorn had done this, the Wire would be all over it. And there are sections of really disquieting electro menace.
Partly what makes the album work is its fidelity to the vision and temperament of Bromley boy Wells. Burton is as perfect a voice for Wells as he was for Le Carre and Thomas. The dark tinge that Burton's haunted intensity brought to Thomas' lyricism is ideally suited to Wells' bleak anglo-nihilism.
What people can forget about Wells is his almost gleeful apocalypticism. Time and again, he simulates the incineration of the (unhomely) home counties suburban world. As this page brilliantly shows, Wells took a postive delight in The War of the Worlds in imagineering the destruction of the Home counties and London:
'I completely wreck and sack Woking -- killing my neighbours in painful and eccentric ways -- then proceed via Kingston and Richmond to London, selecting South Kensington for feats of peculiar atrocity...'
Wells, who came from the same petit-bourgeois background as the Underground Man and the Nazis (cf Kipps), was able to sublimate the massive inward pressure of his class resentment into 'scientific romances'; the Nazis, who failed as artists and novelists act it out for real: Ballard: 'Goebbels in his diaries remarked that he and the Nazi leaders had merely done in the realm of reality what Dostoyevsky had done in fiction. Interestingly, both Goebbels and Mussolini had written novels, in the days before they were able to get to grips with their real subject matter.'
The Nazis' abortive project of integrated Fortress Europe (EU1) was SF become hideous fact - the Progressive project of modernist ultra-planned pan Europe hygenationalism amphetamined out into a line of scorched earth hyper-destruction (Hitler, like Eden and Kennedy after him, was wired on speed during the perpetual crisis mode of his leadership).
Ccru: 'The Core Master Class - relic anthropoid superstrata - condemn Hitler, even in private. Whilst applauded as 1st Grand Wizard meat-puppet of Electrocorporate Old Occident power, he can't be forgiven for blowing EU-1.
It has taken 40 years to repair the damage, armed with nothing but normal fascism, normal commerce control, normal crisis police methods, and decaying Jesus video...'
The Euro Prog technicians of EU2 - 'normal fascists' like Blair, Berlusconi, Chirac - have learned more stealth.
Wayne's War of the Worlds replayed Wells' insanely prescient eve of destruction 1898 apocalypse-simulation in the wake of punk and at the time of the postwar consensus collapse of the Winter of Diskontent. Perfect...
The pop jewel at the heart of Wayne's terrible-beautiful epic is Justin Hayward's 'Forever Autumn', one of the most achingly evocative English pop songs ever. On the album, its Keatsian rapture of melancholia ('my life will be forever autumn/ coz you're not here...'. shall I compare my desolation to an autumn day?) is startling contrasted with the most traumatically intense sections of Burton's narration.
'Never before in the history of the world had such a mass of human beings moved and suffered together. This was no disciplined march, it was a stampede without order and without a goal. Six million people unarmed and unprovisioned driving headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilization, of the massacre of mankind.'
It's an astonishing ice-vivid account of a xeno-techno total take over of a culture that could not but invite comparison, not only with the later Nazi lebensraum, but with the then current imperialist scramble. 'The War of the Worlds takes us to the bottom of the colonial/imperial heap and says: here's what it feels like, you bastards!'
This brings us to another steamprog classic: Moorcock's Nomad of the Time Streams series, which were Wellsian scientific romances which interrogated the concept of empire and its implications. What if the British empire had continued?
Enough for now.
'my only hope of survival... a boat out of England....'
'The clever one tends to emigrate.' (MES)Posted by mark at September 3, 2004 08:47 AM | TrackBack