I grew up listening to Jeff Wayne’s improbably brilliant and epic rock and roll musical version of War of the Worlds. Although the originals wailin’ guitars are a touch dated, it is artistically perfect, one of those albums that hits you like a pan galactic gargle blaster. Everybody together now: “like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon, wrapped 'round a large gold brick.”
It was created in 1978 and it is still freakishly popular, like any good pop culture success story. In fact, to my amazement, I discovered while putting this post together that there is currently a live touring show featuring — and I can’t quite believe I’m saying this — “a 30-foot tall floating 3D projection of Richard Burton’s head” and, of course, a giant martian fighting machine right there on stage.
Just to give you a sense of how peculiar this musical production is, my parents love it, particularly my mother — and this was pretty much the only rock-n-roll anything they ever did like. I came from classical home, a public broadcasting home, a bookish home. But my English-teacher parents correctly reocgnized that JWMVoWoW was amazing. My mother used it in the classroom for years, and I’m sure there’s an entire legion of people out there now who vividly remember Mrs. Ingraham’s class because of that, specifically.
So that’s the War of the Worlds for me: with guitars, the battleship Thunder Child, crazy priests, and by far the best Martian tripod artwork in the history of this great story. Though I have read the book — which is good, obviously — Jeff Wayne’s version is the dominant and really the only experience I have ever had of the story.
Until last night. Enter Radiolab.
The War of the Worlds according to Radiolab
I am a radio nut. I almost dove into a career in radio — so close! — but chose writing instead. I listen to several podcasts obsessively. I am a connoisseur. On the one hand, I suppose I am quite prone to excitement about good radio, probably a hundred times more likely to be caught recommending radio than the average person, so maybe you should take this with a grain of salt.
On the other hand, when I tell you that this is one of the best hours of radio I have ever heard … well, I hope you’ll take me seriously. I’m not going to try to describe it. I’m just going to recommend it strongly. Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich are wizards. Wizards, I say. With the help of what must be a brilliant team, they tell the story of the telling of the story of the War of the Worlds in a way that … well, it involves another lemon and large gold brick.
You will walk away with a whole new appreciation of several things: the greatness of HG Wells story, the searing intelligence of Orson Welles, and miscellaneous profound insights about media, psychology, and critical thinking.
Radiolab Does War of the Worlds