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War of the Worlds

May 21, 2014

Most of you know Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio play that may or may not have terrified the East Coast in 1938. But what you probably don’t realize is that three decades later, versions were made for San Francisco and Buffalo.

First though, you need to listen to something from three decades ago — Jeff Wayne’s rather ridiculously awesome 1978 musical version is well worth paying for. Chunky guitars and flutes. It was so 70s that even the Moody Blues couldn’t handle it.

1978: Jeff Wayne

Some interesting anecdotes:

  • H. G. Wells’ brother Frank approved of the idea of a musical version.
  • Jeff Wayne sent the script blind to the theater where Richard Burton was performing, and Burton happened to read it during a break.
  • Carlos Santana was supposed to do the guitar riff that was the heatray, but Jeff Wayne’s dad and Carlos’ manager got in a huge argument after just one day of recording.
  • It was the most expensive album made to date — £240,000, 5x more expensive than Queen’s A Night at the Opera. That is like $1.5 million today.
  • “John Lodge of the Moody Blues endured a 36 hour marathon session on the song Thunder Child, but was just not able to make the cut because Jeff has recorded it too far above his range.”

Anyway, I played the album on my show today on I listened to this endlessly as a kid (along with the Star Wars soundtrack, naturally) and it holds up. (The beginning of the second album/disc drags a bit, but be sure to listen to the very last track. “Canberra, do you read, over?”)


If the 1938 version or a modern reproduction of the original play doesn’t appeal to you, I don’t entirely blame you. Luckily for you, in 1968 a Buffalo radio station, WKBW, adapted it to a modern radio style – and rather than actors, actual DJs and news anchors spoke in a style of radio we now know while real ads played. They spun songs you’d know. It works – the breaking news gets increasingly intense as the play progresses.

Seriously though, this thing is intense. (But nothing brings home the reality of a Martian attack than Carlos Santana and Rod Stewart songs being interrupted by “news breaks”.)

The intro is *well* worth listening to — this particular version was a 1971 replay, and for the first few minutes they talk about the reaction in 1968 despite their month-long media campaign that the dramatic recreation was coming. The Buffalo Police got 4000 calls. A newspaper rushed a team of reporters out to the landing site described in the fake broadcast. A town’s Civil Defense team went on alert. The Canadian military sent teams to the bridges coming from the US.


In this era of destroying San Francisco in film, you will be happy to know than San Francisco also had its own War of the Worlds moment. In 1964, the now-defunct KPEN (the first station to broadcast in stereo west of the Mississippi!) created and broadcast a version of War of the Worlds customized to the Bay Area. (If that link dies or turns spammy, here’s an archived version.)

The first half is pretty traditional to the original play — the attack on San Francisco starts at about 29:00.

Meteors Martian cylinders land near the refinery in Richmond as well as South San Francisco. Troops from the Presidio are deployed, artillery units fire from San Bruno mountain, and bombers are sent in from Hamilton Field for a low pass over Candlestick. Things do not end well, and Martian attack machines breach the Embarcadero and black smoke rolls up Nob Hill before the broadcast ends.

I also broadcast it during the last 30 minutes of my show. Hearing local names has an impact, but there are also some interesting historical references, like the Embarcadero Freeway and the Fox Theater and Governor Brown.

Here are some “live” tweets I made:

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