The record that made Jeff Wayne a household name was his version of The War of the Worlds, which became one of the biggest-selling albums ever with its blend of rock, drama and quasi-classical arrangements. But that's not why he's relevant here. What we're talking here is the first three David Essex albums, produced, arranged and orchestrated by Jeff and amongst the finest artefacts of the era.
His father, Jerry Wayne, 'had several big hit singles in the USA in the 1940s, and performed in several Broadway shows', and Jeff's own first British project was a West End musical, Two Cities (an adaptation of A Tale Of Two Cities), staged at the Palace Theatre and starring Edward Woodward. It wasn't hugely successful, but it introduced him to a film production company and he fell into writing music for commercials. Amongst the singers he recruited for the jingles were members of the original London cast of Godspell - artists like Julie Covington, Marti Webb and, of course, David Essex.
At the time Essex, after years of neglect and struggle, was emerging as one of the potential megastars of the decade: he was the star of a phenomenonally successful musical, receiving notices from the likes of the great Harold Hobson at The Sunday Times that compared his performance favourably to that of Olivier himself, and was on the brink of a film contract. He was also clearly blessed with a decent voice, masses of charisma and stunning good looks. Anyone with an ounce of commercial sense would have signed him up to a recording deal and marketed him as the British David Cassidy, singing classy but wet ballads. Jeff Wayne, on the other hand, signed Essex to his own production company and went for weirdness instead.
The first single was 'Rock On', a song that Essex had demoed at the end of a jingle session, accompanying himself on a wastepaper-bin. The absence of instruments inspired Wayne, and he conceived a record that would be full of space (if you'll pardon the oxymoron). The finished version of 'Rock On' had 'no keyboards, no guitars, nothing that plays a chord.' What it did have was an amazing Herbie Flowers bassline (doubled up an octave higher), bags of atmosphere and...er, that's about it. There had literally been nothing that sounded like this before, and - to my ears at least - it still sound like genius. Not a single genius, mind, because the way I see it both David Essex and Jeff Wayne and indeed Herbie Flowers (whose idea the bass octaves was) were all indispensable.
Let's cut to the chase - it was one of the singles of the decade and, had Essex/Wayne done nothing else, it would still impress the hell out of me. But they did do more, much more. There were four more singles of innovative brilliance to come, in 'Lamplight', 'America', 'Stardust' and 'Rolling Stone'. And there were the albums, which included such fantastic tracks as 'Street Fight' and 'Look Out Your Window', which - like Lou Reed's Berlin - featured a child crying: the effect was even more scary in the context of a supposed teen-record.
There were also the more obvious hits. 'Gonna Make You A Star' and 'Hold Me Close', both produced by Wayne, were Essex's only #1 singles and, as such, are perhaps better remembered than the other, more adventurous stuff. They're good records, and 'Star' is as close to a glam-stomper as Essex ever made, but they're only a tiny part of the story. Essex at his best was far beyond the cockney singalong that 'Hold Me Close' suggests.
It has to be said, however, that after he left Jeff Wayne, David Essex was never as good again. This is probably a dumb thing to say - given that he's one of the people left that I want to interview for Glitter Suits & Platform Boots - but he's never matched the heights of those first three albums. There was something about the chemistry of Essex and Wayne that simply clicked, and a lot of it was to do with theatrical presentation at a time when Bowie had opened up the possibilities of pop. As Jeff Wayne says: 'David and I both liked the drama of theatre, David liked certain things from circuses as well and I liked combining elements from those worlds into my arrangements and productions - David was quite supportive of what I did as an arranger, because he liked drama and atmosphere.'
In the aftermath of the split, Essex went on to sing as Che Guevara in Evita, whilst Wayne created War Of The Worlds (featuring Essex, of course). 1998 was the twentieth anniversary of the latter project and computer games and re-masters celebrated the occasion.
TOP FORTY SINGLES: Jeff Wayne
1978 Eve of the War (#36)
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the recording of 'Rock On'