Thursday, September 08, 2011

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice - Jesus Christ Superstar (1970)

Andrew Lloyd Webber's detractors will throw his later Broadway musicals in your face every chance they get but in 1970 Webber was a hot commodity in the rock music world. That was the year he and lyricist Tim Rice put together one of the greatest rock albums of all time, Jesus Christ Superstar.

For those of you unfamiliar with Superstar the double LP was one of the very early rock operas and it taught many music lovers unschooled in the ancient genre what it was all about. Superstar was a true opera, not a musical. It possessed the characteristics of most classic operas: no spoken dialogue, clearly defined characters whose parts were sung by specific voices, reoccurring musical themes, a cohesive story, and a libretto. However, there were two major differences between it and traditional operas. First, Superstar was rock music and secondly, in its original version, the release was strictly a studio production. At the time Webber and Rice didn't have the funds to bring the opera to the stage so they chose a more economical option and decided to record an album in the studio as a one time deal.

Webber and Rice created quite a controversy with their work. To many, Superstar was blasphemous and anti-Christian, let alone inaccurate, and it can be argued that followers of the faith had some legitimate concerns. However, it's possible the loose interpretation of the production's ending and the ensuing ruckus that surrounded it occurred because the composers never considered the work to be a religious statement. Instead, they used the story of the last days of Jesus as a metaphor for what can happen when people become obsessed with celebrity and the cult of personality. The final track, "John Nineteen: Forty-One" is an instrumental named after a passage in the Bible that when abbreviated and paraphrased basically says, "and they laid him in the tomb........" There is no mention of resurrection, saving souls, or afterlife. That, coupled with what many believed was the inherent "sinful" nature of rock music, infuriated the devout Christian community.

Nevertheless, the album was a resounding success. Murray Head's (Judas) "Superstar" and Yvonne Elliman's (Mary Magdalene) "I Don’t Know How to Love Him" were both major hit singles on Top 40 radio.

Jesus was played by Ian Gillan, best known as the lead singer of the British hard rock quintet, Deep Purple. Gillan's most famous vocal is easily the band's riff-filled signature tune, "Smoke On the Water," but his all-time best performance is his very moving, emotional, and almost melodramatic take on side four in which he magnificently portrays the conflicted and tortured Son of God on "Gethsemane (I only Want to Say)." The song should have won Gillan a "Best Vocal Performance" Grammy.

Other highlights included "Hosanna," King Herod’s Song," "The Last Supper," "Damned for all Time/Blood Money," and "What's the Buzz/Strange Things Mystifying." While the album’s songs often feature the traditional rock lineup of guitar, bass, and drums the arrangements are often expanded to include a rock orchestra that gives the production a majestic flair that suits a protagonist who was King of the Jews.

Even with its considerable length Webber and Rice's production is never pretentious because of the depth of its subject matter. Every note of Superstar has significance. Forty years later it’s still unique and one of the most inspired rock records in history.

2 comments:

  1. As you know from my take (http://mwarminger.blogspot.com/2009/01/jesus-christ-superstar.html) I love this album. Everybody should listen to it at least once irrespective of 'faith' issues. In short; it rocks.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Love this record! And also a big fan of Jerome Pradon's Judas from the 2000's re-production. He brought that role an edgy intensity -especially on the opener.

    ReplyDelete