An iconic cover and a menacing overture filled my young mind with fear.
If I were to choose a favorite decade of recorded music, I would pick the incredibly fertile ten years from 1965 through 1974. It was the golden era of unrestrained, long-form, innovative rock music, when an unprecedented tolerance for experimentation allowed talented artists to create some remarkable records that took full advantage of the latest advances in electronic instruments and multitrack recording. The new technology enabled a production style that reproduced each instrument clearly and distinctly, offering discriminating listeners the opportunity to focus their attention on any one of many different elements every time a platter was spun. I love the sound of the albums that were made during those years.
One of the best of the bunch was Jesus Christ Superstar, which was released by Decca Records in October of 1970. For me, it represents the closest thing to perfection in each of the three areas that contribute to a great album: writing, production, and performance. Unsurpassed by its subsequent incarnations as well as the later work of its creators, it has transcended the label of “rock opera” to become one of the defining recordings of its time.
Controversial subject matter aside, Jesus Christ Superstar is simply great rock music. The repeating guitar riff that introduces “Heaven on Their Minds” and is reprised as “The 39 Lashes” stands as one of the genre’s most infectious grooves. Instrumental solos are blistering and up front, while lead vocalists Murray Head (Judas) and Ian Gillan (Jesus) let loose with some of the best melodic screaming ever scratched onto vinyl. Balancing the driving rockers are introspective ballads that are as thoughtfully contemplative as the harder stuff is satisfyingly aggressive. Horns and strings complete the mix as integral parts of the whole, never sounding like the tacked-on enhancements from third-party orchestrators that have marred other marriages of Stratocaster and Stradivarius. Jesus Christ Superstar could just as well be about the history of French toast, and it would still sound terrific.
The lyrics, however, are far from vapid. To poetically summarize the week leading up to Christ’s crucifixion from an alternate perspective using accessible, contemporary language is no small feat. It’s quite a bit more for the hungry mind to chew on that one gets from most popular music. In addition, very little of it sounds dated today, and if you consider how well other 70’s fare has aged, its timelessness is impressive. As if that were not enough, the libretto is also clever and amusing.
In one way, it seems remarkable that composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice were so young (ages 22 and 25, respectively, when the album was released) to have created such a mature work, yet the audacity of youth may have been a necessary ingredient for their ambitious endeavor. Seasoned artists might have avoided the challenge of retelling the Passion from the viewpoint of Judas while remaining faithful to the synoptic gospels. Not only did Lloyd Webber and Rice pull it off, they managed to do it in a way that accommodates nearly the full spectrum of religious belief. Most Christians will find nothing to contradict their faith; atheists will find no endorsements of divinity.
Lloyd Webber and Rice did not temper this ambiguity with reassuring words to the Christian community; rather, they did the opposite. “While we don’t see him as a god at all,” they clarified in the notes of a 1971 souvenir program for a concert staging, “the opera doesn’t categorically say he wasn’t — the question is very much left open. It is precisely this question that, for us, makes the Christ legend so dramatically fascinating. At the same time, we doubt that anyone who does believe in the divinity of Christ will have his faith disturbed or even tested in any way by our view of him.”
Nevertheless, the album was sufficiently radical in 1970 to be banned by the BBC upon its release on the grounds of alleged sacrilege. As frivolous a claim as that may seem now, I am much more perplexed by the fact that this perception persists today. I recall my surprised reaction to a Christian acquaintance who derisively dismissed the very work I found spiritually inspiring as “Jesus Christ Stupidstar.” On another occasion, one of the few times I have called a radio talk show was provoked by a conservative evangelical host who insisted on the album’s depravity. He was inferring prurient innuendo that had never once occurred to me in years of repeated listenings, which I thought revealed more about his personal neuroses than anything else. Given the confrontational tone of most talk radio, it was no surprise that I failed to persuade him of Jesus Christ Superstar‘s merits.
Whatever anyone feels about the theological stance of Superstar, one cannot easily deny its extraordinary performances. This is partly due to the methods of Lloyd Webber and Rice, who took on the roles of co-producers. “Having laid down the rock tracks, we added the singers’ voices,” they explained, “and to a very great extent we were keen that they should have artistic freedom to dramatically interpret their roles.” It was a wise decision, as every vocalist from the lead players to the one-liners went all-out. Sometimes their interpretations are over the top, but always delightfully so. The high priest Caiaphas, as voiced by bass Victor Brox, sings with an extreme resonance that brings out the very best in any sub-woofer. His cronies are also wonderfully melodramatic. The uninhibited vocal performances are one of the reasons why Jesus Christ Superstar may be one of the most irresistible sing-alongs in all of rock. I find myself joining in on even the smallest lines, like the great cameo by one of Pilate’s minions, who identifies the protagonist in a Cockney accent as “Sumwon Chriast, Kang o’ thu Joose!”
The album has spawned numerous productions, recordings, and a theatrical film, but none of those that I have encountered do justice to the original. Mostly this has been due to a dilution of the original score by focusing on vocals and visuals to propel the narrative, leaving what should be a driving instrumental force relegated to the background. The music should really cook, but too often it does not. At one touring performance I attended, I eagerly anticipated the sax solo in “Damned For All Time,” only to be disappointed by a tinny improvisation that barely emanated from the pit. Further compromising the album was the addition of a symbolic resurrection by means of a curtain call to the reprise of the title song, complete with flashing lights and all the cast members dressed entirely in white. I suppose it’s a bit much to ask audiences to plunk down $50 to $100 a seat and make them leave on a depressing note.
All in all, it’s funny that Jesus Christ Superstar should be one of my favorite albums, given that it spurred some of my first fears. Among my earliest memories is an impression of that brown album cover propped up against the bed of one of my older brothers. I saw its stylized angels as disturbing, perhaps because I associated the image with the menacing Moog synthesizer pulsation and sinister lead guitar that open the overture. Then there was “The Crucifixion,” an avant-garde number with sounds of hammered spikes, inhuman laughter, and cacophonous dissonances that I found too terrifying for listening. But maybe that fear is precisely what drove me to give it a good, thorough listen when I reached adolescence, in the manner that we sometimes seek to confront that which haunts us. Once I understood what Jesus Christ Superstar was all about, I appreciated it immediately. I’ve loved it ever since. Even that scary cover.