Why “Jesus Christ Superstar” album has always rocked

Opera theater


I’m here to spread the word of “Jesus Christ Superstar”, the album.

It is a little strange that a record so enthusiastically received, at least in the United States in the early 1970s, is now mostly excluded from top album lists and failed to secure a lasting place in the record. canon of rock music.

Then again, it was perhaps inevitable that “Superstar” the album would end up being eclipsed by the “Superstar” show on stage, which followed a year later. It’s natural to think of the album as an artefact of the theatrical experience, rather than a singular artistic vision in its own right, because that’s usually how it works. It can be difficult for new listeners to hear music in the theater.

Maybe it’s just that no serious rock geek wants to admit digging into the guys who made “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”.

Excuse me, just a second, if I’m being strangely defensive about the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. The night my parents met, my mom, a former singer, was playing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” on stage. She still has never seen “Evita”.

Revisiting the 1970 album via the recent release of the 50th Anniversary Edition, I’m as excited about it as when I was 15 and first listened to it. My high school mates wallowed in their teenage angst listening to Limp Bizkit and Korn – it was around the turn of the millennium – and there I was, immersed in the bizarre offspring of my deepest, dumbest passions: the theater and daddy rock.

But to me, listening to a Judas-centered account of the Passion of Christ also felt like a kind of rebellion. I was obsessed with the song “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)”, which embodied emo before that musical term existed, and the electric shock scream of Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, as Jesus. , insulting an insensitive God. (“Show me just a bit of your ubiquitous brain!”) While “Superstar” is not overtly anti-religious, its impertinence gave a questioning young Catholic a lot of thought.

Like a lot of music that I loved and still love from that time, it was a bit absurd. The opening of “Superstar” alone – surely one of the most disturbing rock record openers, not to mention the musical overtures – features an electric guitar, synth, strings, loud brass and a chorus of music. horror movie. The whole thing is more Roger Waters than Rodgers and Hammerstein. Indeed, these musical ingredients can be heard in Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother”, released in the UK the same month as “Superstar”.

“Superstar” music tracks, Rice explained to a podcast, were dropped in a haze of marijuana smoke – at the same London studios where the Rolling Stones recorded “Sympathy for the Devil” – along with the session of each day starting with a half hour jam session. Most of the musicians had played Woodstock behind Joe Cocker. Gillan recorded her voice in three hours and performed a concert with Deep Purple that night.

It’s no wonder “Superstar” is rock.

From the start, there is “Heaven on Their Minds”, whose guitar riff has an evocative directivity until then with “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. There’s also Murray Head as Judas shouting “Jesuuuus!” and sounding a bit blasphemous in doing so. How often do you want to blast a show-tune – the term seems inappropriate here – as loud as possible? How many classic musicals start with a heavy metal sound and atmosphere? (Not to mention “Les Misérables”, whose opening number features the chain ringing of real heavy metal.)

At the other end of the spectrum is “I Don’t Know How To Love It”, a moment of melodious introspection a few miles from Carole King’s “Tapestry”, which was the second best-selling album of 1971 behind “Superstar. “. “

If you think of “Superstar” as a concept album, it is this rare album that tells a compelling and cohesive story, more narrative than “The Wall” by Pink Floyd or “Tommy” by The Who, without the vaporous verbiage of a lot. rock music at the time. The ensemble is built, as Lloyd Webber likes to say, “like a cast iron boat” – a radio rock play or stage performance for the front stage of the imagination. In music industry lingo, everything is killer, not filler.

Rice, the former aspiring pop star that he was, has always excelled at down-to-earth lyrics that make oversized characters perfectly identifiable. That’s part of why the main vocal performances here hit you in the guts. When Yvonne Elliman’s Madeleine shouts “He scares me so much”, you believe her. When Murray Head’s Judas muffles the same line, in his own angsty version of that song – Lloyd Webber, still the skillful deployer of the poignant cover – you believe it, too.

When it comes to Lloyd Webber’s musical audacity, it can sometimes seem like it’s not just rock snobs who underestimate “Superstar,” but self-proclaimed musical theater enthusiasts as well.

Again, it may seem strange to suggest that the composer of “Phantom of the Opera”, sometimes considered one of the most successful pieces of entertainment, is underestimated by music fans. But it is precisely because of this kind of commercial success that Lloyd Webber is taken for granted, dismissed as a populist composer of the kind of hummable melodies that could, say, appease a wayward president.

It’s unfair to the songwriter who on “Superstar” got away with the types of time signatures that dazzled fans of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Just listen to “The Temple”, its feverish 7/4 rhythmic signature is a nod to Prokofiev’s equally tumultuous seventh piano sonata, with barely a beat to catch his breath. Even more impressive is “Everything’s Alright”, possibly the most catchy melody ever written in 5/4. And I include Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” in that.

Not to mention Lloyd Webber’s essential and monumental feat here, of creating 90 minutes of music skillfully combining orchestra, rock band and a small army of singers. Let’s just say that Stephen Sondheim, who shares a birthday with Lloyd Webber, doesn’t have a monopoly on musical complexity, psychological depth, and conceptual ambition.

Lloyd Webber and Rice have become kings of musical theater. But before that, they were a young couple with shaggy hair who captured the disparate music of the era like few other musicals until “Hamilton”. There was nothing like it in 1970, and there haven’t been many like it since.