Jesus Christ Superstar
Released: November 1970
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 101
Certified Gold: 12/21/70
It's quite a feat. I admired and enjoyed it right away. Such an attempt, nonetheless, is bound to have a lot going for and against it. It's been such a long time that Jesus had a big hit that the pull on our sentiments is extreme. The Bible is a great Golden Oldie, an undisputed classic, and some folk still dig it.
But people think a little differently now, and who do you know that reads anymore? We obviously need a new medium and a new style to sell the old message. I know there've been J.S. Bach and guys like that, but that was hundreds of years ago. It isn't exactly hit material. You recall, too, how Jesus bombed on the silver screen -- something more than a miracle was necessary to pull off his masquerade as Jeffrey Hunter.
I'm happy to say all this is beside the point, for we need wait no more. It's time to renew that subscription to the resurrection for the Man is back with the hit we've been sure he'd come through with, as a rocker. The "new" Christ, he of the hippie lifestyle, long hair and independent honesty, has been leading an active referential life during the past few years. He's been useful to have around as analogical support for social, political, spiritual, and artistic claims equally.
As a rocker. Who could have imagined that Rock, given its groiny, jive beginnings, would become so incredibly elastic that anyone would choose it to retell this spiritual odyssey? And that's what's going against Superstar too. A kind of incredulousness. Where do they get off fucking with the heaviest subject around? When I got it in the mail I laughed -- surely a Kafka scene. All my anticipations were ungenerous. I remember first sitting down to it, my face poised with a fixed smirk, the better to meet it on its own inevitably preposterous and/or pretentious terms. I was wrong. With certain qualifications, the music makes it through and through. It does what it does perfectly. It's what it's doing that's maybe questionable.
1. It's serious.
2. It sticks to the story but originates and in part reupholsters a text to "tell it like it is" (was).
3. A swift overture that gets the show right off the ground with a brilliantly gaudy collection of themes in a smorgasbord of styles. The ear is fed so quickly that you've got no time to consult your taste for possible complaints.
4. It's perfectly played and sung and engineered -- an unwavering professionalism.
5. Mythic overhaul and tuneup: the "relevant" Christ.
6. Some direct Mooging.
7. About as much religious flavor and fervor as the collected works of Jerry Lee Lewis, Superstar is basically a superior musical anchored by a very tight and together conception and a handful of successful show tunes. A beautifully organized package, full of the bluntness, immediacy and flash of entertainment formulae -- but not profound or disturbing.
8. A tenor solo -- just when you're thinking "sure would be a goof to hear a nice tenor solo 'bout now."
9. Quite simply: a project fraught with disaster, sensationally brought off. The mind can scarcely for a moment escape admiring that. They're doing it, they go on doing it, it's done, and it ain't a travesty.
10. Happiness and fun. In this reworking of a great agony, the agony seems to have been misplaced.
11. The Last Supper as occasion for a funny pot-song (Spiro Agnew: note).
12. Judas' problems upstaging Jesus' problems -- part of the updating process. The traditional villain shows his "human" side. We all love anti-heroes.
13. Superslickness refined to a razor edge that cuts, gets to you.
14. Yvonne Elliman, who's something to fantasize about. She slices through the layers of inspired ersatz and truly catches your heart. She gives her all on the two sumptuous melodies she has and achieves an erotic intensity and fragility that's really convincing.
15. A union of music and text full of wonderful invention.
16. As implied, a bunch of very hummable tunes (those especially lovely pop up rather often -- and you're glad they do). You'll be hearing them soon on your local talk show sung by one nonentity or another.
17. An unusually sustained theatricality, unusual for recorded rock, in any case. The drama of the situation is captured and delivered.
18. Pleasure at how it gathers momentum where you might expect some coasting (side two). This is the side I'll play when I'm not up for the whole thing. Here the music consolidates its strength and reaches a peak of vitality.
19. A careful, witty libretto. I find the following, for instance, oddly irresistible: "Christ you know I love you/ Did you see I waved?"
20. During "Crucifixion," a weakly audible Lennie Tristano-ish piano accompaniment. Listen closely -- that cat's wailin'.
21. An ideal gift for Mom & Dad do they shouldn't call what you listen to degenerate anymore.
22. In my case, a record so thin it warps when you breathe on it.
23. It's not serious.
Hard to say whether Superstar represents a step forward or not. Does it promise something or merely consolidate existing tendencies? Is it a sign of cultural revitalization or another instance of our deathtrip? The equivalent of our big hotels, or a true, fresh sprout of life? I'd say it was more show than substance. The poetry and the passion of the occasion of Christ's last days are not carried over. We get instead a stylish exhibition whose polished charm manages to amuse and distress our skin but misses bone and marrow by a long shot. Its tastefulness and wholesomeness and ease on the ear don't strike one as outgrowths of Webber and Rice's version of life or deepest feelings, but as a strategy of sorts. The variety in the music -- from a jabbing intensity to a ravishing loveliness, from monolithic grandness to sophisticated, quirky asymmetries, from sharp-bouncy-bright to swelling and massive -- is exciting, but works against a total impact. The subject requires a greater austerity, or firmness of mood. As is, it is too "groovy" to succeed on the deepest level. (It may just also be an elaborate gag -- you know, facetious. "Wouldn't it be a gas to.. It'll be a coup, blow people's minds." If that speculation is sound, then the subject was chosen precisely for its unsuitability to the intended treatment, for its audacity potential. A notion similar to making a musical out of Little Caesar or The Iliad or, indeed, what Webber & Rice first thought of themselves -- the Cuban Missle Crisis). If it sold enough copies at Christmas, I can see Ed Sullivan presenting it live from Las Vegas. And I suspect the music is semi-geared to make possible that kind of a fulfillment.
For good or for worse, my guess is that despite its limitations, it'll have enough clout to bail out this sagging musical period in the minds of many of us rockheads who've been sitting around waiting for something extraordinary to happen. This is it.
- Jack Shadoian, Rolling Stone, 3/4/71.
The creators of "Jesus Christ -- Superstar" have decided to create an opus that would ride the waves of both art and life. Through the use of an "operatic" format they assured themselves that their music would be linked with the noble tradition that is accepted as art; by using the story of the last seven days of Christ for their script, they assured themselves that their content would have meaning. But in spite of their logic they have failed in both regards. "Jesus Christ -- Superstar" is neither life nor art. It is simply one of the most pretentious, self-conscious productions in the history of popular music, an archetype of the desperation of artists who seek to be all things to all people but who find no conviction in either their formal idiom or their personal being.
The lack of inspiration is specifically and painfully clear in nearly every detal of the opera's construction. From the overture through the Crucifixion, the music runs monotonously from one song to another, exhibiting no sense of drama or direction. Without the libretto -- which is printed with its own share of errors -- the listener is hard pressed to locate himself within the opera's progress. In this sense the work is inadvertently challenging. But it is not musically challenging: the songs are embarrassingly simple and predictable, so much so that one wonders if their creators have ever listened to the Beatles, let along Mozart or Wagner.
The opera's musical monotony is broken once -- with "King Herod's Song," which is a kind of ingenuous, soft-shoe song-and-dance number which also takes some insipration from "When I'm Sixty-Four," "Winchester Cathredral," and other rock ragtime revivals. But even here there are problems, in that the opera's creators seem to have forgotten about opera and instead turned their attention momentarily to "Hair" or some other Broadway musical. The situation becomes even more wrenching when Herod sings the number as if it were a soul song. While the song builds to a crescendo of cross-purposes, the bemused but frustrated listener is tempted to accept it as a bizarre, unintentional satire of all of its musical and literary sources.
Poetry fares no better than music in "Jesus Christ -- Superstar." With the exception of a few forays into free verse, the conception of poetry at work in the opera seems to be that it consists of lines that have a sing-song beat and rhyme either alternately or in couplets. In defense of Mary Magdalene, Jesus sings,
Admittedly, good music can sometimes dignify, even make meaningful, lines of verse that are trivial in themselves. Certainly it is true with most successful rock music, particularly in rock of the late 1950's. But no such transformation takes place in this rock opera, which represents the nadir of both musical and poetic enterprises.
In its publicity release, Decca describes this production as "controversial." The feeling, apparently, is that the opera's marriage of rock and religion is potentially shocking. In the end, however, neither the text, nor the style, nor their combination is shocking. After all, art has effected some unlikely marriages in the past. What is shocking, even puzzling, is that such meager artistic thinking should be given such an elaborate and ambitious format. Whatever motivated such a project? Possibly some wishful thinking that sheer pomp might disguise a total lack of faith -- in the meaning of either the art of the life of Christ.
- Carl Belz, Stereo Review, 2/71.
Outsiders since Pat Boone have had the dumb idea that rock and roll means projecting the kind of sham intensity that the worst kind of opera lover is a sucker for, and here's more -- "rock musical" is too kind. Tommy, in which real rock and rollers pursued a grandiose dramatic concept, was risky enough. But set semiclassical-twice removed melodies amid received, overrehearsed rock instrumentation and all the verve and spontaneous power which is the music's birthright gets crucified. C-
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
Writers Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice set several precedents with this album. First, it is a pre-stage studio version, and it topped the US charts upon release. Second, it is the first show to successfully put rock music in a theatrical context (Hair is really a pop/show-music pastiche, not rock). Third, it is a "sung-through" musical without spoken dialog, technically an operetta. Fourth, though musicals had turned more serious at this point, writing a show about Jesus Christ from the point of view of Judas was about as daring as you could get. It succeeds in all ways. In addition to the title song (a #14 hit sung by Murray Head), it includes "I Don't Know How to Love Him" by Yvonne Elliman.
- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.
Okay, so the source material -- the story of Jesus -- was pretty good. And the idea of adding a rock backbeat and turning it into a parable on the messianic worship of celebrity, that was inspired. But what separates this project from virtually everything else Andrew Lloyd Webber, the British treacle merchant, and lyricist Tim Rice developed together is the tunes -- alternately spangley and cathedral-worthy, full of conflict and overrun with the bustle that followed this miracle worker and his large entourage everywhere.
The songs trace the last few weeks in the life of Jesus Christ, using rock backbeats, slang, and other modern allusions to change, slightly, the biblical context. Though it's not the first rock musical -- that distinction might go to the far less hooky Hair, or even Bye Bye Birdie, -- Jesus Christ Superstar is the first to arrive with its own distinct sound, a set of signature character cues and motifs that connect into what's technically an operetta, since there's no spoken dialogue in the whole thing. When the story gets tense, the band provides gnarled, hectic accompaniment; the moment of Judas's betrayal is set against a staccato electric guitar figure that dramatizes a traitor's roiling inner conflict. Judas, played here by rocker Murray Head, shines throughout; an even bigger rock star, Deep Purple's Ian Gillan, plays Jesus. When our protagonists are stealing a quiet moment -- see Yvonne Elliman's restive confession "I Don't Know How to Love Him" -- the music catches a placid, idyllic mood, but much of Superstar, even the crowd scene "Hosanna," ripples with an undercurrent of turmoil. Unlike later Rice-Lloyd Webber collaborations, virtually every one of these songs gets under your skin without being overbearingly emotional.
Jesus Christ Superstar incited outrage from religious leaders when it arrived on Broadway in 1971. It became a massive hit and, in another delicious pop culture irony, within a few years was creditied for sparking renewed interest in religion among young people. What's more, this soundtrack is frequently mentioned by subsequent generations of rockers as a formative listening experience. Sure, it's heavy and symbolic, but it's also riveting, the unlikely Sunday school lesson that's also a guilty pleasure.
- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.
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