Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Jesus Christ Superstar

Ever since my father died just over a year ago, my stepmother has been involved in the long process of clearing out his stuff (I didn’t realise what a hoarder he was) and passing on family possessions to me and my sister. Recently, I was asked to look through his meagre collection of old LPs and take what I wanted. After a nostalgic 20 minutes or so I came away with about half a dozen 1950s discs in their battered sleeves that I remembered from my childhood. They comprised mainly jazz and swing from that era together with my mother’s proudest possession, ‘The Best of Pat Boone’.

But amongst these relics of a by-gone age was a slightly younger relic, a copy of the original ‘concept’ recording of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ from 1970. I remember buying this for Dad when it came out and being rather shocked that he wanted it in the first place as it was a million miles away from Sid Philips, Winifred Atwell and the Clark Sisters.

I have now transferred it to MP3 and had a bash at removing the worst of the scratches and pops (of which there were many) and have listened to it anew after 30 odd years. We all know Andrew Lloyd-Webber from his West End shows but this recording reveals him as a young 20-year-old composer caught between wanting to be either Led Zeppelin, Rogers and Hammerstein or the Berlin Philharmonic and contriving to be all three at the same time. It is an intriguing mixture. JCS has all the hallmarks of his later musical theatre leanings with typical ‘show’ songs and orchestral flourishes yet it is infused with a streak of real rock ‘n’ roll (or rock ‘n’ funk to be strictly accurate) which is now missing presumed dead in current work.

The muscular backbone of this album has been achieved by installing Joe Cocker’s backing band, the Grease Band, as house musicians, a bunch of hairy rockers including guitarists Henry McCullough and Neil Hubbard, bassist Alan Spenner and drummer Bruce Rowland, who seem to revel in the complexities of the shifting time signatures (lots of 7/4 – eek!) and modulating keys. It also benefits enormously from the vocal talents of Murray Head, Yvonne Elliman and Barry Dennen and the inspired casting of Deep Purple’s Ian Gillian as Jesus, who lends real weight to the part yet still manages to bring the looseness of popular singing to a table usually inhabited by stiffer ‘classical’ singers. In short, this album rocks. You’d be hard pushed to guess that it came from the pen of Lloyd-Webber if you didn’t already know. The later film and stage show soundtracks have mellowed JCS and stripped out the rawness but the original concept album still retains it in spades.

Predictably, it doesn’t quite escape from its time and place. The young Tim Rice’s thought-provoking lyrics have a vaguely late 60s hippyish tinge to them, (as does some of the music - think Hair) but are clever and astute as well, telling the story, which ends with the crucifixion, in very human terms and giving each character a legitimate voice and motivation. He steers clear of any ‘faith’ issues – there are no ‘miracles’, nor resurrection – thus allowing agnostics like me and those of non-Christian faiths access what is a compelling, yet darkly moving tragedy. Although dated, the whole thing has an irresistible aura to it and it never fails to leave me buzzing with emotional turmoil.

I’m very glad that this LP has come back into my possession. It could well be a modern classic and irrespective of what you think of Lloyd-Webber today, I would recommend that everybody listens to it at least once.


Wicked Broadway Tickets said...

yeah !! Love Letters in the Sand by Pat Boone base on Best of Pat Boone.
i m glad .it’s a very good decision to passing on family possessions by the form of LPs.

musicobsessive said...

Hi Tickets! I agree, it was a fun time going through all those LPs that I probably helped to scratch over 40 years ago!

God help anyone who has to go through my collection after I'm gone - it'll take a bit longer than 20 minutes. :)

Adrian said...

Guess no one need say to you, what's the buzz, tell me what's happenin'?

Of course, prove to me that you're no fool. Walk across my swimming pool.

musicobsessive said...

Adrian - only if it's frozen over!

On the other hand I would prefer to feed your household with this bread. I can even do it on my head!

Adrian said...


What a rich, character-filled, voice is Yvonne Elliman's. And, indeed, that's a fine bunch of rockers+ making that fun noise.

musicobsessive said...

Indeed! And not a stimulant in sight (ahem)!

Charlie said...

I wonder what Yvonne Elliman and Murray Head are up to today. They both should have been bigger stars.

I have always loved JCS and was disappointed when Webber's music took an entirely different direction although I do like Phantom Of The Opera.

Has anyone ever heard Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat? It's the predecessor to JCS, not quite as amazing, but definitely worthy of your time. I bought it on LP many, many, years ago. It's time to pull it out for another listen.

musicobsessive said...

Hi Charlie. Seems like neither of them have done much since the 1970s, although Murray is the brother of Buffy's Anthony Head, so the Head family have been well represented over the years.