Ian Gillan, Jesus Christ Superstar and Not Christian Rock

I’ve been weirdly preoccupied for some years now with an album that lurked around the edges of my childhood — oh come on, don’t pretend that hasn’t happened to you. The album in question is not one that my parents owned. My dad was too much of a classical snob for that; the music I grew up hearing him play on a succession of increasingly dilapidated stereos was mostly by composers like Hindemith and Bartok, but late in life he developed a fondness for female alternative rock icons, probably as a result of his dead-end job working for RTE. He would come home and ask me ‘Have you heard of someone called Kristin Hersh?’ Or would buy Bjork’s ‘Debut’ and sit on his bed and listen to it, rather than hang out with the rest of us.

Well, I already liked both Kristin Hersh and Bjork, and have inherited his taste for Hindemith and Bartok which, being me, I’ve pursued to a far more lunatic level than he ever did. But the album that I want to talk about is not by any of these people. It’s an album that, in my memory at least, our cousins were inordinately fond of, and because we were a bit uneasy around our cousins, that alone was a reason to think it a bit of a weird album. Besides which its authors were the two most irredeemably unhip names in late 20th century popular music: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. The album, of course, is Jesus Christ Superstar.

Lloyd Webber and Rice’s original album was a purely studio affair, recorded in 1970, with a cast so unlikely as never to be quite repeated. The basic backing band was the Grease Band, the same band that famously prevented Joe Cocker at Woodstock from looking like a total tool: Henry McCullough (guitar), Neil Hubbard (keyboards), Alan Spenner (bass) and Bruce Rowland (drums). They were augmented by dozens of sessions musicians, including future Sex Pistols producer Chris Spedding and Irish jazz guitarist Louis Stewart, a fleet-fingered Tal Farlow clone whose playing on this album is about as unengaged as it’s possible to imagine.

The cast was trippy. Subsequent stage productions of JCS established a tradition by which Judas was played by a black actor, probably out of reverence for Carl Anderson, who played the hell out of the role in Norman Jewison’s movie and in subsequent stage productions, only to die of leukaemia aged 48. But in the original album, Judas is played by the white English actor Murray Head. Mary is Yvonne Elliman, a Hawaii-born singer who ended up playing the role an absurd number of times, both in the movie and on Broadway, as well as landing a gig as one of Eric Clapton’s backing singers and, according to Clapton himself, becoming his girlfriend for a while, which can’t exactly have been fun. Nevertheless, Elliman — whose Mary is very obviously a conflation of the Biblical Mary and the Apocryphal hooker-with-a-heart Mary Magdalene — commits herself totally to the role’s combination of tenderness and frustration. Barry Dennen plays Pilate with the clenchedness of a very clenched thing, in a performance he’d subsequently repeat for the movie. And Jesus, you ask? Who is the son of God, on this mother? None other than then recently-recruited Deep Purple frontman Ian Gillan.

Gillan seems like a weird choice for Jesus, but in fact it works, as long as you’re willing to go with Rice’s conception of the Jesus story as being entirely lacking in anything supernatural. Of the lead vocalists associated with the three biggest British hard rock bands of the late 60s/early 70s — Led Zep, Sabbath, Purple — Gillan was the most human, not to mention the only one with a functioning sense of humour. (Robert Plant would have made a great angel, except that there are no angels in Jesus Christ Superstar, and it would be lovely to hear what Ozzy Osbourne would have made of ‘King Herod’s Song’.)

Gillan’s plain-man persona is one of the weird and unpredictable factors that make JCS work, over four decades on. Of course, the aerial shriek that he first used in Deep Purple’s ‘Child in Time’ is used here in ‘Gethsemane’, but to far more dramatic effect. ‘Child in Time’ is trying to reflect from a distance on the prospects for humanity, but ‘Gethsemane’ is one man in a garden in the middle of the night facing the fact that he’s going to die for reasons he doesn’t really understand, and is all the more effective for that. Elsewhere, if Gillan indulges himself a bit too much in sighs and ‘Ooh yeah’s, it’s forgivable because it paints a picture of a Jesus who is convinced that he’s the son of God, even if not everyone else is. Some of the stage Jesuses in JCS have played Jesus as if he really is the son of God, not as if he’s just a guy who believes himself to be the son of God, and the distinction is crucial, because JCS is a rare fiction about Jesus in that it’s utterly silent about whether or not Jesus and his followers are correct.

That’s why JCS is not Christian rock. Christian rock begins with faith, and tries (and in my view, entirely fails) to use the language of late 20th century popular music to communicate the importance of faith to others. But pop music, as we know it in the West since the 50s, is incapable of expressing such remote concepts as faith in divinity or belief in the redemption. There is music that can convey such things: Bach’s cantatas, for example. But not the kind of inoffensive folk-rock which is what usually passes for Christian Rock. The music of Jesus Christ Superstar uses hard rock, gospel, soul and pop forms to convey various things, including fear, anger, love, excitement and much else, but even when the album is portraying Jesus dying on the cross, it doesn’t do it through popular forms but through Gillan’s muttered monologue and a backdrop of bleak electronic tones. The album ends not with Jesus’ resurrection, but in doubt and grief, as his followers melt away silently.

In short: despite its reputation, Jesus Christ Superstar is in no way Christian Rock. In spite of, and perhaps even because of, its flirtation with schlock and showbiz, it’s one of the great albums of the 70s; in some ways it’s the album that the Beatles never got around to making. There’s more to be said about this album, but that’ll do for now.

Ian Gillan, Jesus Christ Superstar and Not Christian Rock

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