Jesus Christ, it’s all Tommy’s fault

Sifting through a box of soundtrack CDs looking for some specific hits of the 50s, I came across the movie recording of Jesus Christ Superstar this past weekend and decided to take it for a spin. Turns out I remembered most songs by melody, a surprising number by their lyrics and followed the storyline far more easily after a 20-30 year absence than I ever did at the time. Yes, I know Jesus Christ Superstar was composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber (albeit with lyrics by Tim Rice) and is therefore meant to be uncool, but truth is, it’s a mighty fine piece of work – and, it struck me over the weekend, remarkably similar to the rock opera that started them all: Tommy.

Jesus Christ Superstar: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Album The 1974 soundtrack album I listened to over the weekend

A little Monday night research confirmed that there was a lot more to this supposition than I’d initially hazarded to guess. Like Tommy, which it followed by barely a year, Jesus Christ Superstar was introduced not in the theater but on album, and with Ian Gillan of Deep Purple playing the very Roger Daltrey-esque role of a young man whose rapid rise to prophet status results in his crucifixion, it’s hard not to see The Who’s influence. Though JSC employed several different singers (including Murray Head, Yvonne Elliman and, for one line, Gary Glitter), whereas the original Tommy was restricted to the four members of the Who, the musical themes are quite similar. Both incorporate humorous elements, they each have semi-sung/half-spoke interludes, and otherwise they appear to meet in the middle. On Tommy, Pete Townshend leaned towards the musicals and operettas of old, though he kept them framed within something of a rock format; Lloyd Webber approached JCS from the tradition of the stage format, but thoroughly embraced, and dare I say it with real success, the rock idiom.

Tommy (1969 Original Concept Album)The original Tommy, 1969.

Tommy was the forerunner, the great leap forward for rock music at the end of the 1960s, and you could safely accuse JCS of jumping on its bandwagon, but it’s hardly short of its own memorable songs: try ‘Hosanna,’ ‘I Don’T Know How To Love Him,’ ‘Everything’s Alright,’ ‘King Herod’s Song,’ ‘What’s The Buzz ‘and ‘Heaven On Their Minds’ for starters. And that’s not counting the eponymous theme song I probably first heard in the playground, with their lyrics surely adjusted for reference to Georgie Best.

Jesus Christ Superstar (Original London Concept Recording)
The original Jesus Christ Superstar, 1970 – surely influenced by Tommy.

Yet what really sets JCS apart is its lyrics. I had always assumed it to be a faithful telling of Jesus’ crucifixion – perhaps a more adult Bible class than Lloyd Webber-Rice’s subsequent Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, but a Bible class all the same. Listening over the weekend – probably for the first time in 25-30 years – I realized that this was never so. Tim Rice bravely retells the tale of Christ’s last weeks largely from Judas’ point of view, and sympathetically so: Jesus is portrayed as a radical social-political leader in a time of great turmoil whose charismatic powers were undone by his Messiah complex, for which he was ultimately betrayed by a disenchanted former acolyte who himself had not thought through his actions. Jesus pays the ultimate price for his radical leadership as so many revolutionaries – pacifist, violent or otherwise – have done over the history of mankind: he is executed. End of story. The virgin birth, the various miracles, and the supposed Resurrection are all left untouched, which makes this a Christian story you can enjoy even if you’re not a Christian – removing the inherent contradictions many of us atheists experience, for example, when listening to great gospel music.

Tommy (1975 Film)The Tommy movie soundtrack, 1975 – for which Ken Russell was probably influenced by the Jesus Christ Superstar movie and soundtrack, bringing it all full circle.

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