Thursday, April 8, 2021

A rock-and-roll apostasy and sacrilege

We have to turn the minds of our young people away from the satanic and twisted allure of rock music, thundered the young minister. Sorry, Rev, but too late for me. I went down that rabbit hole years ago. And I’m never coming back.

It was a Sunday night in 1987 as I listened to the fledgling Jerry Falwell wannabe, there to audition for a position as the church’s youth minister, trying to whip up the congregation through his attack on secular music. But this is the Missouri Ozarks, so condemning the evils of rock music is picking low-hanging fruit. Show some courage, young rev, and go after country music with its predominant themes of honky tonks, drinking, adultery and Friday-night fights.

It’s a sin if the message comes in the form of power chords and draped in long hair but all is forgiven in the twang of a steel guitar. Get drunk Saturday night, go to church Sunday morning, go to work at the boat plant Monday morning. Rinse, lather, repeat.

As I listened to the aspiring evangelical firebrand, my mind wandered back to an earlier apostasy when the teenage me challenged my pastor over the merits of Jesus Christ Superstar, a 1970 rock opera that was the brainchild of composer Andrew Loyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice.

I was no teenage theologian (full disclosure: I attended church because of a girl; when that relationship ended, so did my church affiliation, not to resume again until the midpoint of my life), so the Church of God sky pilot did not consider me a rapturous supplicant when he asserted in full pastoral authority that Satan was behind this rock-and-roll apostasy. Music can only praise God, he declared, if it comes from a Southern gospel quartet in matching suits and crewcuts. But, I argued, if contemporary sounds attract young people to the church, how can that be a bad thing? But it was a losing argument. The Jesus People movement was not welcome at West Side Church of God.

With my nascent understanding of Christianity, whether Jesus Christ Superstar was biblically accurate was of no real concern to me. I thought the music was cool and the story that the opera told was interesting and compelling. Also, the album featured one of my favorite rock vocalists, Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan, as Jesus Christ. I listened to the double-album rock opera so much that I could recite entire passages verbatim. I enjoy the musical so much that I viewed the movie adaptation and purchased the subsequent soundtrack album and have seen several stage presentations.

Webber and Rice had already tackled a musical biblical story with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a retelling of the “coat of many colors” story in the Old Testament, when they hit upon the idea of telling the story of Jesus Christ’s final days by focusing on the point of view of Judas Iscariot, the apostle who betrayed Christ to the Romans. Rice says he was also inspired by Bob Dylan’s song “With God On Our Side,” which features Judas in its penultimate verse. From Rice’s autobiography: "From a very young age I had wondered what I might have done in the situations in which Pontius Pilate and Judas Iscariot found themselves. How were they to know Jesus would be accorded divine status by millions and that they would as a result be condemned down the ages?" Webber and Rice discuss the making of Jesus Christ Superstar in this documentary.

Webber and Rice created the rock opera in England but could find no one interested in producing it as a theatrical production. Undaunted, they instead turned it into a concept album that was initially banned by the BBC as being sacrilegious. The album fared much better across the pond, where it topped the U.S. Billboard 200 LP chart in both February and May 1971 and ranked No. 1 in the year-end chart, beating out Carole King’s massive hit album, Tapestry. That success led to a Broadway production and a movie. Over the ensuing decades, there have been numerous theatrical revivals of the opera, along with multiple movie and television adaptations. A 2018 NBC production featured Alice Cooper as King Herod.

The album production began with the opera’s seminal song, “Superstar,” which  was released as a single prior to any additional recording. Singer Murray Head was recruited to sing the role of Judas on the single. Backed by MCA, Webber and Rice poured a small fortune into the single. A full orchestra was brought in, along with backing vocals from the Trinidad Singers. The Grease Band, Joe Cocker’s backup band, provided the rock chops. This is the original 1971 promo video for Jesus Christ Superstar.

The release of the single “Superstar” was met with international success and led MCA to greenlight completion of the album. Gillan was brought in to sing Jesus. Head continued to sing the part of Judas, and The Grease Band returned to complete the album. Sixty recording sessions spanned a total of 400 hours. A 56-piece symphony orchestra, six rock musicians, 11 principal singers, 16 chorus singers and two choirs were involved.

Many praised the album. A contemporary review from Time magazine stated: "What Rice and Webber have created is a modern-day passion play that may enrage the devout but ought to intrigue and perhaps inspire the agnostic young."

But the focus on Judas was just one of the things that got Webber and Rice in hot water with traditional, conservative Christians. One Baptist preacher told the New York Times it should be called “Judas Superstar.”

A hinted-at romantic relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in which Christ is referred to as a mere mortal also triggered outrage. In a hit single from the album, “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” Mary sings of unrequited love for Jesus:

“I don't know how to take this
I don't see why he moves me
He's a man, he's just a man
And I've had so many men before
In very many ways
He's just one more”

Yvonne Elliman performed on the original studio album and reprised her role as Mary during the Broadway debut and in the subsequent movie version. Elliman’s album cut went to No. 28 on the charts, and a cover version by Helen Reddy climbed to No. 13. Interestingly, both versions were on the charts concurrently. Watch Elliman's performance as part of the original Broadway cast.

The rock opera ends with Jesus’ crucifixion, not his resurrection, which also infuriated many believers. The resurrection of Christ and the promise of an eternal afterlife for faithful believers separates Christianity from other religions, they argued, so omitting the resurrection is blasphemous.

Jews also took offense, concerned that the musical made it appear they were responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion. Rice countered that criticism at the time by pointing out that Norman Jewinson, director of the movie Fiddler On The Roof, was directing the movie version in Israel.

So, Webber and Rice seemed to offend everyone. Catholics, Jews and Protestants each picketed the Broadway production. The Catholic church, though, eventually came around, and in 1999, the Vatican officially endorsed the opera. And a feared wave of antisemitism never materialized.

Ironically, though, the biggest critic of the Broadway and movie productions was Andrew Loyd Webber himself. He hated the flash and glitz of the theatrical and movie productions. He had envisioned a smaller, intimate presentation with a cast of only a handful of singers/actors. Rice disagreed, saying he had enjoyed the show.

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