1970, Music

Jesus Christ Superstar (1970) by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice

I honestly had no idea this was an album first. I think because it has been so successful as a property I just assumed it had to have been a musical. But, instead, it was an album. And, as a result, it got reviewed as an album. (And, hilariously, it was banned in some countries because we’re all prudes, apparently.)  That’s both a good and bad thing for its legacy.

So, first off, this is definitely a musical, even though it’s an album. It’s certainly closer to an actual musical than any of the contemporary rock operas being made by bands at the time. And that makes sense, given that it was composed by a man who composes musicals.

The music is pretty damn catchy. In fact, every time I am thinking of a particular criticism I find myself overwhelmed by the catchiness of the thing. If there’s one thing you can say for Lloyd Webber, he can write catchy music.

I struggle a little bit with Rice’s lyrics. I am rather uninformed compared to experts when it comes to the story this is telling, but I still find the way it is told to be less thought-provoking than many tellings. Moreover, the anachronisms annoy me and I’m not sure what purpose they serve. I mean, if you’re going to go that way with the lyrics, shouldn’t you do more with the music in this regard? (There’s basically only one song that embraces this.)

This is certainly the most deftly orchestrated rock album to date. In addition to Lloyd Webber’s catchy melodies, the other thing that impresses is the that the orchestra part is well-written and performed. So often in rock music orchestras are after-thoughts (as they should be, right?) and it’s impressive to hear someone who knows what they are doing write music for orchestras in a rock context.

But the rock music…well, that doesn’t work so well. It’s pretty generic. It’s a little bit like someone’s idea of rock music, who doesn’t play a rock instrument and doesn’t really get it. And the musicians don’t really help. It’s clear it’s the vocal parts that are the important ones – hence why Ian Gillan is here – but a real rock band likely would have helped the music sound less generic and uninspired. (I mean, it’s 1970. This is the best they could do?) In the end, it’s a lot like every rock musical this has inspired – it’s the rock music a musical composer would compose, out of touch with the pop music zeitgeist.

And though the piece may work as a musical live but, as an album, it’s really damn long. It’s over 10 minutes longer than Tommy and that’s Tommy including the stupid “Underture” that takes up like 10 minutes on its own. (It’s also worth noting it’s nowhere near as innovative as Tommy, but that’s another story.) Writing for albums is different than the theatre and I don’t think there’s enough here to justify the absurd length.

But, it’s still got plenty of catchy material and aspects of that material are handled really well. (And the cast is excellent, except when Gillan goes full Gillan.) And it was clearly monumentally influential on musicals, if not on albums. Though I know little of musicals, the few rock-based musicals I’ve been exposed to are clearly deeply influenced by this (or by musicals which have been influenced by this).

7/10

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