Ian Gillan Superstar

by Harry on August 7, 2007

August is the time for our annual household argument about Jesus Christ Superstar. We’re all fans (apart from #3 whose tastes are not yet his own), but disagree about its meaning. Before elaborating on the disagreement I should make a preemptive strike against two charges – the charge of liking Andrew Lloyd Webber (can’t stand anything else he’s done, not even Joseph, which I had always thought I liked until hearing it recently) and the charge of snobbery that response naturally prompts (I’m a snob about some things, no doubt, but when it comes to culture I revel in my lower-middle-browness).

The disagreement is basically this. My wife thinks that JCS is fundamentally anti-Christian, because it presents Judas as the most sympathetic character, and Jesus as vain and rather directionless. I disagree – Judas is, indeed, presented with the maximum sympathy compatible with Christianity, but ultimately his failing is a lack of trust in a power and mystery that is beyond his understanding. Jesus? Well, when I watch the movie (a very good deal at the moment, more on that later), and even when I listen to the soundtrack, I can sort of see her point. But my reading of Jesus Christ Superstar was a response not to the movie or soundtrack, but to the original concept recording.

My conjecture is that this explains the disagreement (but it doesn’t help to resolve it). I remember my surprising friend Jon Corcoran foisting the original album on me one day in secondary school, insisting that I keep it for a month until I’d heard it over and over (he also lent me two more Gillan non-Purple albums, in a semi-successful attempt to expand my horizons beyond the folk music I loved and the punk music I felt obliged to listen to, though this doesn’t even begin to explain why he was a surprising friend. If you’re reading, Jon, thanks for the protection, and the loans). In the film the sadly late Carl Anderson is powerful as Judas, and so much more powerful than Ted Neeley’s Jesus, that my wife’s reading makes sense of the movie. But in the original album, Ian Gillan is astonishing; his Jesus completely overpowers Murray Head’s Judas, which tips the balance in his (JC’s, not IG’s) favour (I gather that Gillan had to turn down the movie because he was committed to some misconceived Purple project).

I know that some Christians greeted the stage show with protests when it premiered in both the US and the UK, but I presume they didn’t know it. I’m curious; which of us is right, and is my conjecture that if you know the original album you are more likely to find it pro-Christian than if you know the film correct? (And while I’m at it, how can it be that the soundtrack to the movie costs three times as much as the movie?)



Andrew 08.07.07 at 8:47 pm

I grew up with the film, my mother loved it, and I always thought it as very christian in the way my hippy mother was.


Anon Y Mous 08.07.07 at 8:51 pm

The only part of JCSS that I found in any way anti Christian was the ending. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen the movie, but if I recall correctly, it ends with JC’s death on the cross. Doesn’t leaving out the resurrection and ascension downplay JC’s divine aspects? Come to think of it, I don’t remember if JCSS depicts any actual miracles, either. If not, it would tend to reinforce this idea. Like I said, though, it has been awhile.


anon 08.07.07 at 8:57 pm

In my personal history, my liberal Christian family always read JCS as pro-X-n. We knew the album much better than the film, though.


Flippanter 08.07.07 at 9:06 pm

I have warmer memories of Godspell. JCS always seems thin.


Danny 08.07.07 at 9:12 pm

I suppose you could see the film as more anti-Christian than the concept album, but I don’t think that’s at all intentional. As you say, Carl Anderson’s Judas completely overwhelms Ted Neeley’s whiny, wimpy Jesus. Neeley doesn’t stir up any sympathy for Jesus… we just want him to shut up. Neeley just doesn’t have it in him.

On the concept album Jesus vs. Judas is a fair fight. They’re both strong, emotional characters, and the tension between them is palpable (“Everything’s Alright” and “The Last Supper”). It’s not that the album is more pro-Christian than the film. It’s just a far better piece of dramatic art.


alwsdad 08.07.07 at 9:15 pm

We also listened to this a lot as kids, and in our house it was always regarded as pro-Christian (hippie version) as well. (Mom was a very buttoned up Catholic with a soft spot for hippie culture).


Mike Otsuka 08.07.07 at 11:59 pm

it ends with JC’s death on the cross

Shouldn’t there be a SPOILER warning?


DT 08.08.07 at 12:00 am

As a music professor at a prestigious university, and therefore an infallible expert on such things, I would like to confirm that JC Superstar is, in fact, good music.

Ian Gillan is a much more compelling Jesus, singing with an incredible charisma and ferocity. The movie Jesus has a weak upper range, making the whole thing completely unwatchable/unlistenable for me. When he threw out the money changers it’s so disappointing I almost turned the thing right off.

I’m not sure that even the movie version is unChristian, though. Satan is a pretty compelling character in Paradise Lost, right? But nobody except William Blake really thinks that it’s unChristian …


Jordan 08.08.07 at 12:20 am

On a related note, if the version of Joseph you heard recently was the Broadway cast, make sure you have a listen to the far superior London version. Holds up great, and I too dislike the rest of ALW’s output.


derrida derider 08.08.07 at 12:42 am

FWIW there’s a Calvinist traditional belief that Judas was consciously performing God’s will in betraying Jesus – after all, no betrayal means no crucifixion means no redemption.

As for Lloyd-Webber, the secret of his success (apart from some odious truckling to royalty and the Tory establishment) is that he tries to write one good tune per show, and doesn’t care that the rest is complete shite. Evita is the locus classicus; a wonderful tango with the rest not even competent, let alone inspired.


vivian 08.08.07 at 1:25 am

I wonder (abstractly, from outside) if it depends on your denomination. A friend from Greece explained why some G Orthodox found The Last Temptation of Christ blasphemous. I suggested that depicting a temptation made its rejection much more powerful, dramatically and rhetorically. Alex explained that some theologies hold the idea that anything could tempt a divine figure is showing him as less than divine – and horribly blasphemous, or sacriligeous, or heretical (whichever applies). I bet some folks would feel that someone like Judas needs to suck up his incomprehension and believe anyway – making Harry’s view and his wife’s converge.

So, why do DVDs of concerts and movies cost less than the soundtracks?


fardels bear 08.08.07 at 2:02 am

Ian Gillan: best rock vocalist of all time. Why second rate Black Sabbath is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Deep Purple isn’t is a crime.

OK, I feel like I’m back in college now…


Matt 08.08.07 at 2:07 am

Judas as true hero is of course an old theme. It’s there in a different form in _The Last Temptation of Christ_, too (Jesus picks Judas to do what only the strongest apostle could do).

Funny but true JCS story: My father, who is a police officer, once nearly had to arrest Jesus. The original Broadway cast was doing a revival tour and played in my home town. Jesus and some of the other cast members were out for dinner at a restaurant and refused (for some reason I don’t recall) to pay the bill. My father was called. The owner wanted them all to pay or be arrested but something was worked out in the end.


Rich B. 08.08.07 at 2:24 am

Irrespective of the pro- or anti- debate, numerous quality live performances of the musical have been ruined for me right at the end when they gave Jesus the final bow. I mean, you can certainly debate the deeper religious implications, but in a strictly narrative sense, Judas is the “main character” and deserves the final bow.

I had an equal but opposite reaction to the Broadway performance of Ragtime (which was wonderful). While enjoying the show, it didn’t occur to me that Coalhouse Walker was the “main character” of the ensemble piece until he got the final bow. But when he did, it made perfect sense.


SG 08.08.07 at 2:39 am

If portraying Judas as a sympathetic character is anti-christian, doesn`t that make Jesus anti-christian?

I suppose though by most modern evangelical standards he is though, isn`t he?


JP Stormcrow 08.08.07 at 3:47 am

The orginal concept recording threw me for a bit – you mean the original orignal. I will just say that when the album first came out, no one but the “hippy wanna-be” youth group leaders at my whitebread Midwestern suburban straight-laced mainstream Protestant church thought that anything that contained lines like prove to me that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool was doing anything but mocking religion – independent of who, how and what Judas and Jesus sang.

This actually changed somewhat quickly as the 60s arrived in town with the advent of the 70s.


Kieran Healy 08.08.07 at 3:55 am

Shouldn’t there be a SPOILER warning?

Damn, I nearly spat out my ice cream.


fardels bear 08.08.07 at 4:00 am

Speaking of spoilers….

Since the story in JCS ends with the death rather than the Resurrection doesn’t it rather miss the point of the whole Christian religion?


reason 08.08.07 at 9:58 am

Yes – but not of the musical. It doesn’t want to limit its audience. ALW is an Englishman after all.


dc 08.08.07 at 10:28 am

I always preferred ‘Life Of Brian’. The songs are better too.


Anderson 08.08.07 at 2:48 pm

Since the story in JCS ends with the death rather than the Resurrection doesn’t it rather miss the point of the whole Christian religion?

You mean, like the Gospel of Mark?


Ralph Hitchens 08.08.07 at 3:03 pm

JCS riffed off an ancient theme, found in the 2nd century (and recently much-ballyhooed) Gospel of Judas, and elevated to a high pitch of literary merit in Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which Vivian and Matt mentioned.

I totally agree with derrida derider: Lloyd-Webber’s extravaganzas seem to manage one memorable song per.


Michael Kremer 08.08.07 at 4:51 pm

The Gospel of Mark (not counting the probably spurious last lines, Mark 16:9-20) ends with the empty tomb, not with the crucifixion. No resurrection appearance, but the lines “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'” (Mark 16:6-7) spoken by a young man in white at the tomb are part of the authentic ending of the Gospel. The women to whom these lines are spoken remain afraid however, and flee, trembling. (Mark 16:8 — the end of the Gospel in the oldest manuscripts.)


Michael Kremer 08.08.07 at 4:53 pm

On the point of the post: I see the original recording (which I grew up with in my childhood Catholic household) as neither Christian nor anti-Christian, but questioning and thought-provoking, and a good thing for Christians to have to listen to and think about (and I’ve introduced it to my children in my present Catholic household).


mds 08.08.07 at 5:23 pm

Jesus and some of the other cast members were out for dinner at a restaurant and refused (for some reason I don’t recall) to pay the bill.

“No, no, we only ordered five loaves and two fishes…”

Shouldn’t there be a SPOILER warning?



Wax Banks 08.08.07 at 6:17 pm

Ending JCS with the Crucifixion rather than the Resurrection underlines the story’s focus: remember that no miracles take place in the film/play/album (it’s reasonable for Jesus to know that he’ll be denied and betrayed, etc.). Including the Resurrection shifts the narrative from story-about-religion to religious story; without it, JCS becomes a moving story about Judas’s struggle with the nature of the man he’s chosen to follow, and with the institution that’s building up around him (cf. feckless dopey Apostles singing about fame at the Last Supper).

Calling it ‘un-Christian’ is like calling The Satanic Verses un-Muslim: a bit pointless. Both works meditate beautifully within their chosen religious mythologies, and readily admit that they’re just that – mythical. But both works recognise the possibility of transformation that such mythologies offer. JCS isn’t just Judas’s story – of course not, Jesus spends as much time center stage as he does and his monologue in Gethsemane represents the play’s major moral crisis – and the teachings of Jesus are cherrypicked neatly to ground him in his (abstracted) cultural moment and his institution. So I would say the play does Christians a service by humanizing the mythical figures at the center of their beliefs about the world, and serves non-Christians by cutting away a thicket of goofy theology and asking questions about humans’ capacity for belief, and through it, good works.

It’s possible to venerate Jesus without believing he’s the son of God, and there’s nothing in JCS to preclude the possibility that he’s a person of strong and worthy morals that happen to spring from dementia. I don’t see that message as undercutting the faith, only complicating the myths. But thoughtful Christians have been dealing with such complications for a long time anyhow.

I quite like Murray Head (his brother’s no slouch either), but he’s destroyed by the film Judas; his voice better suits the creepy Bobby Fischer fella in Chess, another Rice concept album of note.


Anderson 08.08.07 at 6:49 pm

Mr. Kremer, as my reference should have indicated, I’m familiar with the ending(s) of the Gospel of Mark.

Simply having some guy show up and say “hey, Jesus isn’t dead, he’s Risen!” … well, it’s interesting to speculate on the fate of Christianity had there been no other gospels. No wonder later scribes felt the imperative to play Choose Your Own Ending.


spinozista 08.08.07 at 7:54 pm

JSC (the original album) is essentially an oratorio, basically modeled after Bach’s St. Matthew’s and St. John’s Passions, both of which end with the crucifixion and burial. (JSC may also owe a little to some of Handel’s Old Testament oratorios?) Bach’s texts may have ended as they did because they functioned as church music to be performed before or on Good Friday. But someone more expert in Bach can confirm or correct that point for me. Nobody ever thought it made Bach un-Christian.

I presume that Webber knew more about Bach than I did, and that the similarities in musical form (superficial though they may be) between JCS and the St. Matthew’s Passion are not just coincidence.

Needless to say, neither I nor anyone else where I grew up knew anything about Bach or Handel when the album first came out, so it was widely regarded in our parts as completely sacrilegious because (1) rock music, (2) omitting = ignoring = denying the resurrection, and (3) making Judas the co-star, if not indeed the real star (and I didn’t know anything about Milton at the time, either).

In short, unconventional, therefore sinful. IIRC, when the touring company came to town in 1971, there was even a short-term bomb scare, but the show went on after a little while, anyway.

I was and am still a fan of the original album, but never the movie or the stage shows.


Populuxe 08.08.07 at 8:18 pm

I grew up with the film, my mother loved it, and I always thought it as very christian in the way my hippy mother was.

That’s very similar to my experience of the record growing up. In fact, my first introduction to JCS came from the teacher who played it for us in Sunday School. I was probably in Middle School before I was even aware that some people regarded the JCS as anti-religious.

When I was in first grade we used to sing:
“Jesus Christ, superstar! Who in the hell do you think you are?”


quicksand 08.09.07 at 1:19 am

When I was in first grade we used to sing:
“Jesus Christ, superstar! Who in the hell do you think you are?”

Weird. I remember that from my childhood too.


Ares Burger 08.09.07 at 11:49 am

For us it was:
“Jesus Christ, superstar! Went for a ride on his yamaha.”


kerril 08.09.07 at 9:02 pm

As per the comment #10:
I had always interpreted the original production the same way.
Judas’ lines :”Christ I know you can’t hear me but I only did what you wanted me to…” indicated that it was preordained that Judas would betray Jesus and that Judas was aware of it. Making him far more complicated than the straight up bad guy.
Oh my lord I love that music. Ian Gillian and Murray Head are gods to me. Now how blasphemous is that?


HyperIon 08.09.07 at 9:17 pm

As someone raised as a Southern Baptist in the South, I was very impressed when I first heard the London soundtrack (with Murray Head). Without knowing about the musical, I was familiar with the single JCSS; what a fantastic lyric: “Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.” But when I listened to “Heaven on their minds”, I was floored by the political analysis of the Jesus story. I had already “lost my faith” but found the ideas about who would benefit from JC’s death very interesting. Rice must have been familiar even then with the biblical scholarship that is now old-hat. He made me realize that you don’t have to believe in order to find the story compelling. As others have remarked, ALW went on to write much bad music (Cats…ugh!!!!) but IMO he manages to incorporate every classic rock idiom in the JCSS score. I thought the movie was PATHETIC, that is, truly awful; that’s how *I* explain the cost difference. Oh, and my mom advised me (after over-hearing the record on my hifi) that I had better not let my father find out about this blasphemy.


Clive 08.10.07 at 4:27 pm

On whose story it is: I’m not sure it’s structured as the story of any one character. It’s introduced by Judas; but then we get to spend moments alone with Mary Magdalene, Jesus (obviously), and even Pilate.

As as kid (when I adored it – and whoever above said Godspell… oh, please!) – I used to argue for some reason that it wasn’t anti-Christian. But even then I took the point of it to be to humanise the whole thing, to say ‘here are the human beings behind the myth’ (and aren’t they very like people today), which, by demythologising it, seems to me implicitly to be debunking the religion.

The title obviously implies it’s about something to do with fame. Not sure I ever really got what.

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