Deep Purple is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year and most people are wondering whether Ritchie Blackmore is going to blow some smoke on their water. Their signature song isn’t just the first thing budding highway stars pluck out on guitar, it holds a special place in my heart for name dropping Frank Zappa and the Mothers. That was cool. Deep Purple was very cool, cool enough to indirectly make Andrew Lloyd Webber almost cool.
Hush, you say? Before Sir Lloyd of London brought the chandelier down on the Phantom of the Opera, he wrote a fairly prog religious show with some great vocal parts. Elvis Costello sang in “God’s Comic” that Jesus Christ Superstar was the Almighty’s favorite Webber work, so don’t cry for him. Part of what makes it cool, to musicians, is that that Ian Gillan sang on the original album. He only did a few takes but that was all it took.
What makes it cooler is that the guy who sang Jesus was the voice behind one of bands considered the “unholy trinity” of British hard rock, Deep Purple, and that the singer and guitarist went on to shred for a second band in the trinity, Black Sabbath. Along with the third band in the trinity, Led Zeppelin, whose guitarist owned Aleister Crowley’s old place, Black Sabbath had a reputation as being a “satanic” band, though that might just have come from the “evil” diminished fifths Tony Iommi threw into the mix. The tritone is a “a dissonant interval … that was nicknamed ‘Diabolus en Musica’ meaning ‘the devil in music,'” dark musical historian Etu Malku wrote in his “Diabolus en Musica” work for the Herald of the Dawn. “This interval is the flatted 5th … The flatted fifth in Medieval Alchemy is the ‘quinta essentia,’ creating freedom and paths into new life.”
“I sang lines featuring a diminished 5th melodic interval on our Coven song ‘Black Sabbath’ on our Witchcraft debut of 1969, on our 1974 Blood on the Snow album and there are similar vocals in the 2014 jinx CD and in an EP we are releasing next week,” Jinx Dawson of the proto-metal band Coven whispered to Den of Geek. “The dreaded tritone, Diabolus in Musica, was once banned by the church. Which is why it made sense to do it in Coven, besides the fact it’s my favorite interval to conjure demonic musical forces.”
Rock critic Lester Bangs called Black Sabbath “the John Milton of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” While Gillan isn’t Ozzy, who first conjured the dark form lyrically, his inclusion as the “everyman” Jesus is subliminally insidious.
First a little history, Deep Purple formed in Hertford, England, in 1968. By ’69 the band consisted of Blackmore on guitar with Jon Lord on organ, drummer Ian Paice, with bassist Roger Glover having just replaced Nick Semper and Gillan grabbing the mic from Rod Evans. Tommy Bolin replaced Blackmore in 1975. Gillan pulled out of Deep Purple in June 1973. Gillan was a fan of British satire like Peter Cook and Monty Python and it amused him to take part in a song cycle about a reluctant assassin and even more reluctant messiah.
Before the stage show and Norman Jewison’s movie, with Ted Neeley as Jesus, Jesus Christ Superstar was as a two-disc concept album released in September 1970. The backing musicians were Joe Cocker’s American touring group the Grease Band, Henry McCullough on guitar, Neil Hubbard on keys, Alan Spenner on bass and drummer Bruce Rowland, joined by session players including guitarist Louis Stewart and Chris Spedding, who went on to produce the Sex Pistols.
The part of Judas, who was sung by Carl Anderson in the film, was handled by actor Murray Head. Yvonne Elliman sang the part of Mary as she would in the movie and on Broadway before singing backup for Eric Clapton and going solo. Barry Dennen sang Pilate. John Gustafson of Roxy Music, Mike d’Abo of Manfred Mann and Lesley Duncan also had parts.
Gillan himself didn’t spend that much time on the project. He improvised over the track to “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)” and finished off the rest of vocal parts in three hours. He came back for some spoken lines, which he found “much more difficult than the singing part,” because he was playing Jesus according to a 2009 interview Gillan gave to R. David Smola. Gillan also talks about loving Robert Mitchum’s song “The Ballad of Thunder Road.” The classic film actor did country and apparently didn’t suck, interesting interview.
Gillan told myglobalmind that he was “offered the film but I turned it down. I never did the stage performance because quite frankly I am a musician. I have never had any interest in acting at all. I am not an actor I am a musician. I never liked the idea of being in one place for weeks and weeks maybe months on end.”
This of course, adds to the Gillan’s cool factor, resisting the temptation that has lured many rock superstars. The BBC initially banned Jesus Christ Superstar on the grounds of being “sacrilegious,” but it obviously rose again.
The Rock and Rock Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony airs on HBO on April 30th. For more stories in our Rock Hall series, click here.