The live Australian Cast Recording of Jesus Christ Superstar and Remembering Jon English
Or: How to Clean Your Home When You Don’t Want To
Easter has come and gone for another year, Passover is just about passed over, the Angel of Death didn’t get me thanks to my parents’ mezuzah on my doorpost, and I have a clean bathroom thanks to my favourite stage musical. Read on to see how these things are connected.
The relationship we have with music is endlessly multifarious, so many associations and connections, a song bringing forth a memory or thoughts of a person, or an album we reach out for because it is perfect for a certain moment, time, day, task or just because we need it. If the convergence of Passover and Easter isn’t enough of a reason to listen to Jesus Christ Superstar, a much-dreaded day of cleaning is.
There is almost nothing I hate more than cleaning, especially cleaning my bathroom. I woke up on the Saturday of Easter weekend, in a state of such despair over the state of my bathroom, my entire apartment, which is dusty even when it looks clean, I knew I had to devote the entire day to doing something about it. But how would I ever motivate myself to get going? It’s not enough to take all the cleaning items out and lay them on the floor impossible to avoid. If I can find a way to step over them, I will. And then like a flash of bleach, it hit me. Never was there a more perfect moment to listen to Jesus Christ Superstar. Because back in the 1980s I used to clean my flat in Sydney while listening to the original recording, the one with Ian Gillan as Jesus and Murray Head as Judas, Yvonne Elliman as Mary and Barry Dennen as Pilate. Nothing will get the mop across a floor better than belting out with full, rich baritone force, “Who is this broken man cluttering up my hallway?” I tell you, that is the way to clean.
That original recording of Jesus Christ Superstar – A Rock Opera was always the one I listened to over the decades, from vinyl to cassette tape to CD, even though the omission of “Could We Start Again Please” irritated me no end, as did the criminal abridging of “Trial Before Pilate”, the absolute climax of the show for me. I listened and loved the recording even though what I actually saw in my mind was not the Broadway or London casts, nor the original motion picture cast, nor the casts of numerous theatrical revivals and concert productions over the years. What I remembered and visualised always was the original Australian production with the Australian cast that I saw many times through the 1970s
It was a cast that starred the best Judas that ever graced any stage, Jon English; the first black Mary in the world, Marcia Hines; and the wonderful but often underrated Trevor White, who was the only Jesus an Australian Jewish girl like me could truly believe in. We also had the campiest, sauciest Herod, Reg Livermore. And the many performers in the Australian cast through the seventies who went on to become stars such as John Paul Young as Annas, and Graham Russell and Russell Hitchcock, who formed Air Supply after meeting in the Superstar chorus and, as Simon Zealotes, the amazing Stevie Wright, in that sweet spot between his Easybeats fame and tragic self destruction. These were my Jesus Christ Superstar people. Always and forever.
The first Australian Jesus Christ Superstar production opened on 4 May 1972 at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre, directed by Jim Sharman before he directed the original West End production (and then went on to direct Rocky Horror Show and its cult film version). Michele Fawdon originally played Mary Magdalene before being replaced by Marcia Hines in 1973, shortly after which I saw Superstar for the first time with my parents. I was aged 10, wearing a hideous yellow two-piece outfit that my mother thought I looked good in, sitting in the balcony, mesmerised. That production lasted until early 1974. When Superstar returned to the Capitol in 1975-76, Marcia was too busy being a pop star to reprise the role of Mary, so the fabulous Chrissie Hammond took on the role. I went several times, repeatedly amazed by the vision of designer Brian Thomson’s dodecahedron from which Jesus would emerge, never tiring of the sight of Jon English and Trevor White singing their way through the passionate argument during “The Last Supper”, balancing on the long plank that was their Seder dining table as it was raised from the floor, suspended by ropes.
“To think I admired you / For now I despise you.” Oh yeah.
Trevor White’s “Gethsemane” brought me to tears every time. Ian Gillan had sung it in an impassioned Deep Purple-esque way, but until you heard Trevor sing about how sad and tired he was, wail, “Just watch me die!” and give a strobe-lit impression of being flagellated and nailed, you hadn’t had a true come-to-Jesus musical moment.
Pontius Pilate, that poor beleaguered man, washing his hands in a clear glass bowl, the water turning red, was a dramatic design moment that has stayed with me forever. “I wash my hands of your demolition” – I think about that a lot when I wash my hands, especially now during the global pandemic. (Would that we could all wash our hands of this demolition.)
And always I was riveted by Jon English – his singing, his acting, his everything.
There was a Jesus Christ Superstar Original Australian Cast Recording album with Jon and Trevor, and Michele Fawdon as Mary, but it was an abridged version of the show with only 14 tracks on a single vinyl LP, and I don’t think I had it in my collection. Later on in 1992 there was a recording of the Australian arena spectacular revival cast with John Farnham and Jon Stevens and Kate Ceberano and I didn’t bother with that either. Too much of a purist, if I couldn’t hear the show in its entirety as I’d seen it in the seventies, I was happy to stick with Ian Gillan and Murray Head.
But then, like a miraculous resurrection, two years ago out came Jesus Christ Superstar – An Australian Cast Recording, a meticulously restored live soundtrack of the full stage show from 1973 with my favourite cast, issued in a gorgeous double CD package. A four-track recording of one night in the theatre, made by one of the cast members, Peter Chambers, was lovingly, painstakingly converted by him to a pristine digital version. Joyfully, it is completely unabridged. It was like all my Passovers and Easters came at once. I had it sent to me here in LA immediately, put it on in my car for one of those painfully slow LA drives, and there I was, in traffic on the I-10 in 2018, transported back to Sydney’s Capitol Theatre in 1973.
I have wanted to write about the live Jesus Christ Superstar – An Australian Cast Recording since that first listening. I started writing about it in my head on that drive in fact. But other things detained me, and a year went on, and then I was going to write about it last Easter, given that Superstar tells the story of those days leading up to Good Friday. But life in LA is such that I get behind on so much more than house cleaning, so it took yet another year. As I played it last Saturday, singing “This Jesus Must Die” and “Hosanna” while on my hands and knees scrubbing Ajax powder on my shower floor – and it is just so much fun singing those Caiaphas bass vocals (“Tell the rabble to be quiet, we anticipate a riot, this common crowwwwd, is much too louuuuuud”… God, I love singing that) – I knew I finally would put fingers to keyboard to convey just how monumental this recording of this music is for me.
I can sing the entire show, “Overture” to “The Crucifixion”, every vocal part, and all the instrumentation, especially the guitar and the horn parts. Those horns in “Pilate and Christ” are everything. The saxophone player in the horn section of the 1970s Australian productions, David Glyde, had immigrated to Australia after playing for years as Major Griff West in the English band Sounds Incorporated, who had supported the Beatles on their 1964 Australian tour. Trevor White had been a Iater member of Sounds Incorporated, also emigrating from England. I became friends with Davo, as we called him, after meeting him on Christmas Day 1986, introducing myself by singing the horn parts from “Pilate and Christ”, and through Davo I got to know Trevor.
Davo stayed at my flat over the summer of 1988-89, while he was between tours with his then band, the very flat I would clean while singing along to the original Superstar album. I used to vary the outgoing message on my cassette tape answer machine in those days, and over Christmas I had the song “Superstar” on the machine. Superstar is an Easter story of course, but I figured anything about Jesus was appropriate for the holiday that celebrates his birth, in a Ho Ho Hosanna kind of way. So on Christmas of 1988 if anyone called when I was out, they’d hear, “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Who are you? What have you sacrificed?”
One day I played back an incoming message and heard a bemused voice say, “Who am I? Well, I’m Trevor White, and I’m calling for Davo.”
Like most of the Australian Superstar cast, Trevor White set about to launch a solo pop career, but unlike Marcia Hines, Jon English and John Paul Young, who were all over the pop charts and music TV shows, Trevor could never really disassociate himself with the rock opera. Never quite got down off the cross. I loved telling Trevor that he was the closest a Jewish girl like me would ever get to Jesus. Meanwhile, Marcia became Australia’s Queen of Pop and an icon through the decades (check out her most perfect 70s pop moment here). John Paul Young became a true pop star as the vocal hero of Harry Vanda and George Young’s best seventies songwriting output (“I Hate The Music”, “Love Is In The Air” et al). And Jon English quickly became a legend, the most versatile Australian rock singer, actor and live performer to come out of that era.
After I listened to the glorious live Australian Cast Recording of Superstar last Saturday I was still up to my eyeballs in grime and dust and bleach and vacuuming, so I transitioned to Jon English’s 1979 double album greatest hits set, English History. When that album was released, my radio station of the day, 2SM, put on a free English History concert at the Hordern Pavilion. That was awesome, a huge Union Jack draped at the back of the stage, Jon at the top of his game. But he was often at his best in front of massive crowds at huge outdoor venues and fortunately I was always there to witness. Rocktober 1978 opening for Thin Lizzy on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. January 1979 opening for Chicago on their Australian tour. November 1979 performing a medley of his hits in front of 180,000 people at the 2SM Concert of the Decade. Some of his biggest hits were covers – “Superstar” of course, “Turn The Page”, “Hollywood Seven”. There is almost nothing quite like Jon English singing the climax to “Hollywood Seven” in front of 180,000 people on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. Just saying, if you weren’t there, your life is incomplete.
He was equally effective singing ballads. His ode to Keith Moon, delivering “Behind Blue Eyes” was plaintive and elegantly poignant, as was his cover of “Handbags and Gladrags” nodding to the Rod Stewart version. But Jon did write songs, and his finest moment musically might well have been “Six Ribbons”, the song he wrote for the 1978 TV show Against The Wind, Australia’s first mini-series, which Jon also starred in. “Six Ribbons” is about as perfect a love song as you will ever hear. Jon was a rugged looking fellow with dark, deep eyes, a larrikin who lit up the TV screen whether he was acting in drama or comedy or just being a guest on “Countdown”, “Sounds” or, most memorably, “Blankety Blanks”, but he was also deeply romantic. Anyone who heard him sing had to have known that. My favourite Jon English song was actually “Words Are Not Enough”, which he didn’t write, but when I think of my all-time favourite Aussie songs of the seventies, that’s the Jon English song I include on the list.
After Superstar, Jon English did a lot more musical theatre. He starred in the Australian productions of various Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, most notably playing the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance; he played the title role in Rasputin, a strange original theatre show that I reviewed for Variety, not so favourably; and he spent years on his dream project, an original rock opera titled Paris, releasing a fine box set concept album and planning to mount an ambitious stage production. I remember the media launch for Paris. There was a very cool sweatshirt that I wore over the years and don’t have any more, sadly, because I loved it so much I wore it out. Paris did end up getting staged in amateur productions years later, but it never had the grand scale full theatrical production Jon envisaged until after he had died, and then only a concert version over four nights in Melbourne that I was too far away to see.
I met Jon as a fan several times when I was younger, and then got to interview him at length in 2009 for the National Film & Sound Archive’s Oral History Program. He was living in Bellingen, I was in Byron Bay, and he stopped in to my home en route from a show over the border in Queensland, and spent a few precious hours giving me the story of his life and career for posterity. A couple of years later I got to work with him when he was one of the performers on the bill for Gimme That Guitar, the tribute show for guitarist Harvey James, who had died, which I did the PR for. Harvey had played with many of the great Australian artists – Jon English and Richard Clapton among them – but was best known as a member of seventies pop band Sherbet. Eventually I will write here about Sherbet, because the story of how Debbie does music, any kind of music, is not complete without a chapter on Sherbet.
But back to Jon. Jon was a joy, always. He had his darker side, we all do, but for me to have grown up in the midst of a fertile, life-impacting music scene in Australia in the seventies that really started with Jesus Christ Superstar at the Capitol Theatre, and to have had some time getting to know Jon English beyond the songs and the shows he’d given us, was one of the more meaningful aspects of my life in music.
Jon kept performing, touring, acting, being a star, right up until he died suddenly in March 2016. It was too soon after we lost Glenn Frey from the Eagles, and in the midst of so many deaths, my already broken heart broke more. I loved Jon English. Every Australian loved Jon. He was just a few weeks short of his 67th birthday and he was gone. I was here in LA and bereft. So to hear him sing Judas again, the greatest ever Judas in the greatest ever cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, was a glorious gift and beyond profound. Listening to Jon and Trevor and Marcia together in those roles as they acted them on stage to an audience was very moving. My favourite stage musical, and some of the great singers I had grown up loving, and Jon’s young powerful voice, coming back just two years after we lost him, was emotionally overwhelming, and something I have treasured, right up to last Saturday and my Ajax-smothered Easter weekend cleaning frenzy.
I’ve provided a lot of links in this story and more below for any non-Australians who might have taken the time and care to read this, my first, long overdue post about a few of the Australian music artists I was raised on. (Unless you count my last Rick Springfield piece, which could be worth counting.) I do love Jesus Christ Superstar in almost any version – the most recent being the made for television concert version in New York last Easter starring John Legend, Brandon Victor Dixon, Sara Bareilles and Alice Cooper – and I’m never sure how faithful the libretto is to the New Testament, which I haven’t read, just trusting the lyrics, “Then when we retire, we can write the Gospels / So they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died.” But I feel it’s the greatest work of the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice canon and my impression of it was always going to be through the version I first experienced and the artists who interpreted it.
Whichever version of Superstar you prefer, I cannot recommend strongly enough the power of playing it while you clean your home. Maybe it’s a cathartic death and resurrection thing, and both Passover and Easter are, after all, in the northern hemisphere spring. So go forth and spring clean and channel Jesus and Judas and Mary and Pilate and Caiaphas and Herod.
And in this current time of disarray, it helps to sing: “Try not to get worried, try not to turn on to problems that upset you, oh / Don’t you know everything’s alright, yes, everything’s fine.”