‘Johnny Rotten’ tarnishes his punk legacy with his role in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ - The Buffalo News
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‘Johnny Rotten’ tarnishes his punk legacy with his role in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’

Perhaps Pete Townshend, when penning what amounts to the very first punk rock song, the Who’s “My Generation,” should have written “Hope I die before I get old and end up in a touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ ”

One half expects to look out the window and see a pig merrily flying by, soaring above the construction at HarborCenter and the adjacent First Niagara Center, where John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd., will perform as part of the touring cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in August.

The whole thing makes about as much sense as it would for Ted Nugent to appear in a musical celebrating the merits of the SAFE Act.

What’s the big deal? Well, it probably isn’t one, unless you happen to have taken the Sex Pistols – and by extension, the Clash and a handful of others – seriously when they first arrived, as an ugly wart on the otherwise pristine and plastic surgery-modified face of pop music just past the midpoint of the 1970s.

The Pistols meant something. They were poor, filthy, desperate and disgusted with a society that repeatedly told them they were worthless. They made one album – a brilliant sonic middle finger held aloft right in the middle of the Queen of England’s Silver Jubilee. And then they collapsed, the pressure from outside proving too much to bear for the barely post-teen band members, who were also being exploited from within, by their own management.

The Sex Pistols were part of a movement that claimed to exist solely to stand in opposition to the overproduced, overtly glitzy “dinosaur” acts that, in their estimation, prevailed in the mid-’70s. Yet it is hard to imagine anything more redolent of dinosaurlike overproduction and deathless kitsch than Webber’s mostly horrible and completely overblown “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The whole thing reeks of sophomoric prog-rock, the very sort Lydon once claimed to be appalled by. To say nothing of its thematic content.

Here’s Lydon, speaking to author John Savage in the 2010 book “The England’s Dreaming Tapes,” about his schooling as a child:

“William of York (was the name of the school). Absolute filth. … Catholic schools should be pulled down. They’re wrong. They separate you from everyone else.”

When Savage asks Lydon if “the school taught you anything at all, even on your own terms,” his answer is not exactly ambiguous.

“Hate and resentment. The religious classes were just excruciating. In the end, I said I wanted to be a Muslim, just to get out of that class. It was rubbish. You’re not allowed to question; you have to accept as a fact, you’ll die and go to hell if you don’t believe in the lightning rod of Jesus Christ Almighty and the sanctity of his virgin mother. What nonsense. Awful, hideous rubbish.”

Not that any of you asked, but in my estimation, “awful, hideous rubbish” is a pretty spot-on description of Webber’s “Superstar.” It’s made up of melodramatic musical motifs interwoven with melodramatic thematic motifs. It doesn’t work as rock – too stiff, too polite, absolutely zero swing in the hips – nor, really, as commentary on the life of Jesus Christ, which it attempts to recount in the “groovy” then-modern terms of 1970. (The new version of the play, which will find Lydon playing King Herod, will be set in the present day.)

I asked my friend and colleague News Arts Critic Colin Dabkowski for his opinion of “Superstar.”

“I’m not sure where I’d rank it between 1 and 5, but it is most definitely one of the Top 5 worst musicals of all time,” he said. Perhaps he was just being kind.

It’s easy to assume that Lydon is simply doing this for the money. After all, the Sex Pistols never made any cash while they were together. Lydon, by all accounts, has a fierce sense of humor, and it’s entirely possible that this is all a big joke to him. Yet it’s a joke that comes at the expense of whatever may be left of the original punk ethos, an ideology forged back when the music stood in stark and often terrifying contrast to a smug, full-of-itself mainstream.

“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Lydon famously asked the San Francisco crowd at the end of the Sex Pistols’ horrible last gasp of a final concert, in January 1978.

Well, no, John. Not until now.

email: jmiers@buffnews.com

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