From its incendiary onset in the 1950s, rock-and-roll has oft-times been disparaged as “the devil’s music.” Yet Christian rock has long run parallel to the more incendiary gen-pop variety. Elvis Presley’s 1957 gospel album Peace in the Valley, for example, provided an early bridge between age-old divine sounds and the Eisenhower-era’s diabolical new music revolution.
As with the central figure in those gospel songs, Elvis acquired a vast multitude of followers over whom he has exuded great influence. It seems inevitable, then, that those disciples of the King of Rock-and-Roll would, on occasion, cross musical paths with the King of Kings.
Some J.C. r-‘n’-r tunes are reverent. Others take a hard look and ask cosmic questions. Still others reverberate with the sort of spiritualism that comes after a chemical conversion. We gather now to properly worship 13 awesome rock-and-roll noises made unto the Lord.
“Jesus Is Just Alright” – Doobie Brothers (1972)
Sonic Scripture: “Jesus, He’s my friend, Jesus, He’s my friend/He took me by the hand, led me far from this land/Jesus, He’s my friend/Jesus is just alright with me, Jesus is just alright, oh yeah!”
Rock of Ages: The Doobie Brothers’ funky, jazz-tinged boogie “Jesus Is Just Alright” is actually a cover of a version recorded by the Byrds in 1969 for the Easy Rider soundtrack, which, in turn, was adapted from the 1966 gospel original by the Art Reynolds Singers.
Stryper’s 2013 take on “Jesus Is Just Alright” is the exact godly rave-up one would hope to hear from the world’s best-known out-and-proud Christian heavy metal ensemble.
“Spirit in the Sky” – Norman Greenbaum
Sonic Scripture: “Prepare yourself you know it’s a must/Gotta have a friend in Jesus/So you know that when you die/He’s gonna recommend you/To the spirit in the sky”
Rock of Ages: Longhaired singer-songwriter Norman Greenbaum (who, interestingly, was raised Orthodox Jewish and who remains observant) became a one-hit wonder in 1969-70 by way of the two-million-selling “Spirit in the Sky”—and what a one hit it is!
Combining irresistible handclaps, fuzz guitar, and hippie-trippy lyrics about communing with J.C. and his Pop upon departing this mortal coil, “Spirit in the Sky” is a psychedelic masterwork. Who knows how many chemically enhanced cosmic awakenings it’s kicked off? Ah, yes: the Spirit in the Sky knows, that’s who!
In 1986, new wave act Doctor and the Medics scored a hit with a neo-psych version of “Spirit in the Sky,” even going to #1 in the UK. As with Norman Greenbaum, it was the group’s one-and-done visit to the pop charts.
“Sympathy for the Devil” – Rolling Stones (1968)
Sonic Scripture: “And I was ’round when Jesus Christ/Had his moment of doubt and pain / Made damn sure that Pilate / Washed his hands and sealed his fate.”
Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stones’ satanic samba burns forever as one of rock’s most infernal anthems, with Mick Jagger taking on the role of the aristocratic title character and arrogantly boasting of his damned and damning deeds throughout human history.
Piling up atrocities from the Russian Revolution to World War II to the Kennedy assassinations, Lucifer (which is revealed to be the name that the singer keeps asking us to guess) naturally starts off by bragging about how he made Christ sweat and fret in the desert, and then convinced Roman governor Pontius Pilate (who signed off on J.C.’s execution) to condemn himself to eternal despair.
“Sympathy for the Devil” is dark, it’s sinister, and, holy hell, can you ever dance to it.
“The Ballad of John and Yoko” – Beatles (1969)
Sonic Scripture: “Christ, you know it ain’t easy/you know how hard it can be/and the way things are goin’/they’re gonna crucify me.”
Rock of Ages: John Lennon recounts his immediate post-married woes in the Beatles’ up-tempo hit “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” which he composed during his honeymoon with new bride Yoko Ono. The couple traveled first-class around Europe, ran into some hassles while crossing borders, got harassed by paparazzi and the press, and staged their “Bed in for Peace” to worldwide cheers and jeers in all the expected circles.
To John Lennon, all thus hubbub felt like carrying a cross to his own inescapable persecution and doom. Rock star ego or eerie prophecy? Either way, “The Ballad of John and Yoko” is a great tune.
“Jesus Just Left Chicago”—ZZ Top (1973)
Sonic Scripture: “Jesus just left Chicago and he’s bound for New Orleans/Well now/Jesus just left Chicago and he’s bound for New Orleans/Workin’ from one end to the other and all points in between/Took a jump through Mississippi, well, muddy water turned to wine”
Rock of Ages: As an all-time great classic rock one-two punch, ZZ Top’s “Waiting for the Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago” sets the savior on a slow-burn, cross-country trip that follows the road of the blues itself.
Jesus starts out in Chicago, performs miracles in Mississippi en route to New Orleans, and then continues to transform the landscape everywhere all the way out to California.
“You might see him in person, but he’ll see you just the same” ZZ Top front-beard Billy Gibbons sings. “You don’t have to worry, ’cause taking care of business is his game.”
“Jesus Christ Pose” – Soundgarden (1991)
Sonic Scripture: “Arms held out/In your Jesus Christ pose/Thorns and shroud/Like it’s the coming of the Lord/And I swear to you/That I would never feed you pain/But your staring at me/Like I’m driving the nails/In your Jesus Christ pose”
During the year grunge broke, Soundgarden came out down-tuned and swinging hard with “Jesus Christ Pose,” the first single from their 1991 breakthrough LP, Badmotorfinger.
Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell said that the song attacked the notion of people in pretty good positions using religious symbols, in particular Jesus Christ, to forge the notion that they’re some kind of downtrodden hero. In one interview, Cornell even singled out Jane’s Addiction chief Perry Farrell as a self-anointed martyr.
“You just see it a lot with really beautiful people, or famous people, exploiting that symbol as to imply that they’re either a deity or persecuted somehow by their public,” Cornell said.
One can only wonder what Cornell might have thought of “The Ballad of John and Yoko.”
“Personal Jesus” – Depeche Mode (1989)
Sonic Scripture: “Your own personal Jesus/Someone to hear your prayers/Someone who cares/Your own personal Jesus/Someone to hear your prayers/Someone who’s there”
Rock of Ages: The best-known bum trip by England’s supreme doom-and-gloomsters Depeche Mode features an atypical (for them) bluesy guitar riff and was oddly inspired by Elvis and Me, a 1985 tell-all book by the King’s ex-queen, Priscilla Presley.
Explains Depeche Mode songwriter Martin Gore: “It’s a song about being a Jesus for somebody else, someone to give you hope and care. It’s about how Elvis Presley was her man and her mentor and how often that happens in love relationships; how everybody’s heart is like a god in some way, and that’s not a very balanced view of someone, is it?”
“Jesus Was an Only Son” – Bruce Springsteen (2005)
Sonic Scripture: Well Jesus was an only son/As he walked up Calvary Hill/His mother Mary walking beside him/In the path where his blood spilled
Rock of Ages: The Boss of New Jersey straightforwardly recounts the passion of the Christ in “Jesus Was an Only Son,” a moving song from his 2005 collection, Devils and Dust. Springsteen focuses on the human element of the Savior’s self-sacrifice on the cross by focuses on Christ’s loving relationship with his mother Mary. Bruce’s tender words and heartfelt performance really hammer all those points home (no pun intended, we swear to… never mind).
“Superstar” – Murray Head (1970)
Sonic Scripture: “Tell me what you think about your friends at the top/Now who d’you think besides yourself was the pick of the crop?/Buddha was he where it’s at?/Is he where you are?/Could Muhammad move a mountain/Or was that just PR?”
Rock of Ages: Before it hit Broadway or became a movie musical, Jesus Christ Superstar began life in 1970 as a concept album on which Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan sang the title role. In turn, English performer Murray Head voices Judas, the radical rock opera’s anti-hero.
The production’s semi-titular showstopper, “Superstar” opens with fifteen-bar orchestral explosion that instantly became a cultural touchstone on par with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
From there, “Superstar” bursts into a soulful, funkadelic, wah-wah guitar boogie in which Judas blasts J.C. with some hard-hitting theological questions, the most familiar of which is contained in the chorus: “Jesus Christ Superstar/Who are you what have you sacrificed?/Jesus Christ Superstar/Will you become what they say you are?” The show, pointedly, offers up no definitive answers.
“Jesus” – Queen (1973)
Sonic Scripture: “Then came a man before His feet he fell/Unclean said the leper and rang his bell/Felt the palm of a hand touch his head/Go now go now you’re a new man instead/All going down to see the Lord Jesus”
Rock of Ages: “Jesus” is very Queen-sounding anthem about a somewhat surprising topic for the band. Frontman Freddy Mercury, who was raised Zoroastrian and famously didn’t adhere to any religion limiting notions when it came to life’s pleasures, sings a driving, full-throated salute to the Prince of Peace.
The Jesus of Queen’s “Jesus” heals the sick, comforts the poor, and was born in in Bethlehem to be a leader of men. Courtesy of the band, he also severely rocks.
Mike “McBeardo” McPadden is the author of Heavy Metal Movies: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos, and Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big Scream Films Ever! (Bazillion Points).
[Photo: Getty Images]