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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Andrew Lloyd Webber: Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat


ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER: JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT (1969)

1) Jacob And Sons; 2) Joseph's Coat; 3) Joseph's Dream; 4) Poor, Poor Joseph; 5) One More Angel In Heaven; 6) Potiphar; 7) Close Every Door; 8) Go, Go, Go Joseph; 9) Poor, Poor Pharoah; 10) Song Of The King (Seven Fat Cows); 11) Pharaoh's Dream Explained; 12) Stone The Crows; 13) The Brothers Come To Egypt / Grovel, Grovel; 14) Who's The Thief?; 15) Joseph All The Time; 16) Jacob In Egypt; 17) Any Dream Will Do.

Not too many people are aware of the fact that Jesus Christ Superstar was not the first time that A. L. Webber and Tim Rice desecrated the Bible under the intoxicating influence of the hippie age. And some of those who are aware of the duo's take on the life of Joseph might mistakenly place it after JC — simply for the reason that it was not until the worldwide success of JC made them household names that they returned to Joseph in all of its «splendor», getting it to run in prestigious Broadway and London theaters and engaging the services of Donny Osmond to en­sure a dramatic surge in teenage girl interest in the Book of Genesis.

But the original recording of Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was actually released on Decca at least a year prior to JC. It did not manage to catch a lot of public attention, and is quite hard to come by these days as well. Completists should take note that the recording is usually credited to «The Joseph Consortium», which includes a selection of little-known players and singers in which The Colet Court Choir plays a central part: the whole work was originally commissionned by the Colet Court preparatory school, and was first performed on March 1, 1968 as a 15-minute «pop cantata», later expanded to a 30-minute «oratorio». This second version al­ready managed to catch the public eye — and the result was a contract with Decca and this here album, quite hard to come by these days, but available, for instance, as an MP3 download from Amazon and other commercial sites.

If you are a major fan of JC and expect to find something in the same vein, prepare to be disap­pointed. Joseph is not only shorter, simpler, and far more modest in scope and ambition: it is a work produced on an entirely different scale and in an entirely different musical paradigm. It's not just that, at this particular point in his life, Lloyd Webber was still mighty wary of this new potent force called «rock», placing much more of his trust into the variety hall format; it is also that Joseph is essentially just a bit of lightweight entertainment. Put a Bible story in a «pop musical» format? Say, what a golly gee novel idea.

That said, the actual music is not at all «retro». Rather, it is reminiscent of the light family-orien­ted psycho-pop of the times, such as practiced by The Association on one side of the ocean and Manfred Mann on the other. Heavy on strings, chimes, sunshine vocal harmonies, but with a light touch of electric organ, a pinch of fuzzy electric guitar, and some wobbly production effects for the sake of «hipness». Normally, this style is pitiful, although Webber seems to feel quite at home with it, churning out melody after melody in a dazzling sequence of eighteen tracks in thirty-one minutes — although some themes are reprised several times (most notably, the catchiest vocal moment on the album, ʽPoor, Poor Josephʼ, later recreated as ʽPoor, Poor Pharaohʼ), there is an impressive number of diverse chord sequences on the album all the same. Unfortunately, few of them are memorable or emotionally overwhelming.

There are several lead singers on the album, most notably David Daltrey of the contemporary psy­chedelic band Tales Of Justine (!; no relation to Roger as far as I can tell), but the whole thing is presented as an «oratorio» rather than a true «opera», and the vocal retelling of the story of Jo­seph, narrated Tim Rice-style, is nothing to write about. Most ear-catching of the lot is probably Tim's own take on the Pharaoh: ʽSong Of The Kingʼ is carried out as a pa­rody on Elvis — but it is not particularly funny because there is no clear reason why exactly the Pharaoh should be sing­ing in an Elvis manner (they pulled off a similar stunt in a much more convincing manner with ʽKing Herod's Songʼ, which parodied no one in particular but conveyed the hedonistic spirit of the character to a tee with its 1920's spirit). Like everything else, it's just there because there's no harm in trying anything once.

The attentive listener will probably spot a few melodic bits that ended up migrating into JC terri­tory: for instance, the shrill electric guitar solo in ʽOne More Angel In Heavenʼ would later deve­lop into «Pilate's theme», and the vocal melody of ʽWho's The Thiefʼ would be re-appropriated for ʽTrial Before Pilateʼ. But most of these melodies are too kid-friendly to ever suit the dark and tense mood of JC — and the entire experience is so completely tongue-in-cheek that one can ne­ver understand if the primary purpose of the two merry young Brits was to revolutionize the world of music by synthesizing traditional musical, psychedelia, and the Old Testament, or to simply take a hooliganish stab at the Scripture while no one was looking.

In any case, Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in its original incarnation is still a fun listen; much more dated and strictly tied to its time than JC, but still a curious, one-of-a-kind experiment that has plenty of potential to survive as intelligent «family entertainment» — a musical fairy-tale for the young and old. At the very least, it is certainly far from the worst ef­fort ever undertaken to set the Bible to music — plus, the idea of Joseph as humanity's first psy­chedelic symbol is quite awesome in itself, only marginally less so than the idea of Jesus as hu­manity's first impersonation of the hippie ideal. Thumbs up.

3 comments:

  1. Thought you'd probably be taking on Webber soon. I'm pretty iffy on him at times. love JC-S, but I find a lot his other stuff to be really inconsistent, with some brilliant tunes alongside a bunch of ho-hum. I haven't heard close to all of his stuff though so maybe there's some surprises in there for me still.

    Speaking of surprises I do hope you'll review the Chess musical album sometime soon. I simply adore that one, I like it more than almost everything by ABBA really (it's amazing what good lyrics and some epic song-structures can add to a bunch of already killer pop melodies). You've already reviewed ABBA and you're doing Webber & Rice now. And Benny Andersson is listed first on the cover so it's an B! ;)

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  2. George, you wrote:

    "there is no clear reason why exactly the Pharaoh should be sing­ing in an Elvis manner"

    I don't know if this is what they had in mind but my own homemade explanation has always been that both are Kings who live in Memphis :)

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  3. I was curious about the solo you commented in "One more angel in heaven", because that song is a country song sung by Reuben; then I finally listened to the 1969 album. Of course the original album didn't have track names, they have probably been added to the mp3 downloads; and they gave the name "One more angel in heaven" to that instrumental bit, but that song does not appear! It was added to the 1973 version, and that instrumental bit (now not sounding so much like the JCS part) is actually the intro to "Potiphar". I have the 1969, 1973, 1982 and 1992 versions of Joseph, and each one adds more songs to the lineup.

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