Graeme Thomson

Why Easter is the most rock and roll religious holiday 

Easter is by far the most rock and roll religious holiday. Christmas might be the time when the pop vultures circle, plucking from the bones of garish sentiment, but the wham-bam narrative mic-drops of Holy Week are of a different order. Easter has provided a dramatic template for every rock opera, concept album, heroic comeback and combustible band dynamic this side of the Chatterley trial and the first Beatles LP.

‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,’ runs the opening line on Patti Smith’s debut album, Horses. Maybe so, but she understood the innate power of this stuff. Smith’s second LP is called Easter, and it is replete with overtly Christian imagery. The liner notes quote from Timothy 4:7 – ‘I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course’ – and the title track is doused in the blood of Christ and the language of resurrection: ‘I rend, I end, I return…’ 

It has been said that both Jagger and Bono have a Messiah complex wider than the Jordan

It all begins with Palm Sunday, which finds our smalltown hero prepping for a big symbolic city gig; think of the exiled Bob Marley returning to Kingston in 1978 to perform at the triumphant One Love concert. Then comes the Last Supper, the tense summit at which the lead singer tells the band it’s all over – he already knows that one of the gang has opted for a lucrative but highly controversial and ultimately doomed solo deal. Following in short order, crucifixion and resurrection lay the ground for the perennial rhythms of rock and roll redemption. Namely, the final farewell show and the comeback tour, rites dutifully followed by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Elton John. 

Betrayal, of course, is essential to any compelling rock narrative. ‘Until the End of the World’ by U2 moves through the stages of Judas’s treachery towards Jesus, from the Last Supper to the kiss in the garden of Gethsemane and his eventual suicide, framing their interactions in the language of sexual betrayal. ‘In the garden I was playing the tart,’ sings Judas. ‘I kissed your lips and broke your heart.’ Mick Jagger, performing as the personification of Satan, pays a visit close to this scene in the opening verse of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’: ‘I was around when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain/ Made damn sure that Pilate washed his hands and sealed his fate.’

It has been said more than once that both Jagger and Bono have a Messiah complex wider than the Jordan. Then again, any lead singer worth their salt tends to get intoxicated by their own power. Just ask the Stone Roses’ Ian Brown, who sang ‘I am the Resurrection’ as though he actually believed it. 

The protagonist in the Who’s rock opera, Tommy, is pointedly Christ-like, while the plotline of David Bowie’s semi-conceptual The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is essentially Biblical. 

A ‘leper Messiah’ arrives from some cosmic realm, stirs up quasi-religious fervour among his followers, then sacrifices himself for the kids. A rock and roll suicide (Bowie mimicked this story arc in real life by retiring Ziggy out of the blue at a concert at Hammersmith Odeon in 1973, causing much hysteria). The ‘rise and fall’ of the album title, however, omits to mention a second, more profound rising. In death, or prolonged absence, the artist-saviour commands devotion even more powerfully than in life. In this sense, Jesus will always be the ultimate rock star.

Once you start looking, I’m afraid you start to see this stuff everywhere. The (contested) theological theory that Jesus endured a brief descent into hell following his crucifixion before ascending to heaven – a passage known as the Harrowing of Hell – cannot help but remind me of the rocky start to Paul Weller’s solo career, a beloved son cast out into the fiery furnaces of critical disdain before returning to favour as the newly anointed ‘Modfather’. 

Such parallels are both ridiculous and sublime. In 1972, Mott the Hoople wrote ‘Roll Away the Stone’, a cheery glam-rock stomp which equates the miraculous removal of the stone sealing the tomb in Golgotha from which Jesus had risen with a thwarted love affair. Inches from blasphemy, perhaps, but great fun, nonetheless. ‘Easter Parade’ by the Blue Nile, on the other hand, truly feels like holy music. If there is a single pop song that captures the stillness of a moment of wonder, the eternal Easter Sunday of the soul, then this might well be it. 

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