Not Just for Praise or Proselytizing: Sociopolitical Critiques in Christian Hard Rock and New Wave, 1977-84

[UCLA Department of Musicology, Distinguished Lecture Series, 8 April 2008]

In the early 1980s, Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) often comprised joyous praise-oriented songs and introspective, singer-songwriter pop songs. Generally, this type of music was geared towards existing Christians, but it was also heard by people with Christian backgrounds who were still sorting out what they did and did not believe. I cannot speak for all of North America, but in smaller cities and towns in Southwestern Ontario, at least, such songs could be frequently heard on car stereos, and this type of music was also featured at weekly Christian roller skating events. The upper echelon of CCM artists were fairly major stars, even by secular music standards. [Open to First Slide] For example, Georgia-born Amy Grant’s 1982 album Age to Age (her fourth studio album, and she was still only 22!) was the first solo Christian album to sell 500,000 copies in the US (gold status), and by 1985 it had sold over one million copies (platinum status). Grant later also delved into less Christian material, divorced her long-time husband and father of her first three children, and married also-divorced country music star Vince Gill. However, she has also remained CCM’s top-selling star, with more than 30 million recordings sold. The songs on Age to Age include “Sing Your Praise to the Lord,” with its Bach-derived, piano-based instrumental prelude that builds with rock instruments and a string section into its rhythmically and melodically “hook-oriented” refrain. [Play] Other songs on the album are more reflective, such as the ballad “El Shaddai,” with some of its words in Hebrew and the inclusion of a harp in the instrumentation presumably also meant to evoke Biblical times. [Play] The album cover photo is notable for the obvious paranoia in having Grant appear, basically, as a girl-next-door: well-covered, not overly-well coiffed, and certainly not appearing to be enjoying herself—a virgin, I suppose. The other photo should suffice to make the point about what she really looks like.

[See Next Slide] Grant’s songwriting contributor, touring keyboardist, and opening act, Michael W. Smith, released his debut album in 1983. The unimaginatively-titled Michael W. Smith Project includes one of the most over-earnestly-sung pop songs in history: “Friends.” Smith had gone through a period of alcohol and drug experimentation in his late teens and early twenties in the mid-to late-1970s. Part of the difficulty of that period was that his slightly older Christian friends had moved away to college. Smith did then find his way back to his faith in 1979 and, shortly thereafter, became a professional musician. A few years later, when another friend was similarly moving away, Smith and his wife wrote the song “Friends” for him. When Smith received an honorary Mus.Doc. from Alderson-Broaddus College in his native West Virginia in 1992, he performed “Friends,” appropriately, at the commencement ceremony. Note the upward, “Christian rock” key change for the repeat of the chorus! [Play] Michael W. Smith’s politics are somewhat inconsistent. He is an outspoken supporter of the Republican Party and a close personal friend of George W. Bush. In an interesting turn, Bush’s “insider” nickname for Smith is apparently “W.” Smith is the lead pastor of a Nashville area church, but he is also a close personal friend of U2’s lead singer Bono. Three of the four members of U2, including Bono, consider themselves to be Christians, but, as far as I know, they tend to be fairly progressive politically, and they rarely reference their faith.

[See next Slide] Many young people, including me, grew up in Christian families and communities. In my case, this included Sunday school, church services, summer bible school, Sunday evening worship services (which often included music or dramas), and baptism at around age 13 or 14. It also included my parents’ gospel quartet—the Gospel Tones—in which, for special events, my sister and I also occasionally sang. I also wrote some Christian pop-rock songs while attending a largely working-class, Christian high school in a nearby small city. My songs included “Expecting a Hero,” which was vaguely inspired by piano-based Christian singer-songwriter Keith Green—who died in a plane crash in 1982. I mainly, though, became interested in other types of music than what Christianity usually had to offer. In addition, many of my friends bound for university and graduate school, like me, also became relatively liberal and, in some ways, “post-Christian.” Thus, Christian pop-oriented music for believers by Grant, Smith, Green, and others ended up not going over especially well with us.

An even earlier type of Christian popular music, however, within the “Jesus Movement” of the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, had included singer-songwriters who performed solo with an acoustic guitar or with a rock band. Before a large-scale CCM industry emerged in the 1980s (record labels, radio stations, promoters, tours, music festivals, etc.), Christian musicians with interests in rock styles had to be able to play in an extremely wide variety of contexts. These ranged from church basement coffee houses—and even seniors’ nursing homes—to high school auditoriums and gyms. Aesthetically, the resulting “acoustic vs. electric” streams of the music ended up very similar in approach to that of secular singer-songwriters of the same period, perhaps especially Neil Young. Larry Norman, the Texas-born “father of Christian rock,” who passed away of heart disease in February of 2008, was the leading figure of that era. His breakthrough second studio album as a solo artist, Only Visiting This Planet, was from 1972—a full decade before Amy Grant’s breakthrough CCM album. In addition, as a sign of the relatively wide acceptance of the Jesus Movement, Norman was signed to Capitol and then MGM Records from 1969-73. Also, the album was recorded at the London studio of former Beatles’ producer George Martin, and Martin and other British musicians also contributed to the album in other ways. [See Next Slide] “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” exemplifies Norman’s soft, introspective side. The song’s lyrics—amazingly mellow, given that they’re about the rapture!—and its acoustic guitar and falsetto-derived vocal style sound something like Neil Young’s more plaintive, folkish songs of exactly the same period, such as “Old Man.” [Play] “Why Don’t You Look into Jesus” is in an electric and blues-influenced rock style, and it is similarly much more “earthy” in its lyrics about drinking, sex, drugs, etc. [Play] CCM did eventually come to terms with this album, and CCM magazine even voted it the best album of all time. Norman, though, never liked singing for Christians.

[See Next Slide] Christian popular music of the late 1970s and early 1980s picked up on Norman’s frequent “Social Gospel” themes related to political and/or personal strife and, sometimes, to dark, cynical themes of commercialism and/or complacency. This music used such styles as progressive-influenced arena and hard rock, psychedelic and blues-rock, and even sometimes quite experimental forms of new wave. This allowed even the most skeptical “recovering former Christians” to continue engaging with aspects of Christianity at a time when they might otherwise have abandoned the religious aspects of their cultural upbringing much more quickly. Occasionally, the music could be quite striking, and, as in Larry Norman’s best work, it also sometimes matched the artistic ambition of what was taking place in music generally. To exemplify how this sort of thing worked during the period from 1977 to 1984, three further American artists provide case studies: Resurrection Band, Kerry Livgren of Kansas, and Daniel Amos.

Resurrection Band, also known as Rez Band or Rez, was from Chicago, and the band was formed by guitarist and singer Glenn Kaiser as a part of a more general “Jesus Movement” religious group called Jesus People USA. Initially, the band played coffee-house-friendly acoustic music, with its more rock-oriented songs being reserved for a much more limited number of special events. Kaiser and his wife (singer Wendi) and the group’s other musicians were mainly interested, though, in pursuing music inspired by psychedelic and blues-oriented rock and heavy metal, such as by Jefferson Airplane and Led Zeppelin. The band recorded its first two professional albums in 1978-79, the second of which includes the song “Afrikaans.” It incorporates a fascinating aesthetic that served the band very well in a number of its songs. The earliest parts of such a song address a social problem, without any references to Christianity. In this case, South African apartheid is condemned. Blacks are portrayed as being abused as miners, killed, and so on by wealthy whites, and other white people are portrayed as ignoring such evils. The anger at these injustices builds through the song’s blues-inflected guitar solo. After an aesthetic “calming” of sorts, the next section initially presents lyrics directly in the mouths of apartheid-supporters. [See Next Slide] However, in the song’s final section, it is suggested—in very specific Christian terms of the final judgment, God’s love, and Jesus as Master—that Christianity needs to rise to the challenge of ending this terrible political system. [Play]

[See next Slide] Resurrection Band’s next album, 1980’s Colours, is arguably its greatest achievement. I do not include the album’s highly-misleading cover in that assessment, because it gives the impression that the music contained therein would be in a pop-rock style along the lines of Christopher Cross or Jimmy Buffett. It definitely isn’t! The song “NYC” is in an intense, heavy metal style, partly based around a fast riff, similar to certain songs by Judas Priest or Black Sabbath, for example. The first verse portrays a homeless orphan boy, with the first half of the lyrics narrating this and the second half quoting words by the actual character. The second verse similarly portrays a prostitute. The third verse (over the song’s opening instrumental riff) suggests that this is like some kind of twisted nursery rhyme. After the song’s guitar solo, its bridge section then brings in religion, suggesting that everyone is guilty for allowing such things to take place and that everybody is also vulnerable to them. The way out, of course, is Christianity! [Play]

The same album includes “Beggar in the Alleyway,” sung by Wendi Kaiser, who was undoubtedly inspired vocally by Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick and Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant. The song has a number of features comparable to Led Zeppelin’s music, especially to that band’s 1971 song “Stairway to Heaven.” [See Next Slide] The song’s early lyrics about a kind of mystic figure recall any number of Zeppelin songs, with very little specifically suggesting Christianity quite yet. The chorusing effects on the guitar in some of the early sung sections are similar to those of the early electric-guitar sections of “Stairway,” the twice-played, pattern after the last of these sections resembles a certain arpeggiated pattern from “Stairway,” and the following solo-guitar “moment” certainly recalls the solo-guitar fanfare that Jimmy Page plays in anticipation of his solo. This song, though, precedes its guitar solo with its initial overtly Christian section, with its references to the fixed gambling—working against you—of not being saved. Stu Heiss’s Page-inspired solo then follows that section. In addition, the tapering off after the heavy metal final verse of “Stairway” is here replaced with a lengthier, diatonic, major-chord-voiced “joy” section. This ending suggests that salvation through Christ’s resurrection at Easter is the Christian equivalent of the mystical, non-Christian heaven of Led Zeppelin’s most famous song. To strengthen the connection, Kaiser’s utterances of “ah” and “ooh yeah” recall some of Robert Plant’s vocal gestures in “Stairway to Heaven.” [Play]

These types of songs, where Christianity is addressed part of the way in, were paralleled in the format of Resurrection Band’s live performances. After each intense concert, Glenn Kaiser—who is also an ordained minister—held an altar call, at the front of the stage, in order to accept converts. Many non-believers concluded that if Christian music could be this good, Christianity itself must thus also be worth a try. I found this weird, as I was personally fading away from a sustained interest in Christianity in this same period. To its credit, though, the extensive Jesus People USA ministry had a very conscientious approach of following up with its recent converts.

[See next Slide] Kerry Livgren was the lead songwriter (and a guitarist/keyboardist) of the 1970s’ progressive-rock-influenced, album-oriented rock band Kansas. Livgren’s best-known “pre-Christian,” though certainly philosophical and semi-religious, songs are 1976’s “Carry on Wayward Son” and 1977’s “Dust in the Wind.” Livgren was also influenced by eastern religions, as well as issues concerning Native Americans, and his lyrics always had a somewhat middle-brow, arguably rather “churchy,” tone. The band’s 1979 album, Monolith, was heavily influenced by The Urantia Book. That document is a mysterious, pseudo-religious, vaguely spiritual, and pretty-much science-fiction work. The book ends with a very strange section about Jesus Christ having been given extensive “advice” by other celestial beings about how to live his life on Urantia (i.e., Earth).

For better or worse, while on tour in 1979, Livgren became a “born-again” evangelical Christian. He was influenced by the Christian leanings of the lead singer of Kansas’ opening band, Jeff Pollard of Louisiana’s Le Roux. In 1980, Livgren (who is not much of a singer) released a solo album, Seeds of Change, which provisionally explored certain Christian themes. [See Next Slide”] Controversially, “Mask of the Great Deceiver” and another song featured guest, heavy-metal, lead vocals by Black Sabbath lead singer Ronnie James Dio. Many of the song’s lyrics are actually fairly compatible with the dark, satanic themes also explored in heavy metal. The bridge section, though, clearly indicates Livgren’s brand-new enthusiasm for Christ and Christianity. In addition, the song’s music is in the extended, progressive rock style (with lengthy instrumental sections) of 1970s’ Kansas. Only some of the keyboard sounds suggest that it’s from 1980 as opposed to 1976. Some of the newer sounds are used for soft, “angelic,” almost “New Age” effects in the first part of the bridge. The contrapuntal style of some of the following instrumental section is reminiscent of Baroque keyboard music, which is also similar to recent work by Kansas. [Play]

The lead singer and second keyboardist of Kansas, non-Christian Steve Walsh (who also wrote songs), grew uncomfortable singing Livgren’s increasingly specific, Christian-themed songs. [See Next Slide] Such songs also included “Relentless” from the 1980 Kansas album Audio-Visions.The lyrics here are, not surprisingly, on a similar level of Christian engagement as on “Mask of the Great Deceiver,” though without the darker, “heavy metal” side. In fact, some of the language seems to be taken right out a Bible study: such as, “the old was cast away … simple joy… seen through different eyes…a burden to bear…joyously waiting…the gift is truly given…our lives do not compare to what’s awaiting us there.” YouTube includes live videos of Kansas tour performances from December of 1980 at the 16,000 seat Houston Summit sports arena—which was later called the Compaq Center and is now a gargantuan, non-denominational mega-church. Songs performed by Kansas on that tour include Livgren’s “Mask of the Great Deceiver,” but sung by Steve Walsh. Walsh then quit the band in 1981, and after an audition process he was replaced by the Christian singer-producer John Elefante.

[See next Slide] In 1982, Livgren’s individually-composed Kansas songs were quite overtly Christian, so much so that CCM magazine voted Vinyl Confessions the Number One Christian album of that year. Despite its success, though, Vinyl Confessions did not sell nearly as well as previous Kansas albums, and it has never been certified in the US. The album concludes with “Crossfire,” in which Livgren refers to “the One who rose.” The song does include an instrumental section in a somewhat “additive” time signature (7/8 + 5/8 = 6/4), and Robbie Steinhart’s violin is still slightly present for this one last album. However, on the whole, the style is starting to sound like other “post-progressive” guitar- and synthesizer- based mainstream rock music of the early 1980s, such as Asia or Foreigner. [Clip played in presented version.]
The band’s 1983 follow-up, [See Next Slide] Drastic Measures, was even less successful and, in fact, the least successful Kansas album since the band’s 1974 debut. Thus, this particular version of Kansas folded at the end of 1983. Ironically, part of the reason for the band’s reduced success in 1983 was that it downplayed the Christian themes that it had explored more fully in 1982. Probably, the 1983 album and tour were too Christian for many of the band’s non-religious 1974-79 fans, but not Christian enough for many of its Christian 1980-82 fans. The bizarre album cover of a classical chamber quintet probably seemed like a hilarious idea at the time, but it certainly also cannot have helped the album’s sales. Livgren’s strongest of his only three songs on the album is “Mainstream.” However, unlike his other two contributions, the song is not Christian-themed at all. Rather, it is a rant against the band’s record company for trying to force him to write more widely-accessible music. It is not at all clear from the song, though, if he’s talking about his Christian lyrics, how to create a post-progressive musical style, both of these things, or neither.

[See Next Slide] In 1983, Livgren began to reserve some of his more explicitly Christian songs for a new solo project, which was billed as “Kerry Livgren AD.” The live band that emerged from this, AD, also included Kansas bassist Dave Hope (who had become a Christian in 1980), as well as recent Kansas “adjunct” tour members (and fellow Christians) Warren Ham and Michael Gleason. In 1972-74, Ham had been the lead singer of the secular rock band Bloodrock. “Take us to the Water,” from 1984’s Time Line, gives a good sense of Livgren’s ongoing struggle with how to incorporate Christian lyrics and how to find an appropriate, post-progressive musical style in which to showcase them. [Play] AD released two additional studio albums in 1985-86, as well as a few later albums of out-takes, live performances, and remixes, but none of these were released on a major record label. Livgren was contracted as a songwriter to release music for CBS and with Kansas, so after this second “solo album,” other AD projects were released only to the Christian market on fairly obscure Christian record labels. The resultant lack of promotion meant that AD generally played only at small events attended by up to a few hundred people in churches and small clubs. The band also ended up badly in debt. In the summer of 1984, AD did play at Chicago’s inaugural, annual Cornerstone Festival, which was founded by Resurrection Band’s Glenn Kaiser. In its heyday, however, Kansas had toured frequently in the largest arena and stadium venues available to rock bands, which average around 16,000 seats, with tours having as many as seventy shows. Thus, an annual Christian rock festival with a few thousand fans must have been small consolation for former Kansas members Livgren and Hope. On the other hand, I was able to get pretty close to Livgren’s part of the stage!

Daniel Amos, also known as DA, is probably the most stylistically diverse Christian band of all time. Hailing from the Los Angeles area, the band initially pursued a kind of country-influenced rock entirely consistent with LA in the early to mid-1970s. The band’s 1976 debut album, produced by legendary Dobro player and producer Al Perkins, stayed within that genre area. [See Next Slide] However, the band’s 1977 follow-up, Shotgun Angel, was half country rock and half rock opera. The title song gives a sense of DA’s early LA country rock sound, including pedal-steel guitar, but with Christian lyrics and also the incorporation of the mid-1970s’ fad for trucker and CB radio lingo. It’s like merging the Eagles’ 1972 hit “Take It Easy” with C.W. McCall’s 1975 hit “Convoy.” [Play] Other 1977 DA songs, such as “Father’s Arms,” sound more like keyboard-heavy, jazzy, vocally vibrato-inflected pop-rock, sometimes rather a lot like Steely Dan, such as that group’s “Deacon Blues” from 1977’s Aja. [Play] Maranatha! Records then dropped Daniel Amos from its label when the band clearly wanted to take a much heavier rock direction in 1978. In fact, Marantha! ended up pursuing almost exclusively praise-oriented music after its early, relatively experimental period. DA then signed with Larry Norman’s label, Solid Rock, but the band’s third album, Horrendous Disc, languished for several years until it was finally released in 1981. The album often sounds like the Beatles’ self-consciously arty, conceptual music of 1968-69, especially Abbey Road.

By 1981, though, Daniel Amos had already moved yet again to a different musical style. This was influenced by such recent post-punk music as Talking Heads and Elvis Costello, such “gloom rock” bands as Joy Division and New Order, and the early 1980s’ LA new wave club scene of the Motels and Oingo Boingo. Daniel Amos had a large enough following in LA that it often played at Madame Wong’s and at other clubs on the Sunset Strip normally frequented by such secular bands. [See Next Slide] From 1981-84, on its Alarma trilogy, DA’s lyrics also took on a rather critical, dark, and cynical tone. The band often focused on themes such as over-commercialized religion, the phoniness of televangelists, and the complacency of believers. 1983’s Doppelganger is the band’s greatest achievement along these lines. “Mall (All Over the World)” blasts, in a funk-and gloom rock-inspired style, the “East meets West” New Age religions and related music that had recently emerged in a highly commercialized form. The earliest parts of the song incorporate the sounds of elevator beeps, and this previews its later lyrical references to elevators, escalators, and mannequins. [Play] On only a somewhat lighter note, “Angels Tuck You In” suggests, in ironically happy-sounding, synthesized, “cartoonish,” neo-rock ‘n’ roll music (including kazoo-like sounds)—something like music by the pop-rock group the Cars—that religion’s most obvious comforts are merely psychological crutches. [Play] One reviewer complained that the album is “a cry from the abyss … leav[ing] you hurting [and] empty … [Christians] don’t need that.” I found that I did need it, though!

If it hadn’t been for Resurrection Band, Kerry Livgren, Daniel Amos, and certain other Christian artists that explored hard rock, progressive rock, new wave, and/or critical lyrical approaches, I would have abandoned my interest in Christian popular music much sooner. As it was, I myself ended up singing lead vocals (and playing some occasional keyboards) in a Christian rock band for my last two years of high school. That band, Agabus, mostly played cover songs, but we didn’t actually perform much along the lines of the Christian music that I have just been discussing. (I did, however, contribute one song: “Battlezone.”) In retrospect, our song choices were at least partly because certain music was going to be much too difficult to learn and perform at that age. However, it was probably also at least subconsciously the case that the other members of the band wanted to continue participating in relatively comfortable areas of Christianity. (I have gotten back in touch with the drummer, and he often still performs and listens to Christian music in his adopted home of Seattle.) My undergraduate college was affiliated with the same Protestant denomination as my high school, but the college and the larger university of which it is a part were fairly liberal places. In that context, my friends and I argued about what Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel were up to stylistically, whether R.E.M. would ever hit it big, why early Genesis is better than Emerson Lake & Palmer, what Paul Simon did or didn’t do on Graceland, whether music videos would end up mattering just as much as music, and, indeed, what the hell Rush thought it was doing with all of those synthesizers and samplers. On the other hand, more than twenty years later, people numbering in the millions do still listen to Contemporary Christian Music.

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