24.1.10

Servant, World of Sand (1982)


In the 1980s, I spent many Saturday nights rollerskating to the latest Christian rock hits. While it was dying out in general society, rollerskating remained popular in Christian circles, and "Super Skate Seven" in Waterloo, Ontario featured Christian rock every Saturday night from 7-11:30 PM. There were couples skates, "fast" skates, and lots of ordinary going around-and-around, all to the great and growing genre of Christian rock.

While many share my evangelical background, the music that so shaped me is much more hidden and obscure, and my favourite 1980s pop culture artifacts - like Servant, Prodigal and the Sweet Comfort Band - are virtually unknown today. So this essay, with some help from Youtube, is a memoir of 80s Christian rock as I knew it.

Most Christian rock, like most popular music, is disposable and transitions very badly over time. Indeed, it's hard to defend work like Undercover's "Jesus Girl"(1982):
She's a Jesus Girl, oh yeah
Oh yeah, oh yeah
Yes, she's a J-J-J-J-J-esus girl
Oh yeah, oh yeah
Yeah, she's a Jesus Girl
But I'm not writing to defend the artistic merit of this music, but just to tell you a bit about it. Christian rock arose in the 1970s through various artists but most notably the legendary (and erratic) Larry Norman, who asked the very old question "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?"

Larry Norman In Another Land (1976)

By the 1980s, when I started listening to it, Christian rock was a fairly organized genre of wildly different musical styles -all brought together by a common purpose. That purpose of course was to spread the Good News of Christ to the unsaved, as expressed in Servant's "We Are the Light" (1984):
Heaven cries for
Those He died for
Those who haven't heard
We just can't let them die
Somehow we've got to try
If we believe that Jesus saves
We've got to pray His love will find a way
Not every song was quite this fervent, but this was the core of all 80s Christian rock. There was an overwhelming sense of a unified project in which different groups and styles - pop, rock, pseudo-New Wave, early metal, etc - were all working together not for artistic goals, but higher ones. This put tremendous pressure on lyrics, and artists themselves, to convey an unambiguous, consistent and didactic (teaching) message. Nearly every Christian rock concert I attended in the 1980s concluded with preaching and an altar call, asking people to commit their lives to Christ.

2.

But in addition to bringing people into the evangelical fold, Christian rock worked hard to keep them there. In fact the bulk of Christian rock, like most evangelical preaching, was about calls to repentance - not just to the unsaved, but to Christians who were falling away. The songs relied heavily on what evangelicals call being "under conviction" - that is, recognizing that you are not on the correct spiritual, moral and lifestyle path, and need to get back.

Christian rock spoke to us, not as bored teenagers, but as Christians struggling with our evangelical beliefs and identities. It perpetuated the certainty that all teenagers look for and that evangelical Christianity gives. I know of no better illustration than Steve Camp's Fire and Ice: (1983):
Fire and ice
Darkness and light
Can never live together
It's day or it's night
It's wrong or it's right
It's one way or the other
In my life



The effect was both psychological and sociological, since evangelicalism demands a public identity. It's not just about yourself; you must tell others about Christ. Camp also wrote "Lazy Jane", which even became a video:
She says her faith is a personal thing
You'll never catch her out on the street witnessing
She says it's just between God and herself
It ain't the business of nobody else
But that girl don't know what she's saying
'cause your faith don't mean a thing until you give it away
And even more direct, Daniel Band's "Undercover Christian,"with its relentless, slow pounding beat, made many of us feel sick inside:
Undercover Christian
Your faith is barely seen
I wish you were either hot or cold
Cause you're really no use to me
However, don't confuse Christian rock with hellfire-and-brimstone sermons. The hard sell was less common than the compassionate one, and the best artists and songs were those that could speak to this in the context of other teenage struggles. Watch as Stryper asks:
Are you feeling lonely?
Are you feeling blue?
Does your life seem empty?
You know what to do
(If for some reason you in fact don't know, the next verse says "And if your life feels senseless, just accept the Lord." More on Stryper later.) As the joke goes, the answer in Sunday School is always "Jesus", and so Christian Rock and evangelicalism ultimately funnels everything - high school, parents, girls and boys, love, hate, sex, smoking, drugs, suicide, and war - down to spiritual crisis and rebirth.

The average Christian rock song was probably more negative than its secular counterpart on the radio, since so many were about lost and struggling teenagers. The Resurrection Band's "Area 312" (1983) roars:
Hiding out in my bedroom
I wish that I could die
No one seems to love me
But I'm not going to cry
But these songs weren't necessarily about us; they were about our high school friends who desperately needed to hear about Christ. Petra's "For Annie" (1981) sings "No one ever noticed Annie weeping/ People all around, but she was alone" and then "Locked inside the bathroom, she grabs the jar of pills."

Later the song continues:
Annie's lost forever, never to be found
But there are lots of others like her all around
And it's not too late for Annie
She could be next to you
Don't miss the chance to tell her
Before her life is through
We gotta tell her Jesus loves her
Tell her Jesus cares
Tell her He can free her
And her burdens bear
Still, despite the innate evangelism, Christian rock was largely inward-focused and served more standard entertainment purposes. This is where roller-skating comes in.

3.

In my key high school years of about 1985-1987, this was easily the most popular weekend activity for evangelical youth in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. Why was it so popular? Because, of course, dancing - to Christian rock or anything else - was totally suspect. No one in my circles went to school dances. But you could skate fast for over four hours to all the latest Christian rock - and surrounded by Pentecostal girls, widely considered among us Brethren youth to be particularly hot. The couples' skates - four a night - were of course set to the lighter yet still non-romantic songs of Christian rock, with mighty ballads like "Friends" by Michael W. Smith:
And friends are friends forever
If the Lord is Lord of them
And a friend will not say never
'Cause the welcome will not end
Michael W. Smith, circa 1983.

Michael W. Smith, circa 1990


Michael W. Smith, circa 2000

Try making a move to that. Sex and love were pretty absent from most of this music, since it assumed its average listener already knew sex before marriage was wrong and so there wasn't much to say. While "true love waits" underlay everything here, the more overt abstinence movement of pledges and promise rings didn't arise until the 90s.

So Christian rock wasn't just music - it was a community and a lifestyle, all part of the vast and deep evangelical subculture. And like I said at the beginning of this rambling essay, it had an important sociological purpose of boundary maintenance.

Stop me if you covered this in college, but the best way of keeping people inside a group is not by rules that keep them from leaving, but by producing centripetal forces that draw them inward, making everyone want to stay within the boundaries anyway. Christian rock was a powerful centripetal force, another example of evangelicalism's remarkable adaptability to social forces, while maintaining its core tenets. It made you want to be a Christian and allowed you to celebrate that through loud music and, well, roller-skating.


"Footloose" came out when I was 14, and it continues to bug me, since its great inaccuracy is the complete absence of Christian rock. The movie presents dancing and rock and roll as a secular monolith which the town minister feels he must oppose with all his strength, with Christian kids caught between one or the other. In reality, Christian rock presented the perfect compromise.

4.

Christian rock was not entirely teen-focused; some groups tried more adult-focused songwriting, less about high school crises and more about the drudgery of life without Christ. A few artists and songs were almost subtle, though most of us didn't really get it. I think of the unfortunately named Sweet Comfort Band's "What Did it Mean?" from 1982:
The mailman was there
Even though it was late
I filled out the papers and sent them away
It's hard to believe you can buy your way out of love
One day in about 2007, I was humming that song and finally realized after twenty-five years that it was about divorce. I had never noticed. But I was always intrigued by the remarkable band Daniel Amos (not to be confused with the Daniel Band) which pumped out sometimes perplexing music influenced by poet William Blake, as in 1980's "Hound of Heaven":
He got lost among the stars
Hollywood flash, cash, mansions and cars
Deep sea diver Lear jet flyer
Will this thing go to the moon?
Give me elbow room, and for heaven's sake
Take this aching away
You can't run, you can't hide, from the hound of heaven
You're free to choose, can you refuse the seeker of souls
Daniel Amos, Horrendous Disc (1980)


While dedicated to converting the entire world to Christ, Christian rock was not very big-P Political. The aforementioned Resurrection Band was exceptional, with songs about urban poverty, nuclear war, family breakdown ("Mommy Don't Love Daddy Anymore") and even apartheid as early as 1978. And many groups took offhand swipes at abortion, which was pretty easy pickings in this genre.

But in an industry that was already creatively stunted, very few could pull off political music even by the low standards of Christian rock. I already mentioned Undercover's "Jesus Girl"; their "Slaughter of the Innocents" was unusually bold, mainly consisting of spoken word rants about the courts and the repeated "Stop killing babies! Stop killing babies!" Somewhat more subtle was Prodigal's "Under the Gun" (no online presence):
Up in the white room
Under the cool florescent light
There is a plastic bag
For the small and weak
Who come at inconvenient times
The most gifted "political" artist was easily Steve Taylor, who sang about the euthanization of a disabled child with Down Syndrome:
I bear the blame
Believers are few
And what am I to do?
I share the shame
The cradle's below
And where is Baby Doe?
But Taylor's real bent was satire. As Andrew Beaujon (see below) points out, Christian rock is the only pop genre where controversy usually leads to less sales. Taylor got around this by basing himself in strict New Testament orthodoxy and lampooning the excesses of megachurches ("I Want to be A Clone") and televangelists gone wrong. No one could accuse him of undermining the faith.

Christian Rock bands were inevitably all-male (though at least two hard rock acts had husband-and-wife teams - the aforementioned Resurrection Band and Barnabas). Solo artists were divided more equally between men and women, as long as the latter didn't rock too hard. Exhibit A of course is Amy Grant, perhaps still the undisputed number one Christian pop artist of all time, and certainly in my era. Other examples of female artists were...um...er...well, those weren't the records I was buying anyway. There's Leslie Phillips of course, but we'll get to her later. And Stryper is still coming.

As the 80s moved on, so did musical styles. Christian rock managed to miss the disco era, and never quite developed more than a fledgling New Wave sound - though listen to the underappreciated Quickflight from Vancouver.

But it embraced heavy metal, with progressively louder newcomers like Whitecross, Barren Cross and Bloodgood. (Perhaps you noticed a common theme there).

Bloodgood circa 1985

These groups had a special responsibility not only to preach the gospel and call for repentance like others, but to engage more directly in "spiritual warfare" - that is, battling the devil. The pentagrams and satanic imagery of Iron Maiden, Motley Crue and others was taken extremely seriously in Christian circles. It also created tremendous guilt among many of us because their music was so cool, but so wrong. I personally recorded several Motley Crue songs off the radio but later erased them.

These groups took their special mission seriously and created a remarkably parallel genre to secular heavy metal, feeding largely off it and the Book of Revelation for inspiration to make us all erase our ungodly music. Whitecross didn't mess around with their debut song, “Who Will You Follow” (performed live in 1987 here and in 2007 here):
Who will you follow
Satan, or the Author of Life
Jesus paid the price
God made the sacrifice for you
(If you look closely at the 1987 video, especially at about 1:52, you'll see the fans pumping their fists with an index finger pointed up - the "One Way" gesture that countered the "devil's horns" of Iron Maiden.) And Whitecross was practically easy listening. Bloodgood went for songs like "Killing the Beast" and others that only make sense to those familiar with the text of Revelation, and the Daniel Band, while not a true metal band, made an official logo of a crossed-out 666.

The Daniel Band Run From the Darkness" (1984)

But it wasn't just Christian heavy metal that existed in a parallel universe. The entire Christian rock industry did. After all, where did we buy these records? Not at Sam the Record Man, but the local Christian bookstore. This brings up the whole distribution system behind Christian rock, and here Canadian and American experience diverge. In the 1980s there was pretty much no such thing as a Christian radio station in Canada and, with tiny exceptions, no Christian music programming. But in the United States, all-Christian stations did play Christian Rock, or so it was rumoured, and there was a genuine culture of radio hits, singles and charts paralleling the regular industry, and even videos. (In the ultimate irony, Degarmo and Key, known as "the Christian Hall & Oates", saw their "666" video banned from MTV for excessive violence.)

So in Canada, with no radio and - duh - no Internet, we relied almost entirely on the local Christian bookstore. The Canadian division of Word Records, which controlled almost all significant Christian rock recording in Canada, produced a bimonthly magazine called "The Latest Word", available at said bookstores and crucial for keeping in touch. In retrospect, the extremely narrow distribution and promotion in Canada made Christian Rock seem even more homogenous and unified. Cramming all varieties of pop, rock and metal together increased the sense of a single genre of music, all working together to spread the gospel.

In short, 1980s Christian rock was far more than some very bad songwriting; it was a subculture, a way of life, and a crucial part of my teenage identity. I cannot emphasize enough how much it meant to me and remains deeply part of me. But now I have to tell the story of how it all changed.

Stryper

5.

We come first to Stryper, the group you are most likely to have heard of. Stryper burst onto the Canadian scene in early 1985 when I was in Grade 10, making them among the most important developments in the history of civilization. But in retrospect they were already the beginning of the end for my Christian rock era. Not only did they record on a non-Christian label - a very serious marketing decision - but they were simply bigger and better than anything we had seen, and I'm not just talking about the hair. They looked slicker, they acted slicker, and they rocked hard, hard, hard - finally the equal of the mighty Motley Crue. They were also far more overtly sexual (check out lead singer Michael Sweet's hips in action). Stryper upset the relatively homogeneous world of Christian rock, presenting a totally different model that sought more traditional commercial and artistic success, paving the way for 1990s groups like DC Talk and Jars of Clay.

Even more important for me is the story of Leslie Phillips. Phillips built a standard Christian pop/rock career in the 1980s with albums like Black and White in A Grey World (self-explanatory at this point in the essay, I hope) and I saw her perform in 1986 with songs like "Dancing With Danger". Then she recorded The Turning (1987).



I remember buying this album (at a special display set up at Super Skate Seven), taking it home and realizing I'd never heard anything quite like it in Christian rock (though it's mostly acoustic). Here's one of the songs,"River of Love", and you can see her performing it in 1988 here:
There's a river of love that runs through all times
There's a river of grief that floods through our lives
It starts when a heart is broken into
By the thief of belief in anything that's true
But there's a river of love that runs through all times
This was pretty vague stuff. As mentioned, 80s Christian rock had little room for ambiguity and it was an unusual song that did not explicitly refer to Jesus by name. But Jesus isn't mentioned on this album (though God makes the title of a song). Phillips went on to change her name to "Sam Phillips" and is still recording alternative music. Meanwhile, I'm sure in Christian record industry circles there must be a phrase, "pulling a Phillips", for singers that suddenly take a sharp turn off the Christian rock path and follow their own artistic muse.



And finally, there was U2. If you ever need to get evangelicals busy talking, ask the question "Is U2 a Christian band?" In my 80s social circles this was a constant discussion. Where did U2 fit in our world of Christian rock? My friends and I were all into U2, though they now tell me I was the most fervent. It was rather satisfying to align yourself with music that other people had heard of (we got pretty tired of "the Daniel what?") and the indisputable number one current group. But it was a slippery slope. Next came the Alarm...and then it just fell into a late-80s mess of INXS, Simple Minds and even the Cult.

I was still listening to Christian rock, but hungering for more subtlety. Plus, I turned 18 - the age when music tastes often congeal for life - and began hanging around people who hadn't grown up in the Christian rock subculture. And so I gradually bought less and less new Christian rock, though I continued listening to all my old favourites...including the not-yet-mentioned Seventy-Sevens... as long as the cassettes held out.

6.

It's hard to gain perspective on anything associated with your high school years, but Christian rock has changed considerably since the 1980s. Most observers suggest it has morphed into several distinct streams. There are still traditional groups that pump out the gospel and work almost exclusively through Christian channels. Others try to be more elusive, avoiding the Christian rock label like the plague and searching for general artistic credibility (Switchfoot is a recent example). And some are just plain artsy, resisting both religious and corporate labels, most notably Pedro the Lion. These are then further sliced and diced into pop, rock, alternative, metal, etc.

But most of all, Christian church music has changed and an entire genre called praise-and-worship music has developed, rooted in guitar, drums and loud volume but serving equally as Saturday night concerts or Sunday morning music. (For more discussion I refer you to, among other good sources, Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock by Andrew Beaujon.) Christian rock still exists, but it's a lot more complicated.



Meanwhile, my own era remains obscure, even in the Internet age, since it largely predated CDs and existed only on vinyl and fragile cassettes. Some artists can be found on iTunes, although often only their later albums are available (I'm talking about you, Randy Stonehill). Most of the bands and their fervent fans have long dissipated, and it's rare to find even tribute pages or wikipedia entries about them.

But the internet is slowly bringing us together again, and as seen in all the links here, many of these lost songs have been uploaded to YouTube as audio files, and recordings can often be ordered from specialty sites like RadRockers. I've made my own contributions for Toronto's Daniel Band, who continue to perform occasionally with their 80s repetoire. You can read another personal rambling essay on them here.

As conclusion, I'll share with you one of my favourite Christian rock songs. There are so many, of course, but here's one I still really enjoy, and it captures everything I've tried to say in this essay and especially the desperate urgency to tell others the Good News of salvation through Christ. That's what underlay all Christian rock and is the heart of evangelical Christianity. It's "We are the Light" by Servant, quoted earlier in the essay, and I apologize for the gender-specific references:
I believe in a God
Who believes there is hope for the future
He holds the future in His hands
I believe in a love
That can honour and love the unlovely
I felt the love He offered man

And so I dream of a day
When we feed all the men who are hungry
All those who hunger for God's word
But I can't wait any more
For He calls us to carry His message to the world

We are the Light
We are the Light
We are the Light of the World

Some men place their faith
In the wisdom of knowledge
They seek a God they can create
But I believe in a Cross
And a dark grave eternally empty
I can't wait

We are the Light
We are the Light
We are the Light of the World

Voices calling
Night is falling
Darkness fills the earth
Heaven cries for those He died for
Those who haven't heard
We just can't let them die
Somehow we've got to try
If we believe that Jesus saves
We've got to pray His love will find a way

And so rejoice
You will be living forever
And there's still time to turn the tide
Come take my hand
Let us go
We will work in His harvest together
Side by side

We are the Light
We are the Light
We are the Light of the World
We are the Light
We are the Light
We are the Light of the World
And that's what Christian rock was all about.

Thanks for reading.
Jonathan Malloy