It is said that the winners write the history books. While this may hold sway for the secular world, it is far from a truism in the realms of Christian rock music.
Christian rock, as a root phenomenon, seems to be much more of a “what have you done for me lately” excursion as opposed to any regular multilateral homages to its roots. In the secular world, aficionados and casual listeners alike can and often do point to the Beatles, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and many other acts, with affection and even deference. Not so much in the lesser known annals of Christian rock heritage, where Larry Norman and Andrae Crouch and a few others get an occasional shout out, but where much of Christian rock’s genesis is forgotten or rarely mentioned.
This perception of the history of Christian rock may have as much to do with the genre’s tendency to focus on things eternal and incorporeal instead of ephemeral and visible. After all, when one is largely concerned with the condition of his or her soul and the souls of others in the face of an almighty God, how that condition is played out to the remainder of the world, and in living one’s life in a manner pleasing to the Almighty, homage to the roots of a genre seems perhaps a bit gauche and even sacrilegious.
For those of us who have been around for a few years, however, the roots of Christian rock are not just some marginally tangible thread to the past of a genre, but in many cases a palpable and substantial rope line to a time when our personal connection to God was on thin ice, perhaps on the verge of shorting out entirely. And memories of that time and the material spiritual strength gained at that time help keep me grounded to this day.
I remember keenly the first Christian rock concert I ever attended, with Amy Grant and Michael W Smith headlining. I often replay various songs from Rick Cua’s No Mystery album or various selections from White Heart and Daniel Amos. The Choir’s Circle Slide, the 77s Sticks and Stones and Pray Naked albums and Mastedon’s Lofcaudio grace my playlists. AD, one of Kerry Livgren’s post-Kansas projects, pops up regularly, as does an occasional selection from Servant or Vector. These and many more are, for me, key reminders of a time when my cold soul became an inferno. Along with study and prayer, the memories help to steady me at times when questioning and doubt creep in.
It was a delight to me, then, when my initial investigations showed me that I had only scratched the surface of Christian rock. Not only were there many groups, even in my youth, that I had missed, but I didn’t truly have a good grasp on what went before my teen and young adult years. And in doing so, I found some quality and interesting music, which made me wonder once again, where was all of this when I was growing up limited to hymns or secular music?
So just what is Christian rock? There have been a number of efforts to define the genre, but musical genres generally begin an escape from definition not long after the initial genre is labelled. When I was a youngster, metal described just about any group subsumed by hard-grinding/wailing guitars or double pedal-drums thumping out a rhythm. Now, however, the field of definitions has expanded greatly: death metal, alternative metal, Christian metal, gothic metal, post-metal, and thrash metal are just a few. Many of those sub genres are divided further into sub-sub genres, such as thrash metal with its sub-sub derivatives crossover thrash, groove metal, and Teutonic thrash metal. It’s a dizzying forest trying to label the sound of each and every group, let along individual song, by a genre name.
Instead of trying to give a forensic analysis of Christian rock as a genre, for the purpose of providing a simplistic foundation let’s use the Wikipedia definition, which is as follows: “Christian rock is a form of rock music that promotes Jesus and is typically performed by self-proclaimed Christian individuals and bands whose members focus the lyrics on matters of Christian faith. The extent to which their lyrics are explicitly Christian varies between bands.” (The definition of rock music itself is more in depth and somewhat technical, which goes beyond my musical understanding.)
The key structure used in this research comes from the first sentence of that definition. After all, Elvis and other performers recorded many ostensibly Christian songs and hymns, but were not self-proclaimed Christians. Other structural deferences to the definition were also made, although they may not be spelled out in these writings.
The ground floor of Christian rock music is often attributed to Larry Norman, who was known alternately as the father or grandfather of Christian rock through the years. But Norman was preceded by groups out of the San Francisco Haight Ashbury scene such as Agape, as well as several other groups which will be investigated later. (Who knew that a New York high school band could produce some pretty quality psychedelic Christian rock music in the mid-60s?!!! Or that some of the first Christian rock in the US was liturgical and was used in church services? Or that a somewhat grungy 60s band from Pennsylvania could put out tunes that could have been competitive with many secular offerings in the 70s?)
But the beginnings of Christian rock as defined above precede even these grandfathers – or maybe great grandfathers – of Christian rock by several years. Here in the States, we often become very focused in what happened within the national borders… but there was a burgeoning Christian rock revolution elsewhere a decade prior to known startups in the US.
Our interest is in following how bands described in our definition paved the way for each following generation of Christian rockers. Next month we will delve into the earliest known Christian rock music and musicians, and begin to work our way into the mid-1960s. I hope you will continue to follow along.