Following last week’s series introduction, Streams of White Light into Darkened Corners, We open the series in 1974 where Larry Norman’s introduction left off, and from the opposite angle. We begin our series of Hymns from the Radio Dial with a decidedly non-secular song that hit big on the pop charts. In some ways, perhaps this was the acme of the trend that Larry Norman described. In a significant way though, it was a milestone in the formation of what came to be called “contemporary Christian music,” something of which Norman himself was a pioneer. His introduction (last week) sets the stage onto which this particular song emerged.
Around 1955 when she was just 17, Aussie Janet Mead formed a rock band named simply “The Rock Band” to provide music for the weekly mass at her local church in Adelaide, Australia. She studied piano at the Adelaide Conservatorium before joining the order of the Sisters of Mercy, after which she became a music teacher at two local Catholic schools. Sister Janet Meade began to explore the idea of a “rock mass” in the early 1970s to make the mass more interesting and accessible for her students. Her exploration led to a successful series of “rock masses” that she conducted at Adelaide Cathedral.
In 1973 she began making professional recordings of her music for churches and schools, and went to Sydney for a recording session produced by noted producer Martin Erdman. One of the tracks they cut was a cover of the Donovan song “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” which had been written for the soundtrack the Franco Zeffirelli film that year. As an afterthought, they also cut a rock arrangement of “The Lord’s Prayer”, which had been put to music by one of her parishioners and musical collaborators, Arnold Strals. The two songs were released as a single.
DJs in Australia picked it up, but instead of the Donovan cover, they flipped the single and playe the B-side, “The Lords Prayer”. It became so popular that A&M Records picked it up for distribution to more than 31 countries, turning it into an international hit with Top-Five placement in April 1974 on both the American and Canadian Top 40. The record went on to sell three million copies worldwide (two million in the USA alone) and on 8 April 1974 Sister Janet earned the distinction of being the first Australian recording artist to sell over one million copies of an Australian-produced record in the USA.
The single topped out at #4 in the USA, but hit #1 on the Melbourne charts for four weeks and #3 nationally Australia during January 1974. It is still rated as one of the top-selling singles of the ’70s in the USA, and Sister Janet was nominated for a prestigious Grammy Award in the category of “Best Inspirational Performance,” but was beaten out by Elvis Presley’s version of “How Great Thou Art”. The success of the single paved the way for her to go on to do a few albums in the 70’s and into the early 80’s. Unsurprisingly, Sister Janet donated all royalties from the recording to charity.
Media-shy, she resisted calls to continue her pop career, despite intense interest. In fact, the record’s success introduced what she now says was a “horrible time” in her life — worldwide success brought a pressure that led her to question her faith. A third album that was recorded in 1983 was filed away in the vaults after Sister Janet withdrew from the public eye. The tapes were rediscovered a couple of years ago and some tracks including “The Lord’s Prayer” have been included on the new album A Time To Sing, released in 1999 as part of the 25th anniversary celebration of the hit single.
The Lord’s Prayer
Who art in heaven
Hallowed be Thy name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
Forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive them who trespass against us
Forgive us our trespasses
Oh, Our Father (Chorus)
Our Lord lead us not into temptation
But save us from evil
And the kingdom, the power
And the glory forever
Will be Yours
(Chorus, Repeated Four Times)
It seems strange now to imagine such an overtly Christian song getting so much radio airplay, but this was indeed the climate of the early 70s with God still in the public consciousness and the long-haired Jesus People still lingering around. Was that the peak of the religious invasion of the airwaves? One must admit, a “Rock-n-Roll Nun” was a little outside the norm, and remains so even now. There was clearly a religious receptivity in the climate at the time… or was it merely some kind of faux nostalgia taken on as a spiritual comfort to those who had rejected Christianity in the first place? Other than Sister Janet’s musical talent, what caused this one to shoot up into the top five when it did?
Footnotes, Sources, & Links
• Series Index
• Sister Janet Meade — Official Website
• Artist Profile: Sister Janet Mead (Hard Rush Music)
• Miles Ago: Australasian Music & Popular Culture 1964-1975, Sister Janet Meade