I have in my record collection (yes, kids, it’s made of vinyl, and it plays on a turntable without any forward-backward interference so as to produce music instead of senseless garbled noises, thank you very much) a 1974 collector’s album by Larry Norman called Streams of White Light into Darkened Corners. I know you’ve all been waiting with baited breath to find out just what I might possibly replace my long-running Sunday hymn series with, and this is it. And I’m really looking forward to digging into it… after this week’s series introduction. Oddly enough, I had the idea for the series a couple of months back, and sat down to list some 50+ songs that fit the bill, and titled my list “Hymns from the Byways.” Then a few weeks later, I was thumbing through my record collection to find something nostalgic and landed on this forgotten LP. The idea is this — convinced that secular:sacred is most likely a false dichotomy, I’m compiling a list of songs which are (a) “Christian”-oriented but scored on the pop charts or (b) spiritual songs recorded by “secular” artists. I’m looking at that crossover space where we find spiritual truth on the radio. “Hymns from the Radio”? Not sure yet what to call the series, but don’t touch that dial.
Streams is an unusual album from Larry Norman, not really fitting the bill of what’s expected. For one, there are no credits. You can plainly make out Larry of course, and Randy Stonehill as disc-jockey “The Surf Duke” introducing each of the tracks. The effort almost certainly features Larry’s Solid Rock stable, but he doesn’t discuss the production at all in the liner notes other than with respect to the original composers of each of the songs. The album is clearly marked as not being legally licensed for radio airplay. (Hmmm, does that include the Internet?) On the backside of the album cover one finds this notice:
This album was originally a newspaper article, but several different publishers backed down from printing it so I decided to record the music that is described in the article and release the soundtrack to this “newspaper movie.”
This is a satirical record and anyone who doesn’t have a sense of humor that leans toward the surreal, a cursory interest in pop music, and a healthy indifference/disdain for ego-lipped disc jockeys should definitely stay away from this album.
Larry Norman, 1974
Intrigued? Under the heading “A DELUXE COLLECTOR’S EDITION” below the forgoing notice appears a further description of this release.
This album does not contain any original Larry Norman songs. It is a collection of other people’s music, and attempts to give a musical overview of the “religious pop music” trend from 1970 to 1974. It explores the bad and the ugly in the commercial exploitation of Jesus Christ as someone other than the Son of God and Messiah. The enclosed article uncovers some of the behind-the-scene stories of the plays “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Godspell,” and includes candid observations about Kris Kristofferson, Eric Clapton, Noel “Paul” Stookey, Leon Russell, Barry McGuire, Phil Keaggy, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and others. It also explores the little-known origins of the songs, the backgrounds of some of the lesser-known writers, and the lives of the major artists at the time of the writing and recording of their songs.
And this is where we’ll begin our musical journey. Larry’s look at early 70’s rock is in part a product of its time with its cautious stance toward rock lyrics where everything is not what it seems, but his view is an informed behind-the-scenes one, and is instructive for that reason alone. At one point in the liner notes, he states (of Eric Clapton) that “no one should ever presume a committed philosophy or lifestyle by observing one single art statement of a creative person.” These are wise words, of course. I balance them with the conviction that even these single art statements can proclaim a message, sometimes as the artist intended and sometimes beyond what they envisioned. And that, I believe, is the case for a lot of the songs we’ll feature in the series as we dig into it. This week however, we’ll review Larry’s introduction to his “article soundtrack.”
There have been hundreds of “contemporary Christian” songs written in the last six years. In addition, there have been many pseudo-spiritual pop songs written and recorded by non-Christian rock artists during this same period of time. Just how many, perhaps, no one can say for sure, but disc-jockey Paul Baker probably has the largest collection of “religious” rock songs ever amassed by any serious collector. His record library of that division alone takes up considerable room.
There has not yet been a book written about the history of recent religious or quasi-religious music but some pop-sociologist will no doubt discover some very interesting and disturbing items while doing the research. Perhaps these notes will help organize some of the research direction.
My on experience with what would later become known as Jesus Rock began in 1960. As someone who loved Jesus, but was not crazy about most of the hymns, my desire was that Christian music would somehow be as exciting as Elvis Presley and as scriptural as the Bible. But to most people, the idea of putting Jesus and rock music together was… well, wasn’t that blasphemous… or something? I started experimenting with this idea. Some of my songs were successful at achieving a balance between rock and reverence, but most of them died the desk drawer death that befits a bad song. It wasn’t until 1966 that I began my professional career with Capitol Records. I was still in my teens so my parents had to go to court and assure the judge that they were in accord with the agreement about to be signed. Of course, they were fearful of the while enterprise. They were pretty sure that the road to rock led to ruin, but when they saw that I would have no other life, they decided to give me their legal permission, withhold their personal blessing, and hope that when this treacherous course had been run I would return to the fold in one piece.
I started off my professional journey with five other friends and we called our group PEOPLE! (with an exclamation point, for what reason I can’t remember). Our first album project was called WE NEED A WHOLE LOT MORE OF JESUS… AND A LOT LESS ROCK AND ROLL. The album was rock and roll, of course, but with songs like “One Thousand Years Before Christ,” and “We Need a Whole Lot More of Jesus…”, etc. (and a cover illustration of our band standing in a recording studio with Jesus standing in the middle of the room) I felt that the point was made. Though none of the other members in the group believed in Jesus, they supported my creative urgings and direction.
The single was released before the album, and it became a top twenty hit and opened the door to more expansive touring, magazine interviews, and a series of appearances on Dick Clark’s AMERICAN BANDSTAND an and appearance on Johnny Carson’s TONIGHT SHOW.
I felt that this was a good beginning in establishing our music and the ideas of my beliefs behind the music… but then came the crunch. Capitol felt that an album with the name Jesus in the title was “uncommercial” for marketing. People might think it was a gospel album… or they just might not buy it. And so “One Thousand Years Before Christ was changed to “1000 Years B.C.” and the album title was changed to I LOVE YOU. The day the album hit the stores, I left the group.
I moved to Los Angeles and began writing the rock musical ALISON and then BIRTHDAY FOR SHAKESPEARE and began work on more songs for another concept album. Because my publisher, Beechwood Music, had connections with Capitol Records they asked me to consider giving Capitol one more try. So in 1969 I recorded the album UPON THIS ROCK. It contained some of my best songs from the previous years, including one I had written back in 1960. When it was released, it received very favorable press reviews but many of the secular distributors would not handle it because they didn’t feel there was “a market for religious rock music” (they were right, there wasn’t), and because the name Jesus was still commercially offensive to people. Christian distributors would not handle the album because it was rock music. So I took my good reviews with me when I left Capitol and a year later Capitol sold UPON THIS ROCK to Heartwarming/Impact Records for a small sum.
But by late 1971, religious rock music had become “commercial.” Suddenly no one was laughing at Jesus. Jesus was “in.” He was hip. Well, not personally, maybe… but his clone was. And the bucks were rolling in for JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, and GODSPELL, and a host of other shallow, religious pop commodities like SALVATION, TRUTH OF TRUTHS, and JOSEPH AND HIS AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAM COAT. I became interested in the best and worst of these commercial endeavors purely from a sociological viewpoint, and began researching the circumstances of each musically notable or visible attempt.
In Oklahoma, I talked with Leon Russell about some of his “religious” songs, like “Prince of Peace,” “Roll Away the Stone,” “Stranger in a Strange Land,” and his spiritual perceptions. Then in New York I talked with Ted Neeley, an old friend from ALISON days. It seemed like a small world, with Paul Aaron who directed ALISON, now directing SALVATION, and Teddy playing the part of Jesus in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. Then I talked with Kris Kristofferson concerning his real feelings about Christianity, attempting to find the truth behind public rumors of his conversion.
Every story had a background and I did my best to follow up on every one. I compiled the information in an article which was received with indifference in publishing circles. So I decided to make a record album of it.
Working with my friends, the “soundtrack” to this newspaper movie was knocked out in a few sessions and then Randy put on his best imitation of an egotistical L.A. disc-jockey to give this musical documentary the proper satirical mood.
In selecting the material for this project, I chose lesser known songs like “Jesus Was a Cross-maker” and “Shine a Light” because of their overt content, and ignored radio hits like “God, Love, and Rock and Roll” and “Jesus Is Just Alright With Me” because of their inane lyrics and general irrelevancy; however, stooping to include things like the classic “Spirit in the Sky” simply because it cannot be ignored.
So, direct from The Year of Our Lord, 1974, is this condensed version of THE HISTORY OF QUASI-RELIGIOUS MUSIC IN THE POP FIELD (or: “The Gospel According to KRLA Radio”).
Larry Norman, D.R.R.
You can blame Larry for the length of this series introduction, but I’m happy to have had him write it for me. Over the next many weeks, we will look at some of these “religious” and “quasi-religious” songs from the time Larry describes up to today, some 35-40 years down the road. And we have a lot of food for thought at the outset. Was Larry’s view a product of his time, or are we too “forgiving” now about secular influences? Is the sacred:secular dichotomy a proper one? Can a non-Christian artist compose a properly “spiritual” song? And which songs should we include on this list, anyway? As always, your comments are valued.
I have been amazed to hear the numerous references to Jesus in what we commonly call ‘secular’ music!!! From Bon Jovi’s lyrics to those of Leonard Cohen. There are many paths to Jesus. Though all are ‘narrow’, many are outside the church.
Larry was a hero of mine and still continues to be a wonderful influence.
I did an extensive personal study on the hymns of the faith, so did not pay much attention to your series of Hymns of your Youth. However, the 20th century change from hymns to contemporary Christian music is a little fuzzy to me, so I am looking forward to this new series.
I think this would be a great study to go through. It has been amazing to me how blurry the line really is between Christian and non-Christian music (especially in the mainstream).
Lately I have felt that there are more mainstream, so-called secular, artists who are dealing with spirituality in a much richer way than many Christian artists.