I grew up listening to a kind of music that almost certainly will not have any place in your collection. Even then it was not something I could ever share with my peers. They were listening to The Clash, the Sex Pistols and then all that New Romantic Gush. I on the other hand had no interest in the pop superstars that seemed to have such power over people around me. I could not tell you even now what the Bay City Rollers sound like. The music I was listening to then was primarily white gospel rock.
There I have made my uncool confession. Please do not judge me too harshly.
If you don’t know what white gospel rock was all about then I will give you a bit of history from a UK perspective. Of course, the Americans did it all bigger and better- it remains a mass market across the Atlantic, but it was the British kind that I listened to most.
Put simply, the music it was an attempt by people mostly on the fringes of organised Christianity to deliver a Christian message using culturally relevant language and styles of presentation. It was trying to ‘sell’ Jesus. It all kicked off (for me at least) around the 70s with folk-rock-for Jesus-groups like The Sheep and Malcolm and Alwyn (Alwyn went to School with my Mum.) Then there was the early folk recordings of Graham Kendrick (long before all the Shine Jesus Shine stuff). There were lots of others along the way; Dave Pope, the Dave Williamson band, Bryn Howarth, Jesus punk from Moral Support, Heavy Rock from Stryper and a many others. A lot of this music was gathered together at the early Greenbelt Festivals, and this was the soundtrack of my early teens.
(There was another stream of this music too, in the form of contemporary worship music. This spawned a whole industry of its own, but this is another story…)
This music has remained more or less my guilty secret for lots of reasons. In part because this is not what might be described as ‘good’ music. It was never kissed with mass approval, and critics, if they noticed it, would savage it for its derivative amateurish efforts.
It also forms part of the story of my own dysfunction; growing up in the way that I did meant that I needed to lose myself in something, and often this was this music. I have grown beyond this now however- there is now lots of other music! However…
That music was always more than just Christian geeks trying to be cool. There was something else underneath it all. At the time, I might have used spiritualised language to describe it- as if the words and tones of the songs somehow contained something heavenly. Jesus was on lead guitar and the Holy Ghost could sure pump out a deep groove.
Perhaps, but what I understand most about that music now is that it stood for something. It had something to say that had heart, spirit and soul. It was only meaningful when it moved you. Beyond all the cheesy ‘Jesus saves’ kind of messages, these white boys (and they mostly where boys) were singing Gospel.
One of my mates, who often introduces me to new music, has often questioned whether there is any decent Christian rock music. I think he is missing the point though- it is not really about music, it is about soul, meaning, passion. These things may be subjective, but they are also universally recognisable.
I was reminded of this when watching a documentary of Mavis Staples, who grew up singing with her family in the Staples Singers. They sang their way through the protest movement alongside Martin Luther king, then became one of the first Gospel super groups in the USA. Commenting on the music that was made, someone said that “…the music was not worth a shit unless it made the people shout.” This music was measured by the visible effects it had on the audience; people would dance in the isles, faint in the Spirit, be carried out unconscious.
We in the UK did not go in for such displays of religious emotion on the whole, but still I get this. For music to matter, it has to mean something. It has to have something to say. It has to seek to connect with that part of me that I can only call soul. And the chances are that even now, the kind of music that is sure to split me wide open will be the kind that brings raw passion and spirituality together. In other words, Gospel music, in its broadest sense.
I may well have grown up listening to what was mere imitation, so here a slice of the real thing;