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NOTE: This is another article that appeared in Boston Globe the same year - it's not really directly related to Mark's recordings, though.

What comes to mind when thinking of Christian music? Sunday hymns? Bach chorales? Pat Boone tunes?

Surely not screaming heavy metal, dance beat new wave and wailing hard rock

Yet all of these are played by a new breed of Christian musicians. Over the past decade, there has been an explosion of "Jesus Rock" groups that aim at young audiences and convey messages about Christ.

It is a subculture called The Christian Circuit. Most of its bands are unknown to non-followers, but enough people have heard of the Resurrection Band, Petra, Servant, Daniel Amos, the Sweet Comfort Band, Larry Norman, Mark Heard and Andy McCarroll & Moral Support to keep them cranking out albums.

The musical parallels with secular rock are uncanny, except for the bands' overwhelming insistence on singing about Jesus; not girls, parties or dancing.

The phenomenon is part of the larger fundamentalist movement taking place across the country. Many of the musicians have converted to Christ, yet have not given up rock 'n' roll.

"They don't want to become old before their time. They don't want to go off and just listen to Christian praise hymns," says Moe Goggin, a local ex-Franciscan seminarian who played harmonica with Bob Dylan's band two years ago, during Dylan's first Jesus tour.

The much publicized conversions of pop stars like Dylan, Donna Summer, Little Richard, Maria Muldaur, Al Green, B.J. Thomas, Arlo Guthrie, Noel Paul Stookey and Bonnie Bramlett have helped promote the Christian movement, but these are often not the acts that get the most dedicated followings.

Dylan's latest album, "Shot of Love," for instance, turned up in the bottom 50th spot on a recent chart by Contemporary Christian Magazine (Jesus Rock's Rolling Stone, complete with splashy features and layouts). By contrast, Amy Grant, a singer unknown in secular circles, placed four albums in the Top 25. The charts reflect that record-buyers tend to be skeptical of a recent convert and loyal to a long-term Christian.

The hardcore Jesus Rockers all record for Christian labels, such as Light Records in Los Angeles, the Benson Company in Nashville and Word, Inc. in Waco, Tex. Their records are generally not available in regular record stores, but are instead sold through Christian bookstores, such as the Logos Bookstore in Kenmore Square.

This is not a charity business, however. The labels have made money in recent years, and now the major secular labels are getting into the act. Warner Brothers has inked a distribution pact with Light Records, while CBS has started a new Christian label called CBS Priority. MCA already owns a Christian label called MCA Songbird.

None of the estimated 200 Christian bands will ever sell the millions of records of a top-selling secular act (the highest Christian figure has been 300,000, for a foursome called the Imperials), but if you listened to just their music and not their lyrics, you'd sometimes hardly know the difference between the two worlds.

Petra, a hard-rock outfit, has the range to sound at times like Jethro Tull, at others like the Doobie Brothers.

Andy McCarroll & Moral Support is a solid new wave band that can rock out like the Buzzcocks, or settle back for some tasty reggae-rock like Fingerprintz. McCarroll and the Daniel Amos Band, which has a humorous new wave touch with a minimum of preaching, were the best groups I heard during a recent two days of total immersion in Christian albums. Their lyrics were also among the least preachy, though they still left no doubts about their orientation.

Chicago's Resurrection Band is the Led Zeppelin of Jesus Rock. They play with a familiar heavy metal bluster, but attach relentless lyrics like "Open the door and I'm comin' in; I know I'm tired of following sin - I want to give myself to you, Jesus."

Servant, a heavy but faceless Foreigner-like band, goes so far as to employ strobe lights and dry-ice smoke bombs in concert - familiar staples of secular events. Their colorful album graphics, like those used by many Jesus Rock groups, are also direct spinoffs from secular LP covers


Some bands are even into the merchandising aspects of the business - an important commercial sideline of secular rock. "It concerns me when there's a Christian band that has T-shirts or belt buckles with their name on them, which is something that crops up from time to time," says Mark Hollingsworth of the Nashville-based Benson Records.

But problems notwithstanding, Jesus Rock seems here to stay.

As Paul Baker, the author of the book "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music," says: "Jesus music has emanated from people for whom rock music has been a natural language. It has communicated, often where no other language has."

Jesus Rock is acknowledged to have begun in the late 1960s, when two rock artists, Barry McGuire (who had had a number one pop hit in "Eve of Destruction") and Larry Norman (who had a Top 20 hit in "I Love You But the Words Won't Come"), switched over to music that expressed their newfound personal commitment to Christ.

Since then, the music has experienced a steady growth, as independent Christian record companies have sensed that not all young people are into the "decadence" of secular rock 'n' roll.

At first, Christian concerts met opposition from some church elders - who couldn't fathom why a rock cadence was suited for Jesus lyrics - but now they are often accepted as a good way to reach teen audiences, and to keep them away from the alcohol and drugs prevalent at many secular shows.

"Some Christian acts do so well because they're safe. If Mom and Dad are going to send their kids to a rock concert, it might as well be a Christian rock concert," says Dan Russell, an agent who lives in Walpole and books several Christian acts across the country.

New England has lagged behind Southern California, the South and the Midwest as hotbeds of the music, Russell says, noting that most of the bands are of the Charismatic Pentecostal faith, an evangelical form not as big in "intellectual New England" as elsewhere.

Nevertheless, Russell, 25, a onetime Walpole hell-raiser who was arrested for arson, drugs and driving his motorcycle through a McDonald's restaurant before he rediscovered Christ, books about 15 Christian concerts a year in Boston and Providence, at such places as the Tremont Temple, Eastern Nazarene College, Gordon College and Barrington College. He is the area's largest Christian promoter, followed by a local veteran named Jim Julian.

As the movement has grown, there has been a developing controversy about the stridency of Christian music. In short, how blatant should an act should be in its proselytizing?

Because many of the acts are evangelistic, they are dedicated to converting souls. Their lyrics reflect a doomsday mentality that can only be eased by Jesus. ("Without Him we can do nothing," sings Petra.) This point is hammered home song after song, regardless of how many up-to-date guitar or synthesizer solos are built into the music.

"Their belief in Christ compels them to say things that aren't going to be popular, but they feel they have to if they want to gain God's Kingdom," says Mark Pettigrew, who works in the record department of the Harvard Coop and is a friend of many Christian musicians.

Often, the ministry goes beyond just the performance. The Resurrection Band and Servant both believe in "altar calls," where time is set aside either during or after the show for members of the crowd to come up and discuss Christ. At a recent Servant show in Chicago, "over 50 people responded and committed their lives to discipleship in the ways of Jesus," according to a glowing review in Contemporary Christian Music (CCM).

Altar calls are also employed by a Mobile, Alabama group called Dallas Holm & Praise - a popular middle-of-the-road act that is a cross between James Taylor and Barry Manilow - which reports a 5–10 percent conversion rate at their shows.

The pressure, in fact, on a Christian artist to preach from the stage is acute. This is especially true for singers who have crossed over from secular rock into Jesus music. Take the born-again B. J. Thomas. In addition to Christian music, he still does his old pop hits (including the number one hit, "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head"), yet is often heckled for it.

In a scathing reply to hecklers in a recent CCM interview, Thomas said, "A lot of my concerts are big, painful experiences for the Christian community. They can't seem to hear somebody sing. It's always got to be some kind of Christian cliché or Bible song, or they feel it's their right before God to reject and judge and scoff."

Christian self-righteousness is also assailed by Kerry Livgren, who plays with the secular band Kansas but doesn't want to break away and get marooned in Christian music. "The problem I have with the Christian music circuit," he told the Chicago Tribune's Lynn Van Matre, "is that it brings about a situation where the only people that listen to Christian music are people who are already Christians . . . The Bible tells us to come out and be separate, but I don't think that means to cut yourself off from the world."

Seconding this belief is Walpole's Russell, who says he's considered a "weirdo" in Christian music circles because he believes in a more open, patient approach toward non-believers, rather than advocating altar calls and "spitting out the gospel in 3 1/2 songs."

The artists that Russell books - Andy Pratt, Mark Heard, Randy Stonehill, Phil Keaggy and Daniel Amos - all come on more gently than the altar-call types. Russell used to book ex-Poco singer Richie Furay, but just broke off with him because "Richie's an evangelist now. He's too blatant."

Russell's main interest now is former pop star Andy Pratt, who has turned to Jesus but, under Russell's tutelage, just put out a fine five-song EP that is secular in nature except for occasional hints at his new beliefs.

"I won't let Andy Pratt fall into that subculture," Russell says of the Christian circuit. "They'd say, Oh, he's got a good testimony. Let's go get him.

Steve Morse ( Boston Globe, Section: arts/films, May 16, 1982 )
Copyright © 1982 Boston Globe