All God’s Children – Songs From The British Jesus Rock Revolution 1967-1974
I’m hoping it wouldn’t be terribly unreasonable to express surprise that there was a Jesus rock revolution – at any point! At least, that was my first thought. 1967-1974 is an odd period to highlight as one to probe for answers, given that it takes in everything from Vietnam protest songs, psychedelia, garage rock, singer-songwriter folk singers, glam and the birth of metal…for starters. Despite protestations of peace and love, everyone had retired to their own camp, cocooned with like-minded sorts who broadly agreed with everything everyone else said. The Summer of Love had no more gumption about it than Brit Pop, and we’re even at the stage now where people look back at both with rose-tinted eyeballs. It was the best of times to be young. We were different – we made a difference. We stood in a field, took drugs and hoped we weren’t caught on camera as our mum would kill us. John, Liam, Kurt, Jimi, Jim and Bob – they were all Jesus for a while. Then there was a new cat in the neighbourhood. Name’s Jesus. Jesus O’Nazareth.
It’s one thing for Jesus to become a pop cultural icon in America, another entirely in Britain. Evangelistic preachers with perfect pitch were not commonplace, neither were gospel choirs nor universal love communes. What Britain had in terms of Christian riffs to turn the heads of young musicians was the Salvation Army and ‘Lord of the Dance’ in school assembly. That’s not to say that God, Jesus, assorted saints and biblical good-sorts weren’t given name-checks in songs by every kind of band and performer, but it rarely, if ever, amounted to earnest tambourine-bashing recruitment drives or religious fervour. More realistically, they were characters from fables, as interchangeable with ‘Lord of the Rings’ and nursery rhymes as anything, but with an air of magic, superhero powers and mythical wonderment about them.
The theatre made the cr0ss-over significantly more navigable – musicals like ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, ‘Godspell’ and ‘Hair’, combined euphoric choruses with Sunday School messages, albeit in the latter case with the occasional willy waving about as they danced down the aisles. Tribalism was in. Not only could you share the same musical tastes, you could live by the same commandments. With no competition, the Musical Gospel Outreach formed in 1965, an association aiming to bring together Christians who perhaps shared their parent’s beliefs but had a different record collection. They established Sound Vision two years later, a music festival with Christian music for a paying crowd, a little thin on mainstream acts but enough to attract well over two thousand people to Westminster Central Hall. Others took note – small tents would appear over time at Glastonbury where you could rock out or nod politely to Jesus-themed tunes; 1971’s Festival of Light in London demonstrated that England had far from willingly accepted Satan as their lord and master and had Mary Whitehouse, Cliff Richard and Dana up their sleeves. Take that, horned one! Also present was Graham Kendrick, then, as now, one of the most influential of all the Jesus Rockers.
But who were these beat combos riffing for the Lord? There are no hugely surprising names across the three discs of this new set, and many are, one suspects more serious about the whole business than some others. Salamander, who kick off disc one are very serious indeed. As part of their concept album based on the Ten Commandments, ‘Prelude (incorporating ‘He Is My God”) is exactly as pompous and overwrought as the title makes it sound. That’s not to say I didn’t actually quite enjoy it but the idea of having to listen to ten tracks in a row like that is not appealing. Perhaps there’s an argument that suggests that much of the music we listen to is preaching to us – I can certainly see that protest songs would fit into that category – but it’s so straight-faced and lacking in empathy for the casual listener. There’s no sense that any element of this is for entertainment – any that there is feels like a fortunate accident (or maybe mischievousness on my part).
‘On Solid Rock’ by Out of Darkness is great, though I accept this is only because it sounds like Robert Popper‘s ‘Little Mouse’ from ‘Look Around You’. There’s a brilliant transition in the song where you suspect the producer is frantically waving their arms asking the guitarist to stop, which he duly does, the song moving in another direction as subtly as a dinosaur in a cupboard. Regardless, you can tell they’re having fun, and there’s something rather endearing about it. The very fact that there’s an electric guitar (along with a guitarist who was happy to throw in a solo if it looked like there was half a chance) caused upset among many Christians who wanted everything their way or the highway (insert Harry Secombe joke here).
The Festival of Light a few years later showed that Jesus’ flock were far from united and even further from accepting that the world around them had changed since the last time they visited London. Christians who were set in their ways wanted more influence and more visibility but didn’t want to see their number debasing themselves at The Marquee or playing the kind of raucous music that seemingly only led to depravity and sin. They wanted to have their simnel cake and eat it, without any flies in the mixture. Even Out of Darkness’ record label found the whole thing a bit too overwhelming and dumped them in 1974.
‘Jesus is Just Alright’ is well-known as a track recorded by The Byrds and The Doobie Brothers and with it has a certain cache – a knowing look; an understanding; a tap on the nose. The featured rendition here from 1971 is by Bourbon Street Mission, actually some session musicians and singer Shelagh McDonald. McDonald is a fascinating character and has a great voice. Shortly after the release of this single, she disappeared and wasn’t seen or heard from again until 2005, when interest in her two recorded albums resulted in reissues. It transpired that she had suffered a bad trip on LSD and had suffered from psychological issues, as well as a ruined voice. In the wildness years, she had got married and had lived in tents around Scotland before returning to singing on a very ad-hoc basis upon hearing of the renewed interest. But here’s the thing – there are no two ways about it – with her fervent vocals, the frenzied organ playing and delirious choruses, ‘Jesus is Just Alright’ (lyrics aside) sounds…Satanic. So often has the Devil featured as the object of adoration in popular music that when the tables are turned, your brain still fills in the gaps.
More disturbing is Parchment‘s ‘Son of God’, one of the Church-approved musical combos, whose chanting folk song feels like you’re being indoctrinated by some kind of sorcery. Lindisfarne‘s ‘Winter Song’ is no ‘Fog on the Tyne’, being a pious chin-stroker that asks you to question the plight of ‘homeless tramps’, avariciousness and good ol’ Jesus with his simple messages. It’s rather nauseating. It’s a shame that The Moody Blues also succumbed to twee wittering with ‘Minstrel’s Song’, a really quite wretched, simpering Sunday School clap-along hymn, a self-righteousness dirge which was released the same week The Kinks’ ‘Lola’ competed with Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ in the UK charts. So many questions, so few answers.
Kimberley Barrington Frost was working as a central heating installer in Sheffield when he was visited by the spirit of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses the Great who told him he was the Pharaoh’s reincarnation, and he must take up the Pharaoh’s message in a musical career. It is such stories that drew me to listening to this compilation. The now robe-wearing Ramases shaved his head and did as he was told and roped his very patient wife in as Selket (or just Sel to friends). Such were the 70s, Vertigo said “yes please” and signed them, the resulting 1971 LP, ‘Space Hymns’ with its eye-popping Roger Dean artwork being one of the most extraordinary releases of that or any other year. Did I mention their backing band was 10cc? The public was unmoved. They tried again in 1975 with ‘Glass Top Coffin’. Ramases was displeased. The public didn’t listen to it and so had no opinion. Ramases killed himself. Selket’s second husband attempted to destroy all the pair’s recordings and nearly succeeded until they were rescued by actor, Peter Stormare (‘Fargo’; Minority Report’; ‘Day Shift’) who released a six-disc box set of the illustrious pair. Now that’s a story, everyone. ‘Jesus Come Back’ is less remarkable, though, what isn’t?