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“Rock” Songs: Larry Norman and the Quandary of Popular Christian Music
Josh Langhoff

Half a century ago Californians suffered a spiritual awakening. Like most awakenings, this one involved confusion over what was real and what was not, and it prompted a whole lot of stumbling around in the dark. The young Baby Boomers living through the tumultuous middle chapters of Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland—a barrage of Vietnam, assassinations, protests, and perpetually heightened contradictions—sought transcendence. Transcendence might arrive via the fruits of modern chemical science or the study of ancient religious practices. Whether you were (as Tom Wolfe wrote in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) an acid freak, an Indian freak, or a sex freak, the important thing was to transcend. Which explains how, amid the freaky taxonomy that formed near the corner of San Francisco’s Haight and Ashbury streets in the late 60’s, there evolved an unlikely species of young, anti-establishment Christians. Haight-Ashbury might have been their address, but their spiritual home was at the intersection of Evangelical and Hippie. They were either beholden to the squarest corners of middle America or destined to subvert them, no one was really sure which. It was the dawn of the Jesus Freak.

Upon This Rock

“Despite his ‘resemblance’ to the current popular image, Jesus was not a freak,” complained future John Lennon biographer Albert Goldman in a 1972 issue of LIFE. Writing nominally about Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace concert, recorded that year at a Los Angeles Baptist church, Goldman spent most of the article sneering at the Freaks and their quest for enlightenment. He concluded, “[Jesus] was either a god or a great man, hardly a frightened, restless kid.” In fact, by the early 1970s, Jesus had become a meme, the subject of hit musicals and a Time cover, shouted out in songs by the Doobie Brothers, Paul Simon, and James Taylor. “To me, Jesus is a metaphor,” Taylor told Time (Haines, 247). In pop culture, Jesus had transformed. Once an object of sincere devotion, his cultural presence confined to swords-and-sandals epics, he’d become a dropped name, a teetotaling wingman, an unusually well behaved Merry Prankster.

This transformation seems to have reached its crux in 1969. On the one hand, the year boasted heartfelt Jesus-pop hits from country singer Lawrence Reynolds (“Jesus Is a Soul Man”) and Oakland gospel singer Edwin Hawkins (“Oh Happy Day”). On the other hand, Jewish singer Norman Greenbaum wrote his good-natured heresy “Spirit In the Sky”—“Never been a sinner, I never sinned / I got a friend in Jesus”—as a quick songwriting exercise, an homage to country star Porter Wagoner and the swagger of cowboys in classic Westerns. When Los Angeles singer Linda Ronstadt released her solo debut album that year, she included a swinging cover of the 1950s country song “We Need a Whole Lot More of Jesus (and a Lot Less Rock & Roll).” Her powerful voice obliterated the line between sincerity and archness.

Who knows where she’d learned the song? Maybe from psychedelic band People!, one-hit wonders from the Bay Area who’d closed their 1968 debut album with their own, considerably less swinging version. It was more arch than Ronstadt’s, even, but with a twist: the group’s main songwriter was a devout Christian who had just left the band. Larry Norman had grown up in the Bay Area as part of a born again evangelical family. He never strayed far from the church, but found himself drawn to art, especially rock’n’roll—writing poetry, forming bands, and making home recordings with his sisters. He performed with People! for the two busy years leading up to their first album, but eventually felt forced out by his Scientologist bandmates. Along the way, he hung out with members of Buffalo Springfield and Moby Grape and turned down a lead role in the musical Hair. After leaving People!, Norman moved down to Los Angeles and joined the staff of Capitol Records, writing songs for more hippie rock musicals, a job so bizarrely opportunistic it sounds like a parody of the late 1960s. He also roamed the city streets, witnessing and serenading people for Jesus. In the summer of ’69, Capitol invited him to record a solo album. It was here that he made history.

With Upon This Rock, Larry Norman invented the Christian rock album. He also invented the practice of giving Christian rock albums terrible dad puns for titles. His songs sounded like mainstream rock but addressed Christian life from a kaleidoscope of perspectives, creating templates that generations of Christian songwriters would use. The rollicking “You Can’t Take Away the Lord” repurposes the message of “Blue Suede Shoes” for a youth group singalong. “I Don’t Believe in Miracles” depicts a personal epiphany, paving the way for songs like 4Him’s “I Know You Now” and half of Bruce Cockburn’s catalogue. “Sweet Sweet Song of Salvation” is a meta-praise song that never quite accomplishes what it’s instructing you to do, like Rich Mullins’ “Sing Your Praise to the Lord.” Even goofy Old Testament tales like Keith Green’s “So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt” spring from “Moses in the Wilderness,” where Norman mutters illiberally about “dirty ‘Gyptians” and ends the song by advising, for no discernible reason, “Never borrow money needlessly.” Fighting the flu during the recording sessions, Norman punctuates that last line with a cough like some disheveled financial adviser.

Rock remains one of the weirder major label albums. According to biographer Gregory Alan Thornbury, Norman demanded creative control from his label and got it, producing the album himself, only to be “horrified at the final product.” Besides the coughing and muttering, Norman pounds out atonal clusters at the piano and shrieks out some of his high notes. (That might have been the flu talking.) His singing voice is high and pinched, with a drawl that connotes “rock’n’roll wiseacre” more than it suggests any geographical location known to exist. His stylized delivery of words is compulsively hearable; he seems to fold his tongue into origami shapes as he sings. Abrupt flute and string overdubs appear where you least expect them. Dubiously dubbed “the Sgt. Pepper’s of Christian rock” by one reviewer, probably because one pizzicato string arrangement resembles the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home,” rock is in fact a straightforward collection of unrelated songs, but the album’s lack of a concept just makes its sudden shifts in mood stranger.

And then there are the lyrics. Being well versed in biblical apocalypse, Norman could venture further out than any acid-damaged burnout. His spooky vision of the rapture, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” would become one of his most-covered songs. In “Ha Ha World” and “The Last Supper,” the food imagery alone is far more terrifying than anything conjured by the voices inside your local psych band’s head. A snake crawls around on a plate. Bread turns to dust. Norman receives a mysterious phone call about his missing chicken while his kitchen’s temperature fluctuates wildly. Upon hearing these songs, bewildered believers throughout L.A. shook their heads and called the health department.

Christian albums existed before Upon This Rock, of course, but they occupied a space apart from the pop mainstream—even when they topped the Billboard albums and singles charts simultaneously, like Soeur Sourire’s effortlessly charming 1963 folk offerings The Singing Nun and “Dominique.” Independent labels like The Benson Company had distributed Southern gospel records, and black gospel artists like the Dixie Hummingbirds and Rev. James Cleveland appeared on jazz and R&B indies. 1968 saw the release of Take the Message Everywhere, the debut album from L.A.-based Andraé Crouch and the Disciples, gospel innovators who would soon gain a big Jesus Freak following by learning to rock out. (That’s Crouch’s twin sister, Sandra, playing tambourine on Janis Joplin’s Pearl.) Message was still mostly soft pop, but rumbling through the basslines were hints of the gospel rock the Disciples would play at Explo ’72, the “Christian Woodstock” in Dallas, where they would blow all the other bands off the stage.

Larry Norman’s band at Explo was himself. Although his first album had assembled a formidable lineup of session pros, including legendary L.A. drummer Hal Blaine, his shows were generally loose-limbed solo affairs, full of rambling monologues but still magnetic. Throughout his career, Norman would find himself jostled between a genuine desire to collaborate and loyalty to his own unique visions. This tension extended to his view of the corporate Church. “I’m not talking ’bout religion, I’m talking ’bout Jesus,” he ad-libbed at Explo during “Sweet Sweet Song of Salvation.”

Thornbury elaborates:
He wasn’t taking pot shots at the average pastor, or even traditional theological beliefs. His Moby Dick was institutional Christianity itself. How, he wondered, could you take Jesus… and make him banal? No small irony, then, that his desire to shake up the religious establishment would largely rest on his mastery of the competitive jungle of the major-label record industry. Larry knew it was hard, even for ardent Christian believers, to argue with success. What he may not have realized, so early in his ascent, is that empires under attack tend to strike back. (Thornbury, 59)

Besides the Christian rock album, Norman invented nearly every crisis the Christian music industry has endured over its fifty year history. Christian popular music is like a three-legged stool; its success rests on an uneasy combination of aesthetic quality, commercial appeal, and loyalty to Jesus (or at least to Jesus’s most ardent fans). If one of the legs is missing, the stool topples. Bad Christian pop alienates non-Christians and becomes the butt of their jokes. Christian pop that seems too worldly risks alienating the base, as artists from Amy Grant to Sufjan Stevens have learned. And underground (i.e., unpopular) Christian pop often proves unsustainable for musicians, who either can’t afford to continue or who question the efficacy of their ministry. If the Christian musician’s goal is to win souls and nourish believers, it becomes all too easy to fixate on album and ticket sales as evidence of success. “Christian” “popular” “art” thus becomes an existential dilemma. Is it possible to honor all three impulses at once?

Larry Norman never arrived at an easy answer to these problems. Two months after releasing Rock, Capitol Records dropped him from its roster. Difficult for labels to market, unwilling to align himself with the institutional Church, Norman would release all but two of his subsequent albums on his own labels. He would also forge uneasy relationships with Christian musicians Randy Stonehill, Mark Heard, Steve Camp, and the band Daniel Amos, getting them started in the industry and alienating some of them along the way. When he died in 2008, two things were evident: how little the modern Christian music industry resembles Larry Norman, and how much it still stumbles through those uneasy spaces he opened up. Worship musicians now find hot new songs in subscription databases. Christian singers regularly score crossover hits and mind their media placement portfolios, while Christian radio exists to be “positive and encouraging.” These things are all tools. Used well, they help faith to flourish. But lurking behind these tools are the testy paradoxes and unanswered questions of Larry Norman, advising us not to borrow money needlessly and coughing in our faces.

 

Josh Langhoff is a church musician living in the Chicago area. He is also the founder of NorteñoBlog, a mostly English-language website devoted to Mexican music.

 

Works Cited

Goldman, Albert. “Psocko hit from a psalter.” LIFE, September 15, 1972. Accessed through Google Books.

Haines, John. “The Emergence of Jesus Rock: On Taming the ‘African Beat.’” Black Music Research Journal 31.2 (Fall). 229-260, 2011.  Accessed through JSTOR.

Thornbury, Gregory Alan. Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? New York, NY: Convergent Books, 2018.

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