43. Electric Eye – Prodigal
ELECTRIC EYE (1984)
In 1982 I was a Junior in High School and had a subscription to Campus Life Magazine. One day I saw an ad for a brand new band called Prodigal that sported a very cool cover, which was a take off on Escher’s famous painting.
But what was even better was that there was a pull out single for the band attached to the center of the magazine. These were all the rage during the 1970’s and often found included inside cereal boxes or even attached to the cardboard of those same cereal boxes. You had to take the very flimsy plastic disc, place it on top of a solid LP and then you could play the single.
That was the first of three Prodigal releases, and all three made this list. That band was that damned good. probably better than we even realize. Prodigal is easily the most overlooked and unsung band in CCM history…PERIOD!
The type of innovation already noted was what fans could expect from the band Prodigal during their short-lived three record existence. Their innovations also included being the first recipient of the Dove Award for “Video of the Year.” They were one of the few bands that continued to invest in the fledgling video marketing promotional support creating several videos per release.
And even for the album in question there was what is called a “stop groove” at the end of the side 2 and a “hidden bonus track” of sorts which contained a computer code for the old Commodore 64 computer. Using a cassette drive a person could get bonus information about the album along with photos and lyrics. This may have become common with the invent of compact discs, but this was totally revolutionary in 1984.
All three of their album covers were spectacular. But it was the content, both musically and lyrically, that set Prodigal above their peers for the time. Where other artist bemoaned the struggles, pain and realities of life on this spinning globe, Prodigal placed themselves within that reality and expressed those struggles from one who is intimately aware and experienced with those struggles.
Where the first album stayed along the musical lines of Steely Dan and the Eagles, it was with “Electric Eye” the band became very current, and dare I say, cutting edge. Guitar driven rock and new wave synth pop merged to create a sound that was uniquely Prodigal while immediately familiar and memorable. Driving keyboard and bass that for some reason reminds me of the music from the “St. Elmo’s Fire” soundtrack. Also another unique feature is the use of three different lead singers with duties distributed according to musical style.
The content on “Electric Eye” is beautifully portrayed on the album cover shown above. We have surrounded ourselves with so much to entertain us and consume our time that the difference between reality and artificial are not just blurred but rather the artificial begins to be more “real.” Note how the actual lightning through the window is faded and bland while the same lightning shown on the television set is vibrant and exiting. This is expressed in different ways on the album along with a host of other topics that are both poignant and eternal.
Even the recording process was experimental. The album was recorded in an abandoned Catholic Girls school in Cincinnati using a mobile recording system built into a motor home. Band members would move from room to room to create a different acoustic sound to discover the best fit for a particular song.
Lead vocalist and band leader Loyd Boldman told me that at the time the band (especially himself) was listening a lot to Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and “The River” as well as Daniel Amos and Michael Omartian. These influences shade and nuance much of what makes this record so amazing. With the knowledge guitar parts, vocal styles and overall production results make sense.
The goal was to create a larger, less polished and precise studio album that the debut was. In that area the band succeeded with flying colors.
“Scene of the Crime” is the first song on the album and starts with a police siren leading into an aggressive guitar and keyboard driven rock sound akin to Foreigner or even 38 Special. Lead singer Loyd Boldman’s bombastic baritone is both edgy and clean as needed with nods to Meatloaf for pure power. Man’s guilt is laid to bear within relationships and how we often leave others with wounds that never heal.
I know it’s hard to find a love that’s real
In a world of steel
Some wounds never heal
After all the things you’ve said and done
You haven’t fooled anyone
But you’re caught with a smoking gun
But it’s over, you’re caught at the scene of the crime
Now it’s over, you can’t run away this time
You’re caught at the scene of the crime.
But the murderous actions are not missed by the judge who sees all as this is pointed out. We can try to run from the pain and suffering we leave in our wake, but cannot escape a righteous judge.
God only know, what you’ve been running from
And God only knows what you’ve become
Do you think He’s deaf, do you think He’s blind
Can you get away with murder one more time
Boldman’s vocals at the end of the song place him amongst one the best unheralded rock voices in Christian music. You believe his words because you believe his passion and authenticity.
“Fast Forward” follows with a more new wave driven guitar sound similar to early Police. The song explores the rat race we constantly subject ourselves to and the innate desire to be free from those constraints. Upbeat and poppy music juxtaposed against a sense of futility and hopelessness makes the point that much more powerful.
The dreams all stop/at 6am
Alarm clock rings/ once again
Pump my body full of caffeine
Aim my briefcase for the door
One more suburban blast-off
Here the countdown 1, 2, 3, 4
I don’t wanna be a number on the turnstile
Another figure in a government file
I don’t want to be a byte in the foreground
Another digit on a telephone line
The artist then bemoans how quickly life goes by and that there will never be a time when he can truly enjoy his life as the gift it was intended to be. Time keeps slipping away and the conveyor belt keeps turning. He eventually asks “Am I killing time or is it killing me?”
Prodigal separated itself from others in their genre by refusing to give clichéd answers to life’s deeper questions and quite often the listener is left with the same sense of despair that the subject of the song expresses. The same is true here as after a wonderful acoustic piano and electric guitar solo (finest on the album I believe) the subject sits lonely pondering “where has my life gone?”
The nearly Queen-like piano driven rock number “Masks” asks the question of what mask should I put on today in order to avoid reality and most importantly, so that the world will not be able to get through and make contact with him. But this subject realizes his deficiency and pleads for an answer to whether there is someone who can take those masks away in order that he can truly see.
These are real questions and Prodigal does not tread on them lightly nor do they give the easy, pat answers most often associated with Christian music. Rather here Boldman is just beginning the earnest search for the one who can make him see. All this set to a melody comparable to Daniel Amos’ “Horrendous Disc.”
Again referring to the struggles of an artificial, teflon world the band addresses our consumerism based on the self-gratification it provides, “Just What I Need” describes the man consumed with the images around him and the selfish desires they create. Lead vocals are shared with Boldman taking the chorus in a song not far removed something by Supertramp with heavier guitars.
Irresistible, indispensable, unbelievable
And it’s just what I need
It’s so practical, so affordable, unavoidable
Well, it’s just what I need
“Emerald City” is one the true highlights on the album starting with a clip from the “Wizard of Oz.” For those looking for heaven “you don’t have to look so far.” This may be the most evangelical (for lack of a better term) track on the record. It possesses a very memorable big, keyboard driven hook that would work with Supertramp or Chicago but placed squarely in the 1980’s.
The title track returns to the Boldman voiced big rock sound featured on “Scene of the Crime.” The vocals were actually recorded in a stairwell of the aforementioned girls school with no additional reverb! This ode to the obsession of modern man with the advancements in technology, Boldman describes how the artificial has replaced the real and the disconnect it creates.
I get my good times from a laugh track
I got my news from professional smiles
I got religion on the cable
I got my name on the micro-file
I don’t even have to leave my lounge chair
I change my channels by remote control
Radio, stereo, video it’s all just electric eyes
The song ends with a groove driven keyboard with samples of television programming placed on top taking center stage, ending with the fuzzy sound of channels changing and merging into the sound of a video game being played. This blends directly into the next song, “Bobby,” without a break. Bobby appears to be a young victim of this artificial society, one unable to make decisions for himself as peers encourage drug use and avoidance of the real world.
Bobby, puppet on a string
You feel like a bird with broken wings
Bobby, you’re growing up scared
Wired to your own electric chair
…ten thousand voices ringing out your ears
“Shout It Out” is breathe of joyful air amidst the heavier music and topics. A very upbeat musical number, the message is an encourage to the listener to express their faith in bold proclamation. Rather than releasing Jungian repressed depression (like Tears for Fears) the listener is encouraged to understand the joy in the Gospel and the pleasure of expressing the gift of life that accompanies it. This is really a fun song and Boldman sound brighter and more energetic with this content than on any other Prodigal number.
“Neon” is a very unique keyboard driven, borderline ethereal number with verses in spoken word poetry similar to Steve Scott’s work. The chorus, though, is sung and is hauntingly unforgettable. The call of the singer is to be seen as light in the midst of a dark and lonely city.
I wanna shine like neon
I wanna shine like neon
In the city tonight.
The poetry that consumes the verses must be listened to over and over as they describe beautifully haunting images set against the swirling keyboards that are nearly trance-like. The song finishes with those same keyboard atop a constant, pounding, hypnotic drumming.
The first single from the project was the acoustic ballad “Boxes,” and here it closes out the album. Again here the lyrical content was much too far out of the norm of Christian radio and the expression of the lost, lonely and homeless did not (does not still) set well with the primary audience of Christian radio. This is by far the best song not sung by Boldman. It has nearly a Steve Bishop, James Taylor quality to it. Simple, reflective, plaintive and eventually stirring.
(One of the best CCM songs ever).
As the song fades a keyboard driven string arrangement increases and fades as an electronic enhanced voice hauntingly sings the chorus of “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.” This, the first time and every time, is unexpected and emotionally moving. It so perfectly fits the conclusion of both the song “Boxes” and the entire project that I can imagine no finer finish. In a world that demands your eyes and attention be fixed upon technology, yourself and the facades it creates, the true and lasting response is to turn your eyes upon Jesus.
There are great albums and then there are “important” albums that changed the landscape are live long past their usefulness for a record company. It is even rarer to find an album that is both. This is clearly one of those albums.