31. Lighten Up – Barry McGuire
LIGHTEN UP (1974)
In 1965 Barry McGuire, former member of the New Christy Minstrels, released the album “Eve of Destruction.” During that same year the single of the same name went to Number One on Billboard’s Hot 100. But it would be 6 years later that McGuire would claim was the greatest event of his life took place. After an encounter with traveling evangelist Arthur Blessitt McGuire became a Christian and started a Christian Music career that would span as many genres as it would decades. Rock, folk, pop, country and even children’s music would be used by McGuire to proclaim the Gospel and he would find success in all of those areas.
Most would remember the hit Eve of Destruction while others may remember the corny novelty country/spoken word song,”Cosmic Cowboy.” Some may even be more familiar with his work with the Agape Ministries children’s project, “Bullfrogs and Butterflies.” But it would be his second Christian release, “Lighten Up,” that would remain the landmark project of his career.
One side note before launching into a discussion of this fantastic, classic album is that McGuire’s Christian debut release, “Seeds,” would be notable for the inclusion of a trio of siblings doing backing vocals. Those siblings would later be known as The Second Chapter of Acts. They would also tour together several years later and record one of the great, classic live albums in CCM history entitled, To the Bride.
As I was listening to this project recently I was surprised by just how much it rocks! McGuire is a big man with a voice to match. It is rough edged, gravelly while remaining warm and personable. The songs in this collection match his particular voice better than just about any other project in his illustrious career. Lighten Up also featured an amazing cast of supporting musicians including Second Chapter of Acts, Leland Sklar, Michael Omartian, Larry Knechtal and Michael Been.
The album starts off with a shortened version of his monster hit, “Eve of Destruction.” This version lasts less than two minutes and is a little less folk sounding as it builds and moves, without a break, into the following song, “Don’t Blame God.” Lyrically it follows on the heals of “Destruction” quite well with images a decaying culture, but prophetically rebuking American not to blame God for the sins of America. But unlike the original “Eve of Destruction” there is a presentation of hope as McGuire quotes 2 Chronicles 7:
“If My people, who are called by my name shall humble themselves and pray. Seek My face and turn from their wicked ways. Then from Heaven will I hear. Forgive them of their sin. And heel their land.”
The song itself just flat out rocks! After a slow and quiet start, the song builds into a full fledged Southern Rock riff that Molly Hatchet or Thin Lizzy would be proud of. It is also here that were are introduced to young keyboardist named Michael Omartian as his piano work is just brilliant.
Larry Knechtal (Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel) stands out with an amazing piano performance on “Callin’ Me Home” a beautiful and haunting ballad that is by no means “pop” but rather sung in a melancholy and longing manner to match the content. This stark and limited instrumentation behind McGuire’s gravelly, monster voice would become a trademark. In fact, later albums with bigger production and more instrumentation would prove to be not nearly as compelling. McGuire is so believable and authentic that just a voice and piano delivers.
Another upbeat rocker follows called “Pay the Piper.” This songs adds instrumentation (though still stark and limited) and intensity as it moves along and McGuires edgier, bluesier vocals shine here. Musically it has a feeling like something closer to The Doors than anything else at the time.
One of the highlights from Lighten Up (and any other McGuire album for that matter) is “When the Mist Has Rolled Away.” Again the wonderful piano work of Knechtel shines with a groove closer to Lynard Skynard’s southern rock than country or folk and the backing vocal work of the Wards and Herrings really shine here. There is also a surprising twist with a horn section coming in just past the midway point. If this release wasn’t on Myrrh this could have been a secular radio favorite. It remains one of McGuire’s finest offerings.
McGuire’s ability to shift from melancholy and dark to upbeat, boisterous and joyful is really quite amazing as the first of several upbeat, poppy tunes, “Walk in the Sonshine” displays his brighter side. McGuire’s authenticity and joyful expressions keep the song from sounding like something from the Brady Kids.
This is immediately followed by “Hey! World,” a straight ahead rocker, heavier than just about anything available in mainstream Christian Music at the time. This song moves through differing time signatures and rhythms flawlessly. Both funky and bluesy it simply works! Tale note of the great bass and drum work on this one.
McGuire returns to a more simple, country rock vibe with “You’ve Heard His Voice.” Once again McGuire carries the song with his passion and clarity of mission. Fitting perfectly into the mid-70’s of darker, story-like anthems, the song reveals a more artistic side to McGuire’s musical palette.
Another stand out on the project would becomes the signature song for McGuire for many years to follow. The fun and funky “Happy Road” works well in this set and is the perfect juxtaposition to the darker and heavier themes previously explored. This “life on the road” ditty could have been covered by any number of southern rock acts of the same era.
The record closes with “Anyone But Jesus,” another funk and blues driven tune and features the best and most passionate vocals from McGuire on the whole project. He appears pleasantly content and passionate about singing:
“I’m not gonna sing about anyone but Jesus…”
That defines Barry McGuire and his 40 year Christian Music ministry! This long out of print project still remains his definitive work and it’s albums like this that deserve to find a home on the shelf of all fans of Christian music and anyone who wants to have a sense of the great history of the genre.