32. Branded – Undercover
Christian rock changed in one day.
Just one single day and it was all different.
And it took longer than many expected.
Christian rock, new wave and punk of the early 1980’s was filled with poppy, youthfully exuberant songs of joy; a spring of effervescent child-like faith populating Christian bookstores shelves and Youth group halls. The Lifters, Lifesavers, The Chosen Ones, Crumbacher and host of other great young bands were expressing, what was for many, a new and young faith with all the passion that they could muster.
Things were simple. Black and white. Right and wrong. Right and left. As a young teen myself I had learned that “God Rules,” and that was all that mattered. There weren’t any real questions. In fact, real questions were viewed as doubt, and doubt didn’t fit into the Church’s comfort zone and theological box.
The Christian music scene in Southern California was littered with the bands that everyone who lived anywhere else wanted to see and hear. I could attend a concert or youth outreach three to five times a week and see any of the “cool bands” and hang out before and after the shows. So, I did. I was managing the music department (at least the cool stuff) of a bookstore called The Pink Lady. Everyone in Orange County knew the Pink Lady.
Despite being owned by a conservative couple from a Presbyterian Church, they were always among the first stores to carry new music and always had an open arm to local bands and their “demo” tapes. But the store also catered to a very uppity clientele of Church choir directors and was the largest retailer of chorale music in the area.
The two clients never meshed well.
So, the owners decided to convert a seldom used “banquet room” in the back of the Sweet Shoppe (ice cream and candy store) into a music section dedicated to Christian rock. A contest to name the section was held and the name “Rock Garage” was chosen.
And it was ALL MINE!
My first order of business was to have the single greatest Grand Opening event ever. The main part of the sweet shop had booths that i decided to convert into autograph signing booths for a collection of artist i would invite to the event. Artist that day included The Lifter, Altar Boys, Bloodgood, Barren Cross, Neon Cross, Daniel Amos and Undercover. The real winner was Undercover because their new album was going to release a week or so later and I worked out a deal in which we would be able to sell the album at the event before anyone else would ever receive it.
That album was Undercover’s “Branded.” And that day was the day Christian rock changed…at least for me.
The album arrived the day before the event and I took a copy home to listen. Immediately I noticed the cover sported a tatoo. Seriously, a tatoo? What did I get my store into? Where were the cute kids from “Boys and Girls” or the bumper sticker graffiti of “God Rules?”
But it was my ears that were hit the hardest. Sin? Questions? An ominous, darker tone? Dammit, where’s Bill Walden!?!?!
That was how I was introduced to one of the truly great albums in the history of christian rock and alternative music. It is celebrating 25 years in 2011 and it is just as powerful, poignant and perfect 25 years later.
Bill Walden and Joey “Ojo” Taylor had grown apart over the preceding few years between “God Rules” and “Branded.” The in-between release, “Boys and Girls Renounce the World” would feature Walden’s vocals, but he officially left the group before its release. New singer, Sim Wilson joined as the album was being released, but I never saw the “Boys and Girls” tour for some reason. I had heard that Walden had left, but had no idea what to expect when I first listened to Branded.
At the same time Taylor was going through marital, spiritual and personal struggles. These early birth pangs of doubt and discovery impacted and fueled the musical and lyrical change the band would explore on Branded. More influenced by the Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Lamentations that John 3:16, the album is filled with some of the most challenging content available at that time.
It should be noted here that the lyrical shift brought with it a musical change as well. Walden’s new wave and pop vocals were replaced with Wilson’s bombastic and booming (dare I say operatic?) vocals. More intense and powerful, both in its range and passion, the musical landscape shifted as a result. Guitars became heavier and darker and the boppy keyboards and bass lines become more explosive and dynamic.
They are also just flat-out became a better and more cohesive band. They were always heavier and louder live than the first three albums ever revealed. this may have had to do with being placed on a label and working with those better known for Praise String 3 and Psalty the Singing Songbook than rock and roll.
This time they were in a real rock and roll studio and working with real rock and roll producers. We can all be thankful that undercover met Elefante.
The album starts with “I’m Just a Man,” a pounding and driving introduction to the new Undercover. Heavy without being overly fast. It is punk rock without being punk. The themes of fear, doubt and the realization that the formerly accepted easy answers were no longer enough are introduced here and remain throughout. The drums and keyboard rhythms are just relentless and Wilson’s monster voice carry the song forward without a moment of reprieve. Man’s frailty set against the expectations of an adoring, and often judgmental, audience reveals an artist longing for understanding. One must wonder if the song was influenced by the troubling question of just how much could Taylor share without fear of rejection and accusing fingers.
“The Fight for Life” is the only song on the album the really feels like it was written in 1986. Big, overly dramatic and all too earnest, the song does reveal the inner struggle to fight for the faith one has against all odds. Here that faith is in another person, a close relationship that is falling and failing. The emotion is real and the dramatic presentation can be forgiven once it is properly placed in history and set against the personal context.
Borrowing clearly and liberally from Psalm 139, “Where can I Go” asks if there is a place one can go to escape the reach of God. Like the Psalmist, the answer is that life does not exist apart from God. Here Taylor expresses the same emotion as the Disciple when asked if he too was going to dessert Jesus. His response: Where can I go? Musically one of the two or three best songs on the album, it also features a more edgy sounding vocal from Wilson.
The first three undercover album all experimented with punk rock. Often the results were fun live, but somewhat corny in retrospect. Songs like “God Rules,” “Wait a Minute” and “One of These Days” would feature Taylor on vocals because of how Walden’s voice could never communicate that type of material properly or effectively. But the songs still fell flat, most often because of poor studio production. They were great live, but they band or producers could never duplicate the raw emotion in the studio. This problem was solved with “Tears In Your Eyes.” Finally, some real, kick ass punk rock. One of the great punk songs in CCM history.
“Pilate” tells the story of the famous Biblical character who ultimately sentenced Jesus to death. But here the internal conflict is brought to the front. The Christian is challenged with their own part in the death of Christ. No one can excuse them from their own personal guilt and taking part in Christ’s death. There is no passing the buck to the Jews, Pilate or the Roman government. But even more, Pilate realizes that Christ was not guilty and good man, but his own fear and doubt drove him to bow to the wishes of the mob. We are no different.
Life is fleeting and it soon passes. A punk rock version of “Dust in the Wind” of sorts, “Build a castle” examines man’s preoccupation with things that fade, while ignoring those which last. Given the present situation in Taylor’s personal life, the song takes on a totally new and painful meaning.
A ballad of sorts, “Cry Myself to Sleep” is haunting and utterly unforgettable. Wilson’s vocals are more subtle at the right time to carry a message without drowning out the emotion attached to the pain described.
After a keyboard prelude, the band delivers one of their finest moments ever, “Darkest Hour.” Here we find that glimmer of hope, and yet it can only be found in ones darkest point in life. Far from “You’ll have to excuse us, we’re in love with Jesus,” the song still presents an ultimate answer to these nagging doubts and struggles. Despite the darkness closing in, the voice of Jesus is never fully eliminated. Ultimately it is because Jesus too suffered, sweat blood and faced His own darkest hour. There is nothing he went through that was not common to man, for He was man. He came in the flesh. He can relate.
The album closes with two of the greatest songs, not only in the bands illustrious career, but in the history of the genre. If I ever do a “Greatest Songs in CCM History” countdown, they both would clearly rank high on the list.
“Come Away With Me” is worshipful without being in any way a worship song. Wilson’s lower register is strained and emotional in the verses before exploding into the strongest melody on the album in the chorus. The same Jesus revealed in the “Darkest Hour” is there, calling for His own to come away with Him. It is because of the “Darkest Hour” that he can make such a powerful call.
But it is the album closer that ultimately takes an amazing album and turns it into the true classic that it is. Part anthem and part punk rock. The five-minute epic would often become much longer live starts slow and ominous with just keyboard and vocals for roughly the first minute until it becomes a relentless, powerful and unforgettable rock anthem. Same may wish to argue that Wilson has better vocals on some other Undercover song, but I can’t find it. So much emotion packed into 5 minutes. Both joyful and ominous, the warning mixed with jubilation is a rewarding musical exercise.
I will admit that the album was one that I was not an immediate fan of. My youth group bravado was still crying out to renounce the world, and i was not quite fully ready for the challenges that album delivered. But I never gave up on it. It not only eventually won me over, it became a staple for now some 25 years.
Christian music changed in one day…
It just took a long time.