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15. Gut Level Music – Altar Boys

GUT LEVEL MUSIC

Altar Boys

As a Christian teen just graduating from high school in Orange County in the early 80′s there were three words that always went together; Undercover, Lifesavers and the Altar Boys. Every Friday night there seems to be a dance at a local Lutheran Church or High School gym with those three bands. All three became synonymous with the punk rock Jesus Movement of the 80′s.

Undercover’s brand of keyboard driven new wave punk was the leading force of the movement with three records under their belt by 1984 including the iconic “God Rules.” Merging the melodic keyboard driven new wave with occasional aggressive punk rock, Undercover had not only endeared themselves t the average high school in the OC but had received general acceptance  within Christian Music circles as well, even receiving airplay on the local radio station, the iconic KYMS.

I was working both at a Christian Bookstore and helping out at the radio station at the time and always tried to convince the music director to give some of the local bands a shot. Undercover made it easier by doing melodic punk rock versions of praise and worship songs that were able to be squeezed into the station rotation.

The Lifesavers preceded Undercover by just a few months though they played together long before either band had their debut release hit the shelves. The Lifesavers were a much more electric and guitar driven new wave and punk style band. Their first release, Us Kids, was released on the same label as Undercover’s debut; a Calvary Chapel subsidiary called Ministry Resource Center (MRC).

The Lifesavers (Lifesavors for their first release) would see their lead singer, Mark Kirschak leave after the first album, which allowed Michael Knott to take center stage and take the band in a more punk/new romantic style on their second album on the Refuge label, receiving national distribution through the Benson company. Kirschak would leave to form Labor of Love with Brian Doidge, who would later join forces with Knott on LSU and other projects.

MRC also released the first Crumbacher album as well as a wonderful compilation of Southern California Christian rock acts called, “What’s Shakin’.”

Another band the came from that same assortment of OC Christian bands was the rockabilly band, The Lifters.  The Lifter’s bass player, Brian ray, would eventually marry CCM queen Crystal Lewis and the Lifters would do one record under the name of Wild Blue Yonder with Crystal handling the vocals. That album would be produced by Terry Scott Taylor of Daniel Amos and Swirling Eddies fame. The early to mid-80′s in Southern California Christian music never even reached the distance of the “six degrees of separation.”

Now getting back to the Lifesavers, the original drummer was Kevin Annis. His younger brother, Mike, would use the stage name “Stand” (as in Mike Stand) would form a little garage band called…the Altar Boys. They would release two garage punk albums in the vein of the Ramones.

All of the above is from my frail memory and I am sure I missed a few things or confused a bit of the timing, but that’s how I remember it. I’m sure there will be some comments that correct the time-line or some facts.

During those formative years they always seemed to the third band on the bill with Undercover and the Lifesavers. Then in 1986 the Altar Boys signed with the fledgling Frontline Records and proceeded to create the single greatest punk rock album in Christian Music history.

The maturity and growth in the band as musicians was only outdone by the growth of leader, vocalist and songwriter Mike Stand. couple with one of the coolest album covers ever, the album was filled with more melodic, well crafted and intelligent and authentic rock than the industry had seen before. While maintaining an evangelical approach and without compromising on mission or content, Mike and the band went into the studio and created their masterpiece.

Think about it this way; how many albums are known by the title’s initials?

GLM!

Stand may not have been the greatest singer within the genre but very few could ever match the authenticity and passion that he demonstrated on GLM. Like bands like The Alarm and even U2 the Altar Boys demonstrated on GLM a true sense of belonging and approachability by portraying true and actual empathy for the subjects of the songs on this record. When Stand screams “you are loved” you don’t just nod in agreement you firmly believe it and act accordingly.

On the rock radio classic, “You are Loved” Stand writes to the kind on the edge the same way Springsteen wrote to the coal miner and laid off auto line worker. You never sense Stand is talking down to his audience, but rather, when he says that they are loved it is assumed that Mike loves them as much as God does.

Hard times in the city
They just don’t go away
Out here the anger and frustration
Never takes a holiday
Well, I’ve seen the faces and
I’m not gonna turn away
Hey! I’m talking to you
I’m trying to get thru
God cares about you more than you think!

You are loved!

The same level of believability follows the band in to the title track, “GLM.” Again like Springsteen, Stand delivers an authentic message to subjects that you know are real. In the case of “GLM” it is Jimmy, Sally and Dana. These characters range from a criminal and failed actress to the depressed and suicidal. In case Stand approaches the characters of the song with a gut level Gospel, one that does need apologetic subtleties, but rather an “in your face” or in this case, “in your gut” approach.

In G.L.M. there’s a message that we send.
In G.L.M., Gut Level Music our communication
G.L.M., In your gut you know He’s there.
He’s on a level you can understand,
He’s in the music that you hear in G.L.M.!!

It is admittedly not poetry, but it’s the passion that separates the Altar Boys from other bands. It is simply unmatched here. The same for the following song, “I’m Not Talking About Religion.” Borrowing from the popular theme of the Jesus Music of the 70′s and the corresponding Gospel presentation for the time; it’s not about religion, it’s about relationship.

The one really compelling thing about GLM is the constant, non-stop, full throttle attack from one song to the next. there is no let up. there is no ballad to “bring things down” and even a soft lyrical approach. One perfect example is “I Question It.”

Look at what they’re teaching in our schools today
Evolution’s a fact
Creations a dream
Well I question it!

Well the law says it’s ok to kill an unborn baby
It’s a mothers choice
Throw the baby away
Well I question it!!!

One of the Altar Boy’s fan bases favorite songs follows with “You Found Me.” This testimonial deals with the truth that it is God that seeks us out. And once we are “truly” found we will want to see the world around us the same way the Lord sees it.

Regeneration a new sensation
The rebuilding of my broken heart
I’ve put my faith into action
I’ve got a clean, a brand new start
The more I seek the more I find You
It seems the wonders never cease
How can I ever repay You
Help me Lord to see just what You see

I remember when I had just taken over as manager of the music department at Maranatha Village from the departed Brian Tong that I went to visit Brian at the new Frontline offices. While talking about the new Altar Boys record he mentioned that there would be a cover song on the album on the album that no one would ever expect. The Altar Boys are going to do a Donna Summer cover. The song is “Unconditional Love,” as song written by Donna Summer and Christian music legend Michael Omartian.

And it works! Big time!

That song is followed by the wonderfully jangly “There is a Love” that could have just been easily recorded by Jacob’s trouble or even Daniel Amos, circa 1977!

We all sing songs of happiness and songs of pain
I hear it all the time in the melodies we make
A heart that grows cold makes some sad, sad music
Is there hope for him, Buddy listen in cause

There is a love…

“Calling to You” rips through with breakneck speed and is the closest to real punk rock with its Ramones vibe. But at the expense of being called a heretic, I find the Altar Boys to be better melody writers and musicians, at least here.

“The Final Hour” continues GLM’s sonic assault and Gospel propelled message with the latter dealing directly with the death of Christ. The placement of the song on the album was well conceived as it perfectly sets up the epic stand out album closer, “Life Begins at the Cross.” The darker, edgier tone is just relentless.

“Life Begins at the Cross” is simultaneously beautiful and melodic as well as passionate and engaging. It also contains Stands best and most sincere vocals. Alba would later go on to produce one of the most underrated solo projects, “Holes in the Floor of Heaven.” What he wrote here to finish this remarkable record could have lasted twice its length and still not have caused the listener to grow weary.

And if you want to live eternally
God said pick up you cross and follow me
And then He was crucified
Put on a cross crucified
So I can live again

Life begins at the cross
It’s not easy to take,
But it’s the price you pay
Life begins at the cross
No other way

I cannot remember a single Altar Boys concert (and there were many for me) that did not contain this song. It was always an extended version of the song with audience participation being the central theme. There was something both cathartic and exciting about hearing hundreds of teen and young adults scream “Life begins at the cross” over and over. The song remains a true classic for the genre and one of the most important songs on this or any other similar album. It would easily rank among the very best songs.

The Altar Boys would go on to create several more very good albums and Stand would produce two very solid solo projects and start a new band, ‘Clash of Symbols,” and recently created The Altar Billies combining country with the Altar Boys energy and punk style. But it would be their Frontline debut that would be forever etched in Christian Music annals of history as a true “classic.”

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  1. Shawn McLaughlin
    November 17, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    I’ve always contended that this album has much more to do with the tradition of a Bruce Springsteen than it does The Clash……Though I have seen The Boss do a phenomenal version of “London Calling” so maybe there is a thread there. Anyway, as much as I love this album, I doubt it would be anywhere near my top 50. I’m a HUGE Stand fan, though.

  2. Don
    November 17, 2011 at 8:33 pm

    I remember the acclaim when this came out – from several sources. Then I listened to it and thought it was too simple, maybe even too juvenile.

    But I was not impressed with the Clash either (and only partially impressed with Springsteen) so I guess I am praising them with faint damnation. (I have little use for the Ramones as well).

    I did like Mike Stand’s later stuff as well – I need to find that somewhere.

  3. Adam
    November 22, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    I liked this album a great deal. It was a good follow-up to the awesome “When You’re a Rebel.” I didn’t care for subsequent Altar Boys albums as much. Then again, when I went to college, I quit listening to albums in my car because it didn’t have a CD player (they were very expensive back then) so I didn’t get to listen to the follow-ups nearly as much and that seemed to affect how much I enjoyed music in general.

    I still have them. I should probably put them in my car for a while 😉

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