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1. The 77’s – The 77’s

January 9, 2012 61 comments

THE 77’s (1987)

The 77’s

Released within a few weeks of U2’s “The Joshua tree” on the exact same label, this album was supposed to make a rock stars out the band and make Christian Music’s finest rock band a household name. “The Joshua Tree” caught fire, became the biggest thing in the label’s history and The 77’s became cut out bin material in the mind of the label. Though nestled within the grooves of this masterpiece in the finest collection of rock songs Christian Music has ever produced. there is such diversity, creativity and originality that it stands beyond the test of time and continues to deliver the finest listening experience by a Christian band.

I have spent countless reviews discussing the fact that Michael Roe is one of the greatest treasures in Christian Music. There may be better songwriters (Terry Scott Taylor, Mark Heard) better guitarists (Phil Keaggy?) and better live performers (Bono?), but none that have the hat tricks of being amongst the very best in all categories. Roe would clearly rank amongst the best in every measurable category and on the self0titled third release it came together in abrilliant fashion.

the album also features what I believe is, by far, the finest line-up the band ever compiled. Their extensive live performances at the time allowed them to fine tune some amazing rock chops and work through the songs included on this project so that the album feels very live and frenetic while polished and perfect. Roe’s collection of songs here combines the finest in self-indulgent  experimentation and finely and perfectly crafted pop tunes in a rock setting. There is literally not a single blemish and every song is brilliant unto itself, despite the variety and limitless risks taken on several cuts.

This combination of radio friendly pop rock, acoustic tinged Americana and experimental rock and blues is appealing to both critic and “fan” alike. That is a truly rare combination.

I have dealt in detail with the history of the band in other reviews and won’t do so here. This is all about the album. I am going to guess Roe will read the review (like he did of previous ones) and tell me I am wrong about several opinions expressed.

Oh well…

If any complaint can be made about the album it is that it is too short. Recorded at a time when vinyl and cassette were still the primary formats, the length of an album was always an issue. Later releases would offer songs left off this amazing project and would prove to be worthy of inclusions of their own.

The album starts with what should have been a number one rock radio hit, “Do It For Love.” This inspiring and inspired rock song contains the bands finest and most memorable hook to that point and would offset an album filled with regret, misery, loss and confusion. But what a brilliant way to kick of such an album, with a joyous song revealing in love and experience, both emotional and spiritual. The rollicking 60’s influence guitar sound would be repeated elsewhere on the project, but here it sounds so fresh and different, which set against the backdrop of the rest of the music scene at the time.

After such a joyous introduction, Roe’s reflections of love turn darker and more internal. “I Can’t get Over It” deals with the reality of how ones own selfish decision to not forgive leaves true love behind and replaces it with regret and bitterness.  Roe’s self-realization is haunting as everyone has seen someone they love throw away something good even though they could have easily saved the situation by being honest and humble. This is a difficult emotion to overcome. Musically, it is still a very hook driven rock song, with some of Aaron Smith’s finest drum work; not for its complexity but rather for its sheer power and punch! Roe is never content to let a song rest on its own hook, but rather, he adds such passion and attitude into the performace that it breaks through where other songs would be soon forgotten.

The same aggressive rock riff follows with “What Was In That Letter.” Roe’s improved songwriting here allows for a double meaning to persists. Whether it is a real letter written from a lost love or convicting friend, or whether it is God’s letter the Bible, the song message rings true. Roes gruff vocals here stand out against a more rough edged guitar sound in the chorus. What really stands out though is the inclusion of an acoustic piano accompanying the riffing guitar. It gives the song a sound akin top The waterboys or even the Smiths, but with a decidedly heavier sound.

A long standing live favorite and utterly brilliant recording performance follows with “Pearls Before Swine.” Recorded with an “as live” soundtrack, this aggressively blues rock number shows Roe’s supremacy as songwriter and rock vocalist. But even more so it is here that the CCM world discovered that Michael roe is clearly one of the great rock guitarists that has ever graced it’s stage. The whiny and winding riffs just weave in and out and through the listener. the song starts heavy and somehow actually builds and builds. the crescendo is a pure rock orgasm. It is both painful and exhilarating. As Roe moans and then screams the words “veil of ashes” over and over the song just transcends anything CCM had ever witnessed with the band nearly out of control in some sort of progressive blues experiment. The band Veil of Ashes would take their name from this song.

After this the breathless listener is then jolted back to reality with a musical expression utterly and completely different. “The Lust, the Flesh, the Eyes and the Pride of Life” follows with what should have been the biggest hit in the bands history. The Byrds influence is unmistakable with the jangly guitar and lyrical scheme heavily influenced by the legendary band. It should be noted here that there has been some discussion about a potential Top Songs in CCM history blog. Since I would be crazy to attempt such a feat, I will let the cat out of the bag that this song would be my hands down number one. It is about a perfect rock song as has ever been written. the melody is timeless, the performance spot on, and without the aid of long guitar solos or crazy instrumentation, the band simply put together a brilliantly simple song that will remain a true classic.

Regret again takes center stage thematically with “Frames With a Photograph.” The mid-tempo rocker finds Roe in familiar territory and sounds a bit like a handful of songs from “All Fall Down.” The sense of longing Roe projects is so real and human that nearly all could relate to the message. Again here Roe makes the song more universal by allowing the listener to determine whether the one who can fill the frame is God or another person. This allows for a much more universal expression and a better song overall.

“Don’t Say Goodbye” is perfect Roe song. A cool little groove mixed a sultry vocal line that turns quickly rock and roll. Again we find Smith’s drum work driving the song onto a different level. Rather than dealing with guilt of loss Roe expresses the frustration of a loved one who selfishly leaves and has yet to find and greener grass despite the promise. Yet there is a longing from Roe for the person to stay. this conflict of frustration and love is again a more universal theme than most CCM bands would ever dare to address. Musically it is not too far removed from “Someone New” but with a much better guitar riff and solo.

A long time favorite has been the melodious “Bottom Line.” This is all about the groove. Sexy and soulful, the song just pulls the listener in. It is inescapable. The song also contains one of Roe’s finest lines with “Peace of heart is better than peace of mind.” the song never bursts into some sort of rock cliche, but stays true to itsel;f and delivers on content and performance.

The album closes with a stream of consciousness experiment acoustic folk rocker called “I Could laugh.” It is both utterly odd and utterly brilliant at the same time. many have struggled with the unconventional lyrics including lines about having a “rocket in my pocket” and “what will get me off” and the way the song just plods along with no hook and even a suitable conclusion. It just is. And it just is brilliant. But the way Roe infuses similar imagery and spins the songs into different directions by using juxtapositions and repeated themes in different settings makes it truly an original. One example of what I mean is Roe’s use of the word “right” in back to back lines. in one line it refers to the direction while it later refers to the privilege. he uses homonyms like missed and mist in back to back lines as well.

I used to believe the song did not require repeated listens. now I find myself waiting anxiously for the song to start. I grab something new from it during every listen. At nearly 8 minutes and no instrumental break it is a lyrical tour de force and yet there is not a single line worthy of dismissal.

And with this epic acoustic ballad or sorts the album comes to end.

And so does this blog…at least the countdown part.

IT.IS.FINISHED.

2. Only Visiting This Planet – Larry Norman

January 9, 2012 23 comments

ONLY VISITING THIS PLANET (1972)

Larry Norman

Prophet…scoundrel…poet…thief…comedian…clown…rock star…fallen star…

A living, breathing contradiction in terms, Larry Norman passed away on February 24th, 2008 at the age of 60. I attended the funeral, arriving late and “listening” to it from outside the doors of a Church near Salem, Or.

*          *          *          *          *

Pastor Steve Wilkins spoke of the great Scottish warrior William Wallace several years ago at a conference. In his introductory remarks he noted that we actually know very little historical “facts” about Wallace and that most of what we believe about Wallace comes from an epic poem by an English Minstrel named Blind Harry a century or two after the death of Wallace.

Blind Harry’s poem stretches, twists and turn the truth on many occasions as it was compiled through oral traditions in which “legends” entered and merged, mixed and meshed with historical fact to create the larger than life character portrayed in the movie, Braveheart. And now even centuries later dissecting the truth from the legend and lore has proven to be nearly impossible.

But Wilkins argues that there is no real harm in the fabricated additions to the lore and legacy of Wallace, and in fact they play a very important role in actual history. Wilkins explains that it was the “legend” of Wallace that inspired many Scottish Christians to seek a new land in the Americas and eventually take up arms for the same freedoms they believed and perceived Wallace had fought for many centuries previous. It was not the actual truth that inspired them and carried them through difficult times and decisions, but the “legend” built upon the truth.

This placement may become the greatest controversy on the list. I assume most will argue this should have been ranked number one. It was number one on the Top 50 list that inspired this countdown. It is number one on many other critics and collaborated Top Album Charts. It is recognized as one of the truly great artistic achievements in CCM history.

It, I will agree, is the single most important album in CCM history, and one of the greatest artist achievements any CCM artist has aspired to create. It could be number. Maybe it should be. As stated in a previous post; this has been the death of me. I have decided to keep the vast majority of the Top 50 review in tact here because the album is as important socially and historically as it is musically. It’s history and the history of the artist himself is valuable in understanding the release.

Larry Norman was born in Corpus Christi, TX but spent most of his formative years in Northern California near or in the Bay Area of San Fransisco. He was introduced to God and the Church early in his life at a Black Pentecostal Church in the neighborhood he grew up in.

In his late teens he joined a band called People! out of the Bay Area that took their name on as a response to the common use of animals or insects for rock band names like The Animals, The Beatles and The Byrds. A psychedelic, blues band People! only scored one hit with the song, a cover of the Zombies (which was OK I guess because they used to be people) hit song, “I Love You” that did crack the Top 20.

The album also contained the song “What We Need Is a Lot More of Jesus, and A Lot Less Rock and Roll,” which in reality comes off as a parody of mainstream evangelical Church life and thought. There was really nothing very “Christian” about the song despite its title. This is a bit odd as Norman would later claim that the album was supposed to be named after that song and that the supposed original artwork was changed to just a photo of the band and the title changed to simple. “I Love You.” Other band members would dispute this claim.

This would begin a long list of revisionist history claims by others regarding Norman’s version of things.

People! would record one more album for Capitol Records but Norman will have left previous to its release and end up only appearing one song. Along with the above claim of censorship by Capitol Records, Norman claimed that band members were being forced to embrace Scientology or forced to leave. This too is denied by band members.

The band would reunite 5 years later for a benefit concert at UCLA that would later be released under the name, “The Israel Tapes.”

Larry would record his first solo album, Upon This Rock, in 1969 for Capitol Records, the same label he claimed censored his work with People! This album is a very “Christian” album in all respects and would kick off a solo career that would last until his death in 2008. It is as the result of this album that Norman is credited with being the father of Christian Rock.

Christian Rock was born!

Upon This Rock is considered one of Norman’s finest works combining both blatantly Christian and evangelical messages as well as social and political commentary. This would remain a constant for Norman, who was the first Christian artists to make very progressive commentary on many issues that would conflict with mainstream Christianity.

The album would contain many Norman classics that would endure for decades including You Can’t Take Away the Lord, Moses in the Wilderness, Nothing Really Changes and Sweet Sweet Song of Salvation (which would become a youth group and Young Life favorite).Norman was influenced by Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Black Gospel Music and it shows here and on every album that would follow.

Also included on this album would be the first version of the song that would define both him and the Jesus Movement for all time, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” The song would be covered an inordinate number of time, not only by other artists but by Norman himself, appearing on more than just a handful of albums that would follow.

The Jesus Movement had a focal point of its ministry the idea of the soon coming secret Rapture of the Church. Theologians CI Scofield and Louis Sperry Chafer were primary influences as well as the Latter Rain Movement, a Pentecostal movement that emerge after World War ll that taught that the return of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Charismatic “gift” experiences would be a sign of the end times. Evangelist and “hippie prophet” Lonnie Frisbee would also play a major in the burgeoning musical genre.

The above coupled with the growing popularity of the unique “Dispensational” position on eschatology, the “Secret Rapture” was a major component of the Jesus Music and his rapture-ready song became the movements anthem. The song would even play a major role in the popular evangelical movie, “A Thief In the Night.”

Normans’ music and appearance would not play well in mainstream Christian circles that still argued that drums were inherently evil and the use of modern musical styles violated God’s ordinance. there is no doubt there was also a racial component to this issue as well. Norman’s music was heavily influenced not only by modern folk and rock of the time, but by Black Gospel music as well.

It would be the last nationally distributed album for Norman until the release of “Only Visiting This Planet” in 1972. In the years in between he would record and release two independent projects called “Street Level” and “Bootleg.” Both would feature grainy, underground looking black and white artwork. Both would also be “double albums” mixing live concert recording, studio demos of previously unreleased songs and future classics.

These albums would also reveal the smart and piercing humor Norman would always be noted for. Norman concerts were part rock and roll show, part revival meeting and part stand up comedy. This facet of his life and ministry would be introduced on these two albums. One section from “Bootleg” in particular really shines as he addressed the National Youth Workers of America Conference introducing “Sweet Sweet Song of Salvation.”

Several songs from the two “independent” releases would find their way on to what is known as the “The Trilogy.” The Trilogy of albums include Only Visiting This Planet, So Long Ago the Garden and In Another Land. Though recognized as a trilogy of records Norman only stated that they were informally created to deal with the present, past and future (respectively) with each album focusing on one of those topics.

Norman had left Capitol after “Upon This Rock” and singed with MGM to release “Only Visiting This Planet” as well as the following album, 1973′s “So Long Ago the Garden.” On both albums he received production help from George Martin, the famed producer of the The Beatles.  Norman stated that he had previously met Paul McCartney and that Paul had tracked him down to talk about his music. This is interesting as we will discuss when we talk about “Only Visiting This Planet.”

The album was decidedly more “secular” in content than any of Norman’s other releases. But much of the controversy in Christian circles came from the original cover (pictured above) because many argued the picture of the lion in the field superimposed onto Norman’s body was an attempt to cover the fact that Norman is naked in the cover as his navel is clearly visible. The later cover (below) would be cropped at a much higher point.

But it is true that the content was not as blatantly spiritual as other Norman releases. This may have caused him to not perform those songs as often in concert, which in turn may have impacted the general longevity of many of the songs. Mus9ically the album was very “current” for the time and flawlessly produced. Martin brought in the same “mellotron” keyboard used on the Beatles, “Strawberry Fields Forever” to use on the song, “Lonely By Myself.” There is a story that while recording the album in one studio Paul McCartney was in the adjoining studio recording “Live and Let Die.”

The album combined Norman’s penchant for 60′s blues, 50′s pop vocals and current social commentary to create a true classic worthy of more attention than it ever really received. Highlights include Fly, Fly, Fly, Be Careful What You Sing, Baroquen Spirits, Nightmare #71 and the haunting beautiful, “She’s a Dancer.” One interesting note is the “cover” of “Christmastime.” The song originally appeared on Randy Stonehill’s “Born Twice” album and is credited as being written by Stonehill. On this album the songwriting credit is given to Norman.

In response to many critics that he had “sold out” his Gospel message on the previous album, Norman followed up with “In Another Land.” It would take nearly three years to record and release this album that ranks a VERY close second in the list of great Larry Norman albums. This album would be released on Norman’s Solid Rock label and receive distribution by Word records in 1975.

“In Another Land” would mark the first nationally distributed “Christian” album for Norman and would also mark the on again, off again love/hate relationship Norman would have with the Christian music industry and, in turn, the industry would have with him. Consider that despite his in arguable multiple contributions to the industry he was not inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame until 2001.

The album was not free of controversy despite its very evangelical content. The first and most obvious issue was the unseemly longhair he sported, which in 1975 was simply unacceptable at the time. The cover also received complaints because Norman’s thumbs are supposedly switched with the right thumb on the left hand and vice versa, and that, it is claimed, is some sort of Satanic imagery.

SERIOUSLY!

“In Another Land” would contain many of Norman’s classics that would remain favorites for all time. The production is stellar and the use of limited spacing between songs keeps the record moving in non-stop fashion. Highlights would literally include the entire album! But I will note some interesting points.

The cover of Stonehill’s “I Love You” in a little odd since the only line from Stonehill’s original from “Born Twice” is the first line of the song. “The Rock That Doesn’t Roll” continues the theme of “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music” and would inspire countless musical defenses of Christian Rock. But rather than being a song about Christian Rock it is simply a play on words to describe Jesus. It is also the song that contains the lyric the album titles is based on.

UFO, The Sun Began to Rain, Six Sixty Six, One Way and Hymn to the Last generation would continue Norman’s popular “Second Coming” theme complete with Beast, Antichrist and Rapture.The reworked “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus” edits out the references to sex and sexually transmitted diseases the original included in 1972. “Righteous Rocker #3″ is a very short (chorus only) a capella reworking of the song from “Only Visiting This Planet.” I heard once that a second version was supposedly removed from “So Long Ago the Garden.”

“Shot Down” would prove to be his defense against detractor who believed he had forsaken the Gospel message on the previous album.

The album does credit Dudley on piano and John Michael Talbot on Banjo. But I wanted to note here that much of Norman and even Stonehill’s early work was greatly enhanced by guitarist Jon Linn. His work is much unheralded and he deserved much more respect. I know little about Jon but did read that he had passed away in the late 80′s or early 90′s.

One last song point out is “Song For a Small Circle of Friends.” The song is a list of artists the Norman counted as acquaintances and friends. It served as an evangelical call to these musicians. One stinging verse in hindsight is in regards to then good friend Randy Stonehill.

As with the previous reviews and those involving Stonehill, I will not dwell on that part of the story. There have been plenty of others that have written extensively on the subject. But I do want to note the opening line of this review and reinforce that those things which have  made Norman such an important and lasting figure in Christian music are not only the positives but the negatives as well.

His life would be filled with failed marriages and friendships. No artist ever recorded more than two albums with Norman and most left frustrated, jaded and angry. The rift between Stonehill and Norman lasted decades and much has been written on this and a controversial and decidedly one-sided documentary, “Fallen Angel” has been produced. Anyone with the interest and an internet connection can research the gory details I will avoid here. My point is that his life was both wonderful and tragic and both cannot be denied.

This album would prove to be a major influence on many young people and future Christian musicians. The honesty, well produced rock would break down many doors currently boarded shut. Though not a “heavy” record musically it still contained a serious rock vibe and socially significant content.

The following nationally album is what many, the present writer included, spelled the end or Norman’s artistic zenith. “Something New Under the Son” could really be considered a 4th album in the series, but “trilogy” just sounds more artistically satisfying. Also released on Solid Rock and distributed by Word records, the album would serve as the “heaviest” of Norman’s studio releases. This is a blues record through and through. Although recorded in 1977 it would also not see the light of day until 1981. This too would become a common problem of Norman’s both for himself and for the artists he was associated with, most notable Randy Stonehill and Daniel Amos.

It should be noted that there were several releases between “In Another Land” and “Something New” but were either generally unavailable (Starstrom), parody albums (Streams of White Light) or live albums (Israel Tapes and Roll Away the Stone). In fact “Israel Tapes” was recorded several years earlier (1975). Another album was a single that expanded into an album called “The Tune.”

This would also begin a frustrating history of Norman releasing poorly recorded live albums and albums of re-hashed demos, reworked song and compilations under different names. “Something New” would also mark the end of Norman’s national distribution agreements and all but one release would be exclusive to Norman’s Solid Rock or Phydeaux labels, primarily through mail order. I could discuss a majority of those albums but I’m not sure wordpress has enough bandwith.

“Something New” is often overlooked and that is a shame. As mentioned above, the album is a lesson in blues writing. Nearly every song would be considered a blues tune and Norman excels here. “Born to Be Unlucky” just flat-out rocks and Jon Linn gets to show off here. “Watch What You’re Doing” is hysterical and remained a Norman live favorite for years to come. Linn’s guitar and Norman’s harmonica trade-off some amazingly aggressive riffs.

Norman, who apparently had a lot of nightmares, recorded three songs with a numbered “Nightmare” title, but the best one is here. But the song that steals the show is the closing rocking romp, “Let The Tape Keep Rolling.” Though he would write several songs “reinventing” his history, this would be the best one and serve as a great lesson in how to write a great rockin’ blues song!

Norman would spend the 1980′s releasing two albums a year, though most would be poorly recorded live albums, anthologies and rehashed “favorites” with different arrangements and differing results in quality. There are a couple albums of note though.

“Letter of the Law” and “Labor of Love” would both be pretty decent pop rock records and probably deserved some national distribution. These were studio projects that contained several quality Norman tracks. I was able to obtain “test pressings” of those two albums and convince KYMS to play a few of the songs. they became pretty good hits and I contacted Larry to carry them at my store. Eventually a few independent distribution companies picked up the albums. Several of those songs would eventually be released on the album “Quiet Night” under the name Larry Norman and the Young Lions. One stand out is a cover of the late Tom Howard’s “Shine Your Light.”

Two last albums I wanted to point out are “Home at Last” and “Stranded in Babylon.” The first album was originally released by Norman as double album, but the Benson Company worked out a deal to create of single album release of what was felt were the best songs. This would mark the first time in a decade that Norman’s music would receive national distribution from a major Christian Record company. It would also mark the first album of primarily all new material during that same time period. It was also one of the first albums to be released on CD.

The album would be uneven, but it was hoped that it would bring Norman back into the public’s mind. It really never accomplished it as Christian radio was lukewarm and the buyers of Christian music were a whole new generation of people primarily unfamiliar with Norman.

“Stranded” was probably Norman’s best work after “Something New” and is worth picking up. Produced by his brother Charly, it marked a return to both social commentary as well as spiritual themes. Most importantly it showed Norman could still write new music that was powerful and compelling and that he could still rock. “God Part 3″ is worth the price of admission! Lacking any real quality distribution it too went mostly unnoticed.

Norman’s music and ministry would influence probably the widest variety of musicians of any other Christian artists. Fans include the previously mentioned Paul McCartney, Cliff Richard, Van Morrison, John Mellancamp, Pete Townsend, U2, the Pixies and Sarah Brendel. There have been over 300 covers of Norman’s songs recorded included even by the likes of Sammy Davis Jr.

In Christian Music the list of artists who are fans would be too long to mention. He influenced everyone from Geoff Moore to DC Talk. There have been two tribute albums to Norman, including a “dance remix” compilation called “Remix This Planet.”

But that influence ultimately started with “Only Visiting This Planet.”  Recorded for MGM’s Verve label, the album would become the most influential Christian album of all time. It served as a lesson in how a Christian can write songs on every possible topic with true humanity all the while expressing the undeniable Biblical truths a Christian possesses. There are songs about lost love, sex, free love, politics, media, culture and theology.

George Martin produced the album that was recorded in London at his AIR studios in 1972. It would be, by far, the best produced Christian album for its time and still remains a quality production. Norman’s voice is at its very best, both his singing and lyrical voice.

The album starts with a song of lost love, “I’ve Got to Learn to Live Without You.” I have always believed that it was Norman’s attempt at a Top 40 pop song. The honesty and longing in Norman’s voice makes the song utterly believable. These are theme and thoughts shared by nearly all who have experienced a love gone wrong.Musically it contains a very beautiful string arrangement and a subtle similarity to what The Beatles finished their career with.

Today I thought I saw you walking down the street
With someone else, I turned my head and faced the wall.
I started crying and my heart fell to my feet
But when I looked again it wasn’t you at all.

Why’d you go, baby? I guess you know,
I’ve got to learn to live without you

“The Outlaw” follows and would become one of the two or three most famous Larry Norman songs even though it would not receive Christian radio airplay until several years later. The story of Jesus as portrayed by an outlaw working on the outside of the established religious community also would speak to Norman’s own situation. With limited acoustic guitar accompaniment and some keyboards, this song is all about Norman’s voice and words.

some say He was an outlaw that He roamed across the land
with a band of unschooled ruffians and a few old fishermen
no one knew just where He came from or exactly what He’d done
but they said it must be something bad that kept Him on the run


While at a sales conference for The Benson company the sales force was being introduced to music from an upcoming Dana Key (DeGarmo and Key) solo project. One song was going to be a reworking of a DeGarmo and Key song. I commented that having Key re-record a song he had already sung wouldn’t “sound new” to fans and would possibly cause the listener to wonder why Key would need to do a solo album if he was just going to redo previously recorded songs.

Actually I said, “What’s going on a the record company? You guys running out of songs?” But what I really meant was the above. Either way Key went back into the studio and recorded a cover of Norman’s “The Outlaw” and it ended up being the biggest hit from that album.

For some reason, I never got a thank you letter.

“Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus” would be a song that would continue to shock listeners for generations to follow. The blunt discussion included would not even be accepted well today with a more “enlightened” audience. Labeled vulgar, this ong is the primary reason many stores would never carry the album, even decades later.Driven by an amazing blues vibe the song remains one of Norman’s finest and on par with the best of Bob Dylan lyrically.

Sipping whiskey from a paper cup,
You drown your sorrows till you can’t get up,
Take a look at what you’ve done to yourself,
Why don’t you put the bottle back on she shelf,
Yellow fingers from your cigarettes,
Your hands are shaking while your body sweats,
Why don’t you look into Jesus, He’s got the answer.
Gonorrhea on Valentines Day,
And you’re still looking for the perfect lay,
You think rock and roll will set you free,
You’ll be deaf before your thirty three,
Shooting junk till your half insane,
Broken needle in your purple vein,

Why don’t you look into Jesus, he’s got the answer.

Martin had assembled an amazing backing cast and on this song it really shows. Great guitar work drives this tune to a huge finish. And the false ending, instrumental finish just works perfectly.

“Righteous Rocker #1″ also known as “Without Love” predated Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” by nearly a decade but the similarities are shocking. Country blues riff propel a message of the need for God’s love no matter your personal situation.

You can be a righteous rocker, you can be a holy roller
You could be most anything,
You could be a Leon Russell, or a super muscle,
You could be a corporate king,
You could be a wealthy man from Texas, or a witch with heavy hexes,
But without love, you ain’t nothing without love
Without love you ain’t nothing, without love.

You could be a brilliant surgeon, or a sweet young virgin,
or a harlot out to sell,
You could learn to play the blues, or be Howard Hughes
or the scarlet pimpernel,
Or you could be a French provincial midwife,
or go from door to door with a death-knife,
But without love you ain’t nothing, without love,
Without love you ain’t nothing, without love.

The full length and most recognized version of “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” closes side one on the album. This post-apocalyptic ballad borrows directly from Matthew 24 and has the obviously distinct “Left Behind” theology at its core.

a man and wife asleep in bed
she hears a noise and turns her head
he’s gone
I wish we’d all been ready

two men walking up a hill
one disappears and one’s left standing still
I wish we’d all been ready

there’s no time to change your mind
the son has come and you’ve been left behind

The song would not only catapult Norman to the forefront of the Jesus Movement (a movement he never claimed nor felt any attachment to), it was featured in the movie “A Thief in the Night” and has even made its way into many hymnals. In fact, once a month at the Baptist Church I was raised in the would have a “Hymn Sing” in which congregant could request to sing a favorite hymn. I discovered that the Norman classic was included in the Churches new hymnal and would routinely ask to sing the song.

It wasn’t long before my raised hand was ignored.

Side two kicked off with “I Am the Six O’clock News,” which served a both an anti-war protest song as well as a critique of the modern media, especially television news broadcast that would routinely edit what would be discussed to meet political agendas. This was years Rush Limbaugh would lodge similar complaints, but from a distinctly different point of view.

I’m taking pictures of burning houses
Colored movies of misery.
I see the flash of guns, how red the mud becomes,
I’ve got a close-up view.

I’m the six o’clock news – what can I do?
All those kids without shoes – what can I do?
Military coups – what can I do?
I’m just the six o’clock news.

The song would fade out with a recording of an airline stewardess giving flight instructions over the roaring of a jet engine. As the roaring engine fades the early quiet strains of an acoustic guitar would fade in. This fed right into one of Norman’s finest lyrical accomplishments. “The Great American Novel” is comparable to the best Bob Dylan of Neil Young would write. +

This indictment against American politics would not sit well with mainline Christianity that would label him a liberal and communist and place him firmly amongst the atheist “hippy” left. The song would also feature some of Norman’s most indicting and creative lyrical content.

I was born and raised an orphan
in a land that once was free
in a land that poured its love out on the moon
and I grew up in the shadows
of your silos filled with grain
but you never helped to fill my empty spoon

The Church in the South that was still holding on to prejudice ways receives a very strong blow from Norman’s pen a well. Here though he also deals with the long ramifications and the impact on coming generations.

you kill a black man at midnight
just for talking to your daughter
then you make his wife your mistress
and you leave her without water
and the sheet you wear upon your face
is the sheet your children sleep on
at every meal you say a prayer
you don’t believe but still you keep on

This was obviously unexpected content from a Christian artists and deemed immoral, un-American and clearly unacceptable.

“Pardon Me” follows with the most odd and unique song in Norman’s catalog. After a string arrangement introduces the song Norman is accompanied by a very simple acoustic guitar. Dark, haunting and sad, the song deals with the understanding of “free loves” great cost and the moral decision to walk away despite the internal struggle for physical attachment.

Close your eyes, and pretend that you are me.
See how empty it can be
Making love if love’s not really there.

Watch me go, watch me walk away alone,
As your clothing comes undone,
And you pull the ribbon from your hair

If “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” is not the most covered Larry Norman song, then most definitely it must be “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music.” Norman’s defense of using contemporary music for the Gospel message. Many readers under 30 may have no idea that using contemporary music was not always acceptable. Norman and other have attributed the quote to Martin Luther though it has never been actually established.

This most likely came from possible comment Luther made regarding the use of certain instrumentation in Church music. Luther also said something to the effect that “Music is from God and that Satan hates.” But applying the actual quote to Luther is dubious.That doesn’t change the fact that the song is fun, rollicking rocker with a 50′s twist.

They say to cut my hair, they’re driving me insane,
I grew it out long to make room for my brain.
But sometimes people don’t understand,
What’s a good boy doing in a rock ‘n’ roll band?

There’s nothing wrong with playing blues licks,
But if you got a reason tell me to my face
Why should the devil have all the good music.
There’s nothing wrong with what I play
‘Cause Jesus is the rock and he rolled my blues away


Interestingly there is a line in the song that appears to be a knock on hymns and the tradition of hymns. Norman would later argue that he loved hymns, especially older hymns with deep theological content, but his complaint more against the modern church music of the time being dry and empty.

The album closes with “Readers Digest,” another lyrically heavy song that pre-dated rap by almost a decade and can be closely compared to Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” A fast-moving, groove oriented music serves as a backdrop for Norman to critique everything from the moon landing to The Beatles. Often caustic and humorous there are few sacred cows left standing at the end of the much too short song.

Rolling Stones are millionaires, flower children pallbearers,
Beatles said All you need is love, and then they broke up.
Jimi took an overdose, Janis followed so close,
The whole music scene and all the bands are pretty comatose.
This time last year, people didn’t wanna hear.
They looked at Jesus from afar, this year he’s a superstar.

Dear John, who’s more popular now?
I’ve been listening to some of Paul’s new records.
Sometimes I think he really is dead.

Norman would actually later remove the comments regarding Lennon and McCartney out of respect to the artists and even apologized for including the words originally. The song closes with the lyric in which the album derives its name.

You think it’s such a sad thing when you see a fallen king
Then you find out they’re only princes to begin with
And everybody has to choose whether they will win or lose
Follow God or sing the blues, and who they’re gonna sin with.
What a mess the world is in, I wonder who began it.
Don’t ask me, I’m only visiting this planet

Despite the controversy, rejection and vitriol spilled out over this album it has endured and more than one generation has been impressed and blessed by it. As stated above it was important on so many levels that a book would be required to discuss it all.

The same can be said for Larry Norman himself. Perhaps someday, like William Wallace, the legend will supersede the history and what is important will not be the failed marriages, failed friendship and finances, but rather the “legend” that will inspire future generation to create art as honestly, profoundly and professionally as is found on “Only Visiting This Planet.”

3. The Joshua Tree – U2

January 9, 2012 24 comments

THE JOSHUA TREE (1987)

U2

released just weeks before another album in the Top 10, U2’s Joshua tree remains one of the greatest experiments in rock music and a truly glorious experience. Though side two slows down and cannot compete with the majestic perfection of side one, it is still a nearly flawless album that I would buy if released today. It also was number one on this list at least 50 times, but I just could not bring myself to list it as the very best CCM has to offer. There are no real reasons other than i find the other two albums to be listed above to be superior for totally different reasoning.

In the summer of 1985 I moved from Orange county, California to Boston, Massachusetts to work with Dan Russell (Fingerprint Records, NewSound Magazine) and his crew to promote and put on the NewSound Festival in Rhode Island. I learned a lot about the rest of the world once moving out of the Orange Curtain, especially the acceptance (or lack thereof) of Christian music. Orange County was filled with edgy Christian bands and the Churches in the area generally accepted the music and even non-Christian enjoyed many of the bands like Undercover, the Lifesavers and the Altar Boys.

Boston was a different world completely. The number of Christians could be counted on ones left hand and the CCM world was a foreign language for most of the society. Russell always had an uphill battle to promote shows and get his wonderful magazine the placement it deserved.  But Russell also knew how to make inroads into the mainstream market and reach and work with some amazing artists on the fringe of CCM or whose feet were firmly planted in secular music. Robin Lane, Pierce Pettis, Bruce Cockburn and mark heard were amongst his friends and partners.

But it was U2 that would make the biggest impact. Russell befriended Bono and the band during their first trip to America after playing their first show in Boston. the friendship would last and Russell would serve as a Road manager for the band on several different occasions.

For the few months I was living in the area I stayed at Russell’s parents house about 45 minutes outside of Boston. They had a basement room that was always set up and i was welcomed there. I should note my acceptance was met with some ridicule for a two week period when my Los Angeles Lakers beat their Boston Celtics in the NBA Championship. In fact, I was told i needed to find another place to live for a few days about that time, though they situation was unrelated to NBA rivalry.

The story goes that they had already promised the room to someone who was visiting for a few days. I was 20 and could crash just about anywhere, so I had no problem with it. I did have a problem when i found out later that it was Bono who was staying there and i didn’t get a dinner invitation. But it was the first time I met Bono (I have met in on four different occasions) and was the most casual of all of the meetings. Bono was on an extended holiday between the release of “Unforgettable Fire” the previous year and the recording of “The Joshua Tree” that would begin a year later.

It was during this holiday and travel that came with it that Bono began to write songs that would alter make up the bulk of “The Joshua tree.” His love affair with America was blossoming and this trip would leave an impression that would allow him to create the bands finest work and most lasting artistic achievement.

This album would also mark the firsttime where Bono would work through a song as a songwriter, instead of the stream of consciousness stylings of the bands earlier work. This process works as the songs are clearly more focused, more creative and lyrically compelling than any previous works.

The band had worked through its flag waving phase with “Unforgettable Fire” and their political infused rhetoric would give way to a more thoughtful and, at times, perplexing message. A band with all the answers became a band loaded with nothing but questions. Even on the most expressive songs, the album lacks a real clearly defined position, but rather Bono joins with masses in asking the bigger questions and is comfortable without having all the answers.

One other thought about the album and its “firsts” for the band, is that I find it to be the first “studio” album. The first three were clearly live feeling and TUF was experimental, but not necessarily a band sounding project. TJT sounds like a real studio album from a real band. With TJT, U2 became a real band.

Producing legends Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois were once again tapped for this release after their successful work on the predecessor. But rather than a mystical, experimental rock sound, the band infused more blues, rock and Americana into the musical soundscape and the producers accentuated this new direction with seamless production and a killer rhythm section sound. This was a rock album like one would here from The Who, with both stark, in your face drums and bass as well as lush, orchestral sounds filling every groove. It is hard not to here the influence of British and American blues, the works of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and the aforementioned The Who.

Though poets would marvel at amber waves of grain, purple mountains and snow covered peeks, America also has large desert areas that expand beyond the reach of even the keenest eye. This wonderful dichotomy of a nation blessed with a rich bounty and a desolate heart at times served as a perfect image for the albums message. In fact, the working title for the album was “Two Americas.” Although at times Bono’s scathing diatribes sound a bit simplistic, there is never a point when the listener doesn’t fully believe Bono and the band is not madly in love with the country.

One last little tidbit of information that I believe impacts the album and why side two does not live up to the awesome presence of side one. Steve Lillywhite, who had worked with the band since their earliest days was asked to have his wife set the the song order for the album based on her own personal preference. her only instruction was to start the album with “Where the Streets Have No Name” and finish it with “Mother of the Disappeared.” the rest was up to her. Ms. Lillywhite and I must share the exact same feelings for each songs, as the finest songs clearly grace the first side. If those songs were placed thoughout the whoe project one might wonder if the reception for the album would be any different.

“Where the Streets Have No Name” kicks off the album and, for me at least, is the closes to anything from “The Unforgettable Fire.” The long atmospheric introduction gives way to patented Edge “delay effect” guitar riff that would define U2’s sound for its entire lifetime. The song would earn the band a Grammy for Best Rock Performance and remain a staple for 25 years live. Special consideration should be given to the bass and drum sounds that drive this song.

It is with the lead track that a constant theme that will throughout of doubt and faith holding hands begins. Some have surmised the song is looking at heaven as the residence of those unnamed streets, while others note the longing and doubting expression that accompany the lyrics. In Ireland ones religious affiliation could be determined by the street one lived one, but in heaven there will be no street names; no denomination or affiliations allowed. These spiritual themes will not end here and will serve as a juxtaposition against the politically tinged songs that also reveal a sense of doubt in the Cold war period.

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” remains my personal favorite Bono vocal. Using is open throat-ed Gospel best, the use of a backing choir behind Bono gives the song a truly American Gospel feel. The constant refrain of doubt is tempered by some of Bono’s finest lyrics when he gives witness to his faith using the imagery of the cross and Second Coming. The doubt, when laid against the more affirmative faith statements, makes one believe what Bono hasn’t found is the revealed promises of a Kingdom Come here on Earth and the peace promised with the Gospel progression. Oddly enough, as a Postmillennialist, I find the song amazingly comforting in that Bono recognizes the Gospel victory is more than just a Heavenly event; in that I am in agreement with Bono.

Bono has admitted in interviews that the year of recording was one of the most difficult of his entire life. Not only was the album a long and difficult process, the fear associated with high expectation and the strees combined to create a rift in his marriage. “With or Without You” reveals a man in love and struggling with it. One of the great mysteries on the album is how these brooding songs with minimal hooks just completely envelope the listener and became monster hits.

The first real rocker is “Bullet the Blue Sky,” which would later be covered by P.O.D. The songs possesses some of the edge’s most aggressive guitar work ever recorded. the drums and bass are just pounding like the sound of enemies at war with tanks and artillery. The edge’s guitar work is that of sonic airplane fighters with bombs in tow. Written after a visit to San Salvador, the band was gripped with the fear and pain of those caught in the bloody effects of war. there is both anger and compassion here. yet in the midst Bono adds a spiritual connection borrowing from the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling an angel. Bono uses it here like that of the David and Goliath where the underdog’s resistance eventually leads to its victory.

The band may have written a more beautiful melody than the one that accompanies “Running to Stand Still,” but I cannot think of one. The great irony of placing such a beautiful melody behind the story of heroin addiction is both brilliant and obvious. The song sounds like something David Crowder would rip off for a worship song, but here we have a couple so possessed by their addition that everything is lost and redemption never found.

“Red Hill Mining Town” is like something from Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” without the political grandstanding. Inspired by a strike in a UK mining town, the song reveals the impacts (personally, financially, emotionally and spiritually) of a strike on the people involved. The need for love to overcome and represented as the last thing to hold on to when all is lost may also point to his troubled marriage at the time. It should be noted here that Bono sings more passionately without screaming than on any other U2 project. described as more “open throat” than previous releases, Bono became a better vocalist on this album.

The most obviously America focused song is “In God’s Country.” The song also reminds me the most of anything from the bands first three projects. the guitar sound employed is not far from what was heard on “War.” This hate/love affair the band always has had with America is played most personally here. There is real conflict here. America provides liberty, safety and freedom, yet her greatest asset is gold (money). The greed mixed with her love and offer of freedom appears to conflict, especially for those looking from the outside.

The American blues influence is front and center with “Trip Through Your Wires.” I also refer to it as “the forgotten song.” When I reflect on the album, it is the one i remember the least. It, at least to me, sounds like something that would have fit on “Rattle and Hum.” It is a real blues song, complete with a rocking harmonica solo. Lyrically it seems Bono is merging is love/hate relationship with America with his struggling marriage. yet, at the same time, there is a real sense of a spiritual longing and realization of his relationship with God as the one who provides in the midst of the struggle.

“One Tree Hill” follows with a sound completely different from the previous song, sounding more like what appeared on side one. But it is also where the album hits its only really flat moments. Not a bad song (or group of songs) but just not as overwhelming as the first seven or so.

“Exit” is just an odd tune.From a musical perspective, it doesn’t even really start for the first 90 seconds and when it does, it is short lived and intense. Then it disappears again. The story of what I guess is a psychotic killer, the musical backdrops seems a perfect setting. There is a real internal conflict here. The hand that can build can also tear down is the theme and the line that closes the song, and it best represents the band’s opinion of the American international policy. the conflict of those outside of American note that the same land that provides more international relief and support during tragedy is also the most expansive military force on the planet.

The album closes with the haunting “Mothers of the Disappeared.” Borrowing its name from a group of women in Salvador that banded together to help find children lost, kidnapped or taken off to war by the local government is difficult and stirring at the same time. it is no wonder the band requested the song close the album, as it appears the most personal and emotive. One feels Bono’s pain as he describes the women’s feelings and longing wails.

There were always problems with the several different releases of the album as far as mixes and mastering, though the 20th Anniversary version is spectacular. Bono actually is said to have gone into an emotional tailspin before the albums release and asked for several re-edits, changes and new mixes. those were denied and the album was released and changed the musical world. It took what many as the best live band on the planet and, for a time, made them the best band on the planet, period!

I know many will complain this album should be number one. others will complain it doesn’t belong on the list at all (they’re seriously wrong by the way), and the former group may be right. It is really as nearly perfect as an album can get and it is the best the band ever offered. Its sheer honesty and compelling lyrical and musical expressions have never been duplicated by the band and few other artists could ever hope to match it. I have my reasons for its placement as, I’m sure, many will their reasons for disagreeing.

Why the Long Pause

January 6, 2012 8 comments

I decided to write a quick note here to thank everyone for their patience with this extended pause over the Holidays (and longer) before finishing the countdown.

I would like to blame work, or the kids, or the wife, or even the Holidays themselves for the delay, but…

The truth of the matter is I am in the midst of an internal quarrel. I made several changes to the countdown as it proceeded, dropping some albums, adding others and even moving around several albums in the Top 100 to get the list exactly how I wanted it. I have had a firm 4 thru 10, though i did move one or two around in the weeks leading up to the Top 25.

But I have never had a solid Top 3. I have had the three albums I chose for the top 3 and they have never wavered. But each of them have found themselves listed in the 1, 2 or 3 spots countless times.

All three are amazing projects (obviously), but listing a number one over the other two has been difficult. One is deserving because it is the singularly most important release in the history of CCM while also being an artistic achievement for its time, or any time. Another is simply one of the greatest albums ever recorded in or out of Christian music and the third represents what I believe is the finest and most authentic collection of songs in a cohesive unit that any CCM artists have ever mustered to deliver. They literally could be 1a, 1b, and 1c.

But I believe I have justified to myself the finalized Top 3 ranking and will proceed with the reviews over the next several days…