Christian rock bands refusing to play footsey with crossover compromise don't come any harder working than American AOR heroes PETRA. Tony Cummings talked to the band's John Schlitt.

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The resulting album 'Beat The System' was a production tour-de-force, the state of the art, high tech trickery producing an percussive techno-ish rock sound. However, it was not Petra. And it failed miserably to show any crossover hit. Worse still, it contributed to tensions within the band. Not helping matters was that after several years of growth the band were suddenly hit with soaring tour costs. Accompanying the 'Beat The System Tour' with a ferociously expensive sound and lighting rig. In 1986 Bob Hartman explained what happened 'We've always been committed to putting on the best quality production we can and last year we went overboard, outside of our means. We didn't estimate the drop in attendance due to factors like more competition from other tours. And our expenses were up because the show was designed to play primarily in arenas, and many cities didn't draw the audience to fill a 7000 or 8000 seat hall."

After finishing the' Beat The System' Tour, which was caught on tape and released as 'Captured In Time And Space', a live album in desperate need of a remix, Greg X Volz announced his departure from the band and the beginning of a solo career that has failed to set anything alight. It might have been the end or the beginning of the end or Petra. In fact in 1986 it all began to come back together for Petra, better and stronger. The band drafted in a new singer John Schlitt, who had worked with secular band Head East (their 'Flat As A Pancake' was a successful US album. With a rougher edged tone than Voltz and a good line in rock 'n' roll screams, it was the perfect voice for a band keen to make up for lost time after 'Beat The System'. Schlitt spoke to journalist Brian Quincy Newcomb shortly after the completion of his first album with Petra 'Back On The Streets'.

The harsher type sound of my voice did dictate a change for Petra.' he admits, 'but when I joined the group we all agreed that this was the direction we wanted to go anyway. The 'Petra sound' was very much built around Greg, but we've got four musicians who have been in the shadows for a long time, and now they're out.' The same article went on to report that Mark Kelly, Petra's bassist, shares the excitement about 'Back On The Streets'.

"What was neat as opposed to the last album is that this was a band album. 'Beat the System' was a producer's album," Kelly explains.

"I didn't play a lick on the last one, and Louie (Weaver) didn't play a lick of drums. Not only did each member play his respective instrument on each cut this time, but we were allowed input even at the mixing stage - in total contrast to 'Beat the System' - and that was really exciting. There was so much more a sense of unity like, 'Hey, we're all in this together."

'Back On The Streets' gave initiative back to the band. It was produced by John Elefante, a keyboard wizard who had once sung with Kansas, replacing Steve Walsh; and his brother Dino who had produced the Allies and 4.4.1. The Italian American duo were to go on to produce a stream of Christian rock and metal bands but it was during their five year relationship with Petra that they were to produce much of their finest work. 1987's 'This Means War' and 1988's 'On Fire!' were full of the revitalised AOR Petra sound and with 'This Means War!', with its immense, dumping drum beat and Schlitt's rasping almost metal-style vocal, an anthemic call to spiritual battle, and 'All Fired Up' a full tilt rocker that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a Bloodgood album, Petra were finding major Christian radio as CCM's premier rock band. In 1987 Petra's ministry took a significant step when they had their first contact with an author and Christian apologist. Bob Hartman explained the background to the band's first contact with Josh McDowell 'We were really seeing the effects of what guys like Jimmy Swaggart and David Wilkerson were saying about contemporary Christian Music." We asked ourselves, 'Where are the thinking Christians? Where are the speakers who know that this music can be used for the Lord?' And we kept thinking, 'What if we tie in with a speaker who already has the respect of the churches and just make ourselves available to him?' We even mentioned Josh by name when we prayed."

A short time after this prayer Petra were out in California when they got a call from a member of Josh McDowell's team. The bestselling author of 'Evidence That Demands A Verdict' and one of the most respected conservative evangelical speakers in America wanted the band to do an endorsement for his 'Why Wait' tour. From little endorsements giant tours grow. Ronny Cakes, who had previously played with Shrevenport Louisiana band 20/20joined the band as second guitarist in 1988. Also in 1988 the band's recording relationship with Star Song was drawing to a close and Petra began talking to Word Records, who'd come a long, long way from the disorganised company who'd dropped the ball so spectacularly with 'Come And Join Us' in 1977. Now they were the biggest marketer of contemporary Christian music of them all. But when the deal was struck and Petra began working on their Word album for release on Day Spring it was a praise and worship album. The album 'Petra Praise -The Rock Cries Out' carried an acknowledgement to 'the many youth pastors who worked with us to select the choruses for this project and encouraged us to show their youth how they can praise God in a way that is meaningful to them and a blessing to Him.' 'Petra Praise - The Rock Cries Out' was a pioneering work in wrenching praise and worship out of the middle of the road stylistic straight jacket which was gripping it. Petra's renditions of well-known choruses and a couple of originals were defiantly rock 'n' roll. It brought the band belated recognition by the ultra-conservative Gospel Music Association (who astoundingly took until 1990 to award Petra their first Dove Award). In 1990 the band embarked on a tour with Josh McDowell. The profound impact for spiritual and social good achieved by the coast-to-coast McDowell/Petra tour cannot be underestimated. With its pivotal message form an AIDS-racked culture-abstain from sexual activity until you are married - as well as a powerful plea to receive Christ, it became a vehicle of touching tens of thousands of lives. McDowell, who had courageously taken a big risk in his ministry by associating himself so closely with a rock band, was fulsome in his praise of the band. He told journalist Warren Anderson, 'In 25 years of ministry I've worked with people all over the world, and I've never worked with people more godly than the guys in Petra. I flew my daughter in for the last three days of this leg of the tour just to be around them. It makes it easier for me as a Christian dad to raise kids in a way that is honouring to God." In 1989 the band embarked on the Christian music industry's biggest tour ever, a truly exhausting 100-concert marathon which took them across America and touched Australia and Europe. US audiences at the 'On Fire' tour saw the band in all its grandiose flamboyance with a high tech light show and 30-foot steel and aluminium sword. In 1990 the album 'Beyond Belief solidified the band's reputation winning four Grammy Awards and demonstrating again that Bob Hart-man, John Lawry, Louie Weaver, Ronnie Cates and John Schlitt were unquestionably the most popular Christian rock band in the world. But behind all the hype and touring, awards and ministry, the band, aware of the treadmill on which they seemed to be permanently moving, began to ask serious questions.

John Schlitt told Cross Rhythms about the band's time of re-evaluation. "When we were in Europe in 1990 we made a very big decision. Petra could have played every single day of the year and in fact our manager wanted us to! But we recognised that we had to get some Godly order into our lives... we had wives and children whom we were neglecting for the sake of our ministry. That couldn't be right in God's plan. Our families were suffering. So we replaced our management and took a step back from all the activity. We gave our families a bit more of us!"

Now Petra, having recharged their batteries, are ready to hit the road again. They would love to do some dates in England. "It's a dream of ours' said John Schlitt, 'to one day bring the whole Josh McDowell/Petra package over to England. But every decision we make has to be prayed through. We need to pray each step of the way. That's what the band is trying to do much more of now; we're trying to listen to what He's saying. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.