Tony Cummings quizzed Charlie Wilson about the UK groundbreaking hard rockers 100% PROOF
Back in the '70s British Christian rock was a fairly sedate thing. Most musicians were content to keep the approach folky and the volume down so as not to frighten the old ladies. And then a band from Stockport called 100% Proof emerged and all that changed forever. American Christian music historian Ken Scott wrote his reaction to the band's contribution to British Christian music history. "100% Proof never cease to put a smile on my face with their raw, trashy blues-based rip-off of AC/DC strutting through headbangers like 'Back Street Driver' and 'No Trusting In Money' or jamming to fast-paced rock 'n' rollers like 'Tight Rope'. . . Speaking of the 'Highway To Hell' boys, there's a song [on their self-titled album of 1981] about AC/DC's lead singer Ben Scott ('The Loner'), one of the lines being 'Somebody should have told him/Hell's a bad place to be.'" During their heyday 100% Proof made a major impact with their album for Word UK and particularly their blistering performances at Greenbelt. Their frontman Charlie Wilson came to the Cross Rhythms studio to set the history record straight.
The band, consisting of Charlie Wilson (vocals, guitar), Steven Wilson (guitar), Steve Harrison (bass) and Phillip Wright (drums), formed in 1978 in Stockport. Were they always a hard rock band? "Not altogether," said Charlie. "We had bits of Santana music because the lead guitarist liked that; bits of AC/DC; a lot of music mixed together. But we played hard and loud."
And how did the church react to an AC/DC-influenced hard rock band? "It was a weird thing really; we got a lot of support from youth leaders. Not so much pastors! Although the church where I came from, the lead guitarist's Dad was the pastor and my Dad was the treasurer so we got by. Up until then all the Christian music was fairly soft; there was nothing particularly heavy or anything. We were in to giving a live performance with full on hard rock; we had a lot of fire and smoke and we tried to make it a show. We were limited by finance but we did what we could. We were a young band. The sound engineer was 16 and so was the bass player when he started. We had our own vehicle, which someone donated. It used to leak water on the way to the gigs so we had a dome on the roof to collect water. We had 10 seats in the front and the gear at the back. It didn't matter if they were playing or a lighting engineer, we were a team."
In 1980 the band recorded a self-financed EP 'New Way Of Livin'' to sell at their gigs. That project helped bring them to the attention of Word UK and in 1981 the band were put in the studio with the renowned Norman Barratt to record what was to become '100% Proof'. Said Charlie, "Norman was more of a guitarist really; he wanted to try producing albums. The whole album was made and mixed in seven days. It was made in a small studio in Stockport, so it wasn't anything mega."
100% Proof became veritable road dogs. "We had a big following - that was what it was all about. We played up and down the country; at our peak we played four gigs a week which was a lot given we were all working in normal secular jobs. We did local gigs in the week and then went further afield at the weekend. We built the equipment as we went along. We must have played Greenbelt about four times, building up as we went along. 1983 was the headline."
The 1983 Greenbelt where they played on Mainstage alongside such acts as Cliff Richard, Mighty Clouds Of Joy and Randy Stonehill was the band's biggest ever gig. Said Charlie, "There were 30,000 people there. We played on either the Friday or Monday - I can't remember which one it is now. We weren't bothered about the money aspect; we wanted the chance to proclaim our music and our message. Basically, we believed Jesus Christ could be lifted high. Some people said you couldn't do it with heavy metal, because it's evil! But music is a vehicle, it can be used for good or evil and we hope we used it for good. We always tried to proclaim the Gospel, we didn't rely on the words of the song, we sang between them. It was fantastic. The money we got from the gig we hired everything; a rising platform for the lead guitar. . . We broke down on the way and then they wouldn't let us sound check because we were late, so we just went with it. The rising platform went up and started rocking about, so he was on his knees to save him falling off. . . It was filmed by a friend's company as well which was good. We never got the master copy but it was a great experience."
The following year the band decided to record their second album. Commented Charlie, "The first album wasn't big enough sounding; we were in the hands of others doing that. So we wanted a bigger sound with the 'Power And The Glory' album. It probably took a bit away from the hard edge. It was more polished but I think it was over-produced. But it probably appealed to a wider market. When the band split we sent all the masters to America and someone pressed it on yellow vinyl. It sold more copies over there than over here. It was really unusual. It was probably about eight or 10 years after the band split. We didn't even know about it until we saw things popping up on the Internet. We never saw any royalties, of course."
Paradoxically it was 100% Proof's success in a major Battle Of The Bands competition organised by the Manchester Evening News - sporting such judges as Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy and Noddy Holder of Slade - which indirectly led to the band breaking up. Remembered Charlie, "We won the heat in Manchester and then went down to Hammersmith Odeon for the final. Coach loads of our supporters from all over the country went to it, because we publicised it in an ad in Buzz magazine. I remember us arguing over a half or quarter page. We went for a half-page ad but I funded half of it myself. I felt it was important people knew we were there. The Hammersmith gig was great, although we had limited time as there were loads of bands one after the other. The band that won it, their fans were threatening to beat our fans up if we won! The band that won were called Carl Green And The Scene. They were never heard of again after that."
Charlie continued, "We were hoping that after the Battle Of The Bands thing it might open doors into a secular record contract. We'd been doing it for years and given up a lot of our careers. I was in the film industry originally but had to give that up because the film industry needed you for nights. You get to a certain age and begin to have a family and you realise you need to make a living. I was doing audio-visual at the time but it wasn't well paid. The drummer and I had decided to call it a day. In the end, the drummer decided to stick with it. I said I needed to find a career and pulled out. They continued. I think they looked for another guitarist and tried to play for a while but it didn't pull together. Whether it had reached its end, I don't know. I was working in London as a sales rep until recently; I've started my new business now."
As it turned out, Charlie didn't leave music for too long. After his career was established he formed Force 3 who recorded the albums 'Warrior Of Light' in 1988 and 'On The Right Track' in 2004. But it's the pioneering work that 100% Proof did in the early to mid '80s which remains Charlie's greatest achievement. Looking back he says, "We led a lot of people to the Lord. You might say that's a bit corny but our motivation from the start was to play as great music as we could and put on a show, but also to win people for Jesus. People think Christianity is boring, sitting in pews - but as you know there are lots of lively churches. Knowing Jesus in your heart, that he is the way to Heaven, people need to know this. Even though there are many denominations and churches out there, I believe that is the most important message for all of them."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.