Mike Rimmer reflects on the music of Chuck Girard, Larry Norman, Bryn Haworth, Seawind, After The Fire, Ishmael United, Cliff Richard, Writz and Bob Dylan.
If the punks named 1976 as their year zero where the nascent DIY anarcho music scene declared itself the start of something new, then 1979 has got to be the year that the Christian music scene in Britain really looked like it would finally start making an impact. It isn't that British Contemporary Christian Music started that year, it had been developing for some time; it was just that in 1979 things seemed to get more serious! There was a sense of anticipation that maybe it was time that music made by Christians would make a wider impact. And it did! For awhile.
I was only six months old spiritually when 1979 started. I'd become a Christian the previous June, joined a Methodist Church in Newcastle and since I was already a music fan I'd almost immediately discovered that there was pop music by Christians that I could listen to and enjoy. Well, enjoy a lot of it but not everything. Just like today, there was good Christian music and bad Christian music and I quickly discovered that you had to search hard for some of the good stuff!
The first Christian music artist that I was conscious of hearing was Chuck Girard. I'd been the victim of some serious prayer! I was 17 and my one legitimate source of income was an evening paper round. Every night I would deliver papers on a street where four female Christian students shared a house. Every night they'd watch me pass by and they decided that they would pray that I would become a Christian. I, of course, was completely unaware of this!
In the end I got chatting to them one night and I invited myself in for a coffee which became a meal and a bit of a chat about God. I told them I wasn't interested but there was something about them that drew me back for the next few evenings for more chats. OK, maybe it was because they were girls! During one chat, one of the girls played an album by Chuck Girard which contained a song called "When I Was Ready To Listen". This is the first time I can remember a song really speaking to me spiritually. The song described an empty life searching and although I didn't admit it, it sounded like mine. The song concludes with a short passage of that life changed through an encounter with God and God used it to speak to me.
A few days later after they'd explained the Gospel message to me I became a Christian in my bedroom at home and started a new journey with Jesus. Soon I was looking for a soundtrack for that journey as I discovered that the music I was listening to wasn't doing my heart or my brain much good. It didn't take any well meaning dears at church to tell me that I needed to change my listening habits - me and God came to the same conclusion quietly during one of my early devotionals.
I have to admit to being a long haired, denim-clad rock fan! Newcastle upon Tyne where I grew up was one of the rock capitals of the country with regular gigs at the City Hall and a Friday night rock club at the Mayfair Ballroom. Even as a teenager I was constantly going to gigs and discovering new bands. I had also developed quite a serious vinyl habit, starting my record collection in 1975 when I got my first record player. And when I couldn't afford to buy something, I would steal it or steal the money to buy it. I was a music addict and I liked my music loud!
However I soon discovered that a musical diet of Led Zep, Deep Purple, AC/DC, Motorhead, Sex Pistols and The Clash was not doing me much good spiritually. About the same time as this I started hanging out with a mate from church called Steve Halliwell and he used to play Christian albums and told me about some of the artists that were around. However he also played me Cliff Richard and as a 17 year old long hair, this was too funny for words! Little did I know that within a year I'd buy my first Cliff album!
If you're familiar with the Christian bookshop culture of the 21st century, you'll know that this is the main outlet for buying Christian music. These days there are hundreds of releases a year, there's even a chart and gleaming racks are stacked full of CDs for you to buy and at a lot of shops there are knowledgeable staff who will help you find what you want. With Christian radio stations playing the music and websites like one this reviewing the music, it's very easy to find Christian music now.
But as Year Zero dawned, I was discovering that finding Christian music was going to be a challenge! Being a veteran of record shops, this didn't daunt me. Vowing to get some new music that would be good for my soul and knowing I couldn't now steal it, I decided to sell the music that was getting me down. Over a period of weeks I slowly took the more extreme sections of my vinyl collection to a second hand record shop in the sadly now demolished Handyside Arcade in Newcastle and each week exchanged it for a fist of fivers.
In those days a vinyl album would cost the handsome price of £4.99. And to make things even better, the Word Record label (the main distributor of Christian music at the time) offered a "1 free with 5" scheme. Buy five albums and get the sixth free! So that's what I'd do each Saturday afternoon. I'd take a trip to my local CLC bookshop and delve into the racks of albums to see what I could find.
There weren't a huge amount of albums to choose from since the scene was still pretty small but I'd carefully finger each album and see what the cover could give away about its contents. There was no real way to hear this music unless a mate had a copy! Back in those days Christian book shops seemed to always be playing tinkly winkly MOR instrumental music of the worst kind as a soundtrack to oldies buying Bibles. At least that's how it seemed to my teenaged self. Either that or appalling MOR worship albums or songs by The Fisherfolk, a thankfully long gone folk worship group.
I developed a tactic! I would not buy an album unless I was allowed to hear a little bit of it. There wasn't any kind of listening post at CLC so the only way to hear the album was over the shop's pa system. Now in those days, Christian book shops were manned by women of a certain age who baulked at this long haired music fan who would shove a dozen albums at them in the course of an afternoon whilst deciding on his purchases. It would disrupt the calm spiritual atmosphere of the shop as I dared to get them to play rock music! Still, they couldn't complain, I rarely left without six albums under my arm and on the bus on the way home, I'd open up my purchases and start reading lyric sheets. One of the real joys of 12 inch vinyl albums is that they are a thing of great beauty. Not like CDs! Mind you, I was an addict so maybe my perspective was a little skewed!
Those early forays into CLC meant that I quickly did a DIY catch up on all the best Christian music of the '70s and also learned a valuable lesson that there was quite a lot of rubbish out there which had to be carefully negotiated. I obviously started with Chuck Girard that first week and quickly discovered his previous band Love Song so I bought all their albums too. There was a blonde haired singer called Larry Norman so I bought his most recent album 'In Another Land' and liked it so much I went back and bought 'Upon This Rock' which had been recorded seven years earlier and sounded completely different. I was confused. Friends had older Larry Norman albums that were deleted so it took me a while to track them down.
I can remember playing Larry Norman for the first time back at home and thinking his voice was a little strange but at least it was rocky. Not as rocky as I'd have liked but good enough and he wrote cool songs. I quickly tracked down artists he'd produced like Randy Stonehill and Tom Howard and I have to admit that some of the artists I discovered at this time have become lifelong favourites.