Adrian Snell: Fireflake to Father - The life and times of a UK CCM institution

Sunday 1st July 1990

Tony Cummings recounts the long and unusual history of CCM star ADRIAN SNELL.

Continued from page 1

Musical Gospel Outreach (MGO) had a fast-diversifying evangelical outreach, which started in the mid sixties to put on concerts and publish a 'Christian beat group' magazine called Buzz, and to launch a record label, which was the forerunner of Kingsway Music. One of the founder members of MGO was Geoff Shearn who was highly impressed with the gauche young singer/songwriter who searched him out. An MGO contract was offered to Adrian. It was signed only after considerable soul searching. "There was a reticence in me to go to a company called Musical Gospel Outreach. For a musician that saw himself as a serious musician wanting to make an impact on the world - it took some rethinking. But against that, I saw that I was writing songs and lyrics that clearly a regular company would be very unlikely to take on board and say let's do an album of songs with this guy' songs that were linked to my own spiritual discovery."

There was however in the fledgling Christian musician's repertoire a suite of songs, which transcended the Christian/Non-Christian divide, as he discovered when he entered a Melody Maker contest. "I went fairly high in the first heats. I remember playing in Leeds Poly quite a selection of songs but the mainstay of my performance was a suite about Christ's crucifixion 'Gethsemane', 'Judas' Song' 'Golgotha' and 'Simon, Carry My Cross'. I didn't win it but I was immediately approached by a US management company, they were excited about what they heard. I was introduced to a guy who managed the Kinks. The songs I sang, which were eventually to become part of 'The Passion' of course, were no problem to his company."

But Adrian was also well aware that some of his material might be a stumbling block to the average non-Christian A&R man.

He was intrigued and encouraged by a company who, rather than respond that they didn't want to be preached at, seemed to revel in the evangelistic dimension of music.

"MGO would say 'our role is to, further an artists ministry, full stop'. We're not here to make you big or because we think we can sell a lot of records - we are here because we believe in your ministry'. It was fortunate for MGO that I came to this first ever meeting with Geoff with very little understanding of what was the Christian music world - perhaps if I had known some of what the label produced, maybe I'd have had different thoughts. But I came with a tape of songs of mine and had an immediate excited response from people in the company who were saying 'this gives us the chance to branch out a little bit from what is currently understood as gospel music.. this is clearly a guy rooted in the classics with a contemporary feel who is doing something quite original'.

Adrian Snell: Fireflake to Father - The life and times of a UK CCM institution

In the summer if 1975 Adrian began recording his debut album 'Fireflake'. "We did some of the stuff with a string quartet" remembered Adrian. "There were songs like 'My Soul Alive' a very introspective guitar-based ballad type thing and 'This Is The Time To Say' which I'd written for a friend who had recently died. We did it for £1000, or maybe £ 1500, what you could do for that then would be impossible now."

The release of 'Fireflake' by Dove Records of MGO created an immediate impact on the insular British Christian music scene. Buzz magazine predicted that "Adrian will be a really influential personality and that 'Fireflake' will be a runaway best seller". In December 1975 Adrian played songs from it at Nairobi Cathedral at the 5th Assembly of the World Council of Churches and by 1976 he was touring: a slim, rather callow youth with lank, long hair and a characteristic leather headband. Remembers Adrian "My first ever serious tour was organised by MGO after the release of 'Fireflake'. It was an incredible hotchpotch, from colleges and universities to youth groups and church halls. They were the headband days. That was a shock to people, what on earth was this guy turning up with long hair and a headband with a little 'peace' sign at the front. At several places they felt I was from the States, from California but then I'd say something with this nice middle class accent. And they'd think 'what!?' All these things - the headband and the coloured waistcoats - were a serious statement. Although part of me laughs, part of me says 'no, it was serious'. It was a statement I wanted to make about who I was. I didn't feel I fitted, even in the college situation I was in, there was this real conflict of wanting to be known there, to be a Christian with the desire to apply the Christian faith to all of my life, but not having very much confidence in how to do that. So I tended to be overt - I wore a cross round my neck and I had a briefcase with stickers on it. That was my way of saying 'I'm a Christian'. I don't see myself therefore as a better individual than you but when you talk to me, please be aware of that. I was not confident enough for that to come out in a much less overt way as I would be now."

Money was very, very tight. "Just about none of my income was from royalties. Then even 3,000 sales was considered big. I remember the press releases saying 'He's sold 3000 albums in X months' - as if 'wow Michael Jackson eat your heart out!'. My main income was through concerts, though there were still many conflicts over the whole issue of charging for my work. Earnings from concerts would be very unstable and inconsistent. The rest of my earnings came through 'gifts. I had low expenses - living in digs - and I'd recorded my album before the end of college so I had my grant. My family helped me. I didn't need very much."

In October 1976, when Adrian's second album 'Goodbye October' was released, Buzz enthused about "the blend of classical pop with the emphasis on his pure voice and brilliant piano playing". The magazine's readers went on to vote it the best album of 1976. Adrian comments '"Goodbye October' was lighter in terms of its 'feel'. I was told 'Fireflake' was an introspective album, I'd say why not? I'm a very introspective person. But with 'Goodbye October' there were songs like 'Jesus Is My Song' and 'In The Morning', that were much more accessible to people. I probably picked up there the beginnings of an audience that said 'He's not so highbrow and sophisticated'. That's probably what 'Goodbye October' did, to some extent it gave me a broader audience."

The hard-gigging Adrian soon had chances to prove it. A mini tour of America's West Coast - the very cradle of Jesus rock, then metamorphosing as 'contemporary Christian music', was followed in 1977 by a tour of Denmark organised by Youth For Christ. But it was his first concert in Holland, which stays particularly in Adrian's mind.

"Deep down there had always been that love of things international, love of the world. It came from the degree to which my parents were interested in world issues. My father had served in Kenya. He was a very internationally minded person and I had always lived with that somehow. Then I'd been at college with a lot of students from overseas. Perhaps much earlier on than I realised was this longing, this desire to feel that my work as an artist - ministry or entertainment - would be of interest internationally. The concert was arranged by an organisation that is still involved, GMI Gospel Music International, and by a guy called Aad Vermeyden [who was eventually to become Adrian's manager]. The concert was in a town hail in Arnhem with two or three Dutch artists. I went over there with my bass player Gerry Page, it was just me and him and we played to a packed house. It was a fantastic response and my work in Holland has never looked back."

In December 1977 Adrian recorded his third album 'Listen To The Peace' with multi-talented producer John Pantry. He also married Susan Newell who he'd met while she was studying for a degree at Leeds University. A tie up between Adrian's record company MGO and California's Maranatha Music ensured a second tour of America and the release of 'Listen To The Peace' in the States.

"It was a very formative experience going to the States and realising how incredibly different things were there. My Englishness to some extent was in my favour because it made me stand out, although because of a lack of communication between companies, that didn't help much in terms of album sales. But it was a memorable experience that made a little bit of an impression."

About 'Listen To The Peace' Adrian comments "I was getting a little bit more confident about playing my guitar because I know primarily I am a pianist. So guitar is featured quite a bit on 'Listen To The Peace'. It was also the best of the three in terms of its production. I was far more aware of the need to think about the combination of budget and who to involve in my recordings that would result in a collection of songs that I'd be quite proud to play to anyone. It heralded a change in that from then onwards I was always working with a professional set-up and session musicians rather than using whoever I could get hold of to play."

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Reader Comments

Posted by PAUL TONKS in KILBURN, DERBY @ 20:20 on Jun 6 2013

i have just read your article on adrian. i thought that it was amazing. so honest and yet so refreshing.
a friend bought me fireflake in the 1970's and i thought it was the most brilliant music i had ever heard. i used to play it every morning before going to work. this friend even took it with him on our holiday to barbados in 1976.
i heard adrian at derby cathedral in his cathedral tour and recently met him at lee abbey in devon.
i still play fireflake today as well as all his other records - his music reaches me like no other.
thank you for such an interesting and absorbing article.
if you see adrian, tell him he is welcome to come for a meal anytime at my house. i feel sure that my wfe would love to meet the man whose music i play so frequently.
paul tonks. tel; 01332 883107

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