Tony Cummings spoke at length to Karl Allison about his rich past and the emergence of ALVIN & KARL
The release in 2011 of the album 'Songs That No One Taught Us' by Alvin & Karl brought back onto the scene two brothers, Alvin and Karl Allison, from the Salvation Army. Singer and lyricist Karl Allison visited the Cross Rhythms studios where he talked me through his decades of musical involvement. For many the music of the Salvation Army suggests only brass band music although the successful re-issue of the Joystrings has reminded the Christian music public that alongside the renowned brass ensembles seemingly located in every Salvation Army citadel there were one or two musicians - like Alvin & Karl - who went in a very different direction.
It was Alvin who first showed a precocious musical gift. As the sleevenote to 'Songs That No One Taught Us' records, "He was just eight when he performed as Howard in the musical Hosea in a cast that also included Peter and Sylvia Dalziel, Bill Davidson, Wycliffe Noble of the Joystrings and Kevin Burton from Good News. Then, as young teenagers both brothers became huge admirers of The Solid Rock Band from Gloucester and Bromley's Bill Booth Revival Machine." Then, in 1981 Blood & Fire were formed with Karl on vocals, Alvin on keyboards, Simon Barnet on drums, Simon Herbert on bass and Malcolm Dragon on guitar. Said Karl, "We might at that time have been the first full-on, loud Salvation Army proper rock band. You think of Salvation Army and brass bands, but the Joystrings were in the charts in 1964. Up to that point your choice of church music - unless you came from the Deep South in the USA - it was organ or brass; then the Joystrings picked up their guitars. The curious thing is that with the Joystrings you get loads of personal fruit, lots of people who were influenced by them. Organisationally, almost zero fruit - nothing followed as a result of the Joystrings, which is mad."
Addressing this SA lack, Blood & Fire found an immediate audience with Salvation Army-going youth not interested in the brass band music of their elders. After two years of gigging almost every weekend the band felt ready to record therefore facing the age old problem of finance or the lack thereof. Reminisced Karl, "In 1983 we recorded an album in someone's front room. It was a Salvationist who had a grand piano and a lounge: that was all we needed. I remember, right at the end of the session, leaving a tiny little mark on this baby grand - scratching it with the last piece of equipment on the way out of the house. I've just written a new lyric for the new stuff we're doing now, in which one of the confessional lines is, 'It was me who left that tiny mark on June Collin's baby grand'."
Karl is quite candid about the deficiencies of the 'The Things That People Say' cassette release. "It sounded pretty bad. We were bouncing onto four-track. We had a really good engineer, but even he couldn't save it that much. That was the reality: there was no budget then. In a way, similar to where we've gone now with a lot of Christian music. At least today bands have better technology. Anyway with that cassette we played at a lot of Salvation Halls and a few festivals. We toured Ireland and France. We got about a fair bit, and we sold that cassette a lot. This is before websites, so even your own selling was hard - postal, or at gigs. We shifted a lot, but only by being very, very busy."
The title track for 'The Things That People Say' created considerable interest. Explained Karl, "It was kind of a play on the fact that already by then, we'd only been going a couple of years, and just doing a thing that was that different there were already people saying all sorts of things - how awful, how radical, how long our hair was. So the title of the album reflected some of that."
Guitarist Malcolm Dragon was replaced by Marc Harry. The gigs continued until in 1986, the band came to my attention when I was a journalist with Buzz magazine. A couple of years earlier I had produced three albums for Word Records and the debut independent release for popular Northern Ireland band Split Level. The latter had been recorded in a 16-track studio at that time housed in the Walsall home of Andy James. Andy had recently been joined in his ministry, called Big Feet Media, by Midlands-born recording engineer Kevin Edwards, who had clocked up considerable experience on the American Southern gospel scene. I approached James and Edwards on Blood & Fire's behalf and it was agreed that Blood & Fire would record an album at Big Feet, with myself producing and Edwards and James engineering, with Big Feet then manufacturing cassettes for the band to sell at their gigs. All the proceeds of these sales would go back to Big Feet until recording and manufacturing costs had been recouped.
Looking back on the resulting cassette 'Articles Of War' Karl commented, "The production was a huge improvement. I remember we did it all in a week: a week was a luxury to us. It was the first time we'd ever had the chance to do things like ask the drummer to come back in. It was always our drummer's gripe that he'd laid down a guide track, and that ended up as the drums on the album. For the first time we were able to say, 'Come back and put some nice fills and sounds in'. Layer the guitar, things like that: it was a huge improvement. I remember that we'd recently changed our guitar player; we had Jon Brooks by then, and he was very, very young - I think he was 16 when he joined the band, so he was probably 17 by then. We'd expected it to be someone of our age who got the job, but we came over all equal-opportunities at the time, held some auditions, and this kid came in and blew everyone else away. So he joined the band. He presented this song that he'd written the week before - or even a couple of days before we went into the studio. None of us had heard it; he played it to you, you loved it and said, 'Right, we're doing this one'. It ended up as the opening track on the album, a track called 'Freedom Fighter'. It was raw: it sounded like a 17 year old's song, it had that energy. I remember us going back in the studio and putting loads of chanting and shouting all over it, because that was the kind of energy it had."
'Articles Of War' was released in 1987. Remembered Karl, "The Salvation Army has a huge concert hall on London's Oxford Street called Regent Hall. We played there in '85, and then we played there again with 'Articles Of War' 1987." Sadly though, it was the beginning of the end for the band. "By the end of '87 we were really struggling to work out where we were. We'd always been so identified as a Salvation Army band that by the end of '87 we weren't sure where that relationship was going. One or two members of the band felt that was it: it had come to an end. They were impossible to replace in the circles we were moving in: there wasn't anyone else who could come in and play the drums the way Simon did, or the guitar the way Jonny did."
Karl and his wife Safeena continued to work for the Salvation Army. Karl was appointed as youth worker for a major SA brigade in Croydon. Rock music was still in Karl's blood and in 1991 he started a new band, The Eden. He recounted, "Alvin and I started to become aware of other young musicians emerging in the Salvation Army who could actually play their instruments. They were very far-flung, but we decided to go find them. We ended up with a bass player from Leeds, a guitarist from Birmingham, and we put together a band almost prog-rock, because we wanted to show off the fact that we'd found these guys who could actually play. We probably got a wee bit carried away, but that was the style."
Through his links with me, Karl also joined the band of volunteer workers who reviewed albums for Cross Rhythms magazine, launched in 1990. It was very much a decade of change for Christian music. Christian rock was still popular with bands like Petra and Christian metal underground had begun to emerge (the first issue of Cross Rhythms containing an interview with Midlands thrash metal band Seventh Angel) but in British mainstream music, club culture was re-emerging to establish itself and for a year or two Christian youth workers were looking in vain for music which could appeal to the non-churched youth listening and dancing to acid house. It was a band of musicianaries from Manchester, The World Wide Message Tribe, who were the first to respond to the Church's desperate need for Christian music with a strong dance rhythm. In 1992 they released an independent cassette 'Take A Long Hike (With The Chosen Few)'. Karl gave the album a very enthusiastic review and a few months later I asked him to travel to Manchester to interview the band.
Over the next couple of years Karl became the nearest thing Cross Rhythms magazine had to a resident expert of Christian dance music as American record labels like Scott Blackwell's N-Soul Records emerged to release gospel house music. Alongside this, a few of the more adventurous British churches, who had long been discontent with worship from hymns ancient and modern but were equally disengaged by the acoustic guitar-driven worship songs of Kendrick, Bilbrough and co, began utilising club dance rhythms in acts of worship. This movement quickly became dubbed "alternative worship". Karl could almost be called the official chronicler of alternative worship and over the next three years visited most of the churches putting on such events. His findings weren't always positive. It became apparent that many of the churches who were utilising the rhythms of club culture were on the liberal end of the theological spectrum.
Remembered Karl, "We used to do a page in every issue on alternative services. I knew that some of the places had lost the plot when I went to one and the opening track they played was 'Superstition' by Stevie Wonder. It dawned on me that they simply didn't understand what alternative worship was all about. It was hard, because being alternative is about being experimental, so you don't want to come down heavily on people doing different things. But when your service starts with 'Superstition' you've probably not got it right. You could almost trace the progression of thought in a way. It went, 'How are we expressing everything we see around us, and seeing it somehow through Christian eyes but without being conventional?' They ended up looking at the cosmos - seeing everything else other than the object of our worship - God."
Karl started his own event, Last Daze, at Croydon Citadel which stayed within biblical boundaries. The event organiser-turned DJ didn't record his own dance music for the event, by that time there was sufficient Christian dance-orientated records to make an event like Karl's possible. He explained, "I just acted as this kind of Christian DJ magpie - suddenly there's enough material for entire worship services. When we took that to the Cross Rhythms festival, I can remember a late-night dance party at one Cross Rhythms festival about 11 o'clock at night; we played 'Walking In The Glory (Of Graceland)' from the second Tribe album, 'Dance Planet'. I had three dancers on stage - I didn't expect anyone to follow what they were doing - and they started walking from side to side on the stage. I looked up from the decks and the entire marquee of young people were following the dancers backwards and forwards."
For a season Last Daze, and other events like Glasgow's Late Late Service and Brown Bear Music, thrived. In 1993, Karl and Alvin's rock band had changed their name ("we came to realise that The Eden was a terrible name") and became The Big Picture. Admitted Karl, "We toured a fair bit. That group didn't really have an audience. Blood & Fire was aimed at teenagers - evangelical, jump up and down. The Eden/Big Picture was about complicated musical forms and adult-orientated rock. In the Salvation Army, in which we were playing, there weren't many people wanting to hear that music - certainly not in their religious space, which is interesting. The people who'd stayed in the Salvation Army had stayed because they liked brass band music, or choral music - not what we were doing. The people who liked what we were doing had left. We'd managed to form a progressive rock-orientated band that didn't have an audience."
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