Tony Cummings spoke at length to Karl Allison about his rich past and the emergence of ALVIN & KARL
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Sadly a form of Christian music for which there was a growing audience - the dance rhythms of clubland - suddenly found itself in crisis. The most influential of the alternative worship events, Sheffield's Nine O Clock Service (otherwise known as NOS) were invited to mainstage at the Greenbelt Arts Festival. NOS' performance showed that the event, led by Church of England priest Chris Brain, had deviated hugely from Christian orthodoxy. Some months after the notorious Greenbelt debacle accusations of sexual abuse by Brain on women in the group came to light. The Nine O Clock Service became a national religious scandal. After the dust had died down some alternative worship events bravely continued on but by and large it was now left to the pioneering musical efforts of Manchester's The World Wide Message Tribe and its parent organisation The Message to demonstrate that modern dance music, worship and the proclamation of the Gospel were not mutually exclusive.
While all this was happening, in 1995 The Big Picture recorded a self-titled independent album. Said Karl, "It was a good album, had some really good songs on it. The guy we found in Yorkshire, Neville, was a very good songwriter, and that album featured a lot of his tracks. But I don't remember it selling a great amount." With the demise of The Big Picture, Karl took a step back from actual music making. "I didn't do anything for quite a long time after that. I'd gotten very involved in promotions: we were doing the Rock The Flock concerts. That was people like Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Phil Keaggy, Julie Miller - we booked all sorts of top quality artists like that. I stopped making music for quite a while."
The "quite a while" turned out to be 15 years for Karl. His brother however continued to utilise his considerable skills in a variety of capacities. In 1989 Alvin was asked by the Salvation Army to assemble what was initially advertised as a National Worship Band to play at the Royal Albert Hall for National Youth Councils. This was the first time a modern worship band had appeared at a national Salvation Army event and the band Alvin assembled include contemporaries such as Barbra Allen, Clarence Adoo, Marc Harry, Neville Raine and Andrew Mackereth. The guest worship leader was Graham Kendrick and the event gave world premieres to new songs specially written by Kendrick and Chick Yuill. Following this collaboration, Graham Kendrick invited Alvin to lead the band for him on the March For Jesus through London.
Alvin went on to organise the worship bands for many subsequent national and international events throughout the '90s and noughties, culminating in an invitation in 2006 to play at the Welcome To The New General, for Shaw Clifton. Indeed, one of the most striking features of Alvin's history is that he has worked with or played for every Salvation Army General from Eva Burrows to Shaw Clifton.
After his years in youth work Karl became involved in community development, then social investment and then ended up managing the funds that other people applied for. During these years away from music making the itch, particularly in lyric writing, never really left him. He admitted, "Anyone who's written will tell you that it's very difficult to completely turn the tap off. You hear phrases around you. I'm terrible for listening to other music. If I listen to a really good album - particularly a strong lyrical album - if I listen to a good hip-hop album, I'll come away with five ideas. How much of that do I write down, and how much do I discard before I drive myself mad - especially if I don't have a vehicle for using it?"
Finally in 2009 a new vehicle did emerge through a meeting with his brother. Karl explained, "Alvin had been doing all this work with the youth choruses; he played me one of his albums and made the mistake of asking me what I thought. You should never ask an ex-reviewer that question, unless you want a really honest answer. I said to him, 'I think the music's great, I think the kids are singing well, I think the tunes are great - but why is it new tunes to old words?' That's overwhelmingly what it was. I said, 'Where are the lyricists?' The reply was, 'They seem to be very thin on the ground'. I said, foolishly, 'I could write you some words for the next album'. That's where it started: I started writing lyrics with that in mind. By the time I delivered him a whole batch of lyrics, he said to me, 'No one else can actually sing these in the field I'm working. You're going to have to sing these.' I hadn't performed I don't know how long - 10 years, or something like that. So I started talking to him seriously about the possibility of actually doing something like that.
"Once we got talking, we realised we were musical brothers who'd never done something with just the two of us. We'd always had big, loud rock bands around us - full-on drummers, guitarists, whatever. So the idea, well into the digital age, of being able to sit in his music room with his music software and create what were going to be the basis of tracks we would actually release and tour with, suddenly became very appealing. To say that it's going to be keyboard and voice doesn't mean lounge ballads over a piano - it can mean anything you want. The ability to take backing tracks and go on the road with them opened up a whole direction we'd never been before. The songs came together really quickly. The final recordings then took a long time, because Alvin is a perfectionist. There were months in his room where I would get called in every so often: 'What do you think?' Finally we put all the vocals down and brass down in three days at the Salvation Army's recording studio. The end of it suddenly arrived, and we had an album."
The duo Alvin & Karl hit the road. Said Karl, "Over the last two years we've been really active on the road. We put together quite a big live show that went with it. I think we were compensating for the fact there was only two of us. So we did it with three screens and a lot of projections - linked the songs with sketches, skits, jokes, audience interaction. We ended up with a big show. We probably played 35 or 40 dates with that show. It was well received. The first show I've ever been involved in that didn't generate a single complaint - I almost didn't know how to react, because during the rock years there was never a gig at the end of which there wasn't a line of old ladies telling me that it was too loud, or that they couldn't understand the words."
Alongside Alvin and Karl's ambitious live show, an album was released by Salvationist Publishing & Supplies. Karl spoke about two of the songs on the album 'Songs That No One Taught Us'. "There's a song called 'How The Rebel Soul Is Saved'. It's probably about me, but I've exaggerated myself for the part. The rebel soul, the recalcitrant boy - no one can work out what they're going to do with this strange, troublesome kid. But he hears the Gospel. He's not interested in all the other bits of church - whether he should get his hair cut or dress in the right way - but when he hears the Good News of Jesus, when he hears about grace and mercy and love, that's where it all kicks in with him. We did that live: I played the part of a hoodie with a spray-can. We turned the big screen behind me into a wall, and I used it as a graffiti wall. During the song, I gradually sprayed more of the key words from the chorus - or pretended to. It was magic from our video guys at the back, but it looked as if I was spraying the words as graffiti onto the screen. That was powerful.
"We linked that into the other song, which I think is the strongest message on the album, 'Come As You Are'. It's 'Come flunkies, come junkies, whatever you do/Come trannies, and grannies, and a hoodie or two/Come the high, and the whore, we don't mind anymore/Come and join us, we've opened the door.' Works its way through just about any person I could make rhyme into the song. That, for me, is the key message. If you want to know where my head is, and what I perceive is any ministry I might have, and the genre I use, and the church that I do that in, for me at the moment it's that song. That's saying, 'Who do you really want to come in? Who do you really want to come and join the church?' In the past, too often I've been viewed as being slightly edgy, slightly alternative. If I'm the troubling alternative, that's an organisation with issues. That would apply to any church that looked at people in that way, because I'm not alternative. I'm 47, I dress conventionally, I've not got that much hair left, I'm theologically grounded, I'm morally conservative. If I'm the person you're struggling to accept into the fabric of your religious set-up, you're not broad enough - you're not going to be able to receive those people into the fellowship.
"That's a particular challenge for an organisation like the Salvation Army, who in their community work go out and work with those people. How do those people actually fit in? Even if they could take a seat on a Sunday, how do they find a place? How do they express themselves? What is their ministry and their unique contribution going to be? That's where I was coming from with that song. I turn it on its head slightly in the last verse, I say, 'Come the hip and the hot, we could use what you've got/Let's have church we'll all like a lot.' I don't want it to look like we only want people that you might perceive as a problem: we want really cool people. We can look at things we think are a bit too worldly, a bit cool, a bit flash: those people need Jesus as well: let's have everyone. When you have a melting pot, the main ingredient of which is grace, what happens then?"
Such a radical overview of the role of the Church seems a considerable distance from the average Salvation Army member who, to an outsider at least, still seems locked into its traditions of uniforms and brass bands. But as this interview demonstrates, Karl has a long history of bringing a radical, and even prophetic, voice into the more entrenched areas of religious adherence. I for one suspect that Alvin & Karl are not finished by a long chalk. They've recently put a new song "It's Me" on YouTube and are already working on tracks for a new album. Welcome back Karl.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.
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