Cross Rhythms tracks down artists who've been quiet of late. This issue Mike Rimmer charts the unexpected comeback of punk rock pioneers ISHMAEL UNITED
The name Ishmael will be known to just about every Christian parent in the UK. For two decades Ian "Ishmael" Smale has ministered around the world with his exuberant praise parties and a stream of popular Kingsway kids albums. Now the Littlehampton-based veteran is making a surprising detour to revive a band who in the late '70s were one of the earliest practitioners of Christian punk rock, Ishmael United. After the dissolution in the early '70s of the popular duo Ishmael & Andy (with Andy Piercy), Ishmael went on to form Ishmael United. They recorded two timeless albums, the wonderfully named 'If You Can't Shout Saved You'll Have To Face The Penalty' and the equally anarchic 'Life Begins At Thirty', the latter recorded under the name Rev Counta And The Speedoze. But now, rather than being a footnote in Christian music history, Ish has surprised many by announcing they are reforming to play a selected number of gigs and to record a new album.
I asked Ish what he felt Ishmael United had achieved during their first time around. "It was fun, it was exciting and it really was only Bill Mason and ourselves that were playing the music of the day...new wave and manic punk! I am proud that we stuck by our beliefs that God can use all kinds of music, and as I listen today to bands like T-Girl, Oversol, the D? boys, Tribe and DJs like A Skillz and Andy Hunter I think we may have helped in a small way for Christians to be a little bit more open minded in their musical tastes. At the time I was a church leader involved in trying to sort out a local church split, a denominational minister who, due to our music mainly, was asked to leave the denomination, a father of three young children trying to live with no money and heading up a band that many of the non-churched loved and many of the Church could not stand!"
Ish, who provided IU's raucously bawled vocals, name-checked his fellow band members. "Laurie Mellor (bass guitar) hated me calling him Larry but enjoyed being called 'Piggy'! Definitely the thinker of the band...but could lose himself in a one bedroomed apartment! Dave Evans (lead guitar, keyboards) was the serious musician in the band so he and I spent a lot of time arguing...yes, and even physically fighting each other, but that's what good buddy's do under pressure...don't they? Pete Wills (drums) was the quiet one but he often acted out what we were thinking. There was the odd occasion when he was known to slightly aggressively and in true punk fashion kick his drum cases around the stage mumbling 'what are we doing here Lord?' when we arrived at a gig where very little preparation had been done.
So why re-form the band now? "Well, if we wait much longer we could be playing harps not guitars! It's 25 years on and as I listen to today's music, it is so similar (although in my opinion not always as powerful) to what we were playing all those years ago. I think the young 'uns would love our manic tracks...that is, if us old boys can still find the energy to play 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.