Drew Kelleher and Tony Cummings report on the veteran musician/producer JOHN PANTRY who'll be, if not a rock'n'roll reverend, an MOR minister.
John Pantry looks surprisingly radiant for someone who has so recently experienced such turmoil and trauma. He looks like someone who has been refreshed by God. "I now feel the call of God upon me. I feel God's told me I've got something special to do within the Anglican Church. I've no idea what that is except that I pushed the door off ordination and it flew open. The Anglican Church has said they want me to continue the music mission and concert work, which is very unusual - I'm delighted. I felt its confirmation of what God's saying to me. I am going to become a vicar - part-time. I am doing a part-time course at Oak Hill College. When qualified I'll be a non-stipendiary vicar which means I won't have a parish but I'll be fully ordained in three years time if I'm a good boy and do all my work and wear a dog collar on stage." For almost two decades John Pantry has been a pivotal figure in Britain's cottage industry gospel music scene. His album of 1978 "Empty Handed" is considered a classic (having been reissued last year on CD), while his productions for Adrian Snell, Graham Kendrick and dozens more put him continually in the studio.
His time as a director and staff producer of Leeds-based Ears And Eyes Records in the 80s brought artists like Martyn Joseph and Nia into the public eye while successful albums of his own like "Its For You" and "Simple Sailing For Beginners" showed their was still a big housewife market for John's smooth MORish pop gospel. In fact the singer/songwriter/ producer's roots go pretty deep. John made his music biz debut in his hometown of Southend. "I was very keen to get into recording; I loved recording, I loved listening to music and I was playing in various bands, we're talking early 60s now. I was in the era when Proco Harum came out of Southend. I was in a band called Peter and the Wolves." That pack enjoyed some success with airplay and Juke Box Jury and a few "interesting" singles, plus an album with A&M, which never made the Atlantic crossing to the shores of England. "I actually, scoop here for you, even did an album as a soloist then for Playboy Records in the States. . . but we'll pass swiftly over that. "I got into the music business to train as a recording engineer but got very involved in the writing and the creative side as well and mixing with the artists."
At this early stage of his recording career, Pantry couldn't get enough. He didn't just enjoy studio life - he actually seemed to live in the Studio. "In the studio I had the ability to actually operate the control boards. And I had the chance to use the studio night and day when I wanted and I frequently did. "I'd work to about 10 or 11 o'clock at night and then spend the night doing my own demos, have a shower and then work again the next day. . . Had the energy then," he said wistfully. Pantry crossed over to the realm of Christian music through mixing with Christians. He says he'd had a church upbringing and a father who had intended joining the ministry. "My dad obviously had a leaning towards God and my mother still is a church goer. My dad is not alive now, but like most teenagers of that era I'd thrown it all up in my youth, went to work at the studio, got very much involved in the sex drugs and rock'n'roll scene, and was burning myself out fast.
"Then I was asked to produce a record by Parchment called 'Light Up The Fire' which was a minor hit. Following that this company wheeled up to me all these other artists - Graham Kendrick, Adrian Snell, Gwen Murray and all kinds of other names, some which have disappeared into the past. And really, through their witness and through being re-introduced to the gospel and having to sit through session after session of Christian songs and people praying for me like crazy, asking me very relevant questions. I didn't know they were getting to me. I was just fascinated by it. And really, God spoke to me through it and there was a very big period of repentance because I had gone very far away from God and done a lot of very nasty things. So that's how I came to God if you like. I can think of three calls in my life when I felt God was speaking to me about my future direction and the first was when I became a Christian I knew very clearly that God had got a job for me to do in Christian music. At the time that was dragging it into the 20th century in a sense - it was all kind of folk music.
"I was given budgets, unthinkable budgets which was a lot of money in those days. We did albums like 'Hollywood Sunset' with Parchment and stuff like that, which I still think are good albums and still like listening to. So I felt God specifically called me to do work within Christian music. A little later, when I worked for a year for Maranatha Music in California I came up against people who had far more ability than me. "I was very thrown by this, I suddenly realised that I didn't know it all. I said to God (if other people can do this much better what is it you want me to do? I felt God very clearly saying that he wanted me to preach the gospel. Since then that side, the ministry side - and the only way I could think to do it at the time was through music, has obviously grown - and that has been my life for the past 10 years."
In 1983 John Pantry and Kevin Hoy formed Ears And Eyes Records/Break-Thru Management. "Ears And Eyes began from very humble beginnings because it really began when I produced an album for a guy called Phil Potter who is now a vicar, but he used to be the main worship leader for David Watson. I produced an album for him. He said to me, 'I've got a guy in my church who can arrange for strings and brass etcetera. Would you like to work with him?' I said, 'If you're happy with him, I'd happy with him.' This was Christopher Norton. We worked together on a few projects. One or two were projects which were administered by Music Creations (Kevin Hoy's Management company) and the idea gradually evolved - 'Hey we're doing all this, why don't we make a production company?' It wasn't intentionally a record company. The original intention, I think we should've stuck with it, - was actually to be a production company."
With a catalogue largely built on the increasingly popular Martyn Joseph, but with a healthy catalogue of fresh-to-vinyl talent like Shirley Novak, Triumph, Nia and Zero Option plus a whole stream of traditional singers praise and worship albums and fringe items like an album for the Wildlife Fund and Emmerdale Farm Praise (!), for a while Ears And Eyes seemed to be flourishing. Rumours of unpaid bills and disgruntled artists grew more frequent however until in mid '89 Ears And Eyes managing director Kevin Hoy was exposed in a virulent news story in Private Eye attacking "the curiously un-Christian activities going on in the world of evangelistic rock music". The story detailed Hoy leaving Australia with thousands of dollars of hotel bills unpaid, abusing his credit standing among various recording studios and forging singer Gloria Gaynor's signature to secure a BBC contract. With thousands of pounds of debts the company spiralled into a series of crisis meetings. When asked if he had buried his head in the sand to ignore some of the things that were happening at Ears And Eyes, John Pantry is very candid: "Maybe I did in some cases. I also agonised a great deal and I also investigated a great deal and whenever I heard of anything that worried me or disturbed me I tried to follow that right through and solve the problem. But as with any dispute between people there's always another side to it. But I began to hear the other side, it all became impossibly complicated and strung out and it became absolutely impossible. There were times when the number of stories circulating about the wicked things that Ears And Eyes had done was getting too much to bear.
Pantry continued, "I never actually worked in the office - I lived 230 miles away form where the office was, and there were, as with many companies, board meetings, where people were brought to account for the things they'd done and there were also some very respectable and sober and stable businessmen involved. Because of senior and more experienced and much older men involved in the company as directors I became very much a minor player in the last year or two of the company's life. The control I had or the say I had was very much put to one side simply because I did not have the financial expertise or the financial backing the company needed. Because productions were becoming very expensive we began to farm out our productions and take in albums from other people, so my role as a producer began to disappear and really I found myself without a role and I found that the hardest thing to take - having been there right from the beginning."
When the company began to wind down under the weight of debts and the Kevin Hoy scandal John was plunged into crisis. This time was distressing for Pantry who feared that he and his wife could end up bankrupt and homeless. "I think we were very much shaken up - in all kinds of areas of our lives and were made to consider very carefully where we were going; made to look at every area of our lives." He said the situation reached the point "where you hate yourself for getting up on stage and ministering because you need to work. Not feeling a bit like it yet declaring that God is good."
Then is his darkest hour came personal restoration and a call into the Anglican ministry. It also meant a new album, 'Raindance', his first for many years for Kingsway and which, for a change, he didn't produce. In many ways though it still contains many of the problems of earlier albums for his attempts at more contemporary music simply don't come off (a dance funk track is particularly painful). But his great strength, evocative ballads sung with the minimum of thrills and the maximum of sincerity, have the sure craftsman's touch of old. "One of the songs on the new album actually came out of that period of crisis, 'He Rescued Me', which was written at that time in faith. It says, 'From all of my darkest fears he rescued me. . ." It was in the darkness, it was a cry of faith. You get to the point where you say, Hang on, this happens to a lot of people. Lots of people go bust, lots of companies go down, lots of people lose their houses. I know people in the Christian music business who that's happened to. A result of all the re-evaluation was a return to 'the living core.' I'm aware that through all this I have changed. It's hard to define but I have changed."
Anybody who looks at this radiant, gifted crafter-of-songs can't doubt it.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.