Once the frontman of fondly remembered Live Option, and now these three years past a have-guitar-will-travel solo, JOHN PEEBLES has much to say. He said it to Peter Bate.
Picture this: it is a darkening summer's evening in the depths of rural Shropshire and in a field, in a tent in front of 150 or so sweaty youths (already treated to a high-powered blend of Johnny Markin and Eden Burning) stands the slight frame of a young Scot armed only with an acoustic guitar. Not originally part of the programme, but hurried on by an enthused compere to sing one number only, his prospects look a little grim. To his annoyance the crowd decide to murmur and mutter as he give it his all so, whilst still strumming, he breaks off between verses to bluntly warn them that, as his song says, 'their time is ticking away' and they would be foolish not to take heed. Some of the trendy youngsters, there for a holy bop, not a ticking off, seem stunned whilst more observant onlookers realise that the lad can play a bit too. He exits having left an impression and subsequently is invited back the next year for a more substantial spot.
Singer/songwriter John Peebles admits that in his three years as a solo artist he has earned a reputation as a bit of an audience shaker. Over a coffee he explained to me the reasoning behind this. "I think there's an awful lot of Christian music now where people go away thinking, 'That was a good piece in the music, wasn't it?' I remember about a year ago I had a song called 'Who Can' and there's a bit in it which says, 'Who made the fish swim quickly, who made the dolphins cry?' People would come up to me and say, 'Did you get that line from Martyn Joseph?' I didn't actually, but after somebody said that I used to sing, 'Who made the fish swim quickly, who made the dolphins make Martyn cry?' and people would come up to me and that would be the only bit they would mention. I realised that people are actually looking for a tickle rather than something of great depth so I don't sing it anymore. I usually don't sing anything that's funny because I get so annoyed when people are just looking for a wee tickle. So it's maybe my aim to make sure there is a lot of depth in what I'm singing, maybe there is not, maybe I'm just being pretentious!"
Pretentious or not the former frontman of CCM rock/pop outfit Live Option is certainly not one to compromise. Unashamedly labelling his music as 'ministry', he has confronted drug addicts, prisoners and middle class pew warmers alike with lyrics which portray the Gospel in its simplest form.
John, who hails from a small town east of Glasgow, does not have your typical 'sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll' testimony.
He became a Christian at the age of six following a simple revelation of God's beauty during a visit to the Scottish highlands. Those usually troublesome teenage years were not so bad for John due, in part, to his interest in music. "When I was 15," John explained, "I joined the Scottish Baptist Youth Choir. 15 to 18 is normally the rebellious time and I think that kept me going for three years. It was where I could get Bible study and where I could sing to audiences - that was probably the initial start of my singing. The choir travelled quite extensively throughout Britain and did a German tour as well, so for a young person that was a brilliant experience."
During this time John was writing music of a less traditional sort forming his first and only band at the tender age of 16. Drummerless at first and with a decidedly unoriginal name, Logos (after the Operation Mobilisation mercy ship), they became Live Option and things began to take off. With the help of Campbell Malone (ex-manager of pioneering Scottish rock team, Triumph) Live Option gigged all over Scotland. What John terms as the band's 'big break' came in 1988 when they won the 'Battle Of The Bands' contest at Crossfire festival, followed up the next year with a mainstage spot before Heartbeat at the same venue. However, failing to land the crucial record deal, Live Option only churned out a demo tape and one album in their four-year lifespan.
John's reasons for leaving the band at the age of 21 were clear. "I
believed that the music was becoming more important than actually what
was being said, so I thought I could probably do a better job
solo-wise," John recalled.
So out with the old and in with the new, the chances were that John, supported only by his trusty acoustic guitar, would fade into church hall oblivion. However, this was not to be. John said, "The first thing I did when I went solo was to phone up Spring Harvest about a month before it was due to start. Everybody said, 'You'll never get a spot.' But I phoned them up and they said, 'Somebody has pulled out, do you want to come and have a spot in Ian White's show?' Ian said, 'Oh yeah, I know John Peebles.' We hadn't really known each other that well at that point but he knew of my name."
Consequently, John played at Spring Harvest in 1991 and has played every year since, he continued, "After Spring Harvest I waited for phone calls from people. I've never had to push this ministry since I started and now I usually do about two gigs a week working at the same time as a joiner."
In the last three years, refusing to pick and choose, John has sung, as he puts it, "everywhere and anywhere", consistently sharing a heart for people rather than a desire for acclaim. Indeed, some of John's best experiences have been in reaching out to what some would label as the lowest of the low, including prisoners, something which he has actually enjoyed. "I've sung in quite a number of prisons around Scotland which has been tops. It's pretty strange when they shut the big door on you and let you in but every time I go I seek to be a blessing. I sometimes come out being more blessed than I think the prisoners have been. In prison they're so much used to lies so when they hear the truth they perk up their ears and listen and I think that's why I enjoy it because I know they're listening. Usually the case is that you're not supposed to ask them what they're in for but I just go for it because usually they're quite open by the time you've got to know them. I remember speaking to one guy who was the pilot who shipped drugs over to Oban, there was a massive headline about it six years ago - it was something like £50,000 worth of drugs. I don't think he was a hero or anything but it's amazing the people you get to speak to and tell Jesus to."
John would be the first to stress that whether playing to thousands at the World Baptist Congress, as he has done, or singing to a few dozen people at a struggling Christian youth event. His music is primarily a form of evangelism. At a time when many artists are tending to leave out blatant mention of Heaven, Hell and all which falls in between John's lyrics remain, for the most, explicitly 'Christian'. Why?
"Without spiritualising everything I do I think that the inspiration I have is definitely from Heaven," said John. "I can't really do anything about it if it comes from there. I've heard some people say, 'My hand wasn't moving on the paper, it was God who moved my hand', but there is a will and I choose to write lyrics like I do. As long as the inspiration is coming from God that's why I am going to write. I think there comes a time where if your heart is walking with him it doesn't matter to some degree what you're writing because you're going to write something good anyway, whether it be overtly Christian or whether it's socially based." But do John's sympathies lie with artists whose message moves away from overt mention of the gospel?
"Yeah, to some degree," said John. "Some of them I know whose hearts are right and really that is the way God's leading them. On the other hand there are some of them who are just trying to sit on the fence and say, Til sing a song that doesn't actually mention God', where it could be a man they're talking about or it could be God and that kind of bothers me because I think they're having a taste of two worlds."
Enough of John Peebles the evangelist, what of John Peebles the artist? Although still to firmly establish himself south of the border he has done his prospects no harm by releasing his first full length solo album 'Higher Than Home' earlier this year. This was preceded in 1992 by a four track EP called 'I Pray You Realise' recorded mainly for promotional purposes. John now reflects on the EP, "It's not really me, it's too rock 'n' roll." A self-confessed funkster (citing influences as Sting and Simply Red), he would like to describe 'Higher Than Home' as funk-based although John's acoustic guitars still tend to lead the way.
The album has sold well so far despite no major commercial backup. John remarked, "I don't really see the point in getting a big distribution deal at the moment until I'm really playing a lot in England." Instead, the recording is distributed by a fledgling production company, set up by John, called Clear Management. 'Higher Than Home' displays a more than adequate set of musicians yet John, for the main, still performs as a solo artist. Surrounded by up and coming Christian bands who rely on bass lines and beat boxes or grungy guitars John might seem a bit out of touch. How do audiences respond to him and his guitar? "I think people respond to it very differently," John said. "If I just stood up there with a band, with an electric guitar and just banged it people would probably like me more for some reason. People do like it, that is proved in the album sales. I would say that the majority of people are probably over 18 although there are a few under that so maybe I've aimed at slightly more of an adult audience. In some ways the indie guys can have the teenagers.
"The acoustic thing is always very difficult. For example, last week I sang to 800 to 1,000 people in Glasgow for 20 minutes and when I was saying something between the songs folk just talked. When I got them to sing they sang with me but I'm positive that if I took a band there people would be much more into it and they would respond in a much better way so the old acoustic guitar solo think is always very very difficult. It's back down to whether they are really listening to what I'm saying anyway, or is it just the music that they're into which really worries me all the time."
In this respect John acknowledges that his days as a solo artist may be numbered. "I think a time is coming where solo evangelism is going to take slightly a side road. I think maybe the Lord would have us in team evangelism. Any time I've worked in a team, whether it's been with Youth For Christ, Saltmine or with a band there seems to be more response from the people. I don't know if that's just a personal thing but I do feel that the way ahead is in teamwork and it is something I would like to try and get into more in the rest of my career as a musician. I've been purely solo over the last three years and it's been really hard - people could tell you that. I'm sure Ian White could tell you that, Martyn Joseph could tell you that. It's very hard going," continued John, "because you go and you sing and you think, 'I wonder how I did there?'. To go and work with a team is much different."
So, to coin a cliché, the future looks wide open for John Peebles; at 25 he's not exactly past it. Fine details, however, are of secondary consideration to this young man. "I've no big visions to make big money but to see people saved. If at the end of my concert one person was saved or one person had just even been touched that would be enough payment for me." If good intentions count for anything, as they should, then John could go a long way.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.