Tony Cummings interviewed Peter Meadows, David Payne and Geoff Shearn and scoured 10 years of Buzz magazine to gather a history of British CCM from 1965 to 1975. Here is the first part.
In the 1950s a group of musicians from Croydon's Spurgeon's College laid down the musical template for what at the time seemed an initiative a daring, if not dangerous, initiative, putting Christian lyrics to the pop music of their time. By the mid 1960s such a groundbreaking approach had become common in churches all over Britain. Dozens of groups and soloists like The Peacemakers, Gerry McClelland, The Liverpool Raiders, The Heralds, The Crossbeats, The Envoys, The Channels, The Bryan Gilbert Group, The Chordials, The Clearways, The Word Bringers, The All One and hundreds more were taking the message of Jesus out beyond church walls. One hastily formed group of singing Salvationists, the Joystrings, even made the lower reaches of the British pop charts in 1964. But for most of the Jesus-proclaiming beat groups a recording contract let alone exposure on the TV was seemingly light years away. It was open-minded churches who were transforming their crypts and empty high street shops into "Christian coffee bars" that gave the grassroots musicianaries a place to play. These brightly painted, fishnet-festooned establishments were given semi-exotic names like The Dive Inn, The Loft, The Drain and The Hideout. Manchester's Catacombs was a particular trail-blazer as a venue run by churches in the city every weekend.
And so it came to pass that three musicians with a zeal for evangelism met up and began to plan an initiative which over the coming years was to become Britain's best-selling Christian magazine and a pioneering record company which was to play a pivotal part in the development of contemporary Christian music and later contemporary worship music. For years Cross Rhythms has felt the need to tell the convoluted but fascinating story of Musical Gospel Outreach (MGO). We interviewed MGO's founders Pete Meadows, David Payne and Geoff Shearn and subsequently went through every issue of the groundbreaking magazine Buzz, from 1965 to 1975. In doing so what emerged was not only a tale of three Christian ministry visionaries making sacrificial steps to broaden the musical vocabulary of the Church but the pages of Buzz are also an absorbing snapshot of the hundreds of bands who helped change attitudes to modern culture in the Church. In 1965 many UK churches were still stuck in the past. Traditionalism, with its archaic methodology of the "hymn-sermon-hymn sandwich", pervaded. To be a "good Christian" meant saying "no" to "the world" - its music and fashions. And liberal church leadership had a stranglehold on access to any mass media.
But spurred on by the pioneering efforts of The Venturers and the Joystrings, raw and often naïve musical evangelists were challenging the religious status quo. In 1965 one of the hundreds of UK beat groups playing the Christian coffee bar and youth club circuit were The Envoys. The group achieved something which most of their fellow musicianaries didn't when in 1965 Evangelical Recordings - a tiny label specialising in choirs and sacred solos - recorded a single with the group. Evangelical Recordings were in fact the first Christian label to respond to the new wave of young musical evangelists when they released two EPs and two singles by The Venturers. So Evangelical Recordings released The Envoys' "The Door".
But it was another 1965 event which was to prove far more significant. One of The Envoys, Geoff Shearn, worked in an insurance company sharing a building with a London advertising agency where another Christian beat musician, Pete Meadows, also worked. Ironically it was thanks to one of the marks of evangelical orthodoxy of the day (the wearing of a Scripture Union pin badge) that they discovered each other while sharing a lift. Geoff remembered, "We were both equally gobsmacked that we were in gospel bands and doing coffee bar evangelism." Pete's band, The Unfettered, also included David Payne and history was under way.
Pete Meadows took up the story. "Before we ever formed The Unfettered, Dave and I had a background in faith-sharing thanks to an organisation called Network. It linked together church-based evangelistic teams throughout the UK. The focus was on training, including an annual residential get-together to share ideas and know how. With our own band formed, and keeping bumping into others, we could see the value of something like Network exclusively for those who used music."
David continued, "We shared the idea with Geoff and committed to pulling together a one-off event for as many groups as we could contact." Adding his influence was Justyn Rees, son of one of the UK's most effective preaching evangelists Tom Rees, who was using Justyn's group, The Peacemakers, at his rallies. So it was some 20 groups came together, in a CofE mission hall in West Ealing, to share and talk. And it was here, effectively, Musical Gospel Outreach (MGO) started. David said, "We realised there was something going on here: we needed an organisation to link us all together. We had no big ambitions but just to be a help to each other."
The "organisation" could hardly have had more humble beginnings. Explained Geoff, "We decided we'd print a little newsletter. The name Buzz was chosen, inspired by the noise made by the amplifiers of far too many of the Christian beat groups. And here was another marker of the change in the culture. A new form of printing had been created using photographic plates rather than type set in metal - releasing creativity at low cost through press-down letters and illustrations - and body text from a typewriter. Pete, the advertising man, was in his element - though life would have been easier had they been able to afford an electronic typewriter thus saving hours of filling in the thin strokes with a sharp pencil so all the letters could be read!
The outcome was as chalk to cheese so far as Christian publications were concerned. Moreover, with a lack of church jargon and an easy writing style, it was a perfect representative for these groundbreaking bands. The start of Buzz was limited to two foolscap sheets folded in half and hand assembled in a West Ealing Brethren chapel. The first issue of Buzz - dated October 1965 - gave its readers the first in the series Method In Your Music, news on how the band The Pilgrims had obtained a large, empty shop in Bromley to use as a Gospel Beat Club, a Bible study - His Cloak On My Shoulders, the announcement that The Silverchords ("five young coloured men of Camberwell") were changing their name to The Soulseekers, and a page advert for The Envoys' single. This was accompanied by a "marketing campaign" laughingly described by Pete as, "Dave Payne in a phone box calling all the bands and people we knew saying, 'Would you like this magazine?'" Equally fragile was the limited communication between the three pioneers. Geoff did not even have a phone at home and the routine was for Pete or David to ring the phone box outside his house, hoping a passer-by would answer and be persuaded to knock Geoff's door.
Despite being announced as a monthly publication, Buzz skipped the next month - a clear signal of how hand-to-mouth everything was. Issue two was the first with a cover photo accompanying a story about Liverpool's Crossbeats (who were to make quite an impact in their hometown, even playing the famed Cavern Club). The second issue of Buzz also offered a Folk Tips column, suggestions for the best giveaway literature to tell the Gospel story, a guide to help groups make the most of Christmas, and news of how Kingston on Thames' Cellar Bar had become the Dive Inn for a week, pulling in more than the Beatles or Stones had done to date with 'four special follow up meetings each attended by about 100'.
The March '66 issue advertised an MGO Teach-In where members of The Pilgrims, Christian poet Gordon Bailey and Bible teacher Doug Barnett together with "members of the MGO council" would all be on hand. It took place over a series of Saturdays at North End Hall, Kensington. This became the forerunner of annual weekends at The Hayes Conference Centre, Derbyshire.
The MGO trio became a foursome with the addition of architect, John Webb. David Payne said, "Though John was not there at the start or stayed to the end, his contribution was significant. As an architect he brought a sense of design and theatre along, with a good administrative head and his input was added value at every level."
The growth of beat group evangelism was not without its critics. Indeed, the most prominent evangelistic youth organisation of the time, Youth For Christ, through its magazine Vista, launched a vociferous attack on the blending of the Christian faith and modern music, heading its three-page assault 'Rape Of The Ear'!
A cover story in the November 1966 Buzz indicated that the concept of Christian coffee bars was inspiring more and more churches, with one in Sheffield being held in a building which a local businessman had tried to buy to turn into a casino. Enthused Buzz, "The Mustard Seed as it is called sprang into life at the end of June and featured mainly local groups including The Liberators, The Ambassadors, The Crossbeats, The Folktellers, The Acquitted and The Campaigners." The same issue also published a feature, with photos of an open air concert by Liverpool's The Crossbeats held at London's Trafalgar Square on 8th October. Wrote Buzz, "The PA equipment that had been provided didn't burst into life until they had been pounding away for about 10 minutes. But when it did, London heard the Gospel clear and plain. It's amazing how quickly three guitars and a drum kit will draw a crowd and soon the square was quite full with the passersby who had stopped to look and listen."
The cover story for the April '67 Buzz featured a cover story about the Channels' appearance in a talent search at the Silver Blades Ice Rink in Streatham by the Mecca entertainment giant. It was headlined Channels 2nd In Beat Heat. The same issue ran a track-by-track review of the Joystrings' 'Well Seasoned' album. . . well, side one at least. As Buzz told its readers, "Side two is Christmas Carols." The June issue of Buzz ran a profile on The Chordials who had been "carrying their R&B sound around the West of Scotland."