Tony Cummings continues his history of Musical Gospel Outreach and the developing British Christian music scene
By 1970 Britain's Christian music scene was growing fast. Though no one would claim that it was anything other than a tiny blip on the multi-million pound world of pop and rock it had at least established a foothold with a steady trickle of album releases and some high profile concerts from visiting American acts like Larry Norman and Andrae Crouch & The Disciples and a growing array of grassroots British artists. In the epicenter of all this was Musical Gospel Outreach - largely covering all aspects of beat group evangelism; Buzz magazine; MGO's record label Key Records; and MGO's well-attended series of events and concerts.
The 12 A4 pages of the January 1970 Buzz continued in much the same vein as had gone before. There was a front page article about Beat Capitol '70, a concert to be held at Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall. Taking part were Trinity Folk whose "raw, uncompromising sound has been attracting rave reviews from concert promoters throughout Great Britain" (though it was with their name change to Parchment that the band's national popularity was to truly grow); The Crossbeats playing songs from their independently released album 'Crazy Mixed-Up Generation'; The Informers and Keith Rycroft (a solo folkie soon to join Parchment). Unfortunately the band whose photo Buzz chose to illustrate their cover story, Time Ltd, disappeared as quickly as they had emerged. The same issue contained a feature on the new lineup Forerunners who were working on a new album for Key Records and playing a concert at Westminster Central Hall.
But it was the February issue which rang the changes for Buzz. With it came a new logo, increase in price to one shilling and sixpence and a doubling in size to 24 pages. The reason for the sudden expansion was that Buzz had stepped into the gap when Youth For Christ had decided to cease publication of their Vista magazine. It was effectively a takeover, a startling outcome considering that only four years previously Vista had published its anti-beat group evangelism missive Rape Of The Ear. Almost as startling was the announcement that "the regular editorial boys have put the whole contents of this February issue into the hands of the young people of Purley Baptist Church for them to plan, write, design and everything." The first fruit of the youth group's labour was the article Outreach In A Mental Hospital, the second part of a Cliff Richard interview (the first part had been in the January Buzz) and an article about Purley Baptist's youth band Ministry Of Power. That particular band never got the make a record though band member Dave Cooke was to go on to become a musical associate of Cliff Richard, a writer of countless jingles and a popular author.
A tour of Sound Vision concerts was subheaded An Evening With Judy & Nigel. Judy was Judy MacKenzie, described as a "folk pop singer" while Nigel was longtime MGO supporter Nigel Goodwin, now billed as "actor-communicator-ex-Z-Cars man." The newly released Key Records album 'Judy' sold healthily throughout the tour. In fact the album was more than the gentle folk pop some purchasers might have expected. Decades later American critic Ken Scott wrote about 'Judy', describing it as the "21 year old British gal's full-blown classic of late '60s AM folk and electric pop-rock. Some of the songs have dreamy psychedelic moods to them while others rock and swing with a hot James Brown horn section. Judy handles both approaches with equal agility while the Key label's rough-edged garage approach provides an extra boost. She can belt out high-energy soul movers ('What Does it Mean To You?', 'Body And Soul') or a lively blues rocker ('One Man') with conviction just as easily [as] she can allow her delicate breathy vocals to entrance the listener into smoky torch songs ('What Is Love', 'It's Up To You'), enchanted folk murmurings ('Soapbox Songs', 'That's How it Is') or a surreal acappella number ('Standing Alone')."
One of the by-products of the Judy & Nigel concerts was Operation Fred, another evangelistic initiative by MGO. The plan encompassed getting Buzz readers to cultivate friendships with non-Christians; distributing a special outreach issue of Buzz magazine with its cover story Religion Just A Crutch?; and attending one of Operation Fred's preparation and training meetings. Then, to invite their non-Christian friends to the autumn gospel concerts being put together by MGO, which were even being advertised in mainstream music paper Melody Maker.
When the outreach issue Buzz appeared, as well as the Gordon Bailey-penned Religion Just A Crutch? article (with its last paragraph exhortation "throw away your crutch, admit you're lost, your inadequacy and turn to faith in Jesus Christ") the magazine also contained an article about a medical mission run in a remote part of Brazil; a review of the Beatles film Let It Be with the assertion "the song 'Let It Be' is one of the Beatles' weakest, the lyrics come across insincerely and the music is correspondingly insipid, the vital [element] of truth being expressed is missing"; and an article about a singer/songwriter, yet to record as a solo, Graham Kendrick. The page photo accompanying the article showed Graham, resplendent in sun glasses and floral neck scarf, sitting on a dustbin.
If Key Records' 'Judy' album was decades on to be hailed, particularly by American record collectors, as something of a Jesus music classic, the same could be said for Key's eponymous album by Out Of Darkness. Years on Ken Scott wrote, "Virtual Tyrannosaurus Rex of early Jesus music crawling out from the London underground on Britain's pioneering Key label. This is the one folks - a heavy duty classic hard rock scorcher with tons of loud blistering electric guitar work. Ray Powell is the man behind all that guitar, joined by Carl Grant on bass, Tim Anderson on drums, and Tony Goodman on lead vocals and harmonica. These guys fall right in line with the late-'60s bluesy sounds of Hendrix and Cream on driving rockers like 'On Solid Rock', 'Who Is To Blame', 'There You See A Stranger', 'Light' and 'Closin' In On Me' (note the strong similarities to Hendrix's 'Fire' on the latter). Also samples loud stomping blues-rock with wailing harmonica ('Lemonade And Peanuts') and minor-key psychedelic folk with hypnotic percussion ('Homeland'). 'Thank You Lord' chugs along with some punchy Stones rhythm guitar, while 'Hustle Bustle' features nifty jazz-inﬂuenced guitar. Still room for a couple ballads in 'Wings Of The Morning' and 'Dreamaway - Stevie's Song'. Intriguing pink and purple band cover photo (no smiles) with negative image on the back (Anderson's nifty fedora is beyond cool). Grant and Powell are both black, making Out Of Darkness one of the few interracial Christian rock bands on the early scene. Must've been the gutsiest thing ever released on a Christian label at the time. Pretty hard for the common man to come by, too, as psych collectors 'discovered' it a few years ago and ensuing bid wars successfully shot the album up near four-digit value."
Another 1970 release by Key was an album by the new lineup Forerunners, 'Running Back'. It sold reasonably well for the Campus Crusade For Christ musicianaries though in truth its odd choice of secular covers like "Here There And Everywhere" and "Windmills Of Your Mind" made it a pretty damp squib. In fact one reviewer wrote his response to the Forerunners' version of "Feelin' Groovy" as "I can only take so many listens of [this] before I start turning violent." Far better was the album 'Sound Vision In Concert'. It contained a gritty version of "Closin' In On Me" by Hendrixorian rockers Out Of Darkness and "One Man" with Judy MacKenzie singing lead. Judy also had a couple of other songs as did Trinity Folk. As Ken Scott wrote, "Their fiesty brand of folk is in stark contrast to that of Carol, John & Aubrey whose quaint mellow harmonies open side two. Jamaicans The Overcomers display their Caribbean influences on their high energy performance. Sounding like he crawled off a Monty Python set is the delightfully obnoxious Tony Hemmings with an inscrutable comedy routine called 'The Notices'."
The September 1970 Buzz featured on its cover Out Of Darkness playing at Phun City, a festival organised by hippie newspaper International Times. Thanks to the efforts of a local minister Christian acts got on the bill including Pauline Filby backed by Gordon Giltrap and Brian Cresswell, Out Of Darkness and Judy MacKenzie. As it turned out, the event had less impact than was hoped for as poor publicity and heavy rain meant that the expected 20,000 audience turned out to be between 5,000 and 8,000 people. Key Records' 'Sound Vision In Concert' live album, costing 39 shillings and six pence, was duly advertised in that issue. By March 1971 Key Records were advertising the third Forerunners album which, despite the intriguing title 'Genuine Imitation Life' actually contained the American folksters again take on mainstream hits, this time "Games People Play" , "Walk On By" and Dylan's "When The Ship Comes In". Buzz continued to demonstrate its commitment to evangelistic effort with its pull-out series The Buzz Manual Of Evangelism, which over a few months dealt with such subjects as Personal Evangelism, Home-to-home Evangelism and Literature Evangelism.
Judy MacKenzie's second album 'Peace And Love And Freedom', released in 1971, featured a much softer sound than her debut but was excellent for all that. Years later Cross Rhythms' Mike Rimmer wrote, "Musically this swings between acoustic pop and folk with some gorgeous moments. I love the trippy strings and flutes in the opening song when the tempo slows on the title track. The theme is disillusionment with the empty promises of the hippie movement and in part two the reality that true peace and freedom can only be found in Christ. The album contains an early co-write with a very young Graham Kendrick, 'Spread Wide Your Wings' which shows off Judy's stunning voice and the adventurous song arrangements. Another highlight is 'Love Is Fine' which has a carefree '60s feel about it and sounds like it could have been recorded by someone like Petula Clark. The more upbeat 'Never A Man Like This Man' is a groovy portrait of Jesus while 'Isn't It Hard' is a quiet song of repentance with a haunting vocal."
Throughout 1971 Buzz continued to increase its circulation. Explained MGO's Geoff Shearn, "We had an enthusiastic readership. One of the ways in which we sold Buzz was to appoint church agents. Not only did we have the direct mail subscriptions, we had church agents accounting for probably more than half our sales. We didn't do any marketing. The church agents were like champions: they weren't just selling a magazine, they were championing the cause. A lot of the bands that were out there would also take supplies and sell them at their gigs." Added Pete, "The Buzz agents would book coaches when we did training weekends. We booked Swanwick Conference Centre for a number of years in succession and ran training conferences there, and the groups came from all over the country."
Key Records' next release was the album 'Footsteps On The Sea' by Graham Kendrick. Produced by John Pantry it featured mainstream folk guitarist Gordon Giltrap who introduced Graham to the concept of open turning and for a season embraced Christianity. Writing about 'Footsteps On The Sea' Ken Scott wrote, "His guitar and soft vocals are backed only by string bass and virtuoso Gordon Giltrap on second acoustic guitar. At times 'Footsteps On The Sea' recalls the style of Bruce Cockburn's early albums, alternating gentle contemplative moods with skillful bluesy acoustic impressions. Contains 11 Kendrick's originals, sometimes told from the perspective of New Testament characters as on 'Sweet Fire', 'Jerusalem Road', 'Simon's Song' and 'The Executioner', the latter a convicting song about the crucifixion. The album includes a large foldout poster lyric sheet and was released in the States on Impact."
MGO's David Payne had forged some important links with Benson/Impact Records and the quickly expanding American Christian music industry. Payne's contact was with Bob MacKenzie. MacKenzie was creative director for the John T Benson music publishing company and had produced dozens of albums released on Benson's Impact label, ranging from such artists as inspirational star Sandi Patty to Southern gospel icons J D Sumner & The Stamps Quartet. MacKenzie had been paying regular visits to the UK having discovered that it was cheaper to record string sections in London using British symphonians than in the US. Meeting up with David Payne he was intrigued by the grassroots activities of MGO's Key Records and entered into a licensing agreement whereby the Impact albums 'Time To Get It Together' by the Imperials - the veteran vocal group who were gradually moving from an old school Southern gospel sound to a more contemporary pop sound - and the eponymous album by a rock band, Joshua, from the south western States, who seemed to have come in from the desert, made the recording and disappeared.
The most important contribution Bob MacKenzie made to MGO/Key Records was introducing them to the music of the American pioneer of Christian rock, Larry Norman. In 1969 Capitol Records had released Larry Norman's album 'Upon This Rock'. Its bold use of full-on rock coupled to a strong Jesus message meant it didn't sell well in the mainstream. But Mackenzie saw the album's potential, negotiating a deal with Capitol for the album to be leased to Impact Records for distribution into America's Christian bookshops. Geoff recalled, "Bob dropped a copy into our hands and it absolutely blew me away. For me it was the Christian equivalent of 'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'. A sensational album which we just had to have."
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