With the exception of a bespectacled phenomenon that is Kendrick, it is NOEL RICHARDS who is synonymous with Spring Harvest. Gavin Drake met the man.
If there is such a thing as The Congregati -the evangelical mafia, then Cobham Christian Fellowship must certainly be one of its hideouts. Caroline Bonnett, Cliff Richard, Sue Rinaldi, Noel Richards, Sheila Walsh... all are, or were, based at the church started by Gerald Coates, his wife and a few friends 22 years ago after a Holy Spirit encounter left them out of favour with the Brethren Church that they were members of. "Perhaps it's something they put in the water" suggested Noel Richards when talking about the proliferation of contemporary Christian music artists based in this 10,000 population township just off the M25 in South West London.
Noel Richards is 38 years old, married to Tricia and has two children; Sam aged 12 and Amy who is seven. Noel has been 'playing' guitar since he was seven years old. He wrote his first worship song when he was eight - published here for the first time! - but didn't get his first real guitar until he was 11. "The first time I picked up a guitar, or anything like a guitar, was probably my Dad's mandolin guitar. It was shaped just like Paul McCartney's electric bass - this must be in the early sixties. I would certainly have been around seven or eight or something like that. Obviously guitars were coming in to fashion. And my father played, as well as the clarinet, the mandolin as well. I discovered it in the back of a cupboard somewhere - this eight stringed mandolin which looked like a guitar, and I twanged away on that. It wasn't a guitar, but to me in my imagination that's what it was," explained Noel.
"That progressed to one of those plastic guitars that looked like an electric guitar, with four plastic strings on it - that would have been at around eight or nine years old. I've got quite a vivid memory of me sitting in the bedroom going through the songbook that there was with this guitar, which I think was ukulele tuning. "I got my first proper guitar when I was about 11. It cost six guineas; I ordered it from Bell Music of Surbiton. In those days Bell Music would send out a catalogue - I sent off for this 200-page catalogue. I had the first guitar in the book! - probably because it was the least expensive. I lost interest in the guitar in my early teens, but when I was 15, and gave my life to the Lord in a very real and positive way, then the guitar began to come back into my thinking. I began to play the guitar seriously again and obviously used the guitar to sing songs about my faith, about my relationship with God."
In the early days of Noel's career, he would engage himself in performance-orientated work. At church, his first singing was solo spots on Sunday evenings. Noel cut his teeth professionally in the church coffee bars in Cardiff. Most weeks he would be found singing Jesus songs over the clattering cappuccino cups. "There weren't any worship leaders in those days," remembered Noel, "and being a worship leader wasn't seen as a vital role within the church. So the only outlet I could see for my music was in evangelism and writing songs about my faith. They were very simple in those days and all focused on getting to know Jesus.
In the later part of the 70s Noel worked as an evangelist for British Youth For Christ. In the mid 70s he'd formed a band with Trish Richards, called Shamgar (it's an Old Testament name though don't wear out your concordance looking for it). Shamgar recorded one album, 'Getting Closer', which intriguingly was produced by Dave Pickering Pick, now producer for Eden Burning. Shamgar soon went the way of hundreds of other evangelistic young hopefuls but Noel moved on to become an associate musician for British Youth For Christ. "The music that I was doing was still in a concert setting - of a performance type, although at that stage I was taking responsibility for leading worship at our fellowship which was then in Plymouth. I was part of a fellowship which had started in 1976. So I was involved in the two -leading worship in the local church, but my expression really was to write performance orientated songs. "That continued until the early 80s. I moved to Cobham and although I was more closely involved in leading worship then - the role of the worship leader had become quite a distinct role - I still leaned towards what my roots were, which was singing? performance orientated songs. Then I started travelling with Gerald Coates. Gerald has a real prophetic | edge to what he communicates to the Church." In the early 80s, inspired by the singing prophets like Keith Green, Noel's music began to take on a different direction as he realised the power of prophecy to the church. "I began to feel that this was a role that I could perhaps take on in some way. So those were the songs I wrote in the middle part of the 80s and happy accidents were the worship songs that I wrote along the way - almost as a sideline," Noel said.
In 1982, Thank You Music published Noel's "Lord And Father King Forever", a song he wrote in 1979. It was sung in Cobham quite a bit, and a little bit outside Cobham as well. It was featured on Kingsway's 'Songs Of Fellowship, Volume Eight'. In 1985 Noel wrote "You Laid Aside Your Majesty". "Up until that point, I hadn't taken seriously the fact that I could write songs that the church could sing," admitted Noel. "I didn't realise it. I think it's become a growing realisation over the last few years that you can write songs that the church can sing, you can write songs which give people a means of expressing the truth that God is communicating to them. And when you think that songs like "Bind Us Together" in the 70s have gone all around the world, and Karen Lafferty's "Seek Ye First The Kingdom Of God", they pick up on what God is saying to the Church, and ordinary men and women in the Church could catch the prophetic voice of God through these songs that circle the globe."
Noel wrote songs mainly for use at Cobham and on the road with Gerald Coates. The increased usage of the songs by people outside his immediate fellowship circles surprised him. "I wrote "You Laid Aside Your Majesty" and people began to sing it. It really surprised me that people other than my friends would be happy to sing my songs. I think I was quite surprised, if success is the word, how successful that particular song was in helping people to worship God", said Noel. "I would go to places with Gerald and see my songs on the overhead, and Gerald would say 'My friend and colleague Noel Richards wrote that' and they'd all look in their song book and check the credits. 'Oh really!, this guy wrote that', they would say.
"In 1987 Trish and I wrote "All Heaven Declares". When we wrote it, I thought it was OK, and I showed it to Gerald and asked what he thought - I play all my songs to Gerald because I think it's important to bounce our songs off people who have theological insight, so that we don't end up going off the rails with our songs, or putting songs which don't hold water theologically into people's hearts. He said, 'Yeah, I think it's good but I don't think it's as good as "You Laid Aside Your Majesty"', which, looking back now, was quite a humorous comment. We began to sing it, and at a meeting in Southampton once Gerald didn't preach because the Spirit of God began to move when we sang this song. We spent the rest of the evening praying with people.
"I remember going to Spring Harvest in 1988 and Dave Pope was being really encouraging about the song. He had heard it towards the end of '87, at the Evangelists' Conference, and he said, 'We've got to do this song at Spring Harvest'. Trish remembers walking around the site at Minehead, pushing our daughter, Amy, in her buggy, and she heard it being sung in the Big Top. She walked past the Alternative Celebration that I was doing, and we were singing it in there, and she walked past another celebration and Ian Traynar was doing it in there and the youth location ... and she couldn't get over all those people singing the song.
"And I remember going to Cliff College in May 1988, standing in the chapel on the first floor hearing all these people singing "All Heaven Declares". I opened the church window and looked out and saw all these people on the lawn singing it. I was gob-smacked to think that something Trish and I did in our bedroom as an expression of our heart with God was now hitting the church everywhere."
"All Heaven Declares" was a turning point for Noel. Up until this point he had been concentrating on performance-oriented material. All of a sudden a whole new avenue was opening up to him. His early albums 'Dangerline' and 'Lionheart' were more pop-gospel, Garth Hewitt-tinged albums than anything else. But suddenly one song was changing the whole direction of his ministry and his songwriting. "I thought there was a lot more songs like "All Heaven Declares" that I had the ability to write, that could really help people in their worship. It was the song that really put me on the path as a writer. It was quite astonishing really, 15 years of playing my | music, writing songs in a whole variety of situations and this one song brought me to people's attention as a writer. Since then the way people have used me has been in a worship situation more than the performance side of things."
Praise and worship musicians and contemporary Christian musicians have often been seen as separate entities by a church full of cultural Philistines who deem Art to be the devil manifest on earth. Noel is a musician who has crossed over from the cultural creativeness of a contemporary musician to become one of the country's most respected praise and worship leaders, yet he does not see himself as being 'promoted' to the higher musical form. "I do see the need for 'performance' and 'worship' to run side by side. While at the moment I'm majoring on the worship songs, I do feel I'm entering a new phase now in my life where I'm wanting to still write songs that people can sing to God, that people can really celebrate with. I feel there's a real need to be writing contemporary hymns that deal with the whole range of issues and facets of life which in one sense can almost be cerebral songs because we are singing with our understanding. Not just those that make us feel good emotionally, but also those which we declare with all our intellect and understanding, but nevertheless with faith and with heart. Maybe within our worship liturgy, there should be room for songs that say, 'Let's not sit down, let's not stop worshipping, let's continue worshipping God but let's listen to these words', to blend in with performance songs. "Because I believe that the performance song is an act of worship as well.
"We've had this mistake in which we see Noel Richards as a 'worship' songwriter and Adrian Snell as a 'contemporary' songwriter. I believe that what Adrian does, to take an example, is an act of worship. Somehow, I wish we can see the two circles joined together and the two disciplines of writing flowing side by side.
"I think down the years there's been a real lack of understanding for the Christian artist within the church, and I think there's been quite an aversion towards the arts from within the church, so a lot of artists and writers of the calibre of Adrian Snell, Phil And John, Martyn Joseph and so on have been misunderstood by the Church. Often the Church feels these performers should sing about Jesus in every song in order for that person to be a valid performer. I think a barrier has come up between some artists and the Church. I think worship music is probably more acceptable to the Church even though it's quite contemporary now, it's a lot more acceptable because it's not done within the performance genre. I think those who write worship songs are easier to assimilate within the Church than the performer. I think that is a barrier that is beginning to be overcome and there's a lot more openness now. Still there are a lot of places who don't make room for the creative arts.
"The artists that I'm meeting around the country, not only do they have a desire to serve God with their art, but they are worshippers, and it's not just 'We are artists doing our thing', but what they are doing is an expression of worship. They're not interested in being Christian superstars - they have very much a heart for worship. Today, there doesn't seem to be a competitive spirit between contemporary artists and worship leaders. Maybe in the past one might have been seen as first class and the other as second class. Today there is a real respect for one another and a real co-operation. That's encouraging me as I work with artists. It's great to go somewhere and lead worship in the first part of the evening, and a contemporary artist comes on in the later half to do a concert."
In Cross Rhythms 7, Noel spoke in our 'Getting The Message' column about how he sends the lyrics of his songs to 'his close friend and colleague' Gerald Coates to fine tune the lyrics. It is something Noel does with all his songs in order to give integrity to the songs he writes. "A lot of what Gerald does is the fine tuning, It is a form of word play to make the songs stronger. When I wrote "I Will Seek Your Face O Lord", I wrote:
Lord how awesome is your presence, who can stand in your light
By your grace and mercy cleanse me, make me wholly in your sight that became:
Lord how awesome is your presence, who can stand in your light
Those who by your grace and mercy are made holy in your sight
The second verse started with:
May I dwell in your presence all the days of my live
I will dwell in your presence...
So it became a declaration. We need to be recognising in the area of spiritual warfare, that there is an enemy out there that we all face, but the ultimate victory is ours. There are battles we fight, battles we win and battles we lose. We need to understand that, otherwise the songs we write can be defeatist or, on the other hand, over-triumphalistic. I feel we do need to have some triumph in the Church, because we have been downtrodden for so long. We need to be a triumphant Church because the gospel is triumphant and Jesus is triumphant, but of course we need to recognise within our songs that with spiritual warfare there is a cost to pay and sometimes we will feel defeated."
Over the last few years, worship has enjoyed a greater importance within the Church. Noel believes that this is down to Graham Kendrick and Spring Harvest. "Graham Kendrick introduced the concept of the worship leader to the wider church through events like Spring Harvest. What he was doing wasn't unique just to himself, but the wider evangelical church was reached with this new style of doing things by what he was doing in Spring Harvest. Ian Traynar was with John Noble, Chris Bowater was well known in the Assemblies Of God, Dave Bilborough was in the New Church stream. But in the broad evangelical Church it was Graham Kendrick who opened the door.
Noel's new album, Thunder In The Skies' (reviewed in this issue), mixes the contemporary hymns with decidedly rock-tinged praise and worship. In August 1992 Noel sat down with Kingsway A&R man Les Moir, who produced the album, and whittled down the 17 songs they had to start with to the 13 on the album. At the end of October Noel and Les went into ICC studios, Eastbourne to record the album. A host of top names in British Christian music were brought in to assist with the album. Slide guitar and mandolin is provided by Bryn Haworth; the Inspirational Choir's Howard Francis provides keyboards; ex-Martyn Joseph man and new lona man Mike Haughton provides saxophone; while Laurence Johnson, Pat Knight and Fay Simpson from chart-gospel outfit Nu Colors joined black gospel choir The Miracle Singers to sing with Noel on what is one of the most compelling, musically mature and spirit-lifting collections of praise and worship ever assembled. "To my mind "Come Lord Jesus" is the strongest song on the album. I feel that that is a significant song and could become another classic", said Noel, "but any songwriter is in the hands of the listeners who are the final judge of what is good and what isn't. The first verse of "Come Lord Jesus" looks at the state of the world, the second at our response to it while the third verse looks forward to the return of Christ to the world. I would like to think that that's a song which will be taken up by the church, because it speaks about the darkness in the world and that we in the church can play our part in bringing life into it."
"Come Lord Jesus" probably will become a classic. Noel Richards writes considerably fewer songs than say Graham Kendrick, but a goodly number of them do become praise and worship evergreens. Noel commented: "Graham writes in a very prolific way. It's a bit like somebody writing 30 songs and 10 of them become classics, while the 20 are simply OK. With me, I don't write the 30, I just write the 10! (laughs). I write fewer songs. Ishmael always says that he can write a whole album while I can write one song! Ishmael is unique in that he can churn out an album in a very small space of time and he has put a lot of Spiritual truth into a lot of people's lives through those songs. Me, I have to slog away at it."
Slog, or no, this eminently gifted songwriter has paid his dues and - judging from the stream of American albums now featuring his material - is well on the way to gaining an international reputation. Exciting times, for those who long to see the name of Jesus thunder in the skies.
Cross Rhythms is pleased to bring you, for the first time ever, the never before seen in print, first song that Noel Richards ever wrote!
"I wrote my first song when I was eight years old. I still remember the lyric. It was pretty twee, as you can imagine from an eight year old! A friend of mine put some music to it and that was my first song writing attempt!" ... Noel Richards
Jesus is my Saviour,
He washed me white as snow
I know I'll always trust Him,
where'er I go
© 1963 Noel Richards Reprinted with permissionThe 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.