Kate Nesta looks at the history of early Jesus music pioneers PARCHMENT
The death on 22nd January 2013 of record executive John Paculabo (also known as John Pac) was a sad blow for Britain's Christian music industry. For more than 20 years John was the managing director of Kingsway Music and saw it rise from a small time Eastbourne outfit to become, with its Thankyou Music publishing subsidiary, one of the major players in the worldwide explosion of modern worship music. But before his pivotal role with Kingsway, before even his lengthy sojourn in the '70s with Marshall, Morgan & Scott's Pilgrim Records where he produced dozens of albums for such acts as Marilyn Baker and many others, John followed another path in Christian music one as a singer/songwriter, guitar, sitar and mandolin player and with his fellow folksters Sue McClellan and Keith Rycroft formed Parchment. This band became the very first act to emerge from the embryonic UK Christian music scene to make the British pop charts. In November 1972 the single "Light Up The Fire" by Parchment made number 26 in the NME charts, up there with Elton John, Elvis Presley and Bill Withers. Buzz magazine wrote in 1974, "Christian music today is struggling to be contemporary. Any acceptance in the musical world is heralded as a major achievement," and that's exactly what John Pac did - made Christian music contemporary. The song, penned by Paculabo, McClellan and Rycroft, is actually a folk-styled hymn and is still very much in use in school assemblies throughout Britain.
The historic chart success of Parchment hid a stark financial reality for the band. Buzz magazine spelt it out for their readers. "What might surprise you to learn is that they have nearly always been on the bread line - even when their single was enjoying some success, when their record albums were selling well and when they were touring abroad." John told broadcaster Mike Rimmer 18 months before his death, "There's only two types of musician: those who eat and those who don't. We were the latter; we often had a really tough time. There were days when we had nothing. Christians seem to want music for outreach but don't seem to be prepared to pay for it." Despite the hardships of their time as struggling musicians, Parchment prevailed and became one of the most successful Christian bands of the era.
Parchment's roots go back to the Liverpool gospel folk band, Trinity Folk, founded by John Pac. By 1970 they were playing the Beat Capital concert alongside other Christian acts The Crossbeats, Time Ltd and Christian poet Keith Rycroft. Buzz magazine reported that "Trinity Folk are the big new name in gospel folk music. Since their first convert appearance in Liverpool in 1968 their raw, uncompromising sound has been attracting rave reviews from concert promoters throughout Great Britain. They are part of new Sound Vision tour for instance." In April 1971 Buzz featured Trinity Folk on their front cover with caption "Two of Trinity Folk at one of the 'It's Buzz' concerts" though didn't print anything further inside. In 1972 Trinity Folk were booked to appear at all the major rallies during the Festival Of Jesus in August. They wrote and recorded "Light Up The Fire" as a special song for the festival. John Pac told Cross Rhythms, "Sue and I were in the original group I started called Trinity Folk. Keith [Rycroft] was in another band across town called Gospel Light. He joined us as we wrote this song." Buzz Magazine enthused, "It's a catchy number with a full blooded pop-folk sound. Negotiations are under-way to get the record released through one of the major music companies, in which case we should soon be hearing the Festivals' 'theme song' blaring out on Radio One. It's a great song, beautifully produced, and with a very commercial sound. It's a song for Jesus. A message for the nation." Pye Records agreed to release the single in September 1972. From then on Trinity Folk were known as Parchment. John Pac commented, "The need to change our name became apparent."
"Light Up The Fire" peaked at 31 in the BBC pop chart underneath Elton John. However it was placed at 26 by The New Musical Express and 21 by Radio Luxemburg. Buzz magazine wrote in December 1972, "Tony Blackburn said he wouldn't play it even if it got to number one." John Pac told Mike Rimmer, "I was thinking, 'That's so unfair. It's just good music.'" Buzz went on to write, "The highest the record reached was 31. A magnificent achievement by Christians which, had the BBC then given the single the airplay it deserved, would have resulted in it hitting the top 30 without a doubt. Another result of the success of the record in this country has resulted in interest from overseas. The American major, Bell Records, are to issue it over there and negotiations are currently in hand with France, Germany and Scandinavia." Buzz also spoke to Parchment about their response to the chart success. When speaking about the Christian public pushing the song's mainstream success, Sue McClellan said, "We couldn't have asked them to do more. They have been fantastic."
In November 1972 Parchment's 'Light Up The Fire' album was released via Pye Records in conjunction with Key Records. John Pac told Mike Rimmer, "It was certainly the best Christian recording to date that the UK had produced." In his book, Archivist, American Jesus music expert Ken Scott wrote, "The group's debut is an absolute classic. 'Light Up The Fire' established their trademark sound by combining instruments of traditional British Isles folk music with more modern rock elements. Psych buffs will want to tune in for 'Love Is Come Again' and 'Son Of God', both great psychedelic acid folk tunes that make use of Pac's sitar. A perfect album that more or less defines British Jesus music." Buzz wrote in 1972, "Everything on the album can be safely tagged 'contemporary folk' but the range of sounds and moods is vast, from the stomping 'Zip Bam Boo!' to the traditional 'Pack Up Your Sorrows'. The mystic 'Son Of God' to the beautiful 'True Summer'. Parchment are three distinct people who have combined their individual abilities to make one very effective unit. There's genial John Pac, who is very much the glue holding things together. There's Keith Rycroft, probably the deepest thinker of the three of them. And there is the girl in the middle - Sue McClellan. The members of Parchment all sing, all play a variety of instruments and all write songs, which probably explains why the album is so varied, interesting and compelling."
They released their second album 'Hollywood Sunset' a year later which was just as successful. Ken Scott wrote, "'Hollywood Sunset' continues in the format of 'Light Up The Fire', albeit with greater use of string instrumentation and a slightly more commercial feel. Best cuts are the more stripped down numbers like the minor-key 'Dobbie's Song' or the delicate ballad 'Gift'. The ballad 'Lovely Touching' has a dreamy, mysterious quality that's enhanced by dramatic electric guitar soloing. Fortunately the periodic strings tend to enhance the songs rather than weigh them down." In September 1972, Keith Rycroft decided to leave Parchment. "I felt the stage might cut me off from ordinary people in a musical and physical sense. I wanted to work more closely with people, so felt that being a part-time musician would help me achieve this contact more effectively," he told Buzz Magazine. John Pac explained, "After two years, Keith decided it was too tough for him: he had a young wife and a young child. Life on the road is pretty tough - it was very tough." The band then went through a transitional stage of working with their roadie Jeff Crow giving support on bass. It was later announced that Jeff would become a permanent member of Parchment. Reporting on the change Buzz wrote, "Keith however, is featured on their new album 'Hollywood Sunset' but reactions from their current bookings have been highly favourable." Sue McClellan told Buzz in 1974, "We're planting seeds now for the future. We can't really talk about the future because all we have is today. So we'll work as hard as we possibly can - and let God take care of the future." As it turned out Jeff Crow was with Parchment for less than a year.
In 1975 Parchment signed with Britain's biggest Christian label, Word UK and their third album 'Shamblejam' was released on Myrrh Records. The album featured new member Brian Smith providing bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar and backing vocals. 'Shamblejam' would be the only Parchment album to be co-released in America. In Mark Allen Powell's Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian music, he wrote, "Myrrh Records took a chance with the group on 'Shamblejam', which features a more electric sound - perhaps out of deference to American audiences. The album was produced by John Pantry, and Harmony magazine would call attention to its able cast of backup musicians that supply the trio with a lot of muscle." Despite the change of style, Sue McClellan told Buzz Magazine, "Our objective as a group remains the same. Our vision doesn't change, it develops. As we develop as Christians so our vision develops. The music is important in communicating to people and that's why we work so hard on it." Sadly, by the time 'Shamblejam' was released some conservative elements in the Church questioned the project's lack of overt songs. People had started to question Parchment's artistic integrity and there were doubts questioning their Christian commitment after the release of 'Shamblejam'. John Pac told Buzz Magazine in 1974, "Some people might feel that we've compromised but that's not so. We're really hurt when we hear people say we're not Christians or that we've lost the vision. As Christians we've got to live and experience the same as non-Christians. It's naïve to keep on writing only about Jesus. It's like saying life is one-sided, it's unnatural. Life involves living in so many spheres, it's more than just saying 'Jesus Jesus' every time you open your mouth." Years later John told Mike Rimmer, "I think one of the things we didn't understand in the '70s is that we served the needs of youth in the Church, but there was a point we went past them, and we didn't understand that we'd almost lost the connection. I think, content-wise, we didn't provide enough information for them. A lot of us saw ourselves as more towards mainstream than the Church." Decades on some historians now proclaim 'Shamblejam' as their best. Ken Scott wrote, '"Shamblejam' is a more electric album that contains some of the group's best material. It opens with a roguish version of 'Denomination Blues' that's heavy on the mandolin and percussion. 'Green Psalm' is a first-rate acid folk rock cut with fuzz guitar, while the psysch-edged 'Light Of The World' works in choice electric guitar leads alongside trippy reverse editing effects - there really ain't a bad cut on here."
In 1977, Parchment released what would be their final album, 'Rehearsal For A Reunion', released on Pilgrim's Grapevine subsidiary. The album featured another new band member, Pete Yates-Round replacing Brian Smith, and it received mixed reviews. Ken Scott wrote, "'Rehearsal For A Reunion' doesn't seem to have quite the edge of their prior LPs, but there are still plenty of worthwhile songs. 'Glory Shone Around' and 'Jesus On The Mainline' both effectively work Dixieland brass into their folksy foot-stomping mandolin melodies. Brisk classical strings help to bring 'Still Waters' to life, but the orchestration on a couple of the ballads tends to take away some of the group's folk edge."
After 'Rehearsal For A Reunion' Parchment embarked on a farewell tour and played their last show at Greenbelt Festival in 1978. John Pac told Mike Rimmer, "I remember coming out of the studio, putting my guitar in a case and saying to the others, 'That's it,' as I closed the lid. I never opened my guitar case for years, because I felt I'd turned a page. People say, 'How can you do that if you're a musician?' I always felt that music was something I had come to do because I really enjoyed doing it. After being on the road for eight years, nine years, it was a job, and some of the joy had gone out of it. I was ready to move onto the next challenge. I channelled my musical drive into the production of others. That really gave me all the satisfaction I needed in terms of my musical ambitions."
John Pac spoke to Buzz magazine in 1976 and said, "Some people looked at Parchment as some sort of superstar group. Some said we were on an ego trip but we've never felt more than ordinary people." In 2004 Kingsway released 'Simply Parchment: Light Up The Fire', a compilation reissue including the chart hit title-track. The album contains 44 Parchment tracks and shows how fondly remembered they are, and more importantly how they're fondly remembered for more than just "Light Up The Fire". On the official Parchment tribute website it states that "John, giving interviews, was quite clear that he wanted his band to be a Christian pop band operating in the world at large, lighting a fire in a troubled world, but not preaching, simply sharing a different vision of living." Parchment did just that.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.