Christian rock bands refusing to play footsey with crossover compromise don't come any harder working than American AOR heroes PETRA. Tony Cummings talked to the band's John Schlitt.
Nineteen years is a long time in anybody's life. In the life of a band it's a millennium and such are the rigours of the on-the-road rock 'n' roll life that few bands last half that distance even with platinum album Big Bucks to make it highly desirable to hold together. So Petra are a phenomenon which even mainstream music trade press observers acknowledge knows no equal. Zigzagging across America on mammoth tours Petra clock up audiences of hundreds of thousands by sheer graft and sweaty commitment rather than the means of mega stardom and football stadia. Their whole existence seems dedicated to a single, luminous vision to 'take the gospel to the kids' and this is precisely what John Schlitt, lead singer of the band, told Cross Rhythms when he spoke about Petra past, present and future.
One has always been making music that youth can relate to. Not hitting them across the head with religious testimony but playing the best rock 'n' roll we can possibly play and bring spiritual truth to those who enjoy our music. In the past we've been accused by some of using too much Christianese. On our new album 'Unseen Power' we have tried to bring the message across in a common language, a language that the unchurched kid can relate to. 'Unseen Power' is definitely going to raise an eyebrow or two among the throng of their fans if not only for the lyrics but also for the stylistic diversification. We've got some blues rock on there, we've even got some Motown sounding things. We recognise that when a kid buys a Petra album he expects a certain kind of sound, a driving, guitar rock sound. Now we're not trying to abandon our troops so to speak. But we're determined not to stagnate and just recycle old ideas all the time. We were very pleased with 'Beyond Belief. But we didn't feel we could just go in to the studio and make 'Beyond Belief Part 2!' We felt we had to be more creative. John Schlitt is anxious that the band's slightly less Bible bashing lyric approach is not seen as the oft repeated saga of the gospel artist dancing to the sound of the crossover piper.
We feel that if Petra tried to compromise lyrically to get a crossover hit we'd not only be letting all those Christian kids down who buy our albums, we'd be letting God down. We've no intention of compromising on 'Beyond Belief, just using a more accessible language. The spiritual messages are still there. 'Ready, Willing And Able' is about our readiness to be witnesses for Christ, 'Destiny' is about the plan the Lord has for our life, but we've opened it up a little bit musically. John and Dino Elefante have produced 'Unseen Power' and we're thrilled with their work but we've brought in a different mixing engineer, which is another first for us, to get that bigger sound.' Not that Petra's pre-'Unseen Power' sound is exactly small. Ever since the release of 'Back On The Streets' the stylistic die had been cast, a classic AOR sound - Schlitt's rich, rasping vocals brought into focus against a background of full throttle guitars courtesy of veteran axeman Bob Hartman; virtuoso keyboard riffs from synth man extraordinaire John Lawry; and a bass and drum sound which experienced in a concert hall or a cranked-up stereo hits you in the rib cage. It's a sound that draws CCM buffs growing bored with the pop-rock softness of most of America's Christian radio and head bangers wanting something more melodic in between their diet of anvil-heavy riffs and wall of sound. But Petra's history of course goes further down the corridors of time than John Schlitt joining the band in 1986.
Even by then they were a Christian music institution, a year earlier A&M Records making an ill-fated attempt to promote the band in the secular rock market place. The band's origins go back to 1972, back to a Christian Training Academy in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The 'Jesus Movement' was in full swing and seemingly all over California converted hippies were attracting bemused media men with their 'smile Jesus loves you' patches, commune living and Christian rock music. In the confines of a conservative training college it might have seemed a nightmare. But when Bob Hart-man, a young student who happened to play guitar joined forces with John De Groff on bass, Greg Hough on guitar and Bill Glover on drums the academy found themselves with their first Jesus rock band. Petra took their name from the New Testament Greek for rock and scuffled whatever gigs they could find. "The first time we played was in a high school" remembers Bob Hartman. "We did a lot of high schools and parks - we'd play and draw a crowd and preach the gospel to them. We were totally evangelistic at the beginning; there wasn't a Christian concert scene per se. The people who would have us in to play were usually those with a burden to reach the lost. They knew that rock was a new medium and that it would hold the kids so they would have us come and play."
Still strictly small time, in 1973 Petra came to the attention of John Lloyd and Paul Craig Paino, managers and booking agents who were helping the church make its first teetering steps into support for its newest infant, Jesus rock. Paino was handling the affairs of Honeytree, the sweet-voiced folk gospeller who was an early Jesus music pioneer. Paino persuaded Word Records, who had recently started its Myrrh label, headed up by Billy Ray Hearn, to make some tentative Jesus music recordings, to sign Honeytree. He also persuaded the A&R man/producer Billy Ray Hearn (who was, of course, in later years to go on to form Sparrow Records) to listen to this raw band of Jesus rockers from Fort Wayne. The band packed up their equipment and drove to Nashville for a performance-cum-audition. They were signed and in 1973 the band went into a studio inn Illinois to produce an album. It was folk rock with decidedly rough edges.
But 'Petra' was not without merit and Bob Hartmann remembers it fondly. "Petra' was definitely one of the first Christian rock albums. If there's anything unique about us it's that we had an early album and we're still together. Of course, we were just tickled to death to do the album, it was our dream. I remember that both our Marshall amps blew up in the studio. The album was an experiment for Myrrh - the budget was under $1,000. It's a very raw album as far as energy and production goes. We've always had problems cutting our vocals.' Hartman laughs. "We had a guy back then who had no business singing at all. But the Lord really used the album. A lot of people still tell us - 'When I became a Christian I looked and looked for some music that did something for me and your album really helped me'. The album only sold moderately. The Christian bookshops were highly suspicious of the new music and the band had no touring infrastructure to step into so were doing few gigs outside of Fort Wayne. Word/ Myrrh wondered whether a second album was worth the effort. But Petra refused to go away and were gradually building a reputation for their dogged commitment to take the gospel to the kids. Finally in 1976 Myrrh green lighted another small budget album, this time with producer Austin Roberts. In the studio the band's transparent problem, the lack of an adequate singer, again became evident. In desperation Bob Hartmann got on the phone to a singer he'd met in 1971 at a Fort Wayne concert when Bob was in an (unrecorded) band called Dove. The singer's name was Greg X Volz who had until 74 been playing with a bunch of hippie long hairs called the 'e' band.
In 1985 Greg reminisced to a journalist about the 'e' band. It was formed two weeks before we got saved. It's a long story, but our drummer had met this little German lady who knew the Lord. She had perceived that this whole band needed to find God. So, she invited us. He had gotten the Holy Ghost and they threw him out of his Church but the Lord was just feeding him revelation out of the Word for about a year. He came in and said 'Praise the Lord' and the whole place stopped dead. We looked up at him and he was throwing out the heaviest vibes of anybody I'd ever met in my life. Of course back then we were really into vibes!
"Greg Volz laughed when asked whether this Holy Spirit preacher had an aura. He sure did, he was just shining like the sun. He started prophesying to us, telling us all about our lives and we were just skinned. He brought it all to a point and said 'The reason for it all is that God has brought you to this place where He wants to reveal Himself to you through Jesus Christ, His only song.' Then he began to preach Christ, conviction hit the house, and everybody was saved, just like in Acts. The whole band was there together, so the whole band was saved."
The 'e' band finally disbanded for the last time in 1974. Recounted Volz: 'After 'e' band broke up I spent three and a half years in Springfield, Missouri dying to the desire to play that had been burning in me since I had been saved. There came a time when I reached the point that it didn't matter what I was doing as long as l was serving God. I didn't care if I ever went out on the road or played or sang again. Then I got a call from REO Speed-wagon. They had had a big blow up in the studio. They wanted a new singer...and I just said 'No, I couldn't'...Six weeks later the phone rings again in the middle of the night. This time it was a bunch of crazy Petrites at Golden Voice studios working on the 'Come And Join Us' album. They wanted to know if I'd come up and work on it with them. I didn't even have time to think about whether or not I wanted to do it. The Lord spoke very clearly to me and said 'Do It'. I got on the plane the next day, did vocals in the studio for 18 hours non-stop, got on the plane and went home.
'Come And Join Us' was a full tilt rock' album. Remembers Hartman:'
"They told us from the beginning that they wanted a rock 'n' roll album. The original idea was that they were going to get ABC (which owned Myrrh) to distribute it. They were going to release 'God Gave Rock 'n' Roll To You' as a single because it had already gotten some secular airplay when Argent did it. So the producer produced a rock 'n' roll album and gave it to them and they said, 'Oh, no, what are we going to with this?' They didn't do anything with it on the secular market. Nor for that matter in the Christian market. Greg Volz was not officially in the band though he'd occasionally do a gig when Petra could get one. But though 'Come And Join Us' bombed, two executives at Myrrh, Darrell Harris and Wayne Donowho, who were planning the launch of their own new record company, heard in Petra something Word had missed. In 1979 Petra were the first to sign on the new Star Song label. Producer George Atwell gave the band a softer acoustic West Coast harmony sound, at times uncannily echoing Crosby Stills And Nash with Hartman, Greg X Volz and Rob Frazier (guitar, keyboards) warbling sweet 'West Coast' harmonies. The musical move of direction worked. With an attention-grabbing sleeve (a spoof soap-packet) 'Washes Whiter Than' produced Petra's first US Christian radio 'hit', a gently melodic dittie 'Why Should The Father Bother' by Bob Hartman with a lyric that gloried in its own inner rhymes (Why should the father bother to call us His children/It's all because of what the son has done.) But Star Song were saddled with a distributor going down the shoot, and many bookstores failed to capitalise on Petra's radio exposure. In 1981 Star Song signed a new distribution deal with The Benson Company and with the business structure in place, the band were duly dispatched to a Texas studio away from all distraction. It was in the middle of a desert - with a gifted new producer Jonathan David Brown. Rob Frazier had left Petra (to turn up later as a songwriting compatriot of Steve Camp) but the personnel on the Brown-produced 'Never Say Die': Bob Hartman (guitar); Greg X Volz (guitar); Mark Kelly (bass) and John Slick (keyboards) with the help of some sessioners, produced an eclectic blend of styles. It also produced another Christian radio hit, 'The Coloring Song', written by David John Eden. Brown arranged the song in an intriguing medieval evocation that sounded like a piece of music plucked from the courts of Henry VIM. Christian radio went big for the haunting 'The Coloring Song'. The band were still not touring however, churches preferring solo artists to bands (they were cheaper). A hard gigging drummer Louis Weaver, who'd previously worked with Randy Matthews and Fireworks, had joined the band in 1982 and the group took the bold step of moving to the centre of the burgeoning contemporary Christian music industry, Nashville. They went into the studios again with Jonathan David Brown and produced their most polished and there hardest rocking album so far 'More Power To Ya'. Although the title track was another radio-friendly acoustic ballad, there were at long last opportunities opening up for Petra to do a proper rock tour. Servant, the pioneering band in bringing a heavier brand of rock to the decibel-starved gospel circuit asked Petra to support them on a national tour. The band played to some 60,000 people in a two-month period, small potatoes by today's standards but everywhere the band was getting noticed and talked about. Requests for Petra songs began to trickle into Christian radio stations and the programmes began to view the possibility of playing a song like
'Let Everything That Hath Breath' that was an undeniable rocker with Hartman at last being able to let rip with some power chords and Greg showing himself to be in the top bracket of octave-leaping rock singers. Christian rock was growing fast and Petra were leading the charge. The industry excitedly announced that 'More Power To Ya' was the first Christian rock album to sell over 100,000 copies. Petra were in the studio in 1982 in Nashville again with Jonathan David Brown to record 'Not Of This World'. The title song was by now the pre-requisite Christian radio orientated ballad, this one written by keyboards man John Slick. There was now no disguising what thousands of American Christian kids were discovering, that the band were an exciting on-stage experience and a Petra gig was somewhere you could take your non-Christian classmates without embarrassment. Their sleeves, surreal airbrush extravaganzas of sci-fi guitars zooming through space were eye-catchingly original. And if the same couldn't be said about every lick of their music, the best of their songs, like 'Judas Kiss' with a torrid guitar riff by Bob Hartman, showed that here was a band with rock 'n' roll adventure and a deep desire to convey spiritual truth. With each passing month the auditoriums the band played seemed to get bigger and the administrative/merchandising/ministry. Back up now tagged Petrafied Productions busier.
The latter was a commendable machine to ensure that as much Petra-scattered-seed as possible fell on good soil. The 'Not Of This World' Tour took the band into USA's live gig chatting 'Performance', a publication they were to dominate in the years ahead. In 1984 they embarked on their first European tour and did a storming set at Greenbelt. A&M Records began looking at the possibility of distributing the next album into the secular market and with that in mind Jonathan David Brown was given a recording budget big enough to seriously compete with the big boys. Petra seemed to be on an unstoppable roll with chart success and mega stadiums seemingly waiting for America's rock gospellers.
But it didn't quite happen that way. A brilliant young keyboard player John Lawry had joined Petra, replacing John Slick. As it turned out it was John's playing which was to dominate the Petra's big budget 'Beat The System' album. Throwing out many of the musical elements that had made 'More Power To Ya' and 'Not Of This World' such successes in the burgeoning contemporary Christian music market, Jonathan David Brown encased Greg X Volz's high octave voice not in power chords and tight and raunchy bass and drums but in layers of synth sequences and drum computers.
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