Peter Timmis reports on 'SHOTS IN THE DARK', an ambitious album designed to push Christian music into the mainstream.
Back in 1981 the mainstream music scene in Britain was buzzing. Punk had altered the musical landscape forever and bands like The Specials, Madness and The Jam were thrilling the nation's youth with their sharp dress sense and staccato rhythms. Unfortunately, this was not reflected in the Christian music being released at the time which was mostly provided by men in cardigans strumming acoustic guitars. One-time punk and bass player with Ishmael United and Rev Counta & The Speedoze, Laurie Mellor decided to do something to address this and came up with the groundbreaking idea of taking some exciting, contemporary Christian bands and pushing them into the mainstream. Laurie placed an advert in popular music monthly Buzz magazine asking for unsigned bands to send him their demo tapes and six groups who responded were chosen to feature on a compilation album that would become 'Shots In The Dark'. The record was a breath of fresh air and not surprisingly proved controversial with some traditionalists within the Church but today some might argue that this forward thinking release paved the way for the vibrant Christian music scene we now enjoy. At the time of release on Laurie's Ghettout Records 'Shots In The Dark' created a bit of a stir particularly at Greenbelt where Laurie was interviewed on the mainstage and made the memorable quote "a singer having green hair doesn't necessarily indicate that he is demon possessed." Today 'Shots In The Dark" is a much sought after collector's item with vinyl enthusiasts prepared to pay big money for a copy. And it's not only Christians who today recognise its quality. One ska website, antistereotypes.co.uk, even suggested that some of the bands involved - The Predators, Crowd Control, Mystery Guests, The Stares, The Magnetics and The Graphics - weren't really Christians and had merely claimed faith in order to land a recording contract! Such nonsense shows antistereotypes.co.uk still has some way to go to rid itself of its anti-Christian stereotypes.
The man behind 'Shots In The Dark', Laurie Mellor, is now an independent financial advisor and trustee of Christian charity Links International. What was his thinking behind the release? "The vision behind the album was to encourage Christian bands to get out of the Christian ghetto and into the mainstream. I appreciate that not everyone will necessarily agree with my use of the term 'ghetto' - it is perhaps a little abrasive!" In fact Laurie's choice of phrase sums up perfectly the problem for Christian rock bands at the time - playing anywhere other than in church (and 'rock 'n' roll' music in general) was often frowned upon. Cross Rhythms were unable to track down three of the bands involved, Crowd Control, The Stares and The Graphics. The other three have a fascinating story to tell. . .
Of the six acts on 'Shots In The Dark' it was Stockport's new wave group "The Preds" who went on to bigger things and albums in their own right though ironically it was with "Christian ghetto" Pilgrim/Marshalls that the band recorded their later albums 'The Predators' (1982) and 'Social Decay' (1983). At the time of recording 'Shots In The Dark' The Preds were made up of Kevin Smith (vocals), Kelvin Allwood (guitar), Chris Thompson (bass) and Fran Johnson (drums).
How did The Predators come to be involved in the 'Shots In The Dark' compilation? "We were the only northern band that Laurie Mellor could find that were already doing this kind of ministry," explained the group's singer now working as an accountant, Kev Smith. "Also, we were not afraid to preach a 'full' Gospel which included the judgment of God and Hell, as well as God's love and his salvation. The style of music reflected this as it was aggressive and 'in yer face', which complimented my no-nonsense preaching. The project was about getting Christian music out to the people who weren't saved in secular venues, which is what we were trying to do."
All of the bands except The Predators were taken to ICC studios in Eastbourne to lay down tracks for the LP. The Preds recorded their two tracks - "He Thinks He Knows Me" and "Plastic Surgeon" - in a studio in the north-west. Why did the Preds not make the trip to ICC? Guitarist Kelvin Allwood, "At that time drummer Fran Johnson was in a business partnership regarding the operation of a recording studio in Stockport. Hence, the band had the ability to rehearse and record in the studio at minimum expense. It all went fairly smoothly from what I recall." Kev Smith elaborated, "We were the only band allowed to record at the studio of our choice and as it was local and as Fran was in the band, it meant we could record the songs as we wanted them to sound. Many Christian rock band recordings were poor and not reflective of their live sound. Both of our songs sound very different to the other bands on the album. We were very inexperienced but it was good fun and as Fran was part owner of the studio, we spent longer on the tracks than we would have been allowed if we'd recorded elsewhere."
Did The Predators share Laurie's vision of pushing Christian music into the mainstream and do they think 'Shots In The Dark' was a good way of achieving this? Kelvin, "The main driving force behind all that we attempted to achieve was a very powerful desire to take the good news of Jesus Christ to the youth of the day. We knew that many of them felt alienated and misunderstood by the contemporary Church. So often the music that orchestrated their lives was trashed by the Church and deemed evil and satanic. Hence, we were on a mission to show that God's love and care could embrace and transform all kinds of music to announce renewal and healing of broken lives. Therefore, mainstream music was targeted, not for any desire for fame and fortune but simply as a means of reaching the lost as effectively as possible. As to whether 'Shots In The Dark' achieved its goal; it probably represented a brave and optimistic start in what is a very difficult objective. U2 are undoubtedly the most successful Christian band of all time, but they have had to lose their Christian branding in order to be successful commercially. Nevertheless, their legacy in influencing subsequent bands and worship styles is there to be seen. After The Fire, also had limited commercial success, but the Christian message is implied rather than implicit. Basically, all different kinds of approaches are valid, but an overt Christian message within music usually closes the door on any kind of commercial success."
Kev continued, "It was a great idea that was not supported by visionary or wealthy Christian band promoters so it never got off the ground as a project. I think it could have been a great success if it had been given the right promotion but I felt there was fear in the ranks of the Christian music hierarchy that didn't like Christians playing rock music. Yet look at Stryper in the USA who went on tour with Motley Crue; the tour was called the Heaven And Hell tour! They were a great success and continued to reach out to secular audiences all over the world. They showed the world that Christians could be true to their faith whilst playing great rock 'n' roll. Many Christian bands have sold out today and I include U2 in that category."
Another band contributing two tracks to 'Shots In The Dark' were Mystery Guests who provided the album's poppiest moments with "So Misunderstood" and "Take A Look At Yourself". At the time the band featured Carrie Watt (vocals), Chris Bird (vocals and bass), Colin Andrews (lead guitar), Rick Kirby (rhythm guitar), Tim Hicks (keyboards) and the fantastically named Mark Godbeer (drums). Cross Rhythms tracked down Mark, now a minister at Counterslip Baptist Church in Bristol, and asked, who were the Mystery Guests? "At the time I joined the band was called Transformation, I think this was around 1979-1980," explained the former sticksman. "We would gig mainly in church halls for youth events, though I'm sure we did play a couple of pubs. I remember playing a teacher training college in Bristol as support to a band called Fatal Charm, who'd had a record in the charts called 'Christine'. After the album we also played in London and Southampton universities with other bands from the album. The band also played one of the marquees at Greenbelt festival a couple of times; I'd left by the time they played second time. I'm not sure which time it was but one of the gigs earned us a mention in a book called Pop Goes The Gospel by John Blanchard and Derek Cleeve. Unfortunately, it was a negative report as the lead singer was accused of sexual poses! I'm not sure what we were attempting to do musically, the style at the time was new wave, it was punk your granny would like!"
Were Mystery Guests trying to push Christian music forward and did they consider 'Shots In The Dark' to be a radical project? "I knew the album was different, the alternatives at the time were either middle of the road rock or acoustic folk type stuff," explained Mark. "I know we wanted to be a bit different but I'm not sure I personally can claim to have thought in terms of any of it being radical. The album was good fun to make; I can remember having to scrounge a snare drum from a store cupboard as when we set up the one from my own kit it sounded like a cardboard box full of nails. I thought we might get a few higher profile gigs out of doing the album though."
One of the best cuts on 'Shots In The Dark' was provided by The Magnetics a five piece group from Bournemouth featuring Chris Burness (vocals), Mark Lamb (guitar), Rick Quintin (sax), Peter Stoodley (bass) and Graham Curtis (drums). Mike Rimmer described their track "Passin' Thru" as "infectious. . . featuring great horn and guitar." He chatted to the band's bassist, Peter Stoodley, who after The Magnetics split up began working as a lawyer and latterly a vicar, and asked him how the band came to be included on 'Shots In The Dark'. "The band weren't even called The Magnetics at the time. I honestly can't remember what we were called, but it was something dreadful," laughed Stoodley. "We were playing on a Saturday night in Weymouth and our drummer, Graham said, 'Have you seen this advert in Buzz that says Laurie Mellor is looking for bands to send in tapes to go on a possible album?' I spotted someone in the crowd recording the gig so I approached him afterwards and said, 'Can I half inch your tape, please to send it into Laurie Mellor?' He said, 'Providing you let me have it back'. I hate to say this, but Laurie Mellor never gave me the tape back! Our sax player, Rick Quinton, was a genius on the instrument, and we used to open with an instrumental song to get us in the groove. It just so happened that it was one of Laurie Mellor's all time favourite bits of music. He listened to the rest of the tape and thought that most of it was dreadful, which it was, but our closing song that night was 'Passin' Thru', which Rick and I had just written and he loved it. So on the strength of that track we got invited down to Eastbourne."
Peter continued, "Laurie had this concept of getting Christian bands to stop playing in church and to play in the pubs and clubs, which is where 'real' musicians played. So we got to learn that if we played rubbish we would not get clapped. But we thought, 'We'll give it a whirl'. I think we were a five-piece band when we started off, with two guitars; then one of the guitarists decided that it was not holy to do this sort of thing, so he left! I was doing the lead vocals at the time, but the lads didn't think that was a good idea. We got this other guy, Chris, to do vocals for us, who looked great but couldn't sing very well. So it's actually me singing - or rather grumbling - the lyrics to 'Passin' Thru' and Chris sang the other track on 'Shots In The Dark', 'Not My Home'."
Did Stoodley feel that 'Shots In The Dark' was controversial? "Frankly, it didn't feel controversial to us, but it felt controversial to a lot of other people, and they didn't get it. My mum sort of got it but my dad didn't get it at all, because he was totally straight-laced. Our first gig in a pub was acting as replacements to a heavy metal band called Lone Wolf, or something like that. We were pretty scared never having done that sort of gig before but we went down well. It was totally different; in those days you'd play for an hour, starting at 11 o'clock, and covers were a huge no-no in that period of the '80s, so you had to play original material."
We'll leave the final word on this groundbreaking album to the man behind its creation. How does Laurie Mellor feel about the project all these years on? "I still think about 'Shots In The Dark' from time to time. I feel there may be a need for something similar now. That said, more Christian bands and artists seem to have made the transition to the mainstream - U2 being the most obvious. I still think there is some wonky theology around though. . ."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.