Mike Rimmer speaks to Sal Polichetti of the New York band SONSEED
The success of "Jesus Is A Friend Of Mine" by New York-based band Sonseed is not only one of the strangest tales involving Christian music but is also one of the oddest sagas in the history of the world wide web. In case you're unaware of this electronic media phenomenon, the bald facts are these; in 1980 an amateur pop rock band of Catholic musicians were asked by a New York religious TV programme to come to the studio and mime a track from their independently released album. Sonseed's rendition of their composition "Jesus Is A Friend Of Mine" was duly committed to video tape and broadcast on the said station. The band continued on for a few more years and then retired. Then utterly unexpectedly, a mystery person posted onto that showcase of video entertainment YouTube, a recording of Sonseed's pretty inept local TV performance and, even more unexpectedly, Sonseed's YouTube performance became a huge hit with today a staggering six million views of the film in its various forms including some mighty strange "tribute" videos.
When Cross Rhythms first reported on the surreal success of "Jesus Is A Friend Of Mine" I was quoted as saying, "Christians have always done cheesy pop brilliantly and this cod ska track is so surreal and the video so hilarious that it deserves its unexpected fame. Some Christians may wince at how uncool 'Jesus Is A Friend Of Mine' is or how a well-intended evangelistic song is being laughed at in some circles but I've a feeling that God's using it anyway."
Such sentiments were reinforced when Cross Rhythms reader Stewart White of Oregon posted a note on the CR website, "This song has touched my life in a way that no other song has. I was running from God, but then I heard "Jesus is a Friend of Mine", and when he said that 'Jesus is like a Mountie, he always gets his man', my heart melted! I instantly repented and turned from a lifestyle of good music, to a lifestyle of cheesy Christian music and I've never looked back. God truly has a sense of humour."
Some months ago I managed to track down bassist and singer Sal Polichetti. From him I learned that Sonseed were a band formed in the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Brooklyn, New York in the late 1970s. Sal remembers, "What happened was a mutual friend had been assigned the task of putting together music for the 75th anniversary of a church and the Bishop was going to be there. So he called in all the friends he knew from different parishes that sang in church and there was about 15 of us and we all met to rehearse some guitar songs for this mass. We all got along really well and had a great time and a lot of fun and we all went out together afterwards. A few of us were in local rock bands and everyone else sang in their church choirs or whatever. We were just talking about the state of religious music, specifically at the time Catholic music, which was basically folk music written by Brothers or Priests or organ music and choir stuff. All the really good Christian music at the time was from evangelicals so The Imperials were very big then and Amy Grant but none of it was Catholic. And of course one of the musicians said, 'Gee, why don't we start a band?'"
Sonseed was born and in the beginning the band played contemporary versions of hymns adding modern instrumentation. "What helped us out greatly," Sal remembers, "at the time there were literally hundreds of Catholic churches in Brooklyn. At that time the born-again Christian movement was just starting out and just about every church had their own Bible study, prayer groups. They used to meet once a week or whatever and when we felt comfortable enough to actually go out and play in front of people, word spread amongst the prayer groups that this band is going to play for a couple of hours of prayer music, and that's what happened. There were anywhere between 12 and 20 of us performing live, we couldn't ask for any money because there were too many of us to split the money anyway, so we just put a box in the back of the room and said, 'Here we go, give whatever you can' and that's how we bought some of our sound equipment and put gas in the van and all that stuff. For about four years, we did well over a hundred shows and we would draw nice crowds, a couple of hundred people a night."
In total, Sonseed were active from 1978 and they played their last concert in 1983. The album 'First Fruit' was released in 1981, as Sal remembers, "That album pretty much came out of people giving in the box. People came to our concerts going, 'You guys should record an album so we can bring something home with us'. Other people in the group had written some songs, I had not written anything. How 'Jesus Is A Friend Of Mine' came about - there was a committee of people deciding what songs were going to be on the album and I wasn't singing lead on any of them. Now, live, I sang lead in probably 50 per cent of the stuff, so I turned to my wife at the time and I said, 'You know what? If I don't write a song I'm not going to get on this record'. So I locked myself in the basement and 10 minutes later on a piece of paper, was 'Jesus Is A Friend Of Mine'."
He continues, "The funny thing was that when I played it to everyone in the group, some people thought it was cute, some people weren't crazy about it, but they said, 'You know what? It's an original song that we wrote so let's learn it and play it out and see if people react to it before we actually record it'. And people just flipped. Kids loved it because it sounded like a children's song. And that is how it wound up on the album. We printed maybe a thousand of the albums, we sold them for five dollars a piece at our concerts, if people didn't have the five dollars we would give them one, it wasn't really a money making thing anyway. Then when we broke up in 1983, we pretty much forgot all about it."
The video which sparked off the rediscovery of the band was for a show called The First Of State, Religion And Review. A catchy title! It was on NBC TV and was taped across the hall from the Saturday Night Live studio. "It was on Sunday mornings at 11 o'clock," Sal remembers. "I don't know if it went out nationally, it was Sunday morning so it was probably just Tri-state area, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut. We had a meeting with them before hand; they asked us, 'What do you guys wear when you play?' 'Well, we usually wear t-shirts and jeans.' 'Oh, not for television!' So they told us what to wear. And we didn't find out until the taping what songs we were actually going to be doing. We got there and they said, 'Okay, we are going to open the show with this "Jesus Is A Friend Of Mine" thing, it's very catchy.' So we taped the show. I think also on that show was someone from the Salvation Army and a couple of Rabbis that had these puppets that were Bible characters. I think they called it Punch And Judaism. It was fun, you know? A little creepy, but it was fun."
At the time that would have been cutting edge music for the Catholic church. A lot of feedback that the band have had for the song is that people thought it was a bit of a joke but in fact they were deadly serious. "Oh we were very serious at the time," Sal shares, "and the people who came to see us absolutely loved it. We would structure our programmes where we would do a bunch of songs, a Bible reading that would be pertinent either to the songs that just finished or the group of songs that were about to come up. We would plan our programmes which were about two hours long and at Easter and Christmas we did special shows. It was very sincere. People sometimes after the show would ask the group to help them pray for something and it was very nice."
The band split in 1983 in a very ordinary and natural way with different members' lives simply moving on. Sal explains, "Some people moved because they relocated with their jobs and it wasn't the type of band where you could advertise, you know - 'Religious band looking for drummer. There's no pay but we will pray for you!' So when there got to be too few of us left to really make it function we said, 'Okay, we're going to do one more show,' and that was in fact the only concert we actually sold tickets for because we had to rent a place and we had to know how many seats to fill so I think we sold the tickets for a dollar. We advertised in the local, there's a paper in Brooklyn called the Tablet, it's like a church paper. So we advertised and a thousand seats sold out in four days! So we contacted the place to see if we could add another show and we added a matinee so we performed in front of two thousand people that one day. And during the intermission of the second show we divided all the money amongst four local charities. Soup kitchens and homeless shelters and things like that so we never made a dime off any of it."
In 2009, six tracks off their only album were released as an EP off the back of the popularity of "Jesus Is A Friend Of Mine". There were rumours that the band had begun recording a second album and more material could be on the way but the rumours weren't true.
So how did the film of them playing on the TV show become an internet viral success? Sal explains, "Well, that's an odd story. We had forgotten completely all about it. Beside my job I do a lot of local theatre and I got an email one day from a college that I did a couple of shows at. It said, 'Some guy is looking for you. He said something about a band, Sonseed. I didn't want to give the guy your email address so here is his and you can get in touch with him.' So I emailed this guy back saying, 'You got me, I'm the guy from Sonseed, what's up?' and the guy emailed me back with no explanation, just a link to a blog site. And I went on the blog site, it was dougsploitation.com I think, it was a pop-culture blog site and the first thing I saw when the blog site came up was our video. And I went, 'Oh my God!' and I emailed the guy back, 'Where did you get this thing?' Apparently, he grew up in Brooklyn also, moved to California about 15 years ago. About 10 years ago, when he started his blog, a priest friend of his who moved out from Brooklyn had taped the show when it was on television on a VHS tape. And he said, 'You've got to see this, this is great.' so he popped it on his blog site. And for years he was running contests like who are they? Where are they now? Is it real? Is it fake? And the only clue anybody had to anything was at the very end of the video the guy shakes my hand and says, 'Thank you Sal'. Well, oddly enough, he got his hands on the album. I don't know how he did that, we only printed a thousand of them but he got his hands on the actual hard cover of the album and on the back was my name. So he googled me and I popped up on this college website. So he did an interview with me to put on his blog and about a week later he emailed me and said, 'Somebody beat me to it! Somebody pulled it off my blog and put it on YouTube!' Actually I found out who it was, it was a very young lady from Nebraska who saw it and said, 'This is too good, I have to show people'.
And now millions of people have viewed it and there have even been spoof versions of the song and tribute versions. That has got to be weird for Sal. He responds, "Of course you read some of the YouTube comments, people are just mean, but imitation is the most sincere form of flattery and I do believe that. A lot of people don't know how old it is. 'Ooh it looks kitschy.' Of course it looks kitschy, it's almost 30 years old. And the funny thing was that one of the tributes I saw people were dressed like us and moving their lips to the record, the guy even looked at the wrong camera like I did in the first version. And then corrected himself. I was like, 'He copied me perfectly!'"
Sal continues, "And it's funny because, not that I would be willing to travel all over the country, but I don't even know if most of these people know that I exist. I've done a couple of shows in New York actually, I've been contacted by local bands who say, 'Hey we love this song, we are doing a show and we would love to have you come and play the song with our band.' YouTube has a video of Sal performing the song with local ska band Tri-State Conspiracy."
Showing page 1 of 2