Steve Taylor: "Evangelical rock's court jester" with a new album

Tuesday 1st February 1994

Whether you call him a satirist, prophet, evangelical iconoclast or just a cutting-edge rocker, few can ignore STEVE TAYLOR. Now he's back and firing on all cylinders report Tony Cummings and Jan Willem Vink.

Steve Taylor
Steve Taylor

Five years is a long time. For it's been that long since Steve Taylor, the man Newsweek called "evangelical rock's court jester", made the surprise announcement during a Southern California concert that he was "retiring" as a solo artist. It was abrupt. He left behind a Christian music subculture which was in part pained to see him go. But only in part. For though Steve Taylor drew to his quixotic creative persona a large swell of supporters who loved his mercurial wit and madcap indulgencies in a suffocating church culture that had lost the health-giving capacity to laugh and particularly laugh at itself, Steve Taylor also made a significant number of church-going enemies. In a sense it was almost inevitable. Such was his courageous commitment to sing the truth in love plus his intentionally OTT stage performances that Steve Taylor was always a prime candidate to be accused or misunderstood. There was no conspiracy by the conservative, evangelical power brokers, or no conspiracy that he'd admit to, to close Steve Taylor down. But there were undoubtedly sighs of relief from religious groups as diverse as Dove Awards organisers and Deep South fundamentalists when the clown prince prophet finally stopped rocking the boat. But now, gloriously and unexpectedly, Steve Taylor is back and again the boat is rocking. Steve's new album 'Squint' is a creative tour-de-force and with the marketing muscle of Warner Brothers to shove it under the noses of a new generation weaned on indie and grunge, Steve seems set to again provoke the conscience and fire the imagination of the church while reminding every listener dancing to today's rock music that mosh pits, cash dispensers and a dozen more topics can all be looked at through the unblinking eye of truth.

Steve Taylor was born to Christian parents in America's mid west. Steve's parents encouraged their son to look beyond easy answer believism and cultural conformity and by his teens Steve was reading and thinking hard, had developed a taste for European culture - particularly rock music - and discovering he could sing. Steve did a stint with the Continentals, the middle of the road youth choir organised by Cam Floria. In 1983 the singer/songwriter burst onto the Christian music scene with a low budget 6-song EP *| Want To Be a Clone'. With a tough, raw sound produced in all its garage-rock swagger by Jonathan David Brown, the songs on 'I Want To Be A Clone' were a revelation: rapid-syllable tirade against theological liberalism bending to accommodate the world ("Whatever Happened To Sin"); fickle Christians endlessly jumping from church to church ("Steeplechase") and the title track, a tongue-in-cheek satire of the tendency for the church to put evangelical cultural conformity in the place of true life set free by Christ. Such topics were seldom heard from America's pulpits let alone from a zaney, rock music madcap using as much satire as diatribe. The tiny-budget EP got radio play, rave reviews and an invitation to come and play Europe. 'Clone' caught the attention of wide swathes of believers from young Christians anxious to cock an iconoclastic snoot at their elders to CCM buffs hungry for songs which went beyond 'Jesus loves you' sloganeering and engaged the brain as well as the heart. The record was no fluke. Steve's stage performance at Greenbelt was everything Buzz readers had hoped for and more - all 100 mph energy and enough sheer charisma to make Billboard correspondent Cliff White write, "Taylor has an edge and vitality that is rare for any act" while the same reviewer in Buzz wrote that "he writes like he looks, like he moves, like he thinks. With personal conviction. He's a star if he wants to be."

Stardom, at least within the limited framework of the CCM scene, was soon Steve's. Sparrow Records quickly made available to their bright new hope a budget sufficient to make a blistering rock statement, 'Meltdown'. Here was a consummate body of work, socking vibrant rock arrangements and lyrics that returned to old themes - lives blighted by sin and the inbred guilt trips of evangelical enculturalisation ("Sin For A Season" and "Guilty By Association") but now took in a swathe of new topics like the ghastly spectre of racism in Deep South Bible Colleges ("We Don't Need No Colour Code") and euthanasia in America's hospitals ("Baby Doe"). 'Meltdown' was a worldwide hit throughout the burgeoning Christian rock scene and when the June 1984 bible of the Christian music establishment Contemporary Christian Magazine (now known as CCM) put Steve on its cover with the bi-line 'On Fire Satire' there was an unstoppable buzz about the brash young rock 'n' roll rebel. 'Meltdown' went Top 10 in both the British and American Christian music charts and his energised stage performances with his backing team Some Band were audience-wrecking triumphs (the only hiccup being when he broke his ankle during the '84 Cornerstone Festival - but even then he played a gig in Cleveland two days later from a motorised wheelchair!). A year later with the recording budget cranked up several more notches Steve delivered another blistering album. 'On The Fritz' had lost none of its edge. Though the joke of a monologue delivered in a squeaky 'old school marm' voice (the legendary Mrs Arian) on "Lifeboat" palled after a few plays, Steve's ability to expose cant and hypocrisy be it in the Church ("It's A Personal Thing") or the world of rock ("You've Been Bought") was unerring. There were also glimpses of a more personal, more Kingdom-directed style in fine songs like "To Forgive" and "I Just Wanna Know". Steve's live appearances with Some Band were now at their most focused with every ducking and diving stage move and every slamming riff from his rock 'n' roll compatriots ringing the last drop of sweaty delirium from his huge Christian music following. His top-of-the-bill Greenbelt appearance in 1985 was caught on tape and apart from an ill-judged duet with Sheila Walsh showed, on its release as 'Limelight', Steve to be a consummate rock entertainer easily able to grip, pummel and energise a 25,000 plus audience.

But the singer/songwriter's intuitive ability to read the hearts and minds of militant evangelicalism began to falter. "I Predict 1990', released in 1987, had its moments, like the dark, brooding magnificence of "Jim Morrison's Grave", but some of his songs and metaphors now left even his enthusiasts scratching their heads with incomprehension while another satirical exposé of OTT church fundamentalism ("I Blew Up The Clinic Real Good") was even used by American critics to put forward the preposterous suggestion that Taylor was encouraging Christians to blow up abortion clinics!

In Europe things began to falter as well. Two years before a tour with Sheila Walsh, at the height of her Rock Gospel Show popularity, had established Steve in the hearts of the Christian music audience. Now the 'I Predict 1990' tour undid much of the good work. Musically, his work was getting heavier and darker with great walls of guitar feedback drowning many of his lyrics while the grandiose satire of his expensive stage sets teetered perilously close to rock Prima Dona indulgence. Criticism and incomprehension began to come at Steve from all sides. When he visited Greenbelt in 1988 not to perform but to direct a film of the Festival he, and his wife, artist Debbie, were clearly bemused by the incomprehension and even hostility he was now encountering. Steve struggled to find a project or a direction big enough to contain his consummate talent. Momentarily re-locating to London, he and long-time friend Lynn Nichols produced an album for Phil And John, 'Don't Look Now It's The Hallelujah Brothers' but the retro, back-to-the-60s sound of the album was not a success either in the market place or with the duo themselves.

Steve and Debbie returned to the States and settled in Nashville. There he began again, not in the CCM pond he knew but in the turbulent ocean of the rock music mainstream. Steve, keyboard maestro Lynn Nichols and grunge-guitarist supreme Dave Perkins had all received a mauling in the past by a safe and insensitive CCM industry. So when the three decided to form a new rock band, Chagall Guevara, it was hardly surprising that they didn't go knocking on the door of a Word or Sparrow. Instead they chose the hard road. Chagall Guevara toughed it out in bars and clubs wherever an unknown band could get a gig. When I saw them play in an echoing concrete barn in 1990, they offered an immensely loud, grungy wall of sound. Steve, hair now long and growing daily, sung furiously as Perkins' and Nichols' guitars shrieked and the rhythms section threatened eardrums. Steve still had the dancing, perpetual-motion-machine stagecraft to hypnotise the 150 or so in the audience. But the lyrics were inaudible.

With painstaking persistence Chagall Guevara toughed it out in clubland and landed a recording contract with MCA. But the eponymous album was a relatively inaccessible affair even by the obtuse conventions of grunge rock. The noise and controlled anarchy still swamped Steve's lyrics which like 'l Predict 1990' were not always entirely comprehensible anyway. In America its release went unnoticed in the mainstream while in Christendom it was noted only by the Christian underground fanzines and the small clutch of radio programmes playing alternative indie music ("Murder In The Big House" created a bit of a stir). Steve's British support base tried hard - promotion at Greenbelt and heavy radio play by Simon Mayo - but' Chagall Guevara' was in truth not the grunge classic its supporters claimed. By 1992 the band was on hold. Steve Taylor and Lynn Nichols produced an immensely successful album for the Newsboys. On completion of that Steve began talking to Warner Brothers. The entertainment conglomerate had gained a successful foothold in the CCM market place with their Warner Alliance offshoot but had, surprisingly, been slow to sign any rock act. That changed with the announcement that Steve Taylor had signed to Warner Alliance. The Christian music scene response to the release of 'Squint' has so far been encouraging for Taylor and Warners. The Bookstore Journal wrote "Taylor is back with some of the freshest alternative music ever to hit the CCM scene. With 'Squint' he reclaims his unique place in Christian music. Welcome back, Steve."

Cross Rhythms asked Steve a batch of questions just before he commenced a series of US concerts to promote 'Squint'.

Your announcement to retire as a solo artist came as a big surprise. You say you were feeling the pressure that to keep selling a lot of records you needed to conform more. Do you think that five years later things have changed? What were your main motives to go solo again?

"You know that Churchill quote about democracy being the worst form of government except all the other ones that have been tried? That's how I feel about the Christian music industry. Every artist I know complains about it, but no one has come up with a better alternative. I haven't kept in touch enough to know if things now are vastly different, but I know at least that I was allowed to make the album I wanted to make.

"At the time I decided to retire, it seemed like the Christian music industry was spending most of its energies reassuring the public that it was still Christian - and in light of the televangelist scandals of the time, they probably had good reason. Unfortunately, many Christian artists were making albums that did the same thing and little else - 'Here's 10 songs that prove I'm still a Christian.' I wasn't interested in making those kind of albums, and it just seemed like a good time to try something else.

"My main motivation in doing another solo album was simply this: I had songs I wanted to record that communicate a specifically Christian faith and world view. There aren't at this moment (at least in America) a lot of alternatives beyond the gospel music labels, and I should add that I like working with fellow believers, especially those with whom I share a common vision."

Does this mean Chagall Guevara has come to an end? How do you look back on playing with them?

"I'm not sure that the band is dead, but at this point it's at least in cold storage. I still don't have a clear perspective -I really like the album we made. Our month-long UK tour with Squeeze, one of my favourite bands, was certainly a highlight. I know we were very good live, perhaps one of the best bands around, which made it doubly frustrating that during our last year we barely played any live shows at all.

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