Tony Cummings charts the history of seminal Milwaukee hippie band THE SHEEP
On 27th May 1973 Britain's top rock venue the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park, London put on a concert to a sold-out throng of 2,700. The two attractions on the bill were singer/songwriter Larry Norman and a bunch of long-hairs, six guys and a girl who looked like archetypal Californian hippies but in fact emanated from Wisconsin. British audiences had never heard anything quite like The Sheep. Clearly taking their musical influences from bands like Jefferson Airplane fused to a full-on declaration of Gospel truth they seemed light years ahead of the polite British Christian music bands of the era. Consisting of Rich Haas (vocals), Reed Mittelsteadt (vocals), Greg Nancarrow (guitar, keys), "Mole" Barker (guitar, harmonica), Lisa Carothers (keys), Wilhelm Pinnow (bass) and Nick Malham (percussion), these Jesus music evangelists were sold out gospel communicators. Their leader and spokesperson, Jim Palosaari, told Buzz magazine prior to the concert, "For a long time now those of us involved in Christian outreach of this type have often been frustrated with the realisation that events of this nature have turned out to be little more than a night out for the Christians. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but it defeats the object of the outreach. We are taking a step of faith in booking the theatre, but we are trying to break out of the mould. But what is important to understand is the fact that we are not trying to be exclusive of Christians. Rather we are attempting to attract more of the non-Christian element in order to reach a more reasonable balance."
Palosaari, a first generation Finn, had become a Christian at the height of the Jesus movement in the late '60s. The Jesus People Discipleship Training Community was led by Jim and Sue Palosaari and also included John and Dawn Herrin, whose daughter Wendy was to go on to become the wife of the Resurrection Band's Glenn Kaiser. As the community grew, it decided to split amicably into smaller groups that would witness more effectively in different locations. The segment led by the Herrins and the Kaisers would eventually become the world famous Jesus People USA community in Chicago, a movement noted for its social activism and sponsorship of the arts (from the Resurrection Band through to the Cornerstone Festival).
In Milwaukee Jim and Sue Palosaari began a coffee house, the Jesus Christ Power House. Their initiatives didn't stop there. Sue started a newspaper, Street Level, while Jim organised teams from Jesus People Discipleship Training Community to help with evangelist Bill Lowery's tent ministry. The musicians in the team were dubbed The Sheep. The Palosaaris and 30 members flew to Sweden as guests of the Full Gospel Business Men Fellowship International. Upon arrival, the group spent substantial time in Finland, where Palosaari preached in Temppeliaukion Kirkko, the Stone Church, in Helsinki. Extraordinarily, the Finns were so taken with the hard rock gospel sounds of The Sheep that they were given a chance to record an album. 'Jeesus-Rock!' was released as by Karitsat, Finnish for sheep. Four of the 10 songs were sung in Finnish too. Jesus music expert Ken Scott wrote about the album, "Good West Coast hippie vibes, not just on plugged-in tracks like 'Multitudes', 'Gathered and the slow churning 'Jesus Christ Is Lord', but also on folkier acoustic selections like 'Turn Us Again'. Songs in Finnish included 'Oh Happy Day', 'Jeesus Rakastaa', 'Tramp On The Street' and a hard rock version of 'A Mighty Fortress' (here called 'Jumala Ompi Linnamme')."
After six months of touring Scandinavia The Sheep landed in London. After their high impact concert at the Rainbow Theatre the group were snapped up by the British arm of Word Records. The resulting album 'The Sheep' was recorded at New Barnet's Livingston Studios. Jim Palosaari and Bobbie Graham were credited with "album co-ordination" and alongside the Milwaukee rockers boys and girls from Queen Elizabeth's Boys School and Pentbrook Junior School in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire were brought in for the anthem "Let All The Redeemed Of The Lord Say So". Despite its rather thin sound, it is today considered something of a classic by followers of early Jesus music. Ken Scott wrote, "The electric guitar work is solid throughout, carrying enough kick and grungy garage edge to suggest Jefferson Airplane on tracks like 'Alpha And Omega', 'Generation Of The King' and 'Multitudes'. 'Harvest' has a lean electric boogie beat, overlaid by some bluesy harmonica growls. 'Changes' slows things down with some psychy phased guitar while 'Let All The Redeemed Of The Lord Say So' effectively works in a young boy/girl school choir. Also included here is the rocking title track from the 'Lonesome Stone' soundtrack."
Lonesome Stone was the groundbreaking rock opera which The Sheep also launched in 1973. With financial assistance from the Deo Gloria Trust, Lonesome Stone was billed as a musical that "Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell failed to present," being "a story of what Jesus is doing now, by his Spirit, in thousands of lives." The advertising leaflet widely distributed in the Christian media before Lonesome Stone's premier at the Rainbow Theatre in July explained in more detail what the audience could expect from the production. "The theme of Lonesome Stone portrays the search of thousands of today's youth surrounded by the darkness of materialism, dead religions, sex, new gurus, astrology and mind expanding and bending drugs. They were called the 'war babies', conceived in times of frustration and anxiety. A generation born into the atomic age, confused about God and almost everything else. In protest, they searched to change their destiny, but only found discouragement, despair and hypocrisy in themselves, others and everything around them. This brought them one by one to their moment of truth in finally calling out upon God, and finding the true peace and love was to be found in knowing Jesus Christ. This production will no doubt reach deeply into the hearts and minds of many who are searching for these answers still."
Most of the songs in Lonesome Stone were written by Mike Damrow and Greg Nancarrow. The production was favourably received by the media while it was reported that as a result of the production a touring member of the cast of Hair got saved and jumped ship to join the Lonesome Stone cast. The bold move by Deo Gloria/The Sheep to book the Rainbow Theatre for two full months was backed up by an original cast album, released on the small Christian independent Reflection Records which up until then had largely released albums by the folk worship ensemble Reflection. As well as the seven members of Sheep, Jim Palosaari and colleague Matt Spransy were also featured in the production and on the album. Wrote Ken Scott, "Several [songs] are simple acoustic numbers, others show the group's familiar organ-based rock sound. Randy Stonehill's novelty song 'Vegetables' (from this 'Get Me Out Of Hollywood' album) also appears. 'Where Do We Go From Here' has some nice spacey reverb and the album includes 17 songs structured around the spiritual journey of the lead character Stone. . . A rather cosmic looking pink/orange face of Christ gazes out at you from the front cover."
The following year The Sheep and the rest of the cast performed Lonesome Stone at the first Christian arts festival, Greenbelt. Like Lonesome Stone, Greenbelt, held in 1974 at Prospect Farm, Charsfield, was sponsored by the pioneering Deo Gloria Trust. Key figures in the organising committee for the event were Matt Spransy and Jim Palosaari. By this time The Sheep and the rest of the Lonesome Stone cast were back in the USA, preparing to launch the rock opera in their homeland. Unfortunately, the US version attracted far less attention, and audiences, than its UK counterpart though Jesus music experts are adamant that the US version of the Lonesome Stone cast album featuring all new recordings is superior to the UK released version.
By 1976 The Sheep were effectively history. The Palosaaris, Owen and Sandie Brock and Paul and Lydia Jenkinson met to form another commune on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada calling themselves Highway Missionary Society. The new group travelled constantly and quickly formed a nucleus of around 80 followers who were prepared to live in community, pooling all their material resources. Owen and Sandie Brock, who had been part of the Lonesome Stone cast, headed up the Highway Missionary Society's musical outreach which took the form of a Christian rock band called Higher Ground. That band became Servant, who by 1979 had recorded their first album 'Shallow Water'. What the Brocks didn't know was that another one-time member of The Sheep, Mark Spransy, who had migrated to Chicago, also formed a band called Servant. Spransy's Servant included bass player and vocalist Doug Pinnick, who was later to find fame as the frontman for Kings X. The Chicago-based Servant were, according to Christian music historian John Thompson, a progressive art rock band similar to Emerson, Lake & Palmer who "developed a considerable following among musicians, both Christian and not and were widely considered to be the best Christian band of the day in terms of musical skill." However, by 1980 Spransy's Servant had disbanded and Spransy relocated to Oregon in 1981 to become the keyboard player for the other Servant. That group were to go on to big things with such major selling albums as 'Caught In The Act Of Loving Him' (1983) and 'Light Maneuvers' (1984).
Decades on, The Sheep albums are today highly prized collectors items by the Jesus music cognoscenti. Certainly The Sheep and Lonesome Stone hold a unique place in the development of fusing creative endeavour with evangelistic ministry.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.