The latest part of the ongoing series chronicling, in no particular order, the greatest 1001 recordings made by Christian artists
Continued from page 5
42. JON GIBSON - THE WALL, 1987. From the album 'Change Of
Seldom has contemporary soul and sensibility - smacking rap been fused so effectively as on this funk tour-de-force from 1987. Probably best remembered now as the recording debut of MC, Jon now refuses to sing the song until "until MC Hammer returns to the Lord". What the teaming of one of America's most talented blue-eyed soulsters and one of the pioneering old school rappers produced was a riveting denouncement of every kind of prejudice and division the walls of which will one day come crashing down. The section where the pumped-up bass comes in for a break would wrench the most jaded limbs into dancefloor action.
43. NO LAUGHING MATTER - RELIGION SUCKS, 1986. From the album
'It Bites K-Mart Shoppers', independent.
This is the kind of marvellous track which makes worthwhile wading through endless hours of badly recorded and played grunge looking for the occasional gems thrown up by America and Canada's 'Christian Music Underground'. That garage-and-bedroom music scene has a bevy of underground magazines to publicise the welter of speed metal, anarcho punk et al coming from Christians as an abrasive alternative musical statement to the Amy's, Michaels and Dove Awards. This Canada-based band, headed by the resplendently named Ted Worthless, even have their own fanzine, White Noize - a gloriously jumbled 'Sniffin' Glue' with apocalyptic sensibility. Some of No Laughing Matter's voluminous, independent output is dire (not surprising as they seem to make a live tape of every gig they do) but here they settle for a droning riff and a chilling denouncement of religion as opposed to Christianity. Just in case any listener is confused the next track is a spoken explanation emphasising No Laughing Matter are not saying stop going to church! Brilliant in its own minimalist way.
44. DENIECE WILLIAMS - WE SING PRAISES, 1988. From 'Special
Actually a duet with fellow believer Natalie Cole (let's hope we don't have to wait much longer for her gospel debut), this is Niecey at her finest soaring and swooping on a song which is a self-composed praise and worship chorus. So often P&W production values are often no more than turning a tape recorder on in front of a congregation or wrapping a simple tune up in layer-upon-layer of sickly sweet MOR irrelevancies, so it is a delight to hear here a chorus arranged with imagination and flare. The song is a beauty - it has long been a favourite at my family's worship times - while the last two times round on the close feature Deniece and Natalie swapping soulful phrases is delicious, capped by Natalie's growled exhortation just before the fade "I'm not ashamed of the name of Jesus".
45. SEVENTH ANGEL - FORBIDDEN DESIRES, 1990. From the album
'The Torment', White Metal.
When I played an excerpt of this at a Heavy Metal seminar I gave at Scotland's Impact Festival, one could almost see the dropping jaws. Those who still labour under the misapprehension that Christian heavy metal is all youth pastors performing tired AC/DC retreads in a misguided pursuit of youth culture relevancy should catch these sanctified warriors of the mosh pit. This is, for me, their piece de resistance. A guitar riff searingly jagged enough to hover on the pain threshold, a nice full wall of sound from the guys and some meaty stop-start-fast-slow thrash drumming virtuosity from Tank only let down by the slight biscuit tin quality of the snare. If all this wasn't enough, there's also Ian Arkley growling his powerful lyric about the unspeakable dangers of submitting to lust. Thrash for the thinking mosher.
46. WASHINGTON PHILLIPS - DENOMINATION BLUES, 1928. From the
various artists album 'Storefront And Street Corner Gospel',
Mr Washington was a street musician who during the 1920s recorded a handful of sides including this stone classic which says more about the sin of sectarian divisions in the body of Christ than a dozen ecumenical conferences. For a street musician Washington was unusual both in instrumentation (favouring a zither rather than a guitar) and in style (sometimes singing archaic folk ballad forms which pre-dated the blues and blues-gospel) but was a master of his art and here intones a poignant catalogue of the different denomination's particular beliefs (I bet you always wanted to know what African Methodists believe) concluding with the observation that all believers truly need is Jesus "and that's all".
47. THE SEVENTY SEVENS - DENOMINATION BLUES, 1983. From the
album 'Ping Pong Over The Abyss', Exit.
There's probably not been a better Christian band in the post punk/new wave tradition than Mike Roe's California revolutionaries and the impact of their 'Abyss' album debut had in 1983 is still hard to describe considering how dated much of the post-Clash punk posturings of others sound today. It is a tribute that several cuts on the album still sparkle in the '90s with a pristine freshness, including the chilling "It's So Sad" and its logical successor "Falling Down A Hole" but best of all is this artful contemporisation of Washington Phillips' anthem with which a lilting rock rhythm takes on a whole new dimension as the lyrics bite deep. As the man wrote all those years back. "You can go to college, you can go to school/But unless you have Jesus you're an educated fool". Say amen somebody.
48. TOMMY ELLISON AND THE FIVE SINGING STARS - I'M GUILTY OF
LOVING GOD PTS 1 & 2, 1971. From the single, HSE.
Back in the '60s when still a mohair-suited youth, I was enamoured by 'deep soul' - ballads by ex-gospel singers who wallowed in stark emotionalism tearing every little vestige of pathos from dirge-slow 'churchy' sounding songs. There was one song, which was a particular favourite, sometimes it was called "I Stand Accused" though my favourite version, including a testifying monologue was by Inez Foxx and was entitled "Guilty". It was only last year that I discovered the probable root-source of all those songs, this breathtaking gospel 45 by one of the Southern States unsung gospel heroes (despite some excellent albums in the '70s for Nashboro) who recorded this preach (part one) and sing (part two) admission that when he gets to the Judgment the only thing he's likely to be found guilty of is loving God too much. Slightly odd theology but devastatingly powerful soul-gospel that deserves a vinyl (sorry CD) re-issue from somebody.
49. MARGARET BECKER - STAY CLOSE TO ME, 1988. From the album
'Immigrant's Daughter', Sparrow.
It was Cross Rhythms lovely Prayer Supporter coordinator Susan Edmonds who drew my attention to this particular gem. Margaret has a voice with the power and passion to slice through the heaviest rock rhythm (check out the wonderful "Commit" on 'Immigrants Daughter' superlatively produced by Charlie Peacock). But it's this exquisite, tremulous ballad, which scales the highest heights; with a vocal at times no more than the merest whisper, Margaret intones a prayer to the Lord. Quite beautiful.
50. IONA - HERE I STAND, 1990. From the album 'lona',
The willingness of lona's singer Joanne Hogg to sacrifice a lucrative career in medicine to pursue music should have by now have brought her and her brilliant fellow lona musicians far more support from Britain's underdeveloped Christian music scene. As it is, despite lona's breathtaking debut album being heralded by the Christian press as a classic there have been precious few gig opportunities and one is left wondering how much longer Britain's relatively well-off Christian community is going to ignore its brothers and sisters with such powerful musical gifts yet be prepared to sink big money into many less worthy causes. Be that as it may, lona's compelling fusion of jazz-rock and Celtic-folk is still a wonderfully welcome creative wind of change. This beauty, with Joanne's eerily haunting vocal in stark near-acappella, produces goose pimples even after the 200th play.
As published in CR6, 1st June 1991
51. MICHELE PILLAR -WALK AROUND HEAVEN, 1985. From
the album 'Michele Pillar', Sparrow.
A good test of a song's quality is, can you easily recall the place and time when you first heard it? The fact is all these years on I can still vividly remember being driven back from some gig (long since forgotten) by a record executive who in a desperate effort to keep us awake put on the car tape machine a 'new piece of product'. (Record executives talk like that.) The effect was electrifying. It still is. A walking blues-pop-country rhythm which sounded as Deep South as chitlins and cornbread (the stalwart sessioneers here were indeed from Muscle Shoals), then a soprano sax blowing a line of delicious soulfulness before a clear pop voice glides the song through to its hook-to-hand-your-hat-on "we'll walk around heaven one day." It was a classic that Michele couldn't quite repeat, her subsequent albums got gradually more MOR and creatively moribund that even marriage to brilliant jazz-fusion man Larry Carlton couldn't reverse. But this brilliant pop-gospel cut still gets the senses snapping like it did all those years ago during that sleepy car ride.
52. RANDY STONEHILL - CHINA, 1985. From the album 'Equator',
The current popular opinion offered both by long-in-the-tooth rock gospel veterans who remember when Randy gigged in velvet flares and roots music buffs for whom rock guitars are noisy encumbrances, is that Randy's back-to-acoustic move with his last couple of albums is a definite return to musical sanity. I would agree in part, Randy's high nasal voice and wordy incisive lyrics work brilliantly within ^n acoustic guitar framework. But paradoxically it was with one of the Christian music masters of the new technology - DA frontman and producer extraordinaire Terry Taylor - that Randy came up with his finest album. This is the piece de resistance, a haunting number full of eerie, shimmering atmosphere as the lyric, in sad evocative imagery, looks at a nation of countless millions. Superb.
53. DAVID MARTIN - STRONGER THAN THE WEIGHT, 1985. From the
album 'Stronger Than The Weight', Home Sweet Home.
American soft rock in a Foreigner mould is often despised by those with heavier tastes. Yet, when executed well there are few forms of music better able to convey tremulous sincerity. Here Mr Martin, a CCM songwriter of some note (a song on the 'Stronger Than The Weight' album became a smash for the Imperials) sings soft rock quite superbly. Simple keyboard accompaniment leaving all the effect to the subtlety of the vocal, which hovers in the hinterland between assertive faith and sad recognition of human failure. He sings "Stronger then the weight that holds my sin/Deeper than the sea of doubt within/Higher than the wall that locked me in/I'm gonna trust in him." A soulful sax weaves in and out at the close and the result is a minor masterpiece.
54. CHARLIE PEACOCK - THE SECRET OF TIME, 1990. From
the album 'The Secret Of Time', Sparrow.
"Deliver me from strategy/From endless clever thinking/Set my sights upon the shore/Keep this boat from sinking" writes one of the best songwriters of the post war years, a man who'd once planned the BIG record deal that seemed appropriate for his monumental singing and songwriting talents but who finally came to see that "whether I decrease or whether I increase is not my concern" and who settled instead for making superb recordings like this one for a 'Christian record company'. This track with its dreamy, haunting intro and Charlie's delicate voice at times uncannily resembling Smokey Robinson's suddenly bursts into a ricocheting rhythm track the complex secrets of which known only to producer Brown Bannister and an awesome drum computer programme. As Charlie and that other superb vocalist Vince Ebo swop soul-boy phrases Charlie observes "My history is written through the choices I make." Suddenly he's speaking a prayer "Let me sing just 10 true words/I'd rather sing just 10 true words than a hundred words that in the end amount to nothing, absolutely nothing." And may we, who are enriched by Christian art, find these words of truth.
55. SOUL STIRRERS - JESUS WASH AWAY MY TROUBLES, 1956. From
the various artists album 'Gospel Celebrities & Celestial Lights',
Anybody who's read the painfully revealing biography of Marvin Gaye, A Divided Soul, will know the bizarre spiritual schizophrenia which seems peculiarly prevalent in the world of soul music where black performers, once singing the songs and living the Christian life, move into the fast lane of the pop world and with booze, women and (often) drugs tie themselves up in knots as they try and reconcile the irreconcilable, a knowledge (if but a distant memory) of God and a life of immorality. In many ways Sam Cooke, for many the very founding father of soul music, was also the first down this sad and twisting path. A teenage gospel singing sensation, he recorded this song, among dozens of others with a gospel group that even by the early '50s were veterans of the black church gospel 'programmes' that sprang up in all America's larger cities. By 1955 Sam had left the group, cut his first pop record and begun a life, which would gain him fame and fortune and lead to the star eventually announcing he was a black Muslim before in 1964 being shot to death in a sleazy motel room incident. Whatever the tragedy of his backsliding, Sam left behind beautiful, timeless classics of gospel music of which this is possibly his finest. From the first word where "Jesus" is broken down into a breathtaking eight-syllable sliding swirl of vocal acrobatics, here is a singer with enough dazzling technique to utterly confound lesser singers. A simple song of faith, recorded in near acappella with the rest of the Stirrers keep a simple background of oohs over which their genius lead singer can improvise, it is a sound of utter soulful richness.