Erik Davis: Jesus freaks rock
Erik Davis hits the high notes of 60s Jesus freak psychedelia.
In the late 1960s and 70s, droves of hippies and freaks bounced back from various countercultural bummers by embracing the “One Way” of Jesus Christ. Though they rejected many aspects of the underground scene—fun stuff like drugs, free love, and the occult smorgasbord—the Jesus Freaks kept others very much alive. They had a strong yen for intense spiritual experiences and communal tribes, as well as an apocalyptic sense of imminent global transformation. In stark contrast to previous generations of American Christians, who largely rejected popular culture as the devil’s work, these hirsute believers also embraced countercultural media—street newspapers, bumper-stickers, coffee shops, and especially rock music—to get the word out. (Elsewhere I have written about how the fabulous Haight Street poster artist Rick Griffin kept designing Grateful Dead album covers and underground comix after finding Jesus in 1970. Above "Pieta" handbill photo by Griffin and photographer Bob Seidermann.)
A lot of Jesus Freak music was inexpensively recorded and pressed on private labels, which means that its tough to track down (a boon for collectors) and often amateurish in execution. But with the most incandescent bands, a smattering of which are introduced below, the rough edges are more than made up for with a roaring passion and visionary intensity almost entirely lacking in the more commercially successful “CCM” dreck that this obscure and driven music helped spawn.
The most visible pioneer of Jesus rock was Larry Norman, a prolific Christian musician from California whose best music -- like the weird Neil Youngish ballad “The Last Supper” and the anti-occult “Forget your Hexagram” from his 1969 solo debut Upon this Rock -- attacked countercultural norms with a playful Dylanesque edge and the sort of folksy, mid-tempo rock moves you might expect from the first Jesus Freak to score a major label deal. After all, Christian sentiments were hardly absent from the commercial rock at the time, with acts like the Byrds turning in tunes like “The Christian Life” and “Jesus is Just Alright With Me,” later a 1972 hit with the Doobie Brothers.
That said, most Jesus rockers lived in a Christian underground, playing in coffee-shops and parks, living hand to mouth, and selling tiny runs of self-pressed albums through mail order. That doesn’t mean they all sound like amateurs, however. Washington State’s Wilson McKinley, for example, were a secular band until most of the group were converted by a communal group of street Christians known as the Voice of Elijah.
Initially abandoning rock for a life of praise, the group reformed in 1971 in order to evangelize through their music, a charming and perfectly solid blend of country rock, boogie, and CSN-style harmonies. Search through the great FM throw-back dial in the sky, and you can easily imagine songs like “Tree of Life” and “Almighty God” sandwiched between the Allman Brothers and “Uncle John’s Band.”
But Jesus Freak music gets, well, freakier than this. Take the Sacramento combo Azitis, whose 1971 album Help deploys Hammond organ, ominous Byrds-worthy harmonies, and a bit of country picking to tell the chipper story of Armageddon. The album cover features a cross skewering the planet Earth, and the vibe is one of judgment, fear, and melancholic longing. The strongest cuts on this album—like “The Prophet” and “From This Place” -— shimmer with an uncanny apocalyptic expectation capable of sending chills down even the most rapture -- unready of spines.
Though trippy, Azitis is still delicate and composed. Even more surprising to contemporary ears are those Christian musicians who dredged the cruder depths of acid rock. The California group Agape, one of the first Christian rock bands, represented what the fan-historian Frank Edmondson described as “Jesus rock at its crustiest.” The spirit of Hendrix looms heavily over tunes like “Rejoice” and “Wouldn’t It Be a Drag,” the latter of which even devolves into a woozy garage jam featuring the obligatory tedious drum solo. Similarly fuzz-forward blues-rock was later cranked out by the Exkursions, whose “It’s Been Sent Down” and chatty “Dry Ground” are both included on the 1998 Jesus Freak collection Holy Fuzz, which, like the soundtrack to the documentary Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher, are two solid places to get a survey of this music.
Absent from both these collections, however, is anything from Fraction’s excellent 1971 album Moonblood, for my money the heaviest, most psychedelic, and most emotionally complex Jesus Freak record. Between his baritone growls and unrepentant screeches, vocalist Jim Beach communicates the sort of passionate conviction that does not alleviate any of the darkness he sees, a cosmic struggle carried out, as in the epic “Eye of the Hurricane," through Sabbath-saturated riffs and sad angelic interludes. Oft-pirated, the album got its first fully authorized repressing from Mexican Summer last year.
Musically speaking, the psychedelic counterculture didn’t just get down and dirty with electric guitars. Altered states also opened rock music up to exotic and meditative sounds and instruments drawn from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Such world inspirations also saturate the amazing music of The Trees Community, a semi-communal Christian collective originally based in the East Village. Founded by the visionary “Shipen” Lebzelter, who played sitar in the group, the Trees drew from tantric Buddhism and other religious traditions, but placed full-on Christian conversion at the heart of their path. Though fond of free folkish mini-dramas like “Psalm 42," their most memorable song is the haunting a capella gem “Jesus He Knows."
By the late 1970s, the countercultural intensity of the Jesus movement had largely disappeared. Life-styles grew more conventional, while the musical underground developed grew into an industry. One band that kept the freak fire alive was the All Saved Freak Band, which featured the disturbing gruff vocals of authoritarian street preacher Larry Hill and the feverish fretwork of former James Gang guitarist Glenn Schwartz (replaced by Joe Walsh after going Christian). Though they rocked hard, the band also effectively incorporated chamber instruments like harpsichord and cello, which are used to great effect on the astoundingly titled 1976 classic For Christians, Elves and Lovers.
After Schwartz was kidnapped from the group’s creepy home church scene and worked over, unsuccessfully, by cult deprogrammers, the band came out with Brainwashed, which featured the pensive prophetic rumblings of “Ode to Glenn Schwartz." While there were many great Jesus rock bands of the era, including many unmentioned here, the All Saved Freak Band represents an almost perfectly representative mix of prophetic aggression and sweet devotion. Would that all the Lord’s rockers were freaks.
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