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.”

Almighty God by Wilson McKinley on Grooveshark

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.

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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."

Jesus He Knows by The Trees Community on Grooveshark

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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Published 12:01 am Tue, Dec 25, 2012

About the Author

Erik Davis is the author of Techgnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information, Led Zeppelin IV, The Visionary State: A Journey through California's Spiritual Landscape and Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica. He lives in San Francisco.

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35 Responses to “Erik Davis: Jesus freaks rock”

  1. Jon-Michael Windsor says:

    Great article. This is the music I grew up with since Dad had these albums as a teenager. Larry Norman’s trilogy (Larry is known as the father of Christian rock btw), Randy Stonehill (Larry’s protege), Love Song (and Chuck Girard after they broke up), Barry McGuire. Thanks for bringing back some great memories and Merry Christmas

    • cdh1971 says:

      Merry Christmas J-M. 

      I’m a Jew, but I am familiar with Larry Norman ’cause I had a couple of  friends/house-mates at University who loved these guys. I don’t know a whole lot about him or his genre, but I remember Mr. Norman to be a very talented musician, and I can tell that he genuinely adores his fans as much as they adore him.

      these guys, meaning Mr. Norman’s band. Just skimmed his WikiP page…well worth reading. Interesting dude….

      • Jon-Michael Windsor says:

        Happy Hanukkah and thanks! Unfortunately Larry is no longer with us but I did get to attend one of his concerts (in utero) at Memorial University of Newfoundland

        • cdh1971 says:

          Thank-you Jon (and Happy Boxing-Day if you observe it.)  

          I read Larry passed on his WikiP page, I have a habit of referring to the deceased in the present tense. 

          Larry’s story as summarized in the executive summary (WikiP) is pretty interesting, well, Epic. How many of us survive a nasty plane crash? 

          (To disclose a bit about me – I don’t attend synagogue as much as I probably should, and when I do it’s usually a variety of Orthodox shul, or a Jewish Renewal service.)

  2. cdh1971 says:

    Oy, yoy, yoy. 

    “Santa” told me about those two in the first picture. They are the ones who requested the bisexual Elf for Christmas. He was fresh out, he asked me if I had any to spare. He called them a “fun couple.”

    So I told him:

    “What do you think I am, made of money? — I drive a cart attached to a single burro while you drive this ornate, dare I say gaudy chariot the size of a Chrysler Newport pulled by a dozen flying, rather massive actually, caribou. 

    What on Hashem’s green Earth makes you, Nikki, think I would have an Elf to spare? I don’t have any of these beings that you call ‘Elves’ period. Me, my wife and assorted hired hands make do. My own children, grandchildren and their assorted descendents haven’t been of much practical help for at least two-hundred years.Well, at least they call… occasionally.

    I could use some help sometimes you know…especially after I saved Christmas for all of the Goyish girls and boys on several occasions while you nursed your bursitis (or was it gout?). Anyway, even if I had Elves, why would you think I would know their sexual habits? And why do you seem to have such intimate knowledge of yours? I don’t mean to pry, but as a friend and colleague I need to tell you this, people are starting to whisper.”

    Anyway, this exchange between Nikki and me happened during what you people refer to as the ’60s. In recent years “Santa” has toned things down, cleaned up his act. He’s doing pretty well. He dropped the Man-Tan, gold medallions, shirts opened five buttons down. He’s also subcontracting a few Elves to me at his cost. He even loaned me a few of his Krampus creatures to do lawn work, which went mostly fine except it didn’t work out because they ate my mother-in-law’s rose bushes which I’m still hearing about at least once a week, fifteen years later.

  3. Did Erik Davis cut her, and is showing the photographer the blood on his hand???

  4. margaretpoa says:

    Yeah, I remember when so many of my friends picked up a Bible and started thumping it at me, a trend that has occurred in my own circle as recently as the mid 2000s. I’d just as soon forget all of the ludicrous hypocrisy and attempts to convert me, if you don’t mind.

    • robuluz says:

      I don’t mind at all! In fact, I’ll even share a tip with you. When you see a post with the words “Jesus Freaks Rock” in the title, just skip to the next one!

  5. George Forrester says:

    My favourite Larry Norman album is Something New Under The Son http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Something_New_Under_the_Son , which has some great blues rock on it. Alexis Korner, blues player and DJ, loved it, especially Watch What You’re Doing, which he used to play on his Radio 1 show. When I was a student in Swansea, I saw Larry play at the Brangwyn Hall, and it remains one of the best gigs I’ve seen.

  6. millie fink says:

    If I’m ever tempted to go down this route of weird nostalgia, I prefer Crumb’s Jumpin Jack Flash.

    http://www.undergroundcomixart.com/drawings/main.php?g2_itemId=3593

  7. Adam Parfrey says:

    Great piece, Erik. Always loved these freak folks who found Jesus through psychedelic means.

    • Ian Wood says:

      I found Jesus that way. And when he saw me, he was all “Get the fuck away from me! I’m being a god, here.”

      I don’t know if it was the same Jesus everyone talks about, though. He was kind of scaly.

    • Halloween_Jack says:

      Oh, hey, you co-wrote a book on the Process Church, which I almost commented about here. (I decided not to because their theology, as you know, was a bit… complicated.) 

  8. Erik Davis says:

    Thanks for the tip Tristan. Have you checked out the ace doc Marjoe, also an early 70s affair? A mellow freak IRL, he still goes on the holy roller circuit, with Mick Jagger moves.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-O9aNl2Xrk

    Hi Adam! Would love to see your vinyl collection sometime…

  9. fredh says:

    A favorite of mine: Concrete Rubber Band.    http://youtu.be/UTMnm1auwjg

  10. chris jimson says:

    That Fraction LP is so freaky and hairy it’s hard to tell if it IS a Christian Rock group at first listen.

  11. Erik Knutzen says:

    Great post! While not exactly a Jesus Freak, BoingBoing turned me on to this interesting dude:
    http://boingboing.net/2011/08/19/friday-freak-out-d-r-hookers-forge-your-own-chains-1972.html

  12. sarahnocal says:

    I credit the 60′s-70′s Jesus movement for starting the current fundamentalist fervor in the US. It made it cool to be a Christian, and gave the grooviness of the time a non drug place to be.

    • Karen Sylte-Munson says:

      Actually a lot of people who were Jesus Freaks became non-believers or at least underground believers thanks to the fundamentalists and their focus on hateful exclusionary rhetoric.  There are ex-Jesus freaks in the world who call themselves agnostic these days because American Christianity today bears so little resemblance to anything related to anything Jesus had to say. 

    • vintermann says:

      That’s – unlikely, to put it mildly. Fundamentalism is way older (not much older than the 20th century, but older than hippies!), and while there have been plenty of attempts from that culture (and other Church traditions) to reach out to embrace the grooviness of the various times, none have been especially successful.

      The legacy of the Jesus Freaks is a number of low-key, mildly hippie churches present in most American cities, little influenced by Fundamentalism (but still sharing some of their values, obviously). Like most hippies they got more moderate with age.

  13. Karen Sylte-Munson says:

    Regarding some of the comments:  It’s so easy to mock this stuff.  So easy to make jokes about people who believe in something fervently.  But sometimes I wonder if it is at all noble to be skeptical when one does so via always making fun of other people.   This kind of easy mockery just has the flavor of cowardice to it, somehow.  Cowardice and a cheap way to feel superior for a few minutes.  Sometimes I read comments like some of the ones posted here and I  think I’d rather be religious than just another loser on the internet putting people down for a cheap laugh.

    Thanks to all the people who commented respectfully, though.  This stuff meant a great deal to some people once…maybe still.  It’s good to see that some people can see that. 

  14. Pope Ratzo says:

    That All Saved Freaks Band album came out in 1976, the same year The Ramones hit the shelves.

    I sometimes forget how close in time the era of the hippie and the punk rock era really were (and with disco and glitter rock stuck in between).

    Personally, I was saved a few years earlier when I saw Iggy Pop at the Agora Ballroom in Cleveland with the MC5.  The scales sure fell from my young eyes that night.

  15. Joe Markko says:

    Sincere thanks for remembering the music of the All Saved Freak Band. Keeping history straight, I would challenge the assertion that asfb’s music “featured” Larry Hill’s vocals which appear less than those of other members on the 4 albums.

    Joe Markko [co-founder asfb]

  16. UnderachievingSheep says:

    Horrific how? Because of the seemingly “heretic” nature of the image or because of the topic it depicts? Really, there are millions of Christian related iconography that are much, much worse than this which can be found in churches and museums the world over. I have seen more horrific religious images at the Louvre. Now, if you want to talk “horrific”, I’d say the works of Hieronymus Bosch or Caravaggio can be truly chilling. This is rather tame in comparison.

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