Review: All God's Children - Songs From the British Jesus Rock Revolution 1967-1974
What do The Kinks, Jethro Tull, The Moody Blues, Manfred Mann's Earth Band, The Hollies, Gerry Rafferty, and The Strawbs all have in common? Would you believe they all recorded songs about God, Jesus, or Christianity? Now those songs, and dozens of others, are collected together on All God's Children: Songs from the British Jesus Rock Revolution 1967-1974, a sweeping four-hour survey of early faith-based rock and pop from Cherry Red Records.
When Elton John sang "Jesus freaks out in the street, handing tickets out for God" in the hit "Tiny Dancer," he was talking about what was happening in California. In fact, the Jesus movement of the late sixties and early seventies--in which thousands of hippies adopted Jesus Christ as a role model and took to the streets to proselytize their newfound faith-- is often connected to the USA, with San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district serving as ground zero for the current Mega-Church mythology. But that's only a part of the tale; a similar evangelical movement was happening in the UK.
All God's Children: Songs from the British Jesus Rock Revolution focuses entirely on Britain's early Christian music scene, which is an often-overlooked area of the contemporary Christian music industry. In fact, many of the songs found on this new 3-CD compilation are being licensed for the very first time, 50 years after they were first recorded. For this fan, it's eye opening, to say the least.
A brief autobiographical aside: I was born and raised into a fundamentalist, evangelical household. Church was a thrice-weekly affair and Christian music was everywhere. My first concert was a Christian band. Even well into my high school years, I would make weekly trips to the local Christian book and music store to see what was new. I had a subscription to Christian music magazines. What I know today that I didn't know then is that our denomination--a particular brand of radical Pentecostalism--was born out of the counterculture Jesus People revolution, though the hippie roots of our particular sect of Christianity had by that point faded from the collective memory of the church in favor of something far more legalistic and restrictive. All that to say this: I thought I knew the history of Christian music intimately, but almost every one of the 57 tracks from Cherry Red's new collection is entirely new to me. What's more, many of the tracks blow away the weak, watered-down drivel I grew up with in the 1980s before I discovered Christian arena rock acts like Petra and latter-day alternative-influenced bands like Newsboys and DC Talk--bands who themselves were struggling with the conflict of faith versus consumerism and the trappings of commercial success...but that's a story for another time. Besides, it's been recounted in the highly-recommended documentary The Jesus Music.
Let's dig just a little deeper for context. The Jesus People movement has its origins in the same search for deeper meaning that birthed the Summer of Love and later Woodstock. People were turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. Drugs were a gateway to expanded consciousness. Love was the answer and sex was given away freely. In 1968, The Beatles went to India to sit at the feet of the Maharishi, the Beach Boys recorded a track about transcendental meditation, and the counterculture was starting to become just plain culture. In many ways, this all ended at Altamont in December of 1969, where a free concert featuring Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and The Rolling Stones turned into a disaster marred by fear, injury, and even death.
The counterculture pivoted and some hippies stopped using drugs and started to turn toward the message of Jesus, but this new strain of evangelicalism was much more radical than your standard Sunday morning service in a Baptist church. To quote Kris Kristofferson's song "Jesus Was A Capricorn": "Jesus was a Capricorn, he ate organic food / he believed in love and peace and never wore no shoes / long hair, beard and sandals, and a funky bunch of friends / reckon they'd just nail him up if he came down again." These new Christians were bearded, long-haired, and shaggy. They hung out in nature and they freaked people out when they would walk up to strangers on the street and hand them a tract about their faith and the one-way ticket to heaven--which brings us full circle to that Elton John song about Jesus freaks out in the street and this brand new collection of British Jesus rock.
I was entirely unprepared for how creative and unrestrained much of the music is on All God's Children. The Jesus music I know from the 70s is gentle, saccharine, and largely acoustic. Even the 1974 debut record from the biggest name in Christian rock, Petra, sounds like The Eagles and The Allman Brothers. Meanwhile, Disc 1 of All God's Children opens with an ambitious, seven-minute prog-rock epic named "He Is My God" from a band called Salamander. The thing jams. Salamander only released one album, 1971's The Ten Commandments which is a concept album about...well, you guessed it. It would be foolish of me to assume that Salamander, and many of the other acts collected here, are obscurities simply because I haven't heard of them before, but a quick check on Discogs reveals that the band wasn't just a footnote in the Christian music scene, they were footnote in rock history. Nevertheless, I'm so glad I've discovered them now. At any rate, British Jesus music sounds nothing like American Jesus music. The shadow of The Beatles looms large over many of these tracks; a few of them utilize the sitar and traditional Indian instruments.
Because this is a survey and not a "greatest hits" collection, there are ebbs and flows, ups and downs. Melancholy, maudlin folk tunes are as equally represented here as the hard rockers, but even those have a gentle charm. There's a pastoral element not present in many American tunes, veering occasionally into outright medieval territory. The druidic occultism that influenced Deep Purple's Ritchie Blackmore and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page shows up here sounding awfully similar, but with lyrics about the crucifixion and the free gift of salvation. Occasionally, things get downright Tolkien-esque, as on the ten-minute apocalyptic "Lord of the Ages" by Magna Carta. Check out these lyrics: "Dark was the night, for he gathered the stars in his hand to light a path through the sky / while the hooves of his charger made comets of fire / bewitching all eyes beheld them." Later in the song, the Lord of the Ages ventures forth into a dark forest with caves of black granite to liberate the children of darkness. One imagines Gandalf might be near.
Not all of the songs are a winners, but even the curators of this collection know this, and so some of the more egregious tracks are presented for historical context and not because they're essential. The cringiest by far is a spoken word sketch by Nigel Goodwin called "First Time I Went To Church" in which Goodwin, an actor, puts on an awful cockney accent and talks about how the legalistic denizens of his local parish don't really care about the young, disaffected youth of their community, despite the message of Jesus. It's a bit like a Monty Python sketch gone sideways. After my first listen, my wife, from another room, said "that was horrible." And it is.
One of the great things about Cherry Red Records and their Grapefruit label is that David Wells is not only a great curator, he's also a great archivist and historian. The dense booklet (44 pages) features an essay on British Jesus music as well as a track-by-track analysis that gives us appropriate context. If a band wasn't well-received by the critics or press, Mr. Wells tells us so. He also connects the dots for us when it comes to the individual musicians within the band; case in point, when discussing the rare cover version of Joni Mitchells' song "Woodstock" (a plea to get "back to the garden" which also contains the lyrics "I came upon a child of God, he was walking along the road), Wells explains that the song is covered here by a band called Matthews Southern Comfort, which was a vehicle for singer Iain Matthews, formerly of Fairport Convention. Elsewhere he explains that the lyrics to Magna Carta's "Lord of the Ages" were written on the wrapper of a packet of cigarettes. What would the religious establishment think about this today? (What would they have thought then?)
Perhaps the biggest surprise for me is hearing songs by bands that were not a part of the Jesus movement at all. Gerry Rafferty, best known for his song "Stuck in the Middle With You" with Stealers Wheel and the saxophone anthem "Baker Street" gets spiritual on the track "Who Cares." The Strawbs sing about "The Man Who Called Himself Jesus" and Nirvana (not the Kurt Cobain outfit, the original British band) plays "Lord Up Above." The collection closes--appropriately--with "God's Children" by The Kinks, who remind us that "the good lord made us all and we are all His children."
I want to extend major props to Cherry Red Records, their Grapefruit label, and David Wells for putting so much time and energy into an area of popular music that has become exceedingly obscure. The Jesus movement didn't last very long--only a few vibrant years--before it got co-opted into something else. At the time of these recordings, the Christian music industry was in its infancy and I'm not entirely sure it ever got much of a foothold in the UK like it did in America; frankly, I don't know what the commercial market is for a collection of British tunes about Jesus that were recorded during the hippie era, but I'm so glad this exists. The musicianship is often astonishing and the sheer earnestness present in many of the tracks is disarming. Many of the songs feel wonderfully naive and unselfconscious, which cuts through my middle-aged cynicism toward an industry that turned faith into big business. With more and more Christians now categorizing themselves as ex-vangelicals, these songs often feel joyful and pure. They're not chasing trends, they're speaking from the heart. Do I dare hope that this collection sells well enough that we get a sequel box set in a year or two? I guess that's up to the music collectors now, but as one of those collectors, All God's Children has enlightened me to quite a few acts that I now plan to seek out and add to my ever-growing library.