Anyone who knew me from my mid-20s to my late 30s would know how attached I was to the Christian Music scene (FYI: In the 80s and 90s we officially referred to it as “Contemporary Christian Music”). For the most part, it was the music of my youth. I attended a small, Southern Baptist college in the early 80s and embraced CCM after first being exposed to it through a campus concert featuring the mighty RussTaff. It soon became the music culture that most influenced my life. Like many young music fans of the 80s, I was into “new wave” and “college alternative” bands but as a young Christian, I would always be drawn more to bands like U2 or The Alarm that had something of an added spiritual dimension to their music and lyrics.
I wasn’t a musician so the closest contribution I could make to Contemporary Christian Music was through art. In 1987, I created a comic strip called Outta Toon which ran for 20 years in CCM Magazine and Christian Musician Magazine. It was a parody of the personalities and attitudes involved in Christian music in the late 80s through the early 200os. More than anything, though, it was my love letter to a genre I loved almost obsessively.
I was recently thinking about my former obsession with Christian music and how today I rarely listen to it. There was a time I could tell you who produced or played keyboards on any random Christian album but today I can’t tell you a single band or artist currently in the Top 10. I grew up, grew apart and lost touch with the old and the new bands. At one point “Worship Music” became very popular and it pushed out the alternative bands. It also seemed (to me) that commercialism succeeded in taming creativity. Or maybe I just got old, cynical and out of touch. Yeah, that’s probably it. “You kids get off my stage!!
I don’t participate or subscribe to any organized spiritual activity anymore but, just for fun, I thought I’d revisit a few of the bands that were most influential in my growing-up years. Missing from this list are solo artists I regularly listened to like Charlie Peacock, Mark Heard, Margaret Becker and Russ Taff. I’m focusing here on the bands. These bands were my R.E.M. and The Police. Okay, I listened to R.E.M. and The Police, too, but in some ways I actually thought these bands were way cooler.
So, here’s my top 5 list of Best Alternative Christian Bands of the 80s/90s.
#5. The Choir
My introduction to The Choir was 1986’s Diamonds and Rain and I admit was due almost entirely to the fact I thought Derri Daugherty’s orange mullet was over-the-top cool. I figured the whole band must be awesome as well. Fortunately, I was correct. The smooth Charlie Peacock produced alt-pop of Diamonds and Rain rarely left my tape deck during that time but it was 1988’s Chase The Kangaroo that lifted the band to “superstar” heights in my eyes and ears. Etherial, atmospheric music with guitar solos straight out of The Edge’s playbook produced the closest thing you’re going to get to Christian Psychedelic Music. The follow-up Wide-Eyed Wonder was more mainstream and less experimental but helped give The Choir a more firm foothold as pioneers in the Christian alt-rock scene.
The Choir is the only one of my early favorite Christian bands I’ve never seen live. I can’t even find many early videos or performances on YouTube. So, for now, this video for “Someone to Hold On To” from a documentary for the album Wide-Eyed Wonder will have to do.
#4. Chagall Guevara
Chagall Guevara only released one full-length album, their almost perfect, self-titled, 1991 collection on MCA Records. I’m including them here also for the significance of guitarist Dave Perkins and, of course, Steve Taylor, the godfather of Christian Alternative Music. I saw them perform live three times, including a show at Knoxville’s now defunct “The Library” on a stage barely big enough to hold 5 people, yet still spacious enough for a Steve Taylor cartwheel.
Like everyone, I wanted more Chagall Guevara. Unfortunately we were left to scavenge for elusive singles like “Tale O’ The Twister” from the Pump Up The Volume Soundtrack. I’m not sure planet Earth is big enough to contain what could have been.
#3. Adam Again
Adam Again provided my first real “Holy Crap!” moment in Christian music with the release of Ten Songs by Adam Again. A masterpiece like nothing else that has come out of Christian music, I first listened to it driving home one night and, for an hour, had to resist the impulse to pull the car over, get out and dance. All I could think was “What is going on here??” while being slapped around by wonderful funk, soul and experimental jazz saxophone. At times it was Prince. Other times The Talking Heads. Even soundtrack composer Bill Conti is in there. I still can’t tell what all is going on in that album and it’s why it’s one of my favorites. It’s more like a sensory painting than any album I’ve ever experienced.
Adam Again was a band that, for me, was always about the music. I’ve listened to them for 30 years and still probably couldn’t pick a single band member out of a line up. Maybe the late Gene Eugene. Or Riki Michele. That’s pretty much it.
I was one of the lucky “East Coasters” who got to see Adam Again perform live. Here’s a shaky video of a live performance of “Tree House,” the first cut from Ten Songs by Adam Again. It’s about some gritty subject matter not often addressed on 80s/90s Christian music which was pretty much standard for Adam Again.
#2. The Altar Boys
Back in the 70s and 80s, there was a Christian bookstore in Knoxville called Logos Books. It sat in the middle of Cumberland Avenue (“The Strip”) and catered to the students at the University of Tennessee. I would go there often because they had a good music selection and I’d usually buy whatever was in the discount basket because I knew that meant it wasn’t mainstream enough and, therefore, most likely good Rock. I found a tape called When You’re A Rebel by The Altar Boys with three punk-looking guys on the cover. It spoke to everything I wanted in music at that time. The music was raw, a bit punkish, a bit surf, edgy and unique. Later, Gut Level Music became my album. My life soundtrack. I still consider it one of the best rock albums of the Christian alternative genre.
I once saw The Altar Boys in concert at the small, Southern Baptist college I attended. The curtains opened and there, on a stage that would normally feature Amy Grant or Rich Mullins, stood three punk guys from Southern California in leather jackets, earrings and combat boots. Before the first song was over, half the audience had walked out. This was my kind of band and they did a fantastic show for those of us who stuck around. In my comic strip, Outta Toon, I paid the ultimate respect to The Altar Boys by naming the strip’s Christian punk band, The Altar Hunks, after them. To some, maybe that didn’t seem like respect, but it totally was.
Eventually, The Altar Boys added synthesizers to their line-up, took a different musical turn and lost me. Their lyrics became too preachy for my personal tastes (although Gut Level Music was lyrically no subtle album). Still, to the young Christian kids like me who didn’t have The Clash, The Altar Boys were our The Clash for awhile and we were fine with that.
#1. The 77s / The Seventy Sevens
I discovered The 77s much later than my other bands. I didn’t even like them at first listen. I had heard rumors about this band who was picked up by Island Records and supposed to tour with U2 and even be as big, so I bought the New Wave influenced Ping Pong Over The Abyss, gave it a listen or two and didn’t get it. I filed The 77s away under “alt bands I don’t relate to.” Later I found the live album, Eighty Eight, which gave me a handle on The 77s. After that, Sticks and Stones sealed the deal (A bit backward since Eighty Eight was mostly live Sticks and Stones, but, whatever…) and I was hooked.
The 77s are the only band from the “Christian Rock” genre I still listen to today. I don’t even like applying that label to them, it doesn’t seem fair. It’s like saying Prince is Soul or Lyle Lovett is Country. The 77s pushed, stretched and bent the boundaries of the labels applied to them with varying degrees of success but they were always fun to listen to. Whatever it was that were doing back then, and let’s just say it was good, old fashioned Rock and Roll, it still survives as being vital to my ears and what’s left of my “spirit” today.
The 77s have two songs I still consider as being my “Life Philosophy” songs, “The Lust, The Flesh and the Pride of Life” and the one performed here, “This is the Way Love Is.”