Progressive Christian Rock: Churning Up New Waves In The Secular Marketplace

September 29, 1984
© 1984 Billboard

The Brief and Controversial Life Of... Progressive Christian Rock: Churning Up New Waves In The Secular Marketplace


Progressive Christian rock is here to say. But it's been forced to dance a fine line of discretion for most of its brief and controversial life. Half of the record-buyers wish contemporary spiritual pop wasn't so frequently guilty of slogging five steps behind its secular counterpart. Meanwhile, the other half casts a wary eye twoard Christian "new music" and wonders how radical-sounding tunes can convey redeeming truths.

But now, adventurous efforts by Christian artists like U2, Steve Taylor, the 77's Vector and Stryper are churning up waves of interest among even cautious Christian consumers. These breakthrough bands are even carving some impressive niches in the secular marketplace.

And who helped pave the pathway for their acceptance? Would you believe Michael Jackson?

This imaginative theory about influencing typically staid record-buyers comes from Brian Tong, manager/music buyer for the huge Marantha Village Christian store in Santa Ana, Calif. "Something about Jackson's music caused so many people--including Christians--to go out and buy the record," Tong says.

"And the album contained so many musical styles that people started thinking, 'Yeah, I do like rock and r&b and pop.' That made them a little more open when they went out and bought Christian records," he adds.

But it took the Irish foursome U2 to blast away any doubts that hard-hitting, modernistic rock could convey Christianity just as effectively as any other musical mode. u2 has scrupulously tried to avoid being pocketed as a "Christian" (three of the quarter are born-again) or "secular" band--and has basically succeeded. Thanks to unique instrumentation, uplifting lyrics and a knockout concert presence, the group has achieved that rare duel feat: widespread critical and commercial success in both secular and Christian markets.

While anticipation runs high on for Brian Eno-produced U2 album due out in early fall, the band's last two releases continue to sell well. Stev Bonilla of Island Records reports the "War" LP is "inching toward platinum at about 900,000 copies now." He sets sales of the follow-up live mini-LOP "Under A Blood Red Sky" at around 650,000. Tong says the mini-LP has been firmly entrenched in Maranatha Village's weekly Top 20 for the last seven months.

Greg Fast, program director for the Orange County, Calif. Christian KYMS- FM, said that U2's live cuts "40" and "New Year's Day" are still getting regular airplay on the station. "But Steve Taylor's LP reigns supreme here right now," he says.

Indeed, Taylor is currently top pop man in many lists. His 1982 Sparrow EP, "Clone," caught people off guard with wickedly humorous, painfully on-the-mark observations about Christianity, hypocrisy and life in general. His first full LP, "Meltdown," was released early this year, and has firmly entrenched him in the hearts of forward-minded pop fans.

Taylor has garnered considerable secular media attention including articles and reviews by publications like the Los Angeles Times, Houston Post and the Rocky Mountain News. His songs have alos cut inroads in an area still new to Christian music--college radio. Taylor's "Meltdown" as the long-time number one seller in Orange County Christian record stores (until Stryper supplanted them), according to Bill Hearn, Sparrow's senior vice president of marketing. In June and July, 11,000 copies of the LP were sold.

What is it that sets Taylor apart from other Christian popsters? For one thing, his music has plenty of originality. It also possesses the cutting edge that's frequently lacking in so-called gospel "new wave." It's tight and punchy without sounding overly slick and processed. Also, hsi backing "Some Band" isn't afraid to slide into some overtly danceable grooves.

But Taylor's secret weapon is his incisive lyrics. His skillfully-written songs about relevant topics like racism among Christians ("We Don't Need No Colour Code") and religious persecution in Poland ("Over My Dead Body") indicate Taylor's desire to present faith in a realistic way.

Taylor, 24, used to be a youth pastor. He feels a special affinity for younger folks. "It's my firm conviction that the Christian faith holds water from a historical and intellectual standpoint," he sais. "I'm trying to challenge young people to think about what it means to be a Christian in today's society, and to take a stand on today's issues."

But he wants his fans to enjoy themselves in the process. In his crazy title tune, Taylor uses melting figures in a wax museum as symbol of temporal life: "Elvis and the Beatles have seen a better day / Better off to burn out than to melt away / Dylan may be fillin' the puddle they designed / Is it gonna take a miracle to make up his mind?"

A video of the song received airplay on a number of music shows around the country. Taylor is currently working on an extended dacne remix of the tune that will be the first Christian 12" available for retail.