Rock for the Ages
To gain some historical perspective to our special section, we asked Larry Norman to comment on his view of the early days of Christian music, then known as Jesus music. In the late ’60s and ’70s, Norman was one of a host of people in Southern California making music from a Christian perspective. He has gone on to be credited with a number of acclaimed solo albums, many of which influenced some of Christian music’s top artists. Today, Norman continues to make music as an artist and producer for his Solid Rock Records in Oregon. (For more information on Norman and the history of Christian music, see the July 1998 anniversary edition of CCM MAGAZINE.)
CCM: Larry, think back to 1969 and the release of your Upon This Rock on Capitol. Was that a "Christian" album as we think of them today? If not, what was it?
NORMAN: Upon This Rock was written to stand outside the Christian culture. I tried to create songs for which there was no anticipated acceptance. I wanted to display the flexibility of the gospel and that there was no limitation to how God could be presented.
I used abrasive humor and sarcasm as much as possible, which was also not a traditional aspect of Christian music. I chose negative imagery to attempt to deliver a positive message, like "I Don’t Believe in Miracles" is actually about faith. "I Wish We’d All Been Ready" talked about something I had never heard preached from a pulpit as I grew up. "The Last Supper" and "Ha Ha World" used very surreal imagery which drug users could assimilate. My songs weren’t written for Christians.
No, it was not a Christian album for those believers who wanted everything spelled out. It was more like a street fight. I was saying [to Christians], "I’m going to present the gospel, and I’m not going to say it like you want. This album is not for you."
CCM: Not long after Upon This Rock, Mylon LeFevre’s Mylon came out, and soon other projects created by Christians also became available. Please identify who you thought your listener was.
NORMAN: I was singing directly to the disenfranchised. People who hated church and doubted God’s existence could get an emotional and intellectual buzz off of my songs. These songs were self-contained arguments. I felt that someone needed to fight for the dignity of the skeptic, to befriend him and recommend that he take a closer look at God.
CCM: Among the early Jesus music artists, was there animosity toward culture?
NORMAN: I really don’t know what other singers where thinking. I know they felt a great concern for the culture, but I didn’t know if the culture could really hear their music. Almost none of the groups were singing rock music. Even brilliant groups like Love Song were singing very beautiful pop songs, not credible street rock.
CCM: What then was your view of the church?
NORMAN: I had no time for the church matrix. I didn’t think you needed a majority vote from the elders on the board to undertake a musical ministry. The churches weren’t going to accept me looking like a street person with long hair and faded jeans. They did not like the music I was recording. And I had no desire to preach the gospel to the converted. I wanted to be out on the sidewalk preaching to the runaways and the druggies and the prostitutes.
When non-believers used to criticize the church I would say, "Yeah, I agree and I think that God is disappointed in what people have done with Jesus." And then I would go on to talk about what Christ personally said and did. It worked. I wasn’t there to argue against people’s beliefs. I was there to talk about what God’s truth is.
CCM: In the late ’60s did you have any idea your music would one day help create a new genre of music?
NORMAN: Yes and no. I wanted to forcibly change the music of the church. I had a high regard for hymns because of the doctrine expressed in the lyrics but the melodies seemed ponderous. Outside of black churches the only other church music in the ’50s I was aware of were camp songs which seemed a bit naive and white gospel quartet music that seemed emotionally overbearing. I believed that my music was a new direction in the church politics, but that it also had to be so artful that even a non-believer would find it compelling. I apologize for having the arrogance of an 18-year-old, but my heart had pure motives and so I believe God used me in a small way to do something which had a positive effect.
CCM: Looking at the culture today, is it as open to hearing gospel messages in music as it was in the late ’60s and early ’70s?
NORMAN: I think the [cultural] response toward gospel music is, "If you sing about Jesus... hey who cares? Whatever. Just don’t get in my face about it." But the Spirit draws men toward God. And when God plows the hard ground of their hearts, seeds can take root. There’s no denying that modern Christian music can help kids escape their nihilism and obsessions and addictions. So I love going to a dc Talk concert or a Grammatrain gig. We need alternative music like Terry Taylor makes and the cultural pollination of groups like Christafari to remind kids that Christian music isn’t supposed to be polite. It’s supposed to be relevant.
Even having said all of that, Christians have the freedom to make neutral music and none should criticize someone like Cliff Richard for having love songs in the Top 10 in Britain and not singing many songs about Jesus.
CCM: Some Christian music critics believe that if you are a Christian you ought to create music in the Christian market. How does such a perspective align with what musicians were doing with Jesus Music?
NORMAN: I think we are supposed to be salt and light in this world. So I would encourage Christian artists to listen to God. If He calls them to "go secular" then they should take the message with them. I think sometimes kids are in a Christian band because they want to be, not because God called them. You have to be there because God has chosen you to undertake it. But if God drafts you, then He will also equip you, and you’ll know you’re supposed to go.
CCM: Look at the Christian music industry today. Does it fulfill or fall short of the vision you and other Jesus music artists had in the late ’60s and early ’70s?
NORMAN: I think the vision these artists had 28 years ago was just to share the gospel. I think you’d have to say that the vision was Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. So yes, if contemporary artists would talk more about Christ form the stage today, I think that would help fulfill the vision of the Jesus movement artists.
CCM: Is there anything else you would like to say about Christians who make music?
NORMAN: I think it’s great that Rick Elias does what he does. And that Mark Heard sang at a hole-in-the-wall nightclub on Sunset Strip every Wednesday... to kind of keep his hand on the heartbeat of the dispossessed. He loved people who struggled with the church but who kept trying to find God. I think Bryan Duncan and Randy Stonehill could also stand solidly on a [general market] stage. And I think that in the future a lot of young artists are going to find that God is calling them to pick up their guitars and swords and walk out onto the battle field. I think Christian music is better than ever, and I’m happy if I’ve been an encouragement to other artists.