So Long Ago, When CCM Wasn't Awful
What was Larry Norman doing making such great music?
by Michael Spencer
In 1969, Larry Norman did something no one had ever done before. He made a recording of contemporary rock/pop music that was distinctively about his evangelical Christian faith. Released in 1970 on Capital Records, "Upon This Rock" is the beginning of what today is called Contemporary Christian Music, or CCM.
In 1972, Norman released "Only Visiting This Planet" on Verve Records. Edgy, brilliant, raw, beautiful, provocative--words to describe this album rapidly become repetitive. Many people think it stands alone as the single best recording in the CCM genre, and is a triumph of art and message by anyone's estimation.
In 1974, Norman presented "So Long Ago In the Garden" on MGM Records, a less cheerful recording full of brokenness and realism, but still saturated with Norman's evangelical Christian faith. 1974's "In Another Land," released on Norman's own Solid Rock label, completed what Norman saw as a trilogy of recordings that presented the Gospel in a way no one had ever done before. Almost thirty years later, the word masterpiece is not wasted on the entire endeavor. Comparisons to the Beatles are common for these recordings, and come partially because Paul McCartney said they were that good.
All this occurred before CCM radio. It happened when the CCM industry was a handful of artists working in alienation from the church. Norman's recordings were on major "secular" labels, with "Upon the Rock" debuting on the same Capital label as the Beatles. Established Christian music was Southern Gospel quartets or choirs or George Beverly Shea. Though the music was considered a novelty and was often banned in "Bible Book Stores," its influence is undeniable and considerable.
Who is Larry Norman? There is no shortage of information available about this unusual, gifted and flawed artist. A musical prodigy who was on his way to a major musical impact before he was twenty, Norman came to regard his evangelical faith in Jesus as more important than inclusion with Clapton, Dylan, and the Beatles in the rock pantheon of the late sixties. With total disregard for what was accepted or acceptable among Christians, Norman took the Gospel directly to pop culture with brilliant songs, uncompromising lyrics, and an eccentric, winsome personality that made every concert and interview memorable.
Faced with criticism from the outset, Norman responded with the rocker's predictable whimsy, but this time bolstered with what seem undeniable Biblical truth.
the people to know
Norman quickly began to produce other artists, and for a brief time his Solid Rock label promised to deliver the beginnings of a Christian revolution within popular music. But it was not to be. Norman's own flaws as a person, combined with a lack of focus and eventual tragedy, would end Larry Norman's dream. While Norman continued to write, record and tour, his musical life became more chaotic than coherent. A major head trauma threatened to end Norman's career, but after unsuccessful treatment and a complete healing, he returned to recording in the late 80's. Two heart attacks dominated Norman's later career. Today, living with heart disease and openly asking for money for medical bills, yet still sharing his love for God through music, Norman presides over a discography of over 50 titles, the majority bearing witness to an amazing beginning, a persistent vision, and a wonderful talent. He has rarely approached the stunning brilliance of those first four albums (1990's "Stranded in Babylon" was the closest), but it is safe to say that no single Christian artist has approached the impact of Larry Norman on CCM.
Today, Christian music is a huge, commercially successful industry. Secular corporations, who early on quickly turned their backs on Christian artists, have now seen the story of the numbers and returned to heavily buy into the CCM market. Mercy Me's song, "I Can Only Imagine," a CCM ballad about heaven, is at No. 19 on the Top 20 Mainstream Adult Contemporary chart and No. 39 on the Contemporary Hit Radio chart for the week of June 30. 2003. DC Talk, Michael W. Smith, Jaqui Velazquez, Jars of Clay--such artists today are major players in the popular music scene.
CCM now contains huge sub-empires of hip-hop, metal, acoustic, emo, praise & worship, and solo vocalists of every kind. Hundreds of CCM radio stations now exist right alongside country and rock stations, playing many of the same groups and artists. CCM videos run on Christian television. Aspiring to CCM success is a frequent career goal in any evangelical youth group. I am sure the man who wrote "I'm not knocking the hymns, but I ain't dead yet!" must smile when one cannot go into a church anywhere without a "praise band" replacing the organ. "I Wish We'd All Been Ready" is in some hymnals.
CCM's success has been phenomenal. Yet, among those who love, buy, and discuss CCM, there is a significant amount of discontent, a considerable agreement that the vast majority of Christian music and Christian artists are mediocre, and a growing sense that the industry has serious and escalating problems. For those interested in art that reflects a mature understanding of the Christian worldview and of artistic excellence, listening to CCM radio is a depressing experience, as it is clear that a kind of commercial wet blanket has come to dominate the genre. K-Love, a syndicated satellite station, increasingly renders Christian radio a land of identical Muzak. Truly talented, risk-taking, culturally relevant communicators must find their way into the world of the internet, small indy labels, and constant touring. It is generally agreed that a contemporary Larry Norman would go largely unheard in today's CCM environment.
(It is a significant aspect of CCM that its existing "great" artists are treated with virtual contempt by the establishment, while untried and obviously corporately cloned, "instant" stars--Plus One, Stacie Orico, ad nauseum--flourish with not only CDs and promotional attention, but publishing deals and cross-market projects of all sorts. Norman, Randy Stonehill, Terry Taylor, The Choir, Michael Roe and a list of other proven talents exist at the fringes of the current CCM kingdom, largely unknown to those now dedicated to their genre. CCM marketing is unusually efficient at promoting the next new thing as the most significant thing, while those with wisdom and gifts of experience and past success are left to plead with their fans to please buy the CD from the web site so they can pay the rent. It is hard to imagine Bob Dylan enduring such treatment, even in these days when he is well out of the mainstream.)
What is the difference between the music of Larry Norman and today's CCM? Why have so few CCM artists chosen to follow the musical direction of Larry Norman in speaking a distinctively Christian message to the general culture? What can typical evangelicals do to make CCM more than a disappointment?
There are two primary directions in CCM today. The first is a kind of music that is almost entirely entertainment for Christians. It is written by Christians, for Christians, produced on Christian labels, distributed in Christian stores and played on Christian radio stations. CCM artists tour the "Christian circuit" of churches, colleges, youth events, and festivals. There is an increasingly intense loyalty to this music, and many Christian leaders make it fairly plain that getting rid of your "secular" music and listening to exclusively Christian music is an important step in Christian growth. Christians who listen to CCM testify to its effect on them as a kind of spiritual vitamin or nourishment to help them be "strong" in their Christian walk. At the Christian school where I work, anyone who listens to Christian music is assumed to be a serious follower of Christ, and harboring secular music is a head-wagging offence.
Artistic concerns are minimal in this kind of environment. The artists are "ministers" ministering to the "body." It is considered rude and inappropriate to criticize a Carman for songwriting, vocal performance, or general quality. At a Carman concert, it is plain that Christians are being admonished and unbelievers evangelized by the thousands. Music is just a "tool;" a means to an end. CCM constitutes a fairly simple, yet relatively persuasive, evidence that one is an "on fire" Christian.
In 1969 there was no CCM, and Larry Norman assumed that he was singing to people who were listening to the Beatles, the Stones and Dylan. Norman never thought there was anything wrong with listening to the art of non-Christians. In fact, following the lead of Francis Schaefer and C.S. Lewis, Norman would have encouraged Christians to carefully listen to the music of unbelievers and understand points of agreement and contrast. (I can hear Larry now, writing lyrics responding to the latest Marilyn Manson or Staind hit.) The church's failure to appreciate Norman had a good bit to do with the fact he was standing squarely in the culture and speaking as a person who belonged to God and not to the culture. This stance, of being both counter-cultural in ultimate loyalty and counter-church in method, appearance, and sound, made Norman a man far ahead of his time, and easy to write off as eccentric or a detriment.
The second direction in CCM is one that wants to be accepted by the culture without alienating the culture by a confrontational, "preachy" message or style. In an interview after Solid Rock records had broken up, with many hard feelings between Norman and the rejected artists in the air, Norman said that he was very unhappy about the reaction of Christian artists to their success. He faulted most of them for basking in acceptance (and money) from Christians. Though obviously a man of considerable ego, Norman felt that many artists were becoming Christian celebrities and ignoring their mission to the unbeliever. In particular, he was unhappy that Christian artists were unwilling to play clubs and other secular venues, and he was very put off that artists were not "preaching" between songs and making the Gospel clear--in confrontational terms. Such an approach has now put Bono of U2 on the cover of Christian Music publications as a premier Christian artist.
Today, a large portion of CCM consists of artists who will quickly ignite a debate about whether they are making Christian music at all, or even if they are Christians. These are artists who do not speak "Christian lingo," or use expected evangelical clichés, but strive to have an ordinary and common voice that will be recognized by the culture. Some of these artists play so far out of the image of a "Christian artist" that they live in constant controversy regarding what they really believe. These artists are often less criticizable on issues of quality and songwriting, but are many times faulted for being less than convincing in their communication. Many times they are able to play in secular venues and be played on secular radio, specifically because their Christian musical profile is so low. Groups such as Lifehouse and Creed are considered exemplar Christians by some, and enemies of the true faith by others. With a stated goal to just make good music and not be preachy, these artists will certainly find more and more success outside of the evangelical world.
In 1969, Larry Norman made a record that reflected a strong evangelical Christian message and worldview, but in terms that were highly "secular" and familiar to those in the youth culture. He played in clubs and secular concerts, but spoke plainly about his faith. Instead of following his lead, CCM has increasingly become either a product for Christians or an art form that avoids strong, provocative, and contrasting messages. Much of CCM is of high quality, and is successful in either communicating with Christians or in making covert contact with unbelievers. Given the success of these two directions, we can expect CCM to continue and grow as a niche market, as a part of the evangelical subculture and as part of popular music in general.
Why do so few CCM artists follow Norman's example? Simply because they will be ignored by the CCM industry and by secular music audiences. Such artists do exist and always have existed, but they are on the edge of acceptability. (It is interesting to notice the music of Derek Webb, who apparently has decided to make music for the church, but preaches like Norman preached to unbelievers. His song "Wedding Dress" was unplayable on many CCM stations because of referring to the church as a "whore," a term scripture doesn't hesitate to use many times, but that nice, shiny evangelicals can't hear anymore. CCM is now nicer than scripture.) Examples include groups like the Altar Boys, who made "in your face" punk/alternative music in the eighties and early nineties, much of which sounded remarkably like Norman's vision of a prophetic voice to the youth culture. Also, Steve Taylor, who was once commended by Francis Schaeffer for being able to use sarcasm and hard-hitting images to get Christians and non-Christians to see and think about real world issues.
Norman was amazing in his topic selection. He was political, being unafraid to talk about the Vietnam War, ("Six O'clock News) STDs, or what he considered to be a wasteful boondoggle in the Moon Shot. ("Why Don't You Look Into Jesus.") He was unafraid to bring the pains of his personal relationship failures into song lyrics ("Lonely By Myself.") There is no better beginning to "Why Don't You Look Into Jesus" than the break-up ballad, "I've Got To Learn To Live Without You." He acknowledged the ambiguities of his role as a musician and a Christian. ("Why Should the Devil Have All The Good Music.") He wrote about the end times, death, heaven, the Bible, and a sense of impending doom and estrangement. His album covers (Norman produced the nicest album and liner packages of anyone, anywhere) consistently pictured a long-haired, serious pilgrim in a world that was troubled and passing away. He was a musical introduction to writers like Schaeffer, Lewis and Muggeridge. One of his most endearing qualities was his delight in celebrity "name dropping" in his songs ("Song for a Small Circle of Friends") all the while directly expressing hope for the salvation of the afore mentioned rock and roll royalty.
Looking for this sort of edgy, bold honesty today means looking completely out of the CCM mainstream, often to rap artists and Christian "hardcore" groups. In these genres, the kind of "preaching" that Norman believed was essential in Christian music is still around, and growing in boldness. Of course, Norman was a unique person at the time, and was marketed by secular labels who were not jaded by a cultural counter-reaction to evangelicals. Today if a group flirts with secular acceptance, the persistent label "Christian" can spell the end of enthusiasm by a record company, while the tug-of-war is discouraging to the artist. One need only listen to Six Pence None the Richer's Leigh Nash to feel what it is like to be torn between the various reactions to the Christian artist.
"It's so irritating -- in 80 percent of the articles written about us, 'Christian' is in there somewhere, often used sarcastically. It's always a banner, and we just don't wanna carry that around anymore...I really don't like the Christian subculture in this country that bans going to Disneyworld on certain days. It's just embarrassing... People with all their religious claims and all their crap -- it just gets old. I don't wanna read their books and I don't wanna hear 'em talk. I just wanna know what I believe, and try and quietly nurture that, so I can be a little stronger when I go out and face the world again...I was brought up Christian, and that's still what I claim and practice...but I don't even go to church, so I guess I'm going to hell. And I've also suffered severe doubt in my faith in the last couple of years, because of all the stuff that's gone on in the world. And a lot of my questions I don't think will ever be answered."
Reading the interview with Nash, I couldn't help but think of the characteristic Norman reply to critics in "Shot Down."
I've been shot down, talked about,
Some people scandalize my name,
But here I am, talking 'bout Jesus just the same.
I've been knocked down, kicked around,
but like a moth drawn to the flame,
Here I am, talking 'bout Jesus just the same.
I've been rebuked for the things I've said,
For the songs I've written and the life I've led,
They say they don't understand me but I'm not surprised,
Cause you can't see nothin' when you close your eyes.
They say I'm sinful, backslidden, that I have left to follow fame,
But here I am, talking 'bout Jesus just the same.
You wanna talk about my life, hey listen to me,
You've got your facts all backward, one-two-three,
And spreading rumors and gossip is a real bad game,
The only name to spread is Jesus' name.
I will conclude this essay with some signs of hope that things can change. First, a simple plea to my fellow evangelicals to stop the runaway consumer circus that is CCM. Stop buying mediocre music. Stop buying books written by musicians who don't write books. Stop talking about CCM as somehow anointed and special. Don't be afraid to criticize it truthfully. Stop treating the musicians as celebrities. They are, on the whole, a lot less mature than the little old ladies' Sunday School class at your church, even if they are "hot." Stop believing the hype. Don't turn younger Christians on to what amounts to spiritual junk food. It's time to do something about what is largely a runaway train.
Particularly, it is time to stop the silly debate over whether CCM is primarily for the church or is an evangelistic ministry outside the church. It's time to admit we need to repent from so much obsession with what amounts to entertainment, and to admit that we often are wasting a lot of money that could be used for frontier missions or ministries of mercy. There is not a Biblical mandate that states music is as important in Christian faith as contemporary American evangelicals have made it. CCM is not a great move of God as much as a great move of marketing and consumerism. Let's support artists who serve the church--not the industry or themselves--well. And let's find artists who are called to go into the culture with the Gospel and support them without needless carping. (More later about that.) Whatever we do, let's stop acting as if it is the role of the church to support the entertainment fixation of evangelical Christians.
If you buy CCM, consider buying from some of the really talented and gifted people who are totally ignored by the mainstream CCM industry, or from the indy labels that are trying to give artists a chance. Start with www.larrynorman.com, but for a view to just what is out there, try www.pastemusic.com, a music store than majors on artists who can't get into mainstream CCM because they are too talented or don't want in. Artists are using the internet like never before. It will cost an extra couple of bucks, but the Christian stores don't need the money and a starving artist does need it.
Read and consider for yourself ALL of Steve Camp's challenge to the CCM industry in his 107 Theses. Camp is a provocateur and he may not impress you with every point, but this is a man who knows the CCM world and is striving for Biblical reformation within that world. Every word he says is worth consideration.
Find out who is doing it the way Norman did and support those people. They are out there. I don't have any major personal problems with many of the big name artists in CCM. I know they are great people with a sincere desire to glorify God. But when I listen to what Larry Norman was doing, I realize it was something major with amazing potential, and it got away from us before we knew what happened. When you find artists who are making quality music, taking risks to speak to the culture, paying the price to play where others won't, and lifting up Jesus enough to get in trouble, give them your buck, go see their shows and send me their names. We need to lift these people up who are the true musical missionaries of this generation.
Speaking of music and missions, Rob Ray, former keyboardist with Christafari and BHT fellow, has made a great suggestion. Churches need to sponsor artists just like they do missionaries. Free up those artists from torturous financial concerns and marital stresses, and allow them to develop their gifts and ministries both in and out of the church. When I heard that suggestion, I thought of one major CCM artist who moved to a major church on the west coast, joined the staff, and became the "artist in residence." He headed up a ministry at the church that allowed him to use his gifts, and he continued to tour and record, with a much more effective accountability system. Ray's idea should be discussed. It appeals to me as an option for the church to respond to the increasing influence of CCM in a positive way, while reasserting the priority of the church in God's plan of ministry.
I love Larry Norman. Despite his Dispensational eschatology, personal failures, and eccentricities, I believe he was a true pioneer who set an ambitious course for an entire movement. I salute every artist who follows in the footsteps of a man who was willing to write lyrics like this:
Sipping whiskey from a paper cup,
You drown your sorrows till you can't get up,
Take a look at what you've done to yourself,
Why don't you put the bottle back on she shelf,
Yellow fingers from your cigarettes,
Your hands are shaking while your body sweats,
Why don't you look into Jesus, He's got the answer.
Gonorrhea on Valentines Day,
And you're still looking for the perfect lay,
You think rock and roll will set you free,
You'll be deaf before you're thirty three,
Shooting junk till you're half insane,
Broken needle in your purple vein,
Why don't you look into Jesus, he's got the answer.
...and then told the church that he was saying what they should have been saying to the young people of his generation who needed the Gospel. With his long hair and disarming humor, his music that echoed the Beatles, and his constant focus on the wonder of conversion, Larry Norman was the best possible beginning for CCM. It would be great to see the day return when an unbeliever running across the Christian radio station might hear that "Sweet, Sweet Song of Salvation," in music as bold, beautiful, and brave as Larry's.
I hope and pray that Larry sees a long life and many better days. You can support Larry by buying from the store at www.larrynorman.com or by making a donation to the medical trust at the same site. With multiple heart attacks, operations and problems, and insufficient insurance, Larry deserves the help of people he has blessed through the years.