For the greater part of its history, there has been nothing quite as unhip as Christian rock — taking one’s own grandmother to spring break might come close, but otherwise it’s hard to imagine anything else as off-putting as contemporary Christian music (cCm) and its usually laughable combination of outdated musical styles and shallow, simplistic lyrics. The overwhelming majority of it has existed mainly to offer Christian youngsters a guilt- free alternative to the Devil’s music. If it wasn’t cool with God to enjoy those nasty boys in Mötley Crüe, well, there was always Stryper for a similar (but safer) thrill.
For the most part, secular music fans couldn’t have cared less, and cCm fans were quick to cry religious intolerance when it seemed to them their music was being slighted. (That, of course, ignores several thousand years of the Lord’s music, from Gregorian chants to bluegrass and gospel, all of which has been widely embraced beyond church walls). But where traditional music styles communicate spiritual concerns in ways that are universally powerful and moving — Mahalia Jackson or the Carter Family can bring atheists to tears — cCm speaks its own, exclusivist language. It’s meaningful to the initiated, but puzzling themes and jargon can be off-putting for the heathen masses. Plus, Christian music’s segregation from the mainstream was voluntary — it was marketed directly to the faithful through a network of Christian bookstores. It’s not hard to understand mainstream indifference: why would anyone go out of their way to seek out lousy music with lyrics they suspect are condemning them to Hell?
Pity, then, the poor artists who value artistic integrity and creative expression and found themselves trapped in such an unpromising milieu. They became a cult within a cult — part of a scene which for the most part reviled them for not fitting in, which itself was reviled by the world at large for generally sucking. But yet they persevered, and by the early-to-mid-’80s, such artists as the 77s, the Choir, Lifesavers, Mark Heard, Charlie Peacock, Adam Again and Leslie (Sam) Phillips had created bodies of work that deserved attention outside their original market. Despite lyrics more concerned with spiritual matters than most, the main thing separating them from such respected and openly Christian mainstreamers as U2, Bruce Cockburn, the Alarm, the Call, Maria McKee and T Bone Burnett was that the “Christian” musicians had the bad business sense to have signed with Christian labels. By the next generation of alternative Christian bands — MxPx, Sixpence None the Richer, Creed, Jars of Clay, Switchfoot and POD — found mainstream succes, while labels like Tooth & Nail had become accepted and respected by the music business at large, the elder statesmen of the movement had moved on, concentrating on production or day jobs in the music industry to pay the bills.
The ground zero of Christian alternative rock is Orange County’s Daniel Amos (band name courtesy of the Bible’s table of contents page). Nearly every underground Christian band was inspired by or in some way connected with them. Stubborn, eccentric, fearlessly (and sometimes foolishly) confrontational, openly Christian but more inclined to whack believers over the head than try to flatter or patronize them, DA have followed their own muse for three decades now, veering from thoughtful and serious to howlingly goofy with little or no warning. Starting out as a Poco-ish country rock band in the early ’70s Jesus rock realm, DA turned into the musical equivalent of Star Trek’s Borg: assimilating influences of every kind into a unique whole. Led by the brilliant and mercurial Terry Scott Taylor, DA have gleefully tossed the Beatles, the Byrds, Devo, Talking Heads, the Sex Pistols, XTC, Echo and the Bunnymen, both Elvises and Love (whose “7 and 7 Is” has long been a DA concert staple) into the blender with C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham, St. Augustine and William Blake, with dashes of Monty Python and Sheb Wooley thrown in for good measure.
The first two albums document DA’s country-rock phase and offer a little insight into mid-’70s California Christian culture. With airbrushed cover art, mellow- groovin’ music and Late, Great Planet Earth lyrics, Daniel Amos and Shotgun Angel are time capsules from the spiritual side of the Me Decade. Side two of Shotgun Angel is the first indication of DA’s future eclecticism, incorporating the Beatles and prog rock into the mix for a sidelong dramatization of the second coming of Christ and the end of the world. Imagine Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready” written and performed by the Eagles — horrific but fascinating. The opus was later repackaged with commentary by radio evangelist Chuck Smith and reissued as The Revelation.
DA delved further into rock on Horrendous Disc. The album contains few traces of country music beyond an Eagles harmony here or there. Guitarist Jerry Chamberlain’s fuzzed-out riff (which is remarkably similar to the Buzzcocks’ “Nothing Left,” but given the time frame this is probably coincidental) on the opener “I Love You #19” announced that Daniel Amos was paying attention to the emerging new wave movement. The album also contains two other songs considered among DA’s earliest classics: “Hound of Heaven” and “(Nearsighted Girl with Approaching) Tidal Wave.”
Due to the quirky nature and business theories of the Solid Rock label, Horrendous Disc sat unreleased for three years, and was actually beaten to the market by DA’s next album. Alarma! began the ambitious Alarma Chronicles series, DA’s state of the union for modern American Christianity. Strongly influenced by Devo, Talking Heads and White Music / Go 2-era XTC, Alarma took the church to task for being insular and self-satisfied while the world around it fell to pieces. The music is dark and danceable, a cross between Wall of Voodoo and The Teardrop Explodes, while Taylor’s lyrics are harsh in their attacks on complacency and indifference.
Doppelganger, the second chapter of The Alarma Chronicles, further examines contemporary spirituality, lampooning the extravagances of evangelicals and the rampant materialism of the American church. The third chapter, Vox Humana, takes on science and religion, examining where they intersect and how they both tend to let people down. Musically, the two albums push further into new wave and alternative rock and resemble contemporaneous work by Oingo Boingo, Wire, Shriekback and the Cure.
Taylor’s first solo album, Knowledge and Innocence, is a more somber affair than the anything- goes aesthetic of DA. A textured meditation on birth and death, it weds intricate arrangements to introspective lyrics with impressive results. The follow-up, A Briefing for the Ascent, delves further into the topic of death and was composed as his grandmother lay dying. The music has an epic Phil Spector sweep, matching the grand themes of faith, fear and loss. There’s a first-rate cover of the Beatles’ “Long, Long, Long” (George Harrison’s spiritualism has always resonated strongly with the alt- Christian musicians.) Ascent is a powerful album: honest, painful but hopeful.
Fearful Symmetry, which concludes The Alarma Chronicles on a strong but down note, was released around the same time as Ascent and shares its solemn tone. The lyrics of sin and loss shade hope with despair and resignation. Despite DA’s offbeat wit and oddball touches, the overarching feel is dark. Songs which might have sounded goofy on other albums turn deadly serious here, from the Ultravox-does-a-Mexican-hat-dance “Neverland Ballroom” to the Chinese-disco-with-English-heraldic-horns of “Strong Points, Weak Points.” Daniel Amos set out to take the measure of American Christianity and wasn’t pleased with a culture more concerned with acquisition and political power than with compassion and forgiveness. Fearful Symmetry is DA’s best album, ending the era of the band’s most ambitious explorations.
The Alarma Chronicles were later gathered and released as a three-disc set with a commemorative book. It’s a nice set with some annoying oversights: when dividing four albums onto three discs, it would have been sensible to list the tracks as they appear on the discs rather than on the original albums.
DA began its next era with Darn Floor, Big Bite, an album that is very close to Fearful Symmetry‘s equal. Named after Koko the gorilla’s sign language description of an earthquake, the album deals with humanity’s inability to fully comprehend or communicate the ideas of life, the universe and everything. The tone is much lighter than previous releases, like sunrise after a long and dark night. Taylor’s songwriting is in top form, skewering televangelists (a favorite topic) on “Return of the Beat Menace.” DA’s most accessible album.
In 1988, DA morphed into a sideband, the Swirling Eddies. Adopting jokey pseudonyms and giving longtime drummer/art director Ed MacTaggert a vacation (the subject of the supremely silly hula-dancing “Ed Takes a Vacation”), they made Let’s Spin, an album that skews completely to the humorous side of DA’s music. It’s fun but lightweight. Taylor’s humor can be brilliant, but a little goes a long way. The second Swirling Eddies album, Outdoor Elvis, is much better. Joined by Adam Again’s Gene Eugene (here referred to as Prickly Disco), the Eddies tackle belief systems of every type and find large reserves of hypocrisy and lunacy in all of them, from Christian universities to the emerging cult of Elvis. Balancing nuttiness with well-aimed potshots, it’s an extremely pissed-off album disguised as a good-time party disc.
Daniel Amos returned with Kalhoun. Released in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, it casts a skeptical eye towards American imperialism and the attendant “God on our side” mentality. The music is straightforward, stripping off many of the new wave elements the band had accumulated through the ’80s. If previous albums sometimes sounded like Split Enz, this leans more towards Crowded House. Though the lyrics never mention him by name, they have a clear undercurrent of distrust of George H.W. Bush. Unquestioning group think is targeted in “Big, Warm, Sweet Interior Glowing,” as Taylor warns of following anyone just because they’ve wrapped themselves in God and the flag, while “Father Explains” is an attempt to explain war to his child.
The anti-Bush sentiment is made explicit on the Lost Dogs’ debut, Scenic Routes. A songwriters’ collective of Taylor, Gene Eugene, the 77s’ Mike Roe and the Choir’s Derri Daugherty, the Lost Dogs were something of an alt-Christian Traveling Wilburys. For the most part, the album is good-natured folk-rock, but on “Bush League,” Taylor and Eugene take aim at Bush I as directly as Eddie Vedder would at Bush II a decade later. How this song ever snuck into Christian bookstores is anyone’s guess. It can’t have earned them many friends, but all four Dogs by this point had pretty accepted their status as the fringiest of fringe artists. The second Lost Dogs album, Little Red Riding Hood, gained a bit of notoriety for Roe’s Beach Boys pastiche, “Jesus Loves You, Brian Wilson,” an odd little number urging the troubled genius to get born again.
Back in DA land, Motor Cycle takes a psychedelic journey through an imaginary landscape. Reference points would be XTC’s Skylarking, the Left Banke and Pet Sounds. On several cuts, the kitchen sink approach to pop psychedelia anticipates the Elephant 6 bands by several years (“Traps, Ensnares” sounds especially like Neutral Milk Hotel). In contrast to Motor Cycle‘s ornate arrangements, Bibleland strips things way back. Taylor, Chamberlain and Greg Flesch kick up a snarling three-guitar attack, making it the hardest rocking DA album since Horrendous Disc and the closest the band has ever come to straight-ahead punk. The thematic concept revisits many of the concerns of The Alarma Chronicles, again harshly criticizing the commodification of religion. In a sign of how on-target the satire can be, an actual amusement park bearing a strong resemblance to the imaginary one described in the title track opened in Florida several years after the release of Bibleland.
The next Swirling Eddies release, Zoom Daddy, started as a game. Eugene and bassist Tim Chandler would suggest the most outlandish song titles they could think of, leaving it to Taylor to write the songs, resulting in such tunes as “I Had a Bad Experience With the CIA, and Now I’m Going to Show You My Feminine Side” and “God Goes Bowling.” It’s all predictably daffy, but Taylor manages to shoehorn more emotion and insight into the mix than one would think possible, turning “Art Carney’s Dream” into a moving rumination on unworthiness and failure.
Taylor took a similar approach on the next DA album. Coming across a thrift store album entitled Songs of the Heart, Taylor built a song cycle based on the imagined lives of the 1950s couple pictured on the cover. Beginning with a rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” Songs of the Heart (Taylor lifted both the title and artwork for his release) traces the relationship of Bud and Irma Akendorf from courtship through Bud’s death, with an odd pitstop along the way (“Donna Nietche and Her Super Race of Kick Boxing Uber Parrots”). Taylor speak-sings several cuts a la Stan Ridgway, an artist his work has often echoed. An expanded version of Songs of the Heart was later issued as When Everyone Wore Hats.
Sacred Cows is an album of irreverent covers of cCm standards. Amy Grant’s “Baby Baby” is the only song here that would be familiar to most people; the rest are from the bland sorts of acts reviled by Christian hipsters. On Sacred Cows, the Swirling Eddies shoot fish in a barrel for the amusement of a very limited audience.
Daniel Amos took a back seat for the next several years, as Taylor concentrated on resurrecting his solo career and doing time in the Lost Dogs. Green Room Serenade is rockier than any of the Dogs’ earlier releases, distinguished by a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will.” The band’s next album, Gift Horse, returned to the mellower folk and country rock of Scenic Routes. As always, all four Dogs bring their own songwriting to the mix.
Taylor’s career took another turn in the mid-’90s as he began composing music for video games. Asked to create the soundtrack for Neverhood, a game featuring clay characters, he delivered an absurdly wild opus based on the music he imagined would be created by creatures made of modeling clay. It’s not too far removed from the Residents’ explorations of the music of imagined societies, though nowhere near as unsettling. The follow-up, Imaginarium, contains that flatulent adolescent doggerel classic, “Beans, Beans, the Musical Fruit.”
John Wayne, the next proper Taylor solo album, has little in common with his ’80s releases. Where those were deeply personal and introspective, this is close to a typical Daniel Amos album. Employing a wide variety of styles, Taylor takes a tour of his Southern California cradle, viewing it through the prisms of John Wayne (the actor) and John Wayne (the OC airport).
Real Men Cry, the first Lost Dogs disc following Gene Eugene’s sudden death in 2000, reflects on that loss with “Three Legged Dog.” Unlike earlier Dogs discs, Taylor did all the songwriting on Real Men Cry (save for Roe’s “Lovely Man”). Continuing the rootsy sound of Gift Horse, it’s similar to Tom Petty or John Mellencamp. Taylor’s next solo disc, Avocado Faultline, follows in the same vein, and is a lovely, introspective work.
DA returned in 2001 with the sprawling Mr. Buechner’s Dream, a lush and musically diverse double album. Drawing inspiration from theologian Frederick Buechner, Taylor and company craft a work that draws on all their usual sources (Beatles, Beach Boys, Clash and new wavers like Tears for Fears) and finds them in stylistic command throughout. Along with Fearful Symmetry and Darn Floor, Big Bite, one of DA’s best.
Nazarene Crying Towel establishes Taylor once and for all as the chief songwriter for the Lost Dogs. Roe contributes one solo composition, one collaboration with Daugherty and several with Taylor. More than ever, the Lost Dogs have become a vehicle for Taylor to revisit his long abandoned country-rock roots. Echoing the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco, Nazarene Crying Towel drops Taylor back in the neighborhood the first two Daniel Amos albums occupied three decades earlier.
On Mutt, Taylor, Roe and Daugherty bring songs from their own bands to the Lost Dogs. The concept is not too far removed from the self-covering approach of Sparks’ Plagiarism. Roe’s Byrds homage, “The Lust, the Flesh, the Eyes and the Pride of Life,” is one of the standouts of his 77s catalog and is the best song here.
The Reverend Edward Daniel Taylor disc is a compilation of tracks from DA, the Swirling Eddies and Taylor’s ’80s solo work. Our Personal Favorite World Famous Hits is a DA collection; The Beary Vest compiles the Swirling Eddies; and Glimpses of Grace gathers up Taylor’s solo efforts. When Worlds Collide is a tribute album featuring such DA admirers as Starflyer 59, Poole and Big Takeover columnist Jeff Elbel.