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The Rockologist: Rock And Roll And Religion

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Rock music and religion have always made for the strangest of bedfellows, yet the two of them are inextricably linked — both historically and, as odd as it may seem, even artistically.

Despite being often referred to as the "devil's music" by some of the more fringe elements of the Christian Right for example, rock and roll has a rather long and storied tradition of having roots in the church. It's fairly common knowledge, for example, that early rock and roll pioneers like Elvis were as influenced by what they heard in southern churches as they were by the "race records" they heard on the radio.

Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart were cousins, for Chrissakes (and my apologies to the Almighty there).

The tradition goes even deeper when you get into the history of rhythm and blues, though. From Aretha Franklin to Marvin Gaye, you can pretty much pick any random R&B singer who came up in the fifties and sixties, and you won't find a background in gospel music too far behind. In many cases, you will also find that these same artists have spent lifetimes waging their own personal battles between the desires of the flesh and the joys of the spirit.

Marvin Gaye, for example, may have famously died for it at the hands of his preacher father. The Reverend Al Green is another example of an artist who has spent the latter part of his career walking a tightrope between his gospel recordings, and the more earthly come-ons of his sexier R&B records.

Little Richard may be the most famous example of a rock and roller fighting this inner-battle, though. He has famously denounced the rock and roll lifestyle several times, citing how Jesus saved him from homosexuality. Yet, he has always drifted back to playing the likes of "Tutti Frutti" and to singing about how that Miss Molly sure likes to ball in concert on the oldies circuit. From what I hear, though, Little Richard hands out Bibles at his concerts these days.

Not that the influence of religion on rock is limited to Christianity though. In the sixties and seventies especially, rock artists looked for higher inspiration in any number of places. Cat Stevens went back and forth on this for several years, before finally dropping out of sight altogether to reinvent himself as devout Muslim Yusuf Islam. He has only just recently come back to getting his feet wet again playing music.

Others sought out Eastern gurus and sages. Transcendental meditation as taught by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was particularly big for awhile, briefly claiming converts like the Beatles and the Beach Boys in the sixties. For awhile there, in fact, it seemed every dimestore Eastern guru had his own personal rock and roll spokesperson. Sri Chimnoy had Santana, Meher Baba had Townshend, and so forth.

But perhaps the most famous rock to religion conversion of all time occurred when Bob Dylan released the album Slow Train Coming in 1979. For the few years after Dylan first stunned his fans by boldly and publicly embracing Jesus on that album, Dylan released two more Christian-themed albums (Saved and Shot Of Love), and further confounded fans by refusing to play his old material at his concerts — which by this time more closely resembled tent revival meetings.

In fairness to Dylan, I always felt he got a bit of a raw shake during his "born again" years. The albums themselves hold up pretty well (with the possible exception of Saved). And although they are largely somewhat uneven, they also produced some of his better work in songs like "Gotta Serve Somebody" and "Every Grain Of Sand."

And as far as some of the more pointed, or even preachy lyrics he got dissed by critics for back then? Well, I guess it all depends on your point of view. But for me, it was never that big of a stretch between "something's happening here and you don't what it is…do you, Mr. Jones" and asking the non-believers "when you gonna' wake up?" on Slow Train. Again, the message may have changed, but the delivery certainly did not.

Dylan is of course not the only famous rock and roll Christian. Bono's been one for years, although these days he lets his faith speak more through his altruistic efforts on world hunger and the like than he does though his lyrics. The only advice I'd offer Bono in that department is maybe to remember who the Christian messiah actually is (hint: it aint you).

Likewise, Alice Cooper converted not too long ago. The thing I love about Alice's story is that here is a guy who has basically been to Hell and back — surviving a booze habit that damn near killed him. And he is still out there doing the same shock-rock act that made him famous in the first place. It's just a bit more PG these days. The late, great Johnny Cash — God rest his soul — is another guy I respect a lot that way.

Of course, there are also the inevitable examples where the connection of rock and religion has both been exploited, or otherwise taken to extremes and bordering on the ridiculous. Can you say Stryper anyone? For those not old enough to remember, they were an eighties glam-metal band — complete with every Spinal Tap stereotype of teased hair and tight spandex pants you could possibly imagine — who just happened to be banging their heads for Jesus. I wonder what their groupies were like?

I've also always had problems with the whole "Contemporary Christian Music (CCM)" thing. Not because Christians shouldn't be allowed to rock the same way the heathens do. But because it's a multi-million dollar industry built largely on the guilt of good Christian kids who'd much rather be listening to secular bands, but can't because their parents won't allow them to. Something about that whole "devil's music" thing again.

Some of these artists are in fact quite talented, but many more of them are simply paler versions of their secular counterparts, often lacking the production values of the same. It sort of goes back to that old saying, "Why should the devil have all the good music?"

Well, quite frankly because he doesn't and he never has.

In fact, if one does his due-diligence and researches the whole notion of where the whole idea that rock is the devil's music comes from, you always arrive at exactly the same place. That would be those same segregated southern churches whose biggest fear about rock music wasn't the devil at all, but rather its origins in rhythm and blues and so-called race music. Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Slayer, and Marilyn Manson notwithstanding, the darker roots of rock and roll are more about color than about some imagined allegiance to a horn-rimmed, cloven-hoofed god. Sadly, this same attitude still exists in some of the more sequestered corners of the fundamentalist Christian fringe.

The thing is, when rock and roll is really doing its job the way that it's supposed to, there shouldn't be a whole lot of difference between a concert and a revival meeting. The greatest performers — like Bono and Bruce Springsteen — have always understood this.

Whether the connection being made is to your inner-spirit or to a higher power, it's all about making that joyous noise. Bottom line.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • TheJacob

    If you are here then you have an interest in how rock and roll and religion are tied together, and tied together they are! I have spent a great deal of time proving that to be the case. It is at thegoodguise at wordpress. I think you might find it to be a great read, but beware, many profound concepts are presented so be patient and read it all – when the light comes on you will view the entire world, including your very life and the reason you are here, in a different light.

  • tink

    Going over some old writing of mine and came across these comments and saw your final response…not sure how I missed it back then. But…

    Yes, bare feet and clothes that looked like they could be pjs? LOL, I was probably rolling in from the night before and changing from clubwear to jams was my concession to working day and night at a label/with bands and differentiating between the two although they were really one and the same.

    In other words, yep…that was probably me.

  • Thanks for the comment Tink. Ya’ wanna hear something weird? Its possible we have met back then. Did you used to work in bare feet and (sorry if this sounds weird) something that looked like pajamas at Enigma’s office? If so, we have met when a former pal of mine was shopping a compliation of Seattle metal bands down in L.A.

    Was that you?


  • A behind-the-scenes FYI regarding Stryper. I was the Director of Artist Development and worked with the band on their secular Enigma Records label. We constantly battled both sides of the coin when promoting the band and their music.

    That dicotomy came not just from the press but from fans as well. Christian purists felt the band could not serve God and rock at the same time. Rockers thought it wasn’t RnR, or more pointedly heavy metal/hard rock, if the lyrics glorified Christian beliefs. It seemed like no matter which way they turned it caused controversy. There was even a point in time when those of us working closely with Stryper from the Enigma end of things were drawn into the mix as the purveyors and hand puppets of the devil.

    To the band’s credit, at no time during our times together, back then or today, did they ever make any of us feel like we were detrimental to their cause nor did they try to convert us to their path. As they were then and are now to this day, they’ve proved they can rock while being true to their beliefs.

    Great job, Glen!

  • You pretty much nailed it there JC. The whole point I was trying to make is that while there are notable exceptions like Keaggy, who is a very talented guitarist, a lot of CCM often serves as a watered down substitute for its secular counterpart. There is a very large, mostly very young part of CCM’s demographic who are Christians that just want to rock, but have been told by both their parental and spiritual elders that it’s not really okay to do so. In that respect, CCM is an industry which profits from their guilt.

    I mean I hear there are even Christian death metal bands out there nowadays. And if that isn’t a contradiction in terms, I simply don’t know what is.

    I also agree with what Jennifer says though. If CCM serves as an aid to how some people express their praise, then it certainly has served a worthwhile purpose.

    I just have a little bit of a problem with some of the more crass and cynical ways some (not all) CCM is marketed.


  • JC Mosquito

    First things first: good article, Glen, but I suspect you know it only scratches the surface. The best rock is the same as the best religion: it provides a positive, spritual, life changing experience. “Won’t Gett Fooled Again” as a world view? You betcha.

    And second – though I mean no insult to them overall, I am sure there are many CCM fans who find something comforting or profound in the work of their fave artists, amnd some great artists as well (Phil Keaggy comes to mind as a great artist) the majority just simply aren’t as good as their rock counterparts – it’s like calling Ken G a jazz saxophonist and expecting he’s going to sound like John Coltrane.

    And there’s an open can o’ worms for y’all. Like the old saying goes from back in the day – pax vobiscum, baby.

  • Great read Glen, thanks for sharing your thoughts. In truth, many who enjoy CCM do so not as a tamed down version of secular tunes, but in praise and worship to their creator and saviour.

    There’s not much that brings me closer to the throne of grace than listening to songs that both exalt the name of Jesus while accompanied with singable tunes and punchy rhythms.

    Plenty of adults out there who just want to praise God through song and need a bit of assistance via CD :).