For this week’s Music in Review issue, I chronicled the creation of Spring Jam Fest, a Christian rock concert conceived by a Jonathan Slye, 17-year-old from Northern Virginia. It takes place this weekend, and P.O.D. and Head (of Korn fame) are headlining.
For the uninitiated, Christian rock might be both strange and not exactly alluring, but it has a rich history. I probably couldn’t hold your attention long enough to go through it in painstaking detail, so here are a few highlights.
Arguably the most important CCM (that’s Contemporary Christian Music) pioneer, one of the so-called “Jesus People” of the ’60s, was Larry Norman. His folk rock seems about as tame as it gets to modern ears, but he caused a bit of a stir among evangelicals with his 1969 Capitol Records debut. The newfound combination of rock and gospel, albeit in the form of hippy love songs to Jesus, was deemed sinful by Jerry Falwell and other big names in the church, so you could call Norman an unlikely rebel of sorts.
Skip ahead a decade or so. Christian rock is starting to gain its own infrastructure, its own audience, and it’s becoming a viable career option. What it needs is a hit. Enter Stryper. 1983 rolls around, and these spandex-clad glam rockers are perhaps the first real Christian rock band to gain any significant mainstream attention. Go ahead, pump your fist to some anti-Satan metal.
Alright, we’re moving quickly here—-no need to sort out every Petra track or Keith Green jam; this is just an overview. The ’90s hit and glam rock is out. Rap is getting radio play and, more importantly, Nirvana is king. DC Talk, initially a straight-up awful hip-hop trio, takes Christian alt-rock to the next level. With “Jesus Freak,” the band manages a slicked-up grunge sound, drops a ridiculous rap verse, and popularizes a pseudo-rebellious term of self-identification that was quickly embraced by church youth groups everywhere. More importantly, when Mom wouldn’t let you listen to “Rape Me” or “Black Hole Sun,” you could at least turn up this jam.
While this boom in bigger Christian alternative bands was going on (these guys were selling out huge rooms), there was also the development of a fast-growing Christian DIY scene. Alongside the punk and hardcore house shows of the ’90s, there were similar Christian punk and hardcore shows happening in church basements. A lot of these bands were on Tooth & Nail Records, like MxPx, and were touring on the cheap, crashing on couches. This is the scene from which nu metal champs P.O.D. arose. The rap-rockers, who are headlining Spring Jam Fest on Saturday, toured their tails off before making it to the big leagues. While you may know their hits like “Alive” and “Boom,” they were rocking smaller crowds with heavier tracks like the culture-critiquing “Breathe Babylon” long before that. Lead singer Sonny Sandoval even pulls an Ian MacKaye in this clip, telling the crowd to chill out.
Finally, a clarification. In my Summer Music Guide story, I wrote:
Their publicity budget is marginal—a few church volunteers have sent out emails, but there’s no money for a media blitz. So Jonathan reached out to radio stations. “It’s either too Christian [for secular stations] or it’s too hard for Christian stations.” Jonathan says DC 101 declined to promote the event—even through paid advertisements—because its annual chili cook-off takes place the following weekend. Jonathan reached out to Christian station WGTS-FM: “‘Can I do a short interview, do a promo ad, give you tickets to give away, anything?’…They wouldn’t even put it on their community calendar.” Calls to both stations were not returned.
That was true as of press time, but it turns out Spring Jam Fest has now managed to get an advertisement on DC 101.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery