In an ongoing series, Dw. Dunphy takes an occasional look back at Christian contemporary music (CCM) of the past and makes the case for a new audience to rediscover the best of it as great, lost pop music …
My first reaction to Prodigal was the reaction a band wants their audience to have: “This rocks!” As a positive exclamation, the term has been overused to the point of meaninglessness, but it meant a lot in the 1980s, and a lot more when applied to the CCM sub-genre. “Rocking” was usually just a description that meant the songs had guitars, the guitars had amplifiers and, occasionally, the lead singer would shout “Yeeeaaahhh!” like he was really into it. Between the first downstroke and the shout, however, things didn’t sound very different than your parents’ church music. If I’m not making this clear, imagine your grandfather in a tracksuit and many shiny gold chains, attempting to rap. Either you’re laughing or you’re mortified.
That first experience, coming from the band’s second album Electric Eye (1984), was immediately visual. The cover of an almost sepia-tone living room wall, a TV beneath a window with a lightning bolt outside. The reality of the bolt is bland and colorless. Meanwhile, on the television screen is the same bolt, radiating color and energy. Much discussion could be had on the meaning behind the image, but the first impression was screaming “legitimacy,” something other records on those racks, well-intentioned though they were, lacked entirely. Then the needle hit the record and the sound of emergency sirens crossing the left to right channels, followed fast by a shockingly satisfying guitar chord crunch, filled the listener with the sense that, yes, this was not for your parents. This was for you and it was for real.
And while in the back half of the 21st century’s first decade modern ears will pick up those touchstones of ’80s rock, we were grateful at that moment for something so modern. I was listening to arena rock at that time, featuring healthy portions of bands like Foreigner, The Cars, even Journey, and found Electric Eye able to fit in very nicely to that ethic. The lyrics were realistic to my understanding, not condescending or, worse, the kind of God-talk that plagued the, again, well-intentioned. A song like “Fast Forward” wasn’t someone saying, “You are a workaholic! I have a better way!” It was, “I am a workaholic, and how did I get this way?” You know, like normal music. And that was what I found so brilliant about Prodigal: it was normal music with a different worldview.
The debut, eponymously titled album (from 1982) featured a twist on M.C. Escher’s famous “Relativity” artwork, veered from the Eagles-like “Fire With Fire” to the manic piano workout of “I Don’t Know Who You Are” to the no-nonsense “Sleepwalker.” Their last album, Just Like Real Life (1985), had a heavier synthesizer sound but also had subjects like pop-culture messiahs (“Next Big Thing”), the yearning for hope in the most hopeless places (“Under The Gun”), the dehumanization and depersonalization of technology (“Future Now” and “Answering Machine“), and it was steadfastly done through the eyes of the subject, not through the eyes of some good-hearted best friend who wanted to shove you onto a better path but, quite often, sounded patronizing and out of touch with the reality of, well, reality.
Some bullet-points involving the band: Prodigal was the first CCM band to win a Dove Award for Best Music Video and were nominated four times in three years for Best Video. They won Album of the Year in 1982 from Group magazine for their first album. It tied with Amy Grant’s Age to Age and Petra’s More Power To Ya. CCM and Campus Life both gave Electric Eye Top Ten Albums of the Year in 1984. And then, that was it. The band was gone. For years I had no idea why, and I had less idea why those who used the standard, clunky methods were not just surviving but garnering praise for doing so. As a guy who believed in the things Loyd Boldman, Dave Workman, Mike Wilson and Rick Fields were singing in their songs, and as a fan of music itself regardless of what school of thought it came from, I missed not having that next release coming in the future. I also felt that Prodigal was one of those bands that could have made it out to that wider audience had both the Christian music field and the pop music field not been so set in their ways.
It is, then, kind of ironic that technology has allowed me a chance to bring a little closure to the Prodigal story. Thanks to the miracle of the internet (it’s not just for porn anymore, kids), I actually contacted Loyd Boldman to get his take on the Prodigal years and what’s gone on since. He was gracious enough to give us a mini-interview.
What brought about the formation of Prodigal, the band?
An ad in a music store window. I put up a flyer asking for anyone who liked Larry Norman and Andrae Crouch to give me a call. Rick Fields (guitarist) responded, and we talked for three hours like old buddies. We got along so well, I actually asked him to join the band before I ever met him face-to-face or heard him play.
I was always impressed by the group. Lyrically the group was different because of the viewpoint. At the time, CCM was dominated by a lyric style that said, essentially, “Everything is insane and crazy. I’m way over here and you should be over here too.” Prodigal seemed to come from the idea that “Everything is insane and crazy and I’m in the middle of it.” Then the listener sussed out what that meant to them. It was still subjective, but sympathetic … Was this an intentional aim or just the way everyone wrote?
Entirely intentional. I love your characterization. We always felt that a lot of people were left out of the conversation when it came to spiritual things largely because of the terminology. What does a phrase like “washed in the blood” mean to someone who’s never set foot in church? I always tried to find a common denominator to which anyone could relate â€” loneliness, joy, struggles, triumphs â€” and use it to open a door by shared experiences. The thing that may have thrown people about Prodigal was the fact that we weren’t worship music. We were telling stories, hoping to open people up to a world view that was different from theirs.
Musically, the band was ahead of the curve as well. The norm of the time seemed to be that the function superseded the form, but both the musicianship and the production outpaced the standard at that period. There are definite exceptions, but a lot of the bands were hardly adventurous rock-players…
One thing about Prodigal â€” if I may be so bold â€” is that we were all fearless experimenters, and loved to smash musical styles together. A Billboard review of our first album called us a mix of Steely Dan, The Eagles and The Who â€” imagine that â€”and then added “…but Prodigal is on their own original turf.”
What was it like being at that place at that time? There was little doubt that the band came from a Christian worldview, but lyrics were always aware of the “outside world”, and if you took a magnifying glass to the cover of Electric Eye, you got a whole lot of information through. Was that a difficult balance to strike?
The main balance we were looking for was almost an “anti-balance” â€” we tried to be the same to Christian audiences as we were to everyone else. Even though a lot of people liked us, and we often got good reviews in the press, we got much more trouble from the Christian side. When our first album was released, a CCM reader called our album cover “satanic” because of a small image of a snake in one corner. Charisma magazine essentially called us “sell-outs” and never really understood what we were doing.
We learned our chops playing for seven years before releasing an album, holding down day jobs, playing every park, prison, detention center, abandoned lot, school gym, and street corner we could find. Most bands today don’t last seven years, total. We started recording, did one album that convinced us we didn’t know what we were doing, tried to do another on our own, then went looking for a label. After the first Heartland album, we were full-time musicians for another five years.
It’s hard to imagine the situation now, but the easiest thing for us was making the music. It was the business that was murder. Picture the mid-seventies, when we started. Southern Gospel â€” vocal quartets â€” and Urban (Black) Gospel dominated what little radio play there was for music. Larry Norman and Andrae Crouch were around, but we seldom heard them. Most of it was preacher-oriented talk radio. This sounds like a joke, but when I started writing music with a Christian direction, I honestly thought I invented the genre â€” I had never heard anything like it before. One night I accidentally heard the syndicated Scott Ross Show on the car radio playing Barry McGuire’s “Last Daze Waltz” and I literally pulled over to the side of the road in shock. The music was out there, but struggling to be heard.
By the early 1980s Prodigal had different songs hitting big in different markets (“Invisible Man” in Chicago; “Fire With Fire” in New York), but no one was tracking that kind of thing nationally. Two different magazines started up to be a “Christian music Billboard magazine” but both went up in smoke within a few issues. We eventually had four songs in the CCM “Top Ten,” including “Scene of the Crime” at Number One, but that was years later. But what the world at large knew of “Christian music” amounted to Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life.”
Concert promoters were mostly well-meaning amateurs, and often didn’t know what it took to put on a successful concert. Besides the growing number of hard-core fans, to most people we still had to constantly justify ourselves â€” why in the world would a Christian want to play rock music? We rarely played churches, mostly colleges and festivals. When we played in real rock clubs like the Rainbow in Denver or Bogart’s in Cincinnati, we got enormous amounts of flack for venturing into “heathen” territory. Go figure.
Another “nail” in our musical coffin (at least as far as non-fans went) was that we deliberately didn’t load our songs with “Christian code-words” like “hallelujah” every other verse.
There was also an unspoken rule of not going too dark, if I recall. A lot of bands were getting ostracized for presenting harsh realities. This brings to mind the lyric in “Under The Gun”: “Back in Dachau, living skeletons in cells, Dante would recognize every room in here, an exclusive, private hell…” Did the band receive flack for that?
Not specifically for “Under the Gun” as I recall, but we got plenty of the usual criticism for being “too Christian” for pop stations and “too pop” for Christians. I guess by the third album, our audience had our attitude figured out. It was only a year or so ago that someone pointed out to me the “prophetic” pre-9/11 lyrics of our 1985 song, “Future Now”:
Heat of passion
Bursts in flames out in the street
Cold glass towers
Turn to dust beneath my feet
Of the three albums, which holds up best for you over time? Which was the easiest / most difficult to make?
They’re all your babies, you know? Personally, I like Electric Eye, our second album, the best. The other band members might have different choices, but I think Electric Eye was a total picture of the time. We were experimenting with sound effects, recording styles, and video, and the whole thing felt fresh. To me it felt the easiest to make as well. We recorded the entire album with a mobile recording unit in an old vacant Catholic Girl’s School, and moved from room to room until we found the right sound for each song. some of out best vocals were done in a stairwell. You can see some of the school in the video for Dave Workman’s song, “Boxes.”
The first album (Prodigal) feels stiff to me in hindsight, although there’s a lot about it I like. We were learning our craft, and our producer was, too. There’s at least one song on the first album, called “Sidewinder”, that was a blockbuster on stage but comes off much wimpier on disc. Our third album, Just Like Real Life, was technically the tightest and most experimental. It was also the most difficult due to a last-minute change in producer and tension with the record company. I like what came out, though. It’s a close second in my book.
On Electric Eye, we put a “stop-groove” at the end of Side Two that would “catch” the vinyl record and wouldn’t allow it to eject on an automatic turntable. If you picked up the needle and set it down again on the other side of the stop-groove, you’d hear a packet of computer code that could be deciphered by a Commodore 64, the most popular computer of that time. If you used a cassette drive, the Commodore would show you lyrics and graphics and some facts about the album. To my knowledge, this is the first and only time something like this was ever done.
Heartland Records (the label the band was on) made a game out of it and encouraged people to look for a “hidden message.” A guy in New Orleans figured it out and they gave him a brand-new computer for his troubles.
One of the albums that hit me right this year was the Vampire Weekend debut. Then, on a re-listen to Electric Eye, I caught the hint of afro-cuban influence (on “Shout It Out”). I’m guessing someone among the band had experience with Fela Kuti?
I love Fela Kuti, Salif Keita, Papa Wemba, Ali Farka TourÃ©, Nusrat Fata Ali Khan, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Astor Piazzolla, Cheb Khaled, Peter Gabriel, and a whole stable of “world music” artists. We were actually heading in a direction that incorporated more of that when we stopped performing in 1986.
Why did the band break up?
The funny thing is, we never “officially” broke up. Around 1986 we hit a Perfect Storm of influences that (in my humble opinion) encouraged us to stop. One, our record company decided to close its doors (even though we were doing fine), but wouldn’t let us out of our contract, which would have hung us up for two years. Two, our manager decided to move to the West Coast, and overestimated his ability to manage us from long distance. And three, two members of the band had their first children right around the same time, encouraging them to stay home, which was good for their families.
I didn’t know that, after the end of Prodigal, you released a solo album…
It was called Sleep Without Dreams and was released on the tiny Outbound label in 1989. It mostly contained songs that I wasn’t sure fit with Prodigal, mostly folksier, acoustic guitar-based stuff. The lyric approach was the same but the production was much looser and with a lot more wooden instruments. Even though it made money, it was never released on CD, either.
What’s Devotion Media all about?
I was part of a team that created two design studios in the 1990s, Silent Planet, which eventually became Devotion Media. We create video, web, and print design projects for ministry, business, and entertainment. I do mostly conceptual work, writing, graphic design and video direction.
What are you up to now? And what about the other band members (do you stay in contact with them)?
Currently I’m working on a novel and a non-fiction book about the effect the media has on Christian culture (based on a class I’ve taught on that subject). I’m also a member of the worship band at Northland, a mega-whopper church in Central Florida.
I’m more in contact with Rick (Fields, guitar) than Mike and Dave right now, and I talk to him regularly. Dave (Workman, drums, guitar) is the pastor of a large church in Cincinnati, so he doesn’t have much time to spare, and Mike leads worship at his church. I wish I could see them more than I do. They still live in the Cincinnati area, and I’m down here in Florida. We’re all still in ministry after all these years, so that must say something.
When I mentioned to someone that I was going to be speaking with you, he asked me to bring up Pig Iron. I had no idea what he was on about and he explained it was an online interactive novella you were experimenting with (and is still online.) What is the story behind Pig Iron and is there any intention to revisit/update it?
Pig Iron was an early attempt to do a non-linear narrative back when the web was in its infancy. It stopped when one of the design firms in which I was a partner merged with a larger company. I keep the site up for sentimental reasons, and work on the story off-line. A lot of the things predicted in Pig Iron have actually come to pass, technologically speaking, so it’s tricky to keep the story ahead of reality. I’ve worked on a way to present it in print form, but it would take an adventurous publisher to do it the way I envision.
All the Prodigal albums have been out of print since their initial release and none of the albums have ever been released on CD. What is your take on that?
Up to now that’s been largely because the record company owned the masters, and since the company was defunct, no one made any effort to do anything with them. I actually have the masters now, through the graciousness of the owner of the old company, and once a couple of legal things are tied up, we may yet see Prodigal in some kind of digital form.
Where does art concern you, either in Christian context or in the greater context of communication, and are new artists using the mediums to best advantage or (as I sometimes believe) have things not really changed all that much?
“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?” I’ve always been concerned at the lack of attention the arts have been given in most churches, but that seems to be changing for the better. People tend to ignore the overwhelming role the arts took in the Bible. Poetry, parable, dance, songwriting, visual art, real depth in human emotion â€” it’s all there. Not to mention the implicit theatricality of many Bible stories (in a good way).
I knew things were heading a weird direction back in the early eighties when the questions after concerts changed from “How can I get into a ministry?” to “How can I get a record deal?” Here’s what changed, in a nutshell: Christian music began to make money. When we started in 1974, you had to do it as a labor of love, because their certainly were easier ways of making a buck. There were no CCM record charts, Not to mention the huge amount of flack a lot of Christian bands received about playing rock music at all. “Drums come from voodoo,” and all of that nonsense.
There is great music coming from Christians these days as well as a lot of terrible musicâ€”about the same good-to-bad ratio as any other kind of music. All you can do is follow Jesus, keep your eyes, ears, heart and mind open, and let Him guide your steps.
Prodigal – Neon
Next week, I’m gonna … Well, I’m not sure what I’m gonna do next week! Perhaps a column about indecision? Nah. But I promise you, whatever it is, it will be worth your while. Y’all come back now, y’hear?