After suffering many years with major ailments, Larry Norman died on Sunday. As a member of People in the late ’60s, he introduced the world to the concept of Christian rock under the guise of the band’s psych and prog rock. On his seminal solo release, Only Visiting This Planet (1972), he presented a song whose title became his career-long motto: “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?”
Norman started the Solid Rock Record Company as an old-fashioned collective: a record label, a management company, a production service, and in many ways a ministry. He helped put out albums by artists such as Randy Stonehill and the band Daniel Amos, but not without some controversy Á¢€” like so many of his contemporaries, Norman was at odds with both the church and the secular music world.
The mainstream market often rejected Solid Rock’s artists for being too biblical, causing their albums to be sold mainly in the burgeoning Christian bookstore market. However, because a lot of the music was evangelical in nature, the same artists were assailed for “preaching to the converted,” and worse, because the music was rooted in rock and blues, many churches rejected all of it outright as being “satanically deceptive, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Norman’s own dealings as label president were difficult, as he fell into a practice of rereleasing revised material in order to keep Solid Rock’s back catalog marketable over time. A single album title could spawn dozens of versions of itself, each one having its own positive and negative attributes, forcing fans to essentially repurchase the “same” album every couple of years. It’s a practice that kept Solid Rock and Phydeaux, Norman’s boutique vault label, alive long after the markets shifted away.
Norman is recognized as the grandfather of a form of music that has been shown massive public acceptance over the years: Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, MxPx, P.O.D., Newsboys, Sixpence None the Richer, and others have reaped the benefits of his work and hard times. In the end, he will be remembered as a pioneer who did his best to bridge two separate worldviews and, in the truest evangelical sense, preach the gospel to all who would hear. Through his efforts, he managed to do just that.
To find out more about Larry Norman, go to larrynorman.com. A retrospective of his work is slated to be released by Arena Rock Recording Company this spring; you can find out more at arenarockrecordingco.com.
Starting in the ’70s, Christian rock was legit. As legit as, say, the folk movement. (In the ’80s it petered out and devolved into praise Muzak, an acquired taste that I have yet to acquire, but I wish no ill on the genre or its fans.) Sure, there were lesser talents here and annoying cash-ins there Á¢€” Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad doesn’t reference his Christian-rock phase on his website anymore, and not a lot of Dylan fans acknowledge his very real Christian period Á¢€” but for the most part, if a band made a decent record and was pulling hundreds of people at local coffeehouses or high school basketball gyms, they could rock out with the best of their secular counterparts.
Larry Norman got the whole scene started. But the major labels didn’t get how he wanted to rock out for Jesus, so they turned him down. Even the religious establishment at the time didn’t want no hippie-looking greaseball guitar player in their midst. So, like all inventive American religious outsiders, he started his own movement. And like those long chapters in Genesis that map out who begat whom, and who lived to be 969 years old, you could make a similar musical family tree of some good-rocking bands for whom Larry Norman blazed a trail.
Christian rawwwwk groups like Petra, Servant, and Resurrection Band (Rez Band, for short) toured relentlessly back then. After 100 fans perished in flames at a Great White club show in West Warwick, Rhode Island, in 2003, I flashed back to a late-’70s Servant gig in my hometown of Archbold, Ohio, where the drummer demonstrated to me after the show how he fired up the band’s homemade flash pots for their big finale, “Fly Away” Á¢€” he basically flipped a switch that ran a positively satanic amount of current through a thin-gauge wire. I’m not a fire inspector and I don’t play one on TV, but Under the Sun, our local 300-capacity club and Christian record store, was ratty and dusty and seemed infinitely more prone to fire than that club in Rhode Island.
But we had God on our side. And, for a time, Amy Grant. But always Larry Norman.
So today I tip a near beer to the legend of Larry. Mock me all you want, but if you do, you’ll have to answer to Saint Peter after you croak, not me.
Á¢€”Mojo Flucke, Ph.D.