Christian Music's Angry Young Men?

CCM January 1980

Daniel Amos:

Christian Music's Angry Young Men?

CCM January 1980

by Davin Seay

Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17

The whole Jesus movement began because someone had a vision of what was happening on the street, the hippie thing... people seeking truth. And a Christian came along and said, 'Christ can be relevant to you where you are, on the street. You don't have to cut your hair, put on a suit or go to church.' They spoke the gospel in a way it could be understood, and it worked. There was tremendous success. Now, that's tradition.

Terry Taylor, guitar and vocals for Daniel Amos is talking about change. It is a subject near to the heart of this Orange County based sextet, currently the brightest hope for a progressive wing in modern Christian music. It's the kind of change that affects art, people and the body of Christ, and very few illusions are being harbored at this particular juncture in the band's struggle to express a new awareness, to reach out in faith through fresh musical forms.

"The church has always suffered from elements of tradition." Ed McTaggert, percussion and vocals, picks up the thread unraveling the stormy history of Daniel Amos, the band and its members. It's a history fraught with controversy, a controversy that promises to escalate with the release of their third album, Horrendous Disc, on Solid Rock Records. "A revival occurs and the church breaks into something new, then settles into it. It's very difficult now for us to get support in the body of Christ."

Considering the sort of response engendered by a recent ad for Horrendous Disc in CCM, difficulty seems a positive understatement. Artwork for the ad looked like a spoof of 50's styled horror movies, the copy cautioned, "get it before it gets you!" It was funny as much as anything, yet, as Terry recounts, "There are elements the church that have us believe we cut our own throats when we put out that ad.

The assertion seems slightly absurd. In this age when extreme punk nihilism and the minimalist rock sensibilities of the new wave are waging war against established musical forms, the creative aims of this band seem at once healthy and distinctly non-threatening. Daniel Amos' committed Christian approach and its evangelical aspirations are apparent from both the band's music and the conversation of its members, four of whom are eating lunch on an unseasonably balmy December day in one of the ubiquitious shopping complexes sprawling unchecked through the flatlands of Orange County.

Aside from Ed and Terry, who carry the burden of articulating the band's unique position in Christian music, the luncheon interview has also brought out keyboardist Mark Cook and guitar/vocalist Jerry Chamberlain to add to this free-wheeling discussion on the state of music, the church and Daniel Amos. Missing is bassist Marty Dieckmeyer and percussionist Alex MacDougall.

The question arises that if such a teapot scaled tempest was brewed by the mild Horrendous Disc ad, what sort of response will the album itself generate?

"The music that's on Horrendous Disc is the result of a project we started almost two years ago," explains Ed, "the material is a little behind what we're trying to do now."

"This album is really pop and rock music," interjects Terry, " country at all. We began as a country/rock band, influenced by groups like the Byrds. We wanted to help pioneer Christian country/rock music and then when would we started to be more in demand for concert appearances, we needed to fill out our song set and we did it mostly with country songs because they were easy to write and perform. We've always been more into rock and have wanted to get out of the country thing and this album is a beginning."

Horrendous Disc, as a beginning, is a highly promising one. A lyric subtlety prevails, bolstered by music with a distinct, albeit tentative experimental overtones. "Impressionistic" is the word Terry uses and it fits. Many of the songs, particularly those on the LP's second side sustain themselves, quite aside from any explicit Christian lyric content, on the strength of their melodic structure and instrumental chops. Horrendous Disc is an early indication of Daniel Amos' willingness and ability to transcend established sacred/secular categories to reach an audience that may not otherwise hear the message of Jesus Christ in a musical context. Resistance to the strategy is marked and originates, surprisingly, from the church itself. It is, mildly stated, a point of contention between the band and the Christian music establishment.

"I can't listen to most Christian music," asserts Terry. "It's so simplistic and often just doesn't ring true. While they may be singing about what's true, it doesn't really have any relevance to the person who hasn't encountered Christ. The church accepts it because it utilizes a Christian vocabulary, saying things that are supposed to be said in Christian music. But that doesn't speak to the average person who listens to rock music."

"Christian music hasn't grown up," Ed states flatly. "It never really developed past its roots in the 60's with groups like Love Song, whose primary influence was Crosby, Stills and Nash."

"A lot of Christian music is a result of listening to other Christian music," Jerry adds as they warm up to the subject, "and not what's going on in the world."

What of the oft-quoted intention of many Christian artists that they are fulfilling a function within the church itself - a 'body ministry' - to use a term from the born again vocabulary Terry referred to?

"There are legitimate, powerful ministries to the body of Christ," counters Terry, "but sometimes the person who says he has a body ministry is just using that as an excuse for amateurism. Christian artists, because they only listen to each other, don't have very high standards... they're ready to amateurism and consequently there are a flood of artists and albums that are an of embarrassment in comparison to what's really happening musically."

That's strong stuff from a band who counts their support base exclusively among Christian fans. Yet it is precisely because of the position they currently occupy, as one of the genre's most progressive forces, that Daniel Amos is interested in pushing the boundaries of Christian music further than they are currently extended, to embrace audiences whos sense of artistic relevance is firmly planted in the coming decade.

"Our motivation is to communicate what the Lord's given us in the best, most professional way we can. Every Christian has that responsibility - to reflect the life of Christ." Ed's matter-of-fact statement seems a necessary avowal of faith considering accusations of a 'worldliness' and 'selling out' that have often been leveled at the group. Terry goes further.

"We're to love the church because Christ gave himself to the church, offered himself. We have to maintain that love. But our obedience is to God. The group has already begun to make what some may consider a break with the body. We see a future of club dates, of opening for various secular bands. We have a problem with that. If Andre Crouch is going to get flack for signing with Warner Bros., (see CCM, October '79) then Daniel Amos is definitely going to get flack. We have to have a fighting spirit and Daniel Amos has that. A lot of groups are so brought down by the stifling elements of the church that they break up. There are great Christian musicians working at McDonalds. We're ready to fight and we're not going to remarks let others, questioning our motivations, cause us to give up our work for Christ."

"Christians often want to put aside their intellects," continues Ed. "They want it spelled out. They feel secure in hearing the same things over and over again. So often we put God in a box and when something becomes challenging and different, approaching the truth from a different point of view, we become suspect. Some people think we're toning down our commitment - that we really don't want people to know we're Christians. But we see the real results through letters and at our concerts from people who appreciate our approach because it helps them understand their world, their life-culture which is involved."

"We get all kinds of letters," interjects Mark, "love letters and hate mail. Most of the hate mail comes from Christians."

The reality of suspicion and rejection within the church is one that profoundly disturbs them, and yet the overriding sense from the group is of bold movement at a point in history when time is short. As grieved as they may be over the attitudes of the Christian establishment, the members of Daniel Amos, from all indications, are firmly resolved to carry out a vision they feel God has given them.

"The group has finely-tuned its evangelical thrust. Each album has become more sensitive to the unbeliever. We're not insulting the intelligence of the listener," says an intense Terry who is getting closer to the heart of Daniel Amos Raison d'etre. The struggle, as they have defined it, is within the church. The harvest remains to be gathered. "All we can do is plant a seed. Ultimately a person has to make up their own mind about the truth they encounter. We have to give them the room to come to those conclusions. Our first album was good for what it was, but I think it was a little naive. Our second LP was more sensitive to the listener's need to decide for himself, and Horrendous Disc goes a little further. The material we're developing now goes even further."

"We incorporate a lot of visuals and theatrics in our stage show that are often misunderstood." Ed says, picking up the theme. "We've always had elements of controversy and as we start to get into these other territories there will be even more. We will have some strong support, though, from different groups of people. Praise the Lord for that element of constant encouragement."

After a moment of pensive silence, Terry continues, "Sometimes, when I'm in the flesh, my attitude about the church is, 'So what? I could care less...' We get so many letters and hear so many rumors about ourselves. It gets to me because I know the vision of this band is pure. My obligation is to love the church and proceed according to God's will..." A discernible sincerity, mixed with sorrow, can be heard in his voice as he remarks, "We want to stay close to the body of Christ. We want them to know that this has been prayerfully considered. We have to have a spiritual base, to be part of a family. We don't want to become radicals, we have a past and we're rooted in the church. We can't just cut ourselves off."

The problem it seems, is a failure of vision. If the church, at this point of rapidly accelerating alienation and despair occurring in the world all around them, is unwilling and unable to lend its support to the more adventurous and - the word is inescapable - 'radical' elements who are seeking to reach a generation tottering on the precipice of oblivion, then those same visionary elements, must finally endeavor to take the message afield themselves. This, it seems, is what Daniel Amos is determined to do. Yet the cost must be counted.

"There's only so much we can be responsible for," Ed. "We respect and love the body and the Lord has placed a desire in our heart to accomplish something. Hopefully, in the long run, what we do will be a real fruitful thing, but we don't really know until we try it. There's never been a strictly Christian band crossing over into the secular market. It'll be interesting to see what happens, but impossible to predict." Has Daniel Amos seen the fruits of their labor? Once again the discrepancy between the evangelical work the band has undertaken and the church's expectations comes to the fore.

"At some of our concerts we've had kids come into the Kingdom of God and later we'll get a letter from a Christian who tells us he wasn't 'blessed.' I resent that," Terry explains. "The angels in heaven rejoice when one is saved and yet these people want something said to them personally, so they can feel safe. Some Christians act as if they were fruit inspectors... the nitpicking that goes on! Christians have to have their music approved, and while it's right for them to be somewhat cautious, too often it gets into the area of judgement and the devouring of each other."

"So often Christians try and create little utopias," Ed agrees, "when we're called to be in the world spreading the gospel. Our most powerful witness is in the way we live our lives and I believe it can be communicated through our music."

The subject veers off into the realm of modern sounds and here the band finds much to be encouraged by.

"We've been listening to a lot of music," Ed adds, "with relevance to the society in general. It's real."

Real. The word has special significance to a group striving so earnestly to speak to the world as is. "Lots of modern groups, like Talking Heads, are fun and funny," explains Jerry. "We appreciate that. There are ways that groups, secular or otherwise can change things."

"With somebody like the Clash," Terry asserts, "you can hear the truth about the situation. In that way it's valid as music. They're angry and we can be angry too. We can agree with them that everything is failing, but we can go further and say, 'we have hope.' We can offer the answer. See, the church is human. People have problems and even Christians become angry. You've got to be real. We're supposed to be in the world, but not of it. That much is obvious."

The conversation widens to the general merits of art for the sake of beauty and as an expression of the supreme creativity of the Creator. Terry describes a date the band recently did at the Nashville club, Exit-In as opener for Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw. Unable to present much else beside just their music in the beerhall atmosphere, the group was nonetheless surprised when, after the set, people came up to them, exclaiming about the 'difference' in the music. "They all wanted to give us their Jack Daniels bottles out of gratitude," he laughs. Again talk hovers around a central tenet in the band's conception of music as a message of the gospel. "There is a spiritual element in our music that people pick up on," Terry asserts. "Something in the sound... a spiritual vibe, you could call it. People can receive it, they sense it in their hearts. We are a band that is centered on Christ and this has made a difference musically. At high schools and colleges, people come to us and say 'there's something different about you guys, something in your eyes.' "

"There's good in just creating as an artist, in using the talent God has given us," Jerry sums up.

As coffee is sipped and the lunch time crowd thins, Terry, Jerry, Ed and Mark turn their attention to the future; for Christian music and for Daniel Amos.

"We feel like we're going to get a major deal this year," predicts Terry, "with a secular label. That way our dependance won't be on the church for a living."

Again, strong sentiments from a group whose bread is buttered by Christian audiences. Yet, for them, the trade-off - that compromise between creativity with the promise of a rich harvest and acceptance by established musical arbiters is hardly a bargain.

"We're still striving," Ed confesses, "we're in no way saying that we're the zenith of what Christian music should become, but - " and Terry finished his thought;

"Christian music has to support its visionaries, it has to get behind change, or God will simply work around the barriers."