Sex, drugs and rock and roll – the phrase is a catchall euphemism for the debauchery and revelry associated with the music industry. Tales of Dionysian excess, wild drunkenness, partying, and outrageousness are all tabloid fodder associated with rock musicians, as well as those in hip-hop, R&B, and country music. (Jazz wasn’t completely immune either.)
Yet throughout the history of American music, the influence of the Christian church has been apparent and well documented, with certain artists such as Rev. Al Green and Johnny Cash going unabashedly public with their faith in their public interviews, performances, and record releases. And gospel music, if not its message, would cross over to become part of the DNA of R&B, country, and rock and roll.
The 1950s had pioneering gospel-based rock from Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Little Richard (see WL Woodward’s piece this issue), Jerry Lee Lewis, and even Elvis Presley. All four would repeatedly have feet alternatively in the “sinner” or “saint” camps throughout their lives, having strong church roots that inspired their music but also pulled into conflict with the temptations of stardom.
In the late 1960s Glass Harp lead guitarist phenom Phil Keaggy, who counted both Jimi Hendrix and Mike Bloomfield as fans in awe of his prowess, converted to Christianity and spearheaded the “Jesus Rock” movement of the 1970s, along with Larry Norman, Marsha Stevens, and Keith Green among others. Keaggy is still active today. His groundbreaking work on both acoustic and electric guitar has wowed audiences and musicians worldwide from all walks of life, and he has continued to use his music and popularity to preach the Good News.
Christian rock sprang from these influential artists, giving the impetus for bands like Petra and Stryper to create international followings, albeit confined to their own niche. Among those musicians and bands who would lead to the eventual creation of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), a genre with wider appeal, the only one to cross over successfully to mainstream audiences at the time was Amy Grant. Christian singer-songwriters have since become an integral part of the Nashville music scene and often collaborate with country, rock, and pop artists, producers and A&R executives. Some, including David Crowder, Matt Redman, and Chris Tomlin have built sufficiently large fan bases to fill sports arenas.
The boldly unashamed proclamation of Christian faith from Bono, The Edge and Larry Mullen of U2 gave inspiration and courage to many rock musicians of faith. U2’s success and willingness to advocate Christianity even at the risk of mainstream rejection spawned a whole genre of delay- and reverb-based rock music that has subsequently become a sonic style unto itself, categorized as Praise and Worship, or P&W. With Martin Smith and Delirious? and Hillsong United leading the way, other church-based music groups such as Jesus Culture, Elevation, Mosaic, Bethel, and Upper Room, to name a few examples, have rotating teams of musicians, similar to Mannheim Steamroller, that both perform weekly at their various church communities and tour in various cities.
The size of the P&W/gospel music industry has quietly grown exponentially. It currently outsells jazz, classical and New Age music in both physical unit sales as well as in downloads and in streaming. The fascinating story of this phenomenon is likely worthy of a separate article for another time.
While sonically less derivative than U2, a number of artists went on to varying degrees of commercial success with an appeal to both Christian and secular audiences alike. They took the stance of U2; i.e., “We’re individually Christian, but we’re not a Christian band.” Creed, Evanescence, Mutemath, P.O.D., DC Talk, and Switchfoot are all in that category.
For some artists, the effects of fame and popularity can test one’s faith and can lead to a lifelong struggle of walking the tightrope, as evidenced by Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin or Jerry Lee Lewis (whose cousin is televangelist Jimmy Swaggart). In some cases, they made the choice to embrace the church, such as with Keaggy, Rev. Run (of Run-DMC), alt-rockers Jars of Clay, roots rockers Third Day, and Rev. Al Green. In other cases, the artists renounced and left the faith, most notably Katy Perry and Whitney Houston.
All these previously-cited artists either had some kind of prior connection with music from the church and started their careers as Christian or gospel artists, or made the decision to leave secular music careers to focus on music for God.
However, what about secular artists who have continued their careers, yet have performed and recorded Christian, faith based music – either overtly or covertly – on their albums?
If one were to cite recordings of Christian-faith songs from members of Megadeth, Alice Cooper, Soundgarden, Foreigner, Journey, Depeche Mode, the Byrds, or Hot Tuna, would that sound like a joke? If one were to include superstar solo artists like Eric Clapton, Blake Shelton, Prince, Van Morrison, Lenny Kravitz, Dolly Parton, or Marty Stuart, probably more than a few eyebrows would rise, if the notion didn’t generate outright peals of laughter.
What would be even more surprising is if these artists also wrote some of these songs, and are just part of an even larger group of musicians. Many of their names are recognizable from the past, like Steve Winwood, Kansas, and Rick Derringer, and others are currently in the public eye, like Hayley Williams of Paramore and Justin Bieber.
As we will see, truth can often be stranger than fiction, and the following stories prove it.
Multi-platinum selling thrash metal pioneers Megadeth are one of the most philosophically enigmatic and volte-face bands in history. Raised by dysfunctional, alcoholic parents, Dave Mustaine co-founded Metallica with James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich before being ousted for substance abuse and leadership clashes with Ulrich. He has admitted to dabbling with black magic and wrote a collection of anger driven songs with apocalyptic and Satanic references that propelled Megadeth to huge success. Bassist David Ellefson served as the Robin to Mustaine’s Batman, and Megadeth would have an ever-changing roster of different drummers and guitarists over the next two decades, with drugs often the cause of the revolving-door lineup.
In 2003, Mustaine converted to Christianity, and remains a Christian to this day. He was criticized for withdrawing from concerts where Megadeth was co-billed with other metal bands that espoused Satanism, the occult, and other negative spiritual credos. Not to be outdone, Ellefson began conducting Christian youth contemporary music worship services in 2007. Ellefson entered a Lutheran seminary in 2012 and became an ordained pastor some four years later.
While Mustaine and Ellefson have spoken candidly about their Christianity in numerous interviews, they have kept Megadeth’s lyrics primarily focused on politics, injustice, and apocalyptic themes of societal rebellion. However, “13” is one of the few songs in which Mustaine referenced his confrontation with the devil and his conversion.
For nearly a half century, Alice Cooper (Vincent Furnier) has been on the cutting edge of theatrical fantasy rock, bringing a Grand Guignol performance aspect to his concerts that presaged Kiss, Marilyn Manson, White Zombie and a host of other acts.
Musically, Alice Cooper has made landmark recordings, such as “I’m Eighteen,” “School’s Out” and the cynically prescient “Elected,” along with a host of gold and platinum albums and concerts that have often launched or highlighted the careers of top-notch guitarists such as Glen Buxton, Steve Hunter, Dick Wagner, Orianthi, Vinnie Moore, Reb Beach, Joe Satriani, John 5, and most recently, Nita Strauss.
When Megadeth was opening for Alice Cooper in 1986, Cooper took Dave Mustaine and the other musicians aside to warn them about their substance abuse, having entered AA himself. Mustaine still regards Cooper as a “Godfather”
The son of a Christian minister, Alice Cooper eventually went a full 360 degrees and returned to the church, publicly affirming his faith for the past 17 years. He is also very much the archetypal father of three, married-for-45 years family man when not on tour.
Cooper’s personal testimony is best represented by “Salvation,” from his Along Came a Spider (2008) album.
Cooper also collaborated with the late Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, himself a convert to Orthodox Christianity, on “Stolen Prayer” from The Last Temptation (1994). This allegorical retelling of the temptation of Christ received widespread critical acclaim and even inspired a three-part Marvel Comics miniseries written by Neil Gaiman (The Sandman). Chris Cornell recorded his own version of the song as well:
As lead vocalist for Foreigner, Lou Gramm was the voice of FM radio rock throughout much of the 1980s with mega-hits like “Hot Blooded,” “I Want to Know What Love Is,” “Juke Box Hero,” “Cold as Ice” and others. His often-combustible relationship with co-founder Mick Jones led to Gramm’s initial departure from Foreigner in 1990. Prior to completing a Hazelden drug rehabilitation program, Gramm became a Christian and rejoined Foreigner in 1992. However, he was later diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1997. While the tumor was benign and the laser surgery to remove it was successful, the surgery damaged his pituitary gland and left Gramm with health and weight issues that affected his stamina and ability to tour, prompting his final departure from Foreigner in 2003.
In 1996, Gramm contributed vocals to the song, “We Need Jesus” by Christian rock band Petra. The experience may have planted the seeds for Lou Gramm’s solo vehicle, The Lou Gramm Band. A Christian rock outfit, their 2009 release contained songs of faith with Gramm’s instantly recognizable vocals in battle trim form and apparently fully recovered. “Redeemer” is a good example – it could easily be a Foreigner track, with its grinding guitars and mid-tempo drums.
Lou Gramm announced his retirement from touring in 2018. However, he has since continued working with friends, such as the band Asia and with producer/bandleader Alan Parsons in 2019.
How ironic is it that seeing singer Steve Perry with a Bible in hand is what prompted keyboardist Jonathan Cain, co-author of the omnipresent mega-hit “Don’t Stop Believing,” to find his way back to Christianity? Raised as a Catholic, Cain was traumatized by witnessing people trapped and dying in a fire at a young age, resulting in an estrangement from the church for most of his teenage and adult life. Cain credits Perry’s Bible wielding and especially his third wife, Pastor Paula White, with guiding him towards his current faith. He has released eight solo albums throughout his time with Journey, Bad English and The Babys.
Cain’s latest solo record, More Like Jesus, is an interesting hybrid of Journey-style pop rock and power ballads combined with the singalong corporate worship style of Hillsong United. While he occasionally plays backup guitar with Journey onstage, he takes on the lead guitar role here for the title song.
With songs like, “Personal Jesus,” “Precious,” “Mercy In You,” “Judas” and “My Joy” and album titles like Songs of Faith and Devotion, synth pop superstars Depeche Mode’s music reflects a longing and joy in finding Christ while maintaining a cynically observant perspective on organized religion. Chief songwriter Martin Gore and keyboardist Andrew Fletcher are both longtime Christians and the lyrics of Depeche Mode’s songs have sometimes begged the question of whether they’re the synth-pop spiritual equivalent to U2.
Not surprisingly, singer Dave Gahan, who has, astonishingly, survived clinically dying three times (heart attack, suicide attempt and drug overdose) but managed to be resuscitated on each occasion, has become the most devout Christian of the trio, becoming an Orthodox Christian in the 1990s.
In addition to his songs with Depeche Mode, Gahan’s solo work with the Soulsavers has allowed him to explore his blues and gospel music roots as well as express more details about his spiritual journey. “The Last Time,” in particular, from Angels & Ghosts (2015), lyrically touches on his 2009 battle with cancer and his walk with Jesus (who, in the song, lives in Los Angeles).
Part Two of this series will continue in Issue 113.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/JB Quentin, cropped to fit format.