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GOD ROCK : Caught Between Their Music and a Hard Place, Christian Bands Strive for Commercial Appeal

July 07, 1988|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Stuffed into a gaudy pair of black nylon pants and a studded belt, his long, shaggy hair teased out into a wild blond mane, Ken Tamplin is standing in the middle of a tiny and tawdry dressing room backstage at the Roxy and grinning it up.

"Hey!" he yelps at a visitor. "Where were you? You missed a great prayer session."

That's how Tamplin and his band, Shout, get psyched up for a show. They stand in a circle, link hands, ask God for help and guidance, go downstairs and spend the next 45 minutes turning the Sunset Strip nightclub into a kind of high-decibel revival meeting.

Their audience is composed mostly of young "born-again" Christians, but they respond to the hard-driving music in the same way as do their more secular counterparts. They crowd close to the stage, gyrating to the music, occasionally clapping with their hands high in the air.

And, sometimes with prompting by Tamplin, but mostly spontaneously, they jab their index fingers at the ceiling in the recognizable "one way" salute of the "born-again" Christian.

Shout is one of many Southland rock bands that are beginning to be recognized outside of what has formerly been a precisely defined musical pigeonhole. They bill themselves as a Christian rock ensemble and, like most other religiously grounded rock bands of their type, have enjoyed limited commercial appeal. But they are emerging from the semiprofessional world of concerts in church halls and from occasional musical sessions with weekend Bible study groups into the realm of professional club dates, foreign tours and recording contracts.

It is no accident that Shout, and other bands that had their start or are currently operating out of Orange County, should be among the first Christian groups to gain wider commercial recognition. Orange County has been the spawning ground for Christian rock--in several forms--for almost 15 years. Since the early 1970s, when the Rev. Chuck Smith enthusiastically opened the doors of his Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa to young musicians who had rejected the commercial-music fast lane, Orange County has become a center of what some might consider an unusual ministry: punk rock, heavy metal rock, new wave rock and hard-core mainstream rock--all in the name of God.

"Orange County is literally booming with Christian rock acts," Tamplin said. "It's fertile ground. Some of that has to do with the Stryper ministry, but also it's because some of the largest Christian ministries in the world are in Southern California and (the bands) can go from church to church and be supported, both spiritually and financially."

Stryper is perhaps the best-known Christian rock band in the country. Based in Southern California, it has enjoyed success not only in Christian circles, but to a surprising extent among mainstream audiences. Many Christian rock musicians consider Stryper to be the band that led Christian rock out of the churches and into the clubs. Christian bands, say local musicians, are beginning to believe that it is possible to satisfy their spiritual and financial needs at the same time.

"Most of us would certainly like to think in those terms," said Steve Shannon, lead singer of the Orange County-based Christian band Idle Cure. "There's always been a kind of dichotomy between Christian and secular bands, with the attitude that Christian rock 'n' roll is not on par with secular rock 'n' roll. Now there are more bands coming in, and there are bigger budgets for albums, and we can start to approach the production standards of secular bands. We're thinking that we're not just Christian musicians; we're musicians, period.

"We're not saying that (commercialization) is what we want and we'll do anything it takes to get it, but we're saying that this can be the Lord's will, too."

The wider commercial appeal of Christian rock is perhaps a product of the natural evolution of the genre that began in Orange County during the past decade, with many disenfranchised young rockers turning to Christianity. Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa became the source.

"Calvary Chapel was definitely the birthplace of Christian rock," said Randy Zigler, a local Christian rock promoter who formerly was in charge of Calvary's weekend rock concerts. During the '70s and early '80s, he said, "we put on punk and heavy metal bands and others and we had an average attendance of about 2,500 every Saturday night. The concerts were geared to reach kids who were messed up on drugs or sex or whatever and present Christ to them. The music was a kind of extension of the kids who were there. We wanted to give thanks and bless God and people said, 'Why not do it our way? Why do we need an organ?' We had the kind of music the kids related to."

Richard Cimino, one of three youth pastors currently at Calvary Chapel, said that the concerts were a local phenomenon.

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