Larry Norman

8 April 1947-24 February 2008

 

 

After much badgering by a couple of friends when I was about fourteen, I began to go to a church youth group. There was the inevitable table tennis and a snooker table balanced on two stacking chairs that wobbled, always making the game more interesting. But as well as the girls and the company, the Coke and the crisps there was an ancient record player - stereo no less - which would get packed away under the stage in the 'Youth Club Cupboard' until we met again.

Like now I was then very particular - some used to say snobby - about what was acceptable to listen to at SMYF (St Mary's Youth Fellowship), and indeed beyond. The girls used to take singles, Abba, Kelly Marie, or even The Brotherhood of Man and others - which guys would tolerate more out of a sense of pity, and the hope of walking the owner of the record home with all the possibilities that might hold. I, on the other hand would insist that Frampton Comes Alive was the best album ever made, and ensure that 'The boys are back in town' by Thin Lizzy was frequently played.

Our youth club leader had other ideas altogether. He was a member of the Word Record Club, poor chap, and he tried valiantly to get all of us to listen to something with a message. I usually thought the message was 'how can they get away with this?'

But one night that changed for me. The youth club leader arrived armed with the LP of In Another Land by a guy called Larry Norman. From the first track, 'The Rock That Doesn't Roll', I was hooked. For the first time there was 'Christian' twelve-bar blues played by competent musicians, with almost something of the spirit of punk in it. It was a protest song. It was a fast blues, it was well produced, and it was none of the things that I used to despise about so much Christian music. The songs seemed to flow together in a well thought out and intelligent way. Somehow the message was as important as the music. 

And I was a late comer to Larry Norman's music. It's hardly an exaggeration to say Larry was the main founding father of what is now known as Contemporary Christian Music. He showed that rock music and evangelism could co-exist and produce something artistically valid, something that was not happening at the time. He also launched and boosted the careers of other artists in a caring, but professional way, not least Randy Stonehill.

In 1969 Capitol records released Upon This Rock, which is considered by many as the first Contemporary Christian Music LP.

 

But back to In Another Land released in 1976 and containing some of his best songs.  Norman tackles many different musical genres within this collection. From the fast blues, to almost theatrical pastiche with 'The Sun Began to Rain' which featured Dudley Moore on piano.

I was fortunate enough to see Larry Norman perform four times live: once, on a youth club trip to, I think, the Rainbow Finsbury Park - now ironically a church; once at Wimbledon Theatre; and a couple of times at Greenbelt Festival, once headlining and secondly introduced as a guest by Randy Stonehill. 'My brother just flew in from the USA' he announced, and he and Norman then stormed through a version of 'Let the Tapes Keep Rolling'. If it was not who it was, one might have thought that the artist had taken some speed to sing at the rate that he did.

He was so well known with his flowing blonde hair and Jagger strut that other acts at Greenbelt could parody him and get away with it. (You know who I mean Ivor Twydell.)

His music was respected outside of the Christian thing, and in recent years has been covered by Black Francis of the Pixies and other unlikely bands

In 1990 Larry suffered a heart attack which left him in a permanently weak state. As a result of this he was forced to cut back on touring. Financial difficulties set in and he depended on past royalties and the goodwill of friends and fans Despite some studio releases and a solo live album his health had sapped his energy and he was unable to play many gigs.

But Larry Norman asked a question originally posed by General Booth the founder of the Salvation Army and that has stayed with me and probably always will.  'Why Should the Devil Have all the Good Music?' 

 

   Alan West 2008