One Punk’s Guide to Christian Punk originally ran in Razorcake #95 (December 2016/January 2017).
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One Punk’s Guide to Christian Punk
By Kurt Morris
I can almost guarantee your first thought when you saw the title to this piece was, “Christian punk? What in the world is an article about Christian punk doing in Razorcake?” Well, it’s likely you’ve come across a punk or two (especially if you live in an area with a predominantly Christian population) who describes themselves as a Christian punk. And if you’re not a Christian punk I’m sure you’ve wondered how such terms could be put together. Isn’t punk against Christianity? Thankfully for you, dear readers, during my high school and college years I was a Christian punk (or, more accurately, a punk who was a Christian).
My hope is to give you some background on the genre, the major players, and how it sees itself in relation to the non-Christian punk scene. This won’t be an exhaustive history—that would require a book (which is unfortunately not yet written). Instead, it will be this punk’s take on Christian punk.
I grew up in Indiana, raised by Christian parents and attended our evangelical church two or three times a week. I wasn’t forced to go—I was a Christian, enjoyed attending youth group events, and have a lot of good memories from that time period. While I can’t say what the reasons were for others being Christian punks, my reasons caused a great deal of conflict in my adolescent mind. I wanted to rebel and fit in. I desired to be my own person—someone who was unique and didn’t go along with the crowd. I wanted to showcase the music I listened to, while also please the god who I believed deserved my allegiance. Somehow my friends and I found a way to combine the punk rock idea of rebellion with Christian values. I was willing to rock the boat, but not too much.
One of the inherent problems with Christian punk music is definitions. Once again, these come from my experiences over the years. While I’m no longer a Christian (for reasons entirely unrelated to the music), I worked in a Christian music store for two years in high school so I’d like to think I know something. But all you Christian punks out there feel free to tell me to fuck off.
So, what is Christian punk? How is it defined? Christian punk is music created by Christians, often with a message regarding Christian and Biblical themes. This music falls within the spectrum of what most would consider the structure of “punk” music. (Defining punk music is an entirely different conversation.)
But how can Christians be punk? Isn’t punk about questioning authority? To a great extent, Christian punks would agree. Without getting too deep into theology, Christian punks would argue the world is run by sinful human beings, so it’s important to always question the secular world and its motives at all levels. But when it comes to religion, Jesus is an exception. The Christian punk’s take is that Jesus questioned authority and paid for it with his life. If Christians wish to truly follow in Jesus’s steps, they believe they need to question everything except him, since he served as a perfect example (being the son of god). I have—on more than one occasion—heard people say, “Jesus was the original punk.” (It’s possible one of those people was me in high school.)
An often bandied-about term in the Christian music scene is “secular music.” This is music that does not fall into the realm of Christian music—so basically anything else. Additionally, there are record labels that cater almost exclusively to Christians, another way in which the divide of Christian and secular music is cleaved. These labels (including Christian punk, hardcore, and metal ones) release albums primarily—although not always exclusively—made by Christian bands. They are distributed primarily in Christian bookstores, where one can buy a wide range of products—including a Bible, a devotional book specifically aimed at teen girls, and a CD by a Christian punk band. The idea of a store only selling Christian music is incredibly rare.
As mentioned earlier, there is a basic problem in what the primary identifier is of an individual involved in this scene: Are they first and foremost Christians who also happen to consider themselves punk? Or are they punks who are also Christians? Is the music punk with a “Christian message?” And what is that message? How do we define it? As one can tell, this was—and perhaps still is—a debate within the scene. Responses will vary from person to person. Trying to hitch together a lifestyle, a musical genre, a belief system, and a religion is complicated. It was certainly the source of a multitude of discussions from my time in that scene. Who are we and how do we define ourselves? When it deals with a message that some believe has eternal consequences, it’s not quite as simple as feeling that one just wants to play some punk rock.
Early History of Christian Punk
The roots of Christian punk, like secular music, go back to rock’n’roll. While there were some smaller acts in the mid-1960s, Christian rock built up steam in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with acts such as Larry Norman, The Resurrection Band, and Mylon Levefre. Most of these acts drew influences from blues and folk music. None of these artists were especially original, but their emergence as Christian rock bands was, in itself, groundbreaking. The stage was being set to show that, yes, it was possible for Christians to play what had been known in some Christian circles as “the devil’s music.” Indeed, as artists such as Larry Norman argued on his 1972 album Only Visiting This Planet: “Why should the devil have all the good music?”
After the introduction of rock and roll made by Christians, it was only a matter of time for them to start playing other genres of music. It’s difficult to pin down an exact band that started the Christian punk scene, though. That’s partially because the first semblance of punk in the Christian scene were bands drawing influence from new wave, a less threatening subgenre. Acts such as Undercover played a poppy sound akin to the Cars although they had an occasional fast beat. But Undercover seemed more interested in mixing keyboards into their tunes than anything distorted and aggressive. Altar Boys were another act drawing from punk’s roots but with much more in common with the Replacements than the Sex Pistols or Ramones.
During the first decade of Christian punk, more bands emerged from Southern California than anywhere else. This wasn’t just a coincidence, however. Music critic J. Edward Keyes writes in his blog that Undercover and Altar Boys formed
“under the aegis of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California—a laid-back, all-are-welcome type church…. Their connection to Calvary was crucial; the church, as unbelievable as it sounds, was kind of the Gilman Street of the Christian punk community, generating scores of tradition-breaking bands who thought Stryper and Petra sounded about as hokey and terrible as most of their mainstream compatriots did. It wasn’t just a scene, it was a movement, as strong and—in its own world—as revolutionary to the church kids who heard it as the Ramones were to everyone else.”
A prominent exception to this great flood of Southern California Christian punk was Miami-based band The Lead. It’s likely they were the first true Christian punk band. Formed in 1984, this three-piece traded off vocals between Julio Rey and Nina Llopis, which in some ways marked the act as even more of an anomaly. Not only were they a Christian punk band, but one that had a female vocalist, something not seen in many secular hardcore punk bands. They were far from the safer sound of their Californian Christian brethren. The Lead’s musical style drew heavily from early Hüsker Dü: songs traded off vocalists that occasionally burst into screams and fast playing that bordered on thrash. It’s not a stretch to imagine The Lead fitting in on the punk label SST. The reason that something like that would never happen is all in the lyrics.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, bands in the Christian scene (whether punk or not) saw their music as part of a ministry to bring non-Christians to accept Jesus Christ as their savior. While their secular counterparts were singing about anarchy, nihilism, and the violence they saw in the scene, Undercover was penning tunes titled “God Rules,” “Jesus Is the Best,” and “Talk to God.” Even The Lead, in all their musical legitimacy, wrote songs called “Kill Satan” and “Lead You to Repent.” Like some non-Christian punk bands, The Lead waded into political topics, such as abortion (they were against it), although that was rare. The primary purpose of Christian punk was to spread the message of the Good News.
In fact, resistance to the lyrics of Christian bands is what led these acts to eventually form their own scene and industry. Unable to find acceptance amongst secular punk bands, Christian artists often booked shows at churches or Christian clubs. When they could find shows at the former, members of the churches were often quite surprised at the style they had agreed to let play in their house of worship. While the lyrics weren’t objectionable, the music was a far cry from traditional hymns. Because of their “unique” style, bands weren’t always invited back.
As the ‘80s progressed, more bands began to emerge as part of the Christian punk scene. A young California act, the Crucified, went on to become huge in the Christian scene, even as they sang, “I’m not a Christian punk.” The aggressive sound on their albums Take up Your Cross and Nailed was akin to faster Minor Threat. Eventually the band made their way into a thrash punk sound a la Suicidal Tendencies. In fact, Christian heavy metal overshadowed Christian punk throughout the 1980s. This in itself isn’t surprising, as the same was occurring in the secular scene. Mirroring their non-Christian counterparts, there wasn’t any money to be made in punk, period, but especially in the late 1980s. It wouldn’t be until the mid-‘90s (about the same time punk “broke” in the secular scene) that Christian punk started to be noticed in the Christian scene.
Until then, however, there were a few exceptions. In small numbers, bands such as those on the DIY label Blonde Vinyl rang true. Started by Michael Knott in the late ‘80s, he signed numerous bands primarily based out of Southern California. While not all of them were explicitly punk, some of them—such as Knott’s own act, Lifesavers—were influenced by punk and new wave. Other acts on Blonde Vinyl, such as Fluffy and Lust Control, played more directly in the genre. (The latter, according to Wikipedia, were “known for their explicit lyrical content, which is devoted to matters of sexual purity and sin, including abstinence, masturbation, pornography, sex ed, and related topics.” As an innocent Christian teen, their lyrical content made me too uncomfortable to listen to them.)
Another exception to the rather unoriginal acts from the late ‘80s in Christian punk was Scaterd Few. Drawing from Bad Brains (they actually opened for H.R. on his 1990 solo tour) and Jane’s Addiction, their music skirted the line of punk. As one review put it, Scaterd Few’s sound “summoned a mad-scientist hybrid of dub, reggae, post-punk, and heavy metal.” Lead singer Allan Aguirre’s vocals “went from gothic moan to banshee yelp within the space of a single lyric. He sings like a man on fire, wild-eyed and crazy, yelping out each dire prophecy as if every word might be his last.” It may be a looser connection to punk, but it’s at least original, something that seemed sorely lacking in the Christian scene at the time. The few bands that did play punk in the Christian scene were unmemorable—Scaterd Few is one of the only acts to stand the test of time.
Christian Punk Takes Off
In the history of Christian punk, the importance of Tooth & Nail Records (T&N) cannot be understated. T&N was founded in 1993 by Brandon Ebel, a then-recent graduate of Oregon State University. Established in Southern California with money loaned by Ebel’s grandfather, the label made its way to Seattle a few years after its birth. (For what it’s worth T&N didn’t just sign punk bands, although that seemed to be their bread and butter. They also released albums by bands that played shoegazer, grunge, power pop, and hardcore. Given my divergent tastes at the time, I bought almost all of it because I was so hungry for Christian music that expressed my rebellious feelings.)
As Joel Heng Hartse wrote in a 2014 article in Christianity Today, “Tooth & Nail created a safe, subversive space for Christian teenagers who felt torn between youth-group subculture and secular countercultures. The label’s bands have been sonically diverse, exploring various corners of the indie rock, emo, punk, and hardcore genres. But what they have in common, as Ebel and many others have said, is feeling ‘too Christian for non-Christians, and not Christian enough for Christians.’”
Some of this feeling was brought about by the acts that T&N signed. Some, such as Frodus, included members who weren’t Christians. While the band didn’t sing about Christianity, it still made me hesitant: should I be listening to this stuff? Would it be a bad influence on me? There were always rumors, too, in the Christian punk scene that were passed around in the pre-internet era through word of mouth: Joe Christmas got stoned at a Christian music festival, Zao smoked, and on it went.
Most of these bands were up front about their actions, though. Some bands’ style of Christianity was far different than the more conservative one I practiced. But that didn’t necessarily mean they weren’t Christians. In contrast, there were always going to be Christian artists who acted perfect on the outside but didn’t lead the most godly lives. This wasn’t new in the Christian scene though: Amy Grant, Sandi Patty, and other adult contemporary artists had experiences with infidelity of which we were aware.
One thing that caused T&N to be so big is that their bands mirrored the mainstream sounds of the time. There were no 1970s Christian equivalent for Black Sabbath or early ‘80s answer to the secular sounds of Black Flag. By the time T&N came along, there was an alternative. Do you like NOFX or Rancid? They’ve got MXPX. Are you into Earth Crisis and Integrity? How about listening to Unashamed? In fact, T&N marketing drove directly to this point. Their catalogs and advertisements in Christian (and some secular) publications would have a RIYL (Recommended If You Like) list under a band’s album. From this I was able to ascertain what acts I could give to my non-Christian friends in the hopes that it may spur in them an interest in Christianity.
I made a lot of friends through Christian music. I met one of my best friends in high school during our Spanish class. He had shirts for bands like Bad Brains, spiked hair, and a pair of jeans covered in safety pins. He hand-made his studded belt in the days before they were sold at Hot Topic and, frankly, he intimidated me.
“What is that?!” he exclaimed one day before class started. He pointed at the magazine ad I had placed in the front of the clear cover of my binder.
“Oh, uh, it’s an ad for a Christian metal band,” I replied nervously, but proud I had included the adjective “Christian.”
“There’s Christian metal?” he said, surprised.
“Oh yeah,” I replied. “And Christian punk and hardcore, too.” I couldn’t believe I was speaking to him about Christianity.
From there we hit it off. He made me mix tapes that included bands like Agent Orange, Operation Ivy, and Youth Of Today. I made him ones that included Focused, Blenderhead, and MXPX. I wasn’t opposed to listening to secular punk music, but I hoped that listening to something a bit more godly might have a positive influence on my new friend.
And some months later, my friend and some of his buddies got “saved” after an altar call by the band Unashamed. For many of the hardcore bands, especially, using their platform as a means by which to ask people to come to god wasn’t uncommon. For my friends who already were Christians, the genres of Christian punk, hardcore, and metal were what brought us all together.
With the emergence of Tooth & Nail there was an influx of Christian punk bands. Other Christian labels (Facedown, Screaming Giant, Takehold) tried to emulate T&N, but none matched T&N’s dominance. This was partially due to the sales of a few bands (namely MXPX and the OC Supertones) as well as T&N’s thorough distribution in Christian bookstores (where many Christian kids purchased their CDs and cassettes while their moms looked at the latest edition of the devotional My Utmost for His Highest).
It just so happened that as T&N blew up in popularity, ska was also getting big. Bands such as the OC Supertones and Five Iron Frenzy sold tons of records (at least for independent Christian artists) and drew packed shows. Others such as Squad Five-O drew comparisons to Operation Ivy with their ska punk sound. In the ‘90s, Christian bands began to fill in every conceivable subgenre of punk.
Working at a Christian music store
From 1995 to ‘97 I worked at a Christian music store (not bookstore—just music). I was in high school and the owner was only in his early twenties. It was a small joint—less than four hundred square feet. My boss wasn’t necessarily into Christian punk, but he also didn’t care if I played it in the store. However, this experience very much altered how I perceived Christian punk.
I spoke with distributors and salespeople and saw the business side of things. There were few DIY Christian punk labels, Boot 2 Head Records being one of the only ones I can recall. Most of T&N’s materials were moving through EMI, one of the major labels (by the late ‘80s the vast majority of Christian music labels were at least distributed, if not owned by, secular major labels). I became more aware of the glut of Christian music on the market, especially Christian punk.
After a time, I soured on most Christian punk and hardcore and all their talk about one-sheets, sales points, and primary markets. I just wanted to listen to the music, but even much of that didn’t impress me. When I worked, I began to play Christian adult contemporary music I remembered from my childhood. It severely confused the Christian punk kids who came in to buy the latest album by MXPX or Ghoti Hook. Seeing me, a teenager with a wallet chain, shaved head, and dog chain around his neck blaring Amy Grant threw them for a loop.
I met a lot of cool people working at the music store and had a lot of fun, but it became clear to me that by the late ‘90s the Christian punk scene had gone corporate (as though it had really ever been anything else). Nevertheless, lots of kids were still buying up any punk act that T&N was putting out. There had never really been a true DIY scene. Instead I looked to secular labels such as Dischord and bands like Fugazi for inspiration and philosophical ideas. Perhaps it was just my inundation with so much new music—or maybe the sound really wasn’t as good as it used to be—but by the time I left the music store in 1997, I was burnt out on Christian punk. I continued to listen to some Christian punk and hardcore but also began to explore secular music. Although the RIYL lists were supposed to help fans of secular music find Christian music that would serve as a more “godly” alternative, I found it served to help me find more secular music. “Hmm. This chart says if you like Jawbox, you’ll like Blenderhead. I wonder if I’d like Jawbox?” Internal conversations such as this occurred on more than one occasion and usually with a similar result: it wasn’t long after that I found myself at a local record store buying a Jawbox (or similar band) CD.
For about thirty years, every summer thousands would attend Cornerstone festival, one of the anchors of the Christian punk music scene. In Witnessing Suburbia, academic Eileen Luhr described Cornerstone as an
“event that was clearly for believers—an affirmation of Christianity rather than a beacon for society. Jesus People USA, a residential religious community in Chicago, began Cornerstone at the Lake County, Illinois, fairgrounds in 1984. The community possessed ideal credentials for staging a Christian rock festival: it had a long history of outreach programs including a long-running magazine (Cornerstone) and a well-respected music ministry led by The Resurrection Band, one of the first Christian hard rock bands. By the late 1980s, the festival had established itself as an annual convention for young Christian rock fans. [It had also moved its location to a former pig farm located in Bushnell, Illinois, hours southwest of Chicago.] Advertisements for the event appeared in nearly every Christian music magazine, and enthusiastic first-person accounts of fans willing to endure interminable road trips, miserable camping accommodations, and adverse weather conditions for the opportunity to partake in three days of concerts by the genre’s biggest acts became standard fare in fanzines.”
It was Christian music festivals (but especially Cornerstone) that allowed the Christian punk community to congregate in one place, hear all their favorite bands, and allow those acts to feel like superstars. Outside of Cornerstone, many of these bands hardly toured and when they did, they’d be lucky to draw one or two hundred fans a night. At Cornerstone they were gods, putting on shows for a thousand to fifteen hundred people, selling hundreds—if not thousands—of dollars of merch, while teens lined up for their autographs. Bands mingled with their fans and I was taken in by all of it just like everyone else.
I went to Cornerstone about five times in the 1990s and 2000s, sometimes as a fan and sometimes to sell merch for SC Distribution, a secular indie music distributor that happened to distribute a number of “cool” Christian artists. The three times I went in the ‘90s were the best, though. We camped in close proximity to one another in a field. The sun woke us each morning at 7 AM, after having fallen asleep five or six hours before. In the morning our tents became saunas. We escaped to try to catch a breeze as we sat under a canopy we pitched in an otherwise barren field. Together we would cram breakfast bars and cereal in our mouths, grumpily waking up. It was always too hot to sleep except late at night. During the day there was a lot of time to kill before the bands began. I bonded with my friends and got to learn more about many of them.
After three or four days at the fest, we made the six-hour drive home. We shared a snugly-packed vehicle of newly acquired music, camping gear, and sweat- and dirt-stained clothes. Stories were told of outrageous incidents. “Did you see when I stage-dove during Everdown’s show?!” “I can’t believe our friends got to open for Blaster The Rocket Man. That was so cool!” We were enmeshed together in a bonding experience. Going to Cornerstone was a ritual we shared for a number of years.
By the late ‘90s the scene started to change and I don’t mean that in a nostalgic, winsome way. Like many secular labels, in order to cash in, T&N started signing tons of pop punk bands, many of which weren’t that great. They also started sub-labels such as Solid State (metal/hardcore), Uprok (rap/hip hop) and BEC (which stood for Brandon Ebel Company and put out a wide range of music).
As the glut of Christian punk bands filled the market, I felt overwhelmed. There was so much to listen to and so much of it was mediocre. (Or perhaps the bands I originally thought were so great weren’t that great—but they were all I had, so they were everything.) As the twenty-first century began, the trends in the secular market changed, with Christian music following soon after. Emo became the next big thing and the market changed its focus. Christian punk wasn’t the hot commodity anymore.
Christian hardcore and metalcore, however, did become pretty huge. Artists like Norma Jean, The Chariot, Underoath, and As I Lay Dying sold hundreds of thousands of records, primarily through Solid State, T&N’s sub-label. Some of these bands jumped to secular record labels such as Roadrunner or Razor & Tie and most went on big tours such as OzzFest or with counterparts in the secular scene. The lines of separation between Christian and secular punk and hardcore became more difficult to define. Things had come a long way since the days of Undercover and The Lead. If it weren’t for T&N’s initial strike with punk, it’s hard to imagine these bands ever having a chance at doing as well as they did.
I paid attention to some of those acts, but the influence of mall punk rubbed me the wrong way. Where did sincerity lay in a scene so filled with cookie-cutter punk and hardcore acts? The DIY aspect seemed to be nonexistent, if it had ever been anything anyway. Which leads me to….
DIY and Christian Punk
What about the DIY scene in Christian punk? Does such a thing exist at all? As mentioned earlier, there were few DIY labels in the secular sense. Frankly, there really isn’t a need to keep a strict DIY philosophy to the degree there is in the secular scene. For the vast majority of the bands in Christian music, the primary goal is to save souls. The larger the market the better. Not too many people want anything that might limit their audience—they want to cast a wide net.
That’s not to say that the primary goal of all Christian bands is to minister to the lost. This is where the division of terminology arose. Bands that saw themselves as a ministry would often label themselves as Christian bands. But bands that were primarily interested in playing music were often seen as Christians in a band. The former were often the ones who made the money for labels like T&N, but the latter were the groups that won more critical acclaim. The few artists in the Christian scene who—often influenced by secular DIY labels—were interested in being on an “indie” would shoot for a secular indie, or occasionally sign with T&N. With the latter they matched the level whereby they could secure some notoriety and distribution, but also know they weren’t owned by one of the majors (just distributed by one of them).
For many of my Christian punk friends, our relationships with god changed over the years. The fire we once had in our hearts changed into something less intense, or in the case of myself and some of my other friends, it has ceased entirely. But this happened years after we left high school and college, when there wasn’t much stigma with becoming agnostic or atheist.
I still own some Christian music and listen to it from time to time. There are some great bands out there comprised of Christians who, on occasion, sing about their faith or god, but can do it in a way that’s not preaching. Acts such as Common Children, The Prayer Chain, or Starflyer 59 still get semi-regular rotation by me. I’m not sure what that magic line is where I’ll accept Woven Hand (an alt-rock country act whose lyrics are incredibly religious) but cringe when I listen to Crux. I love their music, but their lyrics spend a lot of time on right-wing politics:
Why do you lie to us? Why do you lie to us?
By teaching in school Christianity has died.
Why do you lie to us? Why do you lie to us?
By handing out condoms; safe sex is a lie.
To be honest, I struggled writing this article. It brought back a lot of memories from my teen years—many not so good. Now that I’m not a Christian, it’s hard to wonder who that person was who was so excited about Christian punk and hardcore. When I started writing this piece I listened to some of the old bands again—bands I hadn’t thought about in ten or fifteen years. When I did so, all I heard were the acts they were ripping off: Hüsker Dü, Danzig, Billy Idol. Were these bands consciously wanting to sound like these “secular” artists, to create a “safe” alternative to the scary world of the unsaved? Or were they using their music as a means to save souls? Whatever the case, halfway through listening to “Jesus Is Number One” by Altar Boys, I decided to listen to the Replacements song “Androgynous” and think about how far I’ve come since those days when I labeled myself a Christian punk.
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