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Raised by Wolves: The Story of Christian Rock & Roll 

 

Raised by Wolves: The Story of Christian Rock & Roll
By John J. Thompson
ECW Press, Publishers
262 pages
Reviewed by Linda J. T. LaFianza

I always look forward to running into John Thompson. Get him started and much like a fountain in a hot public square, he'll splash you with refreshing words about his life's mission, promoting Christian rock music. John has been well connected with the underground, offbeat side of Christian musical entertainment since founding the first Christian independent music outlet, True Tunes, at the tender age of 14. That oft-celebrated store, its upstairs performance space, its widely distributed magazine/catalogue True Tune News plus summer vacations at Cornerstone Festival and spring breaks in Nashville for the Gospel Music Association annual convention gave Thompson ample opportunity to follow this sub-genre up close. He has spoken to most of the key players on stage and behind the scenes, hired many of them for his venue, interviewed even more for his magazine, released some of their records on his labels and stocked all of their records. As a shopkeeper, summarizing albums and artist careers into positive 50-word blurbs for information-starved customers was second nature. Understanding the author's retail background helps explain this ambitious, thorough, yet frustrating book. Like splashes of cold water from a fountain on a sunny plaza, the stories in this book tantalize as they run together and quickly evaporate without a trace.

Thompson divides Christian rock and roll into three waves, with a nod to its African American origins in gospel and blues. The first wave, from the late-sixties Jesus Movement hippie revival through the coalescence of Christian rock as a marketing category by 'seventies close, gets the most balanced treatment. This is the most interesting part of Christian rock's story as the rules were not written yet. Wolves does a fair job charting the formation of the supporting machinery toward the end of the decade, but doesn't mourn the loss of innocence, nor explore its implications in much depth.

The second wave, the 'eighties, includes the stories of many mainstream bands who happened to have Christian members, such as Mr. Mister, The Call, Kansas, and Innocence Mission. There is with excellent coverage of the most famous, U2, and the dramatic conversion of such artists as Alice Cooper, Donna Summer, Sunny Day Real Estate 's Jeremy Enigk and Stryper. Thompson also ducks underground regularly to cover the exclusively Christian rock scene. Newcomers to Cornerstone Festival who need a clue about the old guys on stage everyone is bonkers about will appreciate the back-stories.

The third wave, the 'nineties and beyond, has seen a dramatic increase in revenue for Christian rock produced within and outside of the popular mainstream. Christian rock has finally figured out how to make money. Thompson chronicles the tales of such major players as Mike Knott, REX Records, the Vigilantes of Love, dc Talk, Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer, Creed and P.O.D.

Thompson justifies the title by explaining, "By the late sixties, Christian rock had been rejected by its forefathers and dismissed by mainstream pop culture. Legions of creative musicians suddenly found themselves orphaned ----left to be raised by wolves." Awash in a sea of anecdotal band histories the "orphaned" premise is never properly justified. Given the dramatic shifts in ownership of the entertainment industry, mama wolf's litter is far more diverse than Thompson acknowledges. The success of most rock bands groups these days is limited to one or two hits.  Whatever their religious beliefs, hits are a reward of sorts for five to ten years of independent obscurity. Christian rock is just one sub-culture among many that the media conglomerates from time to time, not a persecuted minority.

Structural changes to Raised by Wolves could have made this a lasting reference. So many artists overlap the decade-long  "wave" demarcations that following their careers is confusing. An encyclopedia format for this ambitious work with an extensive forward to place the bands in the context of their times and movements would have made this a lasting reference. It is unfortunate that no historic photographs were included. Dinah K. Kotthoff has done an outstanding job taking contemporary photos of many of the living legends mentioned throughout this book, but including pictures from old albums and publicity stills would have given the reader a better sense of those earlier times.

Unintentionally, this book does honestly present the mind-set of Christian underground rock fans who are content for the "Next Cool Thing" to take the stage at Cornerstone Festival rather than being salt and light at their local live music venue. Indirectly, the book sheds light on the most crucial question facing Christian musicians. Was Christian music forced to set up a parallel, sanitized industry or did they voluntarily hide their light under a bushel? When Christians give up on the music industry due to the lack of past commercial success as detailed in this book and retreat to the welcoming arms of the Christian sub-culture, others rush in to fill the vacuum. Fortunately, the artists venturing out of the wolf den into the world at large are discovering that the lions in the street can be tamed. This next wave may be the most interesting of all.
 

 
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