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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
The end is near for legendary rockers Petra. As they bid their fans (Petheads) farewell on a final tour, the Tollbooth looks back at a their long, ground-breaking career in this interview with Bob Hartman and John Schlitt.
If you live in or near Murphy
North Carolina then you may want to be at the One Fire Family Church on
New Year's Eve. The Petra concert that night will mark the end of an era.
A band that revolutionized the way we think of music within the Christian
community will be saying goodbye after leaving us with twenty-five albums
(plus two special edition farewell CDs) and many memorable concert moments.
And it's not too late for Annie, she could be next to you;After a brief fling with The Johnny Band, Schlitt left the music industry in 1980. He said, "When I quit and became a Christian I thought I was done. I spent five years outside of music. I tried to find out what God had in store for me. I thought I would never sing again and then one day in 1985 Bob Hartman called me."
Schlitt had already discovered Petra's music. "By this time I was a big Petra fan. Somebody had given me a tape and said, 'You have to hear this. The band sounds just like your old band only Christian.' I listened to it and said, 'Praise God, that is such good stuff.' It made perfect sense to me that you could use this rock power and bring across a message that can change lives. It was just so exciting to me but at the same time it was frustrating because I felt like, man I could have been doing this. I thought it was over (his career). I was a mining engineer for a few years and miners would come in and say, 'What are you doing here? Why aren't you singing? Why aren't you a rock star?' I answered the only way that I would sing again would be in a band like Petra. I said that knowing there was no possible way that would ever happen. It is surprising how God will listen. You better watch out for what you say because He will take you up on it," said Schlitt.
The year was 1986 when Hartman placed that call to Schlitt inviting him to become Petra's new lead vocalist. The rocker turned mining engineer now firmly established in his faith jumped at the opportunity. As Schlitt would soon discover, however, the Christian rock scene was a much lonelier landscape than the one he had long ago left behind. Petra's contemporaries were few with groups like Whiteheart, Stryper, Randy Stonehill, Guardian, Bride, and Larry Norman as their peers.
Although acceptance was slow in coming and in some ultra conservative circles rock is still considered an evil, the tide slowly turned. When Hartman was asked about the turning point in terms of the Christian community embracing groups like Petra he responded, "I don't think there was any one turning point, but I think that more and more pastors who had been touched by CCM (Christian Contemporary Music) were coming into the church." A style of music that today is much different than the rock genre of PETRA played a key role in Petra gaining a foothold in the Christian music industry.
“Today, there is not one successful Christian band out there that isn’t keenly aware of the road paved for them by Petra. The word pioneer doesn’t fully describe the broad scope of Petra's finished work and the results concerning Christian radio, AC, CHR and even Inspo artists and of course, the lives reborn in their wake. Petra broke new ground for the Kingdom where so many others could not,” said Alan Scott the music director for WDCX in Buffalo New York.
As we sat outside the concert venue in Toronto Schlitt relaxed and talked about the evolution of rock as an acceptable genre in Christian circles. He said now the public's endorsement of rock music in the Christian market is more dependent on swings in the music industry as a whole rather than being based on personal beliefs or biases. "I think it has gone up and gone down. It sort of depends what is happening with secular music. If the secular system is playing rock the Christian market will buy it. If they're not they won't. As far as the Doubting Thomases are concerned, they are always going to hate anything that is contemporary that gets past the church doors. The difference now is there aren't as many of them that are opposed (to rock). They have listened to rock music and can see how it is going to work." He said more people today view rock music as a means to reach a certain segment of the population with Christian lyrics than might be the case with other genres.
Petra's influence has extended beyond their fans and influenced other artists over the decades. “Petra has always been one of the biggest names in Christian rock,” said Inpop Records President Wes Campbell. “Petra's contributions to our industry are innumerable, and the band was very instrumental in the beginning stages of Newsboys career. We are honored to have supported Petra in its ministry and music,” said Campbell, who also serves as the manager for Newsboys.
Hartman said Petra's music has continued to evolve over the years. "I think my earliest writing reflected the zeal and lack of knowledge of a young Christian, which I was. I would hope that my later writing reflects the wisdom of a man who has walked with the Lord for many years."
While the band's appeal has been throughout North American, Schlitt says their greatest support has always come from the Midwest United States, California, and Texas.
As a group, Petra has always wanted their audience to know that the most important thing about their concerts is not how great it sounds but the message it is created to deliver. The band members always extend an invitation to those listening to invite Christ into their lives.
In speaking about the song "No Doubt" on his website, Schlitt eloquently put it this way, "This song has probably become an underground classic for Petra; it's the title cut off of one of our albums. It's just a statement that says, 'Hey!' When fear starts getting to youyou just let it go, because with Jesus Christ there is no doubt about His love, there's no doubt about His promise, there's no doubt about His existence with you."
Hartman says he hopes Petra's legacy, "Will be that we were a band who would not compromise our beliefs and our calling. That we remained steadfast in our mission for thirty-three years."
As their farewell tour draws to a close, both men want their fans to know how much they are appreciated. In an October interview with WAY FM Schlitt in a complimentary fashion referred to the fans who came to the concerts as fanatics. He said they were the ones that cared about Petra and had kept the band going for thirty-three years.
About their concert in Toronto, Hartman had this message for their Canadian fans, "Thank you, Toronto, for making such a special night on our farewell tour!"
By Joe Montague, exclusive rights reserved
Joe Montague is an internationally
published journalist / photographer. His ministry is dedicated to the memory
of his late son Kent David Montague who went to heaven at the age of 18.
All copyright and distribution rights remain the property of Joe Montague.