September 20, 2023

There’s so much entertainment to be found in these three CDs and anyone with a love for the music of that period will enjoy digging into them. Grapefruit have come up with the goods once again, so all I can say is: God bless Grapefruit!

If you are a little fearful that this box set is full of clean faced (and rigorously acoustic) guitarists with angelic voices singing about the joys of Jesus, then worry not. This fantastic selection does indeed have the topic of Jesus at its core but it’s taken with a broad brush so there are only a handful of those horrid soppy songs. The musical selection is much more varied and lyrically covers songs that will never be heard in Sunday School such as Jethro Tull’s My God and Al Stewart’s even more biting condemnation of the Church, Gethsemane Again, inspired apparently by a visit to Gloucester Cathedral where Stewart observed the money being gained from selling tacky souvenirs. Oh, and we also have a song about a penis transplant, but more about that later!

As usual with Grapefruit releases, there is an informative booklet included, this time extending to 44 pages. As well as short details on every one of the 57 tracks, there’s an excellent context-setting essay by David Wells which tells of the origin of the movement around 1965 with the formation of the Musical Gospel Outreach (MGO). The MGO organised Sound Vision – the first paid-for Christian music event held in the United Kingdom – in May 1967 at the Westminster Central Hall, and it was MGO too that set up Key Records, the very first label created to promote Christian music.   

Mary Whitehouse having a singalong with Judy MacKenzie

Today, only about 5% of the population goes to church on Sunday. As such, it would be easy with our 2020s mindset to think of the Jesus rock revolution as the product of an insignificant group of religious fundamentalists. But, back in the ‘60s that figure for churchgoing folk was around 50%, so considering oneself an active Christian was pretty much the norm, and Christianity permeated many aspects of life (just looking at stage musicals, the period in question generated Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Godspell). Despite the nation being so God-fearing at that time, there was concern about declining moral standards, and that infamous conservative activist Mary Whitehouse was a strong supporter of the new Christian movement, even singing a duet with Judy MacKenzie at the Festival Of Light Rally. So, fifty years ago Christianity was definitely central to society in a way that is no longer true today. 

The Salamander concept album

Given that the compilation covers a very specific period of time, I imagined that the three CDs might be organized chronologically. That isn’t the case, perhaps because the movement was broad and there isn’t a discernable change in styles apart from maybe the initial folk influences of the ‘60s giving way to rock influences in the ‘70s. If I counted correctly, only 11 of the tracks are from the 1960s, and hence the focus is really towards the early 1970s which will please the more rock-oriented fans. As a prog rock fan myself, the two standout tracks are Prelude (incorporating He Is My God) by Salamander and Lord Of The Ages by Magna Carta. I suspect most readers will be familiar with Magna Carta’s epic ten-minute evocation of the apocalypse from The Book Of Revelation but if not then it’s a wonderfully atmospheric piece with majestic spoken passages overlaying hushed sung parts, lots of lush orchestration and a heavier and more aggressive middle-section. It’s a very satisfying prog piece and the best composition by the usually more restrained Magna Carta. The Salamander track has delicate organ and broad King Crimson like sweeps on keys mixed with a catchy faster section, and some bombastic orchestration as the song reaches a climax. The song comes from a concept album, The Ten Commandments, which Melody Maker disparaged at the time, stating ‘there are moments when the music is as sickly and stodgy as a well-oiled doughnut’. I’ve not heard the album myself, but I’m keen to do so after hearing that one track – irrespective of that Melody Maker opinion.

The cool gatefold cover of Prelude’s album How Long Is Forever

There are plenty of big-name bands on show. The Strawbs are the only group to be honoured with two slots with The Man Who Called Himself Jesus and Is It Today, Lord? Lindisfarne is represented by the lovely Winter Song, and indirectly a second time with Clear White Light in a version recorded by a group called Wishful Thinking. The Moody Blues’ Minstrel’s Song is a good choice although a case could have been made for including Question from the same A Question Of Balance album. There’s Pentangle’s version of Will The Circle Be Unbroken and Fairport Convention’s Matthew, Mark, Luke And John. There’s even The Hollies (Jesus Was A Cross Maker) and Genesis (The Serpent).

While those big names provide some quality material, the fun of this sort of compilation is to discover the weird and the unknown, whether it’s good or bad. So, sticking with better known names to begin with, there’s a song called Job’s Tear by The Incredible String Band. It’s a long dense acoustic piece, cleverly put together and lyrically a little more interesting than most. Gordon Giltrap also went through a Christian phase, and that’s represented here by the excellent and almost boisterous (by Giltrap standards) Gospel Song. You may know Who Cares from the Stealers Wheel album, Ferguslie Park, but here we have a previously unissued solo version that Gerry Rafferty that pre-dates the Stealers Wheel album. It has different and overtly Christian lyrics and a much more interesting backing – light and jazzy compared to the dullness of the Stealers Wheel version. And then there is Christ One by Quiet World. ‘Quiet who?’, I hear you say? Indeed, they were not a famous band and Christ One is an average song but they did have Steve Hackett in their line-up. He wisely jumped ship to join Genesis several months later.

There are plenty of good songs from bands you may never have heard of. Help Me Jesus by Paul Brett’s Sage is one of these, all layered percussive acoustic guitars, almost anticipating that multi-layered acoustic approach that Uriah Heep adopted later.  Lord And Master by Heron is perhaps closer to what you might expect from a Christian band – all melody and gorgeous harmonies over a bed of acoustic guitars – and despite its predictability, it’s a fine song all the same. If listening to it brings to mind some peaceful country scene, then that might be because the group insisted on recording their material out in open spaces! Another similar piece is Dear Jesus by a band called Prelude. It was released as a single and bombed, although at the same time the members of Prelude were at number one since they had done the backing track for Ralph McTell’s Streets Of London. Still acoustic but a little grittier is Love’s A Way by a guy called Bill Nelson. This one has almost a prog air about it, with a melody reminding me of Barclay James Harvest’s The Great 1974 Mining Disaster.

A well-placed fig leaf on the Kink’s single

One unexpected highlight for me was an Irish group called Mellow Candle who released just one album Swaddling Songs that is apparently regarded as a progressive folk masterpiece. The song included here is called Heaven Heath, a lovely upbeat folk tune accompanied by harpsicord. And now, in case you had forgotten, let’s find out about that penis transplant. That transplant and its consequences was the storyline of a soft-porn film called Percy. The soundtrack was done by the Kinks. Ray Davies wrote a fine song called Gods Children, including lines like ‘We’re all God’s children, and they’ve got no right to change us’, seemingly having a swipe at the ridiculousness of the film’s theme. It’s a difficult song to follow which I guess is why it is wisely the last of the 57 tracks!

Lastly, selecting 57 tracks means that there are many good pieces that didn’t make the cut. Rather oddly though, All God’s Children by Jimmy Thomas, is one of those despite giving the name to this compilation.  In this review, I’ve barely scratched the surface of describing this box set. There’s so much entertainment to be found in these three CDs and anyone with a love for the music of that period will enjoy digging into them. Grapefruit have come up with the goods once again, so all I can say is: God bless Grapefruit!

Heron, recording out in a field