Godpop: never mind the cassocks

If Christian pop summons up Jesus sandals and terminal embarrassment, think again. God is now groovy and climbing the charts, says Michael Collins
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Roll over Beelzebub. The Devil may once have had all the best tunes, but no longer. The most incongruous partnership since Clarke and Redwood has those old sparring partners, Christianity and rock 'n' roll, joining hands in prayer and, right under the noses of the secular music industry, evolving a parallel world of pop, rock and rave in the uncharted territory of the Christian movement.

Christian pop penetrated the mainstream in May, when British Christian Indie combo Delirious? went straight in at number 20 with "Deeper", without the backing of either a major label or the music press. The group's following has arisen purely from its profile within the Christian network of venues, festivals, clubs and magazines.

Delirious? met in church. "We are all from the same congregation and we all wanted to make music," says vocalist Martin Smith, 26. "Everyone thinks that music by Christians is going to be wimpy. We wanted to make the music that represents our generation and our beliefs."

Delirious? have spearheaded a movement that could echo the success of its Stateside equivalent, where bands take their music and image from Britpop, but their message from the Bible. The market for this marriage of street cred and credo is potentially massive. "Christian contemporary music is the sixth largest music market in the States," claims Jonathan Brown of Word, a British-based Christian label. "It has grown by 29 per cent into a $550 million industry over the past 18 months."

The American Christian scene is a mirror image of the mainstream market, with its roster of boy bands, girl bands, singer/ songwriters in the Alanis Morrissette mould, soul and dance music. The phenomenally successful, all-girl Point of Grace have been described as "the Spice Girls without the spice", while the boy-to-men group Take 6 have recorded with kd lang and last month sold out the Royal Festival Hall.

But it was the arrival of Christian guitar bands, taking their cue from grunge, indie, and British groups such as Oasis, that made the major labels prick up their ears. These bands are now making the leap of faith into the mainstream music charts. Virgin signing DC Talk, a fusion of hip hop and alternative rock, have notched up 83,000 sales with their album Jesus Freak. Following in their footsteps are Audio Adrenaline, notable for the song "We're Never Gonna Be As Big As Jesus", a reversal of that infamous remark of John Lennon's that so upset Uncle Sam. Meanwhile, Jars Of Clay have been paid a small fortune to make a Coke commercial.

But if the Te Deum is the message, why has it taken Christianity so long to find the medium through which to speak in the tongue of America's youth? In The Third Great Awakening, Tom Wolfe noted how previous attempts to bring Christianity to the Kids had failed. "'Beatnik coffee houses' in the church basement for poetry reading and bongo playing," where the preachers "put on a turtleneck sweater and sing Joe Hill and Frankie & Johnny" fooled no one. The Nineties approach succeeds because it's coming from outside the church establishment. "The band All Star United toured constantly for nine months, getting a following and tightening up as musicians," points out Brown.

Ben Dyke, 23, works in the music section of Wesley Owen, a chain of Christian retail outlets, and believes "some secular bands are similar to Christian ones because they are expressing what touches them deeply. Delirious? sing about God, groups like Nirvana sang about angst and despair." The hot contenders to join Delirious are acid-jazz-influenced Beehive, and silver-suited dance duo Db8, a hybrid of Erasure and 2 Unlimited.

The content of the songs concerns a design for living that, like Ecclesiastes, suggests rejoicing in youth but keeping an eye on the final judgement. Witness "Bright Red Carpet" by All Star United: "Armani likes the way you wear your clothes/But Heaven's gate is no place for fashion shows." Others are coded love songs to Christ, with no names mentioned. "I wanna fly higher, I wanna go deeper" sings Smith on the Delirious? hit.

Even Channel Five have hopped on the bandwagon with the contemporary Christian music show Alphazone. "The Christian music scene is about to break in the UK in a big way," says Jennifer Hughes, the ebullient 27-year-old presenter and producer of the show. "It needed to become a trend before the music press were ready to bite the apple." C of E meets MTV, Alphazone is the show where "the message meets the music". "It has broken through all the barriers of religious programming," claims Hughes. "It's not about banging tambourines. It kicks in with a Christian Top Ten, music videos, hip hop, drum 'n' bass, pop, jungle and dance. It shows that Christian music is cool." God grooves in mysterious ways, but finally, he grooves.

God rockers of all denominations will come together at Wembley on 28 June. The Champion Of The World concert will feature the new and older breed of contemporary Christian music. Gospel, from which all popular music started, is the path to which Christian dance music is returning. "There's a growing Christian club scene," claims Hughes. "The Christian pop scene has Delirious? and the Christian rave scene has Abundant."

Set up by DJ and promoter Steve Baker, Abundant describes itself as a "collective of people committed to providing safe spaces and places of cultural expression". Inspired by the Ministry Of Sound, it has its own CD, clubwear and regular venue, playing "the Nineties sound of the underground dancefloor with the inspirational gospel voice of praise to God".

Baker continues, "The gospel garage music genre is definitely where it's at. The crowd love that uplifting vibe." Abundant could be described as a revivalist rave, with DJs "evangelising" from the decks. Let's hear you make some noise if you believe. It's beatitude. God is in the House. He's also in his Heaven, in the charts, and all is right with the world, but for two things: sex 'n' drugs. As synonymous with rock n' roll as Sodom with Gomorrah, will they prove a sticking point for secular crossover?

According to the Christian Research Association, the number of practising Muslims will overtake that of Anglican Christians by the year 2002. Heaven must be missing an angle. When it comes to "Christian pop", an oxymoron for so long, the memories come flooding back. Christianity hangs like a future in panto over fading pop stars, and when the revered give Christianity a credit the audience go into shock, as when David Bowie recited the Lord's Prayer at an AIDS charity concert. It may take something of a Damascan conversion to turn secular groups onto Christpop.

For many of the young, free and secular, the anarchy and the Ecstasy remain part of a good time. But if marketing and PR with a message and a moral twist can turn round a political party and get it elected to government, where it could take a religious faith God only knows.

The second series of Alphazone starts on 29 June on Channel 5. For tickets to The Champion of the World concert, call 0345 585579.

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