Religion: Jesus was a punk

These young Americans believe in the Father, the Son and the spirit of Sid Vicious. Photographs by Serge JF Levy.

It is called Suburbia '99, a six-hour line-up of eight live bands at the University of California, Irvine. The early summer sun is blazing and, by five o'clock, the fans are noisily pouring into the indoor Bren Events Center. Most are teens in T-shirts and baggy trousers. They are frisked and then handed little brown napkins. "To wipe the sweat," someone explains. The music promises to be loud and hard.

Which it is. Suburbia '99 is not for the faint of heart or eardrum. But there is something else that sets this night apart. Presented by Tooth & Nail Records, the independent label that has signed all of the bands on the Suburbia bill, this is also a night for worship. Christian kids - in America, at least - have found a new way to glorify God and connect with Jesus. They are doing it through Christian music. And Christian music, it transpires, no longer means violins and harps and harmonies. It can be this - head-numbing, spine-cracking punk rock.

It is a brand of music that Tooth & Nail Records can claim as its own. Founded in 1993 by Brandon Ebel, the label has become home to scores of new bands that share two things: their sound is abrasive, jarring and violent and their calling - to bring teenagers into the Christian fold - is devout. And this music is a booming concern. One of Ebel's bands, the OC Supertones - more ska than punk - has a new album, Chase the Sun, that seems set to go gold in the US. Going gold in the US means sales of at least half a million units. Others, like the punkier Ghoti Hook, have heard their music in Reebok commercials and seen their videos on MTV.

The music may be Christian - although the degree of evangelising varies from act to act - but your local vicar wouldn't like it. But these teens do and that is the point. "Christian music used to suck," explains Ebel. "It wasn't relevant musically to kids." Until Ebel stepped in there was nowhere for non-traditional Christian bands to go. "No one was signing them up in the general market because they were Christian and nobody was signing them in the Christian market because they were afraid of them."

In the mosh pit, the area just in front of the stage where the dancing is most frenzied, the fans - about 4,000 on this particular occasion - go berserk to the music. For a full six hours they heave, jump, crowd- surf and, yes, they sweat profusely. And then, when requested to by the Supertones, they raise their hands for Jesus Christ and pause to pray together in a powerful and eerie silence.

Even so, this night startles the uninitiated. When POD - it stands for Payable on Death - take to the stage I have to wonder: Can God really appreciate this incessant, pounding barrage of sound? If bands such as POD make it to heaven - these screaming, furious men, their shirtless drummer and dreadlocked vocalist - will they really be welcome? With their instruments and amplifiers? Ask these teenagers and they will all raise their hands and answer - Yes. n

The mosh pit

At this Christian concert (see also previous page), the fans do not wear sandals, they do not sit cross-legged, they do not smile and sway. They go crazy. They rush the security guards and crash on to the stage. They spray water from bottles on one another. "At this point, I want you all to go completely mad," Joel of the band Ghoti Hook screeches from the stage. No problem. All night, young kids have been lifted into the air to crowd-surf - myriad hands hold them aloft passing them across the throng. The smell is not of incense here, but of bodies. But in serial interviews, the youngsters all say the same thing: their bouncing and gyrating is in glorification of God. Most of them never attend secular concerts or even listen to secular music. "Just to be here in a crowd that is worshiping the Lord - this must be what Heaven is going to be like," says Erik Jensen, a 23-year-old law student. "I don't have to worry about getting home in one piece," adds Chris Medson, 18, "because there is no real violence here, there's no drugs and no alcohol and we are all here with a single focus - Jesus Christ." So how important is the Christian element of the music to him? "It's 100 per cent important." he says emphatically.

Ghoti Hook

The five guys from the suburbs of Washington DC who make up Ghoti Hook huddle in a room backstage just before their set - it is time to pray. "God, we thank for this opportunity to do Your work with the kids tonight." In interviews, they admit that their punk sound distresses some mainstream churchgoers, even though churches have often served as venues for their concerts. They never preach from the stage and only some songs carry an overtly Christian message. But their fans know where they are coming from. "For some people it's a big shock, how we sing," admits guitarist Jamie Tolosa. Vocalist Joel Bell adds: "We've faced opposition from Christians. But when Christ walked in this world, it was not `Do as I do or die'. Ghoti Hook might be loud, says drummer Adam Neubauer, but it is doing God's work. "We let kids know that they are not freaks because they feel the way they do. There is still love and still hope."

The OC Supertones

The bands on Tooth & Nail Records share a conundrum: they would like their music to appeal to the mainstream (they would like to be huge), but are forever labelled as Christian. Some of them face a double disadvantage - Christian music stores ban their records for being too loud while chain stores like Tower Records, put them in the Christian corner at the back of the shop. The OC Supertones (OC stands for Orange County) are, however, quite unconcerned. On this night in Irvine, Orange County, as at all their gigs, the Supertones do not shy away from evangelising on stage. Spreading the word comes first. "I realise that some kids would be more into us if we didn't preach," remarks Jason Carson, the drummer who also happens to be a youth minister, "but I'm not worried about looking cool to them." Rightly so as the Supertones, with a two-piece brass section and sounds veering from ska to reggae to rap, are by far the most successful of the Tooth & Nail bands, as their gyrating fans, above, show. Their second song at Suburbia '99 is "Hallelujah". Its chorus leaves no doubt about the Supertones' mission: "Hallelujah to the lamb! Yeah, hallelujah, I am saved. Through Christ we are bound to win."

Silent prayer

"The reason you are here tonight is to praise God. Praise Jesus! We love you guys, yeah!" Thus POD, the angriest of the bands in the Suburbia '99 line-up, remind the crowd of the night's higher purpose. And then, Boom!, without a second's pause, the jet-engine, bass-and-drums, sound of POD explodes again. Another band, One Eighty, took a similar praise-the-Lord break. "How many people are here to worship Jesus Christ?" Instantly, 4,000 pairs of hands flies into the air. Only the OC Supertones dare to stop the flow of music altogether to bring the crowd into common worship. "We want to be people who are contagious for the Lord," proclaims drummer Jason Carson in a "live-for-Christ" pep talk that extends beyond five minutes. Carson then calls for 30 seconds of silent prayer, before taking his acoustic guitar and singing a hymn. For a few minutes the auditorium is filled with Christian music as I know it - soft, melodic and, well, cloyingly tame. But nobody seems to object. Four thousand bodies that have been moshing and bouncing all night, gently begin to sway. Faces betray a state of trance as arms and hands are aloft again - reaching, of course, for our Lord Jesus Christ.

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