My Top 10 Larry Norman songs

My Top 10 Larry Norman songs November 4, 2011

Before starting another round of our musical Alphabet Game, I thought I’d delve a bit deeper into explaining some of the subcultural content of my music collection. By that I mean the “Christian rock” that takes up a big chunk of my iTunes library.

I used to have much more of this music and it used to constitute a much bigger share of my collection, and thus of what I listened to. A lot of that music, alas, did not age well and I sold or traded or gave away much of it long before iTunes was invented or before I got that awesome USP turntable that let me convert vinyl into mp3s.

What’s left is the good stuff — or, at least, a mix of the good stuff and the stuff I may be too attached to sentimentally or otherwise to let go. (Those two categories get a bit fuzzy for me sometimes.)

So I thought it might be fun and/or worthwhile to take a closer look at these artifacts from inside the American evangelical subculture by introducing or reviewing some of the sectarian “Christian rock” artists and bands who inhabit my my iTunes library.

This collection of artists marks me not just as a member of that subculture, but as a middle-aged evangelical as well. Back in college I worked at the campus radio station, helping to shape its Christian rock format. For years after that I wrote reviews and features for the late great Christian music ‘zine Notebored, and then I became a regular at Cornerstone and several other Christian music festivals promoting Prism magazine. At Prism, I worked with Dwight Ozard — the best guide I’ve ever known to the good and the bad, the awesome and the abominable, of the little realm of Christian rock.

But that was all a long time ago, and these days I’m completely out of the loop in that musical world. Whoever the next Steve Taylor might be, I haven’t heard him. If there’s a contemporary heir to Mark Heard or some new act as good as the geezers in the Lost Dogs, then they remain undiscovered by me.

I’m 43 and thus reaching the point where my musical preferences threaten to become like that old guy I used to know who still wore his hair like Bowser from Sha Na Na — comfortably settled on something I found and liked decades ago. So maybe my reviewing and reintroducing this old stuff will also enable others to point me to the new stuff — to worthwhile music, “Christian” branded or otherwise — that’s appeared in the years since Bill Clinton left the White House.

Here, though, I figured I might as well start at the beginning, with the long-haired hippy freak usually credited or blamed for creating what came to be called “Christian rock.”
Larry Norman first made a splash as a one-hit wonder with the band People — a groovy California band that charted in 1968 with a cover of The Zombies’ “I Love You.” They even made a video, which is pretty fantastic in a “Listen to the Flower People” kind of way.

Norman became a born-again Christian and then a street preacher and evangelist, but he never put down his guitar and he never cut his hair. He went on to write and record several strange and wonderful albums of 1970s Jesus music, inadvertently inventing a new genre of evangelical pop.

Norman was a very, very odd man. He was half brilliant and half crazy, half saint and half self-serving sinner. And he never seemed able to recognize which half was which. Norman created the template for the “Christian music industry” when he founded his own record label. Solid Rock Records brought together a remarkable collection of gifted artists, proving Norman had a keen eye for talent. He then systematically alienated all of those artists through a combination of mismanagement, duplicity, dishonesty and adultery — thus creating the model for the many Christian music labels operating today in Nashvegas.

I saw Larry Norman in concert twice, both times long after the accident in which he received the blow to the head for which he blamed his later erratic behavior and artistic decline. His concerts by then featured more preaching than singing — long, rambling monologues that seemed like Steven Adler’s outtakes from an episode of Celebrity Rehab, but interspersed with brief flashes of real insight. It was worth sitting through all that talk, though, because after babbling for 10 or 15 minutes, he would play a song. And whatever else was true of him, Larry Norman had some really good songs.

Here’s my Top 10 Larry Norman songs.

10.Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus?

The first, and I’m pretty sure the only, Christian rock song to discuss gonorrhea and heroin.

9.The Tune

A goofy, 8-minute, anviliciously allegorical epic that captures the best and worst of Norman’s oddball genius, his strange mixture of Hollywood and L’Abri, of hippie idealism and conservative piety.

8.Six O’Clock News

Norman’s song about Vietnam. “What can I do?”

7.The Sun Began to Rain

With Dudley Moore on piano (!) and classic Tin Pan Alley flair, even premillennial dispensationalist eschatology sounds good. Norman’s idea of the “Glorious Appearing” doesn’t involve blood and death, but something more like Jesus descending the Mount of Olives like Fred Astaire tap-dancing down a staircase:

Water swelled from fountains and then turned to wine,
Rocks fell from the mountains in a chorus line;
He came in tails and top hat and He looked so fine,
And the Son began to reign.

6.Great American Novel

A protest song, in which Norman condemns poverty, racism and the Apollo mission while calling for a return of school prayer. It’s actually better than that sounds.

5.Sweet Sweet Song of Salvation

Follow the link above to the YouTube audio at your own peril. This hippie-Jesus sing-along anthem is an earworm.

4.I Wish We’d All Been Ready

This is the classic pop-culture artifact of PMD Rapture/Antichrist/prophecy mania. It influenced Hal Lindsay, Tim LaHaye and countless others, providing both the title for the World’s Worst Books, and the soundtrack for the opening credits of the Rapture movie A Thief in the Night. The big difference between Norman and LaHaye here is that when Larry sang, “you’ve been left behind,” it was a mournful, minor-key lament, not a triumphant, trash-talking, end-zone celebration.

3.Diamonds/One Way

Simple lyrics, simple melody, simply a lovely song.

2.Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?

When preacher-hucksters like Bob Larson began criticizing Christians who played or listened to rock and roll, condemning it as “the devil’s music,” this was Larry Norman’s response. Not bad.

1.The Outlaw

When I first heard this song, I had never thought of Jesus as an outlaw or a poet or a political figure. This song, for me, arrived at just the right time to help nudge me toward seeing what I hadn’t been able to see before. Here’s a second video of this song, just because it’s from Cornerstone 2000 and I was somewhere in that tent.

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  • Anonymous

    Poor larry if he knew what song number four indirectly would create.

  • Anonymous

    I’m 43 and thus reaching the point where my musical preferences threaten
    to become like that old guy I used to know who still wore his hair like
    Bowser from Sha Na Na — comfortably settled on something I found and
    liked decades ago.

    Keep fighting it Fred.  Maybe its because i didn’t listen to a lot of music as a teenager and thus didn’t calcify my teenage impulses into lifelong tastes, but I’m 42 and some of the best music I’ve heard in my life has been released in the last 10 years. And its easier than ever to find and listen to.

  • Anonymous

    re. Larry Norman… Growing up Catholic I always found the whole idea of “Christian Music” weird. Christian Music was what Bach was for…

  • Lucky for you, Fred, your musical tastes date you much less than, say … a throwaway reference to Sha Na Na.

    Great.  Now I feel old too.

  • The Outlaw was beautiful. I didn’t know Christian rock could BE good.

  • Mr. Heartland

    Shame that ‘Left Behind’ wasn’t done as a Christian Rock Opera.  Imagine the camp of ‘Killroy was Here”, “Trapped in the Closet” and Tim Curry’s number from “The Worst Witch” combined and amplified by infinity.  My God but it would be too beautiful to survive. 

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6m6m0hh9IU
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wmG80v473AI

  • Christopher^

    You wrote for Notebored? So did I!

    I wrote the infamous Achtung Baby review that continued to generate hate mail one year later. Based on that review, a Christian musician actually tracked down my phone number and called me in the middle of the night, questioning my salvation.

  • Back before I was allowed to listen to secular music, I had a (cassette tape) of the album “Fathom” by the band “Mortal”– though at the time, I thought the band was called “Mortal Fathom.”  Anyhow, lots of sci-fi film samples in there.  Anyhow; just what popped into my head reading this.

  • Anonymous

    For hippie Jesus rock, my all time favorite, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umQCgaZnO0o

    And I don’t like “Day By Day” much at all, but I admit a shameful affection for much of the rest of the Godspell score. 

  • Anonymous

    Hmm…  Even when I was much more evangelical than I am now the refrain of “Great American Novel” really, really annoyed me and I would wind up getting looks from my evangelical co-religionists when I groused that NASA’s budget is a rounding error and that the Establishment Clause rulings only prohibit state-sanctioned school prayer. 

  • wanderfarer

    When preacher-hucksters like Bob Larson began criticizing Christians who
    played or listened to rock and roll, condemning it as “the devil’s
    music,” this was Larry Norman’s response. Not bad.

    The best response I’ve ever heard to that phrase was from Mavis Staples: “The devil ain’t got no music.”

  • walden

    I really liked (1)The Outlaw, (2) Why should the Devil have all the good music (“I ain’t knocking the hymns…”), and even (4) Wish we’d all been ready was a pretty nuanced version of end times – with the right message right there in the title (a far cry from “Left Behind”).

    The Outlaw sticks with me after decades because it really gives you a lot of ways of looking at Jesus, all legitimate.  And then Larry picks one, but he doesn’t say all the rest of us listeners are wrong. He says “And that’s who I believe he was, cause that’s who I believe…”  It’s a respectful song.

    “Why should the devil have all the good music” has always seemed to me to have the same kind of vibe as Bob Seeger’s “Old Time Rock n Roll”, although released a decade and a half before that song.

    As long as Fred is reminiscing — does anybody remember the Talbot Brothers (some pretty good folk/rockers who went Christian in the mid-70s)? John was more famous, but I think Terry was the better rocker.
    The band “The Way” had some pretty good folk rock type stuff back then too, although they got a little too mellow now and then (Somehow the major seventh was the big musical discovery of the mid-70s for them and a lot of semi-famous secular bands like America, Bread, Hall & Oates, etc.)
    And really reaching, now, does the name “Honeytree” mean anything to anybody?

  • Richard Hershberger

    “I’m 43 and thus reaching the point where my musical preferences threaten
    to become like that old guy I used to know who still wore his hair like
    Bowser from Sha Na Na — comfortably settled on something I found and
    liked decades ago.”

    I have come to realize that I have a major advantage.  I grew up listening to classical music.  While that is far from all I listen to now, I have never stopped.  This has two benefits.   It has made me pretty much immune to any concern with being current.  It also means that I have nearly a thousand years of music to choose from, making the selection effectively infinite.  Even if we restrict ourselves to the great and merely very good, we can go a long time without repeating. 

    Just last night I was driving home entranced by what was playing on the radio.  It turned out to be Mozart’s Quintet No. 3.  I am quite sure I had never heard it before.  I was fully prepared to sit in the driveway to hear the whole thing, had it not ended before I got home.  The thing is, this sort of experience isn’t even all the uncommon with the benefit of a good classical station.  (WBJC out of Baltimore:  a superb station.)  As an added bonus, a lot of the triage weeding out the bad and the mediocre was done long ago.

  • Anonymous

    (Hey, dudes, I’m back! we kinda got buried under several inches of snow here in CT, and power just came back on today. I wrote it up on DW and LJ, if you’re there. It appears I have a lot of catching up to do, Fred & Slacktivites have been busy this week.)

    Being an avid and curious U2 fan, I have to wonder– why was it so infamous? Was it the “How DARE you praise an Irish Catholic rock band who smokes and says things like ‘Get up off your knees,'” or more the “How DARE you not love U2, he wears a cross and everything!?” kind?

  • “Honeytree” is a familiar name to me, yes!  One of my evangelical relatives used to listen to her–probably still does listen to her, in fact.  Honeytree and Evie were two biggies in that household.

  • Anonymous

    I have songs in my collection from when I collected Xian music which I am still holding onto for reasons not completely known. No force in heaven or on earth will part me from my love of Rich Mullens or Michael Card, but Ray Boltz really was overrated and shallow with a few notable exceptions. I suspect that the only reason why I haven’t thrown my Petra album out the window is because there is a bug screen on there, and the disc would bounce back and hurt me.

    Then, as I would come to, a red gash upon my forehead, I will look down on the floor, and read the words, though they were flecked with blood: “Still Means War.”

  • Anonymous

    It’s more “This music is pretentious and derivative. Also, Bono is a bit of a douche, and that he preaches alms-giving while U2’s set is worth millions of dollars by itself isn’t helping his case.”

    Also, this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8dZwXnMrRU

  • Markk

    My parents, once they got saved, got into some of that Jesus music themselves. Larry Norman was after their time, but they were into Honeytree, Evie, Keith Green and Len Magee among others. At some point I got into those artists myself. There is something real about those artists that, for me, isn’t there in the 90s era Christian rock that was around when I was growing up. 

    My high school music teacher made us do an assignment about Larry Norman (it was a Christian school, obviously).

  • Anonymous

    Ah. That. I actually find their music heartfelt and spiritual, rather than pretentious and derivative, but that’s just me. Different people, different tastes, an’ a’ that.

    Also, perhaps I should’ve been more clear. I meant the responses to the review– were they “How DARE you not love and worship U2?!” or “How DARE you not despise and loathe U2?!” Because there is a spectrum of those, with fanatics on both ends.

    (And yes, sometimes Bono’s ridiculously hypocritical, this I will admit. Asking countries for debt-relief to struggling economies strikes me as better than upbraiding them for not giving enough aid, though. I do think he’s getting better.)

  • Anonymous

    I admit, I am a little picky (my SO is much worse about it.) I never liked some songs that are considered classes, “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen being a good example.

    He’s MUMBLING the lyrics, people!

  • Anonymous

    I know a few bands that incorporate Christian themes in their work, and even a few bands under the Christian label, but as far as I know, most bands will avoid it like the plague. Most of the time, being called “Christian music” is a sure fire way to railroad yourself into a specific market black hole and never get back out again – you’ll be playing at birthday parties rather than Oz Fest. It comes with a bunch of negative connotations – anvillicious God music more concerned with salvation than songwriting, and I can understand why some bands want to avoid it completely.

    If Alternative and Experimental rock is your thing, you should really think about checking out Thrice. They started out as a punk-ish group, but they really started expanding with “Vheissu” and frankly, it’s that expanding element that makes them awesome. Dustin incorporates a lot of Christian themes and even quotes from the Bible (as well as from other sources) in his songs, but it’s no so much that this atheist feels like he’s begin beat over the head. “Vheissu” is the album you want, but their four part “the Alchemy Index” has some really good music, and a lot of references to classical mythology (Including an amazingly well written retelling of the famous Daedalus and Icarus story, from Daedalus’ point of view). As if that weren’t good enough, they give a certain amount of the money they make to charities.

    For heavy metal, Killswitch Engage and Demon Hunter. Demon Hunter gets a bit anvillicious at times, and are a bit like a religious version of As I Lay Dying, but I think they actually *have* accepted the label “Christian music” and there’s some talent there. I know Killswitch Engage has not, and there’s some Christian elements in their music.

    Pop-rock groups/Alternative rock groups like Flyleaf and Evanescence are good but a bit dated. I’ve heard some in Evanescence songs, and the lead singer of Flyleaf is an atheist convert to Christianity (and she can sing). Of course Creed did, but nobody listens to them anymore (except for me… -.-)

  • Jennifer Davidson

    I really liked Mortal. They got screwed over somehow by their label and reconstituted as Fold Zandura in the late 90’s. I met them at a concert once and they were really nice guys.

  • C

    I’ve abandoned a lot of the Christian rock I listened to back in college during the late 90s/early 00s; I used to listen to a lot of Third Day, Jars of Clay, the Insyderz, Five Iron Frenzy, the Supertones, Jennifer Knapp, Audio Adrenaline, Seven Day Jesus, Plumb, and probably some others that I’m forgetting (edit: Broomtree! Oh geez, was I addicted to that hard-and-happy chick music!).

    Of all those, I only still listen to two: Five Iron Frenzy (because I can’t quit a band that writes rock anthems about mullets) and Jennifer Knapp (who’s back after being in hiding for years, out as a lesbian, and writing some pretty decent mainstream-with-a-dash-of-Christian music these days).

  • Christopher^

    No, I, and Notebored by extension, was accused of supporting an album that promoted sexual immorality.

    The final line of my review was something along the lines of, “Achtung Baby will resonate most with those of us who have struggled against sexual temptation… and lost.”

    Well, that wasn’t taken very kindly by many readers for whom sex is something that Christians simply shouldn’t discuss in any kind of detail.  Props to the editors for printing my review without making me edit anything.

    The irony is that I’m now openly gay.  And still a Christian.  Uh-oh, I guess I’ll get another phone call in the middle of the night at some point.

  • SisterCoyote

    …Good grief, man. That’s ludicrous. Sometimes I wonder, are we supposed to just say “storks” and make a waggling motion with the eyebrows for the rest of our lives? (Or ‘angels,’ or whatever the non-heathen version of the birth-myth is.)

    If it makes you feel any better, you’re in good company, being a writer who got an angry phone call in the middle of the night (so to speak) for not taking the Real True Christian party line on some issue. I’d go back and find the blog Fred wrote about that, but I’m writing this post rather furtively as it is, so I should get back to work. I think it was last Spring.

  • belisarius

    Delurking to second the Five Iron Frenzy love.  Whimsical, energetic, and sympathetic to outcasts and underdogs everywhere.  Pretty much the only group to survive my withdrawal from the evangelical subculture.

  • Montyc4

    I have a collection of Christian vinyl in a bin around here somewhere. Several Larry Norman, I saw him in concert once and truly enjoyed it. The rest are all similar late 70’s, early 80’s stuff. Resurrection Band, Phil Keaggy, Daniel Amos, Degarmo & Key, Randy Stonehill, Keith Green, Darrell Evans, Andy Mccarrol, Michael Omartian, others that I have forgotten. Some of them were really original efforts like Resurrection Band. I was introduced to a lot of bands at the free concerts put on as outreach at Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa in the 75-80.

  • Andrew Marchant-Shapiro

    I used to have a lot of this stuff.  I met Phil Keaggy in ’74 and saw Norman and Stonehill (separately) several times between ’76 and ’80.  While I always thought Keaggy a far superior musician and Stonehill a better performer, Larry Norman’s lyrics–particularly some of his less-well-known stuff like “Six O’Clock News” (“they only pay me to stay the weekend/what if I never come back?”) and “Baroquen Spirits” (sp?) were some of the most powerful I ever heard.  For rapture-maniacs, does anyone remember the old trick of repeating the refrain “And you’ve been left behind” at the end of “I wish we’d all been ready” three times, but ending the song with a cut-off on the word “left” the third time through?  If you’re not ready for it, it can be chilling.

  • Andrew Marchant-Shapiro

    Oh yeah, and Honeytree, yes.  And the Talbot Brothers (though I preferred their incarnation as Mason Proffit [e.g., “Two Hangmen.”]).  Who else?  Lots of local (MPLS/StPaul) bands…2nd Chapter of Acts (of course)…good times.

  • Montyc4

    I saw Stonehill and Keaggy. Both were very good although, I agree, Phil dominated musically. There is a song on How the West was One (I think it is Yahweh) where Phil really lays it down.

  • Ian needs a nickname

    The first, and I’m pretty sure the only, Christian rock song to discuss gonorrhea and heroin.
    I’ll see your Larry Norman and Raise you Pedro the Lion.  I’ll admit that Dave Bazan’s early concept album about heroin addiction has not aged well for me, but he did give us these:

    Rapture: A song about adulterous sex that feels as amazing as the second coming of Christ
    Penetration: “If it isn’t making dollars then it isn’t making sense, if you aren’t moving unit then you’re not worth the expense, if you really want to make it you had best remember this, that if it isn’t penetration then it isn’t worth a kiss” 

    Control is Christian music, in the sense that it’s a concept album about a very Christian concept of evil, hell as lovelessness.

  • Pf

    Wow, I wrote a couple of articles for Notebored some 20 years ago. One was an interview of Terry Taylor that can be found on the DA website. Can’t recall the other, maybe an interview with Michael Been?

    I’m a little older, I remember the era a little more. Keaggy actually played at my high school (Hawthorne) in an assembly, man could he rock. Too bad he went acoustic, he couldn’t sing. I talked about Norman in the other thread. He was great in his prime, saw him at the Lambs Club and later in Lincoln, Neb. But he had delusions and got chummy with Ollie North.

    I once talked to Ozard about writing for his magazine, but didn’t work out. Sad about his premature death. You should contact me (pfiorilla@optonline.net) or give me a call at 973-734-1501. I’d like to say hello, Fred.

  • Hey, great list. I was somewhere in that tent at Cornerstone too! I’m in the crowd who came out of my Christian rock phase still listening to Five Iron Frenzy and few others. I even gave them $5 through Kickstarter for their new album.

    Anyway, I found this post because I recently wrote some notes about Norman’s “The Great American Novel” and was googling around: http://americancynic.net/log/2012/3/2/larry_normans_great_american_novel.html