The closest I ever got to the Beatles was just the beginning of getting close to Jesus.
Petie and I sat in the third row of plastic, yellow chairs, neatly arranged on the concrete slab floor of the church sanctuary, our eyes riveted on the drum set that was prominently placed up front, center stage. We were euphoric. A. This was a Christian concert and there were drums! B. The drums were right in front of us! C. The drummer was formerly with Paul McCartney and Wings!
O.K. It doesn’t mean much to you, but in 1980 rural Arkansas, where a guitar-donned youth pastor crooning Kumbaya was as contemporary as it got, this was an historical event. In two years Amy Grant would release Age to Age, launching the modern era of contemporary Christian music. But for me and Petie, it all started that night at Christian Ministries Church with the Joe English Band.
You southern Californians are correct in pointing out that Jesus Music had been around for over a decade, dating back to the late 60’s with Larry Norman and a few other pioneers. Petra, who is calling it quits this year after over 30 years of ministry, had been going strong for several years, and Amy Grant had already released My Father’s Eyes. But Petie and I knew nothing of that. As I said, this wasn’t Orange County. If it wasn’t Kenny Rogers, K.C. and the Sunshine Band or Pink Floyd, we didn’t know about it.
But Petie and I knew about Paul McCartney. A concert featuring one of his former drummers was as close as we’d ever get to seeing the Beatles perform. A stretch, I know, but these were desperate times.
From 1974 to 1977, Joe English was the drummer for Paul McCartney and Wings, a group that had hits all over the radio. From what I’ve been able to piece together, somewhere along the line Joe became a Christian, and walked away from one of the best gigs any musician could have at the time. He decided to form his own band with himself as the lead singer, and spread the message of his new found faith.
This was no small thing in 1980. In those days being a contemporary Christian music artist meant taking a vow of poverty, traveling with your band in an old bread truck (which doubled as your hotel room) and doing concerts in small churches for love offerings, which were big on love but little on offering. Joe English had been touring on jets with a former Beatle, performing before thousands, filling football stadiums, and was heard all over the radio every day. Now he was playing for handfuls of people in country churches on the outskirts of no-name towns.
I fancied myself a bit of a drummer, partly because I had a little talent for it but mostly because I was a 16-year-old male, so English naturally appealed to me. When the band began playing, I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. This was no Michael Row the Boat Ashore, Hal-le-luuuu-jah. This was, well, this was actual music, my music, the kind I listened to on the radio, only rather than being encouraged to Get Down Tonight, I was being warned about the coming of Jesus and the blood on His sword, to a groovy beat no less. I wanted to get down all right -- on my knees and get right with God.
As soon as the concert was over I scooped up a cassette of Joe’s first release, Lights in the World. That thing nearly became one with my car cassette player. I hardly ever removed it.
Jimmy, a good friend and pastor’s kid, heard me playing it in the car one day and said, “What’s that on the radio?”
“It’s not the radio. It’s Christian music -- the Joe English Band,” I said.
“Seriously? Can I borrow it?”
And that was the last I ever saw of that cassette. Jimmy borrowed it and has not returned it in over 20 years. I saw him at my high school reunion a couple of years ago and he didn’t mention it. I can’t wait around forever, though, so a couple of weeks ago I set out to find a copy.
Let me tell you something. It is a great day to be alive when you can, over the span of a couple of days, locate and have delivered to your front door an obscure Christian album from 1980. No rummaging around garage sales or thumbing through row upon row of psychedelic albums at your local independent music dealer. I went on-line and did a simple search, and in a few minutes found a cassette copy of Lights in the World and ordered it. It showed up in my mailbox; I burned it onto a compact disc and it is playing on my computer as I write.
I have shown you there’s
Just but one way to go,
Now in faith you must
Make to work what you know...
Time turns quickly and
Things will soon slip away
Bring the Savior in
While today’s still today
The album’s theme is simple and straightforward. Get ready because Jesus is coming back. Don’t be caught on the evil side of things when He does. Shine the light of Christ as brightly as possible. Die to the world and live for Jesus.
Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. Lots of Jesus. Joe even looked a little like a Jesus (if our Lord had been white and weighed 250 pounds). Christ plays quite the prominent role in these Christian songs. No ambiguous “You” for these guys. Jesus is real and He’s coming soon. “Get Ready,” one of my favorites, is best described as apocalyptic disco:
For the fires that rage,
It’s the end of the age,
There’ll be blood on the sword,
For the day of the Lord.
Not much crossover potential there. Another favorite, “Is There Not One Good Man,” has it all: smooth guitar, tight horns, soulful Hammond B-3 organ, bluesy harmonica, precision drumming (of course) and those nose-bloodying lyrics:
Liar, filled with fire
That’s your style,
Stealer, Satan’s dealer
That’s your game...
You’re selling out your future
For the gold,
Sinner, man you’ll pay when
The album is 34 minutes of gospel Tabasco. Listening to it again takes me back to a time when I wanted the strong medicine, and English delivered. There are a few sips of cool water interspersed throughout (Shine on, Shine on, Jesus shine down on me, oh, oh...) just so the listener doesn’t burn there on the spot. But soon you’re back hearing about Jesus mounted a white horse with His sword at His side, the conquering King followed by His soldiers on the last doomsday ride, bringing the world a silent scream. This was 1980’s seeker sensitivity.
English made several more albums through 1987, but for some reason, Lights in the World was the only one I ever owned. He was one of the top selling Christian artists in the very early 80’s, having sold a reported 100,000 albums in three years, phenomenal in those days. To put in perspective, Christian group MercyMe sold 1.5 million in 2004 alone.
I tried to track Joe down for this column. I thought it would be great fun to find out where he is and what he’s been doing since 1986, which is the last I can find anything out about him. I called Drummer magazine. Nope, they had no idea where he was. I called a few friends in the CCM industry. No clue. I called Contemporary Christian Music Magazine. Nothing. I searched the Internet. I discovered it was a lot easier to order his music than to actually find him.
I have no idea where Joe English is. But if I could talk to him, I would tell him thank-you. Thank-you for walking away from whatever fame and fortune you enjoyed to embark on a career that at the time offered little promise. Thank-you for traveling hundreds of miles to another small venue, but playing like you were in a stadium. Thank-you for introducing me to a world of music that over the past 20 years has played such an important role in my life. Thank-you for being a light in my world.
Copyright 2005 John Thomas. All rights reserved.