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Sunday, June 29, 2008

The 77's, The Warehouse, and Memory Lane

Have you ever had a talk with someone who actually saw The Beatles play Shea stadium? Or maybe they saw them on Ed Sullivan and can tell you everything about that night? It is exciting to be in the presence of those people when they tell the stories. Inevitably, there is always some kind of “it’s hard to explain how magical it was—you just had to be there” moment.

It’s hard to compare any of my experiences to theirs (since I am such a Beatles fanatic) but, I think I understand to some degree what those original fans feel when they can claim they were “there” at the beginning.

I know something about what it feels like to experience the beginnings of a long lasting movement.

Friday night I met up with my friend Kirk Schneemann (who pastors a great church in Ann Arbor) for a bit of sushi and a concert. The concert was by one of the best bands of all time—The 77’s.

The backstory : : :

The year was 1982 and it was the summer before my freshman year of High School—the same year Keith Green died and Amy Grant released “Age to Age.” I had a friend; Tom who was a couple of years older than me and already had his driver’s license.

We lived in a town called Grass Valley, CA which just a short drive into the foothills from Sacramento. On Saturday evenings there wasn’t a lot to do in our town unless you didn’t mind breaking the law and we were good Christian kids (not that we didn’t do things we aren’t proud of).

On Saturday evenings—as often as we could—we made a trip down to the valley to visit a place called Warehouse Ministries. “The Warehouse” as everyone called it was exactly that—a large warehouse space that had been converted into a concert hall (at least that’s what we thought of it as). The concert hall was actually a church on the weekends pastored by a man who was a hero to us—Pastor Louis Neely.

From The Warehouse website:

Warehouse Christian Ministries started out of Louis and Mary Neely's apartment as a Bible Study for young people. Louis and Mary had spent many years as missionaries for a mainline denomination. As they settled back into America in the early seventies, they found a culture embedded with the hippie movement, the Vietnam War, rock and roll, drugs, and a fascination with eastern religions. After much prayer and consideration, they began an outreach to these young people, presenting the truth of Jesus Christ in a relevant and simple manner.

Believing in the clear calling of God, Louis and Mary continued the Bible Study, with the support of a few Christian businessmen who shared the vision. Mary had been following the "Jesus Movement" in Southern California. In short order, Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa flew to Sacramento to meet with Louis. He dedicated the new building, a "Warehouse" that the Bible Study met in. Warehouse Christian Ministries officially opened its doors on April 28, 1974.

The bands Tom and I (and other friends) saw at The Warehouse would change our lives forever. Not only would those bands change our lives, they would change the face of “Christian” music forever.

I believe God was doing something with rock and roll bands at that time—and over the next few years—that has been unparalleled in “Christian” music to this day. Don’t get me wrong, there are some fine Christian musicians out there today who have made huge impact on the world (case in point would be Third Day, Switchfoot, Jars of Clay) but the bands who rose to the occasion in the late 70’s through the 80’s have continued to shape music and influence it today.

And it seems most of those bands went through The Warehouse and played free shows for kids like me.

The 77’s were one such band. Many members have come and gone (and come again) over the years in The 77’s but the driving force behind The 77’s is one Michael Roe. Michael Roe is the one Christian musician who should rule the world but for some reason has consistently rocked in near anonymity to the world at large for 25 years.

One of the first “Christian” albums I ever purchased was a vinyl copy of The 77’s Ping Pong Over The Abyss. Classic. If you ever get your hands on it, buy it!

Their second studio album entitled “All Fall Down” was produced by Christian rock pioneer/artist/songwriter and producer Charlie Peacock. At the time, Peacock was a little known entity and he himself was a regular performer at The Warehouse—of course, he would go on to make his mark in huge ways. The album gave them a great MTV video for “Mercy Mercy.” Church parents hated the album as Roe was on the cover lying on the ground in women’s makeup. Funny, that same year another famous groundbreaking makeup- wearing band would give church parents a reason to burn records and pray for their children (this was the same year Stryper put out The Yellow and Black Attack—an album that would make me become serious about playing guitar).

In 1987, The 77’s put out their self-titled release which would give them a hit single, more MTV exposure, a favorable Rolling Stone review, and their first major-label exposure with Island Records. Many believe this is the greatest 77’s album to date and blame Island Records for ignoring The 77’s phenomenal album as it was left in the wake of another monumental release by fellow label-mates. That band was none other than U2 and the album was “The Joshua Tree.”

The 77’s were dropped from Island Records.

Controversy continued to follow The 77’s when "without consulting with the band, Brainstorm (or its parent company, Word Records) altered the packaging and marketing of the “Pray Naked” album, which was issued without a title (making it the second album by the band entitled simply "The Seventy Sevens") and with the title track's name blacked out in order to avoid offense in the conservative Christian music marketplace of which Brainstorm was a part. However, a short spoken word segment on Side Two still refers to the album as Pray Naked. Most 77’s fans still call the record by its intended title, and the band has also been known to "re-title" the CD when signing autographs."

Roe and band went on to produce another string of albums that have always been embraced by intensely loyal fans. Roe has also been a member of the iconic “Lost Dogs” –a band comprised of members of The Choir and godfather of punk/new wave/indirock Christian music Terry Scott Taylor of the band Daniel Amos (another band that altered the course of my existence).

A favorite at any Cornerstone music festival, The 77’s continue to tour and make intoxicating music. Their latest release, “Holy Ghost Building” is available now.

I could write an entire book on my experiences with The Warehouse and the bands that changed the face of music. The stories of the music that was produced during that time and the people who produced it reads like one huge incestual creative collaboration where members of one band moved on to another and then were produced by former members of other bands. It is quite exciting and interesting.

Quite honestly, I don’t think I would be in ministry today as a musician if it weren’t for these people who inspired me. Thank you 77’s. Thank you Rez Band. Thank you Mark Heard. Thank you Phil Keaggy. Thank you Pastor Neely.

As best I can remember, here is a list of bands and music pioneers I saw for free at The Warehouse (in no particular order) : : :

Charlie Peacock
Mark Heard
Resurrection Band
Sweet Comfort Band
Steve Taylor
Altar Boys
Phil Keaggy
First Strike
Randy Stonehill
Gary Chapman
Benny Hester
Youth Choir (later “The Choir”)
Barren Cross
Steve Scott
Farrell and Farrell
Mustard Seed Faith
Oden Fong
Randy Matthews
Matthew Ward

I’m sure I forgot someone since this is off the top of my head. Ah, the memories . . .

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