In 1983 I was a Senior in High School and always on the lookout for some new Christian album to play for unsuspecting friends. I was also working at a local Christian Bookstore and maintained my position as “thorn in the flesh” to Greg fast, the program director at KYMS, the famous Christian radio station in Orange County, CA.
One of my favorite things to do at the radio station was introduce the more “rock” oriented artist at the regular Christian Music nights at the local amusement parks like Disneyland, Magic Mountain and Knott’s Berry Farm. The more “popular” disc jockeys would lay claim to introducing artists like DeGarmo and Key, Amy Grant and Leon Patillo leaving me to introduce The 77′s, Rez Band and Undercover.
My first foray into this job was early in 1983 at Knott’s Berry Farm. The artist was the then unknown Steve Taylor and Some Band. Steve and Co. had just released their debut EP, “I Want to Be a Clone” on Sparrow and no one who he was. But I did! I asked Steve recently if he remembered that night and he said that he did remember, and for the same reasons I remember it.
Steve AND band were placed on the smallest stage in the known universe. It was a stage normally used by a DJ and had about enough room for two turntables and a chair. It was squeezed between a train depot and the long since removed “Tijuana Taxi” ride. For those unfamiliar with Taylor’s live performance he possessed a frenetic energy that had to be released of the space-time continuum was in jeopardy!
He also remembers, like I do as well, the fact I was a very nervous 17-year-old kid who went through the entire introduction of myself, the radio station, upcoming concerts, Steve’s record and label information and welcoming him to the stage in less than 11 seconds. As embarrassing as it was, I was introducing STEVE TAYLOR!!!
Over the years I would meet up with Steve at different events like Gospel Music Association week in Nashville complete with Dove Awards, the annual Estes Park Christian music event, concerts and once at a movie theater in Nashville. In every instance he has been the most genuine and kind person.
Steve got his start when Cam Floria of the Continental Singers asked Steve to join them for a tour of Poland. This was before any walls ever fell and the Gospel was not a prevalent ideology in the Eastern Block. The things he saw there, though, would be used as inspiration for at least one song on Meltdown.
Upon return Steve traveled to Estes Park, CO for the Christian Music Artist Seminar where he performed a handful of songs from a demo tape he had produced. He was signed to a contract immediately by Sparrow Records owner, Bill Hearn. This was seen as quite of stretch for the normally conservative label known more for Steve Green and Steve Chapman than for the music of Steve Taylor.
Clone was quickly recorded and released in early 1983 to rave reviews and more than a few raised eyebrows. Known for its frenetic pace and songs lasting upwards of two minutes, “Clone” had a distinctly “Oingo Boing” or Devo feel to the music and even had a rap (term used loosely) song. But the eyebrow raising was reserved for the intensely sarcastic and caustic lyrical content. No sacred cow was safe and in later album he would even “name names.”
Many in the evangelical world never have been able to understand the use of satire and sarcasm within Biblical standards. The Bible is not foreign to this type of literature and language, and is a very effective weapon in the oratory and written arsenal God has provided. He has made foolish the wisdom of this world and does using sarcasm and satire to do so. I would recommend Douglas Wilson’s great book “The Serrated Edge” for a study on the subject.
Since I was working at a Christian Bookstore when Clone was released I was able to buy it the day it came out. Those six songs were played over and over so many times at home that the first copy I had was eventually rubbed smooth. From critical looks at those who cannot find a Church (Steeplechase) and churches that demanded perfect compliance (I Want to Be a Clone) to relativism (Bap Rap) and humanism (Whatcha Gonna Do When Your Numbers Up), Clone took no prisoners.
I remember at the time a Youth Pastor of a church I was attending was just blasting Taylor for his content. He was upset that Taylor’s voice sounded so sarcastic that people might mistake him for someone who thinks we “shouldn’t all be exactly alike!” I guess “Clone” was written for him.
But it is “Whatever Happened to Sin” that steals the show. After generations of the Church no longer teaching about man’s culpability in relation to sin, Taylor was forced to ask the question. Whether it was political figures using the name of Christ to get elected, a “Christian” advising a young woman to seek an abortion or mainstream, liberal Church’s softening stand on moral imperatives, no one was beyond striking distance.
As caustic as “Clone” may have appeared to be, nothing would compare to the album that would follow.
“Meltdown” hit the market in 1984 and I really don’t think the industry was ready for it. Oddly enough the album did contain Taylor’s first radio hit in “Hero.” It was not originally released as a single, but KYMS and a few other stations started playing it and it caught on. The rock single “Meltdown” did make some waves on MTV and featured Lisa Welchel who was best known as “Blair” from the popular television show, “The Facts of Life.”
The album maintained the Oingo Boingo pace but also included a more mature, David Bowie type influence. ten finely crafted song that would remain staples for Taylor for many years to come, “Meltdown” remains the favorite among most fans even though later albums may have shown more artistic growth and merit. There was this absurd combination of anger, sarcasm and innocence that flowed from the songs.
Taylor’s victims were thinly veiled, and quite frankly clearly defined, as they made for easy targets. Whether it’s Bob Jones University’s former policy on inter-racial relationships or Jimmy Swaggart’s attacks on Christian Rock, it did not take a genius to know who the attacks were leveled against. Taylor’s later albums would also address similar themes with Bill Gothard and Robert Tilton also receiving the pointy end of the pen. But, as we will see, “Meltdown” also dealt with general issues of the sins of the world and the sins of the church.
The title track leads the album off with a satirical look at the “rich and famous” and how their money, popularity and importance will not keep them safe on judgment day. The video did make the rounds on both Christian and mainstream video outlets and was quite good considering the year and the media’s relative youth. Using the famed Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum as a backdrop for the song in which a rogue janitor turned up the heat on the famous statues.
Elvis and the Beatles have seen a better day
Better off to burn out than to melt away
Dylan may be fillin’ the puddle they designed
Is it gonna take a miracle to make up his mind?
Athletes on the floor
They’re running out the door
Bad boy McEnroe couldn’t keep his cool
Now he’s with the rest of ‘em, wading in the pool
“Howard Hughes–Billionaire” says the written guide
Pity that his assets have all been liquefied
The exclamation point is given at the song’s conclusion as he notes the importance of centering one life around that which will last.
“Celebrity status only got in the way
Had my hands in my pockets on the Judgment Day
You can’t take it with you–there’s fire in the hole
Had the world by the tail but I lost my soul”
There is a great throw away line at the end of the song as the chorus is repeating where the “inspector” from Scotland yard complains “A lot of bees gave there all for this…”
The not so subtle attack on the Bob Jones’ University stand on inter-racial relationships, “We Don’t Need No Colour Code” is done in a “tribal” sing and response format. This was easily the most controversial song on the record as the use of names (initials in this case) and the power the university possessed within Christian circles. The university finally abolished the practice in 2000.
Down Carolina way
Lived a man name o’ Big B.J.
B.J. went and got a school
Founded on Caucasian rule
Bumper sticker on his Ford
Says “Honkies If You Love The Lord”
One of the most controversial lines on the whole album is near the end of the song where he states “white supremest eat their young.” I attended three different concert in which I witnessed Steve having to explain that line. In fact, at an in-store album signing party at Maranatha Village I hosted someone challenged him on that song and particularly on that line.
What sounds like a great idea on paper does not always work in the studio. I am sure that many feel that way about the straying keyboard that accompanies the song, “Am I In Sync?” I actually like it and appreciate the supportive message it lends to the song.
When famed movie director Woody Allen was asked if he desired to achieve immortality through his movie making he responded by stating he would rather achieve immortality by not dying. This line was the impetus for the song and its message of those who try to achieve greatness and immortality through their actions while avoiding the only who can provide that immortality. Here Taylor tells the story of two distinctly different people who attempt to find immortality whether through becoming famous (movie star) or by leaving a legacy (science).
Long before Rush Limbaugh and Shawn Hannity found the mainstream media an easy target for attack, Taylor was already over it. Actually he was way ahead of the curb for noting the liberal bias inherent within modern journalism. He even noted that it may not be within the editorial content, but also as a result of what the press decides to cover or not cover.
In concert he would tell the story of an event where to leading evangelicals came out in support of a woman’s right to choose. the press was all over it with every single paper present at the press conference and proclaimed it as a victory for human and woman’s rights. But at the same time in the same city hundreds upon hundreds of Christians met to voice their support of life and not one single journalist was present. Taylor discusses the eventual slipper slope results of a lack of oversight.
When the godless chair the judgment seat
We can thank the godless media elite
They can silence those who fall from their grace
With a note that says “we haven’t the space”
Well lookee there–the dog’s asleep
Whenever we march or say a peep
A Christian can’t get equal time
Unless he’s a loony committing a crime
Listen up if you’ve got ears
I’m tired of condescending sneers
I’ve got a dog who smells a fight
And he still believes in wrong and right
“Over My Dead Body” is one of the most challenging and disturbing songs in Taylor’s catalog. After Taylor’s travels with the Continental Singers to Poland he was encouraged to take a second trip there. This song sprang from the injustice and persecution the Church was facing those countries. The song tells the true story of a young man following Jesus’ command to feed those in prison by taking food to Solidarity members who were being underfed while imprisoned. The young man was found out and beaten to death in the middle of a Warsaw street by two soldiers with the butt of their guns. This nearly has the feel of something U2 would have written during this same time period.
I was a victim of December 1981
I took a final beating from the blunt end of a Russian gun
You made a memory–the memory will multiply
You may kill the body but the spirit–it will never die
Over my dead body
Redemption draweth nigh
Over my dead body
I hear a battle cry
Try and blow out the fire
You’re fanning the flames
We’re gonna rise up from the ashes
‘Til we’re ashes again
Taking the sins of the world and making them much more introspective Taylor deals with the devastation sin leaves in its wake in “Sin for Season.” A David Bowie inspired vocal performance is haunting and leaves the listener questioning their own failings. In this song Taylor addresses marital infidelity, drunk driving leading to a death and how Christian will sin while feigning repentance.
Gonna get the good Lord to forgive a little sin
Get the slate cleaned so he can dirty it again
And no one else will ever know
But he reaps his harvest as his heart grows hard
No man’s gonna make a mockery of God
“I’m only human, got no other reason”
Sin for a season
“Guilty be Association” returns to the sarcastic form with a very “white man reggae” or world music rhythm. This response to Jimmy Swaggart’s attacks on rock music remains a personal favorite, especially midway through when he imitates Swaggart.
“Well I have found a new utensil
In the devil’s toolbox
And the heads are gonna roll
If Jesus rocks”
“It’s a worldly design!
God’s music should be divine!
Try buying records like mine
Now today it may be much easier for artist to take direct stabs at the foibles of religious and political leaders, but in 1984 it was simply not the case. It was a bold and refreshing move. Taylor was criticized for naming names. At the same in-store appearance I mentioned earlier he was questioned about using names or being painfully obvious about who the intended target was. He responded by noting Paul’s “outing” of Peter and his hypocrisy and Paul naming those who had deserted him and left the faith.
“Hero” remains my all time favorite Steve Taylor song. As I have mentioned several times previously, I was a young kid in 1984 trying to get Greg Fast at KYMS to open up the rotation to more edgy music. My thinking was if I could get a ballad on the air and it was a hit it would be easier to add more upbeat songs from the same artist. the reasoning being that if the station listeners were out buying the record they hearing the rest of the songs anyway,, so why not play them. “Hero” was my first real victory. I finally convinced management to play the song and it became a HUGE hit! They soon after added “Sin for a Season” and others from the album.
“Hero” comes across as the most autobiographical song on the album. It tells the story of a young boy who loved reading his comic books and fiction stories about heroes. But “real life” got in the way. His heroes disappointed him and were not real heroes after all. Eventually the subject finds the world’s true hero in Jesus Christ.
When the house fell asleep
From a book I was led
To a light that I never knew
I wanna be your hero
And he spoke to my heart
From the moment I prayed
Here’s a pattern I made for you
I wanna be your hero
“Jenny” at first glance appears to be a story about a young, small town girl who leaves her roots of faith and morals and leaves for the sin and temptation of the big city. The truth of the matter is the song is an allegory for America, who had long since abandoned her “Bible Belt” faith beginnings and had reached for the brass ring. This rejection of truth and morals leads to the death of the protagonist and to the nation.
“Baby Doe” is simply the saddest and most disturbing song Taylor has ever written. Taylor tells the true story of an Indiana couple in 1982 that went to court to fight for the right to let their Down Syndrome newborn die of starvation. The court allowed it despite the thousands upon thousands of people willing to adopt “Baby Doe.”
A miracle play
This Indiana morn
The father–he sighs
She opens her eyes
Their baby boy is born
“We don’t understand
He’s not like we planned”
The doctor shakes his head
“Abnormal” they cry
And so they decide
This child is better dead
Taylor refuses to accept the argument of choice as he reiterates, “this baby has a voice.” But not content to simply criticize the parents, press and legal system that allowed the atrocity to unfold, Taylor points the finger back at himself and the Church for its lack of action and outcry.
It’s over and done
The presses have run
Some call the parents brave
Behind your disguise
Your rhetoric lies
You watched a baby starve
I bear the blame
The cradle’s below
And where is baby
This is what the listener is left with. The challenge to not only criticize and attack, but to be an integral part of the solution. Taylor would go on to record some of the greatest and most impactful albums in Christian music. Everyone of them the could be listed among the best. And controversy was never far behind. “On the Fritz” contains critiques of Robert Tilton, Bill Gothard and has Taylor playing the part of a female grade school teacher pushing “values clarification.”
And controversy was never far behind. “On the Fritz” contains critiques of Robert Tilton, Bill Gothard and has Taylor playing the part of a female grade school teacher pushing “values clarification.”
On “I Predict 1990″ the album cover, designed by wife, was labeled as Satanic because of a supposed resemblance to a tarot card. But it would be the satirical “I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good” that would cause most stores to not carry the album. The story of a fictional ice cream truck driver who decided he needed to blow up abortion clinics in order to keep his own job secure. It’s amazing that so many missed the point, but far be it for me to overestimate the intelligence of some in the evangelical community.
With “Squint” the controversies were either muted or simply the evangelical world was catching up. “Squint” remains Taylor’s most mature and possibly highest artistic achievement.
Taylor would later start Squint Entertainment, a label that included artist like Chevelle and Sixpence None the Richer. He was also the lead vocalist for the amazing band, Chagall Guevara, a band signed to MCA that should have changed the world!
There is talk of a movie based on the popular “Blue Like Jazz” book and film making appears to be the passion. His fans always hold out hope that a new album may one day squeak out but nothing appears to be in the works. In the meantime we can enjoy his works, especially his first full length album, Meltdown.