1. Only Visiting This Planet – Larry Norman

ONLY VISITING THIS PLANET

Larry Norman

Prophet…scoundrel…poet…thief…comedian…clown…rock star…fallen star…

A living, breathing contradiction in terms, Larry Norman passed away on February 24th, 2008 at the age of 60. I attended the funeral, arriving late and “listening” to it from outside the doors of a Church near Salem, Or.

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Pastor Steve Wilkins spoke of the great Scottish warrior William Wallace several years ago at a conference. In his introductory remarks he noted that we actually know very little historical “facts” about Wallace and that most of what we believe about Wallace comes from an epic poem by an English Minstrel named Blind Harry a century or two after the death of Wallace.

Blind Harry’s poem stretches, twists and turn the truth on many occasions as it was compiled through oral traditions in which “legends” entered and merged, mixed and meshed with historical fact to create the larger than life character portrayed in the movie, Braveheart. And now even centuries later dissecting the truth from the legend and lore has proven to be nearly impossible.

But Wilkins argues that there is no real harm in the fabricated additions to the lore and legacy of Wallace, and in fact they play a very important role in actual history. Wilkins explains that it was the “legend” of Wallace that inspired many Scottish Christians to seek a new land in the Americas and eventually take up arms for the same freedoms they believed and perceived Wallace had fought for many centuries previous. It was not the actual truth that inspired them and carried them through difficult times and decisions, but the “legend” built upon the truth.

Larry Norman was born in Corpus Christi, TX but spent most of his formative years in Northern California near or in the Bay Area of San Fransisco. He was introduced to God and the Church early in his life at a Black Pentecostal Church in the neighborhood he grew up in.

In his late teens he joined a band called People! out of the Bay Area that took their name on as a response to the common use of animals or insects for rock band names like The Animals, The Beatles and The Byrds. A psychedelic, blues band People! only scored one hit with the song, a cover of the Zombies (which was OK I guess because they used to be people) hit song, “I Love You” that did crack the Top 20.

The album also contained the song “What We Need Is a Lot More of Jesus, and A Lot Less Rock and Roll,” which in reality comes off as a parody of mainstream evangelical Church life and thought. There was really nothing very “Christian” about the song despite its title. This is a bit odd as Norman would later claim that the album was supposed to be named after that song and that the supposed original artwork was changed to just a photo of the band and the title changed to simple. “I Love You.” Other band members would dispute this claim.

This would begin a long list of revisionist history claims by others regarding Norman’s version of things.

People! would record one more album for Capitol Records but Norman will have left previous to its release and end up only appearing one song. Along with the above claim of censorship by Capitol Records, Norman claimed that band members were being forced to embrace Scientology or forced to leave. This too is denied by band members.

The band would reunite 5 years later for a benefit concert at UCLA that would later be released under the name, “The Israel Tapes.”

Larry would record his first solo album, Upon This Rock, in 1969 for Capitol Records, the same label he claimed censored his work with People! This album is a very “Christian” album in all respects and would kick off a solo career that would last until his death in 2008. It is as the result of this album that Norman is credited with being the father of Christian Rock.

Christian Rock was born!

Upon This Rock is considered one of Norman’s finest works combining both blatantly Christian and evangelical messages as well as social and political commentary. This would remain a constant for Norman, who was the first Christian artists to make very progressive commentary on many issues that would conflict with mainstream Christianity.

The album would contain many Norman classics that would endure for decades including You Can’t Take Away the Lord, Moses in the Wilderness, Nothing Really Changes and Sweet Sweet Song of Salvation (which would become a youth group and Young Life favorite).Norman was influenced by Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Black Gospel Music and it shows here and on every album that would follow.

Also included on this album would be the first version of the song that would define both him and the Jesus Movement for all time, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” The song would be covered an inordinate number of time, not only by other artists but by Norman himself, appearing on more than just a handful of albums that would follow.

The Jesus Movement had a focal point of its ministry the idea of the soon coming secret Rapture of the Church. Theologians CI Scofield and Louis Sperry Chafer were primary influences as well as the Latter Rain Movement, a Pentecostal movement that emerge after World War ll that taught that the return of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Charismatic “gift” experiences would be a sign of the end times. Evangelist and “hippie prophet” Lonnie Frisbee would also play a major in the burgeoning musical genre.

The above coupled with the growing popularity of the unique “Dispensational” position on eschatology, the “Secret Rapture” was a major component of the Jesus Music and his rapture-ready song became the movements anthem. The song would even play a major role in the popular evangelical movie, “A Thief In the Night.”

Normans’ music and appearance would not play well in mainstream Christian circles that still argued that drums were inherently evil and the use of modern musical styles violated God’s ordinance. there is no doubt there was also a racial component to this issue as well. Norman’s music was heavily influenced not only by modern folk and rock of the time, but by Black Gospel music as well.

It would be the last nationally distributed album for Norman until the release of “Only Visiting This Planet” in 1972. In the years in between he would record and release two independent projects called “Street Level” and “Bootleg.” Both would feature grainy, underground looking black and white artwork. Both would also be “double albums” mixing live concert recording, studio demos of previously unreleased songs and future classics.

These albums would also reveal the smart and piercing humor Norman would always be noted for. Norman concerts were part rock and roll show, part revival meeting and part stand up comedy. This facet of his life and ministry would be introduced on these two albums. One section from “Bootleg” in particular really shines as he addressed the National Youth Workers of America Conference introducing “Sweet Sweet Song of Salvation.”

Several songs from the two “independent” releases would find their way on to what is known as the “The Trilogy.” The Trilogy of albums include Only Visiting This Planet, So Long Ago the Garden and In Another Land. Though recognized as a trilogy of records Norman only stated that they were informally created to deal with the present, past and future (respectively) with each album focusing on one of those topics.

Norman had left Capitol after “Upon This Rock” and singed with MGM to release “Only Visiting This Planet” as well as the following album, 1973′s “So Long Ago the Garden.” On both albums he received production help from George Martin, the famed producer of the The Beatles.  Norman stated that he had previously met Paul McCartney and that Paul had tracked him down to talk about his music. This is interesting as we will discuss when we talk about “Only Visiting This Planet.”

The album was decidedly more “secular” in content than any of Norman’s other releases. But much of the controversy in Christian circles came from the original cover (pictured above) because many argued the picture of the lion in the field superimposed onto Norman’s body was an attempt to cover the fact that Norman is naked in the cover as his navel is clearly visible. The later cover (below) would be cropped at a much higher point.

But it is true that the content was not as blatantly spiritual as other Norman releases. This may have caused him to not perform those songs as often in concert, which in turn may have impacted the general longevity of many of the songs. Mus9ically the album was very “current” for the time and flawlessly produced. Martin brought in the same “mellotron” keyboard used on the Beatles, “Strawberry Fields Forever” to use on the song, “Lonely By Myself.” There is a story that while recording the album in one studio Paul McCartney was in the adjoining studio recording “Live and Let Die.”

The album combined Norman’s penchant for 60′s blues, 50′s pop vocals and current social commentary to create a true classic worthy of more attention than it ever really received. Highlights include Fly, Fly, Fly, Be Careful What You Sing, Baroquen Spirits, Nightmare #71 and the haunting beautiful, “She’s a Dancer.” One interesting note is the “cover” of “Christmastime.” The song originally appeared on Randy Stonehill’s “Born Twice” album and is credited as being written by Stonehill. On this album the songwriting credit is given to Norman.

In response to many critics that he had “sold out” his Gospel message on the previous album, Norman followed up with “In Another Land.” It would take nearly three years to record and release this album that ranks a VERY close second in the list of great Larry Norman albums. This album would be released on Norman’s Solid Rock label and receive distribution by Word records in 1975.

“In Another Land” would mark the first nationally distributed “Christian” album for Norman and would also mark the on again, off again love/hate relationship Norman would have with the Christian music industry and, in turn, the industry would have with him. Consider that despite his in arguable multiple contributions to the industry he was not inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame until 2001.

The album was not free of controversy despite its very evangelical content. The first and most obvious issue was the unseemly longhair he sported, which in 1975 was simply unacceptable at the time. The cover also received complaints because Norman’s thumbs are supposedly switched with the right thumb on the left hand and vice versa, and that, it is claimed, is some sort of Satanic imagery.

SERIOUSLY!

“In Another Land” would contain many of Norman’s classics that would remain favorites for all time. The production is stellar and the use of limited spacing between songs keeps the record moving in non-stop fashion. Highlights would literally include the entire album! But I will note some interesting points.

The cover of Stonehill’s “I Love You” in a little odd since the only line from Stonehill’s original from “Born Twice” is the first line of the song. “The Rock That Doesn’t Roll” continues the theme of “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music” and would inspire countless musical defenses of Christian Rock. But rather than being a song about Christian Rock it is simply a play on words to describe Jesus. It is also the song that contains the lyric the album titles is based on.

UFO, The Sun Began to Rain, Six Sixty Six, One Way and Hymn to the Last generation would continue Norman’s popular “Second Coming” theme complete with Beast, Antichrist and Rapture.The reworked “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus” edits out the references to sex and sexually transmitted diseases the original included in 1972. “Righteous Rocker #3″ is a very short (chorus only) a capella reworking of the song from “Only Visiting This Planet.” I heard once that a second version was supposedly removed from “So Long Ago the Garden.”

“Shot Down” would prove to be his defense against detractor who believed he had forsaken the Gospel message on the previous album.

I’ve been shot down, talked about
Some people scandalize my name,
But here I am, talkin’ ’bout Jesus just the same.

I’ve been knocked down, kicked around
But like a moth drawn to the flame,
Here I am, talkin’ ’bout Jesus just the same.

I’ve been rebuked for the things I’ve said,
For the songs I’ve written and the life I’ve led.
They say they don’t understand me, well I’m not surprised,
Because you can’t see nothing when you close your eyes.

The album does credit Dudley on piano and John Michael Talbot on Banjo. But I wanted to note here that much of Norman and even Stonehill’s early work was greatly enhanced by guitarist Jon Linn. His work is much unheralded and he deserved much more respect. I know little about Jon but did read that he had passed away in the late 80′s or early 90′s.

One last song point out is “Song For a Small Circle of Friends.” The song is a list of artists the Norman counted as acquaintances and friends. It served as an evangelical call to these musicians.

With Clapton on guitar, and Charlie on the drums.
McCartney on the Hoffner bass with blisters on his thumbs.

Dear Bobby watch your fears all hide
And disappear while love inside starts growing,
You’re older but less colder
Than the jokes and folks you spent your childhood snowing.

And someone died for all your friends
But even better yet, he lives again.
And if this song does not make sense to you,
I hope His spirit slips on through, He loves you.

One stinging verse in hindsight is in regards to then good friend Randy Stonehill.

And love to you sir Stonehill,
Armed with your axe full gallop on your amp.
You’re crazy and you know it,
But I love you as we both crawl toward the lamp

As with the Stonehill review I will not dwell on that part of the story. There have been plenty of others that have written extensively on the subject. But I do want to note the opening line of this review and reinforce that those things which have  made Norman such an important and lasting figure in Christian music are not only the positives but the negatives as well.

His life would be filled with failed marriages and friendships. No artist ever recorded more than two albums with Norman and most left frustrated, jaded and angry. The rift between Stonehill and Norman lasted decades and much has been written on this and a controversial and decidedly one-sided documentary, “Fallen Angel” has been produced. Anyone with the interest and an internet connection can research the gory details I will avoid here. My point is that his life was both wonderful and tragic and both cannot be denied.

This album would prove to be a major influence on many young people and future Christian musicians. The honesty, well produced rock would break down many doors currently boarded shut. Though not a “heavy” record musically it still contained a serious rock vibe and socially significant content.

The following nationally album is what many, the present writer included, spelled the end or Norman’s artistic zenith. “Something New Under the Son” could really be considered a 4th album in the series, but “trilogy” just sounds more artistically satisfying. Also released on Solid Rock and distributed by Word records, the album would serve as the “heaviest” of Norman’s studio releases. This is a blues record through and through. Although recorded in 1977 it would also not see the light of day until 1981. This too would become a common problem of Norman’s both for himself and for the artists he was associated with, most notable Randy Stonehill and Daniel Amos.

It should be noted that there were several releases between “In Another Land” and “Something New” but were either generally unavailable (Starstrom), parody albums (Streams of White Light) or live albums (Israel Tapes and Roll Away the Stone). In fact “Israel Tapes” was recorded several years earlier (1975). Another album was a single that expanded into an album called “The Tune.”

This would also begin a frustrating history of Norman releasing poorly recorded live albums and albums of re-hashed demos, reworked song and compilations under different names. “Something New” would also mark the end of Norman’s national distribution agreements and all but one release would be exclusive to Norman’s Solid Rock or Phydeaux labels, primarily through mail order. I could discuss a majority of those albums but I’m not sure wordpress has enough bandwith.

“Something New” is often overlooked and that is a shame. As mentioned above, the album is a lesson in blues writing. Nearly every song would be considered a blues tune and Norman excels here. “Born to Be Unlucky” just flat-out rocks and Jon Linn gets to show off here. “Watch What You’re Doing” is hysterical and remained a Norman live favorite for years to come. Linn’s guitar and Norman’s harmonica trade-off some amazingly aggressive riffs.

Norman, who apparently had a lot of nightmares, recorded three songs with a numbered “Nightmare” title, but the best one is here. But the song that steals the show is the closing rocking romp, “Let The Tape Keep Rolling.” Though he would write several songs “reinventing” his history, this would be the best one and serve as a great lesson in how to write a great rockin’ blues song!

Norman would spend the 1980′s releasing two albums a year, though most would be poorly recorded live albums, anthologies and rehashed “favorites” with different arrangements and differing results in quality. There are a couple albums of note though.

“Letter of the Law” and “Labor of Love” would both be pretty decent pop rock records and probably deserved some national distribution. These were studio projects that contained several quality Norman tracks. I was able to obtain “test pressings” of those two albums and convince KYMS to play a few of the songs. they became pretty good hits and I contacted Larry to carry them at my store. Eventually a few independent distribution companies picked up the albums. Several of those songs would eventually be released on the album “Quiet Night” under the name Larry Norman and the Young Lions. One stand out is a cover of the late Tom Howard’s “Shine Your Light.”

Two last albums I wanted to point out are “Home at Last” and “Stranded in Babylon.” The first album was originally released by Norman as double album, but the Benson Company worked out a deal to create of single album release of what was felt were the best songs. This would mark the first time in a decade that Norman’s music would receive national distribution from a major Christian Record company. It would also mark the first album of primarily all new material during that same time period. It was also one of the first albums to be released on CD.

The album would be uneven, but it was hoped that it would bring Norman back into the public’s mind. It really never accomplished it as Christian radio was lukewarm and the buyers of Christian music were a whole new generation of people primarily unfamiliar with Norman.

“Stranded” was probably Norman’s best work after “Something New” and is worth picking up. Produced by his brother Charly, it marked a return to both social commentary as well as spiritual themes. Most importantly it showed Norman could still write new music that was powerful and compelling and that he could still rock. “God Part 3″ is worth the price of admission! Lacking any real quality distribution it too went mostly unnoticed.

Norman’s music and ministry would influence probably the widest variety of musicians of any other Christian artists. Fans include the previously mentioned Paul McCartney, Cliff Richard, Van Morrison, John Mellancamp, Pete Townsend, U2, the Pixies and Sarah Brendel. There have been over 300 covers of Norman’s songs recorded included even by the likes of Sammy Davis Jr.

In Christian Music the list of artists who are fans would be too long to mention. He influenced everyone from Geoff Moore to DC Talk. There have been two tribute albums to Norman, including a “dance remix” compilation called “Remix This Planet.”

But that influence ultimately started with “Only Visiting This Planet.”  Recorded for MGM’s Verve label, the album would become the most influential Christian album of all time. It served as a lesson in how a Christian can write songs on every possible topic with true humanity all the while expressing the undeniable Biblical truths a Christian possesses. There are songs about lost love, sex, free love, politics, media, culture and theology.

George Martin produced the album that was recorded in London at his AIR studios in 1972. It would be, by far, the best produced Christian album for its time and still remains a quality production. Norman’s voice is at its very best, both his singing and lyrical voice.

The album starts with a song of lost love, “I’ve Got to Learn to Live Without You.” I have always believed that it was Norman’s attempt at a Top 40 pop song. The honesty and longing in Norman’s voice makes the song utterly believable. These are theme and thoughts shared by nearly all who have experienced a love gone wrong.Musically it contains a very beautiful string arrangement and a subtle similarity to what The Beatles finished their career with.

Today I thought I saw you walking down the street
With someone else, I turned my head and faced the wall.
I started crying and my heart fell to my feet
But when I looked again it wasn’t you at all.

Why’d you go, baby? I guess you know,
I’ve got to learn to live without you

“The Outlaw” follows and would become one of the two or three most famous Larry Norman songs even though it would not receive Christian radio airplay until several years later. The story of Jesus as portrayed by an outlaw working on the outside of the established religious community also would speak to Norman’s own situation. With limited acoustic guitar accompaniment and some keyboards, this song is all about Norman’s voice and words.

some say He was an outlaw that He roamed across the land
with a band of unschooled ruffians and a few old fishermen
no one knew just where He came from or exactly what He’d done
but they said it must be something bad that kept Him on the run


While at a sales conference for The Benson company the sales force was being introduced to music from an upcoming Dana Key (DeGarmo and Key) solo project. One song was going to be a reworking of a DeGarmo and Key song. I commented that having Key re-record a song he had already sung wouldn’t “sound new” to fans and would possibly cause the listener to wonder why Key would need to do a solo album if he was just going to redo previously recorded songs.

Actually I said, “What’s going on a the record company? You guys running out of songs?” But what I really meant was the above. Either way Key went back into the studio and recorded a cover of Norman’s “The Outlaw” and it ended up being the biggest hit from that album.

For some reason, I never got a thank you letter.

“Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus” would be a song that would continue to shock listeners for generations to follow. The blunt discussion included would not even be accepted well today with a more “enlightened” audience. Labeled vulgar, this ong is the primary reason many stores would never carry the album, even decades later.Driven by an amazing blues vibe the song remains one of Norman’s finest and on par with the best of Bob Dylan lyrically.

Sipping whiskey from a paper cup,
You drown your sorrows till you can’t get up,
Take a look at what you’ve done to yourself,
Why don’t you put the bottle back on she shelf,
Yellow fingers from your cigarettes,
Your hands are shaking while your body sweats,
Why don’t you look into Jesus, He’s got the answer.
Gonorrhea on Valentines Day,
And you’re still looking for the perfect lay,
You think rock and roll will set you free,
You’ll be deaf before your thirty three,
Shooting junk till your half insane,
Broken needle in your purple vein,

Why don’t you look into Jesus, he’s got the answer.

Martin had assembled an amazing backing cast and on this song it really shows. Great guitar work drives this tune to a huge finish. And the false ending, instrumental finish just works perfectly.

“Righteous Rocker #1″ also known as “Without Love” predated Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” by nearly a decade but the similarities are shocking. Country blues riff propel a message of the need for God’s love no matter your personal situation.

You can be a righteous rocker, you can be a holy roller
You could be most anything,
You could be a Leon Russell, or a super muscle,
You could be a corporate king,
You could be a wealthy man from Texas, or a witch with heavy hexes,
But without love, you ain’t nothing without love
Without love you ain’t nothing, without love.

You could be a brilliant surgeon, or a sweet young virgin,
or a harlot out to sell,
You could learn to play the blues, or be Howard Hughes
or the scarlet pimpernel,
Or you could be a French provincial midwife,
or go from door to door with a death-knife,
But without love you ain’t nothing, without love,
Without love you ain’t nothing, without love.

The full length and most recognized version of “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” closes side one on the album. This post-apocalyptic ballad borrows directly from Matthew 24 and has the obviously distinct “Left Behind” theology at its core.

a man and wife asleep in bed
she hears a noise and turns her head
he’s gone
I wish we’d all been ready

two men walking up a hill
one disappears and one’s left standing still
I wish we’d all been ready

there’s no time to change your mind
the son has come and you’ve been left behind

The song would not only catapult Norman to the forefront of the Jesus Movement (a movement he never claimed nor felt any attachment to), it was featured in the movie “A Thief in the Night” and has even made its way into many hymnals. In fact, once a month at the Baptist Church I was raised in the would have a “Hymn Sing” in which congregant could request to sing a favorite hymn. I discovered that the Norman classic was included in the Churches new hymnal and would routinely ask to sing the song.

It wasn’t long before my raised hand was ignored.

Side two kicked off with “I Am the Six O’clock News,” which served a both an anti-war protest song as well as a critique of the modern media, especially television news broadcast that would routinely edit what would be discussed to meet political agendas. This was years Rush Limbaugh would lodge similar complaints, but from a distinctly different point of view.

I’m taking pictures of burning houses
Colored movies of misery.
I see the flash of guns, how red the mud becomes,
I’ve got a close-up view.

I’m the six o’clock news – what can I do?
All those kids without shoes – what can I do?
Military coups – what can I do?
I’m just the six o’clock news.

The song would fade out with a recording of an airline stewardess giving flight instructions over the roaring of a jet engine. As the roaring engine fades the early quiet strains of an acoustic guitar would fade in. This fed right into one of Norman’s finest lyrical accomplishments. “The Great American Novel” is comparable to the best Bob Dylan of Neil Young would write. +

This indictment against American politics would not sit well with mainline Christianity that would label him a liberal and communist and place him firmly amongst the atheist “hippy” left. The song would also feature some of Norman’s most indicting and creative lyrical content.

I was born and raised an orphan
in a land that once was free
in a land that poured its love out on the moon
and I grew up in the shadows
of your silos filled with grain
but you never helped to fill my empty spoon

The Church in the South that was still holding on to prejudice ways receives a very strong blow from Norman’s pen a well. Here though he also deals with the long ramifications and the impact on coming generations.

you kill a black man at midnight
just for talking to your daughter
then you make his wife your mistress
and you leave her without water
and the sheet you wear upon your face
is the sheet your children sleep on
at every meal you say a prayer
you don’t believe but still you keep on

This was obviously unexpected content from a Christian artists and deemed immoral, un-American and clearly unacceptable.

“Pardon Me” follows with the most odd and unique song in Norman’s catalog. After a string arrangement introduces the song Norman is accompanied by a very simple acoustic guitar. Dark, haunting and sad, the song deals with the understanding of “free loves” great cost and the moral decision to walk away despite the internal struggle for physical attachment.

Close your eyes, and pretend that you are me.
See how empty it can be
Making love if love’s not really there.

Watch me go, watch me walk away alone,
As your clothing comes undone,
And you pull the ribbon from your hair

If “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” is not the most covered Larry Norman song, then most definitely it must be “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music.” Norman’s defense of using contemporary music for the Gospel message. Many readers under 30 may have no idea that using contemporary music was not always acceptable. Norman and other have attributed the quote to Martin Luther though it has never been actually established.

This most likely came from possible comment Luther made regarding the use of certain instrumentation in Church music. Luther also said something to the effect that “Music is from God and that Satan hates.” But applying the actual quote to Luther is dubious.That doesn’t change the fact that the song is fun, rollicking rocker with a 50′s twist.

They say to cut my hair, they’re driving me insane,
I grew it out long to make room for my brain.
But sometimes people don’t understand,
What’s a good boy doing in a rock ‘n’ roll band?

There’s nothing wrong with playing blues licks,
But if you got a reason tell me to my face
Why should the devil have all the good music.
There’s nothing wrong with what I play
‘Cause Jesus is the rock and he rolled my blues away


Interestingly there is a line in the song that appears to be a knock on hymns and the tradition of hymns. Norman would later argue that he loved hymns, especially older hymns with deep theological content, but his complaint more against the modern church music of the time being dry and empty.

The album closes with “Readers Digest,” another lyrically heavy song that pre-dated rap by almost a decade and can be closely compared to Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” A fast-moving, groove oriented music serves as a backdrop for Norman to critique everything from the moon landing to The Beatles. Often caustic and humorous there are few sacred cows left standing at the end of the much too short song.

Rolling Stones are millionaires, flower children pallbearers,
Beatles said All you need is love, and then they broke up.
Jimi took an overdose, Janis followed so close,
The whole music scene and all the bands are pretty comatose.
This time last year, people didn’t wanna hear.
They looked at Jesus from afar, this year he’s a superstar.

Dear John, who’s more popular now?
I’ve been listening to some of Paul’s new records.
Sometimes I think he really is dead.

Norman would actually later remove the comments regarding Lennon and McCartney out of respect to the artists and even apologized for including the words originally. The song closes with the lyric in which the album derives its name.

You think it’s such a sad thing when you see a fallen king
Then you find out they’re only princes to begin with
And everybody has to choose whether they will win or lose
Follow God or sing the blues, and who they’re gonna sin with.
What a mess the world is in, I wonder who began it.
Don’t ask me, I’m only visiting this planet

Despite the controversy, rejection and vitriol spilled out over this album it has endured and more than one generation has been impressed and blessed by it. As stated above it was important on so many levels that a book would be required to discuss it all.

The same can be said for Larry Norman himself. Perhaps someday, like William Wallace, the legend will supersede the history and what is important will not be the failed marriages, failed friendship and finances, but rather the “legend” that will inspire future generation to create art as honestly, profoundly and professionally as is found on “Only Visiting This Planet.”

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I need a nap…

50 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by James B on March 4, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    Ironic, in a way, that the best CCM album of all time, is arguably the first…guess that means it’s all been downhill since then! :)

    Reply

  2. I don’t know what surprises me more:

    * That I accurately predicted which artists would make the top 5; or

    * That another avid classic Christian rock aficionado (other than me) actually knows who Steve Wilkins is!

    Seriously, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog, especially with all the background material.

    Some great music represented here, much of it very influential for me during my pre-teen and teenage years.

    Great job!

    - Darrel

    Reply

  3. Here I was expecting Charlie Peacock.

    Reply

    • Posted by historyguy on March 9, 2010 at 6:56 am

      Yeah, I figured “Lie Down in the Grass” would have made the top 10, but we all have different takes on this, don’t we!

      Reply

  4. Jon LInn actually passed away in the LATE 90′s, close to 1999 if memory serves. I did an interview with him at Cornerstone 1989 (I believe it was) which was utterly amazing in it’s breadth of memories in the line of service to Christ. After the interview ended, Jon confessed to me (once the tape stopped running) that I was the only person to ever consider interviewing him. I was stunned. His guitar work was the back bone of so many early Jesus Movement / Music pieces that it was shocking to realize noone had ever bothered sitting him down.

    As a ironic foot note, I was writing for a very little known college rag at the time named “Ex Nihilo Nihil”. (I was also in contact with Brian Quincy Newcomb at HRS and dropping a few in there every once in a while) My editor did what any editor would do when faced by an article on an unknown —- he dropped me a note saying “We haven’t the space to publish this, sorry.” The only Jon Linn interview ever was never published.

    That same Cornerstone was where I met, and subsequently got burned by, Larry Norman. It’s kinda jaded my perspective on him ever since. While Only Visiting this Planet is admittedly Norman’s best, and probably does deserve the space you gave it, it was the realization that his personal life did not entirely meet the standard of his message that still pushes me from including this in any list I have written since 1990. All men are sinners — some just are better at hiding it from the eyes of other men.

    Reply

    • Posted by Myron on August 27, 2010 at 4:58 am

      Do you still have that interview with Jon Linn, would love to read it!

      Reply

      • Posted by JulieMillerFan on April 16, 2011 at 4:26 am

        I sold my collection of interview tapes to my former boss, John “True Tunes, Etc.” Thompson and the hardcopy of the interview itself has been lost to time. A few years back I moved from America to Taiwan to be a missionary here, and I was limited on what I really needed and could take. Since it wasn’t my plan to come back to America, all my earthly possessions went into the trash for the sake of following His Calling. I honestly, earnestly wish I could… it was such an amazing interview and completely candid. Jon was really down to earth in so many ways.

    • Posted by Freddy on April 15, 2011 at 2:53 pm

      Jon Linn is one of my favourite guitarists. I would love to read that interview! Can I get it from you?

      Reply

      • Posted by JulieMillerFan on April 16, 2011 at 4:28 am

        I just replied to your question as an answer to the OTHER guy who asked similarly… so check back to the Only Visiting this Planet link to read. Sad to say, I no longer have it, but it was sacrificed to a higher calling that I don’t regret.

  5. I have 3 different versions of this album. Great stuff…

    In regards to the gentlemens post above, I too was at Cornerstone 1989… Norman played that year…

    sorry he got burned by Larry, apparently something that happened too often…. too bad…

    Fun looking through your list!!

    Reply

  6. Posted by Mark Bowden on March 5, 2010 at 6:37 am

    I knew #1 would have to be either this one or “Upon This Rock”! ;-)

    A brief note regarding the albums “Letter Of The Law” and “Labor Of Love”, since you brought them up and referred to them as containing “several quality Norman tracks”: Actually, apart from a few short instrumental/comic interludes (excuse me, “etudes”), all the songs (not just “Shine Your Light”) were Tom Howard compositions (fully credited as such, thankfully). It seems the basic tracks were originally recorded for a slated Howard project for Solid Rock to follow “View From The Bridge”, but Norman apparently decided the songs would receive greater exposure if he replaced Tom’s vocals with his own and released them under his own name.

    Reply

  7. Posted by Christopher™ on March 5, 2010 at 7:56 am

    I agree that this album should be #1.

    Although I have to say the Top 50 list is a bit of a Fail due to the absence of Steve Scott’s “Lost Horizon.” Given your taste in music, I’m a bit shocked and disappointed to discover it wasn’t featured at all. Lyrically and musically, it blows away a lot of what’s on this list.

    Just my $.02.

    Reply

    • I’m still sketchy on the history of Lost Horizon. I have the CD, released by Alternative, but did the album actually get released by Exit or did it get sidelined and the CD was the eventual release? There’s a lot of confusion (for me) on that one.

      Reply

      • Posted by Mark Bowden on March 5, 2010 at 2:34 pm

        L.H. is actually a compilation of tracks collected from 3 or 4 different projects which were abandoned for one reason or other.

        Arena Rock Record Company will be releasing a Steve Scott anthology later this year. B-)

      • Posted by Christopher™ on March 10, 2010 at 3:13 am

        “Lost Horizon” is actually a compilation of tracks from two unreleased albums: “Emotional Tourist,” which was shelved by A&M, and “Rice,” which was destined to be the third Exit Records release distributed by Island. It is augmented by three re-recorded tracks from Steve Scott’s debut record “Love in the Western World.”

        Regardless of its storied history, it’s a superlative record. Steve is backed by members of The 77′s, and Charlie Peacock produced a number of the tracks as well.

        However, it’s the music and the lyrics that matter. Steve, being a poet by trade, writes songs that work on several different interpretive levels, and his wordplay at times can be truly surprising and witty. And the urgent, dramatic music sounds fresh even today.

        When I first heard the record at a Christian bookstore in 1990, I was shocked that a record that good was actually released by a Christian label. Of course, there are plenty of great Christian rock albums that transcend their genre, and a number of them are acknowledged on this list.

        But it’s a real shame that Steve is almost completely unknown by many Christian rock listeners… likely due to the fact he hasn’t released an original studio rock album in over 20 years. Instead, he’s concentrated on poetry, and if you really want to hear the brilliant descriptiveness of his language, try to find “The Butterfly Effect” or “Crossing the Boundaries.” (The latter was used as part of a multidisciplinary art project he did in conjunction with Gaylen Stewart, of which I had the pleasure of experiencing at Biola University here in California.)

        I’m not saying that “Lost Horizon” deserves to be #1 (although it’s definitely in my personal Top Ten), but it certainly is worthy of a Top 50 consideration.

        I’ll chalk up its absence to Dunphy’s unfamiliarity with it. :-)

      • I’m not sure if I got Love in the Western World from a Christian record club, or from True Tunes in Wheaton (I think the former), but it was one of the albums that taught me that while Petra and Amy Grant and Whiteheart were ‘just fine’, there was a whole ‘nother world of music out there that I needed to discover. Which led me to the 77s, Charlie Peacock, Daniel Amos, Steve Taylor and a whole host of cassettes that I wore down.

        Lost Horizon is a great album indeed.

        Yes, I know I’m posting this really late, but I just FOUND this list while looking for a copy of Chase the Kangaroo by the Choir that I could snag (I’m too lazy to find one of my copies of it, hehe).

  8. The worst conspiracy pulled on Norman is the one he pulled on himself. There were so many fences yet to mend, and the rumor mill attests that he had been trying, but he never really understood what that might do to the legacy of his music. Sadly, even though he often wrote and sang some of the genre’s most stinging societal indictments, his detractors could very easily flip the lens back upon him and not in a positive way.

    So now we are left with this artist, and a definite message, but at the same time at a distance because his inclinations have left him a sketchy character. I don’t know if that ever crossed his mind but, then again, does it ever when we’re knee deep in temptation? It’s one of the hardest aspects of being human; we were born to greatness but doomed to reject it, and in Larry Norman we got to see this duality played out from beginning to end. It’s fascinating and sad as well.

    Reply

  9. Posted by Alexander on March 5, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Great list, but I miss: Michael Omartian – White Horse

    Reply

  10. Posted by Shawn McLaughlin on March 5, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    I doubt anyone will agree %100 with this (or anyone’s) list, but this was a mammoth undertaking and, from a lot of the comments, I think one that was appreciated by many people. I greatly appreciate Dave’s effort and insights. With the subjective nature of this type of thing, we are all going to find one of our faves missing. It might be cool to post here, without the reviews, our own lists just for comparison’s sake. I’d imagine it would be tough to think of 50, so maybe just a top 10 or 20. Just an idea.

    Reply

    • I’ve already thrown out the notion that Dave should keep going – but first he needs to relax a couple weeks. These posts are extensive!

      Reply

    • Posted by aarjayaitch on March 6, 2010 at 7:23 pm

      Agreed! This was a very enjoyable and informative journey. I would have to say I agree with most of the entries in the list, but there will always be particular personal favorites for everyone. I, too, would have liked to see “Lost Horizon” or “Love In The Western World” included and how about Vector’s “Mannequin Virtue”? Oops, there I go second-guessing…

      Reply

      • Posted by low5point on March 6, 2010 at 7:30 pm

        The next post will be a listing of the 15 to 20 (maybe more) albums/artist that were on the bubble and a very quick note as to why they didn’t make and even note that that maybe, in hindsight, should have made it…These will be included in the next section of this blog I am planning on calling “On the Bubble and Under the Radar.”

      • Posted by Shawn McLaughlin on March 8, 2010 at 9:14 pm

        Branded – Undercover? Lead Me On – Army Grunt? (or Grimey Ant…..not hating….just fun with words!) She Must and Shall Go Free – Derek Webb? The New, Young Messiah? (jk)

  11. Posted by mark on March 6, 2010 at 2:29 am

    Larry could have easily had 4 in the top 10. OVTP is the best of the bunch though. Thsi list is a little dated. there is not one album later than the 80s?

    Reply

  12. Posted by Paul Casey on March 6, 2010 at 3:12 am

    I would echo the appreciation of Dave’s efforts and extensive write-ups. The detailed account of not only the chosen album but the artist’s career as a whole made this so much more enjoyable than your typical “Top Album” list. My only addition, and it would have been pretty high up on the list, would have been something by Paul Clark. Whether it was the musicianship of his early work with Phil Keaggy and members of Love Song(Come In To His Presence and Good To Be Home), the move into a more jazz influenced sound on Hand To The Plow which led to Drawn To The Light, his albums were always pushing the musical boundaries of where Christian Music was at the time.

    Reply

    • Posted by Tom Bagby on May 3, 2010 at 3:37 am

      i loved the music of Paul Clark as well. i totally agree with you that he did push the limit to his musicianship. He was one of the early founders of CCM. His music change from album to album. You forgot one Aim to the Heart was also a classic in my opinion.

      Reply

  13. Posted by Dave Haddock on March 6, 2010 at 4:31 am

    Wow…some good posts here. I was fortunate enough to meet Larry when I worked for Benson Records. We did a forgettable record with Larry called Home At Last. It very well could be his least cited work amongst fans. During GMA week in Nashville that year, the Benson folks decided to do something fun for the artist/dj receptions they used to have (do they still do those?). We had djs sing with our artists to a track and we recorded it for them to have as a keepsake. During a down time Larry was hanging out and Larnelle Harris was also there. They started fooling around and pretty soon we had them singing together to the track of Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music and also a rendition of Amen which Larnelle had on his album. For posterity only a couple copies of those recordings were ever made. I know where one copy is :)

    I should go and dig out my photos of that!

    Reply

  14. Posted by Alex on March 6, 2010 at 9:50 am

    OVTP is my favourite Larry Norman album and the only one I listen to regularly. I have seen the documentary yet but I want to.

    The list is really illuminating. Some of the albums mentioned that I have I have gone back to to listen to them again in order to appreciate them fully (“All Fall Down”, “Dig”). Born in 1990 so a lot of the musicians I’ve never heard of and albums like “Shotgun Angel” or LSU after “Shaded Pain” I just can’t really get into.

    Some singers/bands I was just thinking about tossing around that didn’t make the list are:
    The Prayer Chain (Mercury?), Sufjan Stevens (kind of flying blind here), Cush (so much talent) and especially Over The Rhine. I think OtR is probably in the top 3-5 greatest Christian songwriters and they walk that thin line between too religious/too secular perfectly.

    Reply

  15. for me Larry was the best singer songwriter, he has done a lot of great things, but the christian world didn’t respect it.When I saw him on his last tour through Europe he gave a very long interview, that really blessed me.

    Reply

  16. “on par with the best of Bob Dylan lyrically.”

    Nope, not even close, ever, on this album or anywhere else.

    Reply

  17. Posted by Shawn McLaughlin on March 9, 2010 at 12:48 am

    Yeah…..Norman wrote incisive lyrics, but not with the poetic elan of Dylan. I’d put him more on a par with someone like T Bone Burnett.

    Reply

  18. Posted by Danny Thweatt on March 20, 2010 at 2:06 am

    Don’t think it holds a candle to “In Another Land”. That album, in my opinion, is the real “Sgt. Peppers of Christian Rock”.

    Reply

  19. Posted by historyguy on March 23, 2010 at 3:44 am

    Great list, and I agree with most of your choices!

    By its very nature it’s subjective, so we’ll not always agree. My biggest quibble is that Switchfoot’s “The Beautiful Letdown” is nowhere to be found. In my book, it’s the best album of the past decade.

    But well done, by and large!

    Reply

  20. Posted by Peter on April 22, 2010 at 10:11 pm

    OVTP was not produced by George Martin.
    My CDs says:
    “Produced by Larry Norman with Triumvirate Productions and the help of George Martin”.

    Peter

    Reply

    • Posted by low5point on April 23, 2010 at 12:02 am

      Hmmm…Larry taking credit for someone elses work?

      My first printing LP states it was George

      Reply

      • Posted by Reid Davis on August 14, 2012 at 7:24 pm

        Larry taking credit for someone else’s work? Sheesh, no, that never happened… :)

  21. Posted by Excronimuss on April 23, 2010 at 10:41 am

    I thought Glyn Johns produced OVTP?

    Reply

  22. Posted by brian jewkes on May 4, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    I feel compelled to reply to the statements about Larry Norman, Of whom i assume you werent a fan.You start of your info by calling Larry a liar and follow with various other character attacks. What i cant understand is if you feel this way, why did you go to his funeral.? Are you one of those type of folks takes photos of accidents or looks out for plane crashes.?
    If you or your readers would like a balnced view of Mr Norman, i suggest this site.
    http://www.failedangle.com/
    If i have misjudged you, please forgive me. i just get incensed when i seemy brothers character assaulted.

    Reply

    • Posted by low5point on May 4, 2010 at 9:47 pm

      You may not have noticed but Larry’s album is ranked Number One!

      I went to Larry’s funeral because I was more than an acquaintance over the years with Larry. One of the great points made in the review is the discussion regarding the enigma that is/was Larry Norman. No where near a saint as many have attempted to build him up to be, not nearly the scoundrel the movie, which I have seen, made him out to be.

      It is within the confines of that enigma and oxymoronic legacy that much of the most significant and creative music in CCM history was created.

      I purposely avoided the most salacious, despite being true, parts of Larry’s life and I have refused to allow both his detractors and his own questionable historic revisions to slant the impact of his music.

      As for the site noted the limited amount of information currently listed is simply impossible to respond to…but oddly enough, in an attempt to respond and support Larry unwaveringly, the same complaints of attack labeled against those listed are carried out toward them as well…There is quite a bit of pot and kettle, but I will refrain from comment until something resembling “information” appears on the site.

      Reply

  23. Posted by brian jewkes on May 5, 2010 at 9:32 am

    I have nothing but admiration for the Normans. Almost two years of abuse , lies and unfounded allegations before they respond to the relentless attacks on thier loved one. All of this whilst they were still in mourning. Jesus had aquaintances who came to his funeral , even called him master,not to long before ,Messiah. but they werent his friend.
    I have no doubt Larry had failings,dont we all? But I can see no excuse for those who having been forgiven ,to go on and make film about a brothers alleged sins.
    The site i listed has plenty of revelation for those who wish to see it, but you cant see nothing if you close your mind.
    The reason the info is limited is because its put there as a defence after much duress, not as gossip for those with open throats and empty minds..
    As i said earlier , restraint for nearly 2 years , could you do the same. You responded to my comment within hours.
    I have no animosity towards you. I dont know you. I wish you well. I have no problem with people expressing thier oppinion, but to make a film about a brothers alleged sins is beyond the pale. All of this whilst theyre still in mourning. Some of the accusations would require your mind to be so open your brain would fall out. Perhaps thats whats happened with some of Larrys detractors and why thier brains are in the gutter.

    Reply

  24. Posted by Oceancider on July 8, 2010 at 6:56 pm

    FINALLY . . . finished reading all of the reviews. Great stuff, all in all (an obvious labor of love). Thanks for taking the time to do this, for graciously responding to the numerous posts/replies and (especially) for introducing me to some music that, in all honesty, I had passed over years ago for various reasons. I’m looking forward to giving many of those a listen after reading your comments.

    I also appreciate the background information, personal perspectives, etc. as they filled in some of the gaps for me and (as someone mentioned above) made this a much better read than the typical album review.

    God bless!

    Reply

  25. I, like Daryl Hawes, was delighted to see Larry Norman and my friend Steve Wilkins mentioned in the same article!

    Reply

    • Posted by low5point on March 9, 2011 at 8:52 pm

      I always wondered what Steve Wilkins would think of being included in the same review? :)

      Reply

  26. [...] "big names" in Christian music history, who comes to mind? Petra?The 77's? Maybe you go back to Larry Norman, Keith Green or Steve Taylor, or more recent groups like DC Talk or Jars of Clay. Perhaps you [...]

    Reply

  27. Great list, great first choice. I’m with Alexander on White Horse. That has to go in my top 5.

    I met the Solid Rock crew (Larry, Randy and Tom) at the Praise in the Rockies conference in 77 when they were all still married to their first wives (all later divorced their second), Keith Green was brand new, and everything in CCM land was beautiful. Pam (the stewardess voice on Six O’Clock News) and Larry seemed so happy, walking around the scenic grounds of Estes Park hand-in-hand during the couple of days they were there, hanging out with Larry’s parents as one big happy family. Sad to see where it ended up.

    One highlight of the conference was Larry’s seminar Q&A time, where he was challenged about “Be Careful What You Sign” by someone who questioned why he had performed it the night before. His response was “If I have to explain it, I failed as a songwriter.” He paused, then spent 15 or 20 minutes explaining every line, getting an ovation at the end.

    Reply

  28. Posted by louis hemmings on June 27, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    why no mention of the REHEARSAL 4 REALITY LP with Norman’s brother, Charly?

    Reply

  29. Posted by grimtraveller on December 25, 2011 at 3:20 am

    Two quick things.
    Firstly, this was a gargantuan undertaking and often these kinds of ‘lists’ are fun to read and interesting for the perspectives that one gains from others. It’s rather pointless lamenting the albums that got left off the list because the compiler has their point of view ~ not anyone elses’s. Also, we haven’t necesarilly all heard all the albums, nor has everyone necesarilly heard all the albums you would have included. How does one establish the criteria ? Personal liking ?
    The second thing was Larry Norman himself. It’s pointless commenting on the bad things he is purported to have done simply because only the Lord really knows. You might think a particular action was bad but there is an entire context, history and response, not to mention all the differing mindsets of the various players, that is impossible to unravel. When you read about David, whoever the writer{s} of the stories in Kings and Chronicles were, as far as they were concerned, David upset God two or three times. They actually state it was just the once. But I see alot more than that ! But the final picture we have takes into account a heck of alot more than we are privy to. So it is with Larry.
    I think the review you did was fair, balanced and a great read.

    Reply

  30. Posted by Scott on August 18, 2012 at 8:22 am

    Por Supuesto! I will only say that, many is the time when I have been on a road trip and would sing OVTP, SLATG , IAL and SNUTS to myself-note for note. Bootleg captures an era quite well. CCM Dork indeed!

    Reply

  31. Reblogged this on Eslkevin's Blog and commented:
    I played this album over and over again till I ended up traveling to 100 countries–I know I am just visiting this planet.–kas

    Reply

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