18. Gut Level Music – Altar Boys

GUT LEVEL MUSIC

Altar Boys

As a Christian teen just graduating from high school in Orange County in the early 80’s there were three words that always went together; Undercover, Lifesavers and the Altar Boys. Every Friday night there seems to be a dance at a local Lutheran Church or High School gym with those three bands. All three became synonymous with the punk rock Jesus Movement of the 80’s.

Undercover’s brand of keyboard driven new wave punk was the leading force of the movement with three records under their belt by 1984 including the iconic “God Rules.” Merging the melodic keyboard driven new wave with occasional aggressive punk rock, Undercover had not only endeared themselves t the average high school in the OC but had received general acceptance  within Christian Music circles as well, even receiving airplay on the local radio station, the iconic KYMS.

I was working both at a Christian Bookstore and helping out at the radio station at the time and always tried to convince the music director to give some of the local bands a shot. Undercover made it easier by doing melodic punk rock versions of praise and worship songs that were able to be squeezed into the station rotation.

The Lifesavers preceded Undercover by just a few months though they played together long before either band had their debut release hit the shelves. The Lifesavers were a much more electric and guitar driven new wave a punk style band. Their first release, Us Kids, was released on the same label as Undercover’s debut; a Calvary Chapel subsidiary called Ministry Resource Center (MRC).

The Lifesavers (Lifesavors for their first release) would see their lead singer, Mark Kirschak leave after the first album, which allowed Michael Knott to take center stage and take the band in a more punk/new romantic style on their second album on the Refuge label, receiving national distribution through the Benson company. Kirschak would leave to form Labor of Love with Brian Doidge, who would later join forces with Knott on LSU and other projects.

MRC also released the first Crumbacher album as well as a wonderful compilation of Southern California Christian rock acts called, “What’s Shakin’.”

Another band the came from that same assortment of OC Christian bands was the rockabilly band, The Lifters.  The Lifter’s bass player, Brian ray, would eventually marry CCM queen Crystal Lewis and the Lifters would do one record under the name of Wild Blue Yonder with Crystal handling the vocals. That album would be produced by Terry Scott Taylor of Daniel Amos and Swirling Eddies fame. The early to mid-80’s in Southern California Christian music never even reached the distance of the “six degrees of separation.”

Now getting back to the Lifesavers, the original drummer was Kevin Annis. His younger brother, Mike, would use the stage name “Stand” (as in Mike Stand) would form a little garage band called…the Altar Boys. They would release two garage punk albums in the vein of the Ramones.

All of the above is from my frail memory and I am sure I missed a few things or confused a bit of the timing, but that’s how I remember it. I’m sure there will be some comments that correct the time-line or some facts.

During those formative years they always seemed to the third band on the bill with Undercover and the Lifesavers. Then in 1986 the Altar Boys signed with the fledgling Frontline Records and proceeded to create the single greatest punk rock album in Christian Music history.

The maturity and growth in the band as musicians was only outdone by the growth of leader, vocalist and songwriter Mike Stand. couple with one of the coolest album covers ever, the album was filled with more melodic, well crafted and intelligent and authentic rock than the industry had seen before. While maintaining an evangelical approach and without compromising on mission or content, Mike and the band went into the studio and created their masterpiece.

Think about it this way; how many albums are known by the title’s initials?

GLM!

Stand may not have been the greatest singer within the genre but very few could ever match the authenticity and passion that he demonstrated on GLM. Like bands like The Alarm and even U2 the Altar Boys demonstrated on GLM a true sense of belonging and approachability by portraying true and actual empathy for the subjects of the songs on this record. When Stand screams “you are loved” you don’t just nod in agreement you firmly believe it and act accordingly.

On the rock radio classic, “You are Loved” Stand writes to the kind on the edge the same way Springsteen wrote to the coal miner and laid off auto line worker. You never sense Stand is talking down to his audience, but rather, when he says that they are loved it is assumed that Mike loves them as much as God does.

Hard times in the city
They just don’t go away
Out here the anger and frustration
Never takes a holiday
Well, I’ve seen the faces and
I’m not gonna turn away
Hey! I’m talking to you
I’m trying to get thru
God cares about you more than you think!

You are loved!

The same level of believability follows the band in to the title track, “GLM.” Again like Springsteen, Stand delivers an authentic message to subjects that you know are real. In the case of “GLM” it is Jimmy, Sally and Dana. These characters range from a criminal and failed actress to the depressed and suicidal. In case Stand approaches the characters of the song with a gut level Gospel, one that does need apologetic subtleties, but rather an “in your face” or in this case, “in your gut” approach.

In G.L.M. there’s a message that we send.
In G.L.M., Gut Level Music our communication
G.L.M., In your gut you know He’s there.
He’s on a level you can understand,
He’s in the music that you hear in G.L.M.!!

It is admittedly not poetry, but it’s the passion that separates the Altar Boys from other bands. It is simply unmatched here. The same for the following song, “I’m Not Talking About Religion.” Borrowing from the popular theme of the Jesus Music of the 70’s and the corresponding Gospel presentation for the time; it’s not about religion, it’s about relationship.

The one really compelling thing about GLM is the constant, non-stop, full throttle attack from one song to the next. there is no let up. there is no ballad to “bring things down” and even a soft lyrical approach. One perfect example is “I Question It.”

Look at what they’re teaching in our schools today
Evolution’s a fact
Creations a dream
Well I question it!

Well the law says it’s ok to kill an unborn baby
It’s a mothers choice
Throw the baby away
Well I question it!!!

One of the Altar Boy’s fan bases favorite songs follows with “You Found Me.” This testimonial deals with the truth that it is God that seeks us out. And once we are “truly” found we will want to see the world around us the same way the Lord sees it.

Regeneration a new sensation
The rebuilding of my broken heart
I’ve put my faith into action
I’ve got a clean, a brand new start
The more I seek the more I find You
It seems the wonders never cease
How can I ever repay You
Help me Lord to see just what You see

I remember when I had just taken over as manager of the music department at Maranatha Village from the departed Brian Tong that I went to visit Brian at the new Frontline offices. While talking about the new Altar Boys record he mentioned that there would be a cover song on the album on the album that no one would ever expect. The Altar Boys are going to do a Donna Summer cover. The song is “Unconditional Love,” as song written by Donna Summer and Christian music legend Michael Omartian.

And it works! Big time!

That song is followed by the wonderfully jangly “There is a Love” that could have just been easily recorded by Jacob’s trouble or even Daniel Amos, circa 1977!

We all sing songs of happiness and songs of pain
I hear it all the time in the melodies we make
A heart that grows cold makes some sad, sad music
Is there hope for him, Buddy listen in cause

There is a love…

“Calling to You” and “The Final Hour” continues GLM’s sonic assault and Gospel propelled message with the latter dealing directly with the death of Christ. The placement of the song on the album was well conceived as it perfectly sets up the epic stand out album closer, “Life Begins at the Cross.” This song, written by bass player Ric Alba is simply one of the finest songs for its genre.

“Life Begins at the Cross” is simultaneously beautiful and melodic as well as passionate and engaging. It also contains Stands best and most sincere vocals. Alba would later go on to produce one of the most underrated solo projects, “Holes in the Floor of Heaven.” What he wrote here to finish this remarkable record could have lasted twice its length and still not have caused the listener to grow weary.

And if you want to live eternally
God said pick up you cross and follow me
And then He was crucified
Put on a cross crucified
So I can live again

Life begins at the cross
It’s not easy to take,
But it’s the price you pay
Life begins at the cross
No other way

I cannot remember a single Altar Boys concert (and there were many for me) that did not contain this song. It was always an extended version of the song with audience participation being the central theme. There was something both cathartic and exciting about hearing hundreds of teen and young adults scream “Life begins at the cross” over and over.

The Altar Boys would go on to create several more very good albums and Stand would produce two very solid solo projects and start a new band, ‘Clash of Symbols,” but it would be their Frontline debut that would be forever etched in Christian Music annals of history as a true “classic.”

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16 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you for including this in your list! I agree, one of the greatest punk albums in CCM history. Hell, one of the greatest punk BANDS in CCM history. I never got to see them play live and I’m a little jealous. I will say that personally, I tend to go toward Against The Grain as one of my favorites from them due to the fact that tthis was the album that introduced me to the Altar Boys. But for the time, GLM is amazing in every way. I actually own this on CD and vinyl. Keep up the good work. Love the blog!

    Reply

  2. Posted by Brendan Kennedy on February 21, 2010 at 10:39 am

    I know you’re top 50 isn’t done yet and of course it is your blog. a few suggestions.

    Prayer Chain: Mercury

    77’s: 88

    Undercover: Branded

    Undercover: 3-28-87

    The Violet Burning: the self-titled Domo release

    Starflyer 59: Americana

    The Violet Burning: I Am A Stranger In This Place

    Havalina Rail Co.: Self titled

    Cush: self-titled

    Just a few I thought you should consider. Looks great so far, keep up the good work!

    Reply

  3. This one would probably make it in my top 10 just because of the impact it had on me. I first found the Altar Boys at a music festival in Kentucky called ICHTHUS. I had gone reluctantly because what little I had heard of Christian music did not interest me. I believe the three main bands you mentioned here were there that first year I attended the festival. I believe the Altar Boys would be supporting the album previous to GLM, When You’re A Rebel. That weekend changed my life. I had been a Christian all my life, but I never realized what a stronghold music was in my life. When I found music that suited my palette but delivered a message of hope and love rather than the world’s message, my spiritual life really started to take off. I derived my monicker as a result of that weekend. The “rebel” in rebelfish was taken from the impact of the Altar Boys liner notes for When You’re A Rebel. The “fish” in rebelfish was taken from the term ICHTHUS. God bless Christian music… every bit of it!

    GLM really hit me in the gut when it came out and caused me evaluate my Christian walk in a different way. Life Begins At The Cross is probably one of my favorite anthems of all time.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Sheri Johnson on February 21, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    Friday night concerts, indeed. Thanks for bringing me back again and again. Loving your list and can’t wait for more. Well done, David!

    Reply

  5. Posted by Shawn McLaughlin on February 21, 2010 at 8:05 pm

    Hey…Anyone who can make a Donna Summer song sound like Bruce Springsteen deserves a place in the top 20, just for that feat alone! GLM impacted me more than any other Altar Boys album as well. Still their crowning achievement.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Shawn McLaughlin on February 21, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    For the sake of clarification, it is hard, for me anyway, to call the music on GLM “Punk” . Punk makes me think of The Clash, Sex Pistols, Ramones, Minor Threat etc., while GLM recalls The Boss, Petty and The Byrds as much as anything else…..Stand’s solo albums (with Rickenbacker on the cover) further solidify the Byrds influence. Echoes of The Clash can be heard later in Stand’s output, but they are, easily, the most musically expansive of punk bands. They outgrew that genre by the time they released London’s Calling. I guess we can call GLM punk by nature of the desperation with which the band performs. So…punk more in execution than in content?

    Reply

  7. Posted by aarjayaitch on February 26, 2010 at 2:12 am

    I notice that you do not mention “Forever Mercy.” I have the impression that most Altar Boys fans do not care for that album much. Perhaps because it was the first AB album that I ever heard, it was the only one I ever really liked; but that album would be in my personal top 50.

    Reply

  8. I saw the Altar Boys several times on this tour. I always liked ’em and still own this original issue CD.

    Reply

  9. Funny thing about the Altar Boys and in particular the solo album from Mike Stand. My business partner in our record label remembers rehearsing one night in their little catholic church when one of the band members comes in with the new Mike Stand record. Everyone was rolling on the floor laughing until he finally realised the irony of Mike’s name…only a bunch of muso’s would see the funny side of Mike’s last name. Well 20 years on, they still remember the record…it became a favourite…eventually for the music and not just the monika!

    Reply

  10. Posted by Ross on September 1, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    GLM — Best record of all time!!! 🙂 — seriously I love that album

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  11. I grew up listening to the Clash, the Cult, New Model Army and REM. I really don’t think anyone had the kind of sincerity that the Altar Boys had. Mike Stand had a major impression on me and I would really like to meet him some day. I think the Altar Boys , like Larry Norman could have been huge, we will never know that. They had everything, and I don’t think that the replacments or green day or Rancid were really that far behind ahead of them. But like all originals, most of them never get the credit they deserve. They don’t get the advice, production, experience or choices they need to really move on. I live North of Toronto and I’m 38 now with 3 kids and a wife. I don’t listen to christian “rock” anymore. But I will never forget the Altar Boys and what they meant and still mean to me.

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  12. YES!!! Definitely a top-ten for me.

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  13. Posted by Greg Seneff, Sr. on December 16, 2011 at 4:20 am

    I just wanted to share a hilarious story I witnessed backstage at ICHTHUS. I was working at Asbury Theological Seminary in the media department from June ’83 to June ’85. I helped the student director of ICHTHUS at the time, Bob Swan. We went to the first Cornerstone Festival during that time to check out the artists to see if they would be good choices for ICHTHUS. (I was 5 feet or less away from Steve Taylor when he jumped off the stage during his set the first night and broke his leg or ankle. He kept singing, climbed back up on the stage and finished the song. He then said something to the effect of, “I would love to keep singing, but I think I just broke my ankle trying to avoid landing on a little kid down front.”)

    Anyway, The Lifters (I believe it was ’85) were either the next to last or third to last artist to play their set the first night of ICHTHUS. One of the young members of The Lifters was standing between Bob Swan and me as Larry Norman took the stage to close out the night. As Larry started to play the young man innocently asked Bob and me, “Who is that old man?” Bob and I looked at each other trying to figure out if it was an honest question or he was just trying to be funny. It seemed pretty obvious he was asking earnest question, so Bob replied, “If it wasn’t for him you wouldn’t be here.” The young man then said (wait for it), “Why? Did he book us?”

    Greg Seneff, Sr.

    Reply

  14. Posted by Scott Boveia on August 22, 2012 at 9:42 am

    I remember exactly that line-up: Undercover, Lifesavers and Altar Boys. Every Saturday Night at Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa was a concert and at least twice a month I was there, many times to see one of the aforementioned bands.

    My fondests memory of the Altar Boys was just after I graduated from high school. I was a camp councilor for snow camp and the Altar Boys showed up to play for another group of high schoolers but couldn’t get their equipment through the snow to get to that part of the facility. Because I knew who the guys were, I was able to work out an arrangement whereby the band would use our facility and as long as there was room, our Junior High kids could come hear them play. What an amazing afternoon that was!

    Reply

  15. […] for their following release, Gut Level Music, which is often considered a superior effort and one of the greatest CCM records ever – and I think critics have got a case. Of course to get there, the band had to tinker with its […]

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  16. is there a song missing from the original recording of GLM?

    Reply

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