DeGarmo and Key
This great release along with one other in the Top 10 I believe will cause the greatest surprise. And not because people won’t believe the band deserves to be listed here, but because their popularity was actually much later in their careers, during the “keyboard pop” phase of “Mission of Mercy” and “Communication.”
But when it came to amazing blue informed, progressive rock nothing in Christian music has come close to this amazing release. It also possesses some of Eddie DeGarmo and Dana Key’s finest lyrical content. They always possessed a strong musical presence, but some would argue that later albums would lack the lyrical depth of this release. I’m not sure I fully agree, but would state that”Straight On’s” content, creativity and originality possesses both musically and lyrically were never matched.
DeGarmo and Key have never shied away from a direct lyrical approach and an unquestioned Gospel message. It is part of what made them such a phenomenal and successful band within the genre. But as we will see in the review of the album these same themes are couched in very creative, passionate and authentic contexts.
Friends from childhood, Eddie and Dana formed a friendship that has lasted decades and a musical partnership that has lasted nearly as long. They have been nominated for 7 Grammy’s and 17 Dove Awards. They created a string of hits in the 1980’s that is nearly unparalleled and their success within Christian rock was only rivaled by Petra and WhiteHeart. But it was with “Straight On” that the band created a timeless work with stellar songs and killer musicianship. The songs from this album would later be the highlight of their double LP live album, No Turning Back.
After becoming Christians in the mid-70’s the duo left the band they were in, Globe” and began writing music with a decidedly more Christin bent. They received interest from many different labels and ended up signing with Pat Boone’s “Lamb and Lion” label, which also was responsible for bring the Swedish hard rock band Jerusalem to the attention of Christians in the U.S.
I was introduced to DeGarmo and Key and a Knott’s Berry Farm Christian music night. At the time they only had one release and were pushing the upcoming “Straight On” with a coupon at the concert for the release. I sat with my brother-in-law in the “Cloud 9 Ballroom” and was simply blown away by what I witnessed. I was a fan of Darrell Mansfield and Resurrection Band at the time, but was more influenced by the musicianship of bands like Kansas, Genesis and Styx. That night I finally saw a band that I believed could compare with those bands.
DeGarmo and Key’s debut was “This Time Thru” and hinted at what was to come. Anthem driven rock with great blues tinged guitars similar to Robin Trower with the unmistakable vocals of Dana Key. Key’s vocals were similar to a more blues styled Michael McDonald. Other have compared his voice to another CCM and Jesus Music artist, Mylon LeFevere.
Several songs stand out including the track that kicks the album off, Emmanuel. An impressive extended version of the song is available on the previously mentioned live album and contains some amazing guitar work from Key. Other stand outs include: Addey, Alleyways of Strife, Sleeper and Chase the Wind. The last one is a truly great progressive rock song with several musical changes and incredible musicianship.
All of that was simply a precursor for “Straight On” as the band took production, songwriting and musicianship to a totally different level. Fans of Kansas, Foreigner, Bad Company and even Genesis will find something (actually, quite a bit) to like.
The album leads off with “Jericho,” a straight ahead rocker that shows a glimpse of Key’s killer blues guitar, though maybe not enough. Key takes the Old testament story about Joshua and the Battle of Jericho and related it todays false idols and false sense of hope we place in money and other such similar idols.
Your wall street idols won’t be here long
Form cinders to ashes and they are all gone
I begged you to run from your idols to Me
But blind by fools gold no you just couldn’t see
Next is what I believe is the best song DeGarmo and Key ever produced. Sounding every bit of Styx and Kansas, “Livin’ On the Edge of Dyin'” tells the story of conversion. After starting with a very progressive instrumental opening, the song slows down and, for one of his rare appearances, DeGarmo take the lead vocals.
We were all alone on a Saturday
When you preached that gospel creed
Sittin’ on the hood of my Chevrolet
My heart began to bleed
It cut like a bullet from a smokin’ revolver
Givin’ me that fatal blow
I was runnin’ like a thief from a law enforcer
With nowhere I could go
I was lyin on the edge of dying hearin’ your third degree
I was lyin on the edge of dying my soul had no relief
After the second chorus the band once again kicks into a great instrumental section lead by Key’s fine guitar work. Early reviews in CCM and Campus Life were very complimentary of the song as well with some calling it the groups finest work lyrically.
“Go Tell Them” continues the evangelical theme that DeGarmo and Key would always be noted for. Realizing that the vast majority of their audience were Christians they realized the need to remind the Church of their responsibility to the Great Commission.
One of the best progressive rock songs in Christian music follows with “Bad Livin’.” There is a great guitar and keyboard interplay between different sections of the verse and chorus before slowing it down drastically like something Kerry Livgren would arrange. The song then slowly works its way back up with string-like keyboard wall of sound that leads straight into a heavy blues lick.
Content wise the song simply addresses the impact of sin and serves as a warning against falling for its lies as well as offering an answer the questions sin creates.
Bad livin’, but I know I’ve been forgiven
‘Cause the price is much too high
Well there’s got to be a way to
And there ain’t no better day to
Tell these people why
Need your love Father and we need it right now
The keyboard lead instrumental “Enchidiron” leads directly into my personal favorite on the album, “Long Distance Runner.” Admittedly it may have more to do with the fact I ran cross-country in high school when the song came out then any specialness of the song itself. That being said it is great rock song borrowing from the Apostle Paul the concept that the Christian Life is like running a race, a race we need to win.
“I Never Knew You” follows and again it’s Genesis and Kansas that come to mind with the progressive keyboard and guitar lick before moving directly into more of a pop vein with saxophone solo. Here Key addresses the issue of those that claim the name of Christ but never really know Him. This reminds the listener most obviously of Matthew 25 where Jesus claims to not know many that named His name.
You told everyone you knew
That you and I were best of friends
But mama, I got news for you
There is where the story ends
You’re talking fast and loud
But I can’t hear a thing you say
Too late now for acting proud
It’s time to go our separate ways
I never knew you
No I never knew you at all
The album closes with a classic track that would be a DeGarmo and Key staple for many years to follow. In fact, Key would rework the song on a later solo project. This beautiful acoustic guitar solo tells the story of Mary visiting the empty tomb sung from the point of view of the angel that greeted her there.
Mary, please don’t be afraid
There’s no man there where he did lay
Run now, run now, tell your friends
Jesus was dead but he lives again
He’s risen, raised up with our sins forgiven
Risen up from the dead
Oooh, oooh, oooh, He did what He said
I have often wondered how the song never became an Easter classic along the lines of Don Fransisco’s “He’s Alive” or “Easter Song” by 2nd Chapter of Acts. This timeless message works well as a finishing touch to the great album.
D&K would follow this album up with “This Ain’t Hollywood,” a significantly more pop oriented projects and the classic live album, before making the previously discussed paradigm shift to a more keyboard driven synth pop sound. I do not begrudge them making such a change as that was the musical direction of the time and allowed the band to reach a greater audience with the Gospel. It even allowed them a short entre onto MTV with a video called, “Six, Six, Six.”
But for a brief moment there was this amazing time when they were the very best at what they did in a genre that was sorely lacking in the Christian market. And in staying true to what they were very good at for one record they created a masterpiece worthy of being called one of the greatest albums in Christian music history.