In 1983 I was a Senior in High School. I ran Cross Country and Track. I listened to music when running and was always trying to find music to run to that would keep me pumped up, aggressive and…well…running. But being a Christian and wanting to listen primarily to Christian Music I was limited to Resurrection Band, DeGarmo and Key, U2 and the Alarm. I was always on the look out for something new. I especially was interested in artists that were in the mainstream music world but had spiritual and even “Christian” messages in their music.
I liked the above mentioned U2 and the Alarm, but also added Simple Minds, Ian Cussick and Depeche Mode to the playlist.
While driving in a car with several Cross Country teammates and listening to the world famous KROQ something came on the radio that would change my life. A single on a radio station usually is not so impactful that one would call it life changing. Perhaps the feeling I experienced that day was similar to the generation before me watching The Beatles on television for the first time.
I owned a subscription to CCM at the time. My friend Jason, who happened to be sitting next to me in the car that day, had a subscription to Campus Life. We would bring our copies to school when they arrived and go straight to the Music Review section and see if anything new was worth our investigation. It consumed us to find Christian music that we would feel comfortable sharing with friends and teammates. At that time the only album there was general agreement on was the American release from After the Fire that had the hit song Der Kommissar on it.
As we sat in the back seat of a friends car a quirky little guitar intro came across the speakers. It immediately had a driving drum and hooky guitar rhythm attached to it. The song was immediately memorable with a repeated hook that has stayed ingrained in my psyche for nearly 30 years.
Then the voice…
Oh, the voice…
They blew the horns
And the walls came down
They’d all been warned
And the walls came down
They stood there laughing
They’re not laughing anymore!
Jason and I immediately looked at each other! This guy was using imagery from the Old Testament. By the end of the song the entire car was singing the “ya ya ya ya … ya ya ya” chorus at the top of our lungs.
I had discovered Michael Been!
The band was The Call and the single, “The Walls Came Down” became a moderate hit (deserving of much more) and would soon be added to be portable tape deck along with the rest of the album it came from, Modern Romans. The album would be filled with spiritual insight and Biblical imagery. All the while to was a political rant impassioned by a call for justice and a stern warning of a doomed future if the present course was not corrected.
I would later discover that Modern Romans was actually the second album from the band. The first, a self-titled debut, was a much angrier sounding album, but contained the same impassioned voice that would separate The Call from nearly every other band on alternative and College radio. Michael been could sing the Sesame Street song and make you believe it!
Modern Romans was filled with great music that was both dark and introspective but with the constant glimmer of hope as Been would shine the most feint light in the midst of the turmoil and doubt. One stand out that that at first glance appears to be a love song (if one could call it that), but could also be a Psalm is “All About You.” It continues to be a personal favorite with the plodding and relentless drums and fine descant guitar work. The song also contains some of Been’s finest vocals. His ability to go from a sweet, rich baritone to a perfect on-pitch scream is remarkable and simply unmatched.
The Call would follow with Scene Beyond Dream, a very disappointing album in only one regard. No one bought it!
The Call was without a label. But in 1985 the band signed with Elektra and went into the studio to record their most successful project to date, Reconciled. Filled with deep spiritual imagery, some aggressive rhythms and grooves and an amazing cast of extras that included Peter Gabriel, Kim Kerr (Simple Minds) and the legendary Robbie Robertson, Reconciled packed a punch that the predecessors only hinted at and only “Let the Day Begin” has come close to matching.
It was at the time I began “going backwards” and discovering the Jesus Music of the 1970’s. It was through my “backward phase” that I discovered that amazingly talented bass player, vocalist and songwriter played an integral role in CCM’s beginnings.
Growing up in the 1970’s my parents listened to Christian Music regularly. Unfortunately for me it was primarily the likes of Bill Gaither, Evie and BJ Thomas. My older brother and sister were sneaking in Love Song, Gentle Faith and Resurrection Band, much to the chagrin of my parents. One artists, though, that my parents did approve of was Barry McGuire. I always found his inclusion of the allowable music odd, since his music was actually more “rocky” than Love Song and Gentle Faith. But since he was a member of the popular New Christy Minstrels I guess they thought he was “safe.”
I discovered through Barry McGuire’s “Lighten Up” album that a young Michael Been was involved in Jesus Music. He also played bass for the Second Chapter of acts. In fact, I am guessing that Been was directly involved with about 10 of the Top 50 albums on this blog!
Well, in 1985 I was working at Maranatha Village and I picked up a copy of “Reconciled” the day it came out for myself. I was astonished at what could be considered “blatant” Christian content. Not the imagery on Modern Romans or the Psalmist angst of Scene Beyond Dreams, but very obvious and (dare I say) evangelical lyrical content.
In the meantime I sent a fax to the promotions department for Elektra asking for a bio and media kit. I had explained that as a Christian Bookstore I had certain lyrical content issues to be aware of and that people would be asking about the religious affiliations of the band members, especially of Been. I had expected a normal press kit with bio, maybe lyrics and secretly hoping for a copy on compact disc.
But what I received back blew me away. Not only did I get the press kit with lyrics, bio and an advance copy of the compact disc, but also a letter from Michael Been with a copy of the Apostles Creed attached with a hand written note stating, “this is what I believe,” signed by Been. I took a copy of the note and the CD and went to the local christian radio station. That day they added, “I Still Believe.”
As it so happened the band was being managed by the same person who managed Kim Boyce at the time. We had become friends and when he received my fax to Elektra, he went to Been and asked him to do this for me. A friendship with the manager continued for some time and, in fact, he invited me and a friend to the studio while The Call was recording “Into the Woods.” There is an uncredited backing vocal on “Into the Woods” by an amazing unheralded Christian Bookstore manager!
“I Still Believe” is the song that The Call would forever be known for. It is a dark, gloriously passionate and provocative song. It was later covered by Russ Taff and appeared on several movie soundtracks. It is one the great rock songs of all time with a decidedly Biblical theme. Like much of the project the song starts slow, driven by bass and drum until the chorus with guitars and keyboards kick in full force. Again, like the Psalmist, things are not always pretty, but there is a sense of hope and reliance on Lord for grace and mercy.
I been in a cave
For forty days
Only a spark
To light my way
I wanna give out
I wanna give in
This is our crime
This is our sin
But i still believe
I still believe
Through the pain
And the grief
Through the lies
Through the storms
Through the cries
And through the wars
Oh, i still believe
This sense of faith despite the trials and tribulations that surround is a theme that runs throughout the project. The artist has reconciled himself to the fact that the difficulties of life are only possible to overcome through a true and literal faith. It is all about hope as he sings.
I’ll march this road
I’ll climb this hill
Down on my knees if i have to
I’ll take my place
Up on this stage
I’ll wait ’til the end of time
For you like everybody else
I’m out on my own
Walkin’ the streets
Look at the faces
That i meet
I feel like i like i want to go home
What do i feel
What do i know
But i still believe
I still believe
Through the shame
And through the grief
Through the heartache
Through the years
Through the waiting
Through the years
For people like us
In places like this
We need all the hope
That we can get
Oh, i still believe
Several other great songs of note from reconciled include Everywhere I Go
and Even Now
The band would never match the sales success of Reconciled though they would later receive their only Number One rock hit with “Let The Day Begin.”
Been followed “Reconciled” with “Into the Woods.” I spent a day in the studio with the band recording the album. Let me first say that there is nothing quite as boring as the laying down of basic tracks in a studio. tedious. Time consuming. Boring. I will cherish and never forget that day as long as I live!
By the way, Michael was a very cool and warm guy.
“Into the Woods” did not have the passion of Reconciled, but it deserves to be heard. It is more of a haunting and beautiful album than any before or after it. “I Don’t Wanna” is such a beautiful song that I never tire of. It has a feel that would later be discovered in more depth by U2 on their Joshua Tree album. I could never prove that this album influenced Bono and the boys’ recording on Joshua Tree, but I do know that Bono was a fan of the band.
I have read the Been considered “Into the Woods” his favorite album. It must have been those amazing backing vocals I provided!
The Call would follow “Into the Woods” two years later with “Let the Day Begin.” This is the album that should have made this band a household name. More straight ahead, radio friendly Americana rock and roll than all of the previous releases. The title track would become a number one hit and several US and world tours should have made The Call another U2. It was not to be.
But despite that it remains a tour de force of great rock and roll. There are times when you actually believe Been is happy. It’s more upbeat musically than “Into the Woods” and lyrically matches the more melodic and pop sensible arrangements. This is a true positive! Despite the expected angst, struggles and and prophetic warnings, there is more hope, more love, more realization that someone or something greater is in control.
It should be noted that some controversy arose at this time as Been played the Apostle John in Martin Scorcese’s controversial film, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Been also appeared in other movies and began a relationship with film with would find a full realization when he wrote, recorded and performed the soundtrack for Paul Schrader’s movie “Light Sleeper.” Two songs from that soundtrack would appear on Been’s only solo project.
The Call released “Red Moon” in 1990. It would be the last album from The call featuring all new material for another seven years. Two “best ofs” would be released during that time and Been would record his lone solo project “On the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough.” The track that starts that album, Us, is one of Been’s finest and should not be missed.
One hidden gem in the Michael Been catalog is his cover of Mark Heard’s “We Know Too Much” which appears on the Mark Heard tribute double disc, “Orphan’s of God.” It is an outstanding version of the song and I don’t believe it appears anywhere else.
Been has spent the last decade producing, writing and, most recently, supporting his son’s amazing band, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. It was in Belgium while running sound for the BRMC tour that Been fell victim to a massive herat attack and passed away.
His talent was rare. His warmth was obvious. His passion undeniable. Heaven has been greedy lately with the passing Dana Key and now Michael Been.But it is a new day for Been. That glimmer of hope he presented in passionate and progressive ways is now a blinding light that now consumes, warms and rewards him.
Let The Day Begin.