Considered the father of Jesus Rock, the enigmatic, highly polarising and unusual genius of Larry Norman was fully realised on his ground-breaking 1972 album, Only Visiting This Planet.
“It is certainly no overstatement to say that Larry Norman is to Christian music what John Lennon is to rock & roll or Bob Dylan is to folk music.” ~ John J Thompson, Christian rock historian in 2008
Few in this generation would have heard of the genius of Larry Norman (1947-2008), widely thought of as the father of Jesus Rock, which is why you should be reading this article.
Norman was born in Corpus Christi, Texas in 1947 and attended a Southern Baptist church with his parents not long after his birth. Given a toy piano as a 2-year-old by his grandmother, he became interested in the sounds that it made and he set about recreating them for himself. Norman’s sensitivity to sound and his own independent spirit was also a prelude to his sensitivity to God as he accepted Jesus, without the benefit of clergy, at the age of 5.
Growing up a sensitive and lonely youth in San Francisco, with a mostly absent father, Norman found school boring and would often fake illness to lie at home and listen to dramas and comedies on the radio. He developed an interest in the arts, becoming heavily involved in musicals and theatre productions at his school. At 9, Norman began to play the ukulele when he found one while rummaging through his father’s closet.
Under the influence of his aunt and uncle, both larger-than-life show business entertainers (one a cabaret singer, the other a tightrope walker), Norman was taught a few chords by his uncle before being gifted his own ukulele by his aunt. He started playing songs to his family and was soon writing his own music.
When his family moved to San Jose, Norman immersed himself in musicals and theatre production at his new high school. His newfound interest in poetry-writing won him a prestigious poetry competition where he got to meet the acclaimed British writer William Golding, author of Lord Of The Flies.
Realising that his poetry sounded altogether different when read with his music, Norman set about marrying his two interests. He acquired a reel-to-reel tape recorder and recorded his own songs with the help of his sisters on backing harmonies. An avid reader, Norman read the writings of Rev Dr Martin Luther King, and started writing protest songs supporting the American civil rights movement, something he believed mainstream Christian churches were turning a blind eye to.
The zeitgeist moment of his ’60s upbringing happened when he saw The Beatles on television arriving in America on their first tour. He played in a number of Beatles-inspired cover bands in high school, before leaving for university to study English.
However, he dropped out after one semester. While performing in San Francisco’s Bay Area, Norman opened for the psychedelic rock band People!, and was eventually asked to join the band as a singer and chief songwriter. Not long after, People! was signed by Capitol Records, and the then 19-year-old Norman found himself belonging to the record label as his idols, The Beatles.
People! had a minor hit before Norman was fired from the band for his Christian beliefs when the remaining band members joined the Church of Scientology. Now heavily involved in the Bay Area psychedelic scene, Norman used this opportunity to share his Christian faith with countless musicians who led lives very different to his own. Living among many from the flower power counterculture generation who openly shunned the values of the American middle class by practicing sex outside of marriage and endorsed drug use, Norman took every opportunity to share his worldview that held Jesus Christ at its centre.
Norman was hired again by Capitol Records and ended up writing rock musicals. Having his nights free and happy to be earning a regular income again, Norman took to witnessing on the diverse and sometimes dangerous streets of Hollywood, talking to anyone and everyone about his faith in Jesus Christ.
“I got pinched by transvestites who come up behind me when I am ‘walking the beat,’ looking for people to witness to. I’m threatened with violence by young men whose eyes are spinning in their heads. I’m accosted by bikers. Nothing stops me.” Norman was quoted saying this in a biography on his life, Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music?: Larry Norman And The Perils Of Christian Rock, by Gregory Thombury.
A relentless witness for Christ, Norman incorporated playing his guitar and singing songs about Jesus to anyone who would listen. In the divergent melting pot of faiths and beliefs that was Hollywood in the late 1960’s, he sought to reach out to as many people as possible who were searching for the truth.
THE BIRTH OF JESUS ROCK
Now believing that the rock musicals he was writing were not a great way to evangelise, Norman suffered an existential crisis before, to his surprise, he was offered a solo recording contract by Capitol Records. Seeing it as an opportunity to bring his message of Jesus Christ to the households of the world, Norman agreed to sign on the proviso that he had full artistic control over the album and he was able to sing about Jesus Christ. Incredibly, Capitol Records agreed to all of Norman’s terms and he was bundled up with a crack group of session musicians and sent to a studio to record his debut album.
Norman recorded and released Upon This Rock in 1969, an album that for many, signalled the birth of Christian rock. The album cover featured a shirtless Norman, flying through the air towards heaven, and the track list included “You Can’t Take Away the Lord”, “Moses In The Wilderness” and “Sweet Sweet Song Of Salvation”. The music could not sound more different from the hymns and gospel songs that were prevalent in the American churches during that era. Norman’s folk and rhythm and blues songs were a revelation, instantly transforming the Christian music spectrum. “You Can’t Take Away The Lord”, for example, is a witty ditty that will have your toes tapping:
You just can’t take away the church
Or the Bible book
Unless you wanna waste your time
You better take a second look
‘Cause you can’t take away my shield
Can’t take away my sword
And you can’t take away the Lord
Despite its many charms, Upon The Rock did not meet Norman’s expectations—he was disappointed at some of the creative decisions the executive producer had made. Another setback was that Capitol Records had no idea how to market the album as it sat outside the classification of Gospel music. Furthermore, in direct contrast to Norman’s sold out concerts, Norman’s album was not selling in any meaningful quantities, so Capitol Records decided to sublease the record to a smaller label, a move that helped establish Norman as a household name in the Christian music industry but did not cross him over into the secular market.
In 1970, Norman was dropped from Capitol Records and he found himself with no backing for his music and his message. During this time, he started playing regular gigs at the Salt Company, an evangelical cafe operated by his church, the Hollywood Presbyterian Church, as an outreach to the youth who rejected the free love and drug movement. Norman’s performances at the venue made him a major voice and poster boy for the Jesus Movement which was gaining major attention in the US media. Televangelists Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart called out Norman’s music as “spiritual fornication” and those also opposed to his music defaced his concert posters and protested outside his gigs.
ONLY VISITING THIS PLANET
With Norman’s star in ascendance, Elektra Records reached out to the singer-songwriter but he eventually signed with MGM records, renewing his allegiance to the Capitol Records management who had moved to the MGM. This time, with the backing of a major record label behind him once again, Norman sought out a famous record producer to oversee his work. He reached out to The Beatles’ former producer George Martin; Martin was unable to be involved in the recording and instead offered Norman the use of his brand new Air studio in London with its state-of-the-art Neve mixing console.
Recording began in London in September 1972 for what would eventually become Norman’s second studio album, Only Visiting This Planet. Envisioning the album as the first part of a trilogy of releases themed as “present, past, future”, Norman wanted this album to be more than just another ‘70s rock soundtrack, and he did not hold back on delivering a work that was all parts faith, social commentary, irony, laced with wry and probing humour.
As a window to the soul of the album, the listener doesn’t have to look any further than the album cover to see the gravity of the message Norman was trying to project. Pictured standing amongst rush hour traffic in the commercial intersection of Time Square, New York City, holding his hand to his head, looking bewildered at what was happening around him, this “Is this it?” moment was Norman’s grand plan of challenging the listener to question the world around him. Whether the listener could connect the dots from the album cover imagery to the album’s title was questionable but it did show that Norman’s work was more nuanced than most.
Strangely, Norman opens his grand vision for the album with the striking break-up ballad, “I’ve Got To Learn To Live Without You”. No social commentary, no missives of faith and hope—just a message of moving on from a romantic relationship that has ended. This uplifting and sonorous ballad replete with strings and horns, features a wonderfully soaring vocal take from Norman and lays a strong emotive platform that the rest of the album builds on.
After scaling down from the lovelorn heights of the album’s opener, Norman engenders us to the reality and relevance of Jesus Christ with his tender folk ballad, “The Outlaw”. His lyrics juxtapose the world’s countering opinions of Jesus and His ministry when He walked upon the earth. By balancing the hearsay and the truth of the man, he challenges the listener to see Jesus as he sees Him.
With its rootsy fingerpicking style and Norman’s unapologetic humane tone, the magic in this song is in its lyrics. Without being preachy or self-serving, Norman lays out a Jesus narrative that is both revealing and thought-provoking and in its effortlessness, Norman’s tone subsumes the listener into the complexities and delights of Jesus’ ministry.
Some say He was a sorcerer, a man of mystery
He could walk upon the water, he could make a blind man see
That He conjured wine at weddings and did tricks with fish and bread
That He talked of being born again and raised people from the dead
On the confronting track “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus”, his muse is none other than Janis Joplin, the fiery American soul and blues singer who rode her own path to fame (and infamy) before she tragically died of a heroin overdose at 27. Norman had shared a concert billing with Joplin while playing with People! And, observing the drug-ravaged Joplin from the wings, he noticed that between songs, she would drink whisky from a paper cup. Seeing Joplin turning to drugs and alcohol just to get through her set, Norman was inspired to write a song that tells the world that there is another way to live one’s life.
With its evangelical tone dissecting the general malaise of society seeking fulfilment in sin, the unsanitised and barebones view of the addiction to vice is a timely reminder of the challenges we all face living in a fallen world. Bristling with an attitude that shouts like a megaphone to his generation, Norman’s song shocks and motivates all in one motion, leaving nothing to the imagination of the listener.
Gonorrhea on Valentine’s Day
And you’re still looking for the perfect lay
You think rock ‘n’ roll will set you free
You’ll be deaf before you’re thirty-three
Shooting junk till you’re half insane
Broken needle in your purple vain
Why don’t you look into Jesus, He’s got the answer
In “Righteous Rocker #1”, the influence of 1 Corinthians 1-3 is obvious. Taking in the ethos of the ‘70s, Norman modernised the theme of the Scripture to a measure of the times he was living in. Set against a gentle country style guitar backing that ramps up in tone from verse to chorus, Norman avoids moralising. Instead he reveals without judgment, demonstrating how both believers and non-believers of the Christian faith alike are nothing without love.
You could be a woman feeler, or a baby stealer,
You could drink your life away,
Or you could be a holy prophet, get a blessing off it,
Or you could fast for fifty days,
You could shake hands with the devil, or give your life to God on the level
But without love you ain’t nothing, without love,
Without love you ain’t nothing, without love
Delving into deeper theological territory on the deeply moving ballad, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready”, Norman touches on content that would rarely be found on a commercial rock album from any generation: the Rapture and the Great Tribulation non-believers will face. This haunting pre-Tribulation rapture themed song became a hit with American Christian church groups throughout the 1970s and its lasting appeal rode out to the 1990s when DC Talk covered the song in its concerts.
There’s no time to change your mind
How could you have been so blind
The Father spoke the demons dined
The Son had come and you’ve been left behind
On the humorous and light-hearted rockabilly track “Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music”, the typically combative Norman ratchets it up another level, firing a powerful personal salvo at his many critics both inside and outside the church of his melding of Christianity with rock ‘n’ roll. Acerbic and sharp-witted, Norman uses his masterful talent in contemporary social commentary to skewer his many detractors, exposing Christians blindly caught up in religious dogma. The riotous tone of the lyrics is evenly matched by the exuberant and irrepressible nature of the accompanying music and Norman achieves a wonderful balance between message, art and entertainment.
I know what’s right, I know what’s wrong, I don’t confuse it
All I’m really trying to say
Is why should the devil have all the good music?
I feel good every day
‘Cause Jesus is the rock and he rolled my blues away
Aside from his Christian-themed content, Norman’s album also tackled many societal touch points of the day. The musician didn’t shy away from larger targets of like the US government and the influential news networks of post-war America. Whether it was the self-aggrandising of the media in its coverage in of the Vietnam War (“I Am The Six O’Clock News”) or the hypocrisy of the US government in the Space Race of the 1960s (Reader’s Digest), Norman was fully unrepentant in his delivery of criticism.
As a body of work, Only Visiting This Planet was a triumph thematically, sonically and conceptually. But as innovative and genre-defying as the album was, it made very little headway on the charts. Receiving mostly positive reviews, with Billboard magazine calling it “an album to be reckoned with”, tracks from the album only received moderate airplay on radio stations in America, and the album never became a bestseller.
Citing distribution problems for the lack of record sales, Norman also faced the paradoxical situation where the album had somehow alienated both secular and Christian audiences. With Christian’s music buyers turned off by Norman’s edgy lyrics and the secular public resistant to Christian themes, it took many years for the genius of this work to be fully recognised.
In 1990, influential Christian music magazine CCM Magazine called Only Visiting This Planet the second greatest Christian album ever recorded. Further honours were bestowed on the album in 2013 when the United States National Recording Registry added the album to a list of 25 sound recordings that were considered culturally, historically or aesthetically significant, and inform or reflect life in the United States.
Though Norman continued to record studio albums and play live concerts in subsequent years after the album’s release, his dogmatic and quixotic approach to his craft and his vision of Christian music as art ran counter to the chart-driven Christian music industry that was beginning to form around him.
Wanting to remedy the disparity he saw in the quality of Christian music artistry, Norman set up Solid Rock Records and Street Level Artist Agency in 1975 as a way to develop and nurture Christian musical talent. Caught up in the maelstrom of seeing this vision come to light as he mentored new Christian artists, Norman’s career ebbed and flowed before the business collapsed in 1980 and he became the label’s sole signing until his death.
In the ensuing 28 years, during which Norman attempted to resurrect his musical career releasing acclaimed but mostly ignored albums, battling ongoing health issues relating to a concussion he received on a commercial airline and the later development of a serious heart condition contributed to his sporadic output right up to his premature death in 2008, at the age of 60.
Norman’s eventual slide into obscurity, though gradual, did not go unnoticed by the Christian music industry. In 2001, he was honoured by his peers and inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee, and in the year following his passing, Larry Norman was included in the tribute segment of the 2009 Grammy Awards.
Often considered a pariah of the Christian music industry which, ironically, he helped to birth, Norman’s musical legacy lives on in the many secular and Christian musicians who have been influenced by his music. Acclaimed recording artists such as The Pixies, U2, John Mellencamp have all cited him as an influence, and the legendary Bob Dylan has been quoted saying he was a fan of Larry Norman’s music.
To date, over 300 artists—including DC Talk, Rebecca St James and Audio Adrenaline—have covered Norman’s songs, and although much of his music was misunderstood by the Christian community at the time of release, there is now a growing appreciation of the artist and his work, especially and his dedication to bringing Jesus Christ to the world of rock music.
Norman’s musical legacy was recently highlighted in the 2021 Contemporary Christian Music documentary, The Jesus Music. With that, this pioneering Christian artist has been introduced to a whole new generation of Christian believers and the genius of his work will be appreciated for many more years to come.