Let There Be Rock (Daily Telegraphy)
Last modified: 30 Nov 2002

Source: Daily Telegraphy
Author: Richard Grant
Date: 30 Nov 2002

These are fans of a British band you probably haven't heard of and yet they have sold more albums in America than Robbie Williams. But Radio 1 still won't give them airtime. The reason? They are Christians. Richard Grant joins Delirious? on the road.

Martin Smith, the songwriter and lead singer of Delirious? - the question mark is a gimmick and not pronounced - is spiking his hair in the dressing-room mirror. It is dyed blond in patches and shaved haphazardly, with odd straggles and tufts.

Jon Thatcher, the bass player, puts on a ripped shirt with BORN TO LOSE stencilled across the front and a wool skateboarding hat pulled down to his sunglasses. Stu G, the guitarist, with his head shaved, psycho-hardman stare and orange stripe of beard, looks almost demonic - a wholly misleading impression of a gentle, thoughtful family man who loves a round of golf and a decent French wine.

Stew Smith, the drummer, has a skin-tight, sleeveless Dolce & Gabbana T-shirt and futuristic sunglasses. 'We're all pretty down-to-earth, ordinary blokes.' says Tim Jupp, the shaven-headed keyboardist. 'Getting into your stage gear really helps you step into that other persona. You know, rock'n'roll, performing artist or what have you.'

Martin Smith calls them together: 'All right, let's have a quick prayer and get going, yeah?' They stand in a circle and bow their heads. Martin leads the prayer: 'Thank you, God, for today, and getting us over to America again, and giving us the chance to get out there and do our stuff, and, uh, give us a good night and everything. Amen.'

Tonight is Dallas, Texas. Delirious? are playing the 7,000-seat basketball stadium at SMU, also known as Southern Methodist University - their 60th American concert of the year. Radio 1 won't air their music, they have almost no profile in the British media, but in the past 12 months they have played live to one million people in 10 different countries and sold two million albums. In America they have sold more than one million albums - more than Robbie Williams - and they are positioned in the fastest-growing segment of the US market: contemporary Christian music, or in the land of acronymsm CCM.

It generates $800 million a year in album sales, more than jazz and classical combined. It has caught the interest of David Chase, the creator of the award-sweeping television gangster series 'The Sopranos'. He has already shown us Janice Soprano writing and recording Christian songs, in the hope of tapping into the market, and his next series, he has said, will be all about the Christian music scene.

Surfing through the Christian radio stations and television channels, you still hear plenty of schmaltz, happv-clappv folk pop and third-rate power rock ballads, but the big new Christian stars have left all that a long way behind. Payable on Death (POD) are tattooed, pierced and dreadlocked, and play loud, abrasive, Pearl Jam- inspired grunge metal with overtly Christian lyrics and some snarled rapping. They have succeeded in crossing over to the mainstream market - the big ambition for Christian rock bands these days - and have sold 4.5 million albums. The roots-rock Christian band Jars of Clay have sold five million. The Nashville-based dcTalk, who combine influences from Sixties pop and contemporary British indie bands such as Radiohead, have sold 6.5 million albums.

Delirious? are the leading British exponents of the new Christian rock, a hard-working, ambitious band on the rise, usually able to sell out 5,000- to 10,000-seat arenas in America. Earlier this year they headlined a Christian music festival in Pennsylvania with 80,000 people in the audience, their biggest gig to date. Last time they played Dallas, they drew a crowd of 10,000 under their own name. 'We must have been crap,' says Jon Thatcher, because tonight the stadium is three-quarters empty.

Later they find out the reason for the poor turn-out: the Billy Graham evangelical crusade is in town and has siphoned away most of their fans. The audience looks younger than normal, with a lot of girls between the ages of 10 and 18. There are some older college students, and a few young children with their parents, and everyone is dressed all-American casual: jeans or cargo shorts, T-shirts and baseball caps. Look closer at some of the T-shirts and you see slogans such as 'Rejoice for he is Risen' and 'Jesus is Lord'.

The announcer walks on stage and leads them through a familiar ritual: 'Y'all ready for Delirious? I can't hear you, what's up?' The upper stands are deserted but down on the floor, the crowd is close-packed and enthusiastic. They let out a chorus of cheers, shrieks, whoops, coyote howls and cries of, 'Go with God!' and 'Jesus rocks!' The hand makes its entrance through blue mist from the dry ice machine. Tim gets behind his keyboards and fills the stadium with a soft, ethereal, hypnotic synthesizer pattern.

Martin sings the first verse of Touch with no other accompaniment. He has a rich, pure, full voice and his hair glows in the spotlight like a spiky halo. Like so many Delirious? songs, Touch works on the principle of tension and release. The synthesizer swells, the momentum builds and still the other instruments hold hack. Then come the pounding drums, the pealing U2 style guitar and the towering, anthemic, stadium rocking chorus: 'And when you touch my life/I've been born again, I am born again'.

Walking through the crowd, no one is static. They are dancing or stomping their feet. They are dropping to their knees or swaying in rapture with their hands raised and the palms upturned heavenwards. Now Martin is pogoing around the stage. He grabs the mike-stand and wields it like a jousting spear, then flips it upright to sing the next verse with the band going full tilt behind him. Even the Latina security guard in the aisle is dancing with her arms lifted and a look of ecstasy on her uptilted face.

After three rousing rock anthems, heavily influenced by U2 and Radiohead, the band falls silent and Martin says hello to Dallas: 'You know forr us it's about more than just rattling off the songs. It's about the glory of God coming and touching us. We'll see your glory here. Let's sing that together, yeah?' The crowd knows all the words and sings along without further prompting. This is something that never goes stale for Martin: a song that he wrote in his bedroom and now people are singing it back to him in churches and stadiums all over the world.

Delirious? started out with longer odds than most fledgling rock bands. They were from Littlehampton, a south coast retirement town whose very name sounds antithetical to the spirit of rock'n'roll. And they were openly Christian, with song titles such as I've Found Jesus and Lord You Have My Heart.

Christian rock is usually met with ridicule in Britain, or dismissed as a contradiction in terms. Rock'n'roll developed in opposition to church music and values and traditiondlly it has celebrated rebellion, transcression, excess, the sins of lust and pride. It has been regarded as the Devil's music and as Delirious? have heard about 9,000 times, the Devil has the best tunes. Tim Jupp, the oldest member of the band at 36, was talking about this before the show: 'We've never felt like a contradiction but I think the suspicion of Christian rock music is justified in some ways. When we were growing up, so much of it just wasn't very good. It was done on the cheap without much skill or it was happv-clappy.'

'I never listened to Christian music,' added Jon Thatcher, the youngest band member at 26, a pastor's son whose faith never wavered. 'I was into Zappa, acid jazz, heavy metal, anything but Christian music'.

Martin and Tim also grew up in Christian families. Stu G and Stew Smith converted as young adults. All of them were thoroughly steeped in 'youth culture', that amalgam of fashion, music, media and mass-marketing that overran Britain in the Eighties. When it infiltrated the sensibilties of young evangelical Christians in Littlehampton, you might say that its triumph was complete. They were into the cool clothes and haircuts and bands. They were not ashamed of their religion - quite the opposite - but they were sometimes embarrassed by its music and the image of its musicians. 'Arran-sweater-wearing, rainbow- strap-on-the-guitar, socks-and-sandals, tamourine-shaking', in Stu G's words.

The biggest Christian band in America at that time was Stryper, who dressed in yellow-and- black striped unitards, played heavy metal anthems like To Hell With The Devil, and hurled soft-backed Bibles at the audience to thump their message home. Martin Smith and Tim Jupp chuckled along at Stryper, with the rest of Britain, but they were also aware of up-and- coming Christian bands in America, with a hipper sound. 'I went to California when I was 19 and I was really inspired by some of the music I heard on the Christian scene,' says Martin. Delirious? started out in 1992 under the name Cutting Edge, playing to halls of young, media- saVVy church-goers around Littlehampton. They were aiming for the same emotional and musical intensity they heard in their favourite secular bands. Their audiences built steadily by word of mouth until they were attracting 1,000 people to their gigs, recording and selling cassettes, and playing church and school halls all over England. Drivine back from Lincoln in August 1995, Martin fell asleep at the wheel and nearly lost his legs in an accident. Lying in his hospital bed he did some serious thinking about the power of music to change young people: 'I felt like God had given me a second chance, like He was telling me to get out and raise the flag for this generaion.' When he got out of hospital, he persuaded the other band members to give up their jobs (electrician, music producer, two graphic designers) and commit themselves to playing music fulltime, under the new name of Delirious?.

They all worshipped at the same church, where Jon's father was the pastor, and they had already formed a close-knit clan. In 1990 Tim Jupp had married Jon's older sister, Becca. At the wedding Martin Smith met Becca's younger sister, Anna, and that led to another wedding. A third sister, Sarah, went on to marry Stew Smith. Then as now, every decision about the band was made after lengthy group discussions, with all the wives included. With their manager, a jovial, Canadian-hbrn Christian called Tony Patoto, and his wife, they set up co-operative ownership of their own record label, Furious?. The co-operative owns all the publishing rights to their music and does all the British promotion and distribution, mainly through church networks and Christian bookshops, an underground that is far more extensive than most Britons realise. Delirious? have sold out Wembley Stadium, for example, with virtually no radio airplay or media hype. Their singles usually reach the lower end of the Top 20, and all three of their albums made it into the Top 40, but this undervalues their true popularity in Britain. None of their sales through bookshops and mail order - which constitute the majority - counts towards their placing in the pop charts. They have achieved some crossover success, most famously with Neil Morrissey, the star of Men Behaving Badly and a degenerate atheist, who became a huge Delirious? fan after meeting them on Santa Monica beach in California - 'A great bunch of blokes and I love their music.' He has been badgering Radio 1 to play their singles, but to no avail. Is it because of the Christian message, or the Christian stigma? 'Obviously there's a level of frustration.' says Patoto, 'but our response is to try and make better and better music, and sell more and more records, until we can't be ignored any longer.'

It doesn't help that they are white boys from Littlehampton. Black Americans such as Lauryn Hill or Destiny's Child are able to talk about their Christianity without compromising their credibility. Bob Marley was able to incorporate his religion into his music, spread a religious message and achieve mainstream success, which is exactly what Delirious? are trying to do.

'Our spirituality is an integral part of who we are, so it's there in a lot of our songs,' says Jupp. 'But there's more to it - the musicianship, the songwriting, the performance. We'd rather people think of us a rock band who happen to be Christians, rather than a Christian rock band.'

When Martin first started performing, the singing came easily but he got nervous and tongue-tied talking to the crowd between songs. Even now, and especially when jet-lagged, his stage sermons can be erratic: 'It's been a, you know, everyone's doing all right yeah? And relationship things, that's what it's all about and we're no different, yeah. Between the six of us, includine our manager Tony, we have 17 children. It's not bad, is it? And we've been playing together for 10 years so I'm thankful, yeah.'

Yesterday morning, the band were at Heathrow to catch a three-connection flight to Nashville and went straight from the airport to a meeting of sales reps. Furious? is establishing its first American office in Nashville, under the auspices of EMI, to promote and distribute Delirious? and six new Christian signings. They went hack to the hotel for 15 minutes and then to a reception for the reps, at which point they had been awake for 24 hours. This is not unusual: they have been working at this pace all year. They were up at dawn for a breakfast presentation, then off to the airport. They landed in Dallas and were taken directly to SMU, where they sat under a plastic awning on a sports field, signing autographs for an hour and a half.

A man called Bret, who was seven feet tall, led them away to an American football game. They wandered the sidelines in a jetlagged, culture shocked daze, swarmed by cheerleaders who wanted their photographs taken with the band. Later Stu G turned to me and said, 'I'm trying to figure out if it's cool to drink a beer.'

Teetotalism is pervasive amone the myriad sects of American Christianity but neither of us could be sure of the Southern Methodist position on alcohol. He decided on a Coke instead, playing it safe. 'It's weird isn't it?' he said. 'They love their guns but freak out if you have a beer.' 'Where was it, somewhere in California, right?' said Jon Thatcher. 'We played this massive church and they had armed guards lined up in front of the stage.'

America is their land of milk and honey but it takes some getting used to. They found out the hard way that you don't order a glass of wine when going out to dinner with a pastor, and you never make ironic, English jokes about anything even vaguely related to Christianity or the Devil. There is a line in one of their songs 'She's pretty as hell' which is supposed to convey that the girl is messed up and in deep trouble. The Americans took it as a gratuitous curse and organised a boycott of Delirious'? records in Christian bookstores.

They are extremely pleasant and accommodating towards the photographer and me, with lots of good-humoured banter and absolutely no preaching, but they will not be drawn on Christian political controversies, politely skirting around questions about abortion, homosexuality, evolution and pre-marital sex. They are in a no-win situation. By answering, they either damage their chances with the mainstream audience, or risk another boycott from American Christians. Martin Smith gives the nearest thing to a straight answer: 'We'd probably agree with some of it but not all of it.' Or perhaps Stu G: 'We're religious, right, but sometimes the religiousness of America freaks us out.'

After two encores and a shower, they emerge from a tunnel into a throng of autograph seekers. A blond teenage boy steps forward and says, 'Thanks for keeping it real and talking about your wives and kids, that's so awesome.' The teenage girls do not say this. They are all a-tremble and their eyes are flashing and a few of them are unable to stifle their screams. I'm sure they're all good Christians but they are still teenage girls in the presence of their favourite male rock stars.

'It's a schizophrenic life,' says Martin Smith, ducking past the girls and sitting in the van. 'This time tomorrow I'll be back in Littlehampton with the wife and kids, out of my stage clothes and back to being an extra-normal bloke. Two days of that and then we fly to South Africa.' 'I've got to mow the lawn.' says Tim.

Stew Smith is still outside, trapped between three tongue-tied girls and an older man with a camcorder. The man is yelling at him, 'Go with God and remember Jesus rocks! Give the Devil a bloody nose for us, you hear?' 'Uh yeah, thanks then,' says Stew Smith climbing in the van, not knowing what else to say.

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