A Primer on Christian Alternative Rock: Undercover

A Primer on Christian Alternative Rock: Undercoverholland-1985

WHO ARE THEY? Lots of Christian rock bands that formed in the early 1980s underwent a change from straightforward, openly evangelistic lyrics to something more nuanced and poetic. We watched it happen with The Choir and Lifesavers Underground. But that shift is clearest in Undercover. Formed in Orange County just after the crest of the Jesus Movement, Undercover began their career by singing about their faith in terms simple to the point of triteness. Less than a decade later, they were naming songs in Latin and referencing the Stations of the Cross. Not for nothing did CCM Magazine call them “the band that grew up in public.” Their journey from bubblegum to poetry is one of the most important stories in the history of Christian alternative rock–because in some sense it is the story of Christian alternative rock in microcosm.

When we talk about Undercover, we’re probably talking less about a lead singer than about a guitarist and a bassist: James “Jim” Nicholson and Joseph “Ojo” Taylor. They are the constants across Undercover’s nine studio albums, and they are responsible for the sound and the lyrics that came to define them. The band had three lead singers: Bill Walden, who fronted the band for their first three albums; Sim Wilson, for the next three (and their comeback in 2002); and Rob Gallas, who sang only on the 1994 record Forum. Wilson is by far the best-loved of the three, and after Forum, Taylor and Nicholson decided they wouldn’t make another Undercover record without him (and without Gary Dean Olson, the band’s drummer, who also sat Forum out).

The story of Undercover can’t be told without talking about Ojo Taylor’s current circumstances: He teaches songwriting at James Madison University and became an atheist sometime in the last decade. Undercover has continued to perform occasionally even after Taylor’s de-conversion, but my understanding is that some of the Christian venues that hosted them were less than thrilled about his atheism. I don’t know how often they will perform in the future.

GENRE TAGS (OTHER THAN ALTERNATIVE ROCK): Funk Rock, Hard Rock, New Wave, Post-Punk, Punk Rock, Power Pop, Rock

RIYL The Cars, The Cult, the dB’s, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Van Halen

WHY DO I KNOW THAT NAME? Ojo Taylor ran Broken Records (later renamed Brainstorm Artists International) along with Adam Again’s Gene Eugene, and for that fact alone, his importance to Christian alternative rock can hardly be overstated. Someone needs to write a book about Brainstorm.

WHAT’S THEIR BEST SONG? The massive groove of “Man, Oh Man,” from Devotion (1992).


DISCOGRAPHY

MUST-HEAR

Devotion (1992). Undercover’s best album is the most upbeat of the Sim Wilson era. The two albums that preceded it (Branded and Balance of Power) were both largely dour affairs, but Devotion is frequently Undercover_-_Devotionoutright joyous, as on the raucous “Purple Flower” and the driving “Where I Should Be.” The band’s newfound interest in funk rock helps—besides “Man, Oh Man,” “Work It Out,” “Devotion,” and “Promenade” all feature funk undertones. Not coincidentally, they’re the best songs on the record.

The bass lines on those funk tracks demonstrate the degree to which Ojo Taylor has come into his own as a musician. He played keyboards on the first Undercover album, and when Ric Alba left the band, he played keyboard bass for several albums before switching over to the real thing. But it’s not until Devotion that he really distinguished himself as a rhythm player, furious but melodic and always perfectly in sync with Gary Olson’s drumming. Gym Nicholson’s guitar playing is much more varied than it was even two years earlier, layering guitar tones on top of each other to produce a heavy but rich sound. And Wilson—who sometimes tried a bit too hard before—sounds comfortable here, showing off his range on almost every track.

For the most part, I wouldn’t call the lyrics “deep,” but they’re appealing and sometimes funny, and they fit the music very well. “Now I find it hard to hang with high-maintenance,” snarls Wilson on “Work It Out,” “because I’m an easy-going guy.” Yeah? The frenetic power of the vocals certainly suggests otherwise.

NEXT STEPS

Branded (1986). A lot happened to Undercover between 1984 and 1986: Bill Walden left the band, for one thing, and was replaced by Sim Wilson. (The switch actually took place between the recording and the release of Boys and Girls—Renounce the World!) The band found a professional producer and engineer (John Elefante). And maybe most importantly, Ojo Taylor began to have problems in his personal life. The result is t51HzdhlRd2Lhat Branded represents essentially a brand-new Undercover, even though the personnel changes were limited to Walden.

The band’s new wave sound has been relegated here mostly to Taylor’s synthesizers. The rest of the music fits more neatly into the hard rock genre, with guitarist Gym Nicholson showing off throughout. Wilson’s vocals bring a new urgency to the band’s music, even if he is (sometimes comically) overwrought at times, in the way that a lot of hard rock from the 1980s is overwrought. But just try to imagine Bill Walden singing lead on “I’m Just a Man” or “Cry Myself to Sleep,” and you’ll understand how essential Wilson was to Undercover’s evolution.

Undercover’s lyrics do not yet approach anything you’d call poetry—they still rely on easy rhymes, for the most part—but they are much less obnoxious than they were on the first three albums, if only because they take into account the complexity of faith and the struggles of human life. The word Jesus doesn’t even appear in the lyrics for the first 24 minutes of the album; I wonder if three minutes pass on the first three records without Christ’s name being sung. But a song like “Where Can I Go?” is no less devout than anything that came before it, even though it takes stock of the sheer difficulty of that devotion. Only “Tears in Your Eyes,” which ventriloquizes Christ sending an unbeliever to hell, reeks of the band’s previous blasé approach to faith.

Branded is not Undercover’s best album, but it is their most important album, and for that matter, it’s one of the most important albums in the history of Christian rock. If a band like Undercover—who had previously specialized in happy-go-slappy songs for youth groups—could address the darkness of the human existence, who couldn’t? L.S.U.’s Shaded Pain couldn’t exist without Branded, and neither could the bulk of Christian alternative music in the 1990s.

WORTH A LISTEN

Boys and Girls—Renounce the World! (1984). Undercover’s final album with Bill Walden features the best song from his era of the band: “Is Anyone Thirsty?” It’s more punk-tinged new wave in the mold of their first two albums, but it at least gestures toward an emotional vulnerability that wasn’t present in their earlier work. I also like the punk(ish) cover of the old hymn “Holy Holy Holy,” with new, apocalyptic interpolations by Ojo Taylor. The rest of the album feels like the band striving against self-imposed restraints—not surprising, since they’d get a new lead singer and a new, darker tone on their next album.

God Rules! (1983). To the degree people know God Rules!, they know the title track, which is probably(?) the first Christian punk song. But it’s not really all that typical of the rest of the album—certainly there’s nothing else here that heavy, and it’s Ojo Taylor singing rather than Bill Walden. The rest of the album largely follows in the new wave footsteps of the band’s debut, although the production is sharper, and keyboards dominate the mix more than they did before. The band is still deep in its evangelical mode, but if you can ignore the lyrics (three out of thirteen tracks have titles that begin with the word Jesus) the record’s a good deal of fun. “I Am the Resurrection” is among the best of the band’s early tracks; “Closer to You” has a great mechanical groove; and Gym Nicholson is in top form on “His Love.”

Balance of Power (1990). Balance of Power is Undercover’s most commercial album, composed of the sort of glossy hard rock that Nirvana’s Nevermind would make instantly obsolete twelve months later. It was recorded under very dark circumstances: Gym Nicholson’s wife, shortly after their marriage, died during routine surgery, and her death fills every corner of Balance of Power. That darkness isn’t a problem in and of itself, but when the songs aren’t carefully crafted, it makes them sound overwrought, even narmy. Generally speaking, the first half of the album is quite good: the menacing stomp of “World Comes Crashing Down” opens things very nicely, and there’s no good reason why “The Eyes of Love” shouldn’t have been a huge hit. But everything after “Love Me Dangerously” is a slog—because most of the songs have the same tone, Nicholson’s riffs and Sim Wilson’s shrieks all blend together.


THE DISCOUNT BIN

I Rose Falling (2002). This comeback record is difficult to describe. It is less of a rock album than anything since Sim Wilson joined the band, for one thing; it has electronic overtones without being any kind of electronic album. At times it sounds almost adult contemporary, as on “Line of Thinking” (probably the best song here). Nicholson’s guitars are way back in the mix, and often tinny, such that the songs are generally led by drums, programming, and keyboards. Mostly the experiments don’t work—but they do open up a bit on repeated listenings, and I like “Medicine,” “Hurricane,” and “Heaven Forbid” quite a bit, even if they don’t sound like what I think Undercover should sound like.

Undercover (1982). Undercover’s debut is one of the worst “Jesus is my girlfriend” offenders I’ve ever heard: “You’ll have to excuse us,” goes the opening track. “We’re in love with Jesus.” Bill Walden’s vocals are often pretty annoying, too, especially in the ad libs on “Stop” and “I.C.U.” (Those two tracks are meant to sound live, but there’s no drop in sound quality, so I suspect it’s a put-on.) But the music’s actually pretty good new-wave power pop in the style of The Cars or the dB’s. I’m particularly fond of “Heal Me” and “Turn Your Head,” at least when I can ignore the lyrics.

FOR FANS ONLY

Forum (1994). Rob Gallas’s only album with Undercover is the most musically adventurous they had recorded to that point. Unfortunately, it’s also their worst. Gallas is a more laid-back vocalist (more “alternative”) than Wilson, and the best songs here are the ones that Wilson couldn’t have done as well: “Symbol,” the country-pop(!) “Carmenita,” and the jazzy “The Moon and the Blue Around.” But on the songs that sound most like Undercover (“Forum,” “The Overlook”), it’s hard not to think that Sim Wilson could have done it better. The B-side of the album is extraordinarily lackluster, with the nadir being the novelty cowboy song “Whoa Nelly.”


GREATEST HITS, ETC.

Undercover never put out a greatest-hits record, but they did release their first seven studio records and a live album in two four-disc sets in the late 1990s.


LIVE ALBUMS

There are two. The first, 3.28.87, was the first release on Broken Records, at a time when the band was on hiatus. Wilson had joined the band by this point and does a great job with some of the older songs. They also released their set from Cornerstone 2000, but I haven’t heard it.


SIDE PROJECTS

Ojo Taylor put out a very strange (for Christian rock in 1988) solo album called Relative, on which his friends from other bands sing most of the vocals. It’s very different from Undercover but worth tracking down. Currently, he plays in Brian Healy’s long-running goth group Dead Artist Syndrome.

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