from flying saucers
Reverse engineered
from flying saucers.

A slightly revised form of this article appeared in HM magazine as "Larry Norman: The Conquest Revisited". Tourniquet was a pre-release demo for the album, Behind the Curtain, but it's an excellent album in its own right. describes it as "Planet + Babylon" (referring to the styles of two other popular Norman albums, and Tourniquet was released in 2003, in a slightly different version than the demo.

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This Year's Model
 Just look what
Larry's up to now.

The (Larry) Norman Conquest Revisited by Gord Wilson

"I'm the Volkswagon of gospel music, not the Rolls Royce," Larry Norman once quipped. Consider the Volkswagon. The "Love Bug" was every hippie's choice for transportation in the 'sixties, and the harbinger of a sustainable future has long appealed to counterculture types and free spirits. But the V-dub also made a comeback for the new millenium as a high-tech marvel of styling and engineering-"reverse engineered from flying saucers" the billboards said.

In the intervening decades, the little bug could not help look a little out of place next to the shiny behemoths of Detroit and generic bubble cars of Japan. Over the years, however, Dr. Porsche's brainchild has only grown in appeal, along with its "small is beautiful" aesthetic, and bugs of both eras are the choice of a new generation. In a word, the bug is back.

Larry Norman is also back, though to those in the know, he never left, and the man once characterized as "too rock'n'roll for religious people and too religious for rock'n'rollers" now appeals to both. Listeners may be surprised to hear Norman's song, "666" on the new album by Frank Black and the Catholics. Black, it turns out, is a long-time Norman fan, and also recorded a heavy blues-rock fave, "Watch What You're Doing," when he was Black Francis with the Pixies. Black not only confessed to growing up on Larry's music, but also dressing like him, and once won a Norman look-alike contest.

On the other hand, Norman's most popular release, 1972's Only Visiting This Planet, pegged number two in CCM Magazine's recent book on the 100 most influential albums, just behind Any Grant's Lead Me On. Arranged by Beatles producer George Martin, and originally released on the MGM/ Verve label, Planet is Norman's most immediately likeable and accessible album. Not surprisingly, numerous artists have covered songs from this classic disc, among them British crooner, Cliff Richard, and 'sixties pop diva, Petula Clark.

You can hear D.C.Talk's version of "I Wish We'd All Been Ready" on People Get Ready, a musical collection "inspired by Left Behind, " as well as Geoff Moore's styling of "UFO." Norman was also invited to perform on the opening and closing nights of the play of "Left Behind," later made into a popular movie. The blockbuster book series, which to date has sold over 20,000,000 copies, may also owe its title to the song's haunting refrain, "you've been left behind."

As everyone knows, Norman's albums are conspicuous in stores by their absence. You may find Remixing This Planet, a set of reworked and respun numbers by the Echoing Green and other N-Soul artists, or "One Way," a tribute album by Rebecca St. James, Grammatrain and other folks at Forefront--but no Norman. That's because as every Internaut knows, some time back Norman went "web-only," with his Solid Rock label following the "mail-order only strategy of his earlier Phydeaux imprint, named for Norman's dog and begun to battle bootleggers.

Strolling into, however, is like stumbling into a parking lot of old classic cars, and more forgotten, lost and archival vinyl recordings are finding their way onto the site everyday, restored and relaunched on CD. But you'd be just as intrigued browsing at the neighboring new car showroom. So many new Norman albums have come out in the last few years, that I could write the ad copy: "Just look what Larry's up to now."

The new volkswagon never could have appeared from the "old" way of making cars--by dumbed-down, please-everyone, market research committee decision in Detroit, Munich--or Nashville. Likewise, Norman's millenial model, Tourniquet, could never appear by consensus of record company suits--only by a new way of making albums--on an "underground" label with a "virtual" fanbase. You say you want a revolution? You got it-on the Internet.

Stranded in Babylon made it clear that Norman was saying what he wanted to say, and his egg-walking days were over. But if you think at fifty-something the Godfather of gospel rock is following the VH1 poster bands to the Old Rocker's Home to settle down to a life of a nostalgic, adult contemporary lounge lizard, think again.

If fans have been crying for some real rock and roll, Tourniquet, like the turbo bug, makes you remember what the right pedal was always for. There is a time to brake and a time to step on the gas. This would be choice "B," and the ad would read: "Rockers Wanted." On some of the songs at least. There are always a few other Norman songs that hearken back to his roots in the singer-songwriter era of Paul Simon, James Taylor and Carole King.

But this is exactly the place many modern musicians are going back to, discovering the craft of songwriting in Elvis-era Sun sessions, Motown and Chicago gospel, the Beach Boys and the Beatles, before pop and rock went their separate ways. I personally think Norman's "I Hope I'll See You in Heaven" is one of the best songs in this genre ever written.

Not that this makes Norman a safe household pet or digestible radio fare, however. As I write, Henry Rollins of Black Flag is in town with his "Spoken Word" tour, but except for the bad words, you could hear a message just as radical from Norman. Thirty years ago many heard it on Street Level, the first album on Norman's One Way label, which flew under the radar of corporate rock. One Way was kick-started with a cash infusion from Pat Boone--himself recently under scrutiny from the guardians of popular culture for his MTV-aired "heavy metal" album - and who early on covered Norman's lighter songs.

You could also hear it in "Great American Novel," a Dylanesque protest song from Planet which Norman had occasion to sing for President Jimmy Carter when he was invited, with other gospel singers to the White House. Ironically, Carter was probably the only member of the audience who would have agreed with the song, still a favorite at Norman concerts.

"I wanted us to feed the poor, and to stop worshipping the space program thinking this proved that God was on our side and not the Russians' because we were superior in the space race to the moon. And to realize that our government was taking over countries in the same way that Russia was, creating satellites, but we call their communism "evil" and our democratic appropriations of foreign governments "rightous."

Norman has long made reference, in his copious liner notes, to writers and thinkers whom readers today are avidly devouring, including G.K.Chesterton, Malcom Muggeridge and Francis Schaeffer. The latter, an influential Protestant writer in the "seventies, predicted that the only values of the (post) modern world would be "personal peace and affluence." Norman insists he is only urging a return to the earlier values of the Bible.

"The Bible says we should go into prisons and hospitals and witness to people and also bring them encouragement," he explained. He champions the work of such organizations as Feed the Children, World Vision and Compassion International. "I'm not an official representative for Compassion, but I sponsor 22 children through Compassion, and add more every year, because it brings me such incredible joy." Many are looking for a deeper spiritual life, he notes, but the missing dimension is often that of service and social action.

"Preach the gospel," St. Francis advised, "and if necessary use words." That might also be Norman's message on Tourniquet. "Feed the Poor," a thirty second song-in-progress that ends last year's Copper Wires album, is a full-blown rocker on Tourniquet. It's followed by a quieter song about how awkward making contact can actually be. "I've been talking about it for thirty years," Norman relates. "In the 'sixties, people didn't want to hear it. It was like, 'no, our obligation is to go to church and be nice people.' I wanted us to go out into the streets and witness to the people on Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard, whether they were prostitutes or drug users, and bring them back to the church and bring them into the kingdom of God."

"I remember getting a lot of irritated responses because they thought I wanted to turn the church into a half-way house. No I didn't--I wanted to turn the church into a house that brought people all the way through to the kingdom." Norman cites his dad, who also helped run the Phydeaux record label, as an early role model. "My father used to go into prisons and hospitals and talk to people about Jesus, and I was observing this. When I was five years old, I went with him out on the streets and started doing street witnessing. It was a very natural thing."

 Tourniquet was unveiled at this year's Cornerstone festival, along with the Belfast Bootlegs and other archival albums garaged at Solid Rock. That's a natural choice, since from its inception the heartland festival has always been about, if you will, the heart-land, and Norman will find a ready audience of kindred souls, receptive to not only his music, but his message, not only for the old classics, but also this year's model.

- Gord Wilson 2003.

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