A new breed of rock star: quietly Christian
It was easy to believe the devil had the best music when Britain's only Christian pop star churned out such songs as Mistletoe and Wine. But unlike Sir Cliff, a new generation of Christian artists taking over the charts is blessed with youth, beauty and critical acclaim. Just don't ask them to talk about their faith.
On Monday Athlete release their second album, Tourist. Tipped for No 1, the London band hailed as the new Coldplay are veterans of Christian music festivals across the land. Their success follows hot on the heels of Natasha Bedingfield and her brother Daniel. The artists are linked by the evangelical church group Ichthus, which organises youth services, events and missions in a string of churches across south London and Kent.
Athlete - singer Joel Potts, bassist Carey Willetts, keyboardist Tim Wanstall and drummer Steve Roberts - have built up a devoted fanbase since the release of their debut, Vehicles and Animals, in 2003.
The current single Wires, an affecting ballad about Potts's daughter Myla, is the first to be taken from their new album and lies at No 4 in the charts. But in all the pre-publicity for the album the musicians have been reticent to talk about their faith, despite the fact that they met at the Christian rock festival Greenbelt.
The closest Athlete have come is a reference in a song. Westside, a track on their debut album, contains the lyrics: "House on the rock. Surely it will last forever? House on the rock. Don't you know it's now or never?" The House on the Rock International church is in Bermondsey, in their native south-east London.
The issue has provoked fevered debate on Christian messageboards over the extent to which credible rock and pop acts should be using their popularity to spread the word. Some argue that it is a personal decision while others feel that those in the public eye are missing an opportunity to make Christianity more credible among young people, and believe that bands are gagged by their management.
The NME editor, Conor McNicholas, believes there is a simple reason why rock stars don't talk about their faith: "The problem with religion is it's never cool. At the heart of all religions, there's a notion of control, and that's the opposite of rock'n'roll.
"It ends up being the least rock'n'roll thing you can think of. What people want from music is inspiration and escapism. Religion offers that in a very different way. Most people are looking to escape from that, it turns them off."
Mr McNicholas reveals that the Killers' lead singer is another upcoming star committed to his faith but not keen to talk about it.
"Brandon Flowers from the Killers is a committed Mormon," he says. "It is something that slipped out in our last interview with them. It's certainly not something he was comfortable talking about 12 months ago."
Paul Adlington, pastor of the Bear church in Deptford at which some members of Athlete worship, believes it is wrong to pressure artists into nailing their religious colours to the mast. "Faith is quite a personal thing, it's not fair to make a big fuss of it. I see it like a family where people don't gossip about one another." It is inevitable that talented artists will emerge out of church groups owing to the emphasis on music, he adds.
Chris Cole, the chief executive of the Christian radio station Cross Rhythms, agrees. He knows the Bedingfields from the days when they played the Cross Rhythms' festival under the name DNA Algorhythm. He says he is not frustrated that the Bedingfields have not publicly discussed their beliefs since they found mainstream success. "They do not have to choose between the church and the mainstream. It's not either/or. For the Bedingfields, making an impact in the mainstream, what is important is their personal faith."
According to the Christian rock artist Nathan Bennett, acts that break into the mainstream are told by their management teams never to mention their faith. "It is a shame they don't mention their God more in interviews," he said in a webchat.
But Neale Easterby of Empire management, who looks after both Bedingfield siblings, insists that he does not advise them one way or the other. "It's totally up to them. They're more spiritual than anything. Daniel's album did really well in America, and he talked about it in some interviews, but we didn't specifically target the Christian market or anything. People will listen to the lyrics and make their own minds up."
In the US, rock artists including Alice Cooper, who is a born-again Christian, and members of Creed and POD, are more willing to speak up, and sing, about God.
According to Mr Cole, the Christian music scene has traditionally been hampered by the fact that mainstream radio will not play their songs, and shops will not stock their records, unlike in America, where Wal-mart is happy to sell Christian rock alongside more secular music.
He is confident the scene will finally become mainstream with the emergence of music downloads and the internet as a form of distribution. In the UK, young Christians are buying polyphonic ringtones of their favourite Christian artists as religious rock takes up modern technology. Through the web, he believes, Christian artists can reach new audiences without the aid of mainstream labels that discourage their stars from talking about religion.
For now, though, it seems that it is still only those with little credibility left to lose who will speak out. "As much as you lampoon him, Cliff Richard has been great," Mr Cole said.
"He has gone out there and done his stuff and he's probably sold more singles than anybody else in history. He does a lot of charitable work, and he takes a lot of stick for it."
You gotta have faith, faith, faith...
When they rose to fame in the 80s, U2 were happy to discuss their beliefs. But a division between the three members who were committed Christians (Bono, the Edge and Larry Mullen Jr) and Adam Clayton, who wasn't, almost split them up
Evanescence had a No 1 hit with Bring Me to Life in 2003, but were lambasted in the US for turning their back on their roots. Having come up through the Christian music scene, the band dismayed their religious fanbase by renouncing their background in an interview. They've been little heard of since
At at time when the likes of Kiss were causing the bible belt to shudder with fear, Stryper were an unlikely attempt to fight back against the devil's music. Maybe they influenced Alice Cooper, who converted to Christianity in the 90s
Evidence that, in the US at least, you can be openly religious and retain credibility. In 1974 Green was attacked by an ex-girlfriend who left him badly burned and then shot herself. The eight-time Grammy winner interpreted the attack as a sign from God and, by 1976, he had bought a church and been ordained a pastor.
(The Guardian, Jan. 29th, 2005)
Click on the image below to get their album "Tourist" from amazon.co.uk