This post by founding member of Undercover is incredible. The backstory he provides is just great stuff for any fan of Classic Christian Rock. It’s important to note that Ojo no longer considers himself a “Christian”. You can read more about it in my post Facing the Facts. BSR in no way shape, or form endorses Ojo’s current belief system but he was kind enough to allow me to repost this. His blog is OjoTaylor.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Undercover’s Branded on Blue Collar Records. It was re-released with bonus tracks in digital format this year to celebrate the anniversary. It also landed in the Top 50 of “CCM’s 500 Best Albums Of All Time” (that’s right, 500!) according to David Lowman, who I first met when he was working at The Pink Lady, a Christian bookstore in Orange CA. He has been deeply embedded in the sales, marketing and distribution of Christian music in many capacities over the years and is a true CCM aficionado and subject expert.
Lists come and lists go. Everyone has his or her preferences and opinions and these are generally little more than just that, interesting as they can be. It is always nice to have one’s work recognized especially if it has been meaningful in someone’s life or important to the development and direction of the art and sociology in some way. The worst thing that can happen to an artist is not to be hated, but to be ignored for irrelevance. David has put an enormous amount of work into his compilation and comments and he is much more informed than most, also having “been there” for much of it. Because Branded is appearing in his Top 50 he asked me to detail some of the important circumstances and events surrounding the conception and making of the album, and I’m happy to do so.
Setting the Stage
Someone once said that listening to Undercover is like listening to someone growing up in public and I’ve cited that often. It’s probably true but it has struck me as probably true of many artists. Our first two albums were widely seen as simplistic or at least simply exuberant. Our third, Boys and Girls, Renounce the World! was seen as darker or more serious. I’m not sure why or how that came out. The album is still lyrically conservative and filled with Christian anthems. The darkness when we recorded that record was mostly in the privacy of our own lives. Brian Quincy Newcomb, a writer, critic and pastor who wrote liner notes for a re-mastered Boys and Girls in 1996 recognized the transition in the simple lyrics while characterizing the sound using terms like “ominous, … a sense of foreboding, … a serious tone… apocalyptic.” I suppose the truth comes out one way or another.
By 1984 when Boys and Girls was released, I had been working as a staff producer at the Ministry Resource Center (MRC), a division of Maranatha Music focused more on outreach and grass roots music ministry. Maranatha of course, was the home to the Praise series of albums and home to many of the original wave of Southern California Jesus Music groups. It was itself a division of Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, pastored by Chuck Smith.
There was a large and growing community of young, enthusiastic and active artists who had little in common stylistically or culturally with those early Jesus musicians and my job was to bring some structure and direction to the movement with the resources and expertise already available at MRC without forcing any kind of cultural compliance. Undercover and The Lifesavers had released their debut albums within days of each other in early1982. The Lifesavers left for another label after their debut, and Undercover released God Rules on the A&S imprint, also owned by Maranatha in 1983 and the label on which Sam Philips’ (then known as Leslie) first record was released. The Lifters also released their groundbreaking EP in 1983.
We maintained an open-door policy at MRC for all the new breed of artists looking for advice, guidance or camaraderie. One of the first projects we undertook was the production of What’s Shakin’? in 1984, a compilation album that gave many of these artists their first exposure to a studio and their first piece of legitimate product. It was done on the super-cheap (I think my budget for the songs I produced was $100 per song plus one day of studio time). In addition to Undercover and The Lifters, What’s Shakin’? featured the debut recordings by the Altar Boys whose first release came a bit later in 1984, Stephen Crumbächer whose first album was released in 1985, and The Choir, known then as Youth Choir whose debut also appeared in 1985. Sharon McCall, a studio musician appearing on a number of albums by artists including Randy Stonehill and DA, also a member of The Scratch Band, predecessor to The 77s also had a song on the record.  The A&S label had barely gotten off the ground when the executives at Maranatha decided to change the whole direction of their edgier music releases. They saw the number of alternative music groups and saw where things were headed. They retired A&S and started Broken Records with an entirely different mission statement, more urgent, more militant, more evangelical, more culturally specific.
This was my world at the end of 1984. Undercover had just finished its third album on the heels of God Rules, and was playing about 250 concerts per year (I still have the calendars). I was working as a staff producer at MRC and Broken Records, and besides Undercover I had produced What’s Shakin’?, the first Altar Boys album and the first Crumbächer album. I had a family with four amazing children. My personal life was falling apart.
Very shortly after Boys and Girls was completed but before it was released Bill Walden decided his calling was elsewhere and left the band. I hope I honor him by getting this part right. Bill and I are both strong-willed and we had our tough times together. I remember one tour that finished with us barely speaking to each other. We were young and stupid. Now we’re old and stupid but a little wiser hopefully. Boys and Girls was a difficult album to record. It was the first record that I was allowed by Maranatha to produce on my own because there was really nobody in Maranatha’s network who knew how to work with a band like ours in the studio. Although I knew what I wanted it to sound like, I didn’t have the technical studio chops or ears that early to fully pull it off and I made a number of mistakes.
I remember the vocal sessions being difficult too and I take responsibility for that. The songs were, as Quincy noted, a little more intense musically than the earlier records and I think I remember Bill telling me that he didn’t feel like he was the right guy to sing on our newer material, some of which, by the end of the Boys and Girls recording included songs that would show up on Branded. In fact, I have early demos of a couple songs from Branded with Bill singing. In any case, Bill can fill in the blanks or correct me if he chooses. We are the best of friends these days and we both know we share a common heritage and history and worked together for our early achievements and accomplishments.
The day the God Rules album was released in May of 1983 if I remember correctly, we performed at the Ontario Church of God. The band that opened for us that night was a group called Martus and its members included Sim Wilson, Gene Eugene, Riki Michele, Greg Lawless, and Paul Valadez. About a year later, after Bill announced that he was leaving Undercover, Gary Olson ran into Sim and remembered him from that night and asked if he would like to audition for the band. He was the only guy we auditioned and we invited him to join. Boys and Girls had not yet been released and we went to Maranatha and asked them if we could replace Bill’s vocals on the record with Sim’s since Sim would be the one touring with us. They didn’t like the idea so the record came out with Bill on lead vocals although we did record Sim singing the title track and released it as a 45. That version appears on various Undercover anthologies.
So Sim was in and of course the members of Martus went on to form Adam Again. We went on the road right away and had begun performing the Branded songs live well before we recorded any of them so when we went in to the studio again in early 1985, Sim was familiar with us, with the songs, and our audience. He was able to put his own fingerprint on his performance even though Branded was his first national recording. In addition to recruiting Sim, Gene Eugene occasionally ran sound for us, and ultimately became our full time sound man, our front of house engineer. The busier we got, the more responsibility he took on and he eventually served as our road manager as well.
This was really the defining event of Branded. My own internal processes and feelings, my sense of powerlessness, the failure of the simplistic faith and worldview we had promoted on our first records and the way I perceived the church responding to it were the catalysts for the songs. Anyone who wonders about the darker introspection of Branded need look no further than this. It was a cataclysmic, seismic disruption and shift in my life at many levels, all characterized by a sense of profound sadness and guilt. I wrote this in 1989 on the liner notes for the first re-release of our early records, and I think this sums it up pretty well.
“The two years between Boys and Girls and Branded were the most difficult of my life. Personal tragedy and shattered ideological expectations stripped me of everything. It seemed that everything I knew to be true was not necessarily so. I saw too much, heard too much, met too many ruined people professing faith in God and had indeed become one of those ruined people to still simply believe that “loving God makes me a happy boy.” … I felt sad, guilty, like I had failed, unspiritual, yet very determined to know exactly what my faith was all about and how it should be lived. Too much didn’t make sense… It was time to ask questions.”
Around the time we were recording Boys and Girls I was at my office at MRC and just felt completely sick inside with the state of my life and my confusion over how to make sense of it and what to do about it. This was manifest, as is most often the case, in my relationship, my marriage. The only thing I knew to do was to reach out somehow, but I had to do that with someone I could trust and in such a way that protected my family. It may sound quaint now, but in the mid-1980s a Christian musician getting a divorce was a big deal and scandalous in evangelical circles. The only person I knew that had been through this and come out ok on the other end was Randy Stonehill. I asked someone for his number and called him up. He was very gracious, frank and upright. We talked for a while but the only things I remember specifically from it today was his suggestion that I call his pastor and he also told me that my ministry was going to come unraveled over this.
I did call and meet with Randy’s pastor who recommended I see a therapist, Randy Smith, who also happened to be a Christian, which was important to me then. I met with him over a number of months. He had a big job. He was not completely successful in shaking me loose from rigid fundamentalist thinking or getting me to what I now consider an acceptable level of emotional maturity, but I cannot understate how important that relationship was to me. He didn’t get to finish the job, but he got things going, breaking my mental and emotional logjams, and he is listed in the credits on the album.
I’ve thought about the unraveling thing from Randy Stonehill many times over the years because really, things didn’t come unraveled for us as much as they changed, and that for the better. I think that if we had any interest in continuing to be the simplistic, exuberant, sloganeering band we started as then yes, it would have been hard to reconcile that with what was going on in my private life. I wanted to go in a different direction though. I felt no need to sweep anything under the rug or do anything else than deal directly with the raw and ugly issues I was wrestling with. So again, time to ask questions. We lost some of our audience I’m sure, but I know this was really just the beginning for us in many other ways.
In early 1985 (I know it was before May, 1985) we began recording sessions for Branded using the mobile recording truck owned by Tim Pinch that we used on our first album and that we later used on 3-28-87, the live album recorded at Six Flags Magic Mountain. Gym had built a rehearsal studio in his garage and that’s where we worked everything out and where we decided to record the album. We called Tim and backed the truck into the driveway, ran all the cabling and started recording basic tracks.
These sessions didn’t last long and never saw the light of day. I was newly separated, probably less than a month and I had no appreciation for the way that was going to impact people in our inner circles. The band members were tight but troubled by circumstances they weren’t all sure how to think about or deal with internally, pulled this way and that by people close to them and in their own inner circles. Things came to a head one night in the early recording sessions between some of those outside but close to the band and it was so painfully obvious to all of us right then and there, even to Tim that we were not ready to do this yet, or at least that we did not have the right kind of psychic environment to do this record. We wrapped it all up and that was the end of that.
We had also been getting ready for a tour in Europe scheduled to begin in the middle of summer, 1985 and we had intended to finish Branded before we left. I was making every effort to maintain a sense of accountability to the staff at MRC, to my band mates and to Chuck Smith himself who was providing much of the funding for the tour. Being accountable and protecting one’s family’s privacy is a tricky proposition. Many who had not earned my trust thought they had a right to personal and sensitive information and there are many snakes and weasels in leadership positions at high-profile churches. You know some of them. I had young children to think of after all. I went to Chuck’s office and offered to cancel the tour if he was not comfortable with my divorce and the situation as it was, and made my counselor’s phone number available to him if he wanted to check up on my progress and frame of mind. He said he wanted to go forward with things. He was very fair and gracious.
The tour was six weeks long and I went over a little early to clear my head, give myself a break and get away from all the upheaval and turbulence for a little while. When the band and I joined up again in Amsterdam, we were really happy to see each other and get to work. We had always heard how overall Christianity in Europe was different than in the States. What I was not really ready for was seeing how differently mainstream and hugely popular American Christian artists behaved and conducted themselves in Europe than they did in the States, at least in their public presentation. I am not suggesting a double standard or hypocrisy because we all have our political realities to navigate and have to choose our battles wisely in service of our priorities. What this meant for me was a confirmation of what Randy Smith had begun and what he and I were still working on; the whittling away of my damaging, rigid, fundamentalist thinking. We had the opportunity to sit down with lots of these great artists, chew the fat, compare notes, just listen, and I learned a great deal from those who had already had longer tenures than I and had been around the blocks at least a few more times than I had. We really got to know Phil Keagy, and Farrell and Farrell much better over there. We probably would not have gotten that opportunity at all in the US.
The whole experience was liberating. I already had seen the failures of my beliefs and fundamentalism in my own life and was not inclined to come back to the U.S. and the status quo. The summer touring Europe was a good way for us to see that there are lots of other ways of seeing things, different types of faith in practice within Christianity besides the uniquely American brand of evangelicalism, somewhat widely ridiculed in most of the countries we visited. Knowing that from a book is one thing; living and working in the midst of it for an extended time is another. We came back with a different point of view and this gave us the freedom to discuss some things more openly than we might otherwise have, not so much in the songs and their lyrics which, for Branded had already been written, but in the dialogue around the songs, in interviews, and to our audience. It also prepared us for what came next as soon as we got back to the States.
Maranatha Music and Calvary Chapel
When we came back to the States after the tour overseas, almost immediately we were told that there were some things going on at Calvary Chapel and at Maranatha Music, the parent company of Broken Records. I don’t remember all the details, but what I do remember was being told that Calvary Chapel was going to suspend its Saturday night concerts except for the occasional concert by the more traditional and earlier wave of Maranatha artists such as Darrell Mansfield and Mustard Seed Faith. I had heard that Chuck Smith simply could not identify with the way the newer groups sounded, looked and carried themselves. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that’s what I was told. We never played at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa again.
I also got a call from Chuck Fromm, the president of Maranatha Music, and Chuck Smith’s nephew asking me to come in to chat. It was Chuck Fromm who was the real business visionary behind Broken Records and who had done so much for Undercover and for me personally, creating the position for me at MRC and the opportunity to mentor the new groups. That day, Chuck told me that they were suspending Broken Records and that they would not be releasing Branded. We had already begun recording it once and were ready to begin anew after our long tour. Chuck told me this was connected to the shift at Calvary Chapel away from new music. I left his office thinking that was the end of that. Just as quickly as it all started, it all vanished. In the course of a about a week, the whole Southern California new music landscape had shifted. The Saturday concerts being cancelled was huge, especially because they had been almost an institution in themselves, even having been broadcast live every week on KYMS the big Christian radio station in Orange County.
The bigger issue to me was that we were now without a label, homeless. We had also been doing the booking of our personal appearances and concerts out of MRC and that had to change also. Gene took on those responsibilities as well. I set about trying to find a new home for Undercover and I knew it was not going to be very easy. The Maranatha Music companies were not ordinary record labels but para-church arms of Calvary Chapel who were expected to share the same evangelical mission. They did things their own way and largely saw themselves at odds with the larger Christian Music industry (see the back of the Broken Records postcard below). Up to this point, we had been an extension of them.
We made a number of calls to get the word out that we were shopping, and we were wined and dined a bit. We considered the label The Choir had gone to after working with Maranatha, but an even better prospect was Sparrow Records who became quite genuinely and actively interested. We explored the relationship for quite a while, even negotiating recording budgets, and I thought that’s certainly where we were going to end up. Those hopes were dashed when one day I got a phone call from the A&R rep we had been working with saying that the head of the label, Billy Ray Hearn didn’t want the publicity problem of dealing with a divorce. Michele Pilar had been through one and they didn’t feel they could handle another.
In the almost immediate aftermath of Broken’s demise, a new label had popped up, Frontline Records, owned by a Calvary Chapel pastor, Jim Kempner, who also used to deliver the evangelistic message after the Saturday night concerts and who used to promote the Christian music nights at a number of Southern California amusement parks. I think he probably was happy to see Maranatha get out of the new music business so that he could get in. He was up and running in no time. We knew him well and we met with him around the same time we were talking seriously to Sparrow but as far as I was concerned, Frontline was never going to be the place for Undercover for lots of reasons. In retrospect that was one of the wisest choices I’ve ever made. Having turned down Frontline and having been turned down by Sparrow, and growing tired of talking to labels, we were right back where we started.
Gene came to me shortly after with a story of a guy by the name of Harry Barnes who had independently released a record by the group 441 on his label Blue Collar Records. They had a hit on KYMS and Gene was thinking pretty seriously about signing Adam Again to the label. He told me I ought to consider it also. I’m sure Gene was genuinely trying to throw a good idea out there, but bringing Undercover along with Adam Again to the label may have given Gene some leverage he might not have had as a new band trying to get his debut released. Blue Collar had national distribution and Harry seemed like an honest guy who had managed to make some things happen for himself and his label. I was wary of the industry outside of Maranatha, especially as it became increasingly centered in Nashville, I had a record written that we were already performing and that I had tried to get produced once, and I was tired of talking to people. We signed with Harry and Blue Collar.
I received a phone call again from Chuck Fromm at Maranatha sometime after we had made the commitment to Harry, and possibly after we had started to re-record Branded. It was one of the stranger meetings of my life. Chuck asked what we were doing and I told him about Blue Collar and he became upset, telling me that he intended to release Branded. I was mystified. I reminded him that we were told Broken was folding and that we were free to go. We had heard nothing since, and in fact we didn’t even have a recording agreement with them! He asked about the money we had spent on the first attempt to record the record and I answered that it was his choice to fold things up, not ours, and that we’d have been happy to do the record on Broken when we came back from Europe. We did not consider that our responsibility. The meeting ended with a shrug and some hard feelings probably and again, that was the end of that. It was hard ending things that way with people I had worked with for so long, people I had believed in and loved, and who had believed in me. I’m sure they have their own feelings and stories to tell.
Production and The Music
Harry Barnes is a really incredible human being with an uncanny ability to meet and befriend people. When we came to his roster with Adam Again he had already forged a relationship with the Elefante brothers and if I remember correctly, had recorded 441′s debut at Pakaderm, their studio in Los Alamitos, CA. Harry arranged for us to record Branded there as well. I don’t remember too much about the sessions but I do have a few vivid memories. One was Gary doing the drum track to Tears In Your Eyes which I can still hardly believe he pulls off with only one bass drum pedal. A second very specific and clear memory was the layering of keyboard parts on the Prelude to Darkest Hour.
In the early 1980s a new technology standard emerged called MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) that allowed MIDI enabled instruments to “communicate” with each other. For keyboard players this was huge. Just by connecting keyboards together with a single cable, I could play one and have them all play their sounds at the same time. I could now with one hand control a host of instruments, assuming I wanted them all to play the same thing. What was also possible though, was playing a MIDI-enabled keyboard into a sequencer, basically a “tape recorder” but instead of tape it records digitally, and instead of recording audio, it records digital information about exactly what is played and how it is played. It essentially records a performance that can be played back on any MIDI instrument again and again. That’s what I did on Prelude. All those strings were layered by way of MIDI. I recorded it once and then played it back again and again using different string and choir sounds on each pass.
Branded was the first record we made with MIDI capabilities and the reason I mention that here is because it was important in the way the songs were written, arranged and recorded. It was a big part of the reason why Branded sounded like a musical departure from our earlier records too where each keyboard part had to be played manually each time until it was right. With MIDI and a sequencer I could record the keyboard parts at home into the sequencer and work out all the bugs there and then bring it all in to the studio and just lay it all down. The only part on Prelude that was not recorded by MIDI was the solo violin part at the end, which I played on John Elefante’s Emulator digital sampler, which was then state-of-the-art.
A second reason why this record sounded so different from the earlier ones was Pakaderm itself, Dino Elefante, and his engineers. Our first two records were engineered by folks at Maranatha who really had no idea what to do with this kind of music and no experience with it. Praise albums were their expertise. This was not the case at Pakaderm where Dino and his crew knew what we needed, knew how to make it happen, and had the equipment to do it. When it came time to mix the record, Dino took the helm and when it needed more bass or guitars, he moved the faders up almost with abandon until it was right where we needed it. I was sitting right next to him and when he was moving those faders he was often looking right at me with a “Tell me when!” look on his face. That’s the kind of boldness we needed.
Anxiety, Guilt and Freedom
Around 1985 or so, I had come across a class in the Sociology department at Cal State University of Fullerton called Sociology of Marital Dissolution. I had browsed through the catalogue from time to time whenever I fancied the idea of going back to college to get a degree. It just hadn’t been possible with a growing family and with the band traveling and working as much as we did. Still, every once in a while I would look it over, all the various majors and classes and graduation requirements and daydream. When I saw this class offering though, I knew immediately that I had to take it. My divorce had taken me completely by surprise, but more than that, marriage itself and whatever it is that made it work had been a mystery. I enrolled in the class and learned so much and loved it so much that I continued to take family-oriented classes. It became increasingly important as I realized I was going to be a single father.
As long as I was taking those classes I decided I might as well work towards a degree. That meant I had to take other classes in other departments to round out my general education. One such class was in the Religious Studies department and was called Anxiety, Guilt and Freedom. Well, that pretty much sounded like my world and I enrolled. It was a survey course of sorts on the existentialism of Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Camus, and to a lesser degree, Martin Buber. To an evangelical Christian, this was tricky turf and while I took some comfort in Kierkegaard, the class fundamentally changed my outlook. It was one of the most important classes I’ve had.
We had to turn in a project for the class. We had wrapped up recording and putting the artwork together for Branded and sometime during that semester it was going to be released. I had taken the class because it was relevant to my experience at that time and I had essentially documented that experience, my own anxiety, my own guilt and my own freedom on the record. I thought it would be an excellent project and so I turned it in with a paper. One humbling thing about college for me was that I had to leave Undercover and my production work at the door. There I was just another student. I thought using a full length album that was soon to be released internationally for a term project would be a pretty impressive thing. I got a B. The grade hardly mattered though because I did not do the record for this course. I had come at the album as honestly as I could, documenting my process and failures, and the failures of the faith I held, and it was nice to find out by taking this class that I was not alone in my own moral angst and that I was on well-traveled turf (although not in CCM at that time, which is unfortunately why I think the record was notable in that circle. I feel we did nothing extraordinary in dealing with life as it truly happened and the thoughts, questions and doubts we were really having).
I didn’t really have any idea at the time that Branded would be any different qualitatively than the first three, as much as a progression. The first indication I had that we might be on to something was at a rehearsal in Gym’s garage (he had converted it to a rehearsal room). Marie McGilvray had come by and ducked in to listen for a bit and we were working on I’m Just A Man. I’ll never forget the look on her face or the chat we had when we were done, about how this sound and these songs were a game changer for us. it took me by surprise. This was early, not long after Sim joined and before we had started performing any of the songs live.
By the time a record is done, the “work” of the work is already done. I’ve always felt that once the record is finished I am also finished. It belongs to everyone else then, and people bring their own meaning to the songs, which is often stuff that’s much more impressive than anything we could have conjured. It’s only a song, after all, and the real value of any song is the meaning we bring to it individually. Shortly after Branded came out I started hearing from industry folks and people who bought the record, about the ways it was meaningful in their lives. I’ve told some of those stories before so I won’t repeat them here, but they were nice to hear, humbling in that some work of mine was meaningful in ways we had not experienced before. The record is very personal to me and I love it.
Branded brought us one of our first real industry recognitions too, in that it won Harvest Rock Syndicate magazine’s Album of the Year in the magazine’s first year. That seemed an appropriate place to have such an honor too because they were indie like us even though the folks that ran it and wrote for it (including Brian Quincy Newcomb) were heavies. I’ve been proud of that and happy to have the record not be ignored for irrelevance, but more than anything what matters now is that even 25 years later I still get letters and comments from people about that album and what it has meant to them. Thank you.
 Malcolm and the Mirrors also appeared. Malcolm was a Christian music veteran and pastor who was eventually replaced in the band by Bill Walden. Other artists who did not go on to record full-length releases nationally that I’m aware of included The Omega Band, The Proclaimers, and CIA.
 Marie McGilvray had been doing our booking out of MRC for some time and our history with Marie is also a good story. She had booked Undercover to play at her Church when she was either still in, or just out of high school. We struck up a friendship from it and she had done such a good job with her concert that we asked her if she would be interested in being our booking agent. When Maranatha changed direction, she had a pretty good job there and rightfully stayed with them, relinquishing booking responsibilities as she took on more responsibilities. She was also the keyboard player for 441 for a while and has also released a record with her own material.
 Terry Taylor talked eloquently and accurately about the relationship pattern and dynamics between Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa and the artists from the various Christian music “waves” from Costa Mesa in his chapter in the book First and Forgotten: The Story of Christian Rock’s Neglected Pioneers as Told by the Artists Themselves by Jerry Wilson.
 John and Dino Elefante had co-written a number of hits by the band Kansas, for which John was also the lead singer after Steve Walsh. They were also monster producers in CCM having worked on a number of Petra albums and a bunch of others.
 Another memory is the band’s incessant playing of Mrs. Pacman. Pakaderm had a Mrs. Pacman game console in the lobby and it was pretty much going 24/7. The music for that damned thing is etched into my brain forever.
 Chris Well, when he found out we were re-releasing our first four albums in a set asked if he could write the notes for Branded, below. This is the same compilation that included the essay Brian Quincy Newcomb wrote for Boys and Girls.
Summer, 1986. Christian rock workhorses like Petra, White Heart and DeGarmo & Key were in their heyday, looking for different ways to repackage the same spiritual truths into a three-minute arena rock jingle. And while, at the time, these were pretty important records to young people everywhere (including me), the real breakthrough came from the next wave of songwriters who were struggling to express their whole faith – all of it: the doubt and the patience; the hope and frustration; the cries of praise and the cries of anguish. It was a wholly scriptural and wholly honest look at Biblical truths, drawn from the darker Psalms and Ecclesiastes and the book of Jeremiah (you know, they didn’t call Jeremiah “the weeping prophet” for nothing).
There is no better benchmark in the maturity of Christian music than Branded. Having broken ground as a punk outfit, churning out gospel tracks set to anxious dance music and messages that could fit on a bumper sticker, the members of Undercover knew it was time to dig deeper. “Things in people’s lives around me didn’t seem to support what we were writing about anymore,” keyboardist and songwriter Ojo Taylor had told me that summer. “We saw a lot of kids hurting and I found I had to do more than just throw Romans 8:28 at them.”
Branded’s starkness begins with I’m Just A Man, a personal lament of human failures. It was a vulnerable way to open the record, announcing the was not “Christian cheese du jour.” Throughout the course of the album, Undercover proved themselves able to match the more mature themes and struggles with a more mature style of music – dark and stylish, moody and ambient. Their new direction was more flexible as well; whereas the pogo punk of yore held few options, the new music allowed for a much more expressive emotional pallet. As such, Branded is the perfect soundtrack for a flawed human life, all the while stretching toward the light.
“The Bible says we are to walk in the light,” Taylor had said, “so we bring ourselves to the light and say, ‘Okay, look at us. Here we are.’ Maybe you can identify with me because I have the same problems you do.” Just as the anguished Psalms resulted from real-life struggles with everyday existence, Branded’s own lamentations were drawn from personal experience too. “I tried for ten years as a super-fundamental Christian to make everything I was taught fit into life. After meeting more and more kids and seeing my own failures and realizing that life is tough, I said ‘Hey, I can’t make it fit anymore. There has to be more to Christianity than I’ve been taught.’”
Branded, a concept album that could easily have been subtitled Guilt, Anxiety and Freedom, hits the lowest emotional point with the aptly titled Darkest Hour, an anguished cry from the bottom-pointing out in the last verse how Christ himself was in the Garden of Gethsemane crying out and sweating blood. And there, at the bottom, we find what is truly excellent about Branded – there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Come Away With Me as lovely a song ever written by a modern rock band, is the tender response our Lord has for anyone with a broken heart. And then, of course, the album closes with the end of the world: If I Had A Dream rings out the last chapter of Revelation, when justice is finally meted out, and the Bride is reunited with her Groom.
As a fixed point in history, Branded is a true work of art with deep spiritual repercussions – it will always have its place in Christian rock history. More importantly, its deft blend of atmosphere and message gives the music a life beyond any trend or fashion statement. Many bands have since trod these same Scripturally accurate, spiritually honest hallways and in some way, each of these bands must acknowledge their debt to one of the true turning points in the growth and health of Christian music. Branded has lasted. It will last. -Chris Well