Thursday, June 26, 2014

#82 HIT THE SWITCH by Pantano/Salsbury (1977)

HIT THE SWITCH by Pantano/Salsbury (1977)
Solid Rock (SR-2008)
If there had been a Dove Award given for “Hairiest Album Cover,” Pantano/Salsbury’s Hit the Switch would’ve been a sure-fire contender.

In the end, this record is fondly remembered for more than chest hair and 70s fashion; it was like a visit with some old friends – fun, comfortable and full of substance.

Ron Salsbury started a band called JC Power Outlet with his friend John Pantano all the way back in the fall of 1970. In those early days, what they lacked in polish they made up for in exuberance! JC Power Outlet was sometimes referred to as “110 watts of pure Jesus power.” The guys were noticed by Larry Norman and reportedly ended up backing the enigmatic Mr. Norman on some tracks on his Street Level and Bootleg albums.

Then came  JC Power Outlet’s debut album. It was not a thing of beauty from a sonic standpoint; it was raw and uproarious. But the band’s sincerity and enthusiasm made that initial recording a treasured artifact from the Jesus Movement’s early days.

The group’s sophomore release, Forgiven, smoothed out some of the rough edges and will always be appreciated for its iconic album cover and a classic ballad titled I Choose to Follow. Forgiven made this list at #99.   

Frankly, not much is known about the 3-year period from Forgiven to Hit the Switch. We do know that, interestingly, David Edwards joined the group as bassist. [Edwards would later find an audience as a solo “new wave” artist in the early 80s.] JC Power Outlet is said to have left Myrrh Records in 1975; John and Ron reportedly disbanded the group shortly thereafter. While the groundbreaking band was no longer touring or recording, Ron Salsbury and John Pantano continued to write songs together and remained in contact with Larry Norman.

Larry Norman

Larry Norman, having been released by Capitol Records, set up his own label, the highly influential Solid Rock Records, in 1975. The label had distribution through Word Records and became label home to such acclaimed and groundbreaking artists as Randy Stonehill, Tom Howard, Mark Heard, and Daniel Amos. According to Christian Rock historian John J. Thompson, “Solid Rock became an important moment in the history of Christian rock music since it was the first artist-driven label.” Norman was reportedly impressed with Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer and his community at L’Abri in Switzerland, a place he had visited in 1972 while on his honeymoon. So he was inspired to start a label that would be less of a record company and more of a community. Norman said he wanted “to help other artists who didn’t want to be consumed by the business of making vinyl pancakes.” [It turned out that the business side of this whole endeavor wasn’t Larry’s strong suit, either…but that’s another story for another post.]  

The Solid Rock Family
Standing (L-R): Daniel Amos, Pantano/Salsbury
Kneeling: (L-R): Tom Howard, Mark Heard, Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill

Finally, here was a record label where the inmates were happily running the asylum. The artists would work on each other’s projects and even tour together. “We ate together, laughed together, cried together, traveled together,” said the late Tom Howard. “It wasn’t like a cult or anything; I mean, we’d go off to our own families and our own pockets of friendships. But there was definitely a sense of gathering among that small handful of artists.”

Ron, Larry, John

When Larry Norman approached Ron Salsbury and John Pantano about joining that “small handful of artists,” they agreed and Pantano/Salsbury became a part of Solid Rock Records. The Jesus Music veterans made clear their feelings about Solid Rock in the liner notes for Hit the Switch. They wrote, “Love and thanks to Larry, Randy, Tom, Phil [Mangano, the Solid Rock Business Manager], and to all the Solid Rock family.”

Like all other Solid Rock releases, Hit the Switch was given a gatefold album cover and featured photography and layout design by Larry Norman himself. Of course, Pantano and Salsbury both contributed as guitarists, songwriters, and vocalists on this album. Labelmates Norman and Stonehill contributed backing vocals and Tom Howard helped out on background vocals and Fender Rhodes electric piano. Howard also arranged and conducted the strings on the record. JC Power Outlet alum Bruce Neal played percussion. The rest of the cast included Peter Johnson on drums, David Coy on bass, and pianist Jeffrey David Hooven. John Pantano’s harmonica also makes an appearance. The album was produced and arranged by Larry Norman, and engineered by Stewart Whitmore. It was recorded at Mama Jo’s in North Hollywood.

Hit the Switch kicks off with a rollicking song that’s just a whole lot of fun for people who are over 40…and makes no sense at all to people under 30. I’m Just a Record, co-written by John Pantano and Larry Norman, is written from the point of view of the record album itself…something that I don’t think has ever been done before or since in the annals of CCM:

I’m just a record on your stereo
A piece of plastic spinnin’ ‘round
You know I’ll always keep a-turnin’
Until your needle wears me down
Yes I am gonna keep on rollin’
If you’ll keep rockin’ to the sound
‘Cause I’m a record on your stereo
A piece of plastic spinnin’ ‘round

Take off my jacket
I’ve got somethin’ up my sleeve
Turn me ‘round at 33

At this point, the song reminds the listener that an important distinction for CCM (or what Larry Norman called “Jesus Rock”) is that it’s not all about the music, that the truth of the Christian message matters:

Turn me up louder if you can’t hear the words
‘Cause I wanna tell you something if you’ll listen to me

I’ve got a writer, a producer, an engineer
I guess they’ve made me what I am
I’ve got a singer, I’ve got a band
And there’s some lyrics on my cover that might help you understand

Can a record have a message
Put the message in the groove
And be more than just rock and roll?
Can a person live the kind of life that’s happy and free
And still be true to all the things that are so deep in his soul?

The highly-distinguishable voice of Larry Norman can be heard on a line at the 2:31 mark. And, late in the tune, the lyrics take an even more playful turn…

I’m just a Solid Rock record
And I am gonna keep on turnin’
Until your parents turn me down

The song’s ending is quite creative, sounding as if someone has pulled the plug on the record player and the album is actually being slowed to a stop. This is really cool but totally lost on people who are too young to have grown up playing vinyl record albums. [Well, on second thought, hip hop fans are somewhat familiar with turntables, and they say vinyl’s making a comeback…time will tell, I guess.]

After I’m Just a Record, the boys seem to spend the rest of this album attempting to be taken more seriously as rock artists. Their enthusiasm and Christian commitment in the early 70s was never in question. But now it was time to put away the sloppy grunge and demonstrate some musical depth and seriousness.

One reviewer called Soul Seeker and Hold On “slow jams” that were “more progressive than anything they’d done previously, allowing some stretched-out guitar soloing for Pantano.” Both songs were real treats that seemed to go on even longer than their respective 6:08 and 5:31. There’s also a “talk box” type effect on the guitar solos that makes these songs quite memorable. Obviously, no regard was given to considerations like radio airplay (there was very little to be had anyway), so these songs were simply allowed to stretch out and breathe. It just sounds like the guys were having a good time, and these tunes, both penned by Pantano, hold up quite well to repeated listening.

I Need You wraps up Side One and acknowledges our utter dependence on the Lord. Written by Ron Salsbury, the song makes it clear that money, fame, and position will never be able to successfully take the place of the Lord in our lives. It features a blistering twin-lead guitar solo and also gives drummer Peter Johnson a chance to shine at the end of the song. 

As was the case for several Solid Rock albums, Sides One and Two were each given a title and a theme. On Hit the Switch, Side One was titled, “ROCK and Side Two was titled, “AND ROLL.” This signified, of course, that the heavier, more rock-oriented songs were all on Side One, while Side Two contained the softer pop and ballads. Of course, that’s something that was possible with LPs that has sadly gone by the wayside in the age of digital music. But I digress…

Side Two began with a very special song titled, People Tend to Forget. It’s a story song centered around two objects – an old cannon and an old wooden cross. The song makes the point that our freedom as Americans was purchased with blood; it didn’t come cheap. Likewise, the salvation of our souls was also bought with blood – the blood of Jesus. It’s the only song I can think of that’s equally appropriate listening for both Memorial Day and Good Friday. 

I was just a young boy and he an old man
He was sittin’ in the park on that summer day
He said, “Do you see that cannon, over by the tree?”
I said, “Yes. It doesn’t work. It’s just for play.”
He said, “Has anyone told you? Have you ever heard
‘Bout the war, the blood and pain that old gun stands for?”
And I just looked at him and finally nodded no
But I waited for him to tell me ‘cause I wanted to know

And he told me of a war for freedom and final victory
And he told me ‘bout the many lives that were lost for him and me
And he said that that old cannon reminds you and me
That freedom is never cheap just because it’s free

Some prices are so high they’re only paid in blood
An empty helmet in the snow or still boots in the mud
To the many ones who die we’ll always be in debt
But people fail to remember; people tend to forget

Many summers have come and gone but I was in that park the other day
And I remembered that old man and the words he had to say
Then I looked up at that old white church with a wooden cross on top
And as I sat there in the park alone, to myself I thought

All about a war for freedom and final victory
and I thought about a Life that was lost for you and me
And I almost heard that old man ask if that cross reminded me
That freedom is never cheap just because it’s free

Some prices are so high they’re only paid in blood
A lifeless body hanging still, His garments in the mud
To the One who gave His life, we’ll always be in debt
But people fail to remember; People tend to forget

The song, written by Ron Salsbury and J.D. Hooven, featured some tasteful, jazzy electric piano licks from Tom Howard.

Next up was a pleasant pop song that would’ve made a nice radio single (if that had been possible in 1977). The song, penned by Salsbury, touted God as the Lover of My Soul – a “lover” who will never leave, never disappoint. 

A unique, powerful song called Magic of the Moonlight is next. The song addresses the emptiness of premarital sex and the pain of divorce, topics that were seldom (if ever) talked about in CCM. Instead of a heavy-handed tactic, writer Ron Salsbury took a clear but subtle approach and the overall feeling was one of sadness and lament, not condemnation and judgment. It was one thing for parents and youth leaders in the 70s to tell impressionable teens that sex outside of marriage was void of any true fulfillment. But for rock musicians like John and Ron to come alongside and reinforce that message…well, it was much needed and very effective.  

Gentle girl
Looking for the boy she’ll marry someday
She needs love
Every boy she’s with will give it, so they all say
But words of love and promise in the moonlight, they will say
Will only turn to lies when the moonlight fades away

And oh, it makes her wonder
Oh, it makes her cry every time
The magic of the moonlight says goodbye

Lonely boy
Looking for the girl who’ll never leave him
She spends the night
He knows that he has found the one to please him
Though trying not to beg all night, he asks the girl to stay
But wakes up in the morning just to find she’s slipped away

And oh, it makes him wonder
Oh, it makes him cry every time
The magic of the moonlight says goodbye

No one believed
That he would ever leave her but the day came
For twenty years
She had lived with him and shared the same name
But words of love and promise at the altar he once said
Are now but just a photograph because the magic’s dead

And oh, it makes her wonder
Oh, it makes her cry every time
The magic of the moonlight says goodbye

My only real criticism of this album is that on 2 or 3 songs, the guys fall into the “God-As-My-Girlfriend” syndrome (writing a song that sounds like a love song that could be about God or could be about an earthly lover). As a somewhat black-and-white kind of guy who seldom sees any shades of grey in anything, it’s a pet peeve of mine. But it was a fairly popular songwriting device for a lot of Christian artists in the mid to late 70s. One such song is the next tune on Hit the Switch - John Pantano’s worshipful ballad To Be Near You.

Pantano also wrote the album’s closing track, I Don’t Wanna Wander. This one reminds me of an interesting theological debate that has divided denominations for centuries: the question of so-called eternal security (sometimes referred to as “once saved, always saved”). 

The song works on one level as a worship song:

You’re a part of my dreams
when I’m wishing
You are my hope for the day
You’re the song in my heart
that keeps singing
You keep me longing to stay

And on another level as a testimony song:

Like a leaf in the wind
I was trembling
Like a child I was lonely with fear
I was waiting for someone
to love me
And suddenly You were so near

But they keep returning to that phrase:

No, I don’t wanna wander away

The bridge contains the following sentiment:

And love is here for those who see
That love is what we all were intended to need
We stand alone before ourselves
Our choice is free  

Of course, some will argue that we can never lose our salvation, and they point to Scriptures that bolster their claim. Others say that many references in the New Testament make it clear that we can voluntarily walk away from our faith. After all, why sing “I don’t wanna wander away” if it’s not even possible to do so?

Toward the end of the song, we hear the singer asking the Lord to “Keep me in Your arms, keep me in Your arms…

Ron Salsbury's 2014 album
"Then and Now"

These days, Ron Salsbury is a cancer survivor and serves as Lead Pastor of New Life Community Church in Pismo Beach, CA (a Church of the Nazarene congregation). His bio on the church’s website never mentions JC Power Outlet or Pantano/Salsbury by name, but does say: “Ron served as a recording artist and leader of a praise band during the ‘Jesus Movement’ in the 70s.” The bio also describes Salsbury as being “passionate about how God is really in love with each one of us and that there is a hope in every one of God’s promises.” We also learn from his church website that Salsbury graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA in 1986, that he enjoys camping and hiking in Yosemite National Park, and that Psalm 18 is his favorite chapter in the Bible.

John Pantano

Some really exciting news is that Ron Salsbury has recently released a new CD! It’s called Then and Now, and contains new music as well as previously recorded songs from JC Power Outlet (I Choose to Follow, Don’t let Jesus Pass You By, and more) and Pantano/Salsbury (Lover of My Soul, People Tend to Forget and I Need You). It’s available at CD Baby.

Not as much is known about John Pantano. In fact, little to nothing can be gleaned about him from scouring the internet.

I did find a photograph on Facebook that appears to be John and Ron playing together during recent times.

Long-time friends and band mates John Pantano and Ron Salsbury

By the early 80s, the Solid Rock “family” had been blown apart. Larry Norman entered into what many called a “lost decade.” Randy Stonehill, Mark Heard, Daniel Amos and Tom Howard all landed on their feet, signed with other labels, and continued to write and record into the future. We never got another record from John Pantano and Ron Salsbury. But they left us with an album that continues to speak in a meaningful way to many people even today.

It was much more than “just a record on your stereo.

Ed. note: With his family by his side, Ron Salsbury went Home to be with the Lord on Sunday July 31, 2016, after a long battle with cancer. He was 66.

Monday, June 23, 2014


The Astonishing, Outrageous, Amazing, Incredible,
Unbelievable, Different World of Gary S. Paxton (1975)

In 1976 I was a 14-year old south Alabama preacher’s kid with a rapidly developing ear for music. I was a pretty good piano player if I do say so myself. My parents, always eager to encourage my gift of music and my participation in ministry, were thrilled that I wanted to perform what they called “special music” during a Sunday night church service. That song turned out to be, There’s Got to Be More to Livin’ Than Just Waitin’ to Die by the one and only Gary S. Paxton. Let’s just say it was attention-grabbing, to say the least. We’re talking about a Pentecostal church in the Deep South that regularly featured songs like I’ll Fly Away and When the Roll is Called Up Yonder during the worship time (we called it “the song service”). So you can imagine the shock that these mostly blue-haired folks must’ve felt when they heard their pastor’s teenage son sing lines like, “You hardly ever see a smile anymore / They’re afraid you’ll steal their gold dentures” and “There’s got to be more to lovin’ than hoppin’ in and out of the sack.” 

Let's just say it was a while before I was asked to provide any more “special music.”

It would be very difficult to describe the Christian music phenomenon that was Gary S. Paxton in the mid- to late-70s to people who weren’t there to experience it firsthand. But I’ll try. Take an early Carman, mix in some Weird Al Yankovich, blend in some Swirling Eddies, stir in a little bit of early Steve Taylor and Chris Christian, and mix it all together with a healthy dose of P.T. Barnum and Donald Trump. The Carman, Yankavich, Taylor and Eddies references refer to Paxton’s knack for novelty songs and humor. And, like Chris Christian, he was a successful producer who didn’t always play well with others. As for the Barnum & Trump references? Paxton claims that songs that he has either written, co-written, published, produced, arranged, engineered, or for which he sang (either as a solo artist or lead singer on someone else’s record), or for which he was the label owner, have sold more than 200 million copies worldwide since 1956. He’s always been quite the promoter.

Now, due to Paxton’s gift for promotion and tendency to exaggerate, it’s nearly impossible to accurately relate all of the details of his life and career. If all that he says is true, then it is one amazing story. So, with that disclaimer, let’s go all the way back to the beginning.

Gary Sanford Paxton was actually born Larry Wayne Stevens on May 18, 1939, in Coffeeville, Kansas. He was the child of a 14-year old unmarried mother who allowed him to be adopted by a Christian family. He ended up living on a Coffeeville farm with no electricity, no running water, and no heat. Gary’s adoptive parents gave him a new name and a strict Christian upbringing. But he says that his childhood became a nightmare when he endured sexual molestation at the hands of a neighbor for two years (age 7 to 9) and was later diagnosed with spinal meningitis at age 11. None of this could dampen his love of music, however. The family moved to Arizona and Gary started his first band at age 14.

Paxton (right) as "Flip"

He soon found stardom as “Flip” in the pop duo “Skip & Flip.” 

Their recording of Gary’s song It Was I became a smash hit and landed them on television with Dick Clark. They followed that success with another chart-topping single, Cherry PieSkip & Flip eventually parted ways, and Paxton became more involved with other aspects of the music business – producer, label owner, and engineer. He had more chart-topping, million-selling singles – Alley Oop in 1960 and Monster Mash in 1961. He soon realized that he was a workaholic with an entrepreneurial flair. He ended up working with over a thousand groups in the 1960s; he seemed to be constantly opening and closing record labels, working in five different studios that he owned. Paxton quickly built a reputation in the Hollywood music scene as a talented but eccentric jack-of-all-trades. It was said that Brian Wilson admired him and Phil Spector feared him.

By 1967 Paxton fled the parties and drugs of Hollywood and relocated to Bakersfield, CA. There, he ran a variety of businesses, including a record label, a music store, two studios, a marina, a mountain hotel, a radio show, and rental houses.

Paxton (center, kneeling) recorded the mega-hit
"Alley Oop" with the Hollywood Argyles

It was soon time to hit the road again, this time to Nashville. Unfortunately, a change in scenery seldom if ever resulted in any true, positive life change for Gary. He remembers, “I’d walk along the streets with my long blonde hair down to my waist. I wore boots up to my knees and wore a flag for a cape. I kept going into places with my songs, dressed like that, and the police kept arresting me.” Following the suicide of a business partner, and unable to shake the demons of drug and alcohol addiction, Gary wandered into a church and made a life-changing decision. “I was walking around completely stoned and kept hearing this voice in my head,” recalls Paxton. “I was walking up and down Music Row, and there was a little Christian bookstore and a church there. Don Pinto was the pastor; Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant went there when Amy was about 15 or 16. I went in that church, drunk out of my mind. They said I ought to come back. So I did – the next week. Rev. Pinto said, ‘You need to get saved…from yourself!’ So I went down to the front, got saved and baptized, and that was the last time I ever touched drugs or alcohol.”

Paxton produced the Imperials' Grammy winning
album "No Shortage" in 1975
Keeping one foot in the secular music business (he had some huge success as a writer and producer for country artists in the mid-70s), Paxton also began to try his hand at Gospel music following his dramatic conversion. His “Midas touch” worked there as well. He wrote popular songs for The Imperials like No Shortage and My Child, Welcome Home. Other Christian music successes came with typical Paxton titles such as If You’re Happy (Notify Your Face) and If Nobody Loves You, Create the Demand. He won Grammys as writer and producer for The Blackwood Brothers and The Imperials.

Then in 1976, Jesus Music’s eccentric uncle took center stage as an artist in his own right. He released an album with an unusual gatefold cover that featured Paxton, smiling, bearded, and dressed in a red jumpsuit and hat, coming up out of a manhole cover. If that didn’t clue us in that this was going to be something entirely different, the album title itself would leave no doubt: The Astonishing, Outrageous, Amazing, Incredible, Unbelievable, Different World of Gary S. Paxton. Even though Paxton had already been around for a lifetime or two in the music industry, this record served as an introduction to most Christian music listeners. And what an introduction it was.

Paxton infused this record with the same eccentricity, individuality and hippie humor that had characterized much of his work in the ‘60s. Lyrically, the surreal and satirical would be set to humorous poetry. One reviewer has since described it as being like a cross between Steve Taylor and Frank Zappa. Musically, Paxton alternated between country, gospel, rock, disco, and funk. You never knew just what you were going to hear next!

Side One of ‘Astonishing, Outrageous’ was somewhat calm and was – with the exception of one song -- a slate of listenable Christian country-folk ballads. The album began with the autobiographical Different World, which told the story of Gary’s conversion complete with a spoken word intro that effectively introduced the artist to the listener:

“Hi. My name’s Gary S. Paxton. Don’t forget the ‘S.’ That’s one-third of my whole name! All of my life I’ve done a lot of weird things. I dress strange. I talk strange. Ooh, I live pretty strange, too. Mostly, I’ve done things to get people to notice – just to get folks to pay attention. But, you know, all of us do that in one way or another. Now, though, something’s happened to me that’s really put me in a different world. I’d like to tell you about it…”

If you think my head’s in a different world 
Then, brother, you’re right
If you think my mind’s in another dimension, 
Then, brother, you’re right
I’m in the world, not of it
Heaven is my home and I know I’m gonna love it
If you think my head’s in a different world, then brother you’re right

Weeds was a fairly pedestrian ditty that asked the question, “Is your life an ugly weed or pretty flower?”

The anti-racism anthem Love, It Comes in All Colors and the thought-provoking I Wonder If God Cries were standouts. The latter challenged the listener’s view of how we view Father God:

I wonder if God cries 
When we do the things we do
Do teardrops fill His eyes 
‘Cause He loves us oh so true
Sometimes I feel such hurt 
When I try to realize
That even though He’s God, 
I Wonder if He cries

I wonder if God cries
Is His heart filled with pain
Does He bow and weep 
When we damn His holy name
I wish I could see Him 
And for the world apologize
When we stumble so
I wonder if God cries

Maybe time will tell 
When we reach that distant shore
With all His children home
Maybe God will cry no more

Side One did include one upbeat country-rock song called, Whatcha Gonna Do When You Ain’t a Kid No More?

Whatcha gonna do when your youth is a memory?
Whatcha gonna do when your teenage years move on?
Whatcha gonna do when Bandstand’s gone and your feet can’t fit the floor?

Mortality and aging seemed to be on Paxton’s mind quite a bit throughout his career. He would later write songs like Lord, How’d I Get to Be Such An Old Man? and When the Meat Wagon Comes for You.

Layed Back (In His Love) completed Side One. It carried the same message as Chuck Girard’s Slow Down and Lay Your Burden Down, though not nearly as effectively.

Side two offered zany, harder-edged, rock-oriented tunes with the biting social commentary that Paxton eventually became known for as a Christian artist.

It opened with Jesus Keeps Takin’ Me Higher and Higher. This song, much like Jesus Made Me Higher by The Imperials, argued that Jesus’ love was much preferred to the artificial high offered by drugs, alcohol or other coping mechanisms. Like so many of Paxton’s songs, this one made extensive use of horns and contained what seemed like a ridiculous number of key changes (maybe to help illustrate the words “higher and higher?”). By the end of the song, you almost feel sorry for the female backup singers!

The aforementioned There’s Got to be More to Livin’ Than Just Waiting to Die was up next, and musically, it would’ve been right at home on an early Daniel Amos record (think: Meal or Skeptics’ Song). Like Terry Taylor and Randy Stonehill, Paxton often used humor to help the medicine go down a little easier:

There’s got to be more to lovin’ than hoppin’ in and out of the sack
There’s got to be more to bein’ a friend than getting’ stabbed in the back
Well, everybody acts so two-faced / And sometimes I see three
Everybody walks around so spaced / Freedom isn’t really free anymore

There’s got to be more to dyin’ than a personal hole in the ground
We ought to do a lot more tryin’ while we’re up a-walkin’ around
Or someday you’ll regret it / And then too late you’ll cry
There’s got to be more to livin’ than a-waitin’ to die

If you thought Randy Stonehill’s Lung Cancer was confrontational, try Paxton’s You Aint Smokin’ Them Cigarettes (Baby, they’re Smokin’ You). In the song he 1) calls smokers “walking pollution” and 2)  tells smokers that they will one day “be a pile of ashes, all crispy through and through.” He gets away with it because it’s all said and sung with a smile by a crazy guy in a red jumpsuit and hat, with a huge cross around his neck. Gotta love the 70s.

Victim of the System decried those who refuse to work, abdicate responsibility, game the system, and then play the victim card. Gary was having none of it. It’s one of the better songs on the album.

Quit yellin’ “Victim of the system!” / Do an honest day’s work
Quit claimin’ “victim of the system” and stop actin’ like a jerk
Well, there ain’t no doubt there’s plenty wrong with our society
But you can’t blame the system only while your mind is free

Well, that’s jive / ain’t we alive?
Man, get on the ball / you’re just lazy, that’s all

Nobody in Christian music dared to point a finger like that! I mean, Larry Norman, Keith Green, Glenn Kaiser, Steve Camp and Steve Taylor were at times pretty confrontational, but this Paxton guy took it to “a whole ‘nother level.”

Looking back, a lot of the lyric content on this album and those to follow was highly critical of the state of Christendom and of the United States of America -- morally, spiritually and politically. Many songs had a prophetic edge to them. Paxton’s dire warnings might’ve been taken a bit more seriously, had it not been for the zany antics and comical voices and arrangements.Sophisticated Savages described the insanity of the modern world with references to impending destruction, complete with a woman’s voice repeatedly screaming, “Rape!” at one point in the song:

We’re sophisticated savages / drowning in our ravages
While recreating earth, our island home
Gladly, what we loathe we typify / Claiming we self-sanctify
While agitating water, air, and stone

We’re sophisticated savages, floundering in averages
While claiming we’re superior in our plight
Madly, we demand we know it all / and scoff away the Master’s call
While blaming God for all we’ve caused not right

We’re sophisticated savages, spewing hellish adages
While plotting systematic suicide
In the name of change we kill and maim
Life and death is just a game
Blindly, we portray satanic pride

We’re sophisticated savages, drowning in our ravages
Trying to redo what God has done

The song makes use of sound effects and builds to a fever pitch before the listener hears an explosion (nuclear warfare?). Which leads into the album’s closing track, a gentle reminder that God has everything under control, and that Jesus is patiently waiting for us to surrender our hearts and lives to Him.

Another autobiographical testimony song, He Was There All the Time turned out to be the runaway ‘hit’ from the album and was recorded over 100 times in five languages by other artists. On this record, Paxton begins the last song the same way he began the first – with a spoken word intro:

“I guess now that you’ve listened to this group of songs, you can see that something has completely turned me around. That ‘something’ is Jesus Christ. And you know what?...”

Time after time I went searching for peace in some void
I was trying to blame all my ills on this world I was in
Surface relationships used me ‘til I was done in
And all the while Someone was begging to free me from sin

Never again will I look for a fake rainbow’s end
Now that I have the answer, my life is just starting to rhyme
Sharing each new day with Him is a cup of fresh life
Oh, what I’ve missed! He’s been waiting right there all the time

Waiting patiently in line
He was there all the time

‘Astonishing, Outrageous’ won Gary S. Paxton a Grammy Award for Best Inspirational Performance in 1976.

Paxton would remain on a similar path over the course of his next two albums – 1977’s More of the Astonishing… and 1978’s Terminally Weird but Godly Right. If anything, he actually kicked it up a notch, taking on overweight believers (Fat, Fat Christians), alcoholism (Whiskey Wet), materialism (There Goes a Cigar Smokin’ a Man), and abortion (The Big A = The Big M). He asked the musical question, “Will there be hippies in heaven?” and then said, “I certainly hope so, because I really did want to go.” He sang about “VD from foolish proposals” and “churches with unisex steeples.” He took on “limp-wristed valets,” “lezzies,” and “welfaring mothers hatching their troops without daddies.”

Gary S. Paxton’s life and times always had a fair amount of craziness swirling about. Early in his career, by his own admission, he was married to one woman and simultaneously engaged to two others; he tells of an incident in 1980 during which he was attacked and shot three times by hit men who were trying to avenge a music deal gone bad; while in the hospital a business partner embezzled a half million dollars from him, resulting in his sleeping in a sleeping bag on a concrete floor for two years; he went bankrupt and lived on welfare and food stamps after having been a very wealthy man four or five different times; and then he was rumored to have had an adulterous affair with Tammy Faye Bakker during his time of appearing on the PTL Club television program – a charge that he vehemently denies. 

A recent photo of Paxton performing on a television show in Branson, Missouri

Paxton now lives in Branson, Missouri with his fourth wife; he suffers from hepatitis C and almost died from the disease in 1990. So if you like your Christian musicians all squeaky clean and wrapped in a big, shiny, pretty package, Gary S. Paxton is probably not your favorite artist. But at age 72, he’s still telling it like it is. “The reason our country’s economy is bad is we’ve murdered 55 million potential taxpayers,” he says.

“I’ve had to begin again with Jesus,” says Paxton. “If you have God on your side, no matter what, you can begin again. I thank God for every trial, every scar, every setback I’ve ever had because they help you grow.”

Gary S. Paxton was inducted into the Country Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1999.