Larry Norman
8 April 1947-24 February 2008



Innovative, paranoid, charismatic, myth-making, frustrating... the epithets could go on, but Larry Norman, whose death after a long period of ill-health has just been announced was, for some of us, a true original and an inspiration.

Making a big impact in England in the early 1970s with his second major album Only Visiting This Planet, he immediately showed the corporate Jesus-rock fraternity for what it was - second-rate versions of Simon and Garfunkel or Carole King with a bit of gentle worship-rocking thrown in. Larry was not like that: his own original songs like 'Why Should the Devil' or 'The Outlaw' sounded as good as the Stones or Dylan and paid no heed to gently-rephrased Bible verses. Furthermore, he worked with proper musicians, in proper studios and it showed. 

Larry came out of the San Francisco street level 'Jesus Rock' neighbourhoods, but he and his early band People had shared bills with the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane and he had already tangled with major record labels. His first solo record proper
Upon This Rock (1969)  revealed a singer-songwriter with a real agenda, not too far removed from Randy Newman or Jackson Browne. He sang of abortion, drugs, hunger and the moon landings with the immediacy of the daily newspapers, but could also create gentle, hymn-like songs infused with Biblical echoes, such as 'I Am a Servant' and 'One Way'. He claimed to have created the 'pointing towards heaven' gesture associated with the latter song, but said he wouldn't have been surprised if Paul had done it. As an acoustic guitarist, he was fairly anonymous, but on the piano he could became possessed by the spirits of William Booth and Jerry Lee Lewis at the same time.

So Long Ago the Garden and In Another Land followed in the mid-1970s, making up a planned trilogy, the latter on his own label, Solid Rock. Unsurprisingly, he was too radical for Christian labels and too Christian for mainstream record companies and a slew of abandoned, censored or forgotten projects would eventually led him to release his own material, reworking and repressing it many times. Larry continued to tour, notably in the UK and Ireland during the 1970s and early 1980s, but the nearest he came to commercial success was through Cliff Richard covering and sanitising some of his material. 'I Wish We'd All Been Ready' and 'Why Should the Devil' are the songs most associated with him, but his 'blues' album Something New Under the Sun is probably his most consistent set, a rare example of a complete group of songs and musicians in tune with Larry's vision at the time.


Onstage he remained a dynamic perfomer, capable of captivating large audiences with intimate readings of his gentler songs, or rocking out, as seen in the documentary film Greenbelt Live, which featured a ferocious performance of 'Let that Tape Keep Rolling' which is more Chuck Berry than Charles Wesley. His between-song talks could be pertinent and hilarious, although in later years live albums revealed them to be carefully-constructed routines rather than the spontaneous moments they once seemed.

In more recent years, promises of new material became increasingly difficult to believe and Larry had developed a masterly line in obfuscation, listing titles of unreleased projects to a determined coterie of devoted fans. Some of these projects, however, did see the light:
Home at Last, Stranded in Babylon and Copper Wires are all worth a listen. His early 'street level' recordings, dating from 1969-1973 were also reissued on CD, and the double LP Bootleg remains a powerful documentary of the 'Jesus Freak' era in America at the time.

At his peak in the 1970s, he could command the attention of audiences in big halls with a combination of wit, charisma and powerful, poetic songs, but over the last 10 15 years, health scares reduced his concert appearances and restricted his studio output. Those fond of his music learnt to put up with endless disappointing rehashes of his best songs and far-fetched excuses or reasons for ill-health. Rumours and gossip about him eventually took the place of a regular schedule of new songs, and his label eventually subsided into releasing too much similar live material simply to help pay for his increasing medical bills. By the late 1990s, the outlandish talk of accidents and undefined illnesses gave way, sadly, to a succession of genuine, severe health problems and heart scares. Nevertheless, Larry's music will retain a place in the affections of those of us who believe art made by christians can be radical and questioning - just like the man himself was.

      M C Caseley 2008