Petra Meant Rock
Petra Meant Rock
The Christian music community is notoriously bad about honoring its past, so when two Petra albums get the "classic" treatment, it's worth noticing. This year marks the 30th anniversary of that band's watershed 1982 album More Power to Ya, and the 25th anniversary of their hit album This Means War. Both sets, re-releasing today, have been remastered and repackaged for physical and digital release as one of the earliest line-ups of the band rides again.
A massive light show, sleeveless "muscle T's" and parachute pants. It was 1983 and Petra was one of the biggest and best "Christian rock" bands in the world. That meant that they sold more records and tickets than about ten other groups, but it was impressive enough for this 13-year-old. Along with DeGarmo and Key, Resurrection Band, Servant, and Sweet Comfort Band, Petra was truly one of the inventors of what would later become known as Christian rock.
By the time I discovered them, they had been around for over a decade and their earliest work was already getting hard to find. With roots planted in the heady times of the late '60s Jesus Movement, Petra were contemporaries of other pioneering artists such as Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Keith Green, and Phil Keaggy. Their debut self-titled album in 1974 boasted the impressive guitar work and almost comically bad vocals of founding member Bob Hartman. Elements of Yes, Allman Brothers, and even Cream could be found in the tracks, but the band needed a singer badly. Thus from the very beginning Petra was a rotating cast of characters supporting Hartman's vision of legitimate, arena-quality, mainstream rock.
There was the progressive-folk-rock Petra of the early to mid 1970s (Petra, Come and Join Us), the organ-and synth-heavy arena-rock Petra of the early 1980s with Greg X. Volz on vocals (Never Say Die, More Power to Ya, Not of This World, Beat the System), and the more guitar-driven hard rock Petra that featured former Head East lead singer John Schlitt on lead vocals. I even remember seeing a version of Petra later on that Hartman wasn't even in. Every member was younger than me and seemed like some kind of pre-fabricated thing assembled in a factory. They weren't bad, really, but in the alternative rock '90s they didn't make much sense. But for most people the band's history was divided into the Volz and Schlitt eras—and your favorite probably depended more on your age than anything else.
When I was a kid I dreamed about going on the road with Petra. I wrote them fan letters and wore their T-shirts. I emblazoned my jeans and my folders with their logo. Petra was code. It told people something about me.
I brought non-Christian friends to their concerts and bought a songbook so I could learn how to play "Judas Kiss" on guitar. In fact, if you happened to have the great misfortune of walking into St. Mark's Episcopal Church on a Sunday in 1984 called "Youth Sunday," you would have had the distinct privilege of hearing my best friend Rob and I butcher at least one Petra song in the choir loft. Petra was exactly what I needed. Sure, it was preaching to the choir more than reaching the culture at large, but I was in the choir and I needed a good, solid, simple sermon about being bold, confident and strong in my faith.
More Power to Ya was released in 1982, when Christian radio was dominated by folk, inspirational, and Southern Gospel music. It was the band's second full album with most of the line-up that I personally consider to be "quintessential Petra": Greg Volz (vocals), Bob Hartman (guitars), Mark Kelly (bass), Louie Weaver (drums), and John Slick (keyboards). They found a formula with their previous album, Never Say Die, that included a worship song, a couple of soft Christian radio songs, and then a batch of legitimate, mainstream ready, arena rock.