Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
A heavy rock band preaching about Christianity isn’t new. We’ve had Jesus-loving hair metal (Petra, Stryper), Christian grunge (Creed, DC Talk), and stoner-rock bands that flirted with “white light” religious imagery (Trouble). Even Black Sabbath worked Christian themes into their lyrics.
In the not-so-distant past, though, religion and “the devil’s music” (aka rock ‘n’ roll) were widely considered oil and water–and before that, blues and jazz were often branded as inherently wicked. Sure, many rock stars found Jesus at some point, and their music usually changed too, at least for as long as their conversion lasted (think of Little Richard and Bobby Dylan). But the spectacle of heavy rockers openly singing the praises of the Lord still had the power to shock people–and not just Christian churchgoers–when Chicago’s Resurrection Band got started in the early 1970s.
Resurrection Band have their roots in Wisconsin, where front man Glenn Kaiser was born in January 1953. He lived in a poor rural area outside Milwaukee, his parents divorced when he was nine, and his older siblings had left home–so he turned to music young. By age 12, Kaiser had learned guitar well enough to play rock, R&B, and folk in Milwaukee bands. At first he worshipped Hendrix and indulged in the drugs of the era, but at 18 he had a religious epiphany.
Kaiser joined Jesus People Milwaukee, part of the fast-growing Jesus movement. It had emerged from the late-60s counterculture, catalyzed by hip but devout youth who wanted to spread the word of Jesus through modern means–and it gave birth to modern American Christian music as we know it.
When JPM split into four groups in 1972, one of them hit the road as the Jesus People USA Traveling Team, and Kaiser went with them–along with his band Charity, which also included his wife, Wendi. The team took their rolling ministry around the midwest and as far as Florida, touring in a red school bus with “Jesus” painted on the side. By the end of the year, Charity had renamed themselves Resurrection Band, and when the bus broke down in Chicago in 1973, the Windy City became their new home. No longer traveling, the team shortened their name to Jesus People USA and helped establish a burgeoning “intentional community” in Uptown that still exists–it’s one of the largest remnants of the Jesus movement to survive.
The early band consisted of Kaiser on guitar, sharing lead vocals with Wendi, plus bassist Jim Denton and drummer John Herrin Jr. (Wendi’s brother). They gave away their first release, the hard-rockin’ 1974 cassette Music to Raise the Dead, after concerts. They had trouble getting conventional gigs, since bookers didn’t seem to understand what they were doing, so they’d play at schools, prisons, and even on street corners. Later that year they released All Your Life, which featured the folky, acoustic numbers they could play at nursing homes and churches.
At the time, houses of worship were skeptical of Christian rock, especially heavier rock–and Resurrection Band were clearly schooled in the evil-sounding riffage of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Virtually no label wanted to go near the group, but a friend gave them $8,000 to record their first proper LP, 1978’s Awaiting Your Reply. Recorded in marathon all-night sessions, the album sometimes sounds like a heavier Heart (think “Barracuda”) or Mountain with God-fearing lyrics. Tiny new Christian imprint Star Song took on the LP, and was rewarded when it hit number six on the gospel album charts. The label eventually became one of the largest indies in the genre.
The 1979 follow-up Rainbow’s End contained the song “Afrikaans,” one of the first by an American rock band to indict South African apartheid. Resurrection Band eventually earned a reputation for puncturing what Kaiser has called the “posturing” of the larger Christian church and addressing difficult social and political issues head-on. “I think most folks in the street want justice, grace, and help, not more empty words regarding everything from jobs, affordable housing, more racial and immigrant equity,” he explained in a 2015 interview. “And I do think at times the worst witness for the love of Jesus are we Christians.”
In 1980 Resurrection Band moved to Light Records and adopted a more streamlined, radio-friendly rock vibe. After three albums with Light and loads of successful touring at home and overseas (the group continued to direct all profits to JPUSA), in 1983 they signed to an even bigger Christian label, Sparrow Records, and shortened their name to Rez Band. They soon established their own studio, called the Tone Zone.
The 1984 album Hostage veered between over-the-top arena rock (with insane guitar solos by fifth member Stu Heiss) and a sleek new-wave sound that upset some old fans but attracted lots of new ones. Mid-80s singles such as “S.O.S.” and “Loves Comes Down” climbed high on the Christian rock charts, and Rez Band’s music videos were among the first from the contemporary Christian music business to be aired on MTV. In 1985 the group slimmed down their name again, to simply “Rez.”
Rez had enjoyed several years as the dominant band in Christian hard rock. By the late 80s, though, Christian music had grown big enough that they started to feel the competition. Stryper blew past Rez with the platinum-selling 1986 album To Hell With the Devil, and crossover artists such as Amy Grant (who recorded the smash “The Next Time I Fall” in 1986 with Peter Cetera) shot up the charts too.
Denton also left the band to attend seminary, replaced by longtime Rez roadie and songwriter Roy Montroy. They moved to their own Grrr Records imprint, and after an uncharacteristically long three-year gap between albums, in 1988 they released the bluesy, hard-rockin’ Silence Screams, which returned to their plainspoken, forceful engagement with what they saw as the day’s social, political, and spiritual ills–racial profiling, greed, terrorism, abortion.
After three more records in that vein, the group feared they’d fallen into a creative rut, so they hooked up with Ty Tabor of King’s X for the 1995 concept album Lament (once again as Resurrection Band). It took the form of a song cycle chronicling the central character’s disillusionment and spiritual redemption, and they performed it in its entirety at concerts. The album was well received by critics and fans, but Resurrection Band’s tour to support it would be their last. When it was over, the group called it quits–though they continued to reunite most years for a set at the Cornerstone Festival, founded by Jesus People USA in 1984 and by the 90s held in western Illinois.
The timing of Resurrection Band’s split was perhaps lucky, as JPUSA had come under fire in 1994, after Ronald Enroth published his book Recovering From Churches That Abuse–it detailed claims of ritual exorcisms, corporal punishment, removal of children from supposedly “unfit” parents, and other outrages within the JPUSA community. It wasn’t the first time JPUSA had faced unsavory accusations, and it wouldn’t be the last–other charges have included widespread sexual abuse and an authoritarian leadership structure that required members to work without wages even as the commune netted more than $2 million per year.
Resurrection Band got back together to make the “unplugged” LP Ampendectomy in 1997, and then Kaiser went solo. On his own, he’s drifted further into blues and Americana–he has a brand-new album in that vein called Swamp Gas Messiahs. He remains loyal to the principles and values of the Jesus movement, and he says on his website that Resurrection Band could still re-form. They played Cornerstone as late as 2011, and his own Glenn Kaiser Band performed there in 2012–the final installment of the festival, as dwindling attendance had forced what was once one of the country’s largest Christian music events to close up shop. v
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 6 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.