We All Come From Somewhere

By

“We will rock the hell out of you.” –Stryper

Not long ago, when I heard about a certain concert happening here in Nashville, I sent out a tweet that bugged me almost as soon as I posted it.

I twote:

“I may or may not be taking myself from 25 years ago to see Stryper at the Wildhorse Saloon tonight. ‪#dontjudgeme ‪#weallcomefromsomewhere

What bugs me most about that tweet is how much effort I spent qualifying something I genuinely wanted to do. “I may or may not…,” “Don’t Judge Me…” Insinuating that if I go, it’s an act of nostalgia.

Why did I feel the need to distance myself from going to see the one band who probably received more of my teenage disposable income and bedroom wall space than any other in the history of the Floyd Rose Floating Tremelo System?

For those unfamiliar with Stryper, a little history might be in order. They formed in the early 80’s, appearing on LA’s Sunset Strip music scene with other big-hair metal bands like Motley CrueCinderellaPoison, and Ratt. If you know these bands, you get the picture—long hair, spandex, ear rings, make-up, lots of promises to rock people—no matter where they’re from—and to rock them for seemingly unending periods of time.

Stryper, from the beginning, occupied rarified air. If you were going to make it in that industry, there had to be something about you that 1) made you stand out, and 2) made people like you. With their yellow and black attire and their commitment to singing plainly about their faith in Jesus and the free offer of the Gospel, they certainly stood out. However, I expect both of those characteristics made the “make people like you” objective a little bit more of a trick. Why? Because lyrically and morally, they were swimming against the current of their competing colleagues’ core values.

See, thematically, the bands of that genre and era devoted 90% of their lyrical capital to weird euphemisms about womenthe anticipation of and participation in partying, and doing whatever they wanted to do, no matter what their parents thought. The remaining 10% of their lyrics went to space travelrainbows in the dark, the travail of the early native Americans. (I’m looking at you, Europe, for two out of three here.)

Stryper never tried to philosophize about the druids or sing about fighting super-natural serial killers while in a dream state. They kept things pretty straightforward. They sang mainly about Jesus. But if they were going to make this their play and earn a living doing it, they needed to be a great band.

So what did Stryper do? They worked hard, and they became a great band. They worked hard at defining a certain sound built around both vocal and instrumental harmony and precision. They created a live concert experience that people wanted to come see and then keep talking about long after. They worked hard to promote themselves—gut-wrenching work because it often carries more rejection than acceptance. And all this work paid off, establishing them as one of the most visually and musically entertaining live acts of the MTV era.

Then came the ’90s. I assume Stryper, like most of their peers from that era, faced a commercial decline when some kid called Slacker Angst rolled out of bed (at the crack of noon), put on his flannel shirt and handed Eddie Vedder a microphone to tell the Sunset Strip that the party was over.

When grunge took over, it was a “Tower of Babel” moment for the Kingdom of Big Hair Metal. A lot of those 80’s L.A. glam bands just put down their B.C. Rich Warlocks and walked away sad because Seattle had confused their language. Some became tribute bands to themselves, earning their living by playing old hits and selling t-shirts. Some found gainful employment in reality TV. Those who weathered the storm stayed in their lane and just kept working, devoted to their existing fan base. Many of these bands have resurfaced in recent years as the new generation of “classic rock.” (Case in point: in the past year, Nashville has hosted concerts for Van HalenDef LeppardPoisonCinderellaLita FordKissMotley CrueIron MaidenOzzy Osbourne, and Judas Priest, just to name a few.)

What did I expect from this concert? What I found surprised me.

The concert started at 7:30, the doors opened at 6:00. At around 5:00, I stopped by the venue to buy my ticket. What did I see? A line. There was a line. Fans were already gathering so they could get right up to the front of the stage—fans wearing Stryper t-shirts and holding records they hoped to get autographed.

Why did this surprise me? It wasn’t that Stryper had fans. Of course they had fans— lots of them, from all around the world, and deservedly so. Nevertheless, I was surprised by how willing these fans were to so publicly identify themselves as such. But soon that question turned back on me: why had I been so unwilling do the same?

As I took my place in line, I realized I didn’t exactly know how I was supposed to feel about this concert. Was I supposed to be excited to see my one-time favorite band? Did I think the concert would be, in some way, funny? Gimmicky? Ironic? Would I maybe get nostalgic for a time long past?

And who were these people in line with me? I played it cool and kept my head down. The last thing in the world this introvert wanted was to get into some conversation with a stranger about what we hoped would make the set-list, or whether the band would be wearing yellow and black spandex, or whether vinyl was superior to digital.

Then I began to notice that the people in line were mostly my age. When they were kids, they probably covered their bedroom walls with the same posters I had, saw the same concerts, wore the same tour T-shirts, and collected the same records. Could it be that these were, in fact, my people? Could it be that though we’d all weathered the ’90s differently, we had each come to gather on this common ground—ground we all felt, at some point in our lives, was the soil from which we’d grown?

I slipped into the venue and climbed up to the balcony where I planned to observe the show from a distance. But so help me, by the middle of the second song I found myself headed for the stairs to stand among the crowd right in front of the stage. Why? Because my favorite band from high school was putting on an amazing live show, and I knew every word to every song. This was my band and these were my people.

My story is joined, in a small but still real way, to those four guys from southern California—four guys who happen to rock. I would be lying if I told you I went to that show for purely nostalgic reasons, as my tweet suggested. I went as a fan. And it was awesome.

__________

Postscript: Stryper has released new music in recent years. I bought it and shared it with my teenage son. Every so often I will knock on his bedroom door and find him listening to his favorite songs on repeat.

________________

Me in my bedroom at 15.

1989, Russ Ramsey in His awesome room

Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


18 Comments

  1. David

    This is great, Russ. I occasionally notice in myself an ugly temptation to distance myself from my actual personal history — to revise it so that, say, if I first learned good thing X from a source I regard as generally untrustworthy, and if I later heard the exact same good thing X from a source I like better, I might be tempted to say I learned X from the good source, and conveniently “forget” the first source.

    I imagine that’s the same temptation a “respectable” Corinthian who’d believed the gospel would have faced: to “forget” the actual source from which he’d first heard the gospel — likely a person not wise by human standards, not influential, not of noble birth — and claim that he’d heard the gospel from a better source.

    The temptation, if you think about it, has two nasty implications: (1) The personal history that God actually gave me isn’t good enough for me to own publicly; (2) I will not give thanks to or bless the brother(s) and/or sister(s) who actually blessed me.

  2. Brandee Shafer

    I read this post and wondered along with you why you were uncomfortable identifying yourself as a Stryper fan. Then I read your bio and thought: oh. I’m not a pastor, but as a believer I hesitate in talking about some of my interests and even activities out of concern that I will be judged, that I will diminish my witness, etc. My worries are lame but also valid? Because some people who need reached DO judge.

  3. Bill Roberson

    Russ – I think you have perfectly captured the sentiment of many of us who had Stryper as our soundtrack during the 80’s. I saw the guys in concert eight times – a record that all these years later, I’ve not even come close to breaking. Just last week I added to my Amazon Music playlists the new Stryper albums. Thanks for reminding us it’s ok to look back from whence we came!

  4. John Covil

    It’s taken a while, but slowly my two presentations of myself have begun to meet in the middle. From the one side, I genuinely don’t have some of the same interests I used to, but on the other, I’ve been letting the facade crumble so that people who, for instance, only saw my “Christian self,” would begin to see me more honestly. I doubt the process will ever be finished in this life, but it’s been a tremendous weight off my shoulders (and a better witness to those who before didn’t really see “Christian self”).

    A John divided against itself cannot stand!

  5. John Covil

    And to the extent that some of this is just cultural embarrassment, I’ve seen the same Led Zeppelin tribute band, Zoso, 8 time at the same small, downtown theatre in Raleigh. So I certainly can’t talk (except to point out that both Zeppelin, and the Seattle bands, were way better than hair metal).

  6. Scott

    The picture of Stryper is priceless. It makes me think: “Ummm….what are they looking at?” You know, Russ…being a Stryper fan isn’t nearly as big an issue as having to BE a member of Stryper and looking at that picture of yourself 30 years later. Or maybe, it would actually be awesome to look at your hair and know just how awesomely awesome it was. Cause man, it was AWESOME.

    I think it’s great that these guys are still around and making music for Jesus! What a great witness for Christ! It blows my mind to think that a Christian band like Stryper enjoyed that much mainstream MTV success. Who else has had that much unashamed influence in the secular music world?

  7. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Scott, the reason they had so much mainstream success was because they were actually part of the LA scene with Motley Crue, Poison, Guns and Roses and the like. Those bands were their peers, and the Sunset Strip was their scene. Remarkable, since that era separated Christian music from “secular music” perhaps more stringently than in any other.

    And those guys have aged pretty gracefully. 🙂

  8. Scott

    Russ – I actually think that’s a really interesting part of this and maybe something we can all learn from them. Stryper didn’t separate themselves from the “sinners,” they just created their art among them. So much of Christian music today tries to find its own separate pathway into the ears of listeners (Christian festivals, Christian radio, Christian bookstores) instead of living “in the world, but not of the world.” That’s not meant to necessarily be a criticism, just a point to consider. I confess that I listen to a lot of that music. This reminds me of the flack that Jars of Clay took for touring with Matchbox Twenty (aka “sinners”).

    Stryper was a few years before my time. I was a big music fan starting with the Pearl Jam era you mentioned. I wouldn’t claim to know, but I would imagine that they reached a whole lot of listeners who were fans of hair metal but not fans of Christ. I think I can remember my best friend’s non-Christian brother having Stryper albums in his collection.

    And, by the way, I hope I wasn’t going over the line by joking about the hair. That picture is pure 80s gold. Girls I graduated with would have died for it. It’s one of those pictures that people who didn’t

  9. Scott

    Sorry – accidentally posted without finishing!

    Russ – I actually think that’s a really interesting part of this and maybe something we can all learn from them. Stryper didn’t separate themselves from the “sinners,” they just created their art among them. So much of Christian music today tries to find its own separate pathway into the ears of listeners (Christian festivals, Christian radio, Christian bookstores) instead of living “in the world, but not of the world.” That’s not meant to necessarily be a criticism, just a point to consider. I confess that I listen to a lot of that music. This reminds me of the flack that Jars of Clay took for touring with Matchbox Twenty (aka “sinners”).

    Stryper was a few years before my time. I was a big music fan starting with the Pearl Jam era you mentioned. I wouldn’t claim to know, but I would imagine that they reached a whole lot of listeners who were fans of hair metal but not fans of Christ. I think I can remember my best friend’s non-Christian brother having Stryper albums in his collection.

    And, by the way, I hope I wasn’t going over the line by joking about the hair. That picture is pure 80s gold. Girls I graduated with would have died for it. It’s one of those pictures that people who didn’t live in the era would wonder how it was possible!

  10. Adam

    Gotta tell one of my favorite Stryper stories….

    Stryper was coming in concert to Colorado, which was a huge deal because back in the late ’80’s, no one came to Colorado for concerts. So my friends and I who were huge Stryper fans (we won a lip-sync competition in high school singing to a Stryper song and dressed in yellow and black spandex) bought tickets and were so excited to go. Well, Michael Sweet got a cold or something and they had to cancel the concert. Not postpone it – cancel it! Anyway, when they did, I was at school and my mom got the information that it had been canceled. She called the school and gave them the information.

    I was in class when I got the most horrifying public announcement in the history of high school. Over the loudspeaker came this information: “Attention: Adam Young, your mom called to let you know that the Stripper concert has been canceled.”

  11. Marianne S

    So… I’m a bit younger than many of you…90s were my soundtrack, but on the subject of creating great art in the world, and glorifying God by using your talents to put the way to Him (outside of the Christian subculture) I was recently made aware of an Indie Seattle band called Deep Sea Diver that’s doing just that. I am no music expert, but even I can tell they are excellent at their craft. Their sound is unique. There’s a Youtube video of them live interviewing on KEXP radio and even the way their leader singer articulated her thoughts, and her humility, is a witness. Hooray for artists who point the way to Christ by doing their best for Him… in the mainstream!

  12. Bob Price

    Russ, great story! I can identify with your “two sides of faith” existence. I became a big Stryper fan as well, but in a different way. I was in college when Yellow and Black Attack came out, but I didn’t notice. They came to my town to play one Friday night, and a friend of mine came up with the crazy idea that we should show up at the high school they were playing and see if we could get in and interview the band. We were students at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College at a time when bands like Stryper were forbidden.

    Well, we decided to try our crazy idea. We asked for an interview and promised that if they agreed, we would make sure that a tape of the interview would get to Jerry. Believe it or not, they said yes! We borrowed the principal’s office, and sat down with Robert Sweet. We talked with him for about 30-45 minutes, hearing the story of how Stryper came to be and what they wanted to do with it. At the end of the interview, he invited us to come backstage that evening before the show, so we could get some pictures with the rest of the band.

    That presented a problem, since the concert was off limits. So, given our success with just being bold, I decided to just go ahead and ask one of the deans for permission to attend the concert. He said yes! We went back that night and, true to their word, the band welcomed us backstage. We got there as the guys were finishing their makeup and costumes, and got a few pictures taken with them. Then we went out and enjoyed the show, and from that moment on, I was hooked–I had become a Stryper fan.

    The thing I remember about their music, especially back then, was that we were excited to be able to take legitimate metal to places like the beach and let the openly Christian lyrics be heard unashamedly. It’s great to see them still keeping on after all these years. Thanks for bringing all that back to us!

  13. Stephanie

    I’ve never been ashamed. I was also at that show and will be there when they play the Exit/In this summer! Already got my tix!

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