A visual study of the incredibly strange world of the independently-produced Christian LP.
There is another dimension of music, one that is barely known to most people. The odd crossover from mainstream artists aside, Christian music exists in a strange parallel universe, with its own distribution channels, charts and superstars, and in its own way is a lucrative and successful industry. And beyond the commercial arm of the business, there has long been another world, of independent releases that even the most ardent consumer of religious music will rarely see.
Every church probably has its stand-out hymn singer or ambitious preacher or choir that thinks it is more than it actually is. And plenty of these people have gone into local recording studios to cut a selection of God-bothering standards, which are then either released through local labels, via the recording studio itself or on a church or self-funded imprint. I’d call these vanity recordings, but there’s little to suggest that most of these performers ever expected or hoped to become famous and successful – if they sold a few copies to friends, family and fellow worshippers, then they were happy enough. The glory, by and large, belonged solely to God.
There are two running themes that connect many of these records. One is the apparent cluelessness of the album titles, which for the less religious and respectful drip with hilarious double-entendres. Assorted variations on He Touched Me, Let Me Touch Him, Sounds of His Coming, Take Me Lord and Use Me and the immortal Don’t Miss the Big Snatch immediately induce sniggering, and you can almost believe that the artists must be in on the joke – but you know that such juvenile re-interpretations of the titles would be lost on the performers.
We can make this assumption because the other connecting theme of these LPs the lack of awareness displayed on the covers. I would imagine that for most of these artists, the cost of hiring a professional photographer or designer would have been prohibitive, even if it crossed their minds. And so many of these albums feature what I would assume are family snapshots of the artists – or, at best, specially-posed shots taken by a family member. There is no end of awkward and downright creepy poses, some of which look like cult gatherings, while others seem like bleak snapshots of life. There are uncomfortably toothy smiles, strange fashion choices and no end of big hair – no one here looks remotely normal. The covers are oddly fascinating studies in outsider art, where no one seems to have had the sense to step in and say that maybe they should rethink this. Who bought these albums based on the sleeves is hard to guess.
What else? Well, there’s a worrying amount of ventriloquist dummies in evidence; lots of family units where it’s uncertain if the performers are brother and sister, husband and wife or parent and child – and you suspect that they may tick more than one box, and inbreeding would be a reasonable explanation for some of the unique looks on display. A few albums forgo the photographic covers in favour of illustrations – and the results are everything you would hope them to be.
It’s easy to mock these records, but in fairness, they are without doubt sincere efforts – probably more honest in their way than most commercial music, given that there is no artifice involved at all. And it’s something that has never gone away – the most recent album here is from 2016. This is, of course, the tip of the iceberg…