Plucked from the Devil’s clutches – garage rocker turned evangelist Sammy Hall and his 1976 visual masterpiece.
Sometimes, you come across an album cover so extraordinary that it barely matters what the actual music sounds like. Such is the case with A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Hell, a 1976 Christian LP from Sammy Hall. Feast your eyes on this breathtaking piece of art, both staggeringly awful and impressively inspired in the way that only outsider art manages to be. Credited to Steve Smith (from a concept by Gary S.Paxton, who also produced the album and wrote most of the songs), it has the stylings that you might be familiar with if you’ve seen other 1970s religious artwork on book covers – there’s a definite Cross and the Switchblade vibe about this dramatic image of a Satans Slave biker, looking not unlike Sammy Hall himself, being plucked from the jaws of fiery motorcycle death by Jesus Christ, who lifts him from a Jack Chick-flavoured demon-infested Hell – or perhaps just grabs him for one last mocking look before casting him into the Inferno, as Chick would have doubtless preferred. The art is perhaps a little ambiguous without the context of the album’s title song, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Hell (I Got Saved, Saved, Saved). The song itself is a rather chirpy, oddly catchy and very 1970s affair that follows the usual pattern for such things, the narrator telling us how he was wasting his life of selfish pleasures before seeing the light and converting to Christianity.
As dramatic as the cover is, it perhaps reflects a strange version of reality, at least as Hall saw it. back in the 1960s, he’d been the frontman of the very secular Fort Lauderdale garage band The Mor-Loks (not to be confused with The Morlocks from the same era), and would later front The Birdwatchers before abandoning the unwholesome pleasures of garage rock for Christianity after a battle with alcoholism that nearly killed him. Mending his ways, he set up a musical ministry and became a leading light in the Contemporary Christian Music scene, recording a series of MOR albums for various labels between 1974 and 1990. Most of these had rather less exciting covers (and, for that matter, titles) generally showing a photo of Hall in a suitably non-threatening pose. In fact, this album was also re-released with a head shot on the cover, perhaps suggesting that the original artwork was a bit overly-dramatic and exciting for fans of religious MOR. It’s perhaps the problem that has faced long Christian artists trying to tempt errant youth away from the Devil’s music – how do you compete with those lurid heavy metal album covers without walking down the same sinful path?
Sammy Hill died of cancer in 2013, aged 67. There’s no word of whether or not he was personally carried into Heaven by Jesus.
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