Kanye West made history last week by becoming the first to simultaneously top the US Christian, gospel, rap and hip hop charts with his album Jesus Is King.
This now allows him to call himself a “Christian genius billionaire”, which he did in Billboard.
R&B, soul, blues and country folks have long been warbling on about their faiths.
In the early ’70s, there was “Jesus Rock”, which included Murray Head’s ‘(Jesus Christ) Superstar’, Rick Springfield’s ‘Speak To The Sky’, Yvonne Elliman’s ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’, Ocean’s ‘Put Your Hand In The Hand’, Norman Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit In The Sky’ and The Doobie Brothers’ ‘Jesus Is Just Alright With Me’
The Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’ was thrown in there because as his band collapsed around him, Paul McCartney hit the helpline in song to get advice from “Mother Mary”.
Actually he was not referencing the Catholic icon but his own late mother Mary.
George Harrison’s first solo hit ‘My Sweet Lord’ was the first rock record to list all Hindu deities like Krishna and Shiva.
Alas none of these were around when the ex-Beatle, whose love for Hinduism gave him the nickname Hari Georgeson, got sued for shoplifting the melody from a ‘60s song called ‘He’s So Fine’ and his royalty cheques from the song flew north for the winter as a result.
Here are 15 songs which are not immediately associated with being about religion.
(1) Lenny Kravitz – ‘Are You Gonna Go My Way’
Is it possible to be a Bible-thumper and a sex on a stick at the same time?
Lenny Kravitz thinks so, saying, “Jesus Christ was the first rock star” and getting a tattoo on his back declaring “My heart belongs to Jesus”.
He was in hospital as a child when the kid in his room started talking about God.
That night, he said, an immense force visited the room, so powerful that both kids tarted crying.
In the song, behind a hard rock guitar riff, he sang, “I am the chosen, I am the one/ But what I really want to know is/Are you going to go my way?”
(2) The Who – ‘Baba O’Riley’
The Indian guru Meher Baba was Who leader Pete Townshend’s spiritual guide.
To create an “aural guide” to Meher Baba’s spirit, the guitarist fed facts and figures about the avatar into a computer, and out came the famous synth riff.
For those interested in these things, the riff was played on a Lowry organ set on “marimba” repeat and was not on a loop as commonly thought.
It was the first time a keyboard/synthesiser was used to form the rhythm of a rock song.
Townshend was also a fan of innovative and minimalist composer Terry O’Riley who inspired many of the effects on the Who’s Next album in 1971.
According to The Making of ‘Baba O’Riley the title was not mentioned in the song because it was actually from an unfinished rock opera called Lifehouse.
The Making of ‘Baba O’Riley:
Townshend emphasised that it was not about getting wasted but about the wasted lives of Who fans who would trek miles to stand in fields to see the Who play at festivals.
(3) Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – ‘Higgs Boson Blues’
In the field of physics, the Higgs Boson explains why particles have mass.
It was named after physicist Peter Higgs who came up with the proposition in 1964 with five other scientists and for which he got a Nobel prize in 2013.
It was also dubbed the “God particle” by the popular press.
Nick Cave told The Sun, “I was interested in the popular press’s take on that experiment to find the ‘God particle’.
“There was this idea that if they discovered the Higgs Boson that it would negate the existence of God.”
(4) Russell Morris – ‘Wings Of An Eagle’
When an EMI Records head honcho rang Russell Morris at his home in Melbourne in the early ‘70s to say that they needed another hit song pronto, the singer songwriter grabbed his guitar and went out to his back porch.
Morris had long been interested in the religions and folklore of First Nation communities in Australia and North America.
One shared story was how the eagle flies the spirit of a dead person to the heavens (Dreamtime in Australia).
The first two verses of the new song sprang out quickly, Morris recalled.
The Midday Movie was about to begin, so he went back into the house and checked the TV guide to what was scheduled.
It was The Wings Of Eagles from 1957, directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, about Navy flier-turned-screenwriter Frank W. “Spig” Wead.
(5) Midnight Oil – ‘King of the Mountain’
Like top writers including Bob Dylan, Paul Kelly and Nick Cave, committed Christian Peter Garret found great references and stories in The Bible.
Here he cited two of Jesus Christ’s disciples:
Well, you can say you’re Peter
Say you’re Paul
Don’t put me up on your bedroom wall
Call me, king of the mountain.
(6) K.d. Lang – ‘Constant Craving’
Canadian singer songwriter K.d Lang, a devoted tantric practitioner in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, told Buddhist publication The Shambala Sun, “‘Constant Craving’ was all about samsara.”
In Buddhism, samsara is the whole process of life and death, as the soul rises up six cycles to achieve nirvana depending on the level of physical or emotional suffering at each life.
Initially, lang felt the song didn’t fit into the rest of her 1992 album Ingénue.
But she realised years later that it did.
She told NPR in 2017, “It’s an acquiescence. It’s a summation of human desire.
“It’s like yes, OK, we all are heartbroken. We’re all nervous. We’re all vulnerable.
“We’re all hopeful, but at the end of the day, constant craving has always been.
“And it really, emotionally, just surfaced for me, the purpose of that song.”
(7) Sufjan Stevens – ‘To Be Alone With You’
Sufjan Stevens should thank his lucky stars he wasn’t around in the ‘60s when Bob Dylan-mania was at its peak, and nutty fans were trying to get a fix on his identity and motivations by going through his dustbins.
Because Stevens has remained private about his personal life, Facebook pages have sprung up analysing, for instance, to what extent his lyrics are gay and what are conversations with God.
‘To Be Alone With You’ from 2004 album Seven Swans certainly had the discussion heating up with these lines:
“You gave your body to the lonely
They took your clothes
You gave up a wife and a family
You gave your goals
To be alone with me…
I’ve never known a man who loved me.”
Stevens kept the significance even more mysterioso by binding them up in biblical allegories.
In this case it seemed highly likely it was a conversation (one-sided, albeit) expressing his awe at the entity’s power and grace.
(8) Spectrum – ‘Trust Me’
After Melbourne ‘head’ band Spectrum had a crossover hit with the Mike Rudd-penned ‘I’ll Be Gone’, they followed it up in June 1971 with ‘Trust Me’, which was written by drummer Ray Arnott, later to twirl sticks for The Dingoes and Cold Chisel.
Opening with swirling organ and recorder, the song echoed the joy of a spiritual journey.
Just exactly who the “He” mentioned in the lyric remained unconfirmed but some “Hare Krishna” chanting just before the track began offered a clue.
“He was there at the start of my search
I’ve travelled so far and since then I veered
And when at the bridge, His step I will see
And though alone His love I will feel
Just have faith in the things I do”
It was the first local rock track to feature a recorder, and came off Spectrum’s second album Milesago, the first Australian double album.
(9) Cat Stevens – ‘Miles From Nowhere’/ ‘Moonshadow’
British singer songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Cat Stevens born Steven Demetre Georgiou, began in a Roman Catholic household and went regularly to church as a kid.
But to avoid 2,000 years of guilt and to presumably widen his fashion sense from looking like Freddie Mercury’s understudy (a phrase from a Robin Williams routine) to homespun cotton wear, Cat Stevens went on to explore a number of Eastern religions and, after a near drowning experience, clambered on to the Islam Express in 1977.
The title ‘Miles From Nowhere’ might sound like it was tailor-made for a road assistance agency ad campaign
Bu it was about a pilgrimage, the ups and downs of life and to attaining nirvana: “Lord, my body has been a good friend/ But I won’t need it when I reach the end.”
‘Moonshadow’ came a year later.
Cat explained on The Chris Isaak Hour in 2009: “I was on a holiday in Spain.
“I was a kid from the West End (of London) – bright lights, etc. – I never got to see the moon on its own in the dark, there were always streetlamps.
“So there I was on the edge of the water on a beautiful night with the moon glowing, and suddenly I looked down and saw my shadow.
“I thought that was so cool, I’d never seen it before.”
The song’s theme though came from the creed of any religion – living for the moment, finding hope in any situation and running one’s race without being jealous of anyone else’s.
The character in ‘Moonshadow’ was experiencing the ecstasy of life despite any drawbacks and sufferings, and it’s “the light” (“the faithful light”) – a force more powerful than himself – that had found him and not the other way around.
(10) U2 – ‘Until The End Of The World’
German film maker Wim Wender asked U2 to whip up some music for his next movie, Until The End Of The World.
The end result, based around a riff developed by Bono, was considered good enough for the band to include on their Achtung Baby album.
Under less inspired hands, the song could have taken a ‘the sky is falling Chicken Little’ approach.
The lyrics insinuated a lover’s tiff where one of them was accused of over-reacting:
“In the garden I was playing the tart
I kissed your lips and broke your heart
You, you were acting like it was the end of the world.”
In fact, the song was about the events that led to Judas Iscariot betraying Jesus Christ for 30 pieces of silver to the temple guards (leading to Jesus’ arrest and death) and with him topping himself.
Was it because Christ had started talking about the end of the world and hence become a liability?
This was one theory set forward in an interpretation.
(11) The Byrds – ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’
US mid-60s folk-rock band The Byrds’ 1965 ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ was considered a peace anthem that were the rage of the time, alongside cheerfully titties as ‘Eve Of Destruction’ and ‘Morning Dew’ warning us that nuclear bombs were not healthy for babies and other living creatures.
“ To every thing there is a season
And a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal
A time to break down, and a time to build up.”
Everyone raved over folk singer Pete Seeger, who is credited with writing the song.
The lyrics certainly have splendour about them – and did so when they first appeared in Chapter 3 Verses 1—8 of The Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes.
It was attributed to being written by King Solomon in 10th century BC while he was contemplating eternity and the circle of life.
It was the first rock song to adapt biblical words for its lyric, and would be followed by Adelaide nun Sister Janet Mead’s rocked up ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ in 1974, which sold 3 million worldwide.
Chris Hillman of The Byrds later quipped, “I know Pete (Seeger) made his half of the publishing. I don’t know if King Solomon’s heirs ever got a dime.”
(12) Little River Band – ‘It’s A Long Way There’
In the mid-’70s, manager Glenn Wheatley journeyed to America to get a deal there for the fledgling Little River Band.
He played A&R execs their first LRB album, starting off with first track, a gorgeous ballad called ‘It’s A Long Way There’.
No less than 12 companies turned the record down.
One told Wheatley the sound reminded him of “fingernails scraping down a blackboard” and threw him out of his office.
LRB did get a deal, virtually a day before Wheatley flew back to Australia disillusioned.
The track became their first US Top 10 and broke in Europe.
LRB would sell 30 million albums and frisbeed six albums into the US Top 10.
“it’s A Long Way There’ was written by Graham Goble, a committed Christian.
It was partly a song abut his faith, and partly abut the next chapter of his career.
Goble changed his name to Graeham as a result of his interest in numerology and Feng Shui.
(13) INXS – ‘Questions’
By the time INXS were set to go in to record †heir Welcome to Wherever You Are album in 1992, they’d reached the top and looking to see where to go next as grunge and alt-rock became the new black.
By this time singer Michael Hutchence had outgrown the band but staying on out of loyalty.
‘Questions’ was a Middle Eastern/ Indian based drone-with tablas, Kirk Pengilly’s horn parps. and Hutchence vocals given a high-in-the-mountain ethereal element.
Written solely by Andrew Farriss, it asked;
How much can you take when you’ve taken all you can
How can you act when you’ve never seen the script
How can you choose when you don’t know which is right
How far can you go if you’ve been there before?”
It segued straight into the rocker titled ‘Heaven Sent’ to stress the message.
(14) David Bowie – ‘Silly Boy Blue’
David Bowie’s dissatisfaction with Western culture had brought him to Tibetan Buddhism in the ‘60s.
He read Heinrich Harrer’s 1952 book Seven Years in Tibet and in 1966 was telling England’s Melody Maker magazine that he wanted to visit monasteries up in the Himalayas and talked abut the sacrifice of monks who only ate once in three days.
“I stumbled into the Buddhist Society in London when I was about 17.
“Sitting in front of me at the desk was a Tibetan lama, and he looked up and he said, ‘Are you looking for me?’
“He had a bad grasp of English and in fact was saying ‘Who are you looking for?’
“But I needed him to say ‘You’re looking for me.’
Bowie was hooked, at one point contemplating becoming a monk, shaving his hair and dying it black, wearing robes, and even thinking about changing the colour of his skin.
‘Silly Boy Blue’, recorded in 1965 with The Lower Third, was about climbing up to the land of monasteries, with lots of imagery.
The final part had no words, to depict being speechless as he arrived at his destination and marvelled at what he was seeing.
(15) Velvet Underground – ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’
Given that in the ‘60s, Lou Reed was alleged to be satanic and probably slept upside down like a vampire bat in a closet, no ne expected words like these would have have a holy aura about them:
“Let me be your eyes
A hand in your darkness, so you won’t be afraid
When you think the night has seen your mind
That inside you’re twisted and unkind
Let me stand to show that you are blind.”
There’d be more such forays into sacredom on ‘Jesus’, ‘I Fund A Reason’, ‘Mystic Child’ and ‘What’s Good’.