Shortly before his short-lived band People! released its 1968 debut, Larry Norman had a disagreement with Capitol Records. The label wanted to call the album I Love You after its first single, a pleasantly psychedelic cover of a Zombies song that had been a radio hit. Norman wanted to name it after one of his original songs, We Need A Whole Lot More Jesus And A Lot Less Rock 'N' Roll. The label prevailed and Norman went solo, setting a pattern for a career that would exert tremendous influence while staying in the margins.
Norman often gets called the "father of Christian rock," but the resemblance between father and progeny can be hard to see. Where most Christian rock is blandly imitative, Norman, who died at the age of 60 this February, was a true original, pursuing a passion for rock 'n' roll sparked by a childhood love of Elvis Presley, and ignoring anyone who suggested he couldn't steer that passion toward Christ. One of his best-known songs doubles as a mission statement: "Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music?"
But it wasn't that simple. Rejected by a lot of Christians who dismissed blues and backbeats as unholy, Norman found a following in the early-'70s space where Christianity and the counterculture overlapped. Even here, his music didn't aim to make anyone comfortable. He took stands against racism and the Vietnam War while singing about an apocalypse he genuinely seemed to believe was just around the corner. The inevitability of Armageddon, and belief in Jesus as the only way to avoid it, wasn't just a theme in Norman's music, it was an obsession.
Norman released records until he died, but his reputation rests squarely on four albums released between 1969 and 1976. Those make up the lion's share of the smartly assembled single-disc collection Rebel Poet, Jukebox Balladeer, whose tracks range from angry, tuneful protest music (the media-indicting "I Am The Six O'Clock News," the jaded-citizen lament "The Great American Novel," the chugging Bob Dylan-inspired tirade against rock-star complacency of "Reader's Digest") to the unsettlingly frank confession of "Pardon Me" to the post-apocalyptic balladry of "I Wish We'd All Been Ready."
All of Rebel Poet sounds perfectly in sync with the paranoid spirit of the years in which these songs were recorded, through neither the secular mainstream nor most Christians were listening to it at the time. Was it rejection or changing times that made Norman burrow into his own label, Solid Rock, never again reaching much further than those already converted to his music? Did his reportedly difficult personality get in his way? Rebel Poet, Jukebox Balladeer answers none of these questions. But its music does answer one, whether listeners share Norman's faith or not: The devil has yet to corner the market on rock 'n' roll.