Today is Michael Sweet’s birthday. In honor of him, I am going to discuss Stryper. Enjoy.
I first heard Stryper during the summer of 1986. I have always thought of myself as one of their “old school” fans but the truth is they had been around for a while before I discovered them. In 1984 they released their debut EP, The Yellow And Black Attack, on Enigma Records and then followed it up a year later with their first full-length album, Soldiers Under Command. They had done fairly well for an unknown band on a small label but they had not achieved mass success yet. They didn’t have a video in heavy rotation on M-TV so they were basically an underground band.
The first time I remember seeing the name Stryper was on a t-shirt that one of my friends from school wore. It featured Stryper’s logo emblazoned above two samurai swords that formed the shape of a cross. It was (and still is) one of the coolest looking concert shirts I had seen. Even though I knew the name and my buddy told me they were a good band, it wasn’t until my family attended the North American Christian Convention in July of 1986 that I actually heard their music.
The convention was (and still is) a gathering of people associated with the independent churches of Christ. They get together for one week every year for preaching, singing, and different types of workshops. The 1986 NACC was in Indianapolis, Indiana at the old Hoosier Dome. I attended several different worships for teenagers that week but only two stick out in mind. The first one was about the dangers of backwards masking in pop music. It almost seems silly now, but at the time, there were a lot of well meaning (at least I think they were) Christians who were chasing all sorts of odd ideas. This particular workshop consisted of two guys playing various examples of backwards messages in rock songs and then explaining what they said forwards. I admit that some of their examples were legitimate. Styx and Electric Light Orchestra HAVE inserted things into their music backwards but none of them were the infernal praises to Satan that they were accused of.
The second workshop had a much more profound impact on me. It’s sole purpose was to introduce teenagers to Christian rock and pop artists. It was during that one hour segment that I heard Amy Grant, Petra, DeGarmo & Key, Rez Band, Altar Boys, Steve Taylor, and (more importantly) Stryper for the very first time. I grew up going to church so I was familiar with the hymns and choruses we sang on Sundays. I also knew Southern Gospel but it was fairly popular where I lived. I had even heard recruitment teams from Roanoke Bible College (my eventual alma mater) sing songs by Randy Stonehill, Larry Norman, and The Imperials. It was years later before I realized it though. This seminar was the first time I heard Christians playing music that I really liked. It blew my mind.
I remember picking up Soldiers Under Command and looking at the cover for the very first time. There were four guys with long hair, dressed in yellow and black, sitting on top of van, holding Bibles and machine guns. In my sixteen year old mind, it was the greatest thing I had ever seen. I knew they were going to be my favorite band just by looking at them. The guy in the seminar had only played a snippet from Soldiers Under Command so I really hadn’t heard them yet. It didn’t matter, I knew I was going to love them. The cover for The Yellow And Black Attack reinforced that. There you see four missiles aimed at the earth, and God’s hand is guiding them on their way. By the time I actually got around to listening to them, I was hooked.
I came on board at just the right time. The NACC was in July of 1986 and in August Stryper released a new version of The Yellow And Black Attack. They were finishing up a new album and there was starting to be a buzz around them. The new version was remixed and had two more songs. One was an acoustic guitar ballad called My Love Will Always Show and the other was the very first single they had released. It was called Reason For The Season. The remixes were okay (I actually prefer the original EP) and the cover had been changed. The new one just showed the earth with yellow light “exploding” from it. It was okay, but not as cool as the original.
It was around this time that I started buying Metal Edge and Hit Parader magazines. I bought them regularly but I made sure to pick up any copy that had Stryper in it. A huge Stryper poster went up on my bedroom wall and I soon started clipping every photo of them that I could find. I listened to them constantly and told my friends all about them. Some of my headbanger buddies dismissed them as being lame but I didn’t care. It was true that they did put ballads on their albums but so did every other band. To me, Stryper were just like the bands coming out of LA, except they sang about God.
To Hell With The Devil Came Out in October of 1986 and Stryper suddenly became a huge band, for various reasons. There was controversy over the title before the album even dropped. The people who had been vocal against Stryper (and they had been there all along) were suddenly MORE vocal. Clowns like Jimmy Swaggert went on television and accused them of being satanic transvestites. That might not be his exact wording, but that’s what he was suggesting. When the album artwork was released, it really hit the fan.
In my opinion, the cover for To Hell With The Devil is one of the best in Christian rock music. It features four angels (looking like the band members) casting a guy who is half demon down into a fiery pit. It is an iconic image that I can immediately conjure up in my mind. The problem was that some Christian bookstores refused to carry it because it looked evil. To this day I still don’t see how it can be viewed that way. It shows angels throwing Satan into hell. That’s a biblical image in my opinion. Nonetheless, the pressure prompted the label to reissue the album with a solid black cover and the title in red letters. It is one of the lamest things I have ever seen. Fortunately, the music overshadowed the artwork.
There were three singles released from the album. Calling On You, Honestly, and Free. All three did well on M-TV but Honestly, the ballad, soon became the #1 requested video. I confess, I prefer it when Stryper rock out. However, I love their ballads. I have always been a fan of Styx, Journey, REO Speedwagon, and other bands who mixed it up. I think Michael Sweet sings just as good, if not better, than any of them. I think his ballads are just as good as any of them. That was the trend at the time so Stryper weren’t doing anything different than Motley Crue or Whitesnake. I do think they were better.
It wasn’t until I read Michael Sweet’s autobiography last year that I realized all the tension and turmoil that was going on in the band. They had Christians picketing their shows, they had atheists picketing their shows, and they had the pressure to follow up on a huge album. When In God We Trust came out in 1988 it should have been obvious that something was up. For the most part, I like the album. I do think that it is too digital and way overproduced. The songs aren’t not as strong either. You can tell it was written to be a “sequel” to the previous album. The way the songs are ordered on the album is almost a mirror image of To Hell With The Devil. Overall, it was somewhat of a let down.
1990 rolled around and Stryper released Against The Law, which just might be their most controversial album. It didn’t sound like Stryper. It didn’t look like Stryper. The lyrics didn’t sound like Stryper. The guys in the band started to do things that didn’t seem like Stryper. They admitted to smoking and drinking. Most of the songs weren’t about God. They dropped their yellow and black logo and costumes. Even though the album is pretty good, it just didn’t feel like Stryper. Their detractors loudly proclaimed, “See, we told you. They aren’t Christians.” Many of their fans began to wonder as well. I didn’t worry about it as much but at that point, I was twenty years old, engaged, and playing in my own band. Against The Law actually has two of my favorite Stryper songs. Power ballad Lady sounds like Skid Row at their peak and the cover of Earth Wind & Fire’s Shining Star is absolutely killer. By the time 1991 arrived, Michael had left Stryper and a greatest hits album was thrown out. It had two “new” songs but neither of them really grabbed me.
I continued to listen to Stryper over the next fourteen years and they continued to be one of my favorite bands. Michael went on to release several solo albums and that was that. There were some Stryper conventions and a couple of reunion shows that preceded a 2003 greatest hits album but nothing led me to believe that I’d ever hear new Stryper songs. I went back to Bible College in 2005, the same year that Stryper announced a new album. It was called Reborn and it featured three of the original four members. The new bass player had been part of Michael’s solo band and stepped in for Timothy.
Reborn is a good album, I want to stress that. However, it doesn’t sound like a Stryper record and, if I understand correctly, it didn’t start off as one. It is a hard rock album and it is definitely Michael Sweet material. I don’t know how much Oz and Robert were involved but I have to believe it was near the end, after the songs had been written and arranged. The album lacks the stacked harmony vocals that Stryper are known for. Their are only one or two guitar solos and one of those is on the new version of In God We Trust that closes the album. While it is the official comeback album for Stryper, it is very much a transition album. At the time, I wasn’t sure if they reunion would last. It felt like a nod to fans and I honestly assumed that it would be the last we heard from them. Boy, was I wrong.
Over the next three years Stryper toured and promised a new album. They released a cover of Boston’s Peace Of Mind that actually featured Tom Sholz on guitar. Michael was soon invited to be part of Boston and his wife was diagnosed with cancer. I was certain that Stryper would not survive. 2009 arrives and Stryper started releasing songs from their new album, Murder By Pride. It was kind of neat they way they did it. They released four songs on iTunes, one at a time. It actually built up the anticipation for the full album. When it finally came out, I was impressed. It still had a modern vibe to it, but the harmonies and guitar solos were back.
It was during this period that Michael’s wife died and he officially became part of Boston’s reunion tour. Even so, Stryper kicked into full gear. They announced a 25th anniversary tour that would feature two sets. The first would be the four original members playing the old songs and the second would be the current line-up playing new stuff. I had never seen them live so me and a couple of friends bought tickets. By the time the tour kicked off, Tracy had left the band and Timothy was back in. The anniversary tour had become a legitimate reunion. I can honestly say that it was one of the best shows I have ever seen. They were tight and they absolutely rocked it.
Michael eventually stepped away from Boston and Stryper picked up more speed. They released an album of cover tunes in 2011. In 2013 they released an album of older songs that they had re-recorded. Those two albums also gave us three new Stryper songs that pointed in the direction they were heading. Later in 2013 they released No More Hell To Pay, which I believe is the best album they have done since Soldiers Under Command. As I sit and write this, I eagerly anticipating Fallen, their new album, which comes out in October. I have listened to the audio snippets of every song and it promises to be just as heavy as No More Hell To Pay. I hope they play somewhere nearby so I can see them again.
I am forty-five years old now. If you would have told sixteen year old me that in 2015 I would be a preacher in northern Pennsylvania, I would have doubted you at first but might have believed it. If you would have told me that Stryper would still be kicking and making the best music of their career, I would have laughed. It’s really amazing when you look at some their peers. They put out no new music and suffer from constant line-up changes. Some of them are sad and can’t even be considered the same band, but Stryper is still Stryper.