Exhibit / October 18, 2017
When John Lennon told British journalist Maureen Cleave in March of 1966 that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus now,” and that “Christianity… will vanish and shrink,” there was no controversy apart from a handful of letters sent in to the paper that ran the story, the London Evening Standard. But when the quote was reprinted out of context in American teen magazine Datebook that August, all hell broke loose. Christian groups, primarily in the South, along with the Ku Klux Klan, launched a “Ban the Beatles” campaign: DJs refused to play the band’s songs, records were broken and burned publicly, and protesters picketed the band’s third and final US tour. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity had experienced a revival in post-war America, gaining momentum as a reaction against the youth and anti-war movements of the 1960s. Rock and roll, heavily indebted to black gospel music, presented an early target. Elvis Presley, himself a committed Christian and gospel singer, was declared “morally insane” by a Reverend in Iowa in 1956, and the following year a Catholic Bishop in Rhode Island denounced rock as “a musical fad which is leading its young devotees back to the jungle and animalism.”
Christian ministries and individual churches had been self-publishing anti-communist, anti-Beatles, and anti-occult literature (sometimes all three at once) throughout the 1960s, and with the massive success of evangelist Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth in 1970—published by Christian-owned Zondervan—that practice continued, and warnings proliferated against the unholy teenage trio of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Independent Christian films like A Thief in the Night (1972), the first of a four-part series dramatizing the premillennialist conception of the end times or Rapture (The Late, Great Planet Earth argued that we were living in the end times), made way for a cottage industry of Christian instructional films, which peaked in the late ’80s as fundamentalist hysteria over Dungeons & Dragons and heavy metal fueled the North American “Satanic Panic.”
The protagonist of Rock: It’s Your Decision is Jeff, a suburban teenager and born again Christian who developed a “rebellious attitude” right after his parents bought him a stereo for Christmas. As the film begins, we see him storm out of the house, hop in his car, jam a cassette into the tape deck, and crank up the tunes. (It’s the Wally Waller Band’s “Can’t Walk On the Water,” hardly a good example of music that is “offensive to God.” The film is filled with similarly generic rock, none of which is credited, and one wonders who made the sinful song selections.) His mother rushes out to catch him, but Jeff speeds off (he’s going to church!) before she can chastise him. They’ve “had another blow up about his music,” mom explains to out-of-town dad on the phone, and she suggests getting youth pastor Brother Owen involved: “Maybe he’ll be able to remind Jeff what the Bible says about obedience.” So mom meets with the young pastor, who gently chastises her for watching soap operas and not setting a good example for Jeff, after which he recommends a study course of “discipline and love, not anger.”
Brother Owen (spoiler alert: we find out later that he was a rock drummer before he was “saved,” and thus has firsthand knowledge of the perilous pursuit) subsequently meets with Jeff, and asks him to undertake an experiment or “contract”: for two weeks, Jeff must give up rock music entirely while doing some serious “personal research to see if rock has a place in your Christian lifestyle.” Jeff reluctantly agrees, and Brother Owen gives him some Christian music cassettes to tide him over, as well as some books on the dangers of rock “from a Christian perspective.” (One of the books is 1971’s The Big Beat: A Rock Blast, by Frank Garlock, in which the author argues that an overabundance of rhythm in music drives teenagers to drug abuse and fornication—and kills plants.)
We follow Jeff as his nominally Christian girlfriend Melissa tries to convince him to buy tickets to the upcoming rock concert despite his promise to Brother Owen. We follow him as he lectures his rock-addled buddy Dennis—a Christian because his dad makes him—about how buying Lynyrd Skynyrd albums is “promoting sin.” When Jeff tries to interview employees at the local Camelot Music about the inherent evils of rock, the unrighteous dudes knock the clipboard out of his hands. As he gives a status update to Brother Owen, he talks about what happened after he left the record store:
I never really realized before how dependent I’ve been on rock. Just walking by the audio store with the music playing, I just stopped there… and listened without realizing what I was doing. The beat just grabbed me. Couldn’t get the music out of my mind—until I got home and played one of the tapes you gave me. It’s just weird, being controlled like that.
After Melissa calls him a “fanatic” for boycotting a youth group party (at apostate Dennis’s house) playing rock “garbage,” Jeff falls off the wagon, rushing home to listen to “Can’t Walk On the Water” on his Christmas stereo and lament the loss of his friends and good music. His mother yells at him for betraying Brother Owen, Jeff calls her a hypocrite for watching soap operas (“sex with commercials”), and she smacks him in the face. Jeff then drives out to a quiet, dark spot and has a one-on-one with the Lord. That’s when he makes his big decision.
In the final scene, Brother Owen turns the Sunday pulpit over to born again (again) Jeff, who delivers a fiery sermon about youngsters “actually being controlled” by the “get-down beat” of rock music. “The carnal part of me really likes rock,” admits Jeff, but the “main themes” of these raucous tunes are sex and drugs and the occult, and some rockers “are admitted homosexuals.” Jeff quotes the ungodly lyrics to The Eagles’ “One of These Nights,” calls out Kiss, Captain & Tennille (“You Need a Woman Tonight“), Rod Stewart (“Do Ya Think I’m Sexy“), and Barry Manilow (“Could It Be Magic“), until he breaks a record on the corner of a pew and declares that he wants his life to be “for my Christ, not against my Christ.”
Much like earlier social guidance films, Rock: It’s Your Decision seeks to reinstitute the moral regime of a less mutinous era, when young adults did and believed what their parents told them to do and believe without question, when the authoritative Scripture was interpreted and doled out by a handful of men whose power to do so was implied. The film seems quaint and silly today, but only three years later, in 1985, Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center, energized by the rise of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and the religious right, pressured the Recording Industry Association of America to affix a Parental Advisory label to all music deemed “filthy” by Gore and her ilk. The British Phonographic Industry followed suit, and the warnings remain—a pointless but pointed symbol—on both physical and digital albums.