The Life and Times of Blood and Fire
(the ‘obituary’ for the group published in SA Youth magazine "Spark Plugs"
and written by Karl Allison)
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It’s very difficult to write this piece without appearing pompous or introspective, so I think I’ll get all that over with straight away....
On 28th November 1987 Blood and Fire played their last concert, at the Regent Hall, London. It brought to an end seven years of somewhat manic music making, mixed with evangelism and all served up with not a little controversy. The banned penned up to 40 songs, recorded 4 albums, played over 120 concerts (actually more like double that), did 5 tours and involved about 60 people either as band members, special guests or sound and lighting crew.
The other statistic to give is that of converts, which is virtually impossible to know. This is, mainly, because we were never into head-counting but also because we never know how many of those who initially responded to the Gospel went on to become committed and faithful Christian soldiers. And yet, having said all that, the numbers the Corps and churches that we played at gave us add up to over 400 converts !
When you look back over seven years it becomes quite difficult to assess whether you really achieved anything at all. But I think we did. To quote a "Spark Plugs" editorial (wow!) :
‘Our achievements may not have been great but they are achievements - and they have been relevant.’
Whether or not we made any particular musical achievement is too subjective a comment to bother analysing but I do think we made achievements ‘spiritually’ (impossible to qualify or quantify - dodgy even to claim!) And ‘politically’ within the Salvation Army. There was the letter, of course, which provided much of the afore mentioned controversy !
I could ,undoubtedly, write pages on Blood and Fire but they wouldn’t be very interesting to most people so, here, I try to pick out some of the highlights. I suppose we should start at the beginning...
Trouble is, I can’t really remember why the group began. It was, I think, just something to do! I joined six months later for a laugh (funny enough that’s what the first audience did!). The group began at Woking Corps out of the, then, remnants of a typical (for then!) Youth group. There must have been about 10 acoustic guitarists and two bassists!
My first performance was a disaster. My legs turned to jelly and that’s when I developed the habit of leaning on the mike stand. On the last note I did a Larry Norman leap - and landed on the drum kit, one piece of which rolled into the audience!
The name was carefully chosen about two minutes before being introduced in a local church service, when the vicar asked us what we were called and all we could find was an Army flag. I spent the next six years trying to change the name (‘Interior Prang’, ‘The Apostles’ Sandals’, ‘The Officer’s Anorak’...) but it never happened. At least it meant that the Army couldn’t COMPLETELY disassociate itself from us!
Our first efforts were, of course, cover songs (by Joy Webb and other megastars) played extremely fast to make each wrong note slightly shorter. But, for all that, it was this line up that began to write its own material and that was first noticed by the wider Army circles. I suppose we were just more passionate and energetic than anyone else at the time because I really can’t imagine why we should have emerged for any other reason. Someone described our music as an ‘all-in-wrestling match’!
Soon, though, the line up began to change to the one that became best known. Ian (Mayhew) ‘retired’ to Worthing - although he seemed a bit too young for this, to me! Malcolm left to totally revolutionise the British Postal Service and Jason succumbed to the words of the old song, "I can’t get away with Blood and Fire today - my wife won’t let me".
Alvin went to music college, where he met two more similarly unbalanced individuals, Simon Barnett and Marc Harry (a wider Army circle all on his own!) Their contribution was both immediate and long-lasting. Simon gave us musical precision and flair - and also inspired us all in our own spiritual lives. Marc must be one of the most naturally gifted musicians and potentially great performers that I have ever known. He also never minded a joke being made about him and provided us all with much mirth. (What do you mean - is our band heavy - have you seen our guitarist?)
So that left us urgently needing a bass player and we bumped into Simon Herbert, although quite why these two points are connected remains a mystery. Seriously, Simon didn’t enter the band because of any musical greatness ("there came a point when I realised I was the worst bass player in the band") but, just because he was Simon. And he still is, for that matter.
Simon Herbert's (Herbie’s) great talent was knowing how to prevent Simon Barnett and myself from pushing every idea off the cliff edge. His trick was that he always let us get right to the edge of the cliff before he’d intervene. That is, I think, what made Blood and Fire such an interesting group - we were a bit dangerous, a bit too spontaneous and there was an explosive spark between the members of the band.
Anyway, all these personnel changes took us forward at warp factor 9 as a creative unit but they also started our problems with the Army system - problems which, incredibly were never fully resolved. Quite simply, we weren’t a Corps group and the Army could (or would) not find a way of accommodating us into its legislative framework without seriously hampering our activities.
It was also at this point that we began to realise that the band was going to have to be much more than just a laugh - people were beginning to take our music seriously (I know, it surprised me too!) but, more importantly, God was beginning to use our efforts to win people for His Kingdom. We also realised we had a platform from which we could attempt to help the progression of Army Youth Work - and we decided we had as much right as anyone else to speak our minds on the subject. We suddenly discovered that the Army is ‘made up of divisions’ (think about it...)
So, we started gigging regularly in larger and larger halls to bigger audiences. We hit upon the staggeringly unoriginal ideas of touring and recording - then discovered that hardly any Army groups had ever done these! Much of our time seemed to be spent educating Army folk to what we were doing rather than just being able to get on with it. We frequently turned up at the venue to discover that the promised staging might just about accommodate a drum kit. People were amazed that it took us several hours to set up. Young people, who thought themselves ‘up to date’ and part of the pop culture sat with their fingers in their ears because they didn’t realise live music was supposed to be that loud (...no, the music wasn’t that bad...)
I once asked an audience if any of them had ever been to a gig before. "What’s a gig," was the reply. We also started to be involved in bigger army events though, sitting on interesting committees at headquarters and, generally, making a nuisance of ourselves.
The most ‘committed’ thing we ever did was in 1984 when the group made an offer to the Salvation Army to be employed as full-time Youth Evangelists. The offer, which we felt to be God’s will for us, was an extremely generous one. We didn’t ask for wages, just some very basic living expenses. The offer itself was turned down. That didn’t hurt too much - what hurt was that the Army’s top brass apparently felt that they didn’t have to justify or explain the decision to us at all. Indeed, they even told us that we weren’t to do it voluntarily either! This latter order was totally ignored and 3 members of the band went into totally unsupported full-time ministry. During this time, which lasted over a year, many week-long evangelical missions were conducted, often involving much school work and outdoor shows. The opportunity of being able to spend time with people in evangelism should never be passed by and is, perhaps, something that the Army should study.
The most frightening thing we ever did was play Dartmoor Prison. We’d done prisons before and they were no hassle. But Dartmoor is so imposing. You cross the moor for what seems like hours and then this huge grey prison suddenly emerges from the mist, like a submarine surfacing. We had a really good time, though. I tried to persuade them to keep Alvin in but they thought he’d be a bad influence.
The most surprising thing we did was to reach the final of the International Musicians of the Year contest at the Astoria in Charing Cross Road. We did regard it as a small accolade, especially as it was a ‘secular’ event (my opinion of most Christian music is a little lower than Herbie’s E-string!) We didn’t win, in fact we didn’t even come close - later we considered that we may have been the ‘token Christians’, but I like to think not.
Easily the silliest thing we did was try to follow the London Community Gospel Choir at our pre-Christmas gig at Camberwell in 1984. A band from Worthing called ‘Rendezvous’ had set the gig up, which involved them, us and the choir. I cannot imagine what persuaded us to go on last but (In the author’s Humble Opinion) it was the only time in seven years that we were blown off stage. I remember sitting in the dressing room feeling mighty relieved that at least the mighty Paul Johnson hadn’t turned up. Then, guess what, he jumped up on stage for the last number. My soul said yes, but should have said a definite NO!!!
I carried on with our set but felt very much in the shadow of one of the most amazing male gospel voice on the planet! The show did have its good points, though. For some reason Alvin went on as a monk, Herbie as Father Christmas and Harry as a Freemason. It seemed pretty silly at the time but it provoked a furious reaction to the Army papers from a certain Mr Don Aitken. We were given the right to reply and it ended up as a full scale debate on groups and youth work in the Army which went on for four months!
The funniest thing we ever did was a tour of France. I nearly died laughing and nearly died of a chronic throat infection too! We played the French National Congress without Simon B or myself able to hit a single note (a personal best). The French young people loved it. Strange !
For me, the best thing we did was our 1987 tour of Northern Ireland. What an amazing place it is. The people are so friendly, the countryside so beautiful and yet you are always aware of the sad, sectarian issue. Avoid political issues, we were told. Well, we tried, but its very difficult to do an evangelical talk without upsetting someone. We started in Ballymena, a fiercely Paisley-ite town in the north of the North and finished in Newry, a border town that’s 80% Catholic. What a place! People just carry on with their normal life while fully armed soldiers run down the street and helicopter buzz overhead like hyperactive bluebottles! The family I stayed with are Catholics but went to a Methodist Bible Study and sent their children to the Methodist Sunday School. There is always hope!
Musically speaking, our gigs were rarely more than a glorified jam because we never found the time to rehearse as much as we should have done. Our albums may not have been as good as they should have been - but were as good as they could have been given the limited time and resources that were available to us. I think the material was good - I can still listen to our first albums without feeling embarrassed. But we did get the chance to make one ‘proper’ album - our last - "Articles of War". We spent a week in a 16 track studio with Tony Cummings (Buzz magazine) at the controls. I think its pretty good.
The high point of all was the Regent Hall pre-Christmas gig of 1985. It was a night when everything seemed to go right. Buzz liked it too. They said "To someone who’s image of the Salvation Army is limited to brass bands and down-and-outs , Blood and Fire’s concert was a positive eye-opener. The group has developed a vivid and exciting stage presentation and a unique communication between both the members of the band and with the audience.
So someone liked it. Actually, Spark Plugs liked that one too!
The high point as a whole evangelical unit came, I think, at our weekend in Newcastle. From faith breakfasts, to workshops, to music, to drama, to comedy, and finally to Scriptural teaching. A great weekend made possible largely by the openness of the Geordie people. The journey home was memorable for being stopped by a huge police roadblock in the Nottingham coalfield area, having been mistaken for a minibus load of flying pickets! They just didn’t believe us when we told them that we were with the Salvation Army!
And talking of the Army...of course, we weren’t blameless in our relationship with the Army authorities but I do think that we were victims more often than not. Also, they took us far too seriously! Perhaps the Army is a tad too sensitive and paranoid of any criticism, however positively phrased. We never spoke out of bitterness. We spoke out because we cared and also because healthy disagreement produces healthy discussion. It’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s actually the very idea that our system of government is (supposedly) based on (although these days I’m not so sure!)
So what did B&F achieve within the Army? I think we helped to changed attitudes and even a few policies. I think a lot of what we did was to sow seeds that will, hopefully, come to full flower in years to come. We were certainly involved in some innovative and creative events such as the Butlins programme, Rock at the Rink, the ’86 National Youth Rally (the one WITHOUT the march past!) And some of our own tours and workshop weekends. I think we kept the ‘contemporary’ music flag flying and, possible, helped to create, for a while at least, a new climate for groups to work in. During our time together many new bands started up. I’m not saying that we were responsible for all of them but we did provide many of them with their first move beyond the ‘home Corps’, either as part of a national event or as a support band at one of our gigs. In the course of all this we also built up a responsible sound system which groups are still using today.
We also opened up the Army press a little to youth activity - although this appears to be a little short-lived. We caused a good many minds to work overtime an the whole ground-rules for groups. There have been several groups after us who have been able to ‘mix and match;’ their Corps with considerably more leniency and, hence, success than we managed. God bless ‘em!
I think the overall contribution was to make a statement about how art and institutionalising cannot go together. Blood and Fire was never an Army section. It was a creative force that lived and died by its ability to be creative and by nothing else. I think we also showed how art and evangelism can be put together without one compromising the other. The marriage of art and evangelism will never be an easy one - but it is so often a fruitful one!
But has any of this led anywhere and have the changes been long-lasting? This is a big question! Generally, I think we changed individuals within the Army, rather than the Army itself (whatever that is!) I also know that several of these individuals have now left the Army and are doing good work in other churches. We do seem to be so capable of losing our (potential) leaders!
And have we really progressed the Army’s understanding of rock music? Not if the NEC Youth Rally of 1986 was anything to go by! Whoever was to blame it is still a fact that we were pulled offstage in front of 4000 people. Obviously there is some misunderstanding!
I feel that much of the Army’s problems now lie with the young people themselves - and its not particularly their fault. They’ve been brought up and socialised into a movement which looks inside itself too much. Too many of our young people now have too little in common with the world outside of the Army to be able to have an outstanding effect upon the people who live there. Somehow, the bridges need to be built, the mutual issues and concerns found. Otherwise our young people are going to grow up into Army leaders who are less and less capable of making the Army appear relevant to the ‘man on the street’.
For all that, the lingering memories of the band must concern some of the amazing conversions to Christ that we were privileged to witness and even play a small part in. Penzance springs to mind, when 75 people came forward to the Mercy Seat and we had to form queues for counselling. Newcastle and Tunbridge Wells too. Also Pontypool when the hall was filled - one side punks and the other skinheads with Salvationists in the middle! The seekers came from every part of the hall. At Canterbury University where three days of talking finally brought two girls to accept Christ as their Saviour. And at a gig in Guildford when the bass player with the support band was converted (and they were definitely NOT a Christian group!)
But there are two favourite conversion stories. The first comes from Woking. A young lady made a commitment to Christ but, due to a series of unfortunate incidents we lost touch with her completely. Three years later we were taken to a school in Guildford to do a pre-gig interview with the PRESIDENT of the Christian Union...and guess who it was...
The second comes from Newry, Northern Ireland. A girl of 18 was in hospital the night before the gig. She was about to have a baby. She was all alone, abandoned. She was threatening suicide. The morning of the gig she was released from hospital, still pregnant (why?) And she came to the gig. There, in the middle of a bomb scare, she gave her life to Christ. Two hours later she was back in the hospital having her baby. "Now that’s what I call a miracle!"
And that’s about it! Sorry its been a bit long and may have, at times, seemed a trifle pompous. I honestly tried to pick out the best bits. And, for all the controversies, I’d do it again. One letter to The Salvationist from a young lady in Eastleigh tells why:
"The afternoon open-air meeting attracted some punks and mods. Some came to the evening’s concert. They attended on Sunday too. Blood and Fire not only helped them - and created a sensation at Eastleigh - but also increased my own faith. One friend who hasn’t been to the Army for a long time came to the gig and found the Lord again. She now attends the Corps regularly. Another direct result of the visit of Blood and Fire is that we started a drama group, and have presented out first play."
There! Evangelism and art. That’s what we were all about. It can be done - even should be done! But, as I said, it’s not an easy marriage and it requires a great deal of counsel, care and support. That is what is sadly missing in the movement we were working in. But that’s another story. (I hope that just a fraction of the young people touched by Christ’s love in the seven years we have been able to share Him with them are still active today, themselves touching others’ lives every day.)
Finally, I’d like to thank everyone who was ever connected with Blood and Fire in any way. You all contributed so much - it was a privilege to work with you all.
And never forget:
"Let us not grow weary of doing what is right, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." (Gal 6:9)
A message for us all, eh ?
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