The Great Newsboys Experiment: Part One

I’m not exactly sure why this idea came to me and looking backing on it now I’m still not sure why I thought it was a good idea. This past Monday (August 12, 2019) I decided to listen to every studio album released by the Newsboys. For those of you who aren’t familiar, they are a Christian pop-rock band that formed in Australia back in 1985. Over the past thirty-five years they have relocated to the United States, released twenty studio albums, sold over ten million albums, won numerous awards, and have experienced more line-up changes than Black Sabbath or Lynyrd Skynyrd. To date there are sixteen different individuals listed as members or former members. The current version of the group is being billed as Newsboys United and features six members (including co-vocalists Peter Furler and Michael Tait). They have recently released a self-titled album and have been touring extensively for over a year now.

I have been a fan of their music since 1996, the year they released the incredible Take Me To Your Leader. I had heard of them before that and most likely had heard the hit Shine but I wasn’t familiar with them and didn’t consider myself a fan. That changed when Robin (my wife) and I drove from our home in North Carolina to Knoxville, Tennessee to attend a music festival. We had our oldest son Geoffry (who was about three months old at the time) with us. We didn’t go to see the Newsboys or Gary Chapman (the co-headliner). We went simply to experience our first big Christian music event. This is totally unrelated but we also got to see and meet a little unsigned band from Knoxville that weekend called Disciple.

We didn’t know it at the time but that Knoxville show was the opening night of the Newsboys’ Take Me To Your Leader tour. As I’ve already said, we didn’t know anything about them before that night but by the time we left we were fans. We bought Take Me To Your Leader, Going Public, and Not Ashamed that night and listened to all three on the long drive back home. From that point on I followed them through CCM magazine and later on, the internet. I have seen them live six times with all three of the lead singers. I still consider myself a fan even through all the line-up and style changes. The purpose of these blog posts is to examine the music from each of the four “eras” of the group’s history. They are as follows: The John James Years (1988-1996), The Peter Furler Years (1998-2009), The Michael Tait Years (2009-2018), The Newsboys United (2018-Present).

I am going to start with their 1987 independently released cassette He’s Coming Back. This eight song album featured original members Peter Furler (drums), George Perdikis (guitar), John James (vocals), and Sean Taylor (bass). All the music was written by Perdikis and Taylor with Furler and James contributing lyrics. Five of the songs (He’s Coming Back, Listen For The Shout, You’re Still There, It’s Joy, and Read All About It) would be re-recorded for their first official album in 1988. Two more (Stand Up and Victory) would resurface on their second album. The album closer (He Died For You) is the only track to not be recycled. An original copy of this is impossible to find. I have been looking for years and haven’t run across one for sale yet. You can listen to a muddy version that someone uploaded to YouTube. Considering the audio quality it’s actually quite listenable. The original versions of the songs used later are not that different outside of production. I actually prefer a couple of them over the more polished versions. None of the songs are incredibly original but are in line with the mainstream rock music of the late 80s. Those who are only familiar with the last ten (or twenty) years of the band will probably be surprised by this one but I highly suggest checking it out even if only for historical purposes.

The Newsboys signed with Refuge Records in 1987 and soon relocated to the United States (along with manager Wes Campbell) where they would release their “official” debut Read All About It in 1988. Co-produced by Peter Furler and Tommy Sims, who was the bassist in Whiteheart at the time, it was definitely step in the right direction. George Perdikis had left and been replaced by Phil Yates before the album was recorded. Opening track I Got Your Number was the only single released and it didn’t garner any sort of attention or airplay at the time. The five tracks that were re-recorded are not as gritty as the originals but still don’t sound bad. You can tell that they had been floating around for several years because they are somewhat dated for 1988. Even bands like Petra and Whiteheart had “toughened up” their sound. If I had heard this in 1988 I probably would have liked most of it even though some of it sounds a bit cheesy. The musicianship is tight and the production is on par with most CCM from the same time. John James is a competent vocalist and I especially enjoy it when he does the high falsetto bits.

1990 saw a new label, a new guitarist, and a new album. Hell Is For Wimps is probably my favorite of the “unknown” Newsboys albums. It was released on Star Song and produced by Michael Gleason, who had been a touring member of Kansas as well as co-founder of Kerry Livgren’s post-Kansas band A.D. The majority of the songs were co-written by John James, Peter Furler, Sean Taylor, and manager Wes Campbell. Whiteheart’s Bill Smiley contributed to four. Victory and Stand Up For Jesus are reworked versions of the ones from the 1987 cassette. They are much more polished and honestly, aren’t quite as effective as the originals. James’ vocals really do stand out and are higher up in the mix. Once again, the band is tight and really gels together. Furler is a solid drummer and probably doesn’t get enough credit. All I Can See, In The End, Ten Thousand Miles, and Simple Man were released as singles but none performed well. Because they recorded in Australia, George Perdikis was invited to add guitar to Victory but that ended his affiliation with the group.

Boys Will Be Boyz was released on Star Song in 1991 and it was obvious that the band was drastically changing its direction. Vernon Bishop replaced Jonathan Geange on guitar and Cory Pryor was added on keyboards. Peter Furler is the sole producer credited and I have often wondered how he managed to get the gig. They had released two albums at that point and neither had made a dent on radio. It is interesting to note that Dez Dickerson (former guitarist for Prince) was an executive with Star Song at the time. There were videos made for Kingdom Man, One Heart, and Taste And See. Stay With Me and Israel were also released as single. The album is somewhat schizophrenic in that it has the guitar pop-rock of the first two albums but also detours into hip-hop flavored pop. Peter Furler starts to sing lead vocals for the first time and is credited with writing every track. He also tries his hand at rapping (a la DC Talk) in a couple of places. I like several songs on this one and the production is fine but the album is uneven and cringe-worthy in a couple of places. There was also a home video released on VHS that featured live footage and the video for Simple Man.

1992 rolled around and the Newsboys camp saw even more changes. They reverted back to a four-piece and focused on synth-based pop music. Somehow, they managed to stay signed and someone decided it was time to get them some help. Boy, did they get help. Enter Steve Taylor. Not surprisingly, Not Ashamed was the first successful Newsboys album. Along with co-producing with Furler, Taylor co-wrote every track and even performed the “rap” on the beautifully cheesy cover of DeGarmo & Key’s Boycott Hell. Another noticeable difference is that Furler sings lead or shares lead on eight of the ten songs. A look at the liner notes reveals a virtual Who’s Who of Nashville studio musicians including (but not limited to) Phil Madeira, Dave Perkins, John Mark Painter, and Blair Masters. The songs are well-crafted, well performed, and well-produced. Taylor’s wit comes to the forefront of the lyrics and he would stay there for the next few albums. Unlike previous efforts, Not Ashamed produced four top ten radio hits including the title track which went to number one. Two more tracks cracked the top twenty. Another home video was released on VHS. Not Ashamed was the beginning of the Newsboys evolution into a CCM juggernaut. I absolutely love this album and probably listen to it more than any of their others outside of Take Me To Your Leader.

By the time 1994’s Going Public was released, more line-up changes had taken place. Original bassist Sean Taylor had been replaced by Kevin Mills. Jody Davis had come aboard as guitarist. Duncan Phillips was added as percussionist and keyboardist. Jeff Frankenstein was also listed as keyboardist in the liner notes even though he joined too late to help record it. Peter Furler took lead vocals on seven of the ten songs and co-lead on another. James, while still the enigmatic front man in concert, was quickly taking the back seat. Once again, all songs were composed by Furler and Taylor. Eight of the ten tracks were released as singles and four (Shine, Spirit Thing, Real Good Thing, and Truth And Consequences) went to number one. The group also went on to win two Dove Awards for Rock Album Of The Year and Rock Song Of The Year (Shine). Going Public is regarded as one of the best CCM albums ever released and it is one of my personal favorites. After nearly ten years, it seemed as if the Newsboys had finally made it. No one could have known what was next.

1996 brought one more significant line-up change. Kevin Mills left to manage Whiteheart and was replaced by Kiwi musician Phil Joel, even though his primary instrument was not the bass guitar. They actually joked about it in the Steve Taylor written and directed film Down Under The Big Top which was also released in 1996. The success of the two previous albums was well deserved but paled in comparison to what Take Me To Your Leader managed to accomplish. Ten of the eleven tracks were released to radio (Miracle Child being the exception) and every one of them hit the top ten in at least one of the charts. Five of them (Reality, Take Me To Your Leader, Cup ‘O Tea, Let It Go, and Breathe) hit number one. Musically, Take Me To Your Leader was leaps and bounds above everything they had done up to that point. Loops and samples were gone and replaced with real keyboards, bass, and hard rock guitars. Furler was still singing lead on the majority of the songs and Phil Joel joined in as a third vocalist on a handful. Many labeled it “grunge” at the time (I’ll rant about that in another post), Take Me To Your Leader was actually an adventurous alternative rock album that honestly sounded like nothing else (Christian or otherwise) at the time. Twenty-three later it still sounds fresh and is as relevant as anything being put out in the CCM industry, including their most recent work. It was (and still is) the high mark in their career. Unfortunately, it was also John James’ swansong.

To be continued….

Grace and peace

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