Ark Rock, pt. 3: The End of Smooth Christian Contemporary
by Erik Helin
As with all good things and seemingly fewer bad things, they must come to an end. By the mid 80s, Ark Rock would attempt to hold on to its glory days in the same way yacht rock did, yet prevailing musical trends and external forces would prove that last gasp fruitless. Though Christian contemporary music would soldier on and gain a fair amount of success in the late 80s and 90s (even prompting a high-level sale of Sparrow Records to EMI in 1992), the quality of music would drop, turning the genre into what we typically malign as modern Christian contemporary, or inspirational music.
Here are some of the smoothest artifacts from the death knell of Ark Rock.
The End of the Era
Philip Bailey - The Wonders of His Love - “The Wonders of His Love” (1984)
The same year Philip Bailey released one of the greatest songs of the 1980s, “Easy Lover”, he made an Ark Rock album for Myrrh. It’s not the traditional yacht rock side of Ark, but moves towards a jazzier sound, specifically Latin jazz with the additional percussion of yacht soul session man Paulinho da Costa. It’s smooth to be sure—maybe not yacht rock—but definitely smooth. I’d also like to use this album as a microcosm of the multiple R&B and soul artists that released gospel albums on Myrrh. Through its run Myrrh released albums by everyone from Al Green to Billy Preston, though nothing I found fit well on this list.
Imperials - Let The Wind Blow - “In The Promised Land” (1984)
By 1984, Russ Taff (mentioned in Part Two) had exited the Imperials, but that doesn’t mean they stopped making smooth pop music. Once again, we see Paulinho da Costa appearing on percussion credits, but that’s not the reason why this song is included here. In the mid 1980s it seemed like everyone was chasing the same pop song: Prince’s “1999”. From “All Night Long” to to “Sussudio” and countless others, the trend in pop music was about the big hook more than it was about jazz precision or complex time signatures (or whatever the hell else Toto was doing). “In The Promised Land” shows how Ark Rock wasn’t immune to this trend, and how it would become a harbinger of things to come.
Paul Clark - Out Of The Shadow - “Mr. Me” (1984)
One thing that I have failed to mention before now was the so-called “Jesus Movement” of the early 1970s. Ostensibly an offshoot of Hippie culture, the Jesus Movement was in many ways a reform movement attempting to get back to the roots of Christianity. Especially in California, the Jesus Movement led to everything from cults to communes. Out of the Movement came Jesus Music which, in the same way the Movement added a Christian spin on Hippie culture, Jesus Music added Christianity to the folk rock of the era. It would also serve as the foundation for all Christian contemporary music that followed. Paul Clark came from this Movement, releasing his debut album in 1972.
By 1981 Paul Clark began a three-album run with Myrrh, culminating with Out Of The Shadow in 1984. The album, which features Pages as his backing band, is prime late-era Ark Rock. The selected track, “Mr. Me” deploys a solid bounce and great synth work, as well as some sultry sax.
Amy Grant - Unguarded - “Sharaya” (1985)
We end our list at the death knell of both yacht rock and Ark Rock, and maybe the biggest album Myrrh ever released: Amy Grant’s Unguarded. This album represented a crossover in Christian contemporary music, hitting 35 on the Billboard charts, going platinum, and winning Amy Grant a Grammy for gospel album of the year. The album features Richard Page and Steve George of Pages, Michael Landau, percussionist Lenny Castro, Tommy Funderburk, Bill Champlin and more. In many ways Unguarded shows how yacht rock progressed by the mid 80s. As pop music became a bit more simple and more bombastic (again, “1999” pop), the work of session musicians became less nuanced, relying more on gifted songwriters than interesting song structures. The selected track, “Sharaya”, is about as smooth as this album gets; but still fails to achieve the smoothness of earlier work.
On the same day as Unguarded’s release, Myrrh Records put out the debut album of a different band: Stryper. The taller their hair got, the closer they were to God, and the further music moved from the luxurious intricacies of the yacht rock and Ark Rock era. From that point on, pop music would be a bit more on the nose, and rock music would be turned up a bit louder.
And that’s Ark Rock. It may not be good all the time, and in general I am against Christianity and its contemporary music, but it’s a thing that definitely existed and some of it is kind of great as a curiosity. I hope the money Michael Omartian and his absolutely daffy wife Stormie made off these albums went to charity, but something tells me it didn’t.
Here is a playlist of the the best Ark Rock available on Spotify.
Here are the songs mentioned in this series with some extras, also on Spotify.