Righteous Indignation: The Alpha Band

The-Alpha-Band-Spark-In-The-Dark-497610

In the summer of 1980, in Minneapolis, I spent several weeks painting a couple houses with my elder brother. The houses were on the north side while I lived in Southeast. To get back and forth I rode a bike and listened to music on the first iteration of the Sony Walkman. Among the tapes I listened to was one that was filled with a couple of Alpha Band albums.

That summer also happened to be a period of horrific mental anguish for me. As the pain grew more acute I sough refuge in the faith of my childhood. Evangelical Christianity is a very powerful psychological drug, which is not to say that it is entirely terrible. As anyone who has used drugs knows, all narcotics have their positive attributes. Anyway, in an effort to escape the hurt I was feeling I delved deep into the Bible and long sessions of prayer. These practices, as it turned out did little to help. And what I didn’t know at the time was that my emotional crisis marked the beginning of the end of my Christian faith.

My brother had given me the Alpha Band tapes with the straight forward endorsement that ‘they were an interesting band’. The music I heard was definitely unusual and challenging for my tastes at the time. The violin seemed to have displaced the guitar as the central string instrument and the lead singer’s voice was nasally and slightly tremulous. But the lyrics were what really grabbed my troubled soul and unsatisfied mind.

The poetry seemed to give echo to the surging powerful currents inside of me. They were forthright, confronting, angrily arrogant and accusative. Accusing the listener of being co-opted by the deception of money, power and moral corruption. As a spiritually desperate young man steeped in the Bible it was obvious The Alpha Band were musical Jeremiahs, prophesying doom and calling a generation to repentance. The Alpha Band sang only of black and white while my entire world was uncertain grey. I longed for what they had: the clarity, the certainty, the faith.

The Alpha Band was my introduction to T-Bone Burnett, who some claimed/accused of ‘converting Bob Dylan to Christianity’. As major players in Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, the members of the Alpha Band were all crack musicians but no missionaries. When the Revue wrapped up, Burnett, David Mansfield and Steven Soles, were touted by the industry moguls as a sure money spinner but within 2 years of being offered a 6 million dollar contract in 1976, had only delivered two flop records. Musically, lyrically and intellectually their music was intricate, fascinating and accomplished but the records were duds in the dollar department nonetheless. As a last hurrah, they made The Statue Makers of Hollywood, which indeed, can be read as a prophetic rant against injustice, artistic disappointment and the deceptive glitter of the music industry.

In a four star review, All Music Guide, says:

In 1978, two years and two albums after being touted as the next big thing by Clive Davisthe Alpha Band was in its final days. For its swansong, the Christian leanings of Spark in the Dark, which was “humbly offered in the light of the triune God,” became more overt, while their sound became more eccentric. And with a pair of commercial flops under their belt, there was little chance that the group’s idiosyncrasies and pious rants were going to reverse the trend this time out. But, this band — especiallyT-Bone Burnett — was seemingly on a mission, both musically and philosophically. The opener, the Old Testament synopsis “Tick Tock,” sets the stage, with its tales of temptation, sinners, false idols, wrath, and even mercy. The condemnation of this “Perverse Generation” (a song title) that follows over the next three tracks may appear overly moralistic and harsh, but in the context of cuts like “Tick Tock,” the repentant “Back in My Baby’s Arms Again,” and Hank Williams‘ joyful “Thank God,” it seems merely overzealous. Lyrical content aside, this may be the band’s most interesting, challenging, and eclectic music yet. “Rich Man” is awash in percussion, horns, and gospel voices, with David Mansfield‘s mandolin darting in and out, while Steven Soles‘ “Two Sisters” has the feel of a Middle Eastern folk dance, and the two songs that close the album are rooted in Memphis and Nashville. The unifying factor throughout is Mansfield, whose violin, mandolin, dobro, and guitar bring a surprising cohesiveness to Statue Makersthe Alpha Band seemed to know that this would be their last hurrah, and figured that they might as well make some noise on the way out. This is the sound of a band stretching its creative legs for the last time.

Is this music anymore relevant? Is it worth sharing nearly 40 years after it was made? Well, that’s for you to judge I guess. But I still listen to this record because even though I no longer see the world through Christian eyes, there is still truth aplenty here. And the musicianship is outstanding and just as fresh and interesting as when it was first recorded.

Try it if you dare!

The Statue Makers of Hollywood

Track Listing:

Back In My Baby’s Arms Again

Mighty Man

Perverse Generation

Rich Man

Thank God

Tick Tock

Two People In The Modern World

Two Sisters

alPHa

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