Living through the early 90s as a young Christian boy was a bit of a headfuck, to be honest. At a time in any young life when peer approval is at a premium, it seemed like all my peers were exploring strange new musical topographies, encrusted with exciting features like a field of Guns N’ Roses, and a mountain named Metallica. The sort of place you could enjoy a Green Day shovelling handfuls of Pearl Jam into your face, while relaxing under some Screaming Trees, and also inflicting horrible tortures upon metaphors.
Meanwhile, I was stranded 100 miles off-shore, ship-wrecked among the ruins of my Noel’s Ark, and clinging to a barren rock named Petra.
Course, when I was bought their seminal 1991 album Unseen Power for Christmas, they looked like this:
Imagine pretending with all your splintered 11-year-old heart that these guys look every bit as seductively nihilistic and cool as W. Axl Rose used to. When I was lent an illegally pirated tape of Appetite for Destruction and Use Your Illusion I, after a diet of the blandest AOR Christian rock imaginable, the anticipation was palpable. I’d love to say I was an instant convert, but the truth is, my mind nearly melted under the glare of hellfire when I played it. It was fucking terrifying. I gave it back with trembling hands, barely listened to, praying fervently from within that Jesus hadn’t noticed my faux pas, having had his hands full with the recent collapse of the USSR and making sure noted sodomite Freddie Mercury got to where he was going (hell).
Thus, Petra were the biggest band of my early teens, and like all marriages of convenience (ie, all marriages) it was a grit-toothed thing born of fear, self-loathing and compromise. In retrospect, they were shit. And at the time, they were obviously shit. But like everything else in my young, childish life, if I just pretended hard enough, the opposite could – nay, would be true.
It never was.
Beat the System, the title track of their 1985 album, is hardly representative of Petra’s overall sound, but it was unquestionably the stand-out moment of their career. It sold like holy absolution, clocking up 200,000 shifted units within four months, and earning the band a Grammy nomination. Imagine that.
This is the digitised face of guitarist and chief song-architect Bob Hartman, gurning under a bleepy touch-tone telephone tune. Don’t laugh, this probably looked pretty fucking snazz in 1985.
Sinister and vague PG-13 images of the temptations of contemporary adolescence loom menacingly toward us. They include: A man who might be smoking a drug. Equally, he might be chewing on a pen; an abstract purple shape that could be intended to resemble a lady’s butt; and something I can’t quite make out or understand, maybe a crystal ball or something? Meanwhile, blindfolded teens bodypop backwards through this morass. Dense symbolism that any semiotician would be challenged to unpack.
Now they’re playing ping-pong… but I thought the church was cool with that? Pretty radical custom paintwork on that table, though. Maybe that’s the problem.
Meet Petra’s singer, Greg X. Volz. He reckons his actual IRL middle name is Xavier. I say, the chances are too remote. You’re a liar, Volz, it stands for Xtian.
Fun fact: Volz was reportedly offered the lead singer slot in REO Speedwagon in 1976, but turned it down because he’d become a Christian. How different the face of soft rock could have been.
Presciently, Petra bring us scenes of the construction of Iran’s secret underground Qom uranium enrichment facility.
Another image too dense to unpack. All I can see is that sweet fucking synth-guitar.
I thought about making an animated jif of this guy, but then it dawned on me that using a moving picture to highlight the brother’s lack of movement would be pointless and self-defeating – if not cleverly ironic. This is about as much as he moves, anyway. Is he ashamed of himself or something?
Keyboardist John Lawry is all over this tune like wounds on a Christ. Here we see him punching the air enthusiastically as he cries ‘NO!’ That’s about as apt a summation of the Christian message as I can think of.
Damn Bob, rock that sweet ‘ret.
There’s a bunch of this sort of thing. We see wayward teens descale their eyes, and learn that the universe is actually an enormous operatic cosmic war played out between incomprehensibly massive forces that literally embody good and evil, and that dominion over their very own souls is the casus belli. Suddenly, everything makes sense.
Before you laugh at Greg X. Volz’s slick rockstar backdrop, bear in mind that Mike Rutherford of Genesis fame was sporting the exact same ‘do about this time. You wouldn’t think of mocking him, would you?
To be fair to Beat the System, it has a pretty upbeat message compared to lot of evangelical rubbish. There’s nothing about your soul being tormented for eternity, or about what dreadful punishment awaits you if you ever dare to fondle yourself in the dark. It’s tough to be different, Petra are instead saying, but it’s brave and cool too. That’s not a bad lesson for young kids. So, why not be as different as these hep young cats?
We’re back in candle-land, watching some interpretive dance. I doubt you’d get Health and Safety to sign off on this nowadays.
The band mince around a bit doing what is probably intended to be a dance, while some guy nearly burns the set to the ground by playing with a giant flag next to literally dozens and dozens of open flames.
Serendipitously, Christ chooses this moment, a scant handful of seconds away from the video’s end, to make his triumphant return in glory. Rather than joyfully greeting his saviour’s new thousand-year reich, however, Volz instead looks like he’s just realised the most colossal mistake of his life.
And rightly fuckin so, mate. This could have been you: