| 16.8°C Belfast

The Presbyterian minister's son whose love of heavy metal bands raised eyebrows among the flock and who believes fundamentalists need to have a rethink about Christian rock

As a teenage son of the manse in the 1970s, Dr John Coulter's musical tastes earned him the disapproval of his church elders. Decades later, the political commentator and religious broadcaster says that some ministers should consider a new attitude about what music is acceptable in worship

Close

Guitarist Angus Young of hard rock band AC/DC

Guitarist Angus Young of hard rock band AC/DC

AFP/Getty Images

Guitarist Angus Young of hard rock band AC/DC

I'm a preacher's kid who loves heavy metal music and original vinyl albums by Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, the Quo and, of course, AC/DC and Iron Maiden hold pride of place among my music collection.

But as a mainstream Presbyterian minister's teenage son growing up in the Seventies in the heart of the north Antrim Bible Belt, showing off your new double-live Black Sabbath album, We Sold Our Soul for Rock 'n' Roll (released in 1975), may not have been the wisest of things!

After all, the minister who had been in the congregation before my dad had been there for 40 years and had no children, so kids in the Presbyterian manse were certainly an unusual social commodity in the 1960s and 1970s.

Picture the scene - an elder's wife comes to the manse, to be greeted at the front door by a long-haired, skinny, speccy-four-eyed wannabe rocker wearing jeans and a Led Zeppelin T-shirt, with Black Sabbath's iconic song, Paranoid, roaring through the house on 200-watt speakers.

To say that my love of rock was a culture shock for rural farming Presbyterians is putting it mildly. Worse was to follow. In 1976, I decided take my love of metal a stage further and formed a very, very short-lived band I named The Clergy.

I dressed in my dad's clerical robes and attempted to play - as the band's lead guitarist - my own tribute to Paranoid. Common sense did kick in and I decided the band's image of the rock-playing clergy act was just too blasphemous for rural Presbyterianism and disbanded the group.

I converted one of the spacious bedrooms in the Victorian-style Presbyterian manse into a recording studio. Then came the fateful day when a chum took a photo of me recording some rock music.

Somehow, the slide made it out into the community. The manse window could be clearly seen in the corner of the slide. This was confirmation that the minister's son was playing and recording the devil's music in the manse!

My understanding is that there was then an ad hoc meeting of some Presbyterian elders to discuss if I would be a bad influence on the young people of the community with my love of heavy metal music, especially when the image of a Presbyterian preacher's kid was that I should only listen to the Scottish Metrical Psalms, perhaps a large dose of country and western gospel - but certainly no rock or punk!

Close

Ozzy Osbourne, left, and Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath

Ozzy Osbourne, left, and Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Ozzy Osbourne, left, and Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath

I say 'ad hoc meeting' because I'm completing research for a memoir of my experiences as a preacher's kid working in journalism, and I simply cannot find a formal record of this meeting. Perhaps it was only a bunch of elders who had a wee, unofficial chat about my heavy rock activities.

Time-wise, we are talking about events which allegedly took place some 44 years ago and, sadly, any of the supposed elders who were involved in such a meeting are now dead, so in researching this aspect of my life, I've had to rely on local folklore and gossip.

Indeed, for decades after, the 1976 slide was passed through that north Antrim community, of me brandishing my electric guitar, headphones, and yelling into a microphone; it seemed to be almost a step ahead of me - only to be mysteriously and anonymously passed to me in January 2020.

The aftermath of that 'meeting' was that to some in the Presbyterian community, I was seen as the "spawn of Satan". More trouble ensued as my retort to that accusation was: "That's a great name for a band!" Clearly, Puritan Presbyterianism did not appreciate a minister's son with a dark sense of humour.

The rock rebellion went even further in the late Seventies - I formed my own punk and metal recording label, Budj Recordings, based on my schoolboy nickname of Budgie Coulter.

The inspiration for the company began ironically when I was a trainee journalist. I was covering an event in the coastal town of Portrush organised by the Christian outreach organisation Project Evangelism. The event was packed with rockers, bikers and Hell's Angels.

But once 'the musical bit' started with the acoustic guitars, the rockers all walked away. Plucking up the courage to interview them as to why they were leaving, they told me the music "sucked" - or words to that effect. Because music, and especially rock, was such a part of their biker culture, they equated the 'boring' acoustic guitar music with Christianity, which they also saw as 'boring'.

The bottom line was that the medium was the message. Surely, the witness policy was simple - communicate the Christian message in a medium the rockers could identify with; I wasn't changing the message of 'Jesus Saves', merely the choice of musical genre through which that message was spoken.

The concept of Budj Recordings - namely, communicating the Gospel through the musical mediums of punk and rock - did not sit well with either Christian fundamentalists or secular rockers.

Close

Dr John Coulter

Dr John Coulter

Dr John Coulter

Indeed, reflecting on my time as album producer with Budj Recordings, I probably got more criticism and flak from fellow Christians than I did from secularists or the 'unsaved'.

The north-east Ulster Bible Belt mentality had championed the myth that the only musical instruments which could be used in worship were either the piano or the organ - electric guitars, drum kits and electronic keyboards were "of the devil".

This hardline Puritan mentality was not simply confined to the Seventies.

In some places of worship, it still existed well into the new millennium. Several years ago, the youth wing of a particular fundamentalist church wanted to hold a praise service. When hardliners in the church got to hear that the young people would be praising God using acoustic guitars, they staged a walkout during the service. It came as no surprise that many young people abandoned that particular church.

What the hardline fundamentalists cannot fathom is that Christian rock is alive and well and in many churches - even in mainstream denominations - and electric musical instruments in praise time are now the accepted norm.

It's been 20 years since my late father and I enjoyed an evangelical rally in Kenya in July 2000. The Africans certainly know how to praise God, especially in their singing and dancing.

There are times when I wish I had the cash to transport some of the dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalists from Ireland to Africa to see that worship in action.

Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter. Listen to Dr John Coulter's religious show, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30am on Belfast's Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, or listen online at www.thisissunshine.com. This article first appeared on the website www.thepensivequill.com

Belfast Telegraph