By J. Edward Keyes March 07, 2022
When Stefan Kéry first started thinking about what kind of compilation would join the acid rock collection Tripping in the Basement and the lounge album Bo Axelzon & His Exotic Sounds on his label Subliminal Sounds in the mid-’90s, “Swedish Christian Psych Rock” was not at the top of his list. what had captured his interest was something related, but far more obscure: Christian ventriloquism records. “When you start looking into it, you find a massive amount of very, very strange records,” Kéry laughs. “And I finally reached a point where I had collected so many that it was like, ‘I can’t stand listening to this anymore.’ I kept one, which is called Jigger’s Story TIme† It sounds like it’s actually some stoned hippies who are making an inside joke about the whole thing. But it’s not, it’s just very earnestly trying to, you know, aim for the kids.”
After realizing that the audience for a collection of songs by Christian ventriloquists was, let’s say, “limited,” Kéry returned to his first love: psychedelia, where he had been noticing an interesting trend. “I’ve been collecting records all my life,” he says, “and when I started getting into psych in the ’80s, I soon discovered that some of the rare records that were really good were actually Christian records.” One of those records was the 1975 debut from the group Vatten, which had been released by Prophone, a Swedish label mainly known for classical music. Kéry looked up the address of the Prophone offices, showed up unannounced, and bought the remaining copies that had been sitting on their shelves for 20 years to sell via Subliminal Sounds mail order. “They sold so fast that I thought, ‘I gotta get this music out to people and do a compilation or something.’ But I got side tracked. Now, 15 years later, there’s a huge interest in this music in Sweden—there are even Facebook groups with all of these younger collectors. So I linked up with the most hardcore of these younger collectors, Emil Karlsson, and that’s how this compilation got started.”
The compilation in question is FRÄLST!: A Selection of Swedish Christian Grooves, 1969-1979, a dizzying collection of tracks—20 on the digital, 21 on the vinyl—that pair freewheeling folk rock and psych grooves with lyrics (sung mainly in Swedish) that speak of Divine love. The tracks, many of them initially released via tiny private press labels, radiate both a sense of endearing optimism and charming youthful amateurism. Their earnestness is part of the charm. Songs like “Jobbig Tid” by the group Obadiah have a kind of pleading intensity to them—that one specifically, with its clanging piano and woozy choral vocals, sounds like if a teenage Elton John had scored Jesus Christ Superstar.
Though the Swedish Christian rock scene was happening more or less in parallel to the rise of Jesus Music in America, the two movements were markedly different. For one thing, the artists on FRLST! are mostly younger than their American counterparts—many of them recent high school graduates—where American artists like Larry Norman and Rez Band were already in their mid-20s by the time they started recording. A large part of the motivation for American Jesus Rock was the dead-ending of the hippie movement—the promise of utopia having curdled into empty sloganeering. “In the US, these musicians were hippies that then moved into the Jesus movement, and there was still a strong hippie factor—they were pretty wild-looking people,” Kéry says. “But everybody here [in Sweden] was very calm and nice, and a lot more clean-cut—not at all ‘happening.’ I tried to find more freaky Swedish bands, but there really weren’t any. They might have tried musically, but they just didn’t have that kind of personality.” Accordingly, the spirit that courses throughout FRLST! isn’t hard-edged and cynical, but joyous: From Siw Sjöberg’s jubilant, gospel-y “Hallelujah” to Alea Jacta Est & Olle Kassell’s appropriately titled folk-rocky “We Are People, Happy People,” the mood on FRLST! is relentlessly upbeat.
Unlike American Jesus Music, which existed almost entirely outside of the church, in Sweden, the Christian rock movement was practically church-sponsored. “In the mid-60s, Sweden hadn’t been secularized yet,” Kéry explains. “It was a total, 100% Christian nation. You sang a Psalm in the morning at school, and the teacher was playing the organ. It was just a part of everything—the fabric of the country. We had this free church movement that had already been happening. If you went to a free church, you went to Sunday school on Sundays, and you got to play music there and, eventually, you would get to perform in church. That’s part of the reason everyone is so damn professional in all of these bands—because everybody here in the Christian community got their start playing early in Sunday School, and they were pushed to perform in front of the church. Soon, the kids began saying, ‘We want to play pop music so that we can start inviting all of our friends to church.’ Because at the time, most teenagers in Sweden were fed up with going to church.”
Including, as it turned out, some of the teenagers in the fledgling Christian bands. In one of the more amusing anecdotes in the liner note that accompany FRLST!, Roger Björklöf and Alf Carlsson of the band The Vergers—one of the more popular groups on the compilation—imply that there was more than a little fiction in their marketing as a “rock group consisting of teenagers who were studying to be priests.” As Björklöf—who was, in fact, not studying to be a priest—recalls, “I remember that I was so drunk that I could barely perform at a TV recording in Copenhagen. And you should know that I was not even the one who was the most drunk! [Our manager] said, ‘You have to pretend to be a Christian band and studying to be priests. Otherwise the whole concept will fall apart.’” The Vergers’s contribution to FRLST! is one of the collection’s stranger tracks, a jig-like number encircled by loopy wah-wah guitar.
Other performers are more sincere. Ingamay Hörnberg, whose delicately beautiful folk number “Kärlekens Sång” appears on the vinyl version of the collection, says, “I didn’t want to condemn anyone, even if they weren’t like me. Because what right do I have to say that they are not good enough the way they are? To me, God has always been love and divine love does not judge, it helps and lifts us.” (Hörnberg, ironically enough, had a second act as the host of a children’s television show in Sweden on which she was, you guessed it, a ventriloquist.)
Even though the compilation clocks in at over an hour, as Kéry tells it, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. “When people heard I was doing this compilation, they said, ‘You’re doing a double LP? Is there enough for even just one LP?’ But what surprised me is that it’s almost like a bottomless pit. I thought I had a good grasp already back in the early ’90s, but we’re still finding more stuff even today.” And as far as the band members themselves, four decades later, they’re delighted that their work is being rediscovered. “Everybody is so happy that it’s happening,” Kéry says. “We had no negativity at all. Everybody’s been saying things like, ‘We’re so glad our music is going to be out there.’” Ultimately, it’s that enthusiasm that provides the throughline back to the music’s earliest days. “It’s funny—in Sweden, this movement was happening at around the same time as the progg movement,” Kéry says. “And those kids thought, ‘Oh I shouldn’t have a spotlight on me, I should probably turn my back to the audience, we shouldn’t be commercial.’ But to these kids, they believed they were spreading the gospel. so they wanted to be in the spotlight. They wanted to be as good as they could ever be.”