My very good friend and all-round top musician/dad/person/entertainer Simeon Wood sometimes does seminars about music styles and the Christian faith. During this he plays a series of versions of the classic hymn Amazing Grace – and this one is my favourite.
Now I’m well aware that this version by the Dropkick Murphys may not be everyone’s favourite, and some may even find it unacceptable But me being an ageing punk fan I was immediately grabbed by the energy and rendition, and watching it now on youtube a shedload of thoughts come to me. Who would have thought a room full of folks at a gig like this would have been found singing John Newton’s classic song of salvation? And for all the world to watch on youtube?
Amazing Grace was first published in 1779, 232 years ago, and John Newton wrote it following his own conversion and life transformation. He’d been caught in a storm at sea and cried out to God for help. John had been a slave trader and certainly knew what life was about, he’d rubbed shoulders with the people who moved in the most squalid circles. Some for the money, many because they were prisoners in chains. I wondered what he would have made of this – his gospel classic being pumped out of amps across a sweaty, beery hall. My guess is he might be well-pleased. Surely he’d want this amazing, raging grace to be resounding in places just like this. I noticed that beneath the clips on youtube of both live and studio versions of this song, there are comments about folks wanting this track played at their funeral. Now, I reckon Amazing Grace sung at a punk gig is not much different to Jesus taking the stories and acts of God onto the murky streets of Galilee and Jerusalem, amongst the open sewers, rife poverty and seething cries for revolution.
To race for a moment to the other end of the musical spectrum, thirteen years ago Cliff Richard took the Millennium Prayer to number one in the Radio 1 charts. It stayed in the charts for 4 months and was at number one for 3 weeks. Some radio stations refused to play it yet It became the best-selling single of 1999 and the third biggest-selling single of Cliff’s career. Some of us obviously did like it. Over the years it has been much-maligned but, not unlike the Dropkick Murphys, I can’t help thinking that Cliff was doing a great thing, bringing a prayer of hope to a new generation. The church put out its own Millennium prayer around that time, but I think it’s been largely forgotten. Cliff sometimes gets a lot of stick, both for his style and his faith, but I will always remember wandering into a chip shop in High Wycombe, sometime around Christmas 1991, and hearing a little family happily singing his chart-topping Saviour’s Day. Songs stay with us. I’m sure John Newton never imagined for one moment that there’d be a punk version of his song. But I’m glad there is.