By the end of 1960s, those of us who, by whatever circumstance, had found themselves drawn by the mysterious cords of divine grace to swear some kind of allegiance to Jesus, were ready –more than ready –for a ‘new song’ to sing to our Beloved.
While – in some respects –we had come to value the hymnody heritage (Wesleyan rousers obviously appealing more to the youthful spirit), a parallel strand reflecting jaunty creativity (?) was perhaps missing. We had existed for a couple of decades, it seemed, on ‘Youth Praise’ or ‘Singspiration’ –largely compilations of ‘choruses’ (the most accessible/repetitive elements of longer verse-and-refrain hymns) put together, at least in the case of Youth Praise, by well meaning clerics wanting to keep youngsters in a state of lively faith.
Two movements, at least, stirred up things in the 1960s –the ‘Jesus Revolution’ in America, short lived but well publicized, making it possible to be a Jesus-follower and also counter-cultural; and the ‘charismatic renewal’ which touched mainly historical/liturgical churches with an openness to more spontaneous, less rigidly cerebral worship expressions. So, there were new musical worship expressions resulting from this sweep of freshness; some of the earliest I remember being aware of were the simple ‘Scripture In Song’ pieces coming from, I believe, Australian charismatics. From the USA, the new output used the form, shape and sound of contemporary pop and folk. Things trickled into Britain.
In the early 1970s, Buzz magazine was essential reading for young British Christians of a sort of evangelical persuasion. Sometime between 73-75, in one of their monthly issues, they included the free gift of a sampler record (a thin, floppy piece of plastic). There were perhaps four or five songs on it? One was certainly ‘Love Song’ from the band and the album of the same name. One might have been the artist Honeytree? (maybe not). One might even have been the Water into Wine Band. But one track was certainly ‘Easter Song’ from a band with the unlikely title of The Second Chapter Of Acts, and their name tells you straight away their context: a young band excited by Pentecostal outpourings of Holy Spirit reality.
It’s a cliché, but I’ll say it anyway: the song was an absolute breath of fresh air. There was such a vivacity and a vitality in it which perfectly suited it as a celebratory anthem of resurrection victory and joy. From the first ‘Hear the bells ringing…’ it sustained a pace of breathless excitement –and the harmonies were sweet, tight, effortless in their swooping and blending.
The group acquired shape and personality in subsequent days as we learnt more about them –a brother and two sisters team, driven it would seem by elder sister Annie, married to music producer Buck Herring. Siblings Nelly and Matthew Ward were, one imagined, encouraged along in a vibrant faith and into musical ministry, by their big sister. Subsequent albums never quite had the magical effect of this first, especially as we moved into the prevailing 80s’ style of ‘the thinner the content the glossier the overproduction’.But some things remained constant: Matthew Ward’s extraordinary ‘soulful’ voice, for one; for another, Annie’s enduring creative integrity.
We saw them, in the mid 1980s, performing in Bristol. ‘You won’t enjoy it,’ someone had told us (‘you can’t go back to that cheesy naivete’ is what he meant). But despite all odds and despite the hairstyles,we did enjoy it. I recall Annie leading us in an acapella rendition of the hymn ‘Holy holy holy’ – and the band’s driving, joyous worship was tried and tested:okay, a little world weary maybe, but in its context, a significant beacon. And this particular anthem has earned its place as something of a standard, perhaps. So, come on..’Hear the bells ringing, they’re singing…’