If you wish to listen to the album, you can do so on my Youtube channel here:
Before he rose to fame as the pioneer of Christian rock, Larry Norman was one of the members (and primary writer) of a band called People!. Often playing at music festivals surrounding by incredible talent, People! wanted to perform with an idiosyncratic theatricality in hopes of standing out as a unique talent. In light of this desire, Larry Norman wrote a musical performance in 1966, simply called The Epic.
The Epic is a psychedelic rock opera with a fantasy narrative. In correspondence to the timeline presented by the oracle of truth that is Wikipedia, The Epic would have been one of the first rock operas ever. Though it did not gain as much notoriety as some to follow, People!’s trippy and culturally relevant stage production was typically beloved by the audience.
The narrative structure comes from the influence of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and other similar fantasy works. Gregory Alan Thornbury (the definitive expert on Larry Norman) summarized the plot as follows:
“The story was a proto-feminist tale about a prince, Alain, who despite his position and wealth suffers from crippling loneliness. He falls in love with a beautiful maiden named Tory, but instead of letting her choose whether or not to love him, he imprisons her in a tower. When a dragon threatens his kingdom, Alain does something selfless for the first time; he confronts the beast, defeats it, and releases Tory. The curtain falls.” (Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock, page 38).
When performing the rock opera for a live audience, Norman and the rest of the band would dress in full costume and even had a paper-mache dragon!
According to Thornbury, “The Epic‘s narrative — guy does not get girl but rather realizes he’s a creep and releases the girl into the world — was ripe for the era.” People liked that the band was willing to put a twist on a traditional male-centered trope of medieval/fantasy narratives with new message about women’s liberation during a time in which many were concerned with and fighting for equality.
Musically, the album begins with a blend of (what sounds to me like) medieval and folk music. As a single acoustic guitar plucks slowly, there is a spoken word section introducing the plot, with each verse being echoed an octave higher by another singer.
Next, we are given ‘choral’ sections with a multi-part harmony. And then, we pop the metaphorical LSD, and are dropped into a psychedelic wonderland. Musically, what follows for the rest of the album is a sound perhaps most similar The Doors.
I’m currently reading Thornbury’s biography about Norman’s life, which is how I came across The Epic, and I absolutely love it. My favorite section of the piece starts at 9:40, and goes until the end. I will simply call it “You’ve Come Back to Me.” I love the blaring, trippy instrumentals leading up to vocal section in which the singer (possibly Norman, but most likely someone else in the band because he was not the lead singer) totally kills it with an amazing performance. The constant shifting dynamics and subtle changes in both the instrumentation and rhythm create a wonderful psychedelic experience.
And the more I think about it, I love this fact: the father of Christian rock wrote a feminist psychedelic rock opera. How cool is that? That’s such a unique moment in both music and religious history. I cannot imagine something like this ever happening again.
What do you think? Have you ever heard of The Epic or Larry Norman before? Did you enjoy the music? Do you think it sounds like another band I neglected to mention? Do you have your own favorite rock opera that you think needs a shout out? Let me know in the comments.