Back in the genesis of Christian rock, Larry Norman asked “Why should the devil have all the good music?” It was a good question, and a perceptive answer could have been that the devil (or at least secular rock) had all the good musicians. And writers, and producers and promoters.
It took a few years, but a young band stepped up from Orange County to answer. Two brothers and two other gifted players planted a yellow and black flag and announced themselves with epic drums, huge guitars, bigger hair, wildly striped outfits, and screaming vocals. They were Stryper, and they confused just about everybody. Who were these guys? What did their name mean? What’s the deal with their bumblebee suits? Why is every Christian book store in the country refusing to sell their records?
For Christian kids of the time, the bans just made it certain we would definitely find and buy that first record, The Yellow and Black Attack. And we would listen to it, just to find out what the fuss was about. They also forced us to read Isaiah 53:5 because it was right there in the band’s logo. Pastors and parents who were busy denouncing the band would have done well to pick up on that.
So we got the record, or went to our rebellious friend’s house to hear it. It turned out, it was pretty good. Stryper had some hooks. They had a tight sound. They were decent songwriters and they could really play. Stryper set out to be as technically good and listenable as Motley Crue or any other band out there, and they had the goods. So here was a band who could finally go some way to addressing “Why should the devil have all the good music?” Stryper took a few bars of it back. Many mocked, and early Stryper fans put up with a lot of guff.
Stryper always consciously courted controversy, and always kept tongue firmly in cheek. They were never about banned substances or scandals, though guitarist Oz Fox did once admit to excessive flirting. If Stryper were rebels, they at least had a clue. In the age of televangelists and the Moral Majority, Stryper rolled with album and song titles like To Hell with the Devil, which earned them more bans and more prominent preachers badmouthing them. And more record sales, a higher profile and a real national rock tour. Stryper wouldn’t have withstood any of this if they weren’t mainstream theologically, which they were, and if they weren’t actually very very good at their art, which they all were, and if the branding wasn’t a conscious means of getting them on the map, which it was.
Fast forward through the In God We Trust years, through Against the Law and the band’s bankruptcy and dissolution in the 90s when hair metal died, past the Monsters of Rock cruise ship tour, and they’re back. They released another album in 2018, God Damn Evil, showcasing both their musicianship and their clever side-eye inducing branding, and the fact is, it’s a strong collection. It holds up well against anything similar out there, and lacks the dour drudgery that tends to come with metal. Stryper remain happy warriors.
But how are they live, in this century? Are Stryper, the ’80s bad boys, now too old to rock ‘n roll?
Stryper are currently on their History tour, the perfect branding for a band that has now been on the attack and under assault for 37 years, and which once hit the Billboard Top 40 with a power ballad that became a wedding staple for a few years (“Honestly,” from To Hell With the Devil, 1986). I caught them alongside 1,047 others gathered at the Gas Monkey Live in Dallas, a great venue for just about any style band that’s too big for clubs but doesn’t play arenas. Great sound and light system, friendly staff (bartenders Morgan and Taylor helped me track down the attendance number), easy to get to, free parking, all that. Two warm-up bands, Infidel Rising and Millennial Reign, started things off well enough.
I last saw Stryper live before I could even grow a beard. I’ve now had one of those for about 20 years, and looking around, this crowd was decidedly grayer and balder than that one back in 1986. The light show glinted menacingly off one guy’s shiny cranium in the front row the entire night.
The crowd at Gas Monkey also had a young contingent. Right next to my group, stood a quartet that looked to be about 20 and they were screaming for Stryper to play “Co’Mon Rock,” a song many years older than any of them. Stryper never did oblige on that one, but the band did run through nearly all of its classic catalog after opening with the theatrical “Yahweh” from their latest set. “Honestly.” Check. “Sing Along Song.” Check. “The Way.” Check. “Always There For You.” Check. They closed the encore with “To Hell With the Devil,” naturally.
Stryper have never admitted to playing their instruments 16 hours a day and then sleeping on or next to them, but it wouldn’t be shocking to learn they do. Underlying all their crazy stripes and over the top titles, Stryper have always been among the most professional rockers in metal. Seeing them play their harmonized riffs and solos live, lead singer and guitarist Michael Sweet dueling with lifelong friend and bandmate Oz Fox pushing each other with each note, is to watch two masters of their craft at work. I am not saying Michael Sweet = Eddie Van Halen in his prime, but he could certainly fill in for his more famous colleague. Sweet did fill in for a while when the band Boston needed a singer.
The 2020 incarnation of Stryper sounds amazing. Sweet still has his falsetto but has added a growling edge to it. Their later material is fresh and still on Stryper’s brand. The trademark guitar riffs are all there and they play them all live, even the little whirring trick they unveiled in their 80s heyday. Robert Sweet still pounds the drums like a controlled madman. Every track played live is as tight when they assaulted us as Soldiers Under Command all those years ago.
The shock of seeing Stryper play now is that they’re still around and they’re still the consummate, happy professionals they always were. Sweet plays and sings effortlessly and is still at the top of his game. They still toss Bibles into the crowd. They still proclaim Christ. They still include Isaiah 53:5 in their now-vintage logo. Time has done nothing to slow them down at all. The awe is realizing that, after all the televangelists have fallen and our culture has become far more coarse, there stand Stryper, a loud four-piece pillar of stability in the wild world of music and metal.
The Yellow and Black Attack is indeed back, and it sounds better than ever.