Sixty years on

I planned to go to Bible College; I’d passed the interview and been offered a place.  However, I didn’t go, which was the right outcome, because my plan to become a pastor was an ambition rather than a calling. The year was 1961, I still wanted to serve God in a special way, but I took a job in an insurance office in the City of London. It wasn’t what I expected,  but it all made sense when a friend had the idea to form a rock group and invited me to join. Three of us met in a small hall in South East London.  I took my acoustic guitar, Don brought a home-made electric guitar, and Ian brought snare drum and a reel-to-reel tape recorder (we used that as an amplifier). After a few tries we played our first song together – a song with a beat. We became the first Christian rock band.

Yes, this is a nostalgia trip. I often think about those days so early in my Christian experience. It’s not that the intervening time has been dull (my Christian life has never been dull).  But that period of service in music and evangelism was foundational to all that’s happened since.  Of the three of us who were there that day, Don was the man with the initial vision. He played lead guitar in a rock group called The Neons, but was keen to turn his musical skills to God’s work. Ian played drums and was just as keen on the idea, though he’d never been in a band.  I had sung a few solos in church with my guitar, but that’s all.  We also needed a bass guitarist so, a couple of weeks later John, The Neons’ bass guitarist, defected to join our group, by then called The Pilgrims. Tony joined us several years later, shortly before John died.

There’s a hint there of the ups and downs of The Pilgrims’ story, which included tragedy and excitement, successes and rejections, travel and adventure, theatres, concert halls, churches and night clubs, a lot of press coverage, and one time when we played in front of a princess and two famous bishops.  John’s sudden death, at the age of 22, was a shock to us all. He was our most prolific songwriter, justly popular, and had also been Best Man at my wedding. We felt his loss very deeply, but the group went on to have many more adventures together.  Memories of those times stayed with me – but you can’t always trust memories. So, as the milestone celebrations of birthdays and anniversaries ticked by, I enjoyed meeting old friends who reminded me of stories and details of those times – and I wrote them down.

Don and John once had a clash that highlighted their different personalities. Amongst the mass of equipment that we carried to every gig was a shabby old suitcase called the “Wires Box”, mainly used by Don. It contained spares of things that could go wrong in electronic equipment, and a few less obvious items that “might come in useful”.  One afternoon, John set about tidying the box, and scornfully demanded, “What’s this string?”, as he threw away the offending item.  When we arrived at that evening’s venue, we unloaded the equipment onto the platform and searched for a power point, but found none. The nearest socket was on the balcony, just across a passageway, so we had to run a power lead from the balcony to the stage without compromising safety. “What we need,” said Ian, “is some string”!

Pilgrims Rock!
Don often kept things that “might come in useful”, and it was his discovery of a file of old press cuttings and photos that finally convinced me to write the book, “Pilgrims Rock!”, bringing together the tales I had gathered from friends with the written back-up of contemporary reports and mementos. There were many good stories.

Much happens in sixty years, but recordings last, and I’m amazed at the number of times our songs are downloaded from YouTube. They were original tape recordings made in several different studios, but never released (apart from one single). Recording technology has changed, but the songs still sound as they did in the 1960s. Our music was distinctively rock and blues, but our message was emphatically Christian. That didn’t stop us from playing in night clubs, theatres, and discos, but it put off the record producers of that time from taking a commercial risk with us. No matter – our music was ready to be rediscovered at the right time.

By a strange set of circumstances, the recordings were finally brought together in the 2005 compilation CD titled, “Telling Youth the Truth”.  I was at work one morning when an early caller asked, “Is that Derrick Phillips of The Pilgrims?”  He was calling from Washington State, USA, and had somehow tracked down copies of our recordings (we never found out how that happened). As an enthusiast for retro music, he wanted permission to create and sell a CD of our music – and that went around the world to places we never dreamed of playing.  I’ve seen online comments questioning how a 2005 release could be our original music.  But they are our authentic, original 1960s recordings, and we’re delighted that they’re still reaching audiences around the world.

Our claim to have been “the first Christian rock band” is not an idle one, though we didn’t know it at the time (history in its time is merely the present). There were earlier Gospel singers with guitars playing in folk or country style, but The Pilgrims were the first Christian group that plugged in and rocked!  Other groups soon emerged, many that formed independently, and some that followed us. The 1960s was a decade of change, in the media, in youth culture, and in the church. We were part of that history. But, being that little bit sooner than others, we were a novelty and a curiosity; that’s why we attracted the press coverage that provided much of the material for the book.

I was in The Pilgrims for six years, since which I’ve raised a family, followed a varied business career, and enjoyed a continuing adventure in the Christian life. Six years is a small proportion of my life, but the experiences of that time laid the foundations for all that followed.  My life today is rich in spiritual blessings, so I don’t want to turn back the clock. But I’m deeply grateful to have shared in the exciting adventure that started sixty years ago.

© Derrick Phillips 2021

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