Holy Rock and Rollers! Stryper Hits the Road to Deliver a Heavenly Message in Heavy-Metal Mayhem

updated 04/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

It's a Friday evening in Seattle, and inside the grand old Paramount Theatre, 2,000 teenage maniacs are screeching in anticipation. Onto the stage steps Stryper, four leather-and-spandex-clad rockers who look like poster boys for National Degenerate Month. Moments later guitars wail, drumsticks flail and pelvises gyrate. The evening's antics appear to be just another trip down the highway to heavy-metal hell until the lead singer, Michael Sweet, steps to the microphone between songs. "We're gonna rock," he yells, "for the Rock, Jesus Christ!"

Welcome to the world of Christian Heavy Metal.

"I'm tired of people being turned off to God," says Stryper's drummer—and Michael's brother—Robert, to explain the group's odd mix of medium and message. "They think God is boring, that if you get Jesus, you've ruined your good time. But that's not the case." Adds bassist Tim Gaines: "It's good for kids to have something positive to look forward to, rather than a let's-go-kill-ourselves attitude." Stryper fans point out that the Bible encourages believers to "make a joyful noise unto the Lord"—and nowhere does it say that noise can't come from a guitar fed through a wall of amps. Still, it's easy to distinguish Stryper from other heavy-metal conglomerates. Stryper tosses miniature Bibles into audiences and occasionally employs born-again motorcycle enthusiasts, Bikers for God, to keep order at concerts. The group also recites prayers before each gig. "Father, thank you for all the guitars you've anointed me with," guitarist Oz Fox prayed in Seattle. "Keep Satan away from the equipment, Lord. And help me to sing clearly and loud, Lord."

Whether this marriage of very strange bedfellows—the soul of Debby Boone and the body of Ozzy Osbourne—is a significant commercial phenomenon is open to interpretation. Stryper has sold 275,000 copies of its U.S. debut LP, Soldiers Under Command, released last August. That's peanuts compared with the platinum achievements of heavy metalists Mötley Crüe and Quiet Riot. On the other hand, in the world of Christian music, 275,000 is a big number.

What Stryper's fans lack in quantity they often make up for in fanaticism. Concertgoers perk up their black leather outfits with crucifix earrings and striped headbands and pants—black-and-yellow stripes are a Stryper trademark. Some fans paint their nails black and yellow; others draw the number 777—which they say represents perfection—boldly on their arms or chests. During concerts a few get confused and hold up the pinky and index fingers of one hand. It is a gesture that fans of other bands use as a Satanic symbol, but most remember instead to point one index finger in the air, a symbol of Stryper's No. 1 obsession, Jesus Christ. Few in the crowd smoke, and drinkers hide their booze from disapproving peers. "Kids are still rebellious," says Seattle fan Barrett Teays, 18. "But they don't need to rebel against God. I rebel against my parents, Satan and the world." Adds Tina Montgomery, 14: "Teenagers will not be influenced by the wimpy stuff I hear in church. But Stryper is getting them to hear about religion."

Ironically Michael and Robert, as teenagers, rebelled against their parents, who are born-again Christians. So did Oz (whose real name is Richard Martinez). In 1982 he joined the Sweets in an L.A.-area band called Roxx Regime. During rehearsals a friend of the Regime kept stopping by to witness about the glory of dedicating their music to God. A year later the rockers dropped to their knees for a prayer session that changed their lives. Gaines joined them five months before the band played its first show as Stryper. The name comes from what they interpret as a reference to the wounds of Jesus in Isaiah: "And with his stripes we are healed."

On tour but offstage, the four lead lives that would make David Lee Roth, rock's Mr. Debauchery, weep. Although they're chased by dozens of dolled-up hose monsters (the vaguely unwholesome term for groupies), Stryper resists. Oz, 24, and Tim, 23, are married; Michael, 22, and Robert, 26, vow chastity until they find mates. "When girls come to the hotel," says tour manager Tom Bruno, "the guys generally read the Bible with them in the lobby." A reporter who sticks with the band for two days and a night finds Stryper to be straighter than Steve and Eydie. There's no sign of drugs or booze, they say please and thank you to roadies, and they even keep their hotel rooms neat. Wild times consist of clowning for Oz's home video camera or kidding each other while they apply makeup and tease their hair before a show. "If you can't draw people's attention, you can't tell them what you're trying to say," rationalizes Robert of Stryper's primping. "God outlines what sin is. It's not clothing or length of hair. Sin is a wrong attitude."

The night after Seattle, the band plays Portland, and Stryper shares its attitude with throngs at the stage door. They gently wrap their arms around a fragile-looking teenager who says he gave up heavy drugs after turning on to Stryper. They sign Bibles and scraps of paper for hysterical teens. Robert tries to reason with a man who has shown up to picket against young Christians worshiping "false idols." Michael signs a skateboard. They escape a half hour later in taxis chased by carloads of eager fans.

Later that night Stryper settles down to a quiet midnight supper. Forks are at the ready, and a near beer is almost to Michael's lips when he realizes something is missing. "We forgot to pray!" he gasps. With that, the four hardworking heavy metalists bow their shaggy heads and thank the Lord for their blessings.

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