Tonio K: Not Your Daddy’s CCM

Tonio-K-Romeo-Unchainedby John Ellis

In 1986, as an eleven year old boy reading the books describing the evils of rock and roll that lined my fundamentalist preacher father’s bookshelf[1], I was also, and secretly, listening to Peter Cetera’s “Glory of Love,” among other mid-80’s “soft-rock” staples. Those books served as my pre-internet Google – introducing me to contraband music that I may not have heard about otherwise; that’s how I discovered Black Sabbath, the band with the frontman that best exemplified, according to my dad’s books, the evils of rock and roll.

Except I didn’t need the Prince of Darkness to be led down the road of carnality; Peter Cetera’s lyrics served as the sensuous text for the notes I “wrote” to my crushes. In a few short years, I would move on to plagiarizing the lyrics of hair metal bands in the pursuit of my Holy Grail[2]. By that time, my Southern Baptist friend, concerned for my soul and, more importantly, my virginity, pleaded with me to trade my secular rock for Christian rock. As a good fundamentalist, I scoffed at my Southern Baptist friend because I knew that Christian rock was just an inferior knockoff of Satan’s music. Why in the world would I listen to Triumphant Return by Whitecross when Motley Crue had just released Dr. Feelgood? Besides, my goal in life seemed even dirtier when paired with lyrics about Jesus. Suffice to say, my opinions of Christian rock were quite low. Of course, if the Karate Kid II soundtrack hadn’t captured my attention in 1986 and I had somehow heard Romeo Unchained, the critically acclaimed album from Tonio K, my opinion of Christian music may have been different, and I may not have ever been peer pressured into shoplifting a Vanilla Ice cassette.

That being said, comparing Tonio K to Whitecross is similar to comparing Whitecross and Led Zeppelin. Stay with me. If Led Zeppelin is the most important progenitor of metal, then it’s hard to apply the label “metal” to Whitecross with a straight face. If the genre “Christian rock” applies to Whitecross, and it does, then it’s difficult to see how Tonio K’s music can be classified as “Christian rock”. Beyond just the musical aesthetic, the lyrics of Romeo Unchained would not have lent the album to inclusion in any Brio articles. Don’t misunderstand, Tonio K’s lyrics, at least for Romeo Unchained, have decidedly Christian motifs, but those lyrics don’t contain overt calls to “Listen to the Spirit/He’ll stop your plight”[3].

On “True Confessions,” the opening track, Tonio K lays the ground work for the album’s primary motif – something is wrong with the world, and, more importantly, that wrong is in contrast to, well, a shadow of something that’s right. And, that’s the question the listener is left to answer, “What’s right?”

With that literary device, Tonio K shadowed possibly the best Christian-yet-not-Christian novelist of all time – Dostoevsky. After writing Notes From Underground, the Russian author was told by the czar’s censors that the inclusion of references to God in conjunction with the novella’s depictions of sin made the book unfit for print. Dostoevsky simply removed all references to God and Christianity, knowing that the void would point the readers to God in poignant ways. This is almost exactly what I get from Romeo Unchained.

The story of “True Confessions” picks up after the devastating perversion of a beautiful garden, and follows a struggling couple “out looking for permanent love/In the middle of a city full of broken homes.” As the album progresses, the couple find that their love becomes frequently mired in a confusing brokenness. On “Emotional War Games,” they plead, “Teach us forgiveness/Before it’s too late.” The realization that their selfishness, pride, and dishonesty, not to mention the disgusting depravity in the world around them, has a solution not only keeps Romeo Unchained from sinking into the nihilism of The Jim Carroll Band, the musical cousin of Tonio K, but also provides a point of entry for the listener into the question, “What’s the answer?”

If the listener is paying attention to the album as it progresses, there are more explicit clues of the creator’s Christian intent than can be found in Notes From Underground. That’s not a weakening of the literary device; that’s a reflection that a ten track album is a different literary beast than a 44,000 word novella. Tonio K’s few direct references to God are stark in contrast to the crumbling garden/city that Romeo Unchained is set in, and the allusions are hidden to those who don’t want to acknowledge how devastating the brokenness is. The album ends with “But I know/You will go free.” That freedom can either be haunting or comforting, depending on whether or not you’ve actually been listening.

The comparison to Dostoevsky crumples the moment the lyric sheet is set down, “play” is pushed, and your head begins nodding along to the masterful power pop of Romeo Unchained. If Fyodor had been an 80s songwriter, he would’ve gravitated to the navel-gazing tones of Joy Division[4], and not the Big Star influenced, beautifully blended guitar and synth rock of Tonio K. Romeo Unchained definitely belongs in the 80s pop oeuvre, and that is not the insult that many believe. In the world of Clear Channel dictated programming, Pandora 80s stations, and Greatest Hits compilations designed to appeal to those who danced to “Take My Breath Away” at their prom, the actual best music of the 80s has been forgotten[5]. That’s a shame. Romeo Unchained reflects the best music that the era offered, and should have a much wider audience than it does.

CCM, or Contemporary Christian Music for those of you not in the know, has been maligned by both sides – fundamentalists who see gratuitous sex in syncopation, regardless of the lyrics, as well as the sophisticated hipsters who saw desperate attempts to be cool in the keytar and mullets of seminal Christian bands like Petra. While I highly doubt that Romeo Unchained can win over entrenched fundamentalists, I do believe that Tonio K can shake the perceptions of Christian rock that many people smugly hold.


[1] Three excellent books are The Devil’s Disciples by Jeff Godwin, The Heartbeat of the Dragon by Mark Spaulding, and, my personal favorite, The Truth About Rock Music by Dr. Hugh Pyle.

[2] Why wouldn’t I have plagiarized? I mean, there’s no way I could’ve trumped the tender subtleties found in “I don’t wanna touch you too much, baby/’Cos making love to you might drive me crazy.”

[3] “Red Light” from Triumphant Return by Whitecross.

[4] I realize that Joy Division as Joy Division didn’t really make it into the 80s, but writing “New Order” wouldn’t elicit the same emotional resonance as “Joy Division.” Nor even mean the same thing. Forget I wrote any of this.

[5] This deserves a whole other article, but the bifurcation of the music industry was basically completed by the 80s. To help understand, the most popular music of the 60s and much of the 70s was also among the best music of their era. For the most part, that can’t be said about the popular music of the 80s through today.

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