Against all odds.
With their 14th album, "The Final Battle" released last year and the follow-up in the making, Stryper is still out touring the world, memorizing audiences with their electrifying stage show and proving with every show that they still have the chops to rock with the best of them. And it all started over 40 years ago on Los Angeles' famous Sunset Strip.
Countless bands and artists through the years have battled through a plethora of hurdles to scale the heights of success in the music business. Whether it be starting out playing in dingy clubs or backyard parties to trying to get airplay on the radio or bad reviews by critics who may or may not of actually listened to the album or stayed for the whole show. And back in the 1980s hard rock scene of Los Angeles' famed Sunset Strip, it was even harder since there were only so many clubs and fans to go around. Every band was pulling out all the stops to bring in fans and of course draw attention of the record labels to finally sign their first recording contract.
But Michael Sweet of the Christian heavy metal band Stryper says they weren't at odds with just one or two aspects of the music business back in the day, they went up against ALL odds to reach the pinnacle of their profession. To finally gain respect amongst their peers, MTV and the fans. That was life of this Christian band that broke down countless barriers to get their message heard.
And it wasn't easy by any means.
From the moment they not only acknowledged their Christian faith, but embraced it, Stryper was targeted with ridicule and disrespect since they were preaching hope and unity instead of sex, drugs and rock and roll. But lead singer and guitarist Michael Sweet said that going through all the tribulations of the Los Angeles rock scene back in the 1980s made them a stronger unit and their fans that much more united.
RATT frontman Stephen Pearcy recently gave praise to Stryper for being right there with all those LA heavy metal bands that really helped things explode and turn the Sunset Strip into the epicenter of rock and roll.
"There were only a handful of bands," Pearcy recently told Katie Daryl of AXS TV. "And believe it or not, it was Roxx Regime. who is now Stryper, it was Dante Fox, who is now Great White. It was W.A.S.P., Quiet Riot, Mötley (Crüe) and RATT. There was only a handful of us that really kickstarted some things."
Michael Sweet said he remembers the days playing with all those bands in the various clubs on the Strip while still being a teenager.
"I mean it was interesting because although everyone was in competition, everyone respected one another," he said during a recent interview with Sinclair Broadcast Group. "I used to hang out with Stephen Pearcy when we were a house band with RATT. They were Mickey Ratt briefly. And then they became RATT. And you know, this is going back when, believe it or not, we were playing shows with RATT at Gazzarri's when Jake E. Lee was in the band. So yeah, we go way back and I actually bought one of Stephen's white Flying V (guitars). And you know, we'd go out and smoke Sherman cigarettes together and drink Jack and Coke and you know it those were the days and I was just a little punk. You know Stephen is a little older than me. I just turned 60 I think Steven, correct me if I'm wrong. I think he's 64 or 65. (He's actually 67.) So here I am this 16 or 17-year-old punk kid. He probably didn't know how old I was. I always came across a little older than I was, but we always got along. I've always had respect for Stephen and RATT. I've always loved them. When I heard their song 'Round and Round' for the first time on the radio, I was at Burger King in La Mirada. I turn on the radio and there's RATT. I'm like 'Wow. Good for them. Good for them.' These guys are getting airplay and they're actually breaking out. And then not long after that, Stryper broke out as well with the 'Yellow and Black Attack.' We started getting some spins with that and the rest is history."
Stryper's history actually starts in 1983 as a trio with the pair of brothers - Michael and Robert Sweet on guitars and drums, respectively - and Eric Johnson on bass. They were known as Roxx Regime back in the days before they transitioned to the band Stryper.
They were just your average rock and roll band trying to find a sound and an identify as to stand out among the hundreds of other bands playing clubs like Gazarri's, the Whiskey a Go Go, the Starwood and the Troubadour while trying to impress the record labels to get that elusive recording contract.
"When we were Roxx Regime, we were there (on the Sunset Strip) through it all with Motley Crue, with Poison, with RATT, with W.A.S.P. We were with so many of those bands of the time, even Guns 'N Roses. I remember walking in and seeing Guns 'N Roses at Gazzarri's, and just telling you the factual historical truth, Oz and I listened to two songs and we walked out. I didn't get it. And then they exploded a few months later. They sounded so much better on that first album than when we saw them. And we thought 'Wow, they've come a long way.' It's interesting, we were just in the right place at the right time. To be a part of that monumental history that will never be repeated again."
As Roxx Regime, Michael knew the songs he was writing and the sound they were creating had a voice all its own.
"I think what's really interesting about Stryper was not only the message and the lyrics, but musically, we don't really sound like any other band," he said. "And there are quite a few bands from that era that did sound like other bands. And we didn't. And I think the reason for that is we would listen to Judas Priest and Iron Maiden when we were painting everything yellow and black in the garage. And then after that was done, we'd put on Journey and Loverboy. I mean we listened to everything. A lot of bands gravitate to one or two bands and they learn from those bands. They take on a sound that similar to those bands. They're influenced by them. We were influenced by everyone. You know, we love the Beach Boys. We put Beach Boys on Queen, Thin Lizzy, Bad Company, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Bee Gees. I mean we just listened to everything. And I think it influenced us vocally, musically in so many ways. And you kind of hear bits and pieces, a little things like that from different bands in Stryper's music.
"And Stryper had a unique style in terms of our sound. When you hear one of our songs, you hear the guitar tone, you hear Robert's drums and his phrasing and you hear the song. You instantly know it's Stryper. There's a signature sound that you just know who it is right when you hear it. Right when it kicks in. And that's pretty cool."
But that signature sound of Stryper that we hear on classic tracks like "From Wrong to Right," "Soldiers Under Command," "Always There For You," and "To Hell With the Devil," didn't happen over night. Michael said it took years to finally hone their songwriting craft and then naturally dial into the harmonics that the dual guitars and the rhythm section were producing. He said he knew he was on to something when he was writing the songs for their debut album "Yellow and Black Attack."
"When I started writing songs like 'Loving You or 'You Know What to Do' off 'Yellow and Black Attack,' these were metal songs but with a pop sensibility and with melodic sense vocals, harmony guitars, solos, but yet there's this edge to them. It was very unique. And you hear songs like 'Soldiers Under Command,' that are also metal songs with a pop sense," he said. "I knew, as a writer, that I was onto something."
Those songs that Michael was crafting were in line with the band's recent decision to embrace and sing about their Christian faith, something that was not in line with the musical fashion coming out of the Sunset Strip. They're straight ahead rock songs but with themes of battling evil or giving praise to God and not just partying and enjoying the excesses of Hollywood and the rest of the world back in the 80s.
"I think I started locking in as a writer, locking into that style, you know the mid-tempo anthem with my vocals and the guitar with an edge to it," he said. "So that's when I knew, as a writer, that I'm onto something here. And as the visual guy, Robert obviously knew he was onto something. So while I was writing songs he was painting and taping and making everything yellow and black and the combination of the two made Stryper very unique"
And to go along with their embrace of their Christian faith, the band made the change from Roxx Regime to Styper based on a passage in the Bible.
"But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed," Isaiah 53:5. That verse gave inspiration to not only Stryper's name but to the overall look of the band. That verse has also been part of Stryper's logo since their first EP.
And with Michael dialed in on the band's sound, his brother Robert got busy coming up with the band's signature style - the Yellow and Black stripes that would be emblazoned on everything from their guitars and outfits to their amplifiers. They would even throw Bible's into the crowd at the end of every show.
With all these changes, the band started to gain a huge following that would finally lead to being signed in 1983 by Enigma Records. The dream was becoming a reality. That is until they tried to get their videos played on the biggest radio station in the world: MTV.
And now with the yellow and black esthetic and their unique sound finally coming to fruition, Stryper was moving forward as the first Christian based heavy metal band. An even greater cross to bear as Michael and the band would discover as the doors that they thought would open were now shut, including the doors to the ever powerful MTV.
"My take on the MTV was I'm grateful for the fact that we got airplay, but the only reason why we did was because of our fans and Dial MTV," he said. "Yeah, they were reluctant to play our videos. We'd submit a video and they would always come back with reasons and excuses why they couldn't play or air the video. And we began to realize that by the tone of their comments and their response, it was evident that it was based on the Christianity thing. It really was, you know, discrimination. There's no other word for it. And, you know, it was a struggle for us. We had to fight tooth and nail to get that stuff played and to get airplay on radio as well. And it was because of what we were singing about."
After the release of their 1984 debut album "Yellow and Black Attack" and the 1985 follow-up "Soldiers Under Command," Stryper was getting next to no airplay on the radio . Even the Christian radio stations shied away from playing the hard rock bands, including Stryper. The hardest band that got substantial airplay on Christian radio was Petra, who had been around since 1974 and who's music was more in line with Styx or Kansas than RATT or Mötley Crüe .
But once Stryper released their first full length album "To Hell With the Devil" in 1986, a rumble was being felt along the halls of power in the music business. And that rumble was the growing number of Stryper fans.
Much like the legendary KISS Army, who started a letter writing campaign in 1975 to force a radio station in Indiana to play KISS songs.
Stryper fans used the new form of communication - calling in their votes to MTV's highly successful afternoon show "Dial MTV," a daily music countdown show where fans could vote for their songs and determine the playlist. Well Stryper fans united together and two songs "Free" and "Honestly" were the most requested songs during their chart run and forced MTV to play Stryper on their station during peak viewing time.
"They were forced to play us because all of our fans called in and I know it drove them crazy. And they had to play us. And then once they started playing our songs, we went to number one," he said. "I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall to see the executive faces (at MTV). It must have been hilarious. You know, it's just one of those things where it's to this day, that hasn't changed. It's a battle for us to get taken serious to get added to festivals or to be a part of a tour. Oh, it's the Christian bumblebee guys. No thank you. You know, and it's really sad because we're a rock and roll band. And you know, we work hard at being a good rock and roll band. And I think we've kind of stated our case and proven ourselves time and time again."
And it was "To Hell With the Devil" and the 1988 album "In God We Trust," that showed that Stryper could headline arenas and sell millions of albums. "To Hell With the Devil" was the first Christian metal album to achieve platinum status, selling over one million copies. It remained the best-selling Christian metal album until P.O.D.'s Satellite in 2001. On the In God We Trust Tour, Stryper headline some of the biggest arenas in America and performed in front of a sellout crowd at the legendary Budokan Arena in Japan.
"Well, I'll tell you, Stryper was against ALL odds," he said. "All the other 80s bands were against some odds, we were against all odds. And that is the literal truth of the matter. And somehow, even despite the fact that we were against all odds, we were able to somehow break through and rise above. We became super successful in headlining arenas, not opening, and having bands like White Lion open for us. I think it was a head scratcher for the industry. And, you know, I mean in my opinion, it's the power of not just the song, but the power of the Spirit, power of God, the power of what and who we stand for. I think that doors were open in miraculous ways that most likely would never have been opened."
But with success comes the fall from grace, and Stryper was not immune to the changing musical landscape on the horizon. After sales from the 1990 album "Against the Law" were less than their previous releases and the release of a greatest hits package in 1992, Stryper looked to be no more as co-founder Michael Sweet left the band to pursue of solo career.
As the years passed, fans and the band members didn't see a reunion on the horizon.
"As a matter of fact, when I left the band in 92, I thought that was it," said Michael Sweet. "You know, I really felt that for many years, up until 2001, which is when we started talking again about the possibility of reforming, I felt like it was a done deal. And it would never be reopened. Or revised and, you know, time as a way of of changing things, and not always in God's plan to do what you want to do."
It was the first Stryper Expo in 2000 that saw the original band lineup return to the stage for the first time in eight years. A couple of new songs for a revamped greatest hits package in 2003 saw the first new music from the band since 1991. And the ball just kept rolling as Stryper released its seventh album "Reborn" in 2005 which marked the official return of the band.
Over the last few years of touring and recording, the question of a band documentary kept coming up during interviews and internal conversations among the band members.
Documentaries on bands like Rush, Pearl Jam, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty were huge hits with fans and moviegoers alike, giving those bands a chance to get the true story out to the masses. In the case of Rush, many believe that their documentary, "Behind the Lighted Stage" was the main reason that popular opinion from the fans and the music community mounted for their eventual induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But in the case of Stryper, they knew that if there was ever a documentary to be done on the band, they would have to kickstart the project themselves. Even back in the day when VH-1's "Behind the Music" series was immensely popular, Stryper was not featured among the 256 episodes that ran from 1997 to 2021.
Michael and the band decided, much like in the days of Dial MTV, they would take their idea to the fans and see if they were on board.
In November 2021, Michael released a message on social media with a "Call to Duty" for their fan base.
"We've launched a Kickstarter project and we are coming to you with a mission to help us make the OFFICIAL STRYPER DOCUMENTARY film. The goal we reach by the end of this project will not only determine the quality of film we can make, but also the reach we may have as far as how far we can take it."
Not only did Stryper's fans meet the band's call to arms but surpassed it, earning the band over $200,000 and making it one of the biggest fundraiser campaigns of this kind on Kickstarter.
"It is completely mind blowing. We were all very surprised. Knowing our fans, I had idea that it would do well, but I didn't know it would do that well, but that just shows you the power in the support of the striper fan base. It's incredible. I mean KISS claims they have the best fans in the world. That's complete bull because Stryper does. It has taken a long time for us to get the documentary off the ground. You know, we've got now got the money, and we've been talking to people to help us get it done. It's just been a really difficult task, but we're finally talking to a team that we really like. It looks like it's going to become reality very soon. And once we start the process, it is going to go really fast. And within a year, we'll have everything filmed. We got the 40-year anniversary coming up next year. So we're gonna do a lot of filming during that and we're gonna have ourselves a documentary. It's exciting and when it does come out, I think is going to be really unique and very powerful. We're hoping that it changes lives because that's what it's got to be about. Not just a typical behind the scenes cliché rock doc, but something that can actually change lives and inspire people."
Now with the documentary going full speed ahead and the release of their latest single “In The Darkness You Are Light," not to mention a new album coming out early in 2024, Stryper is on solid ground and isn't hanging up their guitars anytime soon. In fact, Michael says he has a number in mind when it comes to albums before Stryper will even think about calling it quits for good.
"My goal is to make it to that 21st album. And now, we're at 14 studio albums," he said. "So we've got another seven albums to go. You know that if you do that every two years, one album every two years. That's 14 years. I'm 60 now so it's doable. That would be a dream of mine. And I just got to stay healthy and stay alive. And if God lets that happen, we'll be able to pull it off. We've got a lot of big plans so stay tuned."
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