Fleming & John (REX Records)
Happy Ever After
Hoi Polloi (Via Records)
Midway through high school I finally discovered my favorite style of music: female-fronted alternative rock. There was nothing like a girl’s voice paired with distorted guitars. My high school peers introduced me to The Cranberries, Veruca Salt, That Dog, Letters to Cleo, Hole, and 10,000 Maniacs. I listened to singles from those bands, but at the time — due to flawed personal convictions — only bought music from their Christian counterparts: The Innocence Mission, Raspberry Jam, Morella’s Forest, Sixpence None the Richer, Dakoda Motor Co., Hoi Polloi, and Fleming & John. Thankfully, those last two bands helped me (and others) blur the line between “Christian” and “secular” music.
Truthfully, my obsession with this style of music was initially based on reasons outside of what my ears heard. My eyes watched Davia Vallesillo sing “Grey Clouds,” one of a dozen Dakoda Motor Co. music videos released on VHS tapes, and I fell in love. Actually, much of my infatuation was lust, but I was easily able to get away with that sin because I was watching a Christian artist sing and sway to songs one could hear on stations like WAY-FM. (My interest in female musicians might have begun in 1986 with Amy Grant’s Collection; I was only ten years old when I first heard it and I didn’t realize at the time she was attractive as well as being able to sing really well.)
Thankfully, by the time I bought Hoi Polloi’s Happy Ever After and Fleming & John’s Delusions of Grandeur, I had matured enough to appreciate them for their artistic merit and not because of the way their singers looked. Not to say Jenny Gullen and Fleming McWilliams weren’t attractive — but I was able to see their beautiful smiles as complimentary to their voices, and it wasn’t the central focus of my fandom.
I was fortunate to see Hoi Polloi and Fleming & John on the same night in a Vanderbilt University student union basement in January 1995. I went primarily to see Fleming & John, as I had become obsessed with their song “I’m Not Afraid” as heard on Nashville’s “X” station, Thunder 94. I knew of Hoi Polloi, as they got some Christian radio airplay in the early ‘90s. And I attended church with the producer who helped ruin Hoi Polloi’s debut self-titled album.
John Mark Painter (of Fleming & John) produced Hoi Polloi’s second album, Spin Me. It was a radical improvement that loosened Reunion Records’ Christian-pop death-grip on the New Zealand rock band. Even with the progression Hoi Polloi showed from their first album in 1991 to their second in 1993, nothing could have prepared me for their sound that night in early 1995.
The feedback was deafening as it echoed off the cold, concrete basement floor. I cringed and plugged my ears during Hoi Polloi’s set because it was so loud and dissonant. I was shocked, I was physically uncomfortable — and I loved it. Happy Ever After was Hoi Polloi’s explosion out of the chains their former record label, and a surge into relevancy.
On the other hand, Fleming & John’s Delusions of Grandeur wasn’t an escape: it was an opening statement. John Mark Painter had been working on others’ music for years, but this was his chance to join with his wife Fleming and create something original. I had only heard “I’m Not Afraid” and their cover of Steve Taylor’s “Harder to Believe Than Not to” prior to that first show, and I was impressed and entertained as they played a set full of songs highlighted by diverse instrumentation and the use of instruments I had never seen before.
Besides being similar musically and peers in the Nashville music scene, Hoi Polloi and Fleming & John had something else in common: they were Christians and on Christian record labels, yet had no place in the Christian market. Hoi Polloi had been played on Christian radio before, but Happy Ever After was the end of that (too much feedback, not enough JPM’s). Fleming & John, despite having a song about heaven with lyrics pulled from the book of Revelation, wouldn’t be touched by WAY-FM.
But Thunder ‘94 loved them, and soon after, Atlanta’s 99X picked them up as well. Before long, alternative stations around the nation were playing Fleming & John’s “I’m Not Afraid” and Hoi Polloi’s “Tiptoe” alongside the Cranberries’ “Zombie,” Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know,” Veruca Salt’s “Seether,” and Letters to Cleo’s “Here and Now.” Fleming & John would be signed to Universal Records later that year, and Delusions of Grandeur was repackaged and re-released in 1996 to a wider audience.
My faulty, black-and-white world of “Christian music” and “secular music” was greyed so much by these two albums that the line no longer existed — there was just music.
‘Happy Ever After’ would unfortunately be Hoi Polloi’s final album as they disbanded and returned to New Zealand in 1996. They play occasional shows however, as recent as 2014. Fleming & John would go on to release one more LP in 1999 but became inactive a couple years later. Just this month Fleming & John launched a Kickstarter for a new album in 2015. Support it here!