It was early 1973, and as Russ Ballard sat down at the piano in his parents’ Hertfordshire home, the Argent guitarist felt the stirring of an emotion he thought he’d lost.
“I felt blissful when I started writing God Gave Rock And Roll To You,” he reflects, “and that was the opposite of how I’d felt the year before. My parents had both been really ill; my dad had prostate cancer, my mum had bowel cancer, at the same time. I’d felt so low. During that period, I remember writing I Don’t Believe In Miracles, and at the end of the song I just put my head down on the piano keys and cried.”
Work had been Ballard’s lifeline through those hard times, with the songwriter typically getting home from Argent gigs at three in the morning, then rising at dawn to wrench out his feelings in song.
His band – led by and named after former Zombies keyboard player Rod Argent – was riding high, and Ballard was already “making good money”, with 1972’s hit single Hold Your Head Up reaching No.5 in the US and UK. But it was God Gave Rock And Roll To You that represented the end of his own dark night of the soul.
“It was wonderful to feel myself come out of that depression,” Ballard recalls. “I felt so ‘up’. It probably only took twenty minutes to write it. I’d always liked gospel. With the lyric, I was saying that we live on this incredible planet, and when you find a passion, this world makes sense. Whereas, if you settle for a job to pay the bills, it’s very sad.
“The song was written on this heavy Eavestaff upright piano I’d been given for my twenty-first birthday,” he continues. “That might seem strange for a rock song – but I wrote Since You’ve Been Gone on a piano as well. As a kid I’d learnt classical piano. As soon as my mum and dad left the room, I was playing Jerry Lee Lewis.”
Ballard presented the song to Argent at the band’s rehearsal space in St Albans, and marvelled as they cooked it up to the seven-minute version that appears on their 1973 album In Deep (the song also reached UK No.18 on the singles chart). But he had misgivings about it: “Rod thought the song should be slower,” he says. “The recorded version dragged, to me.
“The song didn’t do a lot for my career,” he adds, “because I decided to leave Argent around then – I was gone by 1974. We were getting very jazzy, when I was more about rock’n’roll.”
For almost two decades, God Gave Rock And Roll To You lived a quiet existence as a semi-successful rock anthem, periodically exhumed by the cover versions of Christian rockers Petra, and Dennis Greaves’s The Truth.
Then in the early 90s, Ballard was sitting in the lobby of a US record label, when former Blondie bassist Nigel Harrison stopped and told him about an upcoming movie called Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, the sequel to a hit comedy about two rock-obsessed slackers, played by Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter. “
Nigel told me he was collating the soundtrack, and he’d suggested God Gave Rock And Roll To You for the final scene. They tried out a few bands, then came back and said: ‘Kiss are going to do it.’”
By this time Ballard had already made the acquaintance of Gene Simmons and co. “One night in about 1973, we were playing in New York with Wishbone Ash and Kiss,” he remembers. “They weren’t known at the time. At the sound-check, they weren’t in any slap. That evening, when they came on, I was in the wings, and suddenly Kiss walk up in their makeup and platform heels, about seven-and-ahalf feet tall. And it was a brilliant show.”
The tweaked title of Kiss’s version, God Gave Rock & Roll To You II, denoted that the New Yorkers had raised the tempo and rewritten the verse lyric. Now, instead of the quaint instruction to ‘love your friend and love your neighbour/Don’t step on snails, don’t climb in trees/Love Cliff Richard but please don’t tease’, listeners were urged to ‘put your faith in a loud guitar’. Ballard approved.
“That new lyric was more universal, perfect for what Kiss were doing,” he says. “Funnily enough, when I wrote the song, it was about the speed Kiss made it. I don’t mind that most people think it’s a Kiss song. Apparently, Gene said on the TV show School Of Rock: ‘When I wrote God Gave Rock And Roll To You…’ But at least the royalties are good. God knows how much money that song has made me, but it’s probably bought me my house."
Although Kiss reached No.4 in the UK with their version, in January 1992, for once the song’s commercial performance was not Simmons’s chief concern. Touchingly, God Gave Rock And Roll To You II marked the final contribution to Kiss of drummer Eric Carr before he succumbed to heart cancer, aged just 41.
“When it came time to shoot the video, Eric begged to be in it, even though he hadn’t played on the record,” Simmons wrote in his book Kiss And Make-Up. “We were concerned about whether he was healthy enough or strong enough to do it. But we agreed. Eric showed up and stayed until the very end of the video shoot, which lasted until three in the morning. He never complained, not once. I believed that he could somehow turn things around. It was not to be.”
Russ Ballard believes God Gave Rock And Roll To You’s message lives on, now more than ever. “I think the song will resonate for the next hundred years,” he considers, “whether people want to believe there’s a god or not. For me, music has been my saviour. God gave rock’n’roll to me, basically. That’s what I was trying to say. And that line: ‘If you’re young and you’ll never be old, music can make your dreams unfold’, I still believe that.
Russ Ballard’s It’s Good To Be Here is out now via BMG Records, and he tours Europe from March 13.