Petra at 50: Beat The System (1985)


In celebration of Petra turning fifty years old in 2022, here at I am going album by album through their discography and reflecting on the role their music has played in my life. In this post my focus is Petra’s seventh album, 1985’s Beat The System.

The Backstory

Petra was riding high in 1984 after three albums in three years which had brought them to unprecedented heights, not only as a band, but in the short history of Christian rock music. Not Of This World was the third and most recent of those albums. It had given fans some of the band’s most enduring and beloved songs, and had garnered Petra its first Grammy nomination. Change was afoot, however, because keyboardist John Slick left the band after three albums, this after NOTW had featured more keyboards than any album before it. Nevertheless, the band would press on. John Lawry would join Petra as the new man behind the keys, but not until late in the production of the next album, the one we now look at, Beat The System.

Album Overview

Producer Jonathan David Brown and drummer Louie Weaver weren’t exactly the best of friends going back to the recording of More Power To Ya, and as a result Brown had sidelined Weaver during the recording of Not Of This World, bringing Keith Edwards in instead. For Beat The System, Brown decided he didn’t want another round of confrontation, so he eschewed both Mark Kelly’s bass and Weaver’s drums in favor of a Fairlight synthesizer. Brown would bring in Lawry late in the game to add overlays to the title track and “Adonai,” but aside from that it was just Greg X. Volz’s voice and Bob Hartman’s guitar.

The result is what is, to me, one of the most conflicting albums in Petra’s history. I will elaborate more below in the track-by-track, but as can be deduced from what’s above, this album is synth heavy, really at the expense of every other aspect of the band. Brown opened up the computerized toolbox, to the point the drums (understandably so) sometimes feel robotic and Hartman’s guitar is often an afterthought. That said, Hartman’s songwriting is fantastic here, and this album did get Petra isn’t second consecutive Grammy nomination, so the result is an album you have to have, in which I love several of the songs without loving some of the production of those songs.

My Origin Story

Left to right (top): Louie Weaver, Greg X. Volz, John Lawry; (bottom): Bob Hartman, Mark Kelly

Like most of the albums up to this point, I didn’t own Beat The System until 2001. I may have heard one or two of the songs when I saw Petra in concert for the first time in 1989, probably “It Is Finished.” But by then most of their setlist was from Schiltt albums. “Hollow Eyes,” though, stood out to me on the Petrafied compilation, but it was the only song from this album to make it onto that compilation or Petraphonics, which I also owned. Aside from those and “God Gave Rock and Roll to You,” then, much of this album remained unfamiliar to me until I got Captured In Time And Space later on.

Album Information

  • Released: 1985
  • Recorded: 1984, Mama Jo’s Recording Studio, North Hollywood, CA
  • Album Length: 41:15
  • The Band: Bob Hartman (lead guitars, backing vocals); Greg X. Volz (lead vocals, vocal arrangements); John Lawry (keyboards, additional synthesizer programming, synth solo – 1, 3, 10, backing vocals); Mark Kelly (bass guitar, synth bass, backing vocals); Louie Weaver (drums, percussion)
  • Additional Musicians: Carl Marsh (Fairlight programming – keyboards, bass, drums, other); Rhett Lawrence (Fairlight programming); Jonathan David Brown (arrangements, vocal arrangements)
  • Producer: Jonathan David Brown (producer, recording at Mama Jo’s Recording Studios, North Hollywood, CA, additional recording at The Bennett House, Franklin, TN)
  • Recording: 
    • Todd Van Etten (recording assistant)
    • J.T. Cantwell (recording assistant)
    • Don Cobb (recording assistant)
    • Steve Hall (mastering at Future Disc Systems, Hollywood, CA)
    • Robert Peak Jr. (cover concept, photography)
    • Lori Cooper (graphic design)
    • David Hix (electronic photo retouching)


  1. “Beat The System” (4:22) – Hartman describes the system in this song as the status quo, “the well-traveled wide path that leads to destruction.” The track begins with some computer generated sounds alongside the sound of telephone tones of B-E-A-T-T-H-E-S-Y-S-T-E-M. Greg X. Volz comes in after a brief instrumental intro, “Caught in the undertow, being swept downstream. Going against the flow seems like such a dream. Trying to hold your ground when you start to slide, pressure to compromise comes from every side.” Followed by the “Wise up, rise up.” The chorus includes a citation from Romans 8 about the believer being more than a conquerer. There is much to like about this opening track. Lyrically, it’s right on target. Musically, it’s one of the better songs on the album, showing off the good of the Fairlight synthesizer; however, it’s not as good as it could be. It’s hard to know where to praise the computer or John Lawry, but there is some nice work in there. I would’ve liked to have heard Hartman’s guitar mixed in better. The drums, electronic as they are, feel a bit lacking.

2. “Computer Brains” (4:01) – Here’s another song where the lyrics are right on point. If we put garbage into our brains we shouldn’t be surprised when the inevitable comes the pass: we get garbage out… of our mouths, our actions, etc. Ultimately, though, the key is Christ, and Hartman writes, “You can clear all your memory and be transformed when you find the key. Think on the things that will bring you peace, confusing data soon will cease.” The music of the song sounds artificial, and I suppose that fits in this particular song because of the title, the theme, and the lyrics. It just seems gimmicky to me, the little voices saying “garbage in” and “garbage out.” The slowed down voices at the end, as if a computer is crashing. It just doesn’t feel like Petra.

3. “Clean” (3:01) – But this is more like it. In fact, I’d argue this is the closest thing on this album to Petra sounding like the Petra of the past three albums. Not coincidentally, it’s also the first song Hartman’s guitar plays a more familiar role. You’re still getting plenty of synth/keyboard, but it’s not at the expense of the guitar as much as on other songs. Plus, the lyrics to this song are solid. The song is about a Christian who still stumbles, but remembers that in the sight of God the Father he is “clean before my Lord” because the blood of the spotless Lamb has made him “blameless in His sight.” I love the third verse: “I’ve missed the mark, I can’t deny it. I don’t condone or justify it. But I’ve done nothing that His blood can’t wash away when I take it to the cross and start to pray.” Really good rock song here.

4. “It Is Finished” (3:52) – One of Petra’s most enduring songs, and a staple of their concerts even in the John Schlitt era. I love it, but I could love it even more with some production changes. The drums in a pounding rhythm is good, but they would be better if they were deeper and more natural. I think Hartman’s guitar work in the verses is stellar, but would have preferred them mixed in a little louder. I also think the song would’ve been better served with the guitar providing much of what the synthesizer programming added. And at this point you are probably asking, “Does he really like this song?” I do. And, of course, the lyrics are great… it’s the scene of the crucifixion in rock form. It’s a great song to end their concerts with, and of course they often did. 

5. “Voice in the Wind” (4:30) – This rock song is at a bit of a slower pace. It’s about the Holy Spirit, and how we don’t know when or where He will blow. His work is a bit of a mystery. I dig the chorus: “There’s a voice in the wind that calls your name. If you listen you’ll never be the same. There’s a voice in the wind that points the way, gently beckons to follow and obey.” Hartman appeals the sovereign nature of the Spirit’s call, man’s responsibility to respond, the Spirit’s guidance, and man’s need to obey. Good stuff. Musically this song is driven with an organ sound, even though I don’t think the Hammond B-3 was brought out for this album. Overall, this is an often overlooked song. If it makes any sense, I think this song is somehow underrated but at the same time doesn’t leave a huge impression.

6. “God Gave Rock and Roll To You” (3:54) – I’m not sure why Petra felt the need to re-do this song, which first appeared on Come and Join Us. Jonathan David Brown recalls Darrell Harris or Wayne Donowho, who ran StarSong Records, suggesting it. Vocally this song is superior to the original with Greg X. Volz singing lead, but not so much that it makes this re-do better than the original. I prefer the guitars and drums of the original, as well as the more communal feel of the vocals, to this version which, again, is just too keyboard driven.

7. “Witch Hunt” (4:34) – I greatly appreciate the point and the spirit of this song. Too often Christians seem more focused on burning others for their evils, or perceived evils, than on our true mission: proclaiming the gospel. We often forget our “saber,” the word of God, along the way. It’s a piercing message, and a needed one. That said, this is among my least favorite Petra songs ever. It’s a production mess just to be honest. That’s not to say the band didn’t play well, but nothing really stands out positively. This was another example, I feel, of Jonathan David Brown getting a little carried away with the growing arsenal of electronic gadgets to add to Petra’s songs. The sampled voices from “The Wizard of Oz” are a goofy distraction from what is are serious lyrics, and I can completely do without the unnecessary fade out and fade back in. I’ll just stop here by saying I often skip this song.

8. “Hollow Eyes” (4:03) – When I bought the Petrafied compilation I didn’t have the older albums and wasn’t familiar with some of the songs, especially if I hadn’t sung them in youth choir. This one stood out. It’s one or two I played the most (the other is coming later). You might remember that in the mid-1980s much attention was rightly being drawn to drought conditions and hunger crises in third world nations, particularly Ethiopia and Africa. Around the time this album was about to be released, a group of celebrities led by Bob Geldof, called Band Aid, released “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” A few months later, an even greater collection of celebrities dubbed USA For Africa released “We Are The World,” which was a smash hit. The first Farm Aid would take place on my ninth birthday.

In the midst of all that, Petra recorded and released “Hollow Eyes.” It was the band’s attempt to address this problem, and it did so in a better and far more biblical way. This song is really the only “ballad” on the album, which sets it apart from the rest of the songs. The instruments are almost understated compared to much of the rest of the album, which only serves to make you pay attention to Greg X. Volz’s words all the more. I really love the lyrics and vocals, including the backing harmonies. It’s the bridge that makes this song great: “The least of these is hungry, the least of these is sick, the least of these needs clothing, the least of these needs drink, the least of these knows sorrow, the least of these knows grief, the least of these has suffered pain, and Jesus is His name.” Then, “Do you dare to gaze into His hollow eyes? Is He staring back at you with His hollow eyes?” This is Matthew 25 beautifully put into a musical challenge.

9. “Speak to the Sky” (4:16) – This song starts out with some sort of electronically produced sound. It’s relatively soft and often pipe-like. Then things get a little louder with Hartman’s guitar. What follows is a song which reminds the listener that, even when all your hopes seem to be sinking into the ground, you can pray. “Speak to the sky and wait for the answer. Someone will be there to take your call. Though you may be at the brink of disaster, speak to the sky and you never will fall.” This would begin a run of albums where Hartman would always include at least one song explicitly regarding prayer. The chorus is one of the more rocking portions of the album, but overall something is uneven with the music of this one. It’s a fine song, but on this album it’s just there.

10. “Adonai” (4:42) – To date this would be Petra’s best closing song on any album. The first time I remember hearing it I was 25 years old. Unbelievably, I’d been a Petra fan for 13 years and had somehow missed it. How this didn’t make it on to any compilation up to that point other than “Power Praise,” which I didn’t buy, is beyond me! I absolutely love this song. Lawry’s keyboards open in such a way you feel the song is going to be big, then Hartman’s guitar reinforces that notion. Bigger and more natural drums might’ve made this song near perfect. It’s an absolute praise rocker, and the best Petra produced to this date (and maybe ever?). Adonai is the Hebrew word for “Lord,” in case you didn’t know. The lyrics aren’t complicated, not cute. It’s straightforward worship: “Adonai, Master of the earth and sky, You alone are worthy, Adonai! Adonai, let creation testify! Let your majesty be magnified in me! Adonai, you are an endless mystery!” These are the best keyboards on the album, perhaps the best guitar. I remember delivering pizza for Domino’s in West Jefferson, NC, in 2001 just jamming to this song over and over again, sixteen years after its release. It’s just a fantastic way to close out what was, as written above, a very conflicted album. There is nothing conflicted about this song.


Ranking the Albums

  1. More Power To Ya
  2. Never Say Die 
  3. Come and Join Us
  4. Not Of This World
  5. Beat The System – This was a frustrating album to review and a difficult album to place in this list given everything I’ve written above. When Petra departed from the style of Come And Join Us to record Washes Whiter Than, I felt that while the latter album had some great songs, the style change left much to be desired. Much the same can be written about Beat The System. There are songs which reach higher and are better than anything on Washes Whiter Than, but while there was increased keyboard on Not Of This World, it went way overboard with this album. And that’s not a criticism of John Lawry by any means. I love him as a keyboardist. I love him in Petra. No, this is on the production decisions. The things which worked for Petra were eschewed for computerized goodies, and most of the time to the album’s detriment. The greatness of some of the songs place this above the first album and WWT, but I can’t put it any higher at this point.
  6. Petra
  7. Washes Whiter Than

The #Petra50

So Beat The System is not the greatest album, but it does contain some great songs. The question is how they stack up against everything that has come before it. There are a few songs that can be eliminated from consideration on this list before I get into ranking them. “Computer Brains” and “Voice in the Wind” wouldn’t make the final list. Neither would the re-do of “God Gave Rock and Roll To You.” I didn’t have much nice to say about “Witch Hunt.” “Speak To The Sky” is a decent song but not good enough to make this list. That leaves “Beat The System,” “Clean,” “It Is Finished,” “Hollow Eyes,” and “Adonai” for consideration.

  1. “More Power To Ya” (1)
  2. “Adonai” – I might harp on this later, but I cannot believe Petra didn’t include this on Captured In Time And Space. This might be the ultimate praise rocker. I even dig the keyboards. It’s almost perfect.
  3. “Grave Robber” (2)
  4. “Chameleon” (3)
  5. “Road to Zion” (4)
  6. “Not Of This World” (5)
  7. “Come and Join Us” (6)
  8. “Angel of Light” (7)
  9. “Rose Colored Stained Glass Windows” (8)
  10. “Hollow Eyes” – As you can tell by its lofty ranking, I really love this song. It is a reminder to look outward as a Christian.
  11. “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” (9)
  12. “It Is Finished” – We will see how future rankings go, but this might not be my favorite version of this song. 
  13. “Let Everything That Hath Breath” (10)
  14. “Praise Ye the Lord” (11)
  15. “Woman Don’t You Know” (12) 
  16. “Where Can I Go” (13)
  17. “Godpleaser” (14)
  18. “Not By Sight” (15)
  19. “Clean” – A solid rocker. The blend in opening from the previous track is a little off, but I love Hartman’s guitar in this one, and more importantly, the reminder it gives us about forgiveness in Christ. 
  20. “Beat The System” – The computerized and telephone tone opening is kind of cool in this one, and the message is a strong one about the victory we have in Christ over the status quo.
  21. “For Annie” (16)
  22. “Without Him We Can Do Nothing” (17)
  23. “Magic Mirror” (18) 
  24. “The Coloring Song” (19)
  25. “Bema Seat” (20) 
  26. “Magic Words” (21)
  27. “Why Should the Father Bother?” (22)
  28. “Walkin’ in the Light” (23)
  29. “Killing My Old Man” (24)
  30. “Stand Up” (25)
  31. “Morning Star” (26)
  32. “Second Wind” (27)
  33. “Mary’s Song” (28)
  34. “Blinded Eyes” (29)
  35. “I Can Be Friends With You” (30)
  36. “Get Back to the Bible” (31)
  37. “Yahweh Love” (32)
  38. “Lucas McGraw” (33)
  39. “Backslidin’ Blues” (34)

Five of the ten songs from Beat The System make the list, and all are in the top twenty, so they all have a decent song at sticking on this list to the end. We shall see. It will also be interesting to see how future versions of some of these songs affect the rankings, but I’ll get more into how I plan on dealing with that in the next post.

Parting Thought

Bob Hartman acknowledges Beat The System was “another departure stylistically,” reflecting “techno sounds that were current at the time.” You have to give Petra credit for trying to meet potential listeners where they lived, and techno-synth pop/rock was big in 1984–85. Petra members have often said they are not a band as much as a ministry. On the plus side, Hartman writes that songs such as “Clean” and “Adonai” added a professionalism to their concerts, and that many lives were touched by the tour. And the tour really was something else. Louie Weaver has written that of all the tours he’s had with Petra, this one brings back the greatest memories. Of course, part of the tour would be recorded for Petra’s first live album.

There are some truly great songs on this album, which you can listen to here. The evidence for my feelings on that are in the rankings above. Nevertheless, Beat The System falls short of legendary status, in my humble opinion, because of how unbalanced it is. Had production been different, this could have ranked at or near the top.

For what it’s worth, Bob Hartman seems to have agreed. Greg X. Volz would say much later that he and Hartman agreed on everything but business. While it doesn’t seem it was elaborated on at the time, the direction of the band heading out of this album seems to have been the impetus for Volz’s departure. Producer Jonathan David Brown went with him. You can probably deduce how I feel about Brown’s departure after reading this post. It was time.

Thankfully, Volz, Hartman, and the rest of the band would be reconciled in later years, with great results. Nevertheless, the changes Petra began making would soon begin bearing some of the band’s greatest fruit. Indeed, it could be argued that for Petra, the best was yet to come.

Still, a live album from the Beat The System tour would be recorded, with Volz on lead and Brown producing. But that’s for next time.

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