Petra at 50: Back to the Street (1986)


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 eighth studio album and ninth overall, from 1986, Back to the Street. I have been looking forward to writing this one, because of all Petra’s albums this might be the most forsaken.

The Backstory

Petra had been on an unprecedented run of success for any band in the relatively brief history of Christian rock, so it probably came as a surprise to almost everyone when, during the Beat The System tour, lead vocalist Greg X. Volz decided he would be leaving the band. The reasons for his departure, to my knowledge, have never been told publicly, at least not explicitly. However, there are cookie crumbs in various interviews both Volz and others have done over the years. Bob Hartman and others were not exactly thrilled with the finished product that was Beat The System. Petra’s product had gotten away from guitar-driven rock and roll and into an increasingly electronic sound. Volz has said that he and Hartman agreed on everything except for business, so one might deduce the direction of the band going forward was perhaps the main issue. Volz departed. Jonathan David Brown, the producer of each album going back to Never Say Die, followed suit. That left Hartman, Mark Kelly, Louie Weaver, and John Lawry looking for a new production team.

Enter John and Dino Elefante.

John Elefante was fresh off departing the band Kansas, for which he was the lead vocalist and keyboardist. He had gotten into producing with the Sweet Comfort Band in 1984–85. His brother Dino had been in bands with him. And now Petra needed a change, and there they were. It was a match made in contemporary Christian music heaven, as for the better part of the next decade Petra and the Elefante brothers would work together for what many think is the golden age of the group.

Still… who was going to sing? When Volz made it known in 1985 he would be leaving the group, Hartman reached out to John Schlitt, the former lead vocalist for Head East. Schlitt had been out of the game for five years, having been basically fired from the group for an excessive drug problem. Jesus saved him out of that, though. To God be the glory! Nevertheless, Schlitt thought he was done with the rock and roll life… until Hartman called. It didn’t take him long to say yes.

Schlitt debuted as the lead vocalist during some shows in Australia. His voice was rusty and he lost his voice during more than one concert. But things would get better. Schlitt turned out to be perfect for the role. He was not Volz, but he didn’t have to be. Petra would change with him up front, but it just worked! Below is a Petra concert in Norway from this time, which is a gem because you get to hear Schlitt in Petra doing some of the Volz era hits you didn’t get to experience in later years.

Album Overview

With new producers and a new lead vocalist, this album was, as Bob Hartman has written, “bound to be drastically different from the start,” and it was. There was an intentional return to harder rock sound, in which the still very present keyboard would complement the hard driving guitar instead of overpowering it. The drums, also, are more present. Louie Weaver was back in the studio for this album, and the result is a more organic and powerful feel for the drums. The Elefante do a better job mixing them in, to be sure. As for the vocals, by the time John Schlitt was brought on most of the recording of the music for Back to the Street had already been done. He just came into the studio and put his voice to it. The result is an album which might seem uneven to some, but it’s still the beginning of a new sound for Petra that would develop over the next several albums and bring the band its greatest run of success.

Check out this video below on “The Making of Back to the Street”…

My Origin Story

I don’t remember when I got this album, but I know it was by 2001, because that’s when my library was complete up to that time. That’s probably when I got it. I know I had compilations with some of the more noteworthy songs already – “Fool’s Gold,” “Thankful Heart,” and “Whole World.” I know I’d heard “King’s Ransom” as well because a friend of mine had really liked that song and wanted me to hear it. I do wish, as with practically all of these albums, I’d gotten this one earlier.

Album Information

  • Released: 1986
  • Recorded: Pakaderm Studio, Long Beach, CA
  • Album Length: 40:51
  • Label: StarSong
  • The Band: Bob Hartman (guitar, arrangements), John Schlitt (lead vocals, backing vocals), John Lawry (keyboards, Fairlight programming, backing vocals), Mark Kelly (bass guitar, backing vocals), Louie Weaver (drums)
  • Additional Personnel: John Elefante (keyboards, backing vocals, arrangements), Dino Elefante (arrangements)
  • Producers: John Elefante and Dino Elefante
  • Recording:
    • John Elefante – producer, engineer, mixing
    • Dino Elefante – producer, engineer, mixing
    • Mike Mireau – engineer
    • Dave Rogers – art direction, cover design, concept
    • Randy Rogers – art direction, cover design, concept, illustration
    • Bill Brunt – art direction, photography
    • Scott Bonner – photography
    • Ron Keith – photography


1. Back to the Street” (4:16) – I remember my first exposure to this song being my church’s youth camp in 1989, in between my seventh and eighth grade years. The theme to the camp was “Takin’ It to the Streets,” an evangelistic theme, and after each session the guy running sound would play two songs – “Takin’ It to the Streets” by The Doobie Brothers (LOL!) and this one, “Back to the Street.” The keyboard intro to this opening track might’ve lead the listener to think he or she was going to be listening  to something similar to Petra’s last studio album, Beat The System. But then it’s John Schlitt’s distinct voice singing, “It’s so easy to lose the burden, take our eyes off the fields. Settle into apathy, and forget what the harvest yields…” And he eventually gets to “Jesus said ‘Go!'” with the band echoing “Go!” and Bob Hartman’s guitar kicks in and you know this is going to be different. Still Petra, but different. From that point the guitar is a bigger part of the song. It’s really well done. This is a really solid opening track that speaks to the mission of the church: “Jesus said ‘Go into all the world. Make disciples of all men.’ We gotta go to the byways, compel them to come in!”  The message at the end of the second verse resonates: “It’s so easy to save your own life, resting on what you’ve done. But Jesus would leave the ninety nine to try to save the one.” Are you burdened to go back to the street?

2. “You Are I Am” (3:11) – We go from an evangelistic call to arms to what is practically a praise rock song. In fact, this would later be included on the Power Praise compilation album, leading off the medley track. You can really hear how the drums are mixed in better in this album on this song, but what really stands out to me are the backing vocals. You hear this on the first track, and throughout this album as well, but the Elefantes really did a superb job of utilizing backing vocals on this album, with John Elefante actually pitching in on that. A great improvement over the past couple of albums. Lyrically, this song is a praise song, referencing God telling Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” in Exodus 3:14, and arguably also Jesus’ I AM statements in the Gospel of John. Everywhere and in every situation, from eternity past through eternity future, God is God: “From the top of the mountains to the bottom of the sea (You are I AM! You are I AM!). From beginning of time through eternity (You are I AM! You are I AM!). From burning bush to Gethsemane, from the Red Sea shores to the Galilee (You are I AM! You are I AM!).” A solid rock song pointing to the transcendent ever-presence of Yahweh.

3. “Shakin’ the House” (4:28) – There’s a slow start to this one, but you can kind of tell it’s not going to be a ballad. Sure enough, the rock kicks in. John Lawry joined Bob Hartman on the lyrics for this one, and Lawry collaborated with John Elefante on the music. 

I have often preached about how, as believers, we are either in one of life’s storms, coming out of one of life’s storms, or about to be in another one of life’s storms. This song is essentially how we deal with that when it comes: “There’s a rumble in the distance, a trembling in the air. It’s uncertain in direction. Does it come from here or there? It’s approaching by the minute. Does it lead you to despair? Feel it shakin’ your foundation when you haven’t got a prayer. Everything that can be shaken will be shaken from within. Better have your house in order when the shakin’ begins.” The believer is exhorted to examine his foundation to determine whether it stands on rock or sand. 

Musically, the song is fine, but not great. However, I love the message.

4. “King’s Ransom” (4:18) – My first exposure to this song was at my friend Johnny’s house. He played this song because he liked it and I hadn’t heard it. I immediately liked it too. It’s Matthew 20:28 in rock ballad form: “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” 

It’s the cross, is it not? And there’s even a biblical reference from the Song of Solomon: “The Rose of Sharon wore a crown of thorns that day. The carpet had a nail right through His hand. The Master of the earth became a servant of no worth and paid a King’s ransom for my soul.” The song is theologically rich, including clearly naming Jesus, the One on that cross, as the “Creator of the earth, Name above all names.” A rock solid Petra rock ballad. Period.

5. “Whole World” (4:50) – When I bought the Petrafied compilation album right after it came out, I was thrilled to be able to hear Petra songs I’d never heard before. Until then my library was very limited to On Fire!Petra Praise: The Rock Cries Out, and maybe one or two more. I don’t even know if I had Beyond Belief yet, because from what I’ve read it was 1991 when Petrafied came out, and I think I may have actually bought that first!

Anyway, this song, “Whole World,” is the song that jumped out at me more than any other. “Hollow Eyes” was right there, but this one was my jam. I’ve always been a sucker for good intros, whether it be to a movie, a sports broadcast, or a rock song. This one got me. The keyboards going, then the drums with a little bass line, then the guitar, and finally, John Schlitt’s voice. Good stuff.

And the lyrics! What a reminder that God is in control! The first verse describes our world right now: “Hearts are falling left and right. Children fear this planet’s plight. Fatalistic fears abound and take their toll without a sound. But through the vague uncertainty comes a bold assurity. This world is under sovereignty, divinely ordered destiny. He holds this world together with the Word of His power, safe within His hands ’til its own appointed hour.” Then the chorus: “And He’s still got the whole world in His hands tonight! And only He knows where the sparrow lands tonight! And nothing in this world can stop His plans tonight! ‘Cause He’s still got the whole world in His hands.”

At this point I might as well give you the lyrics to the second verse, because they too are so timely: “Humanistic lies lament. The holocaust is imminent. Doomsday prophets in the news predicting who will light the fuse.” Then the kicker… “The fate of His creation isn’t subject to a man. The final consummation is according to His plan.” Schlitt’s voice soars on this song like no other on the album. The keyboards are on point. This song might be Louie Weaver’s best work on drums up to this point. Mark Kelly’s bass, especially on the bridge, is great. And Hartman is right there with the guitar. 

I love this song and believe it to be criminally underrated, among the most underrated, in Petra’s lengthy history. Hartman knew, and I’m sure still does know, how to write lyrics. 

6. “Another Crossroad” (3:50) – This song is for the believer who comes to one of those very common moments of uncertainty, indecision, and/or turbulence. When you don’t know which way to go you have to order your steps by the word of God. Indeed, one of the Scripture references attached to this song is Psalm 119:105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” The believer needs the resolve in this song: “I don’t want to be wrong. I want to do what’s right. I know that you can lead me through the maze when I acknowledge you in all my ways.” Musically the song doesn’t blow me away, but it’s solid and the lyrics send a message of which we all need to be reminded.

7. “Run for Cover” (3:15) – This is the second consecutive song that doesn’t really move me musically, but its message is a needed one, and one that is so rare in contemporary Christian music I cannot immediately think of another song that tackles the subject. In fact, this has been a song I’ve often skipped over, and thus the lyrics have never penetrated me like they have in writing this very post. The Scripture reference is 1 Peter 5:5, which says, “You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders. And all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

The song is about being under the right authority. We all need godly leadership to listen to. As a Christian you are not meant to be “a lone ranger running through the night with no one to tell you if you’re wrong or right.” So “Run for cover!” That cover is provided by godly, Bible believing, Bible teaching elders whom God has provided. “The arm of flesh will always fail” out on its own. If you are a Christian, make sure you are not forsaking the assembling of believers. Make sure you are not depriving yourself of God’s blessing of a faithful local church. Petra agrees.

8. “Fool’s Gold” (4:48) – I came to know and love this song, with music by the Elefantes, on the Petraphonics compilation. I loved the play on words Hartman utilized in writing the lyrics. When you think of fool’s gold you think of something that is relatively worthless. It fools you into thinking it’s gold but it’s not. But Hartman takes that and plugs in 1 Corinthians 1:21–25 to communicate, in a world that is truly foolish but considers the message of the cross foolish, the fool’s gold is what is truly valuable. 

Fool’s gold – it’s waiting in a crown. Fool’s gold – in a city coming down. I’ll leave the gold I can’t afford for the higher prize I’m pressing toward. I’ll preach the foolish cross of Christ and wait for my reward, fool’s gold.” And then the climax to this ballad comes with a reference to the scene in Revelation 21, “When the crowns of gold all lay before His feet, then the worthy Lamb of God is the treasure we will keep. Some may call me foolish, some may call me odd, but I’d rather be a fool in the eyes of me than a fool in the eyes of God. Beautiful. May we all be found fools to the world if it means the prize of Christ.

Check out this video of Petra performing “Fool’s Gold” live in 2020…

9. “Altar Ego” (4:43) – This song might have the most cutting lyrics of any Petra song ever. One might think that honor might be reserved for a song like “Rose Colored Stained Glass Windows,” but “Altar Ego” might be even more direct in its warning to the church. Notice the spelling of the world Altar, by the way. Be careful how you worship.

Whereas Jesus tells his disciples when they fast to make sure they keep themselves up so that people can’t tell they’re fasting, the lyrics of this song says, “I can tell by the look on your face it’s another day of fasting. I can tell by the length of the shadow that your face is casting. And you look both ways before you pray just to see who’s watching you today.” Ouch. The chorus doesn’t let up: “It’s just your altar ego, and it’s so hard to know. Beneath the piety and hidden vanity begins to show.” Ultimately the song points the listener to turn around and face the One who knows his heart.

Hartman continues to bring the heat with the lyrics to the songs on this album, but musically this one doesn’t grab you the way other songs do. That’s not John and Dino Elefante did a bad job. It just doesn’t measure up to some of Petra’s other ones. Still, listen to the lyrics.

10. “Thankful Heart” (3:17) – Perhaps the best known song from this album is the last one, which is kind of unique for a Petra album. This song didn’t blow up the charts but it did get radio play, and was included on the Petraphonics compilation. My friend Bryan and I used to joke that some of the lyrics in this one came from the Department of Redundancy Department: “I have a thankful heart that You have given me and it can only come from You.” Now, I realize that isn’t a truly redundant statement, but it’s not Hartman’s best lyric in my humble opinion. Maybe we should give Dino Elefante have that, since he co-wrote it, with John Elefante arranging it. The song is very nicely crafted, and beautifully sung by Schlitt. John Lawry’s keyboards also stand out in this closing track.

Ranking the Albums

  1. More Power To Ya
  2. Never Say Die 
  3. Come and Join Us
  4. Not Of This World
  5. Back to the Street – There is no one more surprised by this ranking than me. This album doesn’t get the love of the Greg X. Volz albums which preceded it, and definitely not the love of the next few John Schlitt albums, but this album holds up big time. In fact, I had a hard time not putting it above Not Of This World. That album has more enduring hits to be sure, but don’t sleep on Back to the Street. It has underrated from start to finish.
  6. Captured In Time And Space
  7. Beat The System
  8. Petra
  9. Washes Whiter Than

The #Petra50

How do the songs of Back to the Street measure up against the best of Petra thus far? Well, I’m going to go ahead and eliminate a few songs from consideration. “Shakin’ the House” doesn’t make the cut, and “Another Crossroad” along with it. For as much as I LOVE the challenging lyrics of “Run For Cover” and “Altar Ego” they don’t grab me enough to justify inclusion in this list. I’m also going to go ahead and disqualify “Thankful Heart,” which may surprise you. But this is my list and I don’t believe it would make the final cut anyway. So let’s see where this leaves the five remaining songs.

  1. “More Power To Ya” – from More Power To Ya (1)
  2. “Adonai” – from Beat The System (2)
  3. “Whole World” – from Back to the Street – Haters are gonna hate at this ranking, but I love this song. It’s in contention for their most underrated song ever (I have one other contender in mind). It’s tight and I love the lyrics which speak to the sovereignty of God in the midst of a chaotic world. A great rock take on “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
  4. “Grave Robber” – from Not Of This World (3)
  5. “Chameleon” from Never Say Die (4)
  6. “Road to Zion” – from More Power To Ya (5)
  7. “Godpleaser” – from Captured In Time And Space (6)
  8. “Not Of This World” – from Not Of This World (7)
  9. “Come and Join Us” – from Come and Join Us (8)
  10. “The Praise Medley [“Let Everything That Hath Breath” / “Without You We Could Do Nothing” / “Praise Ye The Lord” / “Hallelujah Chorus”] – from Captured In Time And Space (9)
  11. “Angel of Light” – from Never Say Die (10)
  12. “Rose Colored Stained Glass Windows” – from More Power To Ya (11)
  13. “Hollow Eyes” – from Beat The System (12)
  14. “Fool’s Gold” – from Back to the Street – I just love Bob Hartman’s guitar in this one, but I love the juxtaposition between being a fool in the eyes of man and a fool in the eyes of God. 
  15. “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” – from Come and Join Us (13)
  16. “It Is Finished” – from Beat The System (14)
  17. “Woman Don’t You Know” – from Come and Join Us (15) 
  18. “Where Can I Go” – from Come and Join Us (16)
  19. “Not By Sight” – from Not Of This World (17)
  20. “Clean” – from Captured In Time And Space (18)
  21. “King’s Ransom” – from Back to the Street – A great ballad speaking to Jesus becoming a servant of no worth because of how valuable we are to Him.
  22. “Beat The System” – from Captured In Time And Space (19)
  23. “For Annie” – from Never Say Die (20)
  24. “Magic Mirror” – from Washes Whiter Than (21) 
  25. “The Coloring Song” – from Never Say Die (22)
  26. “Bema Seat” – from Not Of This World (23) 
  27. “Back to the Street” – from Back to the Street – Great opening track with a call to evangelistic arms.
  28. “Magic Words”- from Washes Whiter Than (24)
  29. “Why Should the Father Bother?” – from Washes Whiter Than (25)
  30. “Walkin’ in the Light” – from Petra (26)
  31. “Killing My Old Man” – from Never Say Die (27)
  32. “Stand Up” – from More Power To Ya (28)
  33. “Morning Star” – from Washes Whiter Than (29)
  34. “Second Wind” – from More Power To Ya (30)
  35. “You Are I Am” – from Back to the Street – A great praise rocker that speaks to the ever-presence and eternality of Yahweh.
  36. “Mary’s Song” – from Washes Whiter Than (31)
  37. “Blinded Eyes” – from Not Of This World (32)
  38. “I Can Be Friends With You” – from Never Say Die (33)
  39. “Get Back to the Bible” – from Petra (34)
  40. “Yahweh Love” – from Petra (35)
  41. “Lucas McGraw” – from Petra (36)
  42. “Backslidin’ Blues” – from Petra (37)

Parting Thought

If some of those rankings above surprise you, I encourage you to give Back to the Street another listen here. It might be the most forgotten and forsaken album in the entire Petra catalog. For Greg X. Volz fans it’s not one of his, and for John Schlitt fans many start with This Means War!, which is the next album I’ll be tackling. It gets relegated as a “transition” album, with the idea that Bob Hartman wrote a lot of these songs with Volz in mind, and that Schlitt’s voice wasn’t where it needed to be. All of that may indeed be true. It was a transition for sure, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t still great. I read somewhere (can’t remember where) that Hartman believes this album was a great representation of the talents of the game. I certainly concur. Upon listening to this album several times over the past week or so, I sure do appreciate this album a lot more than I did. After Beat the System it was definitely fresh air for me.

Mark Kelly said of Back to the Street, “This was a band album. Beat the System was a producer’s album … I didn’t play a lick on the last one, and Louie [Weaver] didn’t play a lick of drums. Not only did each member play his respective instrument on each cut this time, but we were allowed input even at the mixing stage — in total contrast to Beat the System — and that was really exciting. There was so much more a sense of unity like, ‘Hey, we’re all in this together.'”

It shows. If you love Back to the Street already, then more power to ya! But if you are like many Petra fans and kind of look at this album sideways, I strongly encourage you to give it a fair and fresh hearing. Even more than that, though, listen to the lyrics. Compare them with Scripture. Then, respond to the Lord faithfully. Isn’t that the whole point?

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