Petra at 50: On Fire! (1988)


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 tenth studio album and eleventh overall, 1988’s On Fire! 

The Backstory

To this day there are Greg X. Volz Petra fans and John Schlitt Petra fans, but if there were any remaining doubts the latter could fit in after the former’s departure after Back to the Street, they should have been obliterated after This Means War! With producers John and Dino Elefante Petra found its post-Volz sound and ran with it. That album produced some of Petra’s best songs, the tour was a great success, and Schlitt’s voice was all the way back. Thus, Petra decided to run it back for their next album. The Elefante brothers were back. The spiritual warfare theme which permeated This Means War! would again be prevalent. The only change would be to the lineup of the band. Bass guitarist Mark Kelly, having been with Petra since Never Say Die, departed. That opened the door for 22-year-old Ronny Cates to join up. It would be the last lineup change for seven years. Schlitt/Hartman/Lawry/Cates/Weaver, what some have called the “dream lineup,” would remain together until 1994, producing six albums together – the most stable lineup in Petra history.

Album Overview

It may not be unreasonable to suggest that in the history of rock and pop music, both before and after, both Christian and secular, there has never been an album title more appropriate for where a band was at that time in the industry… and where it was going. On Fire! was the perfect album title for the moment for Petra. The band, along with the Elefante brothers, put together an album that is similar in many ways to its predecessor. Hartman notes that, as Not Of This World was a sequel to More Power to YaOn Fire! is the sequel to This Means War! This would become Petra’s most rocking album to date, with seven bonafide rockers, one that’s more pop than rock, and two ballads. Petra continued to develop songs that played well to arenas, while not losing their Christ-centered lyrics. 

My Origin Story

The summer of 1988 was one of the most important of my life. I was in-between sixth grade, which was the highest grade in elementary school back then, and seventh grade (i.e., junior high). That also meant I was transitioning out of the children’s ministry at church into the youth group. But perhaps what I remember most from that summer is that’s when I discovered MTV. I lived with my mom and younger brother and she worked, of course, so that meant my brother and I were home most days during the summer, or at my grandparents’ house. Now, I knew MTV existed before 1988, but it was that summer when I actually began to watch it. And that summer was The Summer of Def Leppard. “Pour Some Sugar On Me” only reached number two on the American Top 40, but make no mistake about it, it was the biggest song of that summer, and probably that year. To this day it remains one of the most played 80s songs. Well, I was hooked. I immediately loved the sound. I wanted to Joe Elliott when I grew up. My brother, my friends, and I would put on ridiculous concerts in the living room. I liked music before 1988, but that was when I began to actually care about it. And Def Leppard was my band.

I began going to our Wednesday night youth group meeting, called S.W.A.T. (Spiritual Warfare and Training). Christian music I had never heard before would be played before and after. Amy Grant. Mylon & Broken Heart. And this band with this rocking song that started “Fire it up!” This was my introduction to Petra. At some point in the next few months I bought the cassette tape. I didn’t get a CD player until 1990. I never stopped liking Def Leppard, but here was a band that was what I was – a Christian. And they were singing about things I believed, and it kind of sounded like Def Leppard, especially to twelve year old ears. These were transformational times in my life.

A year later, November 1989, I would see my first concert when Petra came to my church during the Petra Praise/Why Wait? tour with Josh McDowell. I would be a Petra fan for the rest of my life.

Album Information

  • Released: 1988
  • Recorded: Pakaderm Studio, Los Alamitos, CA; Woodland Sound Studio, Nashville, TN
  • Album Length: 43:40
  • Label: StarSong
  • The Band: John Schlitt (lead vocals, backing vocals); Bob Hartman (guitars, arrangements); John Lawry (keyboards, computer programming, backing vocals, arrangements); Ronny Cates (bass guitar); Louie Weaver (drums)
  • Producers: John Elefante and Dino Elefante
  • Additional Musicians: John Andrew Schreiner (keyboards, programming); Tim Heintz (programming); Bob Carlisle (backing vocals); John Elefante (backing vocals, arrangements); Riki Michele (backing vocals on “Homeless Few”); Dino Elefante (arrangements)
  • Recording:
    • John Elefante (producer, engineer at Pakaderm Studio, Los Alamitos, CA and Woodland Sound Studio, Nashville, TN)
    • Dino Elefante (producer, engineer)
    • Mike Mireau (engineer)
    • Mannie Parker (assistant engineer)
    • Greg Parker (assistant engineer)
    • Jeff Simmons (assistant engineer)
    • Steve Hall (mastering at Future Disc, Hollywood, CA)
    • Dave Rogers (art direction, design)
    • Ken Westphal (illustration)


1. “All Fired Up” (4:30) – FIRE IT UP!  What a way to open a song, with the band screaming that out. And then Bob Hartman’s guitar starts going, with Louie Weaver right there with him on drums. Right away you can tell Petra will mean rock on this album. But don’t overlook the other instruments. Ronny Cates’s debut is punctuated with a thumping bass line that really keeps this song going. John Lawry’s keyboard serves as accompaniment, rather than being the main instrument in the song, thus continuing a trend that continued to develop through the Elefante years of production. Oh, and the other instrument, the human voice of John Schlitt, was ready to go from the jump. I absolutely love how he belts out, “I’m all fired up!” and how in the chorus you hear the band backing “Fire it up!” Later, Schlitt shines when he belts out, “Till we’re all baptized in Your holy fire!” Hartman has a great solo. Everything is clicking here until the abrupt finish, in which the songs ends as it began, with the band belting out, “Fire it up!”

2. “Hit You Where You Live” (4:20) – As soon as “Fire it up!” fades, the drums kick in and rock keeps going. Billy Smiley of White Heart joined with Dino Elefante for the music on this one. And let me tell you, as much as I have always loved the opening track this album, this was the one I really loved from the start. The band is hitting on all cylinders musically and the lyrics are great. I particularly like the second verse: “Sometimes it hurts when reprimanded. It hurts Him more than it’s hurting you. He’ll pick you up from where you landed. When He knocks you down, turns your life around. He’ll turn your life around.” As a father I understand that verse a lot better now than I did when I was 12 and 13 years old, and I have a much greater appreciation for how the discipline of the Lord is good for me. Hartman writes many of the same thoughts, explaining that he loves when his son is happy, but knows his long-term happiness is much more complicated than that and depends greatly on the training his father gives him. Ultimately, “A lost and dying world is dying to know He lives. The only way they’ll know what He has to give is when we’re hit where we live.” In other words, the world will see and hear Jesus in us when they see God conforming us to His image, even if that takes His discipline. This is a great song both lyrically and musically. Here’s a live version I hope you enjoy, even if the quality isn’t the best.

3. “Mine Field” (4:28) – The militaristic, spiritual warfare theme so in your face in This Means War! is up front on this album as well in for the form of this song. Schlitt’s scream kicks it off and Hartman has kind of a grinding guitar riff going, churning the song along like one of the tanks in the video below. The song is about the ever present dangers which face us in the form of sinful temptations: sex, alcohol and drugs, violence, etc. “Smell the burning powder? There’s danger in the air.” And the enemy is just waiting for the opportunity to bring you down, to draw you away from being the person God created you to be. Life is indeed a mine field, but Hartman’s lyrics are quick to remind us that in Christ we have victory: “Better leave the navigation to the One who knows the Way. He will bring illumination. He will light your path each day.” We find that illumination in the word of God. “So keep your head down, and keep your eyes peeled. ‘Cause life is, life is a mine field!” This is the third of three great rock songs to start this album.

4. “First Love” (4:10) – The first of two ballads on this album is unique. There is very little guitar. In fact, I don’t really hear it. The video shows Hartman playing an acoustic and Cates playing a bass (maybe), but honestly I have trouble hearing it. This song is John Lawry doing wonderful John Lawry things with his keyboards. It’s Louie Weaver on tamborine. Listen closely. But respectfully, this song is about John Schlitt’s voice and the wonderful lyrics. This is a modern day psalm put on a rock album, and it so poignantly expresses the heart of a Christian who often struggles, but wants to love the One who has first loved him. “Sometimes I feel I’m pulled in so many wrong directions. Sometimes I feel the world seducing my affections. It’s not that I don’t know the way. It’s just a heart that’s prone to stray. But with my weaknesses admitted You will keep all that I’ve committed. So I commit my heart to You, my First Love.” Hartman’s lyrics are inspired from Jesus’ letter to the assembly at Ephesus in Revelation 2:1–7. They had left their First Love. It’s easy to do right things, to try hard, to know the truth and stand by truth. But if all you do is done apart from love, a fervent love for Jesus Christ, then what is it all worth? In the end, the song is a prayer: “If my heart begins to waiver, woo me back, my loving Savior. Woo me back till I return to my First Love.” I can’t say enough about Schlitt’s voice in this song, and Lawry has one of his finest moments in the band. A fantastic ballad.

5. “Defector” (4:30) – We go from a ballad to what is perhaps the most rocking song on the album. Hartman’s guitar starts off with Louie Weaver pounding drums. Lawry provides background and, once again, Ronny Cates on bass really sets the pace of the song in the background. Schlitt sings about someone defecting from a life of sin, someone who has broken through, but still lives behind enemy lines. It’s a great reminder for the Christian, that although we have been saved from the penalty of sin, we still live in the presence of sin, and if we allow it to have power over us it will not be good for us. Thanks be to God “You got away clean but it didn’t come free. Another man paid with His own agony for FREEDOM!” A solid, fast moving rocker with a needed message.

6. “Counsel of the Holy” (3:37) – As one who has made the inspiration, inerrancy, authority, and sufficiency of God’s word, the Bible, one of the pillars of his life and ministry, this song has always resonated with me. It start off rocking instrumentally, then suddenly slows. John Schlitt begins singing, “There is a light burning in the darkness. A book of hope, a morning light breaking over the mountains to where the eagle flies. It gives us wings to touch the sky. It is the wisdom of the wise. Counsel of the holy! The written word of God! Wisdom cries for all to read. Counsel of the holy. The greatest book of all is the path of victory!” People, and unfortunately this applies to professing Christians as much as anyone, are looking all over the place for answers… when what they need to be doing is consulting the Lord’s counsel in His word. It’s “more precious than rubies, more precious than gold.” Hartman’s lyrics draw, among other verses, on Psalm 33:11: “The counsel of Yahweh stands forever, the thoughts of His heart from generation to generation.” One of my favorite things about Petra will always be that their music always points back to the Bible. Musically, I also want to point out the backing vocals. Even the “Ahhhhhs” add to the song.

7. “Somebody’s Gonna Praise His Name” (4:02) – This song became a concert staple rather quickly. As you can see below, the band got the audience involved in the song. After Petra Praise: The Rock Cries Out was released the next year, it remained a favorite and often introduced medleys. The lyrics are a reference to Jesus’ triumphal entry in Luke 19, where the religious leaders castigate Jesus and tell Him to tell people to stop worshiping Him. He says if they don’t the rocks will cry out. The lyrics also reference many places in the Old Testament in which we are told the “fruit trees and all cedars” will praise Him, and the “trees of the field” will clap their hands. God will be worshiped. This song is a great reminder of the privilege we have of praising Jesus! I love how the song starts out slow, then Louie Weaver drops in the drums, and then it begins to move. I remember this one in youth choir as well, just as I had graduated high school. I’ve always dug this one.

8. “Open Book” (4:28) – A change of pace from the rock that has dominated the album. This isn’t a ballad, but it’s more pop. The message of the song is one’s life as a book. God knows “every page by heart, from the ending to the start.” I really like the second verse: “When the cover of this book is closed, the final chapter read, I hope You find it worth the reading. I hope ‘Well done’ is said.” Musically, John Lawry is the standout in this song, and not for the last time on this album. He’s all over the place, in a good way, with the keyboards. 

9. “Stand in the Gap” (4:10) – Bob Hartman likes writing songs about prayer, and here is one of my favorites of those. I love what John Lawry is doing in this song with the keyboard intro that almost sounds like bells ringing. I also love the lyrics, which remind us that prayer is not merely a crutch to go to when we feel desperate. It is a gift, a weapon God has given us to use offensively. Consider the chorus: Stand in the gap! Coming boldly to His throne of grace! Stand in the gap! He will hear you when you seek His face! Put your weapon to its use and believe it will produce! Stand in the gap, until all hell… until all hell breaks loose! Hartman has a nice solo in this one. Schlitt’s voice is soaring on the chorus. I really like what Weaver is doing on drums on that final three-for of “Until all hell!” I feel like this song doesn’t get enough love, but I sure love it.

10. “Homeless Few” (4:33) – If there is one song which feels like it doesn’t exactly fit on this album it’s this one. That’s not to say it’s not a bad song, not at all. In fact, it’s beautifully put together. Once again Lawry is great on keyboards, as for what is mostly a guitar-driven sound on this album he has really shined on the last three songs. Schlitt is singing a bit lower than usual, almost as if to convey the seriousness of the message. Back on Beat The System, Petra address the Christian’s need to help those starving around the world on “Hollow Eyes.” Here the attention is turned more toward home with lines like “Under the red, white, and blue” to remind us “We’re not doing all we can do to shelter the homeless few.” 

Ranking the Albums

  1. This Means War! 
  2. On Fire! – To this point, this has been the toughest album to rank. It was either going to be #1 or #2, and in the past I have considered it above This Means War! in my head. This is probably because On Fire! was my introduction to Petra, and this album has always, and will always, have a special place in my heart. I love this album and it is great. Ultimately this ranking has more to do with my new/renewed appreciation for the back half of the This Means War! album. While I love “Counsel of the Holy,” “Somebody’s Gonna Praise His Name,” and “Stand in the Gap,” my greater esteem for “Dead Reckoning” and “All the King’s Horses” keeps This Means War! ahead by the slimmest of margins. Make no mistake about it, though, and I suppose you can tell by the track-by-track review, there isn’t a bad song on this album. It’s a must have.
  3. More Power To Ya
  4. Never Say Die 
  5. Come and Join Us
  6. Not Of This World
  7. Back to the Street
  8. Captured In Time And Space
  9. Beat The System
  10. Petra
  11. Washes Whiter Than

The #Petra50

Well I’ve finally come to the point in compiling this list where songs are going to begin dropping off as new songs are added. That’s how it goes. So how do the songs of On Fire! measure up with the rest of Petra’s discography? “Mine Field” was on this list when I started putting songs from this album on, but it just misses the cut. I’ve also left off “Defector,” “Open Book,” and “Homeless Few.” That means six songs from On Fire! make the list… for now.

  1. “He Came, He Saw, He Conquered” – from This Means War! (1)
  2. “More Power To Ya” – from More Power To Ya (2)
  3. “Adonai” – from Beat The System (3)
  4. “Whole World” – from Back to the Street (4)
  5. “Grave Robber” – from Not Of This World (5)
  6. “Hit You Where You Live” – from On Fire! – The pounding drums, the guitar, Schlitt with a hard edge to his voice, excellent backing vocals. This rock song has it all, and is a great and needed reminder that, for a life “struck by His love,” “the mark will show.”
  7. “Chameleon” from Never Say Die (6)
  8. “Road to Zion” – from More Power To Ya (7)
  9. “Godpleaser” – from Captured In Time And Space (8)
  10. “Not Of This World” – from Not Of This World (9)
  11. “This Means War” – from This Means War! (10)
  12. “Come and Join Us” – from Come and Join Us (11)
  13. “All Fired Up” – from On Fire! – The first Petra song I ever loved. Whenever I hear “FIRE IT UP!” I get fired up. A quintessential Petra banger and, alongside “This Means War!”, just a great opening track.
  14. “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 (12)
  15. “Angel of Light” – from Never Say Die (13)
  16. “Rose Colored Stained Glass Windows” – from More Power To Ya (14)
  17. “Hollow Eyes” – from Beat The System (15)
  18. “Don’t Let Your Heart Be Hardened” – from This Means War! (16)
  19. “Stand in the Gap” – from On Fire! – Who will pray? Who will use this great weapon in the spiritual war that God has given us, which He uses as a means to His ends? This song challenges believers to pray, and musically it comes together wonderfully. I love what John Lawry is doing.
  20. “Fool’s Gold” – from Back to the Street (17)
  21. “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” – from Come and Join Us (18)
  22. “It Is Finished” – from Beat The System (19)
  23. “Woman Don’t You Know” – from Come and Join Us (20) 
  24. “Where Can I Go” – from Come and Join Us (21)
  25. “Not By Sight” – from Not Of This World (22)
  26. “Clean” – from Captured In Time And Space (23)
  27. “King’s Ransom” – from Back to the Street (24)
  28. “First Love” – from On Fire! – One of the most beautifully sung songs in the Petra discography, a ballad which reminds us that we all need to return to our First Love.
  29. “You Are My Rock” – from This Means War! (25)
  30. “Counsel of the Holy” – from On Fire! – This song extolling the word of God and its necessity for the Christian life has always had a special place with me. 
  31. “Beat The System” – from Captured In Time And Space (26)
  32. “For Annie” – from Never Say Die (27)
  33. “Magic Mirror” – from Washes Whiter Than (28) 
  34. “The Coloring Song” – from Never Say Die (29)
  35. “Bema Seat” – from Not Of This World (30) 
  36. “Back to the Street” – from Back to the Street (31)
  37. “Get On Your Knees and Fight Like A Man” – from This Means War! (32)
  38. “Somebody’s Gonna Praise His Name” – from On Fire! – His creation WILL praise Him! This song is a rocking reminder of both the privilege and the responsibility we have to worship the One who created us.
  39. “Magic Words”- from Washes Whiter Than (33)
  40. “Why Should the Father Bother?” – from Washes Whiter Than (34)
  41. “Walkin’ in the Light” – from Petra (35)
  42. “The Water Is Alive” – from This Means War! (36)
  43. “Killing My Old Man” – from Never Say Die (37)
  44. “Stand Up” – from More Power To Ya (38)
  45. “Morning Star” – from Washes Whiter Than (39)
  46. “Second Wind” – from More Power To Ya (40)
  47. “You Are I Am” – from Back to the Street (41)
  48. “I Am Available” – from This Means War! (42)
  49. “Mary’s Song” – from Washes Whiter Than (43)
  50. “All The King’s Horses” – from This Means War! (44) 
    Dropping off…
  51. “Blinded Eyes” – from Not Of This World (45)
  52. “I Can Be Friends With You” – from Never Say Die (46)
  53. “Get Back to the Bible” – from Petra (47)
  54. “Yahweh Love” – from Petra (48)
  55. “Lucas McGraw” – from Petra (49)
  56. “Backslidin’ Blues” – from Petra (50)

Parting Thought

On Fire! will always be special to me since it was my introduction to Petra. First Petra album, first concert period. First Christian music I really loved. Add to that it’s just a great album. No bad songs in the bunch. A thoroughly pleasant listen, and I’ve listened through the album several times in preparing to write this post. Petra was, pardon the pun, on fire, having figured out their post-Volz sound. They were beginning to reach new audiences and were slowly being accepted more by churches, a big factor in how their next album would come together. You can listen to On Fire! here. Until then, join me next time for Petra Praise: The Rock Cries Out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *