Why Did Christian Music Forget The Call's Michael Been?

Some say Michel Been's band The Call was the 80's most underrated rock band. Others have called him a key example of Christians working in mainstream rock music without compromising their content. Here is what you need to know about Michael Been.

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Updated May 24, 2023
Why Did Christian Music Forget The Call's Michael Been?

Few people can say they collaborated with Bono, Peter Gabriel, Harry Dean Stanton, and Simple Minds. Michael Kenneth Been, frontman and songwriter for the alternative rock band The Call, accomplished all those things, and forged a reputation for intelligent music with spiritual content. John J. Thompson observes that The Call “became known, in the same way as artists like Bruce Cockburn, T-Bone Burnett, U2, and others, as a group with a Christian perspective on the human condition that they were willing to explore.”

Despite great reviews and committed fans, Been never got much recognition. Like Cockburn and Burnett (and other artists that Been knew, like Sam Phillips and Mark Heard), he was not conventional enough for the Christian or mainstream rock market. He talked about his Christianity but seemed more interested in mystery than in listing every religious statement he followed. He worked Biblical imagery into his songs, but usually with a dose of darkness that refused to make the spiritual life sound cute. One could call Been the musical equivalent of writer Frederick Buechner: a man who believed but was too honest to pretend he had no struggles.

Here is what you should know about the surprising life of Michael Been.

10 Important Events in the Life of Michael Been

1. On March 17, 1950, Been was born in Oklahoma City.

2 In 1972, Been moved to California. Over the next decade, he would play with bands like 2nd Chapter of Acts, Lovecraft, and Aorta.

3. In 1980, Been’s band Motion Pictures changed its name to The Call.

4. In 1983, The Call released their album Modern Romans and toured with Peter Gabriel as his opening act. The album’s song “The Walls Came Down” became The Call’s most successful song at the time, including extensive MTV coverage.

5. In 1990, The Call released Red Moon, which included Bono singing background vocals to the song “What’s Happened to You.” Conflicts with the record label led to very limited sales.

6. In 1988, Been played the apostle John in Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ. The resulting controversy damaged The Call’s reputation with Christian radio stations.

7. In 1994, Been released his solo album, On the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough.

8 In 1998, The Call released their album To Heaven and Back through Fingerprint Records. This would become The Call’s final studio album (not counting compilation CDs) during Been’s lifetime.

9. In 2009, the Oklahoma History Center included Been in Another Hot Oklahoma Night: A Rock & Roll Exhibit.

10. In 2010, Been died of a heart attack in Hasselt, Belgium, while working as a sound engineer for his son’s band at the Pukkelpop 2010 music festival.

Since his father’s death, Robert Levon Been has served as The Call’s frontman in various reunion shows, including the 2014 concert A Tribute to Michael Been.

Jim Goodwin, Harry Dean Stanton, Michael Been, and Scott Musick. Photo provided by The Call (do not reuse without permission).Photo: (L to R) Jim Goodwin, Harry Dean Stanton, Michael Been, and Scott Musick. Photo provided by The Call. Do not reuse without permission.

10 Things You Didn’t Know about Michael Been and The Call

1. He learned music early. Been mentioned in a 2008 interview that he learned to play the guitar by age 7. At that age, he won a talent show at the Oklahoma Semi-Centennial Celebration, which led to various TV and radio show appearances.

2. He got an inside look at the church. Been’s wife, Carol, was an ordained Lutheran minister who primarily worked as a therapist, sometimes as an interim pastor for churches in crisis. In a 1994 interview with John J. Thompson, Been humorously observed, “there doesn’t seem to be any lack of work.”

3. You’ve probably heard his voice without realizing it. Even if you’ve never listened to The Call, you’ve heard Been singing background on Peter Gabriel’s song “In Your Eyes.”

4. He didn’t mind saying that Jesus was human too. The Last Temptation of Christ attracted much controversy for depicting Jesus as having human desires and temptations. Director Martin Scorsese said he was attempting to portray an orthodox point: Jesus was fully God and fully human. Been would defend the film’s aim to show a side of Jesus’ nature that many people forget.

5. He made music with Harry Dean Stanton. Many know Stanton for acting in films like Cool Hand Luke and The Green Mile, but few know he also played music. After meeting Been on The Last Temptation of Christ set, Stanton contributed to The Call’s album Let the Day Begin and played with The Call at various venues.

6. He made a movie soundtrack. Been reportedly contributed music to Martin Scorsese’s film The Color of Money, and his later work with Scorsese on The Last Temptation of Christ opened a surprising door. Last Temptation’s first draft was written by film scholar and filmmaker Paul Schrader. In 1992, Schrader hired Been to write the soundtrack for his film Light Sleeper. Been’s son, Robert Levon Been, performed some of the music for Light Sleeper’s soundtrack and later wrote the soundtrack for Schrader’s 2021 film The Card Counter.

7. He worked with other artists who didn’t fit in. One interesting element of studying 1980s rock music is how many Christian musicians struggled to fit in and how many ended up working together. Been contributed to Mark Heard’s albums Dry Bones Dance and Satellite Sky and Bruce Cockburn’s album Nothing But a Burning Light. Both men appeared in the Mark Heard tribute project Strong Hand of Love.

8. He was a mentor. While many musicians create work that leaves an impact, not all of them invest time in mentoring new musicians. In the last decade of his life, Been became involved in his son’s band. HM Magazine reported, “Often referenced as their fourth member, Been spent countless hours in the studio acting in many roles from mentor and guide, to helping the now internationally revered band capture their sound to tape.”

9. He was honest about his doubts. Been rarely spoke about his faith in easy terms. For example, when interviewed by Thompson, Been described the struggle to explain having a relationship with God—relationships with humans are hard enough, but to be in a relationship with God is even harder. While this statement may not sound “inspirational,” it highlights an important point: God is Other.

10. His honesty won over the faithful and the cynics. While Been’s music often seemed too dark or filled with doubt to succeed on Christian radio, many fans have described how it helped them understand faith better. Even some doubters and atheists have said they appreciated Been’s music was “never preachy” and never pretended faith is easy.

Thought-Provoking Quotes by Michael Been

Since Been wrote so many songs about finding God amid doubts and struggles, it’s not surprising his statements about faith rarely said things simply. His affirmation of belief was often combined with wonder at why he had to use spiritual buzzwords. Here are some of Been’s thoughts on faith and music.

1. “Dear Programmer,

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontious Pilate, was crucified, and buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen. Sincerely, Michael Been, The Call.” — statement that Been sent to Christian radio programmers in the 1980s

2. "Our music gets labeled Christian mostly by the secular world, and gets labeled secular by the Christian world. We seem to be in-between.” — quoted in “Michael Been: Rocking to the Great Design” by Dan Ouellette, The Other Side (March 1987) 

3. “[The Call’s] music does not separate the secular from the sacred. And I don’t particularly want to talk to any side that believes that you can separate it. I don’t believe in separating body and soul or anything else. I don’t want to be labeled some spiritualist.” — quoted in “The Call and Response” by Lonnie Hull, CCM Magazine (October 1986)

4. “We can do good things, but the idea of earning grace seems to be a contradiction of terms. To live in that illusion that one is a good person can cause its own particular blindness, you know, like severe pathological behavior. The idea of goodness is so difficult for me, and I think I tend to write about that a lot and the challenge of that.” — quoted in “The Call” by Rick Clark, It’s Hip! (December 1990)

5. “The God who loves me is consistent. My experience, of course, being raised that way, is ‘Jesus, help a sinner like me.’ But it goes much deeper than that. It’s much deeper than even those words. It’s extremely personal.” — “The Call and Response”

6. “I wish Christian musicians wrote more about their life experiences instead of being so ‘on the nose’ with spiritual language. It doesn’t give people room to be who they are at the stage they’re at in life. I like to write with the feel of parables, not in strict language. I’m attracted to people who tell me a story, and then I see what it stirs up in my own life.” —quoted in “Tracing the Call” by Dave Urbanski, CCM Magazine (September 1997)

7. “The bottom line with the songs is, hopefully, a healthy kind of self–examination that is eye-opening and provoking, which challenges us to make a change in our lives. The attempt is really to see that we are terribly fallible creatures. But at the same time we are far more than that, we’re this incredible creation. There’s something sacred about our lives.”—1989 interview (reposted on The Call’s website)

8. “The value of the music to me wasn’t to come out and make these statements, or pontificate to people from on high of what they should and shouldn’t be doing or believing. It was always a much more reasonable and practical desire, ambition to make people get a little bit closer to the mystery of it all…” — 1994 interview with John J. Thompson, TrueTones

9. “I believe in ritual. I believe in the traditional ritual that focuses the attention, focuses the spirit—like communion. Ritual is nutrition. It feeds our emptiness and gives us assurance. A lot of the proclaiming is done in the liturgy. Still, the liturgy all revolves around the sermon. In order for that sermon to work, it has to be confessional. It can’t be some minister pontificating about the Scripture. The proclaimer should be inspired by the Scripture and then talk about his/her life. I want to hear about his/her life, in his/her language. A sermon should not be historical events, it needs to be present tense... I want to hear a sermon that is new. Tell me about your life. Tell me your story. Then I might feel something. Then I might learn something because it would be coming out of the mud and muck of your experience.” — quoted in “The Door Interview Michael Been,” The Wittenburg Door #118 (July/August 1991)

10. “I think we separate life too much from spiritual… One of my favorite authors is a guy by the name of Frederick Buechner, and Buechner wrote about the trouble with church. The trouble with church is we all go in and sit quietly—it’s totally unlike the other seven days of the week, and the rest of the pretty much other 23 hours of Sunday. It’s this one hour when we have to be in, and be so reserved, and it’s tense, and it’s quiet, and everyone gets real uptight if the kids are making noise. He was saying this kind of thing should be done in the midst of children running around playing and having fun. We separate this flesh and blood, nuts and bolts, children laughing, screaming, Grandpa over there snoring—all of that is supposed to be part and parcel of life.” — 1997 interview with Kevin Max

11. “The fact that we’re as free as we are frightens all of us. I think we’re all afraid of this freedom we do have, to do anything we want to do, and try anything we want to try, thinking anything we want to think, and do all the things we do. We have to take responsibility for it, and pay the consequences for it. But you're still free to do it. That very potential, the temptation of freedom, can be realized in fear, or it can be realized in real happiness and living life completely.” — “The Call: Definitely Worth Heading” by Brent Short, U

12. “There were a few letters that said ‘your music has meant so much to me in my life, when I have had trouble in my life I would always turn on “I Still Believe,” but now that I've heard that you are part of this blasphemous movie I’ve had to destroy all your records.’ Well, that’s okay, for one I didn’t really get across to them anyway. I didn’t succeed in communicating what was really going on for me. I have complete respect for people and the beliefs they have, which is part of what they are going through at the time. I won’t necessarily respect their theology or interpretation, but what I do respect is the journey.” — talking about backlash after The Last Temptation of Christ. Quoted in “Heed the Call” by Brian Q. Newcomb, Harvest Rock Syndicate vol. 4, issue 3 (Fall 1989) 

Man playing guitarPhoto Credit: Getty Images/eugenesergeev

What Other People Have Said about Michael Been and The Call

1. “The Call are a great rock ’n’ roll band, without doubt, but finally it’s been Been’s reflective, intelligent and spiritually provocative lyrics that sets it apart from the pack.” — “Heed the Call” by Brian Q. Newcomb, Harvest Rock Syndicate

2. “As the Call’s lead singer/songwriter, Michael Been examines personal and social responsibility with a gripping visceral delivery... The Call’s diving music contains frequent biblical references issued with the passionate fervor of an honest spiritual struggler in the 1980s. It is confrontational music that challenges both the mind and the heart.” — “The Call: Definitely Worth Heading” by Brent Short, U

3. “A preacher and a teacher no doubt, he was always much more than your usual ‘ten a penny’ careerist ‘80’s rock star. That said as driven as he was with his beliefs, the very ones that infused his music; Michael far from sanctimonious, was always a hoot to be around.” — memorial tribute by Jim Kerr of Simple Minds

4. “A masterful musical collection of artists, in songs of thoughtful, often biblical imagery, The Call revealed you could write about profoundly spiritual themes in mainstream settings and rock with intentionality….” — “Top 100 Christian Rock Albums of all time,” HM Magazine

5. “Songs from The Call were sometimes political, sometimes faith-based, but always passionate….” — “We still think of and honor The Call everywhere we go” by Kevin Wuench, Tampa Bay Times

6. “…Michael Been ranks as one of the Bay Area’s most passionate voices and spiritually committed songwriters.” — “The Top 100 Bay Area Bands 51-100” by Joel Selvin, The San Francisco Chronicle

7. “In almost every song, The Call somehow forges the personal experience of hurt and anger into an instrument of healing… Using rock’s intense energy and direct immediacy (be it expressing a personal or a social critique), Been stares anger and hurt in the face, confronts it and directs it into a more productive direction.” — “The Call’s Cry in the Wilderness” by Brent Short, The Christian Century

8. “I wrote about pop music for [the Tulsa World] throughout the ’90s, as the ghetto of ‘Christian rock’ was overcrowding. I interviewed a lot of Christian rock acts—dc Talk, Third Day, Audio Adrenaline, Jars of Clay. Every one of them told me how much they hated (er, struggled with) the ‘Christian’ pigeonhole. These were Been’s children, young songwriters living their Christian faith not in a bubble but in the world.” — “Heaven and Heart: The Tense Past of Michael Been” by Thomas Conner, This Land Press

Best Music by Michael Been and The Call

The following lists some of Been’s best music and where to find it.

Modern Romans (1983) is the album many listeners cite as their introduction to The Call, cleverly blending Biblical imagery with political critique.

Scene Beyond Dreams (1984) was described by Been described as “the band’s metaphysical album,” and the same sense of spiritual searching continues with a gentler sound than in previous albums.

Reconciled (1986) has been described as one of the few mainstream rock albums to crossover into the Christian market, largely thanks to the song “I Still Believe.”

On the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough (1994) is Been’s only solo album and shows the same wrestling with faith and doubt, with a harder rock sound.

To Heaven and Back (1998) is The Call’s final studio album and, as one reviewer put it, provides “thought-provoking, faith inspiring, and especially emotionally riveting rock and roll.”

The Call: Collected (2020) contains a wide variety of Been’s music from various The Call albums as well as songs that appeared on Light Sleeper.

Michael Been on Apple Music

Michael Been on Spotify

Where To Learn More about Michael Been and The Call

Recalling the Call: The 80's Most Underrated Rock 'n Roll Band! by Knoel Honn

Remembering Michael Been: Memorial Video by the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame

Michael Been Facebook Page

The Call official band website

Further Reading:

5 Christian Rock Musicians You Didn't Know About

Was Mark Heard Contemporary Christian Music's Best Songwriter?

What You Should Know about Rich Mullins

How Did Larry Norman Become the Father of Christian Rock?

Remembering Contemporary Christian Music Pioneer Keith Green

Cover Photo: Photo provided by The Call. Do not reuse without permission.

Connor SalterG. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,200 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.

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