Sunday, June 10, 2012

Secret History: 1977

This may ultimately be the most important year of all, because things were happening and a lot of us were doing our best to deny it.  

Sadly, it’s the year when listeners were presented with a choice, but had long before already made the wrong one. Conditioned by increasingly diluted AOR-type rock music, but then suddenly confronted with punk - on the news instead of the radio - what was the average listener to do, but double down on some very lame music? Hence the complaints in letters to Rolling Stone about songs where “you couldn’t hear the words”, etc.

I was no better. I loved “rock music” and wished that it would get the respect it deserved.  So I wanted it to be serious, and found the, well, glamorous surface of glam rock and spectacle of arena rock excess a bit depressing.

On the one hand commercial success indicated a wider acceptance of rock music.  But sometimes it felt….icky.  Like when I saw Al Stewart on “In Concert” with a full orchestra.  And country rock bands accepting Grammys and American Music Awards wearing tuxes.

The whole point of the music is to not be respectable, and it was finally driven home to me at the time while in a village record store. As leather clad cashier was wearing a button that said “Help Keep Rock and Roll Sleazy”. (He was doing his part.) That was when I knew I was sitting on a fence that would have to collapse at some point.

I have an almost visceral reaction to the records I bought that year – not because they somehow changed my life - but because they didn’t, and as such represent a breaking off point.  The Before of the Before and After.  

I didn’t pick up on the records released this year until at least 1980. But in retrospect. It turns out to have been a hell of a year, with more to come after.

Well, of course, there's the Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks.  You either take this road or you don't.  Well, I took it and I'm glad. This is some of the most powerful rock and roll ever made. And no, I have no love for Sid. I’m a Glen Matlock guy, no matter what John Lydon thinks.  Those tunes didn’t come from outer space. But it was Johnny’s snarl that put them over.

Television’s Marquee Moon has lots of guitar on it.  And lots of solos.  So in that way it’s not punk music at all.  As a matter of fact, it's the perfect record for bridging punk and jam music.  It's got all the speed, passion and harshness of punk, but with all the virtuosity of the Dead or the Allman Brothers. At least me and Roommate Mike thought so... 

By 1977 the Ramones had already made a lot of waves and had become the target of  ridicule from disc jockeys.  So just how did their seemingly simplistic formula result in a brilliant third album Rocket to Russia? I don’t know either. One of the greatest punk albums ever with classics such as  “Rockaway Beach”, “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker”, and, my favorite “We're a Happy Family” ("Daddy likes men…")

I'm putting The Clash here because this is when the UK version came out, which I'm not totally familiar with.  In 1979 the American version would be released, which would contain much of the UK version, along with a number of singles they released since then.  I'm happy with the US version because there's so much on it.  Being a punk record, its sound isn't that great, but it contains some of the greatest rock songs ever, including what might be my favorite – “Complete Control”.

How can a record be punk and still be pretty? Because punk is an ethos not a genre. Anyway, aside from the occasionally weird hiccups in David Byrne's singing, and odd subject matter, Talking Heads 77  is very sweet. Especially "Psychokiller". jk

I was never one for cults, though, so don’t get the idea that once I fell for punk music, I’d never like anything else.

Back when I was even whiter teenager , I bought records by singer songwriter or the above-mentioned Allmans and Dead.  But while in the record store I couldn't help but notice the flamboyant record covers of bands like Funkadelic and Parliament.  Of course, I was a snob, and assumed such covers were needed to hide crappy music.

Little did I realize that Funkadelic was quite an ambitious outfit, with a damned good guitar player (the recently deceased Gary Shider). My first plunge was One Nation Under a Groove that has the greatest opening five seconds of any record ever recorded, but which then makes its way into the classic funk music of the era.  It's a bit more confident and sure of itself than I'm comfortable with, so I went back to Best of the Early Years, an early greatest hits record, which has more in common with the hard rock and Sly Stone records I was happy with.  An alien (to me) universe every bit as valid as the one I was inhabiting at the time.

Rough Mix is a misleading title.  It may be fun, but it's also pretty tight.  Pete Townsend joins up with Ronnie Lane (from the Small Faces).  They also have some friends join them, like Eric Clapton.  And against all expectations – they were all in decline by then - the result is wonderful.   “Heart to Hang Onto” is my favorite, but not by much.

If you find “Heroes” a bit harsh, so you might prefer David Bowie’s Low, which is  experimental and catchy at the same time. Great on vinyl, since the two sides are so different.  Side one for parties, and side two for late at night.

Just around the demise of Elvis I, the new one - Costello, that is - arises. You can fault My Aim is True for an dull production and sameness of some songs, but that’s about it.  This is the beginning of an explosion of songwriting (the best since 1970?) that would last for years.

“Being German” and “being into electronic music” aren’t the first two things I’d look for in a band, and Kraftwerk looked like a bunch of robots with all the soullessness that it implies.  But that's clearly untrue within the first minute Trans Europe Express. Sounds great in the summertime, of all things.

I’ll finish up with a record that is almost forgotten now. Karla Bonoff is a guilty pleasure. It’s  the epitome of LA studio hotshot smoothery.  Her voice resembles Linda Rondstadt, who actually did a few of these songs, too.  It's very middle of the road, and perhaps because it brings back some great memories I'm going easy on it.  Karla can really write a tune.  The one 1977 record I actually bought that year that’s worth remembering.

It’s embarrassing to admit how clueless I was about the things that would end up having such lasting value. But the next few years would be thrilling as I slowly caught up. In 1977, my musical world was cracked in half and I didn't even know it.

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