Warp + Weft: Sucking in ’77

Steely Dan’s Aja is a masterpiece, but it’s still an acquired taste. It’s generally considered to be the apogee of the style to which the Dan were always aspiring: a flawlessly virtuosic and eerily bloodless record whose sterling exterior conceals a darker and pulpier heart. But try telling that to a band of co-workers at an independent record store. Many of them will be deaf to your entreaties, as they were when I queued up Aja for in-store play the other day. So I played the context card, saying that one think that makes Aja so impressive is the time it came from, a time when there wasn’t ProTools and Autotuning. Something this clean was much harder to make, I said, attempting to authoritatively place the record in its proper place in the pop landscape.

This all got me to thinking about what was going on in pop when Aja was released. As I suspect many people do, I have a weird kind of black hole of pop music knowledge around the year of my birth. I was born in ’76, became conscious of music in the early ’80s, and eventually started playing music in the early ’90s. Coming of age in the grunge era sent me back to the ’60s, and getting into the blues being played by Hendrix and the British blues groups from that era sent me back to the ’50s and eventually all the way back to the turn of the century and the roots of blues.

But I placed the ’70s off-limits for a long time. I’d admit stuff as late as ’72 for a while—The Allman Brothers Band’s Eat A Peach came out that year—but eventually I pushed myself up as far as 1974 with Big Star’s Radio City. But for the longest time, I could never really get a handle on the span of years from 1975 to 1978, musically speaking, and I always thought it was because of being born right then.

But maybe it’s 1977’s fault.

Let’s get the good stuff out of the way, because there were definitely some top-flight albums released that year. There were debuts from Elvis Costello (My Aim Is True), Motörhead (self-titled), Wire (Pink Flag), Talking Heads (77), Television (Marquee Moon), The Sex Pistols (Never Mind the Bollocks …) and The Clash (self-titled). But there were also some less auspicious self-titled debuts from Amy Grant, The Village People, Eddie Money, Leif Garrett, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, 38 Special, Foreigner, Reba McEntire, plus David Coverdale’s solo debut, White Snake, which, yes, laid the foundation for the band Whitesnake.

Straight up, that’s a nine to seven advantage for utter crap over quality, but I’m going to have to go with quality as the winner here since the good records have had far more influence over the past 30 years than the bad ones. Where it really gets interesting, though, is in looking at established bands in 1977.

ImageTerrible bands put out terrible records that year: Styx released Grand Illusion, featuring “Come Sail Away”; Kansas released Point of Know Return, a quadruple platinum heap of dung; Meat Loaf let his Bat Out Of Hell, while Ted Nugent gave us Cat Scratch Fever; Clapton favored the world with his passive-aggressive ode “Wonderful Tonight” on Slowhand and Billy Joel named his album after Camus’ The Stranger without in any way evoking anything approaching angst or indecision. Oh, and we got not one but two Sammy Hagar records.

Now, some of the aforementioned artists have enjoyed a certain renaissance as masters of pop and/or camp heroes of the bombast of the ’70s. I’m not denying the real enjoyment to be had pumping your fist to Styx or appreciating Joel’s deft touch with a melody; what I’m saying is that if you were a music fan in 1977, and just six years earlier you had seen the release of Led Zeppelin IV, Electric Warrior, Imagine, Miles Davis’ Live-Evil, B.B. King’s Live at the Regal, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, the posthumous Janis Joplin release Pearl, Sticky Fingers, Who’s Next, What’s Going On, and other classic albums, you’d be sitting there thinking, “What the fuck happened?”

Even great bands put out half-assed or merely average that year: Neil Young’s leftover buffet American Stars N’ Bars (although it does feature “Like A Hurricane”), The Band’s Islands, and Tom Waits’ Foreign Affairs. In the context of careers that featured albums like Harvest, Music from Big Pink, and Swordfishtrombones, these are all middling efforts. I’m not saying they’re irredeemable—I’m just trying to suss the trend here, because the handful of undisputed non-punk classics from ’77 seem to fit a certain pattern as well.

ImageAja and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours are the embodiment of the crystalline perfection that the industry and recording technology were moving towards inexorably throughout the ’70s. There’s a lot of subversion lurking in the subtleties of Aja, but on its surface, it’s hard to deny its smooth pop appeal. In place of blood and guts, there’s cool, metallic precision, and while I’ve grown to appreciate the way Rumours is an expression of the band’s inner turmoil, bottled up and pushed down into a perfect pop package, that’s only come with distance. As one woman who overheard our conversation at the Electric Fetus chimed in, “You’d hate it if you’d been there.”

1977 also marked the release of David Bowie’s Low and fittingly, it marks a new phase of Bowie’s career as he begins to experiment with electronics. This same desire to shake things up and work with a new sonic palette also marks his work with Iggy Pop on Pop’s The Idiot. Bowie has always been a restless artist, and the moments when he’s shifted gears have often proved a harbinger of greater shifts in music culture.

What this all seems to be pointing towards is an identity crisis in American popular music. The late ’60s had overthrown the notion of the mainstream; it had been remade by the music of the counterculture and made international stars of The Beatles, Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin. But once entrenched, rock in the mainstream began to stagnate, and the bar was pushed ever higher in terms of bombast and hugeness, resulting in diminishing returns. Witness Meat Loaf, Kansas, Foreigner, Ted Nugent, Styx, and on and on.

Simultaneously, Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac were crafting ever more careful pop. Observe their origins as a rollicking nine-piece on “Reeling in the Years” and a straight-ahead blues band on “Stop Messin’ Round” respectively, and you can see just how much bloodletting the culture of the ’70s performed on bands and music.

But ultimately, all of this was just part of a cycle which has been enacted several times since: In response to frustration with the establishment, an underground rises up, as shown by the wave of classic punk and new wave releases from 1977. It happened a little more than a decade later with the explosion of grunge in the early ’90s, but when that happened, there was a network of independent record labels like Sub Pop, SST, Merge, and many others that had nurtured scenes across the country. And now, we’re perhaps standing on the edge of another wave of destruction from the underground, but it’s being nurtured by digital music, MySpace, and the increasingly creaky infrastructure of major label music.

So maybe calling 1977 the worst year for popular music is looking at it wrong. With less emotion, it should maybe be called a deeply divided year in music. It was twelve monts in which a few established bands achieved the ultimate expression of their music, a few others tried and succeeded at new things, and the mass of them treaded water. Meanwhile, even as plenty of new acts continued to peddle mediocrity, an exciting underground was bubbling up into the mainstream with a string of brilliant debuts. 1977 is the kind of year that has to happen to keep music moving forward.

But … then I remembered that 1977 was also the year that Jimmy Buffett put out his career-defining Changes in Lattitudes, Changes in Attitudes, which featured his signature song, “Margaritaville.” This record sowed the seeds for a legion of fans self-identified as Parrotheads, a chain of Margaritaville restaurants, and a body of work based largely around helping CEOs escape into a fantasy of tropical laziness and drinks with umbrellas.

So maybe it was the worst year for popular music in the history of the world.

Comments are closed.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes