The Best Year in Music Series: 1977

This is the second piece in the “Best Year in Music Series.” Over the next four weeks, the Fawkes contributors will make their case for the best year in music history. You can also read about 1991 here.

1977 was New York City’s year. It was also London’s year. As it was for Manchester, and Kingston, and Berlin. It was a seminal year for Krautrock, for punk, funk, and reggae. It gifted us a slew of legendary albums, landmarks that changed the trajectory of music. It also handed us some of the most indelible pop gems that still circulate oldies stations, weddings, and frat parties. It was the best year for music.

Although it had been slowly brewing for the better part of a decade, Punk exploded in 1977. The year prior, the Ramones had made a trip to London and incited a revolution. In the United States, the bands that had made CBGB’s the vibrant and diverse scene that has now become the most legendary artistic Erlenmeyer flask produced some of the most influential records of all time.

Let’s go through. Well, we can always start with the Godfathers themselves, The Ramones. Hot off their debut in 1976, the band released two albums, Leave Home and Rocket to Russia. “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” “Rockaway Beach,” “Teenage Lobotomy,” off of just RtR. Leave Home featured “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment,” “Pinhead,” and “Commando.” These two albums are a marked growth of the band, as they clearly mature both lyrically and in song structure, while still holding on to their singular sound.

But the crucible of the Lower East Side didn’t only produce these excellent Ramones albums. Television, the progenitors of this scene, released Marquee Moon, an album that realistically has a sound as singular as the Ramones. The interlocking guitars of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd created an eerie and unparalleled sound that brought high level musicianship to the ranks of punk rock. In tandem, David Byrne’s Talking Heads, released Talking Heads 77. This is the album with “Psycho Killer,” and honestly could have been an album with just that song on repeat if it so chose. But instead, Byrne created a jittery fusion of punk, electronic music, and world beats to make an absolute masterpiece.

Alan Vega and Martin Rev released their self titled debut as Suicide, essentially creating electro-punk. Their DIY ethos, and punk grittiness, would also influence a decade of NYC musicians as the No Wave movement would take after the first wave of punk. Then there was the enfant terrible of the NYC scene, Richard Hell, who with Blank Generation provided a manifesto for the early punks. Johnny Thunders, who had been a member of the New York Dolls, and was closest to an elder statesman the scene had, released L.A.M.F. with the classic Hell and Dee Dee Ramone penned, “Chinese Rocks.” The Dead Boys released Young Loud and Snotty. The Dictators released Manifest Destiny. Oh yeah, and did I mention that this was just New York City?

In London, the first wave of British punk hit the airwaves, and actually surpassed the New York scene in popularity. Taking Hell’s aesthetic and adding the menacing British sneer of a disenfranchised English working class that would only become more angry as the Thatcher years dawned on them, Nevermind the Bollocks was banned from BBC radio play, increasing the bands popularity. They spit at their fans. They cursed, wore spiked hair, and acted obscenely. They were the hardcore, that would be mimicked by a thousand American bands from LA and DC. It was their only album, and in that one statement, the Sex Pistols did more than most bands hope to achieve across an entire career.

The only that band that mattered released their first album in 1977, and one of their best. “I’m so Bored with the USA” features some of the most politically charged lyrics of Joe Strummer’s career, highlighting a history of violence in American culture that simply has not gone away. The middle of the album features a one-two-three punch, of “London’s Burning,” “Career Opportunities,” and “Cheat.” And without even mentioning classics like “Janie Jones” and their cover of Junior Marvin’s “Police and Thieves.” They may not have been as obscene as the Pistols, but they were as raw, aggressive and charged, and they were certainly as influential.

1977 saw the release of Wire’s Pink Flag. The album infuses strong melodies and pop hooks into the hardcore structure and mold of early British punk. The album’s first track “Reuters,” takes punk chord progressions and stretch them out, creating a feeling of apocalypse and eschatological angst, as a reporter describes the disintegrating conditions of a war torn country. Later on, “Ex-Lion Tamer,” a song about the mundanity of suburban life in front of the television, might possibly be the first “Pop-punk” song ever written. Then there are terse, “hard and fast” tracks that barely clock in over one minute like “Mr. Suit,” and “12XU”(which would be covered by Minor Threat). This the first statement of a band that would do as much in not more to expand the sonic vision of punk as any of their contemporaries.

The Stranglers released two albums Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes, as well as two of their best songs, “Peaches” and “No More Heroes.” The Jam would release In the City. X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage Up Yours!,” possibly the first feminist punk anthem, hit the airwaves. The Buzzcock’s released Spiral Scratch, as well as “Orgasm Addict.” And that’s without even mentioning Damned Damned Damned, by the Damned, the first release of this nascent scene.

Somewhere in this mix an English man named Deckland McManus changed his name and made his first album. With his retro, Buddy Holly look, Elvis Costello released Less Than Zero in 1977, an album punk music that ranged from the stripped down blues of the title track, to ballads such “Allison.” The album also contained its fair share of fast and hard punk rockers like “Welcome to the Working Week.”

While punk was breaking, one of its forefathers hid in exile from the scene’s epicenters. In 1977, Iggy Pop was hauled up in Berlin with his buddy David Bowie. The two had met at Max’s Kansas City in 1971 and had struck up a friendship, that would be responsible for (in short) a fuck-ton of genius musical collaboration. That year the two of them released two albums, individually. That’s four albums combined. Two albums each, they released. And these weren’t just slapshot records put together by two friends. They were Low and Heroes (Bowie) and Lust for Life and The Idiot (Pop). Four classic albums from two of music’s most towering figures, all released from Berlin.

The Idiot was Pop’s first post- stooges record and is sonically a bit of a departure from the feedback heavy garage punk he had done with the band. It drips with the influence of Berlin and his friend Bowie. The song forgoes the rawness for a more experimental sound infusing krautrock and Eno-esque noise collages, to place the highlight on Pop’s distinct baritone. Lust for Life, on the other hand, draws upon Pop’s punk history without eliminating the weirdness that he  exuded on The Idiot. Man, if it weren’t for this album Royal Caribbean commercials wouldn’t have been fun. Oh, and we wouldn’t have “The Passenger,” which is honestly just one of the best songs ever.

Bowie helped produce both of these albums, and then apparently found time to create two of his own. Deeply influenced by bands like Can and Neu!, as well as Brian Eno’s work, Bowie created Low off the heels of “Fame”(which by the way came out in 1975… honestly how did he have time to do this). For an artist as endlessly experimental as Bowie, Low is one of his more experimental projects. It doesn’t play host to  hits like Young Americans or Aladdin Sane, but it is an absolutely stunning. Bowie could have left 1977 alone after Low, but he didn’t. Instead he gave us Heroes, which of course gave us “Heroes.”

Just because Bowie and Pop were producing krautrock inspired work doesn’t mean 1977 didn’t have anything from the genre itself. In fact, Kraftwerk produced one of the pinnacles of the genre with Trans-Europe Express. From the twinkling synths at the outset of “Europe Endless,” the album is a high point for the genre, and a musical attempt at EU ideals. The year also saw an album from another one of krautrock’s pillars. Can released  Saw Delight, their ninth album and attempted to integrate world music into their sound.

To the south,, Italian Giorgio Moroder used the influence of krautrock and other European electronic styles to release From Here to Eternity. Moroder had spent time in studios in Germany as a producer, before releasing his Eternity, his first album and an landmark recording in electronic music. The album fused American disco, with the tradition of bands like Kraftwerk, to create something entirely new and forward thinking. It’s impossible to state the influence of Moroder, and this album in particular. The distinct sound that Moroder created on Eternity can be heard anywhere from trance music, to Daft Punk, to LCD Soundsystem, to indie dance/ disco bands like Hercules and the Love Affair and Hot Chip.

Moroder, like Bowie, also had a pretty active 1977 outside of his own work. He produced one of the year’s biggest hit songs, Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” which would go on to peak at number six on the billboard charts. The song marked a change in disco from a softer sound to one based in harder beats, much like the songs on Moroder’s own album. This sound influenced the house and dance music that would develop in underground warehouse scenes throughout the eighties in cities such as Detroit and London.

But while Summer’s disco was a bit forward thinking for the genre, that doesn’t mean 1977 was without its fair share of good old classic fun disco. If you thought that I was going to pretentiously rattle off art rock and seminal punk albums for this entire piece you’re wrong. 1977 saw the release of Saturday Night Fever, and hot on the tail of that film and the adjoining soundtrack, the Bee Gees scored a few hits. There’s the classic “Stayin’ Alive,” a song so awesome that at my brother’s high school graduation someone called the cops because my mom was commanding the greatest dance off of all time. There’s “Night Fever,” and of course the classic “More Than a Woman.” Saturday Night Fever has some of the most fun pop songs of the disco era, all iconic songs that you can hear at just about literally every wedding ever.

Now the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack was not just Bee Gees songs. KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes,” as well as the Trammps “Disco Inferno” both can be found towards the end of the album. “Disco Inferno” is definitely more heavily disco, than “Boogie Shoes,” due to its driving danceable bass, but both songs bridge the gap between Disco and Funk music, another genre that hit a cultural peak in 1977.

Like most musical genres, Funk was the bastard child of a thousand different genres. It stole from soul, from R&B. It debts to jazz, as well as to late sixties pioneered psychedelic sounds. Like punk rock, Funk had spent much of the seventies coming into its own as a genre. Pioneers such as George Clinton, with his Parliament-Funkadelic collective, spent most the decade engineering a sound that took various traditions,infused them with heavy bass music, and went on to be one of the biggest sonic influences on rap music- especially in the early stages of the genre, with artists such as Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash.

In 1977, the Commodores released one of the most iconic songs from the genre with “Brick House,” another song that, almost forty years later hasn’t left the cultural consciousness (and hopefully never will). KC and the Sunshine Band released “I’m Your Boogie Man.” Parliament released their album Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome, which produced the single “Flashlight,” one of the genres essential songs.

Take this legacy of 1977 as you will: Go to a college campus. Look for the kids who just started smoking pot, after being away from their parents for one month. When they’re done eating shit food in their student center cafeteria, follow them into their dorm room. Observe the walls graced with their Jamaican flag and Bob Marley poster.

Exodus was not Bob Marley and the Wailer’s first hit. But it is easily their most important album. Besides holding some of Marley’s most popular songs, such as “Three Little Birds”, “One Love,” and “Waiting in Vain,” the album established a singular and iconic sound for Reggae music. Bob Marley’s music is not the only sound of reggae, but if I looked at you and said “what does reggae sound like?,” you would probably hum half this album. Exodus is more than this though. Take the title track itself, an eight minute jam session- its lyrics are steeped in Rastafarian teachings. It’s a spiritual and philosophical anthem of a whole culture.

Lee Scratch Perry, one of Marley’s colleagues and the other towering figure of reggae music, didn’t release any music himself in 1977. That being said he did produce two out of three of the albums that would go on to be known as his “Holy Trinity.” Junior Marvin’s Police and Thieves, as well as Party Time from the Heptones were both released 1977. Both albums remain two seminal reggae records and two of the best from one of the most important producers(and musicians) in the genre.

1977 gave us two live albums from two of Jazz’s greatest. John Coltrane recorded and released Gleanings, while Miles Davis recorded “Dark Magus.” Along with that, Herbie Hancock formed V.S.O.P. a quintet with Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and Freddie Hubbard. Together the group produced two live albums, The Quintet and Tempest in the Colosseum to round out a year that saw releases from some of Jazz’s greatest musicians.

Then there was a whole ton of other stuff to sift through. I’m not kidding. One of the biggest albums of 1977 was Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, one of the best selling albums of all time. The album won best album of the year at the Grammys, thanks to classics such as “Go Your Own Way” and “Dreams.” It’s an absolutely monster album of classic pop rock songs.

Crosby Stills and Nash released CSN an album that would eventually go quadruple platinum. Billy Joel had his first huge success with The Stranger, which contained “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and “Only the Good Die Young.” Meatloaf released Bat Out of Hell, an album that transfused retro blues riffs, with hard and prog rock styles, and lyrics that contained a raw teenage romanticism(“Paradise by the Dashboard Light” is an insanely beautiful freak out of a song. It’s so weird in the best ways possible).

Another band pulling double time in 1977 was Cheap Trick, who released their self titled debut and its follow up, In Color. Cheap Trick’s power pop would go on to influence a decades worth of rock bands, from the Cars to the other bands that sounded like the Cars. One of those songs that would provide the blueprint for these bands that followed In Color’s “I Want You to Want Me,” (which should always be listened to in its live version.)

Prog rock bands like Rush and Yes produced albums, Going for the One and A Farewell to Kings, respectively. Farewell would actually be Rush’s first gold US album. Styx released Grand Illusion, with “Come Sail Away,” which is in the first episode of Freaks and Geeks if you every feel interested in seeing a song you know used in a television show. Oh, and if you’re interested in seeing a song you know used in a movie, 1977 gave us “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas, which is featured in a Will Ferrel movie. Judas Priest began embracing metal sounds with Sin After Sin.

A couple of classic rock bands were still sticking around in 1977. The Animals reunited and made an album. Santana, Eric Clapton, Skynyrd, Art Garfunkel, and the Grateful Dead all released albums. So did Pink Floyd, John Denver, Pink Floyd and Santana. Glam rock bands like Slade, Alice Cooper, Sweet, and Thin Lizzy all had albums come out. Also, Jimmy Buffet released “Margaritaville” and Heart released Barracuda. But of the classic rock artists that produced music in 1977, none were to write songs that would achieve the cultural proliferation that Queen did that year. The band released News of the World which contain two of their biggest hits, “We Will Rock You” and “We are the Champions.” And the crazy thing is, I’m adding this in during my first round of edits. I forgot that these songs were released that year. That’s how much great music there was.

Elvis Presley died in 1977, but not before releasing Moody Blue his last studio album. The Beach Boys came out with Love You, an album that has developed a cult following, and was well received by artists such as Patti Smith at the time. Also, Ringo Star tried disco with Ringo the 4th.

The Kinks released their album Sleepwalker in 1977. But more importantly, on November 25th they dropped possibly the greatest Christmas song of all time, with “Father Christmas.” It’s about a department  store Santa that gets beaten up by a group of kids as they tell him that instead of toys, they’d prefer money and jobs for their parents. It’s a song of economic despair and violence wrapped in a holiday tune for the most commercial season of the year. And again, it’s possibly the best Christmas song ever made.

Besides the Kink’s “Father Christmas,” another Christmas classic was released in 1977. On Bing Crosby’s final Christmas special, he sang a duet on “Little Drummer, with none other than DAVID BOWIE. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Come on, what was this guy doing in 1977. Apparently having the most productive year in history.

And then we finish off 1977, with the most iconic song in the history of film. Hands down, no question about it, the most instantly recognizable score in the history of film scores- “Cantina Band #1” by John Williams. Just kidding, its “Rebel Blockade Runner” by John Williams, more commonly known as the Star Wars theme music.

1977 had everything. Punk, Funk, Reggae, Disco, Jazz, Christmas Music, Star Wars– you name it. It is the best year for music. Ever.

But then again, “Hotel California” did come out that year, which might undermine literally everything I just said.

Check out my playlist above and see if you agree. You can also find other Fawkes Weekly Playlists on the FawkesCulture spotify. Be sure to let us know what we’ve missed and get involved with the conversation on the best year in music in the comments section below, on Twitter @FawkesCulture, on Facebook, or shoot us an email at fawkesdotcom@gmail.com.

By Alex Sniatkowski

3 comments

  1. Great article Alex You wrote about things I’ve totally forgotten.77 was a great year for music! One pet peve, it’s CGBG, not CBGB’s. But what was the greatest album if 77? I think hands down Marquee Moon. I think it is not only the best album of 1977, but the best album ever made. It may not sound all that unique today, but in 77 there was nothing like it. Totally groundbreaking. Tied for a distant second are Rattus Norvegicus by the Stranglers (the greatest bass line ever and some great guitar riffs in Down in the Sewer) and Talking Heads 77. The Talking Heads were as groundbreaking as Television. Because a thousand bands copied the Heads sound, today it might not sound so out of place. But imagine a world where the airwaves were dominated by Peter Frampton, The Eagles, Elton John, The Bee Gees and disco and the cognoscenti were into Yes, ELP, Led Zep, Skynard, then Marquee Moon and Talking Heads 77 happened (and the Ramones too). There was nothing like them before, but there have so many like them since that their impact at the time can’t be felt by someone who wasn’t there. Not to take away from your article but the impact at the time can’t truly be felt because the sounds of Television, Heads, Ramones, etc. have become so familiar

    77 was the very beginning of the third stage of rock music,I see three major stages, early rock with Chuck Berry, Jackie Brenston, Bill Haley etc. The second late 60’s art and blues rock stage with The Beatles, Stones, Kinks, The Who, Doors, Yardbirds, Motown ,and the third with the late 70’s punk and post punk movement.

    Each stage moved rock music forward in huge leaps, but the 77 era is the longest lasting. There are many more bands these days who owe Ta more of a debt to Television and the Heads, than to Chuck Berry. 50’s rock sounds so old now, But drop Marquee Moon today and it would still sound vibrant and not out of place. “Talking Heads 77” released today would be not seem out of place at all and would probably be received as just another quirky, funky band, done before. Well they were the before.

    Like

  2. Holy crap i was in 7th grade at the time &didn’t realize how much of this music influenced my my musical tastes even up to now. It truly was a year of diversity &straight out fun !Thanx for the trip down musical memory lane.

    Like

  3. Be Bop Deluxe’s “Modern Music” album was also dropped in the US in 1977 (released in the UK in late 76). An incredible tour de force of guitar rock that blended Beatles influences with Hendrix-like guitar, Bowiesque lyrics and early “dream pop” sounds.

    Like

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