Monday, August 27, 2012

Psychobabble’s Fourteen Greatest Albums of 1977

This is it. The year a youth numbed by corporate rockers and disco diversions got a stiff arm shot by punk at the peak of its vitality. In actuality, the movement only appealed to a very small portion of the populace (particularly in the U.S.) and the first wave was over almost as soon as it began. Still, the detritus remains staggering. Not all of 1977’s great records were made by punks, but almost all of them were infused with the fresh spirit mined from this controversial new form of expression. Many of Rock & Roll’s greatest records were released in 1977 (as well as what may be its most overrated one. You’ll know the one I mean by its absence from the following list). Certainly it is an unchallenged year for great debuts. On the 60th anniversary of Joe Strummer’s birth, let’s look at fourteen of the best releases from one of Rock’s most crucial years.

14. Another Music in a Different Kitchen by Buzzcocks 

History has embalmed British punk as political (The Clash), mindlessly nihilistic (The Sex Pistols), and just plain loony (The Damned!). One doesn’t usually think of it as romantic, but Buzzcocks were as concerned with the heart and its innumerable hurdles as The Ramones were across the ocean. Like The Ramones, Buzzcocks also maximized speed and sugary tunefulness. We can forgive Buzzcocks for arguably inspiring pop-punk singlehandedly when they did it so spectacularly on brokenhearted anthems such as “No Reply” and “Fiction Romance”. Even when a hookup manages to go down on things like “Sixteen”, “I Don’t Mind”, and “You Tear Me Up”, it just leads to disappointment, or worse, sexual revulsion… though “Love Battery” manages to keep the image of the tirelessly randy punk alive. Pete Shelley’s complex views of sex and love, and the band’s willingness to embrace machine-like cacophony, imply that Buzzcocks aren’t some mindless pop-punk horde, and when Pete Shelley ruminates on the annoyance and dangerousness of racing (“Fast Cars”), the frustration of idiotic consumerism (“I Need”), the confusing allure of autonomy (“Autonomy”), and—Gasp! This from a punk band?!?—the pleasures of maturity (“Moving Away from the Pulsebeat”), he really highlights the brain above that wilted Buzzcocks heart.

13. “Heroes” by David Bowie

David Bowie’s second collaboration with Brian Eno found him working his urge to make purposely-difficult music out of his system and recapturing his love of the pop song. Low was atmospheric, experimental, and well, pretty turgid for those who prefer melody to frigid soundscapes. “Heroes” seems designed to either please both factions of Bowie’s fans or to ease himself back into his former song craft. Side A comprises his finest run of vocal numbers since Aladdin Sane. “Beauty and the Beast” gets things off to a pounding start, as menacing as anything on Low, as fatally contagious as any of his past hits (though it flopped when released as the album’s second single). Bowie heads out into the Berlin nightlife, steely eyed, ready for his beastly indulgences to overtake him like Larry Talbot. The all-nighter is underway on “Joe the Lion”, both an urgently danceable call to shake off his Low insularity and a tribute to decadent performance artist Chris Burden, indicating the unwholesome means by which he would reconnect with the world. Then the breath-stealing, romantic bliss amidst political chaos of the title track— quite possibly the man’s most miraculous creation— and “Sons of the Silent Age”. The only way to bring an end to all the physical, personal, and social turmoil is extreme overindulgence and “Blackout”. When Bowie comes to on Side B, he and Eno indulge themselves with a series of atmosphere pieces that are harder rocking (“V-2 Schneider”), more dramatic (“Sense of Doubt”), and prettier (“Moss Garden”) than the mass of Low. Our hero caps off the side with its sole vocal-driven track. This funky return to the Station to Station dance floor called “The Secret Life of Arabia” segues seamlessly to the capper of Bowie and Eno’s trilogy, the even more accessible Lodger.

12. Pink Flag by Wire

The press painted the punks as nothing more than yobbos bashing out two chords while gobbing on their audience. The reality was a lot more complex. As Wire displayed on their remarkable debut, punk could be raw and intellectual. Pink Flag is a veritable art piece, its 21 glass shards rarely clearing the two-minute mark. On first listen, it all flashes by in a sustained howl. Subsequent listens reveal diversity and extraordinary song craft, from the atmospheric opener “Reuters” to the blinding 2/4 bounce of “Field Day for the Sundays” to the robotic riffing of “Three Girl Rhumba” to the indescribably infectious “Ex Lion Tamer” right through “12 X U”, the archetypal punk thrash that ends the album with a dead bang. The lyricism is as provocative as the album’s fragmented structure, swinging past the simplistic politics of the U.K. punks and the comic strip partying of the U.S. ones for neurotic tales of the media constantly closing in like some all-devouring monster. Pink Flag is all the more fascinating for its own uniqueness in Wire’s catalogue. The band would follow it up with longer pieces on the more psychedelic Chairs Missing before descending into the synthesized atmospherics of 154 and never looking back from then on out. Wire were so disdainful of their past that they’d eventually refuse to perform any of their early material on stage, actually hiring a Wire cover band to open for them so fans could get their dose of Pink Flag-era punk! Consequently, Pink Flag may feel a little like the work of punk dilettantes in retrospect, but anyone really listening realizes how far beyond the genre’s clichés Wire had already moved on their debut.

11. In the City by The Jam

Hearing In the City today, it’s kind of hilarious to think The Jam’s U.K. punk peers once sneered at them for being sanitized or overly indebted to ‘60s pop. Sure, they professed fealty to The Who circa-’65 (so did most punks, mind you). Sure, they wore sharp Mod suits. Sure, Paul Weller flicked his pick-up to coax Townshend-style telegraph noises out of his Rickenbacker. Those are mostly matters of image. In matters of sound, In the City is speed-freak fast, lean, and sweaty; all the things punk was supposed to be, all things The Sex Pistols weren’t. The Jam’s decision not to play the punk game was very punk too. The genre’s reputation for nonconformity may have held water in the States, but the U.K. punk scene was notoriously dogmatic. The Jam flouted conventions with their style and Weller’s questionable though highly unconvincing Conservatism. Songs like “In the City”, a vicious indictment of police brutality, “Bricks and Mortar”, a swipe at corporate expansion, and “Away from the Numbers”, a sincere plea for nonconformity, tell a different tale. Though “Time for Truth” is known as the group’s most notoriously conservative screed, Weller explicitly painting Labour Party Prime Minister James Callaghan Communist red, the target of the track’s anger is once again the cops, specifically the six swine who beat Liddle Towers to death in his cell. Tellingly, the incident inspired similar outrage from such far-left leaning groups as the Tom Robinson Band and Angelic Upstarts. Of course, In the City is not all provocative politics. “Nonstop Dancing” is a joyous ode to the title pursuit. The band pays homage to their favorite era with covers of the “Batman Theme” and Larry-Williams-by-way-of-The Beatles’ “Slow Down”. Soon The Jam would appropriate the lighter touch of the power pop and soul groups of that era, and like so many other members of the class of ’77, they’d leave basic punk behind. However, “In the City” is one of the genre’s most legitimate articles.

10. Talking Heads: ‘77 by Talking Heads

Wire were unlikely punks because of their art school approach to slash and burn Rock; Talking Heads were the unlikeliest punks because these art school students weren’t punks at all. David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, and Chris Franz were lumped in with the scene because, like The Ramones and Richard Hell, they were brewed in the NYC punk cauldron CBGB. Hilly Kristal’s piss-soaked shit hole was one of the few Manhattan clubs that welcomed groups that were neither corporation-approved mega-sellers nor cover bands. CBGB’s rep is 100% punk. In actuality, the bands it spawned were often unclassifiable, and none were more impossible to pigeonhole than Talking Heads. Their angular rhythms and chord structures trickled down from the more genuinely arty prog groups, such as King Crimson. Their suppleness and groove slipped over from Philly soul. Their almost subliminal catchiness is pure pop, while David Byrne’s eccentric lyricism betrays his art school background. No other group before Talking Heads presented such a heady combination of influences, and no other great ’77 album was as unique as Talking Heads: ‘77. Is there a more unpunk move than opening your debut album with a mid-tempo swing seasoned with jaunty steel drums? Composing a song from the perspective of a real life serial killer currently stalking New York City is pretty punk, but is tripping into French arbitrarily or chummy sing-a-longs of “Fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa”? Perhaps not, but all of these seemingly cutesy elements are run through the wringer of Byrne’s anxiety choked larynx. The Sex Pistols never made music this unsettling.

9. Rough Mix by Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane

On their single “1977”, The Clash reserved their rage against the old guard for The Beatles, Elvis, and The Rolling Stones. The Damned were known to cover “Circles” on stage, and The Sex Pistols did a rendition of “Substitute”. When Steve Jones and Paul Cook encountered Pete Townshend at the Speakeasy, and he drunkenly declared The Who were finished, a distressed Cook reportedly told him, “The Who are our favorite group.” The Jam were often dismissed as little more than a Who cover band that happened to play original material. Yes, The Who were one of the few dinosaur acts the punks revered as their forefathers, so it is somewhat ironic and somewhat typical of Townshend’s disdain for trends that he chose to release Rough Mix in the midst of that noisy explosion. Instead of showing the youngsters Who’s Who by bashing one out with the ‘orrible ‘oo, Townshend got together with ace Face Ronnie Lane to make the gentlest record of his career. Though the sessions were somewhat harrowing, the two musicians regularly clashing skulls, the music of Rough Mix is steeped in English folk and American acoustic country and blues. Both shaky followers of Meher Baba, Townshend and Lane walk a tightrope stretched between spiritual devotion and Earthly stumbling blocks throughout the record. Townshend dwells on his struggle to quell his self-destructive yearning on “Keep Me Turning” and achingly profiles a series of heartsick barflies on “Heart to Hang onto”. With the orchestral character study “Street in the City”, these are three of Townshend’s loveliest pieces. The most breathtaking moment belongs to Lane and his rolling “Annie”. Because Townshend and Lane rarely make overtly distinct contributions to each other’s songs, Rough Mix doesn’t often sound like a true collaboration. The tracks still hang together well because of their thematic and musical similarities, which are aesthetically gorgeous and emotionally rawer than the rawest punk.

8. & 7. Cheap Trick & In Color by Cheap Trick

PhotobucketAn interesting byproduct of the back-to basics spirit of ’77 was renewed productivity. While Fleetwood Mac were spending the better part of a year toiling over Rumours, bands like The Ramones, The Damned, and Cheap Trick each spat out two records apiece in 1977. That kind of thing had basically been unheard of since the mid-‘60s, when a group like The Beach Boys could churn out as many as three L.P.s in a year. Cheap Trick’s ability to put out their first—and best—two albums in the same year is particularly appropriate since they so beautifully recapture the refreshing pop of the ‘60s, while sieving their glorious melodies and harmonies through a rough grate of ‘70s irony and snarling attitude. Their eponymous debut is unquestionably the year’s best power pop album; too harmonious and intricate to be deemed punk, too streamlined and unpretentious to fall in the lumbering footsteps of the decade’s corporate rockers. As such, Cheap Trick was a real rarity in 1977. No other pure pop group was willing to exploit pedophilia, suicide, man-whoring, and serial murder as subject matter for potential hit songs. Of course, Cheap Trick was not a hit, nor was its follow-up, which scaled back some of the lyrical mania and upped the sweetness for such near bubble-gum confections as “I Want You to Want Me”, “Southern Girls”, and “Come On, Come On”. The guys still mined metal on “Big Eyes” and “You’re All Talk” and got weird on yet another (though not their final!) ode to suicide, the marvelously moody “Downed”, but In Color leaves a decidedly sweet aftertaste. Soon the group’s wonderful songs and totally unique persona—two big haired Rock Stars meet two rejects from an adult home for wayward boys—would pay off. While Cheap Trick were getting little love in their home country, pop-crazed Asian kids were eating them up. A trip to Japan would yield Cheap Trick at Budokan. It’s no wonder that most of the material on that triple-platinum blockbuster was pulled from their superb first two albums.

6. Marquee Moon by Television

CBGB ceased to be the home of Country, Bluegrass, & Blues on March 31, 1974. Hilly Kristal thought his debut Rock act was pretty incompetent. Little did he realize the effect Television would have on the downtown scene. Baudelaire and Jerry-Garcia-esque guitar solos hardly seem like the raw materials of punk, but Television’s unique brand of hippie-new wave would revolutionize the NYC punk scene by opening CB’s doors to The Ramones, Blondie, The Dead Boys, Talking Heads, The Heartbreakers, and The Voidoids, fronted by ex-Television channel Richard Hell. Commanded by twin guitar-heroes Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, the Hell-less Television recorded a musically adventurous debut record that couldn’t be further removed from The Ramones’ dumb-guy speed-rock. Soaring, poetic, agitated, glorious, Marquee Moon is the soundtrack of rat-ridden streets illuminated by the immutable orange glow pulsing from dingy clubs. Verlaine’s paranoid slur supplies the punk scuzz; his and Lloyd’s weaving leads provide transcendence. A smitten Patti Smith rhapsodized, “Tom plays guitar like a thousand bluebirds screaming.” The title track of Marquee Moon is a ten minute testament to her not-remotely-overstated description. On tracks such as this and “Venus”, Television integrate their beauty and gristle seamlessly. Elsewhere the duality pulls apart for feisty Rock like “See No Evil” and “Friction” or gorgeous pieces like “Guiding Light”. Yet there is always radiance glimmering through Television’s toughest numbers and a thin layer of grit beneath the fingernails of their prettiest.

5. & 4. Leave Home & Rocket to Russia by The Ramones

PhotobucketIf any band has ever painted itself into a corner with their very first album, it’s The Ramones. Their image and music was so keenly sculpted, there wasn’t much to do on their follow up but follow up their debut with more of the same. That was precisely what The Ramones did on both their second and third albums. The sound is a little slicker, the playing a little less manic, and the more outré subject matter is out (no Nazis schätzes or chicken hawks this time). All the speed, catchiness, and cracked nostalgia are back though. The formats of Leave Home and Rocket to Russia ape Ramones too. Each record trots out bracing updates of early-‘60s treasures in the home stretch (The Riviera’s “California Sun” on the second album; Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance” and The Trashmen’s “Surfer Bird” on the third). Both albums revel in rejects, love songs both sincere and cynical, violence, stationery-store drugs, psycho relationships, and NYC. Rocket to Russia goes so far as to recreate the Ramones album cover. Rather than wafting of redundancy, the albums feel like much, much more of a really good thing. Played back to back to back, Ramones, Leave Home, and Rocket to Russia soundtrack an all-night party for pinheads, cretins, and punk rockers. The recent additions give us the dream girls Sheena, Suzy, and Ramona. Glass-strewn Rockaway Beach becomes a destination for leather-clad beach boys. The guys mangle a bit of nonsense from Freaks and come away with a rallying cry for their freaky fans. You will inevitably count among their ranks after getting brainwashed by the pinheaded pop pulchritude of Leave Home and Rocket to Russia. You are now one of us. Gabba Gabba Hey.

3. Damned, Damned, Damned by The Damned

The Damned will always rank behind The Sex Pistols and The Clash in the history books. They neither defined punk attitude like Malcolm McLaren’s contrivance or its politics like Strummer and Jones’s guerillas. They were four idiots bashing out idiotic garbage idiotically, encouraging their idiot fans to gob on the stage and punch each other in the face. At least, that’s what the press and most of The Damned’s peers would have you believe. Always possessing much better senses of humor than their genre-mates, The Damned would have the last laugh. They not only beat the rest to the record shops with the U.K.’s first punk single and L.P., they’re still at it today, putting on ferocious live shows and making surprisingly good records. A lot of evolution went down in the interim. The Damned became cleverer, better musicians, better songwriters, embraced pop and Goth and psychedelia. Band members came and went. Yet much of what made The Damned so fascinating to follow for four decades was already intact on their first album. The blinding singles “Neat, Neat, Neat” and “New Rose” are as catchy as their poppiest pop. Dave Vanian glowers through his vampire makeup on the spooky “Fan Club” and “Feel the Pain”. The Damned could not have pulled off the musically complex (and lyrically infantile) “Fish” if they were really as incompetent as their critics insisted. Indeed, punk’s greatest drummer is already at his peak powers on his first record, and Rat Scabies is given ample opportunities to show off his chaotic prowess. Chief songwriter Brian James would depart after the disappointing Music for Pleasure (also ’77), leaving the group to develop on his pop, thrash, and Goth on more adventurous platters like Machine Gun Etiquette, The Black Album, and Strawberries, but The Damned would never sound this wild again.

2. My Aim Is True by Elvis Costello

The generational shift that defined 1977 seemed to find its ultimate symbol in a bespectacled computer programmer born Declan MacManus. While the ultimate symbol of Rock & Roll’s first wave had descended into overweight self-indulgence— crooning and sweating in a gold-spangled jumpsuit on Vegas stages, eating and pilling himself to death while slumped on the toilet— this new Elvis was lean, young, and anything but complacent. That he looked more like Buddy Holly than Presley further emphasized how irrelevant facile attractiveness is when making music to feed artistic hunger instead of a bloated, superstar lifestyle. However, Elvis Costello was only a punk poster boy in image. Listen to My Aim Is True and hear a traditionalism that goes much further back than the early-Elvis Presley bark of bands like The Clash and The Pistols. “Allison” is a harmonically, melodically complex pseudo-standard— Cole Porter smothered in a thick crust of Johnny Rotten bile. This key track, which sticks out like a cowlick on My Aim Is True, indicates the unpredictability and ravenous diversity that would define Costello’s career to this day. The rest of the record is undiluted Rock & Roll, only the rip-snorting “Mystery Dance” at all resembling punk (and it has just as much in common with Danny and the Juniors). In fact, the record’s most noticeable musical touchstone is the decidedly unpunk Rock & Roll revisionists The Band. Costello’s lyrical wit complicates matters further, drawing on Lennon and Dylan’s gleeful acidity with a studiousness that sets him apart from those more capricious writers. Elvis chooses each word carefully for maximum significance and maximum wordplay. Though the results are often flagrantly self-conscious, his lyrics are spectacularly stimulating and deeply truthful nonetheless. His takes on sex, politics, and sexual politics are more insightful and informed than Lennon or Dylan’s; Costello would never write a song as broad as “Power to the People” or “Masters of War”. Of course, My Aim Is True is no mere pop student thesis to be dissected. “Mystery Dance”, “Sneaky Feelings”, “Pay It Back”, “Welcoming to the Working Week”, and the Beatlesque “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” are Rock & Roll as visceral as any old record by that other Elvis.

1. The Clash by The Clash

As we’ve seen, 1977 was rich in some of the most vital music made by some of the most important new artists to emerge since the British Invasion. So to say The Clash were the only band that mattered in ’77 is a pretty big exaggeration. Yet that famous (and let’s face it, pretty great) slogan seems so true during the 35 minutes it takes to spin their debut album. This is music designed to raise fists, rally young people into the streets, enact change for the better, shatter systems, and so on. Elvis Costello crafted his political statements to flick you in the brain; Joe Strummer wacked out his to punch you in the gut. He wanted young white kids to smash their Journey records and take a stand like the Caribbean kids who’d gone toe-to-toe against the coppers at the Notting Hill Carnival the previous year. The Clash delivered their message as directly as The Ramones impelled their followers to sniff glue and beat on brats. A few power chords, a 4/4 beat, a lot of speed, and some raspy shouting from Strummer and nasally pleading from partner-in-revolution Mick Jones. Unlike The Ramones, there is a great deal of diversity on The Clash. “London’s Burning” brings the hysteria down to a mid-tempo football chant. The Clash weave punk’s tether to reggae with their cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police & Thieves”. They layer a sort of new wave dreaminess over “Garageland” and swing between a poppy jangle and a staccato stomp on “Remote Control”. They also take side trips from politics for such traditional Rock & Roll topics as the liberation of punching out a time card (“Janie Jones”), jamming with buddies (“Garageland”), and fucking (“Protex Blue”). No matter the message, no matter the method, every track on The Clash is an exhilarating blast of punk rock delivered with complete sincerity, complete conviction, complete control. The only band that mattered in 1977? Maybe not, but further evidence that 1977 may have been the only year that mattered in a decade of decadence, disco, and drudgery.
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