At the end of 1976, it appeared that rock 'n' roll was just a shot away from rigor mortis. In fact, perhaps the most symbolic rock event of that mostly uneventful year occurred when a drunk Jerry Lee Lewis was arrested in front of Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion for carrying a gun and demanding to see the King. Rock's ultimate demise seemed to be an unconscious anticipation as we headed into 1977, and since the state of a culture's music generally reflects that culture's state of mind...
Several tragedies and disappointments demonstrated that the anticipation had potential of becoming reality in 1977. John Lennon announced his semi-retirement. Keith Richard was charged with heroin trafficking in Canada, which could result in the death of the Rolling Stones. Many old pros released embarrassing records, and even more went the Hollywood route. Bruce Springsteen, probably the 70s' greatest rock performer, settled his legal problems, but still failed to release a follow-up to 1975's Born To Run. Disco gained ground. Trash like Kiss and Don Kirshner's Rock Awards continued to be classified as rock 'n' roll. The Lynyrd Skynyrd band died when Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines perished in a Buddy Holly-type plane crash.
Above all, Graceland was in the news again. August 16, 1977. For many people, that date will remain as relevant as November 22, 1963, if only because it reminds that you can't go home again." The King was dead, and, as Paul Simon remarked: "The effects of his death will be startling." Just wait and see.
More than anything else, Elvis' death symbolized the fragmentation of the once unified rock 'n' roll audience/spirit, and the solipsistic stance that has become the universal code for the 1970s. It is best explained by Lester Bangs, the greatest rock writer of this or any year, in his August 29th Village Voice essay, an essay that perfectly encapsulated the state of the art, 1977: "If love is truly going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each others' objects of reverence. We will continue to fragment in this manner because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis'. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won't bother saying goodbye to his corpse. I will say goodbye to you."
Along the lines of solipsism, popular music in 1977 was mostly dominated by mainstream MOR mellow pop. Fleetwood Mac's Rumours became the biggest selling LP of all time. Debby Boone outsold any single song by either Elvis or The Beatles with "You Light Up My Life." All of which led Randy Newman, whose Little Criminals LP psychologically hints at impending disaster, to remark: "That's a hell of an ambition, wanting to be mellow. It's like wanting to be senile." Despite Voltaire's two-century-old warning that too much optimism can be dangerous, American listeners seemed to want to anesthesize themselves with sweet little girl harmonies that drowned out apocalyptic warnings.
There was hope for rock 'n' roll in 1977, however, with the rise of the New Wave scene, a movement that has the potential of creating a full-scale rock 'n' roll renaissance in 1978. New Wave (some of which is also called Punk Rock) is, for the most part, a refreshing return to the roots of the rock 'n' roll spirit. It does what real rock always had the power to do, and that is it can express even the most inexplicable emotions and rage. Perhaps it's the ultimate sublimation, but it comes as quite a shock in this decade where people have gone beyond not feeling to a point where they can't feel.
New Wave had its enemies in 1977. The artists have been denounced, but it's the same type of denouncements encountered by their influences; i.e., the pre-war European Dadaist, the post-war Existentialists, the Beat writers, and early rock 'n' roll itself. It is important to remember that true rock 'n' roll has never been a mainstream music. Elvis was a cult figure who became a superstar only after he transcended rock. The Beatles' biggest sellers were always their pop ballads like "Yesterday" as opposed to hard rock, and, being a more pop-oriented band, they always sold more than The Stones or The Who. Perhaps the stance was best explained by The Rubinoos who in '77 sang "rock 'n' roll is dead and we don't care," and then proceeded to rock the ceiling off.
What appears randomly below, then, is a rock fanatic's favorite recordings of 1977. Happy New Year!
Jackson Browne: Running On Empty (Asylum) — The quintessential concept LP of concept LPs and live LP of live LPs, Browne's Holden Caulfield images reveal that one can be mollow without being MELL-(Cosmic, man, cosmic)-LLOW, though moms people can't deal with the existential logic.
Neil Young: American Stars 'N Bars (Reprise) — Along with Browne, the poet laureate of our age, Young's phenobarbital riffs (played with Crazy Horse) and poignant lyrics (sung with Linda Ronstadt) perfectly depict the state of romanticism in the '70s.
The Ramones: Rocket To Russia (Sire) — The Ramones go psychotic Beach Boys, and prove that The Sex Pistols and the U.K. ain't got nuthin' on them. I really hated this band before understanding their sense of humor, but it's hard to hate the greatest pure rock 'n' roll band in America. Gabba! Gabba! Hey!
Talking Heads: Talking Heads: '77 (Sire) — The height of normal, they look like the Campbell Soup kids after shock treatment, and play true avant-garde art rock that deals with love and good vibes. Andy Warhol's choice for '77's best. Dynamic! "Q'est-ce que c'est? Fa, fa, fa, fa..."
Television: Marquee Moon (Elektra) — More New Wave "head" music. Less optimistic than Talking Heads, they deal more with existentialism. They are, nonetheless, just as dynamic. James Joyce rock 'n' roll.
Graham Parker & The Rumour: Stick To Me (Mercury) — England's answer to Bruce Springsteen, and the only act Springsteen said he'd pay to see. 'Nuff said.
Mink DeVille: Cabretta (Capitol) — The one for those who say "they all sound alike." A fine synthesis of romantic streetlife rock 'n' roll from The Drifters through Lou Reed and Springsteen. How's that for a combination?
Iggy Pop: Lust For Life (RCA) — "The world's forgotten boy" makes the comeback of the year. A crash course in survival. When Iggy and Bowie sing "La, la, la..." on "The Passengers," in perfect harmony (!?!), it makes you feel good. And that makes more sense than anything in 1977.
Cheap Trick: In Color (Epic) — They are very reminiscent of The Beatles at their melodic hard rock best, and with a sound like that, you know we should be glad. This band is destined to be big, but not as big as ...
Elvis Costello: My Aim Is True (Columbia) — The very BEST LP of 1977. It was Elvis in the '50s, and, hopefully, it's going to be Elvis in the '70s. High intensity emotionalism, the sweetest music this side of Heaven, and timely lyrics for rock's jaded and jilted generation.
"The Bland Generation" — Richard Hell
"God Save The Queen" — The Sex Pistols
"Sheena is a Punk Rocker" — The Ramones
"Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue" Crystal Gayle
"Short People" — Randy Newman
Best dance song:
"Non-Stop Dancing" — The Jam