A collective piece by the writers of Off The Record Windsor.
“Why 1977?” is the first question the class asked our professor when we found out the overarching theme of our Writing About Music class. The simple answer was that 1977 is 40 years ago, which makes for poignant pieces written about the anniversaries of the many albums that came out that year. What our professor explained and we students began to uncover as we listened, analyzed, talked about, and wrote about music from ‘77 is that there is another, more important reason why that year is so significant, for music and for culture as a whole.
1977 was a revolutionary time in music. That may seem like a bold statement, but we promise, in reading this article, you will come to see just how pivotal the year was. ’77 was driven by a fiery rivalry between disco and rock; two genres that were finding their place in the music scene. Musicians and fans encountered an unprecedented outlash in the form of censorship against the anarchic expression going on in the period. The year was transformative for the increased inclusion of the creative talents of women in the industry. It saw the birth of punk, a controversial subculture that resonated with youth of many subsequent generations. Finally, 1977 stands as a period in which many important records were released, records that were shaped in part (or in whole) under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
“White Riot” – racism and rock’s defeat of disco
Although the 1970s saw many genres take shape, it was disco and rock that undeniably vied for the top spot in mainstream music. Rock had become a white man’s game, whereas disco was both a refuge and a bonding tool for anyone who was non-cis, non-straight, and non-white. Tensions had been brewing ever since disco started to gain traction in the mid 70s, and the levee finally broke when Saturday Night Fever took white America by storm. Its chart-topping, Grammy-winning soundtrack catapulted the Bee Gees to superstardom, who, in author John-Manuel Andriote’s words, “put a white face on…black and Latin music.” Racial tensions were already at a high due to middle-class white men blaming minorities for takings up spots in the job market and education (sadly, little has changed) so the success of the movie and soundtrack establishing disco’s new home in the white mainstream was the straw that broke the camel’s back. In 1979, a scorned Steve Dahl, a radio personality who had just lost his job at a rock station that turned to disco, urged his listeners to take action against the “dreaded musical disease known as disco.” He organized for “Disco Demolition Night” to take place after a White Sox game; attendees could bring at least one disco record along with the 98ȼ admission fee to blow up on the field at the end of the match. Instead of channeling their anger to protest the recession, general lack of job opportunities, or any other actual pertinent issue, the predominantly straight white male crowd jumped into the crater made by the explosion and rioted along to the chants of “disco sucks,” a catchphrase that was practically equivalent to a racist or homophobic slur. This resulted in numerous injuries and arrests, and ultimately, the death of disco. Although remnants of the genre live on in modern EDM and house music (which have similarly been assimilated into the white mainstream), 1977 was the beginning of the end for disco, and by 1980 it had completely disappeared from the charts where rock has continued to thrive to this day.
“Complete Control” – increasing attempts at censorship and the resistance against it
Censorship of both songs and artists can occur for a number of the reasons, including use of profanity; references to sexual content, drugs, and violence; anti-government and anti-media messages; and if the artist had certain political leanings, most commonly leftist or anarchist. 70’s rock music was a favourite target of moral authorities because of the strong political attacks. The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” was banned by the BBC, and refused acknowledgment as number one on the charts because of its anti-royalty sentiments. In some cases, radio stations even erased the number one spot entirely. “Peaches” by the Stranglers had controversially sexual lyrics, and “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” by Ian Drury was also banned by the BBC.
Most songs were censored by having their lyrics changed, often to make them more radio-friendly, but artists fought against the censorship of their music. Elvis Costello’s controversial performance on SNL in December of 1977 was a significant example of attempted censorship. While filling in for the Sex Pistols, Costello was told he couldn’t perform the song “Radio Radio” because it was deemed anti-media. Costello began playing an acceptable song, but after only 8 seconds defiantly switched to “Radio Radio” instead.
The 1970’s followed suit of heavy music censorship of the 60’s after The Beatles’ lyrics conveyed ideas of drug use and experimentation. The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) sent warnings to any broadcasts of potentially explicit, suggestive songs and lyrics, in particular. According to “The History of Music Censorship”, the FCC responded to “outrageous” lyrical content throughout the decade.
Older generations used their power to try and censor the music of the new generations because it didn’t reflect the traditional values they clung to, something which still occurs today. Censorship, at its roots, is designed to control the media that is distributed to the public. However, it often creates the opposite effect when material is censored, consequently altering the creative process. To the political punk scene of 1977, music censorship was just another way to say “fuck you” to the man.
“Sweet Talkin’ Woman” – the rise of female success in a male-dominated industry
1977 saw the rise and empowerment of many of the female artists we still admire today. From Patti Smith to Dolly Parton and Donna Summer, from the ladies of Heart, Blondie, Fleetwood Mac and Runaways, women raged against the patriarchy to ensure their voices were heard in the sea of a male dominated industry, and loudly, at that. Blondie for example, a punk rock band consisting of 5 members, four male and one female was originally formed by the female lead singer Debbie Harry. Harry named the band “Blondie” as a reference towards the name men would always call her after she bleached her hair to blonde. This action earned her the iconic name of “Blondie” in which she’s still referred to as today. Other artists such as Smith, Summer, and Parton paved the path for solo female artists of the period. With Parton self-producing her 18th solo album for the first time, Smith screaming on behalf of all women in the punk movement, and Summer having one of the most popular singles of 1977, these three solo artists were role-models, trailblazers, and influential even today. In the band scene, Nicks and McVie of Fleetwood Mac saw the success of Rumours confirm their status as rock and roll royalty. Nicks’ artistic work within Fleetwood Mac and her solo activities have sold over 140 million records, making her one of the best selling acts of all times. Alongside her blossoming career as a singer she was deemed one of the top songwriters of all times by Rolling Stone. Meanwhile The Runaways faced the likeness of “Beatlemania” in Japan, and Heart’s “Barracuda” rose to the top of the charts as an anthem written out of anger for the ignorance of the male gaze. It is thanks to these women who paved the way for countless artists–female and male alike–today, who set the standards for rock, disco, electronic, pop, and punk.
Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s Punk Rock – the birth of the scene, subculture, and sound
Some of the most esteemed early punk rock bands (such as the Sex Pistols and The Clash) hailed from the UK, making it appear as though punk rock began in Britain and later made its way to the rest of the world. The punk movement, however, had actually already began forming across the sea in the United States at a much earlier date. Garage rock bands in the mid to late 60s are considered to be the ancestors of punk; they spawned the development of early proto-punk bands such as the Stooges and the Velvet Underground, who then set the stage for the first wave of real punk rock bands. Punk culture and clothing was born amongst the crowds and bands in underground rock movements across New York.
Although it’s still a matter of debate, many consider the first punk album to have come from The Ramones in 1976 – an American band. The newly emerging punk scene in New York inspired British musicians and sparked the creation of what would eventually become one of the most notable and controversial punk rock bands of all time: the Sex Pistols.
While some might argue that punk rock really began in 1976, with the release of the Ramones’ self titled album being considered the “blueprint for punk,” it was in 1977 when punk rock would really take off worldwide as a genre. The Ramones were very active in ’77, releasing both Leave Home and Rocket to Russia in the same year. 1977 also marks the release of Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols, an album that many fans of punk consider as one of the most influential punk albums ever. With these, and many other punk releases, 1977 is the year when punk truly transcended into the public’s view.
Countries like the United States, Canada, the UK, and Australia all had movements of their own, which truly diversified the genre. Punk’s worldwide appeal proved that many people wanted to listen to this music that was being waved off as “noise” and “nonsense” at the time. As if out of spite, bands from all over the world rose from the underground, and in pure punk rock fashion, completely destroyed all expectations.
“Carbona Not Glue” – drug culture in the late 70s
In the 1970s, drug culture was largely embraced in movements like hippie and punk for its social incompatibility. The notion of drug use was made emphatically idyllic for its association with counterculture, and its defiance of the conventional status-quo.
For punks, drugs were used as a means of disrupting the comfortability of the average mainstream citizen. Drug use was promoted for the sake of shaking up normalcy and propelling disorder – it was a method of depicting the inevitability and proximity of alternative lifestyles. Drugs were used as a means of dismissing authority and playing into society’s standard rebel image. Seemingly, punks indulged in any drug they could acquire – although they were mostly known for using heroin, methamphetamine, and alcohol.
Psychedelic music arose from a subculture primarily dominated by hippies that accentuated the use of psychedelic drugs to experience hallucinations and altered states of consciousness, in an attempt to attain spiritual wholeness and authenticity. Psychedelic music was used to enhance and reflect the experience of taking psychotropic drugs. Peyote, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and cannabis were primarily in use. In 1977, the prominence of psychedelic music, and the popularity of hippie culture was on the decline – but that didn’t stop popular psychedelic bands like Pink Floyd or The Grateful Dead from producing influential records.
Drug use will always be associated with certain popular musicians, especially during the heyday of the 1960’s and 70’s, and 1977 is not any different. Some artists only dabbled in drugs, while others became so involved with them it changed their lives. David Bowie became quite known for his drug use in the 70’s, and in fact claimed he could not remember recording his 1976 album Station to Station due to his dependency on cocaine at the time completely clouding his mind. By ’77, he began to slow down his drug use, but he was a rare case who was luckily able to stop before major damage could be done. Other artists and bands were not so lucky, such as Aerosmith, whose one live performance of their hit ‘Dream On’ in 1977 made it obvious how affected by drugs they were. With Joe Perry struggling with the guitar and Steven Tyler barely making it through the song, they certainly here earned the nickname of the Toxic Twins. Toxic indeed, as drugs did hurt or even ruin the careers and lives of many other performers.
Rocker Ian Dury released a single in August of 1977 called “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll”. The title says it all. And as the chorus elaborates, sex and drugs and rock and roll are apparently all his “body need[s]” and that they are “very good indeed”. This glorification of a wild, drug infused lifestyle defined what was going on in the mid to late seventies with many musicians.
“Farewell, My Friend”
The music industry and culture as a whole were undoubtedly shaped by the innovation, anarchy, creativity and raw talent of the artists and producers who worked tirelessly to bring us the music of 1977. “Why 1997?” Because, it was a badass year for music, why else?