I remember my first 77’s song. It was called MT, it was on the recently released collection of studio outtakes called Sticks and Stones. The song burst through the speakers with an awesome gritty guitar line that gave away to a driving alternative pop rhythm. I was sold. The CD had a slew of songs, including bonus tracks not on the cassette tape (suckers!!!!). The bonus tracks included the long enduring Sevens track the Lust the Flesh, the Eyes and the Pride of Life. This album totally sold me on the band and caused me to start trying to get their older material. In 1990? That was hard.
Mike Roe and his crack team (including, but not limited to Aaron Smith, Mark Proctor, Jan Volz and Mark Tootle) had been busy since the 1970s, starting off as the Scratch Band. Right before 1983’s debut Ping Pong Over the Abyss on Exit records, they changed their name to the 77’s. Ping Pong was a new wave treat. It sounds a bit dated now, but the songs were contemporary for their time, a rarity in Christian music.
The Steve Scott penned A Different Light kicked off the record. A song declaring the band’s choosing a path different from the new age and aging hippie notions of the later 70’s, it’s a song with clever and poetic lyrics. Most of the songs tackled the pitfalls of youth, such as sexuality/dating(How Can You Love?), modernism (Renaissance Man), cynicism (Falling Down a Hole), and self deception (It’s So Sad). There was also the hit Someone New. The album closed with Denomination Blues (That’s All).
The band’s follow up, All Fall Down, showed they were growing in their skills and started to establish their patented alternative blues mix that became their signature sound for many years. The album opened with the haunted Caught In Unguarded Moment, about those brief and unexpected moments where we do not realize we’ve been noticed or the second before we die without a chance to to think. It’s an intense topic but new drummer Aaron Smith (of Romeo Void) plunges it forward with a driving beat. Another standout track is Ba-Ba-Ba-Ba…it’s a perfect eighties new wave track that was focused on cults. Then there was Mercy, Mercy, a rock and roll blues track that managed to get limited air-play on MTV (A&M Records had released the CD to the mainstream). My favorite track is the droning rebuke of the devil/death You Don’t Scare Me. It just… happens, and then builds and builds towards it’s grungy rock declaration that:
Yea though I walk Through the valley Of your shadow so near I will fear no man I will fear no woman I will fear no pain I will fear no thing Cuz you don't No you don't scare me I'm gonna show you a mystery You'll be swallowed in victory Where's your stinger Where's your sting
Seriously… it just works. We cannot understate the role producer Charlie Peacock brought to the table. This album bears his fingerprints, but this is a musical marriage that it very effective. But this was not the album that was gonna send them over the top. No, that was 1987’s self titled CD.
And how could it fail? The 77’s were signed directly to a mainstream label, and had producer/engineer Robert Musso on hand. The band got a positive write up in Rolling Stone. It’s no small wonder why, this was a record that screamed intelligent alt rock hit in almost every track. Do It For Love is the pulsating anthem that would have been at home on the albums of fellow Island band U2 of the times. It’s a track that still stands today. And that’s true of the entire disc. Pearls Before Swine is evocative of the Smithereens (in fact, there is a cover of Blood and Roses combined with Pearls Before Swine by the band on a EP). The morose Frames Without Photographs uses an empty frame as a metaphor for spiritual and emotional emptiness. The stand out track, of course, is the aforementioned The Lust, the Flesh, the Eyes and the Pride of Life is a melodic lighter rock track lamenting the pursuit of vanity, casual relationships and fame. These are the things man pursues above deeper things and they are the things that “drain the life out of me.” The beauty of the song is that is is an inward turned mirror, not a harshly worded finger pointing outwards.
The album closes with the rambling and confessional “I Could Laugh.” It’s a near eight minute track of loneliness, rejection, guilt ridden angst, regrets and failures that declares that “I could laugh… but it’s not funny.” And what is not funny is that I lied. The Island Record failed. It did not catch fire. The band did not attain international success. Instead, the airplay and sales were so disappointing Island dumped the band.
There were some more recordings for a follow up, some well reviewed live shows… but the band called it quits. There albums went out of print. 1990 saw several Roe solo songs compiled and released under the title of 7&7 is More Miserable Than You’ll Ever Be and the release of Sticks and Stones. This is where I came in. Sticks and Stones was, in fact, as good a follow up as one could ask for, It flowed naturally from the self titled Island album. It had radio friendly tracks like This Is the Way Love Is, MT, You walked Into the Room and Love Without Dreams. There was the blistering blues track Perfect Blues. There was the jam God Sends Quails. And there was the crushing and heart breaking Don’t This Way (about a person who wakes and finds their beloved died in the night… it’s aching, devastating and beautiful.
More Miserable was a combination of more aggressive songs and sensitive ballads. This was signaling a change in the band’s work. It marked the introduction of David Leonhardt (guitars) and Mark Harmon (bass) joining Roe and Smith. Tracks like U-U-U-U and Tattoo are blues-driven rock numbers. The beautiful Treasure In You (a song for Roe’s daughter) and Come and Gone (about the fleeting nature of life and dreams). It is a good collection of songs (the disc also includes a nice cover of Lou Reed’s Jesus).
In 1991, Brainstorm Records released 88, the 77’s 1988 Cornerstone performance. It was an amazing show, and even on CD, it was a grand experience. The average song is six minute of rock and roll. Wild Blue, Perfect Blues and Closer are not concerned with overstaying their welcome (and they do not.) There is the cover of the Yarbird’s Over, Under, Sideways, Down (one of the few songs under five minutes). But it is the final three tracks of the disc that stands out. Clocking in at a total of thirty five minutes, Mercy, Mercy, You Don’t Scare Me and I Could Laugh take home the prize. More like loose and free form jams than anything else, each track is filled with wild excursions into drum and guitar solos. It makes you wonder why you were not there. The disc was re-released in 2000 with a second disc of live material from 1987-1998.
These all had me pursuing the 77’s material that was no longer in print. I found a cassette of the Island release, fell in love again… then a co-worker’s husband made me a copy of Ping Pong and All Fall Down.
In 1992, fans had reason to get excited. Pray Naked was coming down the road. The title was controversial, so much so that the distributor made Brainstorm remove the title. Because suggesting openness and the removal of pretense before God is a bad thing…? See, it was a metaphor, but the distributor was scared that people in the Christian bookstores could not grasp that and would be offended. Awww… who am I kidding. They were probably right.
Pray Naked opened with the Zepplin-esque Woody. It announced that the band was back and they were back to punch you in the gut with rock and roll. Roe bellows:
i'm staring headlong into the jaws of death big teeth, big mouth, bad bad breath and i promised myself i'd never do this again and i don't understand it
It’s dark…and it hits like a sonic hammer. Roe’s pop sensibilities pop up in Smiley Smile, Happy Roy and Look. But without a doubt, the dark undercurrent of the CD is the tracks Deep End (a song of soul crushing self doubt) and Self Made Trap. The CD was a real comeback for fans. It was different direction from previous works, but an excellent one.
1994 brought the public Drowning With Land In Sight. Just as the title implies? This is a dark, dark album. It opens with the track Nobody’s Fault But Mine. It is a cover of the original blues track-but using the Led Zepplin musical version. the 77’s had been covering the song for years, so getting it n CD was great. Much like Woody, there is Snake… a gritty track in which the Devil brags how he slithers everywhere in the world. It’s a very strong track. Film at 11 and Alone Together are regret singed songs about the end relationships. The Jig Is Up is song of realization about a failed relationship and the fault the singer played. For Cryin’ Out Loud is a song that simply says that when everything sucks? It’s okay to cry out in frustration.
1995’s Tom Tom Blues seemed to be one of those out of nowhere releases. Hot on the heals of Drowning, it was a bit different. A bluesy rock CD, it has some solid numbers, such as Honestly, Rocks In Your Head, Deliverance and Flowers in the Sand. The album is always a bit controversial. It seems to be a love or hate it deal. I don’t hate it, but I have to admit, it is probably one of my least favorite Seventy Seven’s CD.
A nice little acoustic live performance called Echoes O’ Faith (named for where it was performed) covered the band’s career. It included early classics Ba-Ba-Ba-Ba, a Different Kind of Light, Caught In An Unguarded Moment and Do It For Love. The Choir’s Steve Hindalong sits in on drums and it is a great performance. They ended the 90’s with the EP called… uh… EP. It had five strong tracks and was supposed to prepare us for their next CD. But it’s no light snack. From the rhythmic the Years Go down to the ultra aggressive Unbalanced, it gave us a taste and wanting more. So, we waited.
And waited. And waited a little longer. To tide over the fans, we were given Late. Late had the EP, alternate mixes from the upcoming release (announced as a Golden Field of Radioactive Crows), past releases and live performances. This is more for fans than an ideal starting point for new listeners. This was followed by a CD single with alternate takes for two tracks from the forthcoming CD, an interview and some odds and ends. It gave a taste of what was to come.
2001’s pop flavored A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows was gentler rock from previous albums, more polished (Roe and the guys often jokes about this being their “Boy Band Release”). It is an enjoyable release, with songs like Related, Genuine I’ve Got, Down From You and Mr. Magoo.
The 77’s released a EP called Direct. The thing that stood out with the release was that, except for the opening track Born On Seperate Days, this was a mellow album. In fact, it was largely an acoustic driven piece. It’s a good collection of songs, though, admittedly, a bit of a surprise. I cannot comment on 2008’s Holy Ghost Building as I have not heard it.
Roe released three solo CDs…his first, Safe As Milk, was an eclectic potpourri of songs. Old time blues, pop, alternative… Roe goes all over the place. It’s hard to pick out the standout tracks, they all have different strengths. His follow up, The Boat Ashore (Get it?), was more quiet and contemplative pop. His third was a largely acoustic and introspective experience. Say Your Prayers was a gentle collection of songs, suggesting Roe was entering a peaceful state as a songwriter.
Roe also released a collection of live performances from a tour called It’s For You. Travelling the country, Roe performed mostly acoustic tracks on guitar with some back up from Leonhardt, Harmon and Brian Meyers. The audience chose the songs. The 30 tracks (on two CDs) are full of memories, humor and great songs. It is a fun set of songs, worth owning. Roe and Harmon also released a couple instrumental CDs for a company wanting to put out meditation music. Or something along those lines.
Mark Harmon, David Leonhardt also were part of the Strawmen with Mark’s Brother Bill. The trio produced two albums. At Home and Saving Faded Dreams are in the darker vein of Pray Naked (not surprisingly, as both Phony Eyes and Deep End were Strawmen tunes that the Sevens covered). Both CDs are songs of broken-ness seeking redemption. Honestly, they are, lyrically very… Johnny Cash-like.
Anyways, I declare the The Seventy Sevens and their co-bands write and perform Christian Music That Doesn’t Suck.