Radio Birdman – Radios Appear
Released July, 1977 on Trafalgar Records
1540 KHz on the AM band: that was the original broadcasting position of legendary Sydney radio station 2JJ (later 2JJJ, or “Triple J” when it crossed over into the FM market). From it’s inception it was a home for the experimental, the odd, and the alternative – stuff that wouldn’t get played on other Australian radio stations. The growth of Australian cool starts from it’s inception in 1975, when it was founded to be a government-funded radio station meant to appeal to the 18-25 demographic. Radio Birdman, a group of Aussie Stooges fans, were among the bands the station championed at the very beginning of the punk rock era.
Radio Birdman were unlike anything else that Australian radio was playing at the time; while it might be somewhat correct to call them “Australia’s Sex Pistols”, this does Radio Birdman a disservice. The band weren’t cobbled together, they could play their instruments, and they didn’t rely on cheap shock tactics to sell their records. In fact, Radio Birdman’s early success was as much a result of their hands-on work ethic as it was their killer rock ‘n’ roll tunes; their records were initially sold out of their trunks, before and after shows. The band provided the example, and from them the punk DIY ethic was born into Australia.
Those killer rock ‘n’ roll tunes, though: Radios Appear had them in spades. The band name and album title give key clues as to their influences. “Radio Birdman” came from a misheard lyric on The Stooge’s “1970”, and tracks like “T.V. Eye” and “Murder City Nights” bear the scars of a definite Stooge’s obsession. “Man With Golden Helmet”, however, shows another side of the band, one that is hinted at in the title of the album; “Radios appear” is a line from “Dominance And Submission” by Seventies hard rock icons Blue Oyster Cult. “Descent Into Maelstrom” and “Love Kills” combine the two, marrying a harrowing, relentless beat to a more free-wheeling and progressive melody and structure.
Radios Appear is both the debut and the highwater mark for the band. Their second LP, 1981’s Living Eyes, was released three years after the band broke up, and while the band reunited in 1996 and continues to tour intermittently, new music has been spotty at best. For a pure rock ‘n’ roll experience – filtered through Michigan proto-punk – however, Radios Appear is one of the finest efforts of that legendary year of 1977.
Elvis Costello – My Aim Is True
Released July 22nd, 1977 on Stiff Records
In the early 1970s, Declan MacManus was another weekend-warrior pub rocker in the London club scene, working day jobs as a data entry clerk in order to fund both his family and his love of playing music. The man came by it honestly; his father, Ross MacManus, played jazz trumpet under the stage name of Day Costello, and the two of them did a commercial together for lemonade three or four years before My Aim Is True thrust the younger MacManus onto the rock ‘n’ roll stage. It was also the result of gobs of hard work, of course; the man who would be Elvis Costello spent his time after his wife and young son were asleep writing songs. Those songs were painstakingly recorded into demos, and those demos shopped around. Meanwhile, he continued to toil in obscurity for much of the 1970s, playing in a pub rock band called Flip City until one of his demos caught the attention of Stiff Records, an independent London label that convinced him to change his name. Elvis, from The King, and Costello from his father’s stagename = Elvis Costello.
Success was anything but a sure bet, even with indie label interest. At first the label wanted him to write songs for someone else. Then when they realized that Costello’s own songs came off much better, they decided to let him cut a record and release a couple of singles from it, “Less Than Zero” and “Alison”. Both singles failed to do much damage in the charts, but Stiff Records pressed on and released the entire album; they also went all-in with a promotional campaign that gave away free copies (special edition free copies, at that) to friends of people who bought the album.
Such tricks – great marketing strategies though they might be – are not, strictly speaking, completely necessary to sell an album like My Aim Is True. Sure, they help, but the strengths of the album are readily apparent immediately. “Welcome To The Working Week”, the poppiest bit of sarcastic bitterness you’ll ever hear, starts off with the line “Now that you’re picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired”. He literally starts the record off with a crack about masturbation. And that’s not even the best part! Throughout the album he bangs out a series of songs that are part pub rock, part 50’s rock ‘n’ roll inspired genius (check out the Buddy Holly pose on the album cover for more on that inspiration) and all cynical asshole. The first two are the result of his upbringing and his toils in rock ‘n’ roll obscurity. The last goes a long way toward explaining why he was slotted in to the white-hot punk rock movement in the summer of 1977. My Aim Is True may not have the snarl and viciousness of the Sex Pistols or the Clash, but it was just as frustrated, just as bitter, and in places just as political. “Less Than Zero” was the anti-fascist anthem, a big concern in Britain where the economy was teetering on the edge of collapse by the late 1970s. The song itself would become famous when Costello began playing it on Saturday Night Live, before cutting out to “Radio, Radio”, declaring that the song was meaningless in America (and earning himself a Lorne Michaels ban for nearly ten years). “Watching The Detectives” was another such track, outlining the absurdity and obsession of TV violence while borrowing some of that Clash-inspired 1977 reggae bounce (literally inspired; the song came about after 36 hours of coffee and the first Clash record on repeat). “Alison”, meanwhile, was a soulful ballad about infidelity that Costello claims contains a secret homage to the Detroit Spinners (and also gave the record it’s name) and “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” is pure pop bliss with a sour interior.
My Aim Is True was a stellar debut, a record that made Costello feel as though, after years of grubbing away in the underground, he’d become something of an overnight success. It would be the beginning of a run of similarly great albums that would carry the man and his burning cynicism into the mid-1980s.
Bob Marley & The Wailers – Exodus
Released June 3rd, 1977 on Island Records
The Wailers were an early ska group, originally, forming in 1963 and featuring Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh. Seven albums later they’d morphed into the premier reggae act in their native Jamaica, but as usual with these sorts of things that just meant major change was around the corner. Wailer and Tosh left in 1974; Marley put together a new version of the Wailers for 1976’s Rastaman Vibration while both Wailer and Tosh released their own solo albums (Blackheart Man and Legalize It, respectively, both reggae classics in their own right). Rastaman Vibration became a major success, scoring a berth in the Billboard charts (hitting #8) and, in “Roots, Rock, Reggae”, Marley’s only American Top 100 hit. Then, in December of 1976, Marley and his wife were shot at in an assault that likely had political motivations, since Marley was scheduled to play a concert that was a de facto rally for Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley. Despite his injuries, Marley played the show as scheduled, because he was about as badass a performer as you’re ever likely to find. Following this incident, however, Marley decamped to London, where he would remain in exile for two years.
Exodus was the first result of being holed up in London, and it is thought by many to be his finest album. Certainly his career retrospective, Legend (a staple of every dorm room, head shop, and activist squat since time out of mind) features more songs from Exodus than any of his other albums. There are a huge number of stone classics featured here: “The Heathen”, “Exodus”, “Jamming”, “Turn Your Lights Down Low”, and “One Love/People Get Ready” are all signature tracks. Part of it’s appeal at the time was how different it was from the reggae music coming out of Jamaica in the late 1970s. Exodus was more laid-back, with an increased focus on piano tones and freer, lighter beats. There were elements of rock ‘n’ roll (especially with regard to Marley’s guitar playing – check out those opening licks on “Natural Mystic”) and the then-white-hot funk scene. The only real connection to the reggae scene that Marley had exiled himself from was a nod to the rhythm and the liquid nature of the pulsating bass lines, something that could have been borrowed from funk music if Marley hadn’t already come from the reggae world.
It was this melding of reggae tinges with rock, funk, and blues motifs that drove Exodus, like it’s predecessor, into the Billboard charts and made an international superstar out of Bob Marley. He would be dead within four years, a victim of a malignant cancer that first manifested itself in a tumor under his toenail in the same year that Exodus was released. His final words – “Money can’t buy life” – are a clear statement of truth in a world increasingly bent on driving the capitalist machine into overdrive and then collapse.
The Jam – In The City
Released May 20th, 1977 on Polydor Records
The debut album from The Jam was lumped in with the first wave of punk rock, partly because of the year of it’s release (that fabled year of 1977) and partly because of the crisp speed and attitude that the songs on it are played. Underneath that Spirit of ’77 shine ‘n’ grime, however, beats the heart of the early British Invasion: Maximum R&B, just like The Who used to play it, mods over rockers forever and ever. They played their songs with an eye toward the jaded angst of the under-20 set, but so did The Who; the Sex Pistols and the Clash didn’t have a complete lock on youth revolution. The band’s penchant for smartly ironic ties, tongue-in-cheek Beatles get-up for a world where phony Beatlemania had bitten the dust. While the band would go on to produce much stronger albums, In The City is a portrait of a young band who, having grown up on British distillations of American music, set out to reclaim the spirit of the music entirely for a new generation.
The Stranglers – Rattus Norvegicus
Released April 15th, 1977 on United Artists Records
The Stranglers came up rough-and-tumble in the English pub rock scene of the mid-1970s, and it shows. The band formed in 1974 after drummer Brian “Jet Black” Duffy made a ton of money operating a fleet of ice cream trucks. His business success convinced him to get back into drumming, something he had done semi-professionally through the 1950s and 1960s, and he scoured the region looking for potential bandmates. What came together was originally called the Guildford Stranglers and played a regular gig at The Jackpot, an offie that Duffy also owned and operated. After gaining a bit of a following they managed to merge in with the emergent punk rock scene in 1976-1977 to become one of the more memorable First Wave bands.
Rattus Norvegicus, their first album, encapsulates everything that is right and wrong with the external identification of the band with the scene they found themselves in. First, what is wrong. The Stranglers, unlike their contemporaries, were not afraid to get crazy with the keyboards; the band’s sound is as much Dave Greenfield’s manic-Doors keyboard playing as it is Jean-Jacques Burnel’s bouncy, fiercely melodic bass playing. The intro to “Princess Of The Streets” is a gorgeous, haunting arpeggio feature that you would never catch the Clash using, and it’s written in 6/8 time, which is about as un-punk as you can really get. Their music was as much about the Doors and the Kinks as it was about ripping the pub apart and getting the lager lads going.
Then again there are aspects of their music that fit right in with where everyone else was at in 1977. For one thing, Rattus Norvegicus is an incredibly violent record. “Sometimes” is about a knock-down, drag-out physical fight between boyfriend and girlfriend. “Goodbye Tolouse” is a raucous good tune about Nostradamus’ predicted destruction of the aforementioned French city. “Ugly” is a clashing, destructive song that lives up to it’s name in spades. It has great depictions of the “street scene” of the time: “Hanging Around” and “(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)” are both descriptive songs about the life the band was leading during the recording of the album. There’s also the English punk preoccupation with reggae: “Peaches” is heavily influenced by contemporary reggae records although the use of Greenfield’s brittle-glass keyboard sound adds a keening, paranoid vibe to the bounce.
The Stranglers would go on to hit greater heights (peaking with 1982’s “Golden Brown”) but Rattus Norvegicus sets them up as a band – propulsive and yet oddly romantic, violent and a little jaded from the streets. 1977 featured some very impressive debuts – and this definitely ranks among them.
Judas Priest – Sin After Sin
Released April 8th, 1977 on CBS Records
Released on the same day – and on the same British label – as The Clash, Judas Priest’s major label debut is a leap forward in a direction that would solidify the genre of heavy metal as much as The Clash would for punk rock. While it wasn’t the definitive statement of hard rock and heavy metal at the end of the 1970s – that would be their next two albums – it was a definite harbinger of things to come. Rob Halford sounds as though he’s still coming to terms with his shrieking demon wail (he seems even a trifle unnerved on parts of “Starbreaker”) and the rest of the band is playing it somewhat safe in the space carved out by Deep Purple. This last is underscored by the fact that production was handled by Purple bassist Roger Glover. Regardless of this somewhat unsure path, the, er, British Steel that lay within the band was clearly evident on tracks like “Sinner”, “Let Us Prey / Call For The Priest”, and the pummeling “Dissident Aggressor”, which would (many years hence) be covered by Slayer. It’s hard-rocking album, to be sure, but there would be much harder moments in the future. Much harder.
The Clash – The Clash
Released April 8th, 1977 on CBS Records
1977 is widely regarded as “the year punk broke” and there are several reasons for this. The Ramones released their second album earlier in the year, as we discussed. The Sex Pistols would release their only real album later in the year. Between the two, though, is what I feel to be the real heart of punk rock: The Clash.
That’s maybe a controversial thing to say (although, not really) for a few reasons. For one, the candy-coated third wave of punk that broke into the mainstream in the mid-1990s (which, unlike “grunge”, actually called itself punk rock) was built on pure waves of the Ramones and the more melodic part of the Buzzcocks. The only real antidote to that, for kids with access to a radio and little else (weren’t those the days) was Rancid, who were by and large a Clash cover band. Even still, the band didn’t get the sort of legendary status in the 1990s as other bands from 1977 did.
I once went wandering (mostly drunk) with a few friends through a Laurier Brantford residence called The Post House; it was night and we were friends with the RAs, so this sort of thing was fairly normal. We got caught up in a conversation with some of the freshmen about music and the subject of punk rock came up. “Oh yeah!” one of them shouted. “Punk rock is awesome! The Sex Pistols rule, they started it all!” This got me started on a lengthy rant about how the Sex Pistols were the Backstreet Boys of punk, a group of fashionable chatterheads put together by a merchant to sell safety pins to well-heeled slumming Londoners. The Clash, I said, The Clash were what punk rock was meant to coalesce around, because they were strident, political, in touch with the down-and-out working class, and rocked harder than anything else out there. This sounds like total /r/thathappened material but I swear to god it’s true, this was before I learned that if I wrote my stupid opinions down they might seem less obnoxious.
Still, at the risk of sounding like a cut monologue from SLC Punk, The Clash weren’t posers like I felt (and to an extent still feel) the Sex Pistols were. Johnny Rotten and friends were the original edgelords, dressing provocatively and flashing swastikas like it was the coolest thing since the electric guitar. The Clash didn’t need flashy imagery and hip fashion trends to telegraph their seething rage – that’s what the songs were for. From the beginning, people derided punk rock as music for people who couldn’t play their instruments or write songs, but The Clash could do both, and well. They embraced reggae right from the beginning as well, injecting a diversity into the genre that it would have floundered without. They also weren’t afraid to get back to the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, a sound that they would later embrace whole-heartedly on London Calling. The mixture has galvanized bands ever since, and chances are if you see any of those rockabilly folks drinking their hipster beers at places like the Cadillac Lounge, they’re Clash fans deep down.
The only real question, once the brilliance of the album has been established, is which version? The original British release kicks off with “Janie Jones”, a thundering rocker about an infamous London madame. The American release starts with “Clash City Rockers”, a dead ringer for the Who’s “I Can’t Explain”. The American version also has several key songs that the British version lacks: “Complete Control”, a somewhat toned-down version of “White Riot”, a cover of “I Fought The Law”, the early rocker “Jail Guitar Doors”, and the ultimate Clash reggae tune, “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”, which sets out a clear anti-violence, pro-racial unity, pro-socialist message, three things that The Clash and their descendants would go on to enshrine as gospel. The songs these would replace (“Deny”, “Cheat”, “Protex Blue”, and “48 Hours”) are simply not as good as the tracks included on the American version, so…the American version wins.
The band would of course go on to loftier heights (London Calling is often included in discussions of The Greatest Album Ever Made) but The Clash 1977 is the real root of both their later sound and the whole of punk rock.