The 77s: Standing the Test of Time
I am a recovering CCM-er. For the first eight or so years of my Christian life (beginning in 11th grade), I believed along with thousands of other Christian youth that CCM (contemporary Christian music) was God's answer to KISS, Styx, and Ted Nugent. After all, "Why should the devil have all the good music?" That's still a legitimate question; I just no longer think that the answer lies between Myrrh and Capitol Records.
As part of my deliverance from the ideology of CCM, I have, with few exceptions, discarded the records that I bought during that period. The safe, spineless synth-pop that passed for music just because it mentioned the name of Jesus simply didn't stand the test of time.
The few albums that did survive my purge included Ping Pong over the Abyss and All Fall Down, albums recorded in the early '80s by four long-haired mavericks who called themselves the 77s. The band sprung from the Warehouse, a ministry to the hippie culture that began in Sacramento, Calif., in the mid-'70s. As such, the 77s defied the CCM strictures of squeaky clean lyrics and safe riffs. They played with abandon, vision, passion, honesty; they banged skillfully on their instruments and screamed prophetically on behalf of a desperate generation—in short, they played rock-n-roll. They also defied the secular-spiritual divide—which CCM strove to maintain—and shared the stage with bands such as the Alarm and the House of Freaks. Ignoring CCM safeguards, but also not catering to the "destructive freedom" of the times, the 77s were (and are) one of the best rock bands you've never heard.
I'm happy to report that their 1987 self-titled release on Island Records (the same label that has brought U2 and other great bands to the world) is available on iTunes! The fact that it bombed when originally released says more about the politics of the music biz than the quality of the music—25 years later, it's still a great album. If you download it in its entirety you're also treated to different versions of the originals, as well as two additional songs from their album Sticks and Stones—eight extra songs in all, transporting diehard fans to 77s heaven.
Five of their other 11 studio recordings are also available on iTunes, including Holy Ghost Building, their last album released in 2008. I suggest you buy them all in time, but begin with the Island release, because it's their best, if for nothing else because of its versatility. Beyond the unique voice of front man Michael Roe serving as the constant, this album is positively eclectic. It begins with the jangly "Do It for Love," which some might label as hopelessly 1980s; but to me, it simply sets listeners up for the hard-hitting "What Was in That Letter" and the even harder-hitting "Pearls Before Swine," an eight-minute lament so sad and heavy that you'd think about ending it if it weren't for the chest-pounding bass that keeps your heart beating long after the song is over. I recommend turning the volume up for the whole album, but especially for those two cuts.
And just when you've pegged them as a hard rock band, the electric-acoustic "The Lust, the Pride, the Eyes and the Pride of Life" fades in, making the folkies among us close our eyes and smile. In fact, they recruited Chris Hillman to play bass on "Lust" to invoke the folk spirit of the Byrds. The album ends with "I Could Laugh," a haunting, disturbing song about teenage angst that bears the mark of "emo-rock" long before that genre existed. Jangle, emo, folk, straight rock, hard rock—the 77s pull them all off brilliantly on this album.
With their musical credentials proven and intact, the 77s sing songs of faith, struggle, love, sex, justice, pain, and joy. They sing about Jesus, but not as "sheep in wolves' clothing," who use rock as the "perfect witnessing tool." Rather, they sing passionately, honestly, and searchingly about things that matter to everyone, from that deep authentic place where Christ resides. If postmodernism has taught us anything, it is that everyone comes from a perspective; the 77s come from the particular perspective of Christian faith. They don't hide this fact; they are who they are, and they sing accordingly: Wanted the Impossible/looked for the impossible/the Impossible found me first. The 77s were (and are) the real deal, and because of that, their old stuff still speaks well into the 21st century.
I wrote this column with two groups of people in mind: first, fans from "the good 'ol days" who may not have known that the band's Island release is now available for download; and second, for those who haven't heard of the 77s until now and have been longing for authentic, classic, holy rock. Whichever camp you hail from, you're welcome.
Al Tizon is convinced that he was born 15 years too late, missing out on being part of the music scene that changed the world. He makes the best of it, however, by turning his iPod way up! He is co-president elect of Evangelicals for Social Action and associate professor of holistic ministry at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University.