Jason Magnus reflects on the music of 1977—the year David Bowie released Heroes, punk rock became mainstream and dance music joined the fray
Ifirst heard Sheena Is A Punk Rocker by the Ramones in 1992. I was in Pacific Place, in my final year at Chinese International School, then off to Eton College that summer. In short, the trajectory of a traditional “safety first” Hong Kong adolescence: mall roaming countervailing dependable schooling. The Ramones rebuffed all of this because their “punk” was a wholly rebellious concept. Sheena, for example, was no longer the comic book Jungle Queen; she was reborn a sonic renegade and cut through my safety net.
In 1977, pop music lost its safety net. The Ramones released Sheena while, across the Atlantic, the debuts of the Clash and the Sex Pistols marked the explosion of music’s most belligerent genre: punk. Then, Elvis Presley died. All bets were off. Punk’s prototype nerd, Elvis Costello, stole his hero’s name and punk bands infiltrated the mainstream, showing little regard for the music that preceded them.
The decade’s punk movement influenced many, including U2, who loved the Clash, and Kurt Cobain insisted that Nirvana was a punk rock band first and foremost. It’s also impossible to listen to REM or London Calling without referencing Wire’s Pink Flag.
The spirit of this raucous sound, garage bands playing with reckless abandon, inspired new sub genres. In 1977, three New York bands came to the fore with groundbreaking debuts. Television released an alt-punk masterpiece, Marquee Moon, with Tom Verlaine’s ascending guitar solo in the title track a particularly dazzling moment. Talking Heads was art rock, its blend of Motown, Caribbean rhythms and off-kilter pop silhouetting new wave. Suicide was a cacophonous mix of punk and synthpop that shifted seamlessly across bleak and graceful landscapes. If you want to make your blood run cold, listen to Frankie Teardrop for a journey into hell’s opulence, while Keep Your Dreams will lift you to the heavens on the wings
of angels. Suicide failed commercially, no doubt the public repelled by the band’s uninviting name.
Dance music—almost the opposite of punk, which has to be smooth jazz—also had its year zero in 1977. Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s synth-driven I Feel Love brought disco to the mainstream. And by the end of the year, Saturday Night Fever filled up every dancefloor and became the best-selling soundtrack of its time.
The year’s biggest album, however, showcased neither punk nor disco. Instead, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours was a pop-rock record that sheltered a tormented soul. “I know I could have loved you, but you would not let me”—its most heartbreaking track, Silver Springs, didn’t even make the final cut. Rumours was a phenomenon that produced hit after hit and is proof that, ultimately, the devil is in the melodies.
Icons that coruscated during this stellar year included David Bowie, who completed his Berlin trilogy, and Neil Young, with his blisteringly beautiful reflections on love at first sight in Like A Hurricane. Leonard Cohen took an artistic misstep working with Phil Spector, though his Death Of A Ladies Man contains some of his best material if you can get past the overdubbing. Reggae hit a high point with Bob Marley’s Exodus, and Steely Dan released their jazzrock classic Aja, my favourite album of the year, which includes Deacon Blues, probably the coolest song ever written about a mid-life crisis.
The music of 1977 has a staying power that precludes it from ever experiencing irrelevance. Today, disco’s synthesizers reign over electronic music’s huge landscape, although I hope EDM dies a quick and inconsequential death. Punk is prevalent in any modern-day guitar rock and, 40 years after its release, Rumours is still a staple on radio stations across the world.
In 2007, my dream came true when Marky Ramone played Sheena Is A Punk Rocker at my music festival in Beijing. It was the Ramones song I wanted to hear more than any other. Live in China and in front of 20,000 people, it was the biggest punk rock concert the country had ever seen. Marky later asked me why I called the event Beijing Pop Festival. Rebellious concepts aside, I explained that “safety first” meant no overt dissemination of “punk,” and that “pop” did not mean giving in to mainland censors. I told him my goal was laid out in the opening lines of Stevie Wonder’s 1977 hit Sir Duke: “Music is a world within itself / With a language we all understand.” Marky Ramone, ever the punk rocker, told me he didn’t listen to Stevie Wonder.