1977 Retrospective: Looking Back 40 Years On

1977 was a year filled with watershed moments for music: from the death of Elvis to the Sex Pistols taking the U.K. by storm, there was truly something in the air. Even the release of the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever in November proved to be a defining moment, allowing disco to take over the following year. Though it was certainly a year for change, it’s also telling that the best-selling album proved to be Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, an album rooted in a more traditional pop sound.

Perhaps this great embracing of a more traditional sound can be attributed to the political uncertainty of the time. While the Vietnam War had ended in 1975, the wounds were certainly still fresh and the continued existence of the Berlin Wall was only managing to increase the tension of Russian-American talks. Ironically enough however, the uncertain political climate in the UK at the time is what allowed punk to not only exist, but flourish as angry youth lashed out the only way they believed they could: through music.

Now that we’re forty years removed from ‘77, it’s quite clear how it was a crucial turning point for both the world and its music. In this regard then, it is a truly a year that is worth looking back on and remembering.

In the year 1977, listening to and owning brand new music took a lot more than an iTunes purchase or a stream on Spotify. Instead of clicking “download” the second midnight strikes, you would have to wait until the morning a new song or album was released. You would then tune in to your local radio station and hope and pray for the DJ to play the song you’ve been waiting weeks to hear. If you wanted a new album, you would have to stroll down to your local music store to buy a copy on vinyl or 8-track, then walk with a skip in your step until you got home and listen to the LP on your record player. It wasn’t until then that you would experience the latest release from your favourite band or artist with overwhelming joy and excitement. Then, if you were lucky enough for your parents to let you go, you would spend a modest ten dollars to go see them in concert at the most popular hall in town.

In 1977, it was easier than ever to hear your favourite artists play their best hits in their purest form: live and in person. Though music is now much easier to get your hands on, there was something about the music technology of the past that allowed for a greater sense of anticipation, excitement and appreciation. A band would record with the latest synthesizers and multi-track recording systems, before finally having copies made and having them sent to music stores and radio stations across the world – all for you to listen to what they’ve created.

As an alternative to rock and roll, pop was an up and coming commercial sound in 1977. Defined as an upbeat variety of rock music, the sound of pop was inspired by 1960s British and American rock music and placed a greater emphasis on professional songwriting and recording craft as it’s form was more profitable, brief and accessible. With clear vocals and harmonies, catchy melodies, and prominent guitar riffs, pop music was aimed at the youth market, becoming popular among teens in the late ‘70s. Perhaps the most recognizable pop-classified album of 1977 was Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, one of the best-selling albums of all time. Recorded using both acoustic and electric instruments, Rumours owed its success to its harmonies and catchy choruses, which gained the band great acclaim. The poppy songwriting aspect of Rumours also attracted the target youth audience, with songs about Fleetwood Mac’s own drama, break ups, and love keeping the audience attentive and obsessed.  

In 1977, the growing pop genre inspired many artists to alter their sound by incorporating some of the trendy characteristics of pop and as a result, numerous iconic and successful albums were created, allowing 1977 to be the witness to the breakthroughs of many bands. For example, Here at Last…Bee Gees…Live by the Bee Gees was released in May of 1977 and sold 4.6 million copies worldwide. Meanwhile, Swedish pop group ABBA’s ABBA: The Album reached number 1 on the charts in many countries including the US and UK, establishing their place as a powerhouse in pop. In October of 1977 Electric Light Orchestra also released their Out of the Blue, an album that ended up selling 10 million copies worldwide and was named a Top 5 platinum hit in the US and UK and is still praised today for its mixture of rock, classical, and electric sounds. In 1977 then, pop music was just beginning to flourish and has proven to have an enduring legacy, with aspects of it still influencing music 40 years later.

While pop had a stellar year in 1977, the year always saw the beginning of the rise of an offshoot of sorts of pop: disco, which is an amalgamation of soul, funk, and pop music all coming together to create one big dancing bonanza. Arriving on the scene during the late 60’s, disco gained little traction until about the mid to late 70’s, which is precisely the time period we’re talking about. Even before its conception, many ‘disco’ artists had been around and playing for sometime but were predominantly funk or pop groups, such as Earth, Wind, and Fire or the Bee Gees.

As for the sound, disco music tended to use a classic ‘four on the floor’ style drumming – given the name due to the bass kick drum being played every beat in a 4/4 time signature – to create a bumping kind of groove that everyone could get down to. A groovy bass line was also employed and combined with synths or electric piano in order to give an extra bite to the music and get people moving on the floor.

Disco as a style went on to nourish the growth of dance music for years to come, laying the groundwork and influencing much of the EDM or electronic dance music that we hear today. Most notably, disco popularized the use of synthesizers, something which proved to be crucial to the continued growth of the dance scene. By utilizing synths to craft catchy beats, disco was able to attain a great audience in a very short period of time. While the public opinion of disco would eventually sour in coming years, its effect at the time was immediate and noticeable, making it deserving of our notice today.

Rock music first emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, influenced by genres like blues and country, which were already something of a sight to behold in those times . The 1970s was a time where rock music began evolving and changing and adding new genres to its already growing repertoire. Rock music in 1977 was especially of note since a lot of the most well known groups were active during this year.  For example, AC/DC, Cheap Trick, and Fleetwood Mac were many of the groups on hand to make sure that their influence would remain for some years to come.

There were many different styles of rock that were beginning to emerge in the year 1977, like heavy metal, soft rock, and many other types. Interestingly, the 1970s was the time when Christian rock began emerging. Rock music in 1977 was definitely something that was interesting to see, as new groups began coming onto the scene, along with new, different, and exciting genres to make the music scene of the 70s a lot more fun and memorable. Of all the genre’s to evolve out of rock itself, perhaps punk is one of the most important.

While ’77 is often seen as the year punk exploded in the U.K., the first punk scene actually sprouted up in New York in the mid-seventies and was characterized, unlike its London counterpart, by no specific ideology. Though the punk ethos had been building in New York since the early seventies, with artists such as Patti Smith and the New York Dolls laying the groundwork, the first full-length punk album wasn’t released until ’76 with the debut of the Ramones. Unlike their U.K. contemporaries however, The Ramones – who themselves released two albums in ’77, Leave Home and Rocket to Russia – were not concerned with politics: rather, they had the simple mission of wanting to make rock fun again. Indeed, the New York scene, unlike the London scene it influenced, was all about the music and innovation, not politics. So while The Sex Pistols were staging a so-called revolution, groups such as the Talking Heads, Television, and Suicide – all of whom released albums in ’77 – were experimenting with the limits of what was possible with rock. Undoubtedly then, New York proved to be the more varied of the two major punk scenes.

When punk crossed the pond, it found a place in London, sparking a soon-to-be influential scene with the debut of bands like The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Damned. The U.K. brand of punk was simple and hard hitting, reflecting their interest in voicing their anger as loudly as possible instead of pushing boundaries in music. In February of ‘77 the Damned released their debut album Damned Damned Damned, marking them as the first U.K. punk group to release a full-length album. By the end of the year, both The Clash and The Sex Pistols dropped their own debuts and the three groups formed the vanguard of the first wave of U.K. punk. Perhaps the most crucial record of the scene is The Sex Pistol’s sole record Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, with an energetic sound of anarchy that swiftly became the trademark of London punk. While many U.K. retailers refused to sell the album, due to its title and now iconic single “Anarchy in the U.K.,” it managed to reach number one on the U.K. album shortly after its release.

Only a week after The Sex Pistols debut, the Ramones Rocket to Russia dropped, highlighting the extreme differences between the New York and London scene. Though it was not their sound originally, the new politically charged form of punk allowed the English it a unique spin and to garner even greater audiences than their American counterparts. Ultimately, ’77 showed two different sides of punk – both of which would prove to have a lasting impact in different ways.

From disco to punk, 1977 was truly a year of change for music. Indeed, only a few years later compact disks would be introduced to the market and would go on to revolutionize music listening. This is something that artists and listeners of ’77 seemed to have predicted in an almost eerie manner as the year saw not only the great success of new genres – punk and disco – but also experimentation in the more traditional genres pop and rock. At the same time however, the great success of Rumours – an album that cannot help but be one of the most defining aspects of ’77 – indicates that there was still a desire for the traditional. 1977 then, was a year of push and pull, reconciling the past with the fast approaching horizon of an almost entirely different world.

For more insight into music in 1977, read our companion piece here, where we explore important albums in 1977.

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