Following up on Sound Opions analysis of 1977 as the year punk broke, if there's one album that best characterizes the punk explostion of that time, it was "Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols". Yes, there were punk albums before this --notably the New York Dolls and The Ramones --but the Sex Pistols created a media frenzy and inspired dozens of bands.
The Pistols had released their first single: Anarcy in the UK / Good Save the Queen in late 1976 on EMI records. However, some raunchy comments on the Bill Grundy television show a few weeks later cost the band their record contract. Over the next 9 months, with constant rehearsals, two more label changes and the replacement of their original bass player Glen Matlock and eventually the band launched their debut album Richard Branson's fledgling Virgin Records.
Never Mind the Bollocks had an explosive sound, especially when compared to the overly produced rock and pop music of mid 70's. The Pistols were loud and raw with Johnny Rotten's snarling vocals overtop of Paul Cook's pounding drums and Steve Cook's layered power chords. By today's standards, the music is less shocking than it was, but it still has energy, powerful lyrics and great pop hooks. Standout songs include "Holdiays in the Sun", "Pretty Vacant", "Sub-mission", "God Save the Queen" and "Anarchy in the UK". While there's a certain sameness to a few of the songs like "New York" or "Bodies", on balance it's a great album.
Although the Sex Pistols blew up in early 1978 amidst a tough touring schedule, infighting, drug abuse and the divisive leadership style of manager Malcolm Maclaren, the band's influence has only grown over the years. Rolling Stone rated "Never Mind the Bollocks" as #2 of it's list of 1987's top 100 rock albums of the last 20 years. Q Magazine rated it #28 in its list of top 100 albums. The Sex Pistols influenced bands as diverse as The Clash, The Smiths, The Buzzcocks, Guns n Roses, Nirvana and Green Day and Oasis.
I've read a lot of books about rock and roll: biographies about the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, the Beachboys, Guns n Roses, the Doors, the Clash, the Stranglers, Sex Pistols, Ramones, Kiss, Anvil and probably a dozen others. But none of them hold a candle to the story of Watershed as told in Joe Oestreich's "Hitless Wonder".
I first heard about the book on NPR Weekend Edition and bought it immediately. I devoured it in about 3 sittings. But it's not your typical rock and roll book with a story arc from obscurity to fame and fortune. It starts in obscurity and it pretty much ends there. Watershed scored a mid-90's record contract with Epic Records, signed on with legendary producer Jim Steinman and opened for bands like Cheap Trick and the Smithereens. They developed a huge following in their home state of Ohio which they hoped to launch nationwide.
Unfortunately, Watershed fell victim to record label politics, bad timing and changing musical styles. But where most bands would have broken up and called it quits, Watershed soldiered on, touring and releasing albums without ever having a hit record.
"Hitless Wonder" tells a compelling and lighthearted story about a band that you've probably have never heard of, but should have. If you're willing to look beyond the rock & roll clichés of groupies, drugs and million dollar bashes and want to understand how 99% of all rock musician's who live in the minor leagues, you'll find a touching story about music, friendship and perseverance while riding in a cheap rental van and playing gigs to audiences that don't always outnumber the band. When you finish, you'll wish that Oestreich would have added another hundred pages so you could go on reading. It's that good a book.
By most quantifiable standards, playing in a rock band is stupid. Five paying civilians at five bucks a head means come 2:00 a.m., Watershed will make twenty-five dollars at the door. Divided by the four guys in the band, that's $6.25 each. But nobody will pocket his six-and-a-quarter. We almost never see any cash. Instead we pay. For the gas. For the hotels. For the trips up and down the Wendy's Supervalue Menu. We dig into our pockets to cover five or six shows in a row, hoping to eventually land a high dollar gig that will get us all reimbursed. Sometimes this gamble works, sometimes not. On our most lucrative tours, we come home with a hundred bucks or so. Usually we lose twice that. So we bankroll the gigs the American way: with credit cards. Rock now, pay later. Even Biggie, the tour manager, is out here on his own nickel. The only member of the Watershed camp guaranteed to land in the black is Ricki C., who works for the cut rate of twenty-five dollars a day. And he only turns a profit because he can eat for a week on Hostess cupcakes and skim milk...
In the years since, we've played over a thousand shows, in thirty-four states and 116 cities. We've humped our amps through the doors at CBGB ten times. We've played the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip, The Metro in Chicago, The Rat in Boston. We've played on South Street in Philly, on Sixth Avenue in Austin, at the 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis, and above a gay bar called Rod's in Madison. We've played fifty-eight different venues in Columbus alone. Small's Bar is the fifteenth place we've played in Detroit. We've released six full-length albums; a batch of cassettes, 45s, and EPs; a couple videos; and a DVD. Colin, Biggie, and I have been together longer than The Beatles, The Doors, and Nirvana combined.
Watershed's long haul hasn't been all sparse crowds and dive bars. At one point we almost made it. We were limo'd around Manhattan. We recorded in the same studio as AC/DC, Aerosmith, and Springsteen. We played arenas and amphitheaters, headlining shows in front of thousands, opening for bands everybody's heard of. We were treated to fancy dinners and promised by insiders that we were the Next Big Thing. But we never had a hit song. Never had a video on MTV. Never won the notoriety that comes measured in songwriting residuals or on the Billboard Hot 100. And yet somehow we've stayed in the game for two decades, like a hustling utility man with a great glove but no bat, a hitless wonder.
If you're curious about Watershed's music, here's a short video from their latest album Brick & Mortar which is also available for streaming from their website. Their music is just as good as the book and filled with great melodies, pop hooks and humor. I hope they'll get back on the road for a west coast tour sometime soon.
One of my favorite public radio shows, Sound Opinions, featured a two-part retrospective on 1977 - The Year That Punk Broke.
In 1977, I was just 15 years old and my high school buddy Patrick introduced me to the music that was coming out of the UK at the time and it had a profound impact on me. The podcast does a good job capturing the energy of punk music coming out of London and New York from 1977 and highlights the contributions of the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Ramones, Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Blondie and Talking Heads. Regretably Sound Opinions missed out on some bands that I think were just as influential: Elvis Costello, The Jam, The Stranglers and The Boomtown Rats also released their debut albums in 1977. While some of these bands were punk, others were considered New Wave and still others were just a reversion back to a rawer roots rock style.
When I think back to 1977, it's remarkable both how much good new music came out as well as how much absolute dreck was on the airwaves. Top albums of 1977 included the likes of Fleetwood Mac's Rumors, Pink Floyd's Animals, David Bowie Low, Steely Dan Aja, Meat Loaf Bat out of Hell and Jackson Brown's Running Empty. The contrast is crazy.
There's a timeless, edgy quality to many of these bands that stands the test of time. Television's debut Album "Marquee Moon" remains one of my favorite albums and sounds as fresh and intriguing today as it did 35 years ago.
Unfortunately, very few of these bands endured. Some, like the Sex Pistols and Television all but disappeared within a year or two, though their albums have been hugely influential. Although The Stranglers and Hugh Cornwell continue to tour, they are at best cult bands. Arguably only Paul Weller of The Jam and perhaps Elvis Costello have the broad recognition that's deserved and continue to make music that's relevant today.
The music of 1977 definitely jolted the music industry. In the next couple of years bands like The Rolling Stones, The Who and Neil Young & Crazy Horse were incorporating a rawer rock sound, while new bands like The Police, The Smiths, The Buzzcocks and U2 were inspired by the sounds of 1977. In subsequent posts, I'll take a look at some of the most important albums and bands of 1977s.
Did you listen to these bands in 1977? See them live? Add a comment and let me know your thoughts.