I was born in late 1977, which means I have no personal memories whatever of the year or its music. But I falter when engaging with music in the present tense; I have always been better suited to the retrospective.
Circa 2003 or 4, I participated in a message-board challenge to make a mix CD of music from the year of my birth. I rather gloated at the younger punk fans on the board that I had been born in the Year of Punk, but I also included ABBA's "Dancing Queen" to show how open-minded I was. (A single was released in 1977, but it had first appeared on a 1976 album, which when I began the current project made it ineligible.) That original tracklist, to the best of my reconstruction, was:
Richard Hell & the Voidoids Blank Generation // ABBA Dancing Queen // The Clash Police and Thieves // Iggy Pop Nightclubbing // Brian Eno King’s Lead Hat // Talking Heads Psycho Killer // Wreckless Eric Whole Wide World // Television Marquee Moon // Commodores Easy // David Bowie “Heroes” // Blondie (I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence Dear // Neil Young Like a Hurricane // Elvis Costello Alison // Bee Gees Stayin’ Alive // Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers It’s Not Enough // T. Rex Celebrate Summer // Fleetwood Mac Don’t Stop
Obvious blind spots in retrospect: no disco apart from ABBA and the Bee Gees, no reggae apart from the Clash, no soul or country apart from the Commodores, no jazz or electronic or funk or global music at all. It's very rock, very new-wave (an accurate reflection of my developing tastes in the early 2000s), and very, well, white. Some months later, I would burn a second CD to include the likes of Kraftwerk, Donna Summer, Parliament, and Chic; but it was less carefully sequenced, with more filler, and I played it less often and moved on to other things.
In early 2013, anxious to engage in any time-consuming project that would distract me from unemployment and depression, and to get the most out of the Spotify subscription which was my one tether to the consumer world, I started going obsessively through 1977's music, first building a Spotify playlist out of Rateyourmusic's Top 250 Singles of 1977, and then compiling massive playlists by genre to include the music the rockists who rated stuff at RYM didn't. My musical priorities had shifted quite a lot in a decade, and disco meant more to me now more than punk. I heard a ton of music for the first time, made a lot of connections, discovered new favorites. Annoyed by Spotify's limitations, I started downloading everything they didn't have, and then much that they did just to have backups. I also downloaded stuff that from the general era, just because I had noticed it while discography-diving and it piqued my interest. But it all went into the same iTunes playlist.
Then I got distracted. Partly it was depression taking over, but partly it was just the normal rhythm of waxing and waning interest I have become accustomed to as I try to navigate my various disparate obsessions. I plunged out of music and into pirated European comics, and didn't come up for air for over a year, by which time unemployment at least was no longer an issue. In the fall of 2014, while working two part-time jobs, and given fresh impetus by Sasha Frere-Jones' series of "Perfect Recordings" Spotify playlists, I started combing through everything I had compiled from 1977 and trying to sort it into a single 24-hour-long sequence.
The result was the original mix I posted on Tumblr from Christmas 2014 to Epiphany 2015. Some of my notes from those posts are still relevant, so I'm including an edited version of them below:
The short answer is that I was born that year, and so I’ve always had a certain amount of affection for it.
The long answer is that 1977 could be considered a tipping point, or a flash point, or some other overused metaphor from the sciences, in global musical creativity. Two emergent genres which had made waves in the previous couple of years now found themselves totally ascendant, as punk and disco filled downtown clubs and uptown dancehalls and inspired people in far-flung places around the globe to design and create better, more meaningful lives for themselves and their communities. Other genres were experiencing their own zeniths: soft rock, which tied the emotional honesty of rock songwriting to the lush aestheticization of pre-rock pop production, was flying high, as what would later be identified as yacht rock gave wealth and ennui its pillowy soundtrack; the Cuban-Puerto Rican-Nuyorican melange of musics known as salsa was entering its second decade of transferring old island rhythms to the urgent tempos and cultural compromises of dense urban living, and taking in as much as it put out; improvisational musicians, computer composers, and performance artists danced around one another warily, testing the outer limits of tension and tone; and the first generation of postcolonial musicians, artists, writers, and performers around the world were flexing newly liberated muscles and discovering as if for the first time how powerful they were. In Düsseldorf, a quartet of pale men — in Berlin, a trio of angular, big-eyed expats — in New York City, a mustachioed Italian and a slender Bostonian — were busily engaged in establishing the conditions for the next thirty years of popular music. In the Bronx, block parties and high school auditoriums were rocking to a sound that would transform popular culture, a sound that was just beginning to steal out into the other four boroughs. In London, Manchester, and hundreds of smaller towns in Britain and abroad, a once-guttural roar was busy splintering into factions, movements, and scenes. And in Stockholm, in Bombay, in Tokyo, in Kingston, in Lagos, in Detroit, in Nashville, in Los Angeles, the rulers of their respective pop empires looked out from their vast heights and found themselves still unsatisfied. This mix can only gesture towards the very sketchiest of outlines of a complete picture of music in 1977, but at the bottom of it is a hunger for better and truer experience, some of which would find fullness of expression in the 80s or the 90s or the 00s; most of which, as in all things human, remains unfulfilled today.
Three hundred and twenty-four songs in twenty-four hours leaves an average song length of just under four and a half minutes; although my first loyalty is always to the three-minute pop song, the year in which the twelve-inch single really took off deserves to be documented. Disco, funk, dub, afrobeat, salsa, jazz, fusion, prog, ambient, and experimental music all trends toward longform, and all are represented. Which brings me to the topic of variety. There’s a lot of it! Each hour started out centered around a single genre, and then, as the mix developed more in terms of mood, everything bled into everything else. There are some stylistic transitions on this mix that may only make sense within my own head; but every one of them was carefully chosen. These songs talk to each other, and they have a lot to say. Although I recommend listening to the mix in its entirety unbroken, I also recommend listening to each hour on its own; I designed them to be modular, and each hour should be a satisfying listen. (As long as your tastes line up as eccentrically as mine.) As usual for me with these sorts of mixes, I’m following a one-song-per-artist rule; otherwise I might as well just dump the entire tracklists of albums like Low, Rumours, My Aim Is True, Exodus, or All 'n All onto it. (As it happens, two of those albums are not excerpted at all. There was simply too much music.)
1977 was, among many other things, a peak for the historical moment of album-as-opus; Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, for example, is quite possibly the most perfect pop album ever made, and to a certain extent a mix like this does inevitable violence to the coherent artistic statements I’m chopping into pieces and and doling out à la carte. I’d urge you, if your ear is caught by any unfamiliar, moving, or surprising song, to seek out its parent album. If it has one; because of course 1977 was also a peak for the historical moment of single-as-opus. The twin disruptors of punk and disco took the single as their native format, and while a few great punk albums and great disco albums were made, much of the year’s best music is primarily available in compilation form today. The main thing is that there’s always more where anything you love came from.
Even though the largest audience for this mix will no doubt be other dudes of my relatively decrepit age and melanin deficiency, it was made (forlorn hope) with a younger, more diverse audience in mind. Throughout the process of listening, compiling, sorting, and editing, I was less interested in painting a complete picture of what 1977 actually was (there’s so much boring and treacly and wanky that I’m leaving out) than in working out what 1977 has to say to 2014. 1977 is ground zero for EDM, among other things, and even though the synthesizer patches and sampling technology of the era are more or less paleolithic, the impulse of so many early synth users to to unite rhythm and distortion and weird, previously-unheard noises has only grown stronger over the intervening years.
Nevertheless; 1977 was high tide for rock as All-Consuming Basis of Culture, old enough that it had been part of the fabric of life for at least two generations, young enough that slight variations could still feel vital and fresh, that not every configuration of guitar-bass-drums had been utterly exhausted. (Hip-hop occupies the same general space today; and while there’s no one-to-one correlation to a cultural moment like punk, which was as much a product of journalism as of music in the UK, there’s still enough irreversible tectonic shifting that Migos bears even less resemblance to Jay-Z than the Sex Pistols did to Led Zeppelin.) But I am old, and white, and a dude, and rock has meant a lot to me over the years, partly perhaps because I grew up in a climate where the idea that rock & roll was the devil’s music was an idea to be seriously entertained, if never fully endorsed. My first investigations into music history were organized by the precepts set down by Boomer-centric rock guides, and I have a lot of sentimental attachment to the punk, new wave, and hard rock I learned to love in the years before I rediscovered the omnivorousness of my youth.
Nothing about this mix should be considered objective: like everything else I’ve ever posted, it’s just another way of saying, gaze averted: “this is me.”
More than anything, what I wanted to do with this mix was not to reinforce genre barriers but to dissolve them. There’s rocking out at the disco, there’s dancing in the stadium rock, there’s polyrhythms in the confessional singer-songwriters and there’s plaintive lovelornness in the punk rockers, and reggae, afrobeat, salsa, MPB, and city pop mix together all of the above and more besides.
As of November 2014, the alphabetically-sorted playlist I was working from to create this mix was forty-eight hours long, and I hadn’t by any means listened to everything I wanted to get to in order to make this mix. As far as I’m concerned, I could make this an annual event and never run out of 1977 songs worth sharing.
But then when, a few days after posting the whole mix, I wrote up the tracklisting to nail down the original records and the labels that issued them, I discovered to my horror that I had included about a dozen songs (or, in one case, a remix) that had originally been released either earlier or later than 1977. Dumping everything into the same playlist had blended it all together in my head, and I hadn't double-checked every track before including it. I felt extremely foolish. Dispirited, I wandered away from the project for years. I thought I would remake it in 2017, to coincide with my 40th birthday, but I started making notes, got stuck, and let depression and other interests (this time, twentieth-century modernist fiction) take over again.
In the meantime, friends who had enjoyed my longform mix embarked on their own. Eric Harvey and Brad Shoup have made masterful Spotify playlists covering various years, and in the summer of 2018 Michael Daddino commemorated his 1971 birth with a magnificent 24-hour mix on Mixcloud which is far more musically wide-ranging than any of my mixes. Which, it turns out, was the impetus I needed.
I spent a few days revising my mix to include only music either a) released in 1977, b) recorded then but released later as archival material, or c) in two cases composed then, recorded two years later, and released in the 1980s. Then I spent rather longer hunting down fine art from 1977 which fit with the thematic outlines of each hour. For the 2014 edition I had used my own amateurish black-and-white doodles for cover art, which I'm not exactly ashamed of but which don't fit tonally as well as the pieces I eventually settled on do.
So here it is. 1977: A Year in a Day (Definitive Edition). It's no longer available for download, because the internet is no longer the piracy-friendly as it once was. But you can stream it on this site or, if you click through, on Mixcloud, where clicking the Play All button will indeed stream a 24-hour mix.
I hope you enjoy it. I still do.