The numbers have changed but the beat goes on. Tony Cummings charts the history of rad rockers the SEVENTY SEVENS.
There seems to be an unwritten rule in the rock world that the more 'on the edge' a band's musical approach the more likely it is that they'll fold after a year or two. History is littered with rad rockers who found that the audience apathy wrought by the fickle face of fashion brought early disbandment. Two years of cutting edge rock is a long time, five years a lifetime. Yet Sacramento's premier Christian rock team the Seventy Sevens have managed to make utter nonsense of this pattern. They have survived personnel changes, have officially split up at least once yet have come bouncing back and are currently enjoying their greatest popularity ever. The Seventy Sevens have achieved all this without a stream of albums to bring creative, not to mention monetary, satisfaction. The group have seen only a paltry five albums released in their 12 year history. Yet each has a musical delight with their latest The Seventy Sevens' being not only their best seller so far but showing that the band, far from retreating into geriatric re-runs of past glories, are continually adding new sounds and influences to their musical mix. "I would describe it as an album of extremes," says the band's founding father, lead singer and guitarist Mike Roe. "It's on the extreme right. There is no middle ground on this record. Half of it is very sweet, very produced pop music (with) gilded guitars and vocals, and very memorable pop melodies. The other half of it is very hard, or very intense, rock of different kinds: rockabilly, doom and gloom, alternative.
"That goes lyrically as well," continues Roe. "The lyrics describe people who are at the literal end of their emotional/spiritual tethers. So I think the (lyrical) extremes on the record mirror the extremes in the music."
Roe explains how God can transform our extreme instances of aberration into situations where we can better understand and appreciate his persistent care for our needs. "What I've always found," explains Mike, "is that he's never closer than in these times; if you're willing to acknowledge it and be sensitive to it. And it's a work that God generally does. If you're really that messed up and nothing's working, God knows and he's there. Generally he's the one who will make a move. That's what I've found. I didn't have to go and find some big spiritual strength to carry this thing on my shoulders, because the whole message of the Gospel is that it is something that God does for us first."
It was in 1981 that the 77s (they used numbers then) first emerged onto the Sacramento rock club scene. Soon they were the hottest band in the area, alongside another team Vector, fronted by Charlie Peacock. The two bands became the cornerstone of a kind of Sacramento rock music collective called Exit Records, formed by music biz veteran Mary Neely. Exit got a manufacturing and distribution deal with the Christian music giant Word Inc. The 77s' debut album on Exit 'Ping Pong Over The Abyss' was a revelation to those Christians hungry for music that reflected the brash abrasiveness of post-punk rock music and could find nothing in the emerging Christian music market place other than polite pop rock. Unfortunately, as happens with most pioneers, recognition for the 77s outside of their adoring Sacramento clubland following was scarce. Being before the emergence of America's fanzine-driven Christian music underground, Christian music was largely safe music. An invitation to appear at the 1983 Greenbelt was probably the most that 'Ping Pong Over The Abyss' achieved for the band. The release of their 1984 Exit album 'All Fall Down' showed the band had developed an even rawer, and almost anarchic, sound with a spectacular stage act that consisted of Mike Roe rolling across the stage. Such antics startled the youth fringe audience at Spring Harvest but performed an event that saw the band's new drummer Aaron Smith give his life to Christ. The band had now settled on its classic early line-up: Mike Roe (vocals, guitar), Mark Tootle (keyboards), Jan Eric (bass) and Aaron Smith (drums). Word Inc were unable to find any way to get Exit Records' radical music output onto America's still conservative radio station airwaves. But all was not lost. Despite smallish sales, critical opinion about Exit's roster of artists (Charlie Peacock, the 77s and Vector) convinced the Sacramento Company that they had located the loadstone of the music industry - serious talent. There began for the Exit artists a torturous pursuit that has in the past proved a painful journey for more than one Christian musician, the search for the 'secular' deal. It was finally secured in 1987 with Chris Blackwell's Island Records. Momentarily, Christians with rad culture sensibilities began to talk about a breakthrough with the Island/Exit deal getting Charlie Peacock and the Seventy Sevens in the "real world" market place. But Island were going through a major corporate shakeup and both Peacock's and the Seventy Sevens albums were slipped out with little fanfare or promotion. Not surprisingly, they bombed. The Exit/Island album The Seventy Sevens' was a brilliant piece of work. Dense, intelligent rock bristling with bombastic rhythmic ideas and with Mike Roe's voice ducking and swooping like a demented banshee across classic songs like "The Lust, The Flesh, The Eyes And The Pride Of Life" and "Do It For Love". Its sales failure could have marked the end for the 77s. Mike Tootle left the band. Mike Roe began working on solo demos, and with Charlie Peacock signing with Sparrow Records Jan Eric took up in an official capacity a job he'd been doing unofficially for some time - Charlie's manager. The Seventy Sevens were, for all intents and purposes, dead and buried. Remembers Mike Roe, "When we broke up...I started to realty search my soul and ask, 'Do I really want to do music? i mean, it's making me miserable. What is the point of this?' And it only came when all of a sudden we got this great outpouring of fan mail. And people started writing for no reason, saying, 'You know, we really love this music. It's meant the world to us. It's changed our lives. When are you gonna make another record?"
The American Christian public's taste had finally caught up with neo-punk, cutting edge 77s. To meet the new interest in the band, tapes both intended for release and 'demos' were taken out of the archives and released on a do-it-yourself compilation through Broken Records in the States and Spark Music through Europe.
A new 77s emerged in 1989 as a five-piece though after a few festival gigs it had scaled down to Mike Roe (vocal, guitar), Mark Harmon (keyboards) and David Leonhardt (guitar). Amazingly, the Seventy Sevens were in the States a hot Christian band. The song "MT" from the odds-and-sods 'Sticks And Stones' compilation topping the US Christian rock charts in March 1991. For a while Mike Roe busied himself with solo projects, a privately produced solo album and his highly acclaimed back to the roots celebration with fellow rad rockers Deri Dougherty, Terry Taylor and Gene Eugene under the Lost Dogs moniker. But by 1992 the long expected new Seventy Sevens' record was all but complete. Its titling caused considerable controversy. Named 'Pray Naked', Word Inc got cold feet about the sensibilities of the Christian bookstores and at the last moment insisted that the offending title be pulled from the sleeve. So the Seventy Sevens ended up as the first band in recording history to have two completely different eponymous titled albums! Says Mike Roe, "I thought 'Pray Naked' made a good slogan. It sounded like something from California that you'll see on a bumper sticker. Surf Naked, something like that. I just figured why not?" Tongue in cheek Mike adds, "It's the Christian teen anthem of the 90s."
Despite recognising the literal second lease of life given to the Seventy Sevens by the Christian subculture Mike Roe is still less than enamoured by Christian bookstore distribution. In 1992 he told The Cutting Edge magazine, "To go in on a Christian label and have your royalties split in half is a joke. All they do is put it in stores. That's good because if you go into a town and play at a club or something, people who would never darken the door of a Christian bookstore will go into a record store and think you are legit. As it is now, they come up and say, 'We love your band, but where do we find your records?' Urn, well, just write to me and I'll mail one to you. I think it's really unfortunate that this whole subculture is mired in a system of marketing that's really about fifty years old. It doesn't have anything to do with the 90s. These elderly women are selling your product along with plastic Jesus' and flannel graphs of Peter and the lambs! It's fascinating! I remember my mother taking me to places like that when I was a little kid and they were out of date then. The selling of modern music in this venue is a real strange thing. There needs to be a way that this music can be brought to the masses that makes more sense. I'm not sure it will ever change because I think too many people are making money off it. It's a comfortable little cottage industry."
Britain's version of the comfortable little cottage industry has so
far refused to distribute the truly superb 'Pray Naked-cum-Seventy
Sevens'. So for the moment fans of possibly Christendom's finest
gigging rock band will have to search out an import. In the meantime
in his most recent interview, despite the frustrations, Mike Roe and
his fellow Seventy Sevens seem content to serve the Christian
community. It was the shoals of Christian fan mail which did the
trick. "It was God's way of showing me that I need to tend this little
garden. If it never grows more than just the few that are in it now,
this is still the field I've ploughed, and I need to nurture it. Maybe
it's all I'll ever have in my entire life. And once I came to the
realisation, and could rest in it, that's when it began to take on a
whole new meaning, and a whole new life for me. I wasn't worried about
attaining teenage stardom anymore. I was just content to do the