Sacramento’s 77s (interchangeably known as Seventy Sevens) was among the first bands in the Christian music underground to attract notice outside the confines of church basements. This was due to several factors. First, they actually had a clue as to what was going on in current music, rather than delivering a warmed-over Christianized version of what had been popular five years earlier. They also downplayed overt evangelism in favor of vaguely spiritual uplift, which fit in quite nicely with the post-U2 Big Music of the mid-’80s, where it was commonplace for groups like the Alarm, the Waterboys, Big Country, Simple Minds and Cactus World News to pepper their work with quasi-religious jargon. Most important, in the person of Mike Roe they had a frontman with genuine rock star charisma. Coming off like a cross between Lou Reed and Bono, Roe actually made Christian music seem cool.
The 77s’ early reputation was formed on the basis of blazing live shows. It surely wasn’t based on Ping-Pong Over the Abyss (produced by the Alpha Band’s Stephen Soles), a debut which even the band’s most loyal supporters concede is crap. Besides weak material and lousy sound, it’s a scattershot attempt to locate a style that works. When the best thing about an album is that the Ocean Blue used to cover a track from it (“Renaissance Man”) in concert, you know it’s not one for the ages.
All Fall Down, produced by fellow Sacramento scenester Charlie Peacock, is much better. As a whole, it’s not especially good, still hindered by the annoying tendency to flit from style to style, but an acceptable portion of the individual songs hit the mark, from the synth-pop opener “Ba Ba Ba Ba” to the tom-tom happy rave-up “Mercy Mercy” and the Police rip “Make a Difference Tonight.” The 77s’ hipster cred got an enormous boost from the arrival of Romeo Void’s Aaron Smith on drums (the fact that he was a monster drummer didn’t hurt, either). All Fall Down was definitely a step in the right direction.
A small buzz was by then building around the Sacramento scene, centered on the 77s, Charlie Peacock, Vector and Bourgeois Tagg. A&M Records did a deal with local label Exit to release All Fall Down and Lie Down in the Grass, Peacock’s excellent synthesis of synth-pop and jazz. Both albums did well enough that Island swept in and signed the 77s (and Peacock as well). The sole result of that union, Seventy Sevens, is their first indisputably great album. The lead-off track, “Do It for Love,” is built around a bravura Smith percussion performance and a soaring guitar line, making it one of the best anthems of the Big Music era. A Byrds tribute titled “The Lust, the Flesh, the Eyes and the Pride of Life” goes straight to the source by bringing in Chris Hillman to play bass and sing harmony. (Lyrics from the song would later be lifted by 311 for “I’ll Be Here Awhile.”) A powerhouse live performance of the ominous “Pearls Before Swine” captures the 77s at their onstage peak while the acoustic “I Could Laugh” features Roe at his most Reed-like, contemplating the end of the world. (Ping Pong Over the Abyss, All Fall Down and Seventy Sevens were later reissued as a box set entitled 1 2 3.)
Tours with the Alarm and House of Freaks brought the band to a wider market, but shortly after recording the live Eighty-Eight (named after the year it was made, three years prior to its release), the 77s surprisingly pulled the plug. Roe marked time with More Miserable Than You’ll Ever Be, a box set of rarities and demos containing a CD, a cassette and a 45, under the Love-honoring name Seven & Seven Is. A cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Jesus” is the most worthwhile item on this otherwise ignorable issue.
Roe did more housecleaning on 1990’s Sticks and Stones, another collection of unreleased tracks and demos. Unexpectedly, it’s by far the 77s’ best album. Nearly every track is a keeper, making Roe’s liner-note explanations as to why they were originally set aside seem clueless and wrongheaded and raising the possibility that the man has no ear for his own best work. “Nowhere Else” and “MT” are near perfect examples of late ’80s alt-pop, with “MT” later achieving heavy rotation in the background on Beverly Hills 90210. “God Sends Quails” is a great, lumbering bass-heavy drone, while “The Days to Come” is upbeat jangle-rock. The fact that Sticks and Stones contains demo versions of Seventy Sevens‘ two best songs (“Do It for Love” and “The Lust, the Flesh, the Eyes and the Pride of Life”) make it the album to seek out for anyone who feels the need to own only one 77s album.
Positive response to Sticks and Stones convinced Roe to reactivate the band with a new lineup. Whatever mainstream momentum had been built up by Island had evaporated, so it was back to Bibleland for the group. Horrified label reaction to Roe’s original album title (Pray Naked) led to it being released as another eponymous disc. The second Seventy Sevens reveals the second Seventy Sevens (the band) to be a much tougher-minded outfit than the original, eschewing that lineup’s pop-leaning sensibilities in favor of a rawer, bluesier Led Zeppelin-inspired sound. The highlight is the eight-minute “Pray Naked,” which the label steadfastly refused to acknowledge existed, making it the rare instance of an album’s title cut being a hidden track.
The live Echoes o’ Faith was recorded during the ascendancy of MTV’s Unplugged, when it seemed every band, no matter how popular or obscure, was itching to transform itself into a coffeehouse acoustic combo. As such, this gets the job done as a pleasant acoustic reworking of older tunes.
Drowning With Land in Sight continues in the Zeppelin vein (right down to the opening rendition of “Nobody’s Fault but Mine”) with diminishing results. Roe is in a particularly pissy mood throughout and seems uninterested in delivering anything resembling a memorable tune. Tom Tom Blues is cut from the same cloth, but at least contains the loopy, raga-inspired “Rocks in Your Head.” Otherwise, the ratio of blah to good remains distressingly high. Live sets from the era proved that the 77s were still an inspired act on stage, but their recorded output is nothing to clear space on the shelf for.
Roe again shelved the 77s to concentrate on his membership in the alt.Christian supergroup the Lost Dogs and recharge his creative batteries. Judging from the untitled EP which heralded the 77s return, he needed to stay plugged into the charger a bit longer: it’s a completely unmemorable exercise in faceless guitar rock. The subsequent two years made a big difference, though, as A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows is the first completely good 77s album since Sticks and Stones. Roe finally remembered how to write a hook, and did so on “U R Trippin,'” “One More Time” and the excellent “Mr. Magoo.”
Roe released several solo albums along the way, none of which are essential, but they’re not awful, either. Safe as Milk is a mellow singer-songwriter affair released in two different versions: one for the Christian market and one for the secular, which includes an implied obscenity, a definite no-no in the Christian music field. The Boat Ashore, which continues in the same vein, is a much better collection of ’70s so-Cal inspired lite rock. Worth a listen if it should ever cross one’s path. Say Your Prayers is an outright praise and worship album, best suited for spinning to church youth groups. Roe has also recorded albums of instrumental jazz-rock with sometime 77s member Mark Harmon (not the actor).
Roe and Harmon’s resurrection of the Seven & Seven Is name is more noteworthy. Fun With Sound is an above-average collection of adult-alternative contemporary soundscapes. Outright pop hooks are few, but the extended grooves are tunefully mellow, and Roe is in good voice throughout, sounding like a Dan Fogelberg album inspired by U2’s “Bad.” One of Roe’s better endeavors and not at all an unwelcome future direction, should he choose to pursue it.