Pickled Priest Mixtape: Our Favorite Songs of 1977
Alright, alright, alright, fuck it, let’s get the clog in the drain moving and do 1977 once and for all. I started my “Favorite Songs of the Year” mixtape series a couple years ago and was enjoying the process just fine until I got a case of song choice paralysis when faced with 1977, a year that was both pivotal in my musical evolution and a turning point for popular music in general. I was still finding my way into rock and roll at the time, so I had a bunch of sentimental favorites to consider, many of them songs most wouldn’t deem worthy of sharing the same mixtape with countless punk classics from the era. And disco? How do you blend some classic disco tracks into the mix without fucking up the chemistry? If pushed (and feel free to push me), I could make fifteen incredible mixtapes from 1977 and I’d be delighted with each and every selection. But I stand by my initial rule for the series: What are the first 26 songs I’d pick from the year in question if that’s all I was allowed? With more than two-hundred songs in the hopper, I selected them one at a time until I ran out of room. Clearly, some of the things I valued back then have worn themselves out in later years and I've grown more attached to the edgy punk tracks from the era. This is a different list than the one a pre-teen Pickled Priest would've made in 1977, so here is 1977 in song, ranked in order of preference like it wasn’t hard enough already.
Note: Songs are taken from the year they were released on a formal album, even if a single was released, or became a hit/popular, in another year. If not released on an album, then the release date of the song/single is used. I’m sure I left one off, but that’s life.
26 “Orgasm Addict” | The Buzzcocks
The late-70s are peppered with great Buzzcocks singles, this being their first official one-off (although it followed the Spiral Scratch EP earlier in the year). If any band captured the sound of youth exploding (here, literally) it was the ‘Cocks, thanks to the adenoidal vocals of Pete Shelley and lyrics that follow the path from first discovery to full-blown (here, literally) sex addiction. A song so good, Shelley himself hated it.
25 “All By Myself” | Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers
No, not a cover of the Eric Carmen #2 hit from 1975. Rather, from Johnny’s legendary album with the Heartbreakers, L.A.M.F ("Like a Mother Fucker"), which has been released numerous times over the years, first with a muddy mix that nobody liked, then with the mix supposedly fixed, and again just last year after an original copy of the master tapes was found in an attic. I think they finally got the mix right with the newfound album, which ranks with the great rock & roll records of the 1970s. “All By Myself” is just a bouncy junkyard jam with a nasty hook. A cold read of the lyrics isn’t recommended (I don’t think you understand/What’s that dripping in your hand—ewww!), just rest assured Johnny wants to get in your pants.
24 "I Had a Fight With Love (And I Lost)" | Ann Sexton
Ann is a fringe figure in the R&B world, but she had a voice that could’ve scored with Motown or Stax if she had come of age in the late-60s. So, in the age of classic rock, disco, and punk, what are we to do with a stray soul classic hanging out with the wrong crowd all the way over in 1977? Not only that, but the song was relegated to the B-side of the potent but inferior “You’ve Been Gone Too Long.” I've got an idea what we can do with it. Give it, once and for all, its place of glory as it so richly deserves.
23 “Don’t Dictate” | Penetration
"Don't Dictate," and its empowering chorus "Don't dictate! Don't dictate! Don't dictate to me!" gained some notoriety when it was appropriated by the National Stenographers Union during their lengthy countrywide strike that brought court systems to a virtual standstill in 1978. Their demands seem almost modest now compared to those of today's more high-maintenance unions (they were advocating for enunciation mandates, bi-monthly pedicures, and fingerless gloves on cold days), but back then such "perks" were rare in the workplace. Rumors circulated that they were really a relatively content bunch with mild gripes at most (boring assignments, aching knuckles, no Fresca in the vending machine, the usual stuff), but chose to strike anyway simply because they were inspired by this tailor-made punk anthem. The power of music, once again, alters history for the better. Unfortunately, this fictionalized account is really just shorthand for our main point—that some of the greatest songs are one-shot flashes of brilliance that capture a moment in time perfectly, and then their creators disappear into the ether. This is one of those songs. It remains a mystery why Penetration didn't go on and become one of the great punk bands of the era. Just like Exene Cervenka of X, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, and Penelope Houston of Avengers (just three of our favorites), Pauline Murray* seemed to have the vocal chops to make a larger impact on the musical landscape. Unfortunately, after "Don't Dictate" and a well-received debut album (Moving Targets, which has since become a minor cult classic), you can't help but wonder why such a potent force of nature went limp after that. The band attempted the obligatory reunion years later, but by then their potency had waned. That said, we'll always have this killer track in case some low-grade rebellion is in order.
*As noted in our 2021 Year-End Review, Murray made a triumphant return on Maxïmo Park's comeback album last year on the song "Ardour," which was our #3 track of the year. She adds a killer guest vocal that shows she still has the magic, even at 63 years of age.
22 “Ça Plane Pour Moi” | Plastic Bertrand
This French favorite (heard in numerous movies and TV shows over the years) gallops out of the gate at full speed and eventually careens down the homestretch like it’s about to throw its jockey. The title, translated loosely, means “Everything’s going well for me,” and after one listen to the song, it's hard to argue the point. Riding on a buzzsaw of fast guitars akin to a hybrid of the Ramones and Chuck Berry, there’s a delirious recklessness to the song that is nearly impossible to shake. With backing vocals that sound like they were ripped from a mid-60s Beach Boys single, the song is fun, fun, fun, until daddy takes your French to English dictionary away.
21 “Closer to the Heart” | Rush
And the men who hold high places Must be the ones who start To mold a new reality Closer to the heart
It may seem like a tactical risk to wedge this high-concept, Ayn Rand-inspired philosophy lecture—ripped right from the pages of Atlas Shrugged —in between a bunch of raw punk singles and festooned disco hits, but I find it downright inspiring nonetheless. This is what passed for profundity back in the 70s, especially to easily impressed teens like me, who registered not an ounce of Neil Peart’s lyrical pretensions until it was decades too late. To my ears it was high drama, like the keys to the universe were being handed over, especially when Neil’s dramatic church bell solo ushers the song into the narthex around the 1:00 mark. The song became such a fan favorite live that Geddy Lee shared the lead vocal with his adoring masses for the rest of the band's storied career (as demonstrated on the version from Exit…Stage Left).
20 "Lust for Life" | Iggy Pop
It's officially time to add this song back into your playlists again. Yes, it has been used and abused in recent years in endless commercials and movies; there was a time when you couldn't shake a stick without hearing its primal opening beat. You know the one. The one he pickpocketed from the Supremes' 1966 #1 “You Can’t Hurry Love.” And it's also the beat Australian alt-rockers, Jet, pilfered in broad daylight for use as the foundation of their smash hit, “Are You Gonne Be My Girl” back in 2003. Turnabout is fair play in rock & roll, or so we've been led to believe. But I implore you to listen to the song again with fresh ears and all that ad-space clutter pushed to the side. It's downright nasty, and if you look beyond the dominant rhythm, there's enough street poetry (courtesy of Iggy and co-writer David Bowie) to make Lou Reed jealous. I mean love is like hypnotizing chickens? You can't write a line like that without the liquor and the drugs.
19 “In the City” | The Jam
I grew up in a big city, but it wasn’t until my twenties that I really appreciated it for what it was—an urban playground teeming with youthful energy, unexpected danger, and best of all, music of all varieties everywhere you looked. That’s the vibe found on “In the City,” where the kids are all just over drinking age, full of bright ideas for the future, and naively under the impression that they “know where it’s at.” Of course, we all know most of them are in for a big letdown, but they have to learn that for themselves. The Jam, for a couple minutes, make you truly believe that the kids are alright, as fellow mods, the Who, claimed a decade earlier.
18 “Rockaway Beach” | The Ramones
The Ramones were busy in 1977, depositing two punk classics in the bank—Leave Home and Rocket to Russia. Which makes the task of picking one song nigh impossible. But “Rockaway” has my heart for many reasons and seems like the most accessible distillation of everything the Ramones were all about.
17 “Erotic Neurotic” | The Saints
If you want to know where punk came from, look no further than the Stooges, who paved the way for the genre’s earliest bands. One of those bands was Australia’s legendary Saints, whose snarling debut single "(I’m) Standed," from their debut album of the same name, landed like a sucker punch in a bar fight. It's status as a classic early punk single is not in debate. But if you really want that primordial Stooges rumble, “Erotic Neurotic” grinds like an old rusty chainsaw for its four-minute duration. A length that defies the first premise of punk, which is get the fuck in and get the fuck out....and fast. In many ways, the Saints seemed to follow their own punk path in their early years, likely because of their geographical location. The message that guitar solos were now verboten still hadn't drifted down under at the time of recording "Erotic Neurotic," so mid-song we get some nasty guitar licks that the punk establishment might not have appreciated. Which is why I've always ranked the Saints among my favorite bands of all time. They did what they wanted to when they wanted to with little regard to what was expected. And there's nothing more punk than that.
16 “Heroes” | David Bowie
"Heroes" is literally everywhere, which is—like most classic rock songs—a blessing and a curse. There’s really no arguing its greatness— it’s one of those songs that takes on a different meaning for just about anyone who taps into its distinct, oscillating sound bed as if it has been droning on for eternity waiting for you to land on its frequency. Not surprisingly, it has been a default choice for movie makers over the years looking to harness the exhilarating feeling of experiencing a small, but life-changing, moment that will last in your memory forevermore. From the coming-of-age film The Perks of Being a Wallflower to 2019’s Jojo Rabbit (which used the German version “Helden” to fabulous effect), few songs instill such an immediate mood within just a few seconds. Fittingly, the song makes you yearn for such a moment yourself.
15 “Mannish Boy” | Muddy Waters
I usually prefer my blues stripped-down. The less meat on the bone, the better. But for the remarkable Hard Again sessions Muddy enlisted the help of Johnny Winter to produce and the musicians he put together for the recording (including James Cotton, Willie Smith, Pinetop Perkins, Bob Margolin, etc.) were clearly beyond elated to be in the same room as the blues legend. The camaraderie is infectious, too. I can’t think of another blues record that harnesses the energy in the room quite like this one. This is a band on fire, fully invested, and not interested in being anywhere else on the planet at the moment. Listen to the original Chess version of “Mannish” and then compare it to this one, and you’ll see why another song on Hard Again was titled “The Blues Had a Baby and They Named it Rock and Roll.” For the real rock blues, look no further.
14 "Southern Nights” | Glen Campbell
This Allen Toussaint classic was made famous by Glen Campbell, the first musician I remember obsessing over when I was a little kid (thanks mainly to “Rhinestone Cowboy,” which I played constantly and still adore). "Southern Nights" brings back more memories of my childhood than any other song on this mixtape and there's no competing with personal backstory is there? Sorry Billy Joel, this bumped "Vienna" off the tape. Sorry Fleetwood Mac, there's no time for any of the great songs from Rumours. I love you both, but you got taken out by a song I used to sing at spring camp with my fifth-grade classmates. It was the same night I kissed a girl on the cheek for the first time, too. So, needless to say, I was flying high. So high, it didn't matter that we'd only experienced Northern nights up to that point in our lives.
13 “Barracuda” | Heart
Here, we listen in on one of the ocean’s most merciless predators—the barracuda—on the hunt in its natural habitat. And its stalking soundtrack is as relentless as you’d expect, too. Like the Jaws soundtrack in quadruple time.
12 “Southern Girls” | Cheap Trick
If you grew up in Rockford, Illinois (less than an hour from my front door), you’d be looking for girls just about anywhere else if you were in a rock band. In the grand tradition of the Beach Boys, who ended up passing on the Southern girls in favor of their hometown variety (a show of loyalty, but admittedly a stacked deck to start with), the boys snub the left coast in favor of some sweet southern twang. And one of the great girls songs ever was born.
11 “1 2 X U” | Wire
How great was Wire’s Pink Flag album from 1977? The iconic “1 2 X U” was the album’s 21st and final track!
10 “White Riot” | The Clash
People weren’t really kidding when they dubbed the Clash as “the only band that matters” back in the day. And “White Riot” is proof that they were deeper than just a punk rock band, instead taking on subjects that really mattered to them, like racial profiling by the police. Sound familiar? A song encouraging white people to join in the fight (like the boys did during the Notting Hill riots of 1976), they were sadly saying things during the heyday of punk that people are still repeating decades later.
09 “Lights Out” | UFO
The definitive versions of most of UFO's classic songs can be found on the band's 1979 live album, Strangers in the Night, one of the greatest live albums of all-time. “Lights Out” is no exception. It certainly didn't hurt that the song's “Lights out, lights out in London” chorus was altered to “Lights out, lights out in Chicago” on the album, thanks to the fact the song was recorded at Chicago's long gone International Amphitheater, right here in my very hometown! I love the album version, too.
08 “Solsbury Hill” | Peter Gabriel
I almost didn't believe it when I realized "Solsbury Hill" was released in 1977. It sounds like nothing else on this mixtape and feels era agnostic in a way. The impetus for its creation is well known—Gabriel was suddenly artistically free after his departure from Genesis—and there's a palpable sense of endless possibility in both the music and vocal. Here, we find him on top of a hill (mountains not available in England), released from his burdens, the open sky overhead, the air crisp and clean, and the feeling is clearly liberating for him. For me, the song has always carried with it a spirit of rebirth, adaptable to all kinds of personal travails and challenges.
07 “Black Betty” | Ram Jam
I don’t think Ram Jam could’ve gotten away with cutting “Black Betty” these days, but in the 1970s their take on the old African work song made famous by Lead Belly (whose 1939 version wasn’t even the original) became a major smash hit thanks to a rompin’, stompin’ treatment by this otherwise unknown (for good reasons) white rock band from New York. Good old, shameless appropriation of black culture is rock and roll’s specialty so it was really nothing new at the time. While it was not as controversial, perhaps, as “Brown Sugar” since the song was originally written and sung by black laborers, it still provoked a strongly negative reaction from the NAACP and other racial equity groups at the time. But that didn’t stop the song from getting massive radio airplay in 1977 and ever since. (It also had the honor of being played not once, but twice, at my wedding reception due to popular demand.) Controversy aside, few songs can make you stomp your feet and clap your hands quite like “Black Betty” (well, "We Will Rock You" by Queen, also from 1977, certainly qualifies). A room full of drunk white folk is all you need to prove that axiom.
*While Ram Jam didn't have another hit, they didn't stop releasing some pretty strong bar band rock back in the day. They even had a pretty good sense of humor about it, even titling their follow-up record, Portrait of An Artist as a Young Ram, with tongue firmly planted in James Joyce's cheek.
06 “Anarchy in the U.K.” | The Sex Pistols
I was just beginning to discover my music addiction when the Sex Pistols first appeared in the news, so at the time, they were almost entirely mythical in nature for me. I was a naïve, devoted Kiss fan then, so when I heard stories about Johnny Rotten throwing up on little old ladies in the airport, their sheer existence rattled me to the core. Even though I hadn’t heard any of their music, a few tabloid photos of Johnny Rotten were enough to freak me out. When I first heard the opening strains of “Anarchy in the UK” sometime later, with Johnny Rotten spewing “I am an anti-Christ!” right out the gate punk rock was more of an established societal ill. But imagine its impact in 1976,* a year when the biggest hit single was Abba’s “Dancing Queen.” No wonder people were so rankled by their arrival on the music scene.
*While the single was originally released in late-1976, for this list I’m using album release dates for sanity reasons. Never Mind the Bollocks was released on November 11, 1977.
05 “What Love Is” | Dead Boys
These Cleveland punks, led by revered vocalist Stiv Bators (check out the 2019 documentary, Stiv) and guitarist Cheetah Chrome, were one of those out of town bands that managed to make a name for themselves at New York’s famed CBGBs. You can see why they fit in perfectly, too. Stiv was right up there with the most charismatic frontmen in the Bowery, and the band’s 1977 classic Young, Loud and Snotty ranks with the best punk albums ever made. “Sonic Reducer” gets most of the love on compilations, but “What Love Is” is the band’s homage to the pain of love, punk style. It ain’t pretty, but you can feel every ounce of angst through the music. Or maybe that's the knife pressed against your throat. One or the other.
04 “Brick House” | Commodores
If you’re a rocker, feel free to substitute AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie” in this spot—a ready, willing, and able substitute for sure—but for me, there’s no topping the curvaceous protagonist of the Commodes “Brick House,” with a jaw-dropping 36-24-36 frame in tow. There’s no arguing with symmetry, people. The term “hourglass figure” was developed for good reason. Some of us consider this to be the ultimate winning hand. So, for the girls with a “whole lotta” everything, this is your national anthem.
03 “Psycho Killer” | Talking Heads
It's all about that bass. Tina Weymouth's legendary bass line on "Psycho Killer" is all you hear at the beginning for a reason. It ensures that you follow it throughout (either consciously or subconsciously) no matter what else is added, no matter how unnerving and downright odd David Byrne's vocal gets. I've included the isolated bassline in the video above and it is glorious to behold all by itself. It's the foundation of a song that sounds amazingly innovative for 2022, but must've been mind-blowing in 1977. There was really no precedent for it. For that reason, you may ask yourself, how did they get here? And the answer this time is easy: on a killer bassline.
02 “Stayin’ Alive” | Bee Gees
Speaking of iconic basslines, here's another one. Maurice Gibb's pulsating throb gives the Bee Gees' disco anthem its rhythmic heft and has been rightly celebrated for decades. But there's so much more to the song running parallel with its bottom end. The maraca-like loop that runs the length of "Stayin' Alive" provides the song's metronome, providing a subtle click track for dancers to lock onto while under the influence of mirror balls and strobe lights. And don't overlook the story the song tells, either. Everyone knows the first couplet, "You can tell by the way I use my walk / I'm a woman's man no time to talk," thanks to John Travolta's opening credits strut in Saturday Night Fever,* but there's more here than meets the ear. Granted, it could be argued that the song didn't need great lyrics to succeed—the groove is more than enough—but the lyrics manage to marry the harsh realities of the times (the late-70s really sucked, especially for New York City) with the adrenalin release of discovering an escape, no matter how temporary it may be. Disco was similar to punk in that way—some used anger to release pressure, some used the dancefloor. We're all not that different when taken in that context. Hence, it makes sense to have the Bee Gees and Sex Pistols sharing real estate on the same mixtape of 1977's finest moments.
*Admirably maintaining his swagger despite carrying a lopsided, equilibrium challenging paint-can counterweight in one hand. Try it the next time you're at Home Depot—not easy. While on the subject of the opening scene of the movie, very little has been said about Tony's pizza slice order, which finds him getting two slices, stacking them on top of each other, folding them together, and then scarfing them down with his left-hand sans napkin (adding further complexity to his already compromised, Vinnie Barbarino-foreshadowing gait). This is all you need to see to debunk New York's pizza supremacy claim. If you've got to order two slices and stack them on top of each other to get satisfaction, something is seriously wrong with your approach. And folding pizza? An action that has gone too long without being called out as bullshit. It defeats the purpose and hides the aesthetic beauty of the pizza itself, which if done correctly can resemble a work of art. Get a fucking calzone if you want a mush of toppings wrapped in a doughy, visually underwhelming tarp. Fucking pompous New Yorkers!
01 “Marquee Moon” | Television
Without a doubt, this is my most played ten-minute-plus (non-live) album track of all time. It’s not even close. “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” (13:20 & 12:31 split up on Wish You Were Here) is a worthy challenger, but it doesn’t come near to broadcasting on Television's frequency. Rush's “2112” (20:33) is notable, but it’s broken down into distinct parts, so I don’t really think it qualifies. “Sister Ray” (17:31), another lengthy fave that is surely still droning on in some air pocket over Midtown Manhattan, is eclipsed by "Moon" by at least a factor of 50:1. Perhaps “Desolation Row” (11:20) was the reigning champ until this song appeared on my radar years ago. It's not easy to hold attention for ten full minutes. It's so rare, you remember the bands able to pull off such an ellusive achievement. (Hence, our annual "Best Long Songs" award.) While all these songs are also life-changing in their own way, I can't see “Marquee Moon” ever losing its top billing.
So what is it about the song that entrances me so? Well, for starters, it's one of the greatest guitar songs of all time. Not even up for debate, at least with me. Its indelible recurring guitar motif ties the track's sprawling scope, shifting tempos, and guitar solos together with the artisanal craft of an ancient bookbinder, which is a substantially more nuanced and complicated achievement than one might think. In fact, the distance between the motif's final two appearances is almost four-and-a-half minutes, understandably deferring to Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd's intuitive and world-creating guitar interplay for most of the song's second act. But when it returns, it's quite a thrill. Like finally getting to your destination after a meandering, frenetic cab ride from Soho to the Upper West Side. The build-up is pure machine-revving tension, the payoff, to quote Verlaine's own poetic words (Tom Verlaine, of course, and not French poet Paul Verlaine, from whom Tom Miller stole his name), is like "lightning striking itself." Which leads to the discussion of Tom Verlaine’s mysterious poetry, delivered by his unusual, pinched-nose wail, which is routinely smothered by all the heavy debate about the greatest guitar albums of all-time, a list for which Marquee Moon routinely qualifies. As with most card-carrying poets, you're not allowed to know exactly what’s happening (or if it's all just mumbo jumbo masked as profundity), but here an economy of words doesn't diminish the song's ability to craft yet another identity for itself, one also worthy of getting to know intimately. His words seem centered loosely around the thin line between life and death (“I remember, how the darkness doubled"), and while ominous at times, there always seems to be a crack of light visible through the skyscrapers. That's why the song seems simultaneously city and stratosphere, delivering relatively small thrills and exhilarating transcendence.
Pipeline unclogged! That's it for now. Perhaps I'll try an easier year next time to get the flow back. Until then...