Things were not going well for The Seventy Sevens in 1990. They were always considered the bad boys of CCM, willing to take on taboo subjects their brethren wouldn’t dare touch — lust, depression, loneliness — and they delivered it in uncompromised rock and roll fashion. They made waves in a pond that hated to be stirred. Their third album was picked up for distribution by the venerable Island Records, but that happened right around the time of a phenomenon titled The Joshua Tree, and so label chief Chris Blackwell had his calendar pretty much tied up in all things U2. Soon after, the 77s’ original label collapsed, leaving the band with no place to turn back to. Two of the three original members, Jan Eric Volz on bass and Mark Tootle on keys, quit. Mike Roe, vocalist and lead guitarist, found himself with a box of odds and sods and no home for them.
Enter Broken Records, a label distributed by Christian publisher Word, Inc. which was quickly positioning itself as a rock label with a faith-based mindset, the kind of place rabble rousers like The 77s could feel right at home. Taking up the tracks, the label released the disc Sticks and Stones with little to no fanfare and a cover paying homage to an obscure Little Richard disc, no irony intended. Forgetting the family tree and its troubled creation, this album of leftovers is nothing less than full-blooded rock.
The fans knew it all along, from the rambunctious Jerry Lee Lewis-styled barnburner “Perfect Blues” to the moody Cure-like “God Sends Quails” with its insistent mantra, “You failed… you can’t go back, you can’t go back,” to the infectious singalong that is “Nowhere Else.” The most peculiar thing about the album is just how well it gels. One has to wonder if these tracks were written and recorded in quick succession; while some of the songs do feel a little older than others, the whole package feels intentional and properly designed. The highlight track of the album is the seven-and-a-half minute “Don’t, This Way,” a meditation on mourning, or more the utter confusion of confronting someone gone too soon. The lyrics are heartbreakingly worldly, simple and almost childlike:
Don’t leave this way, so many words unsaid
Don’t lie this way, stretched straight from feet to head
Don’t look this way, closed eyes, unmoving lips
Don’t feel this way, cold hands and fingertips
The vocal portion is only about three minutes in length, with the rest of the tune carrying off some of the most sublime guitar work to be heard that year, and it makes guitarists green with envy even now. It’s not the flash or dexterity one might expect, but the clarity of the tone and the feeling Mike Roe wrings out of his guitar cannot be ignored. I’ve made many a mixtape for my guitar-junkie friends and one after another have asked me which classic rock god was making a guest appearance on the track.
The last four tracks are alternate takes of songs that wound up on the ill-fated Island album. One in particular, “The Lust, the Flesh, the Eyes and the Pride of Life,” is notable because it features one of Roe’s music heroes, former Burrito Byrd Chris Hillman. I had the opportunity to ask Roe what that was like. “There wasn’t much to say about it. He was in the studio, did his piece and that was it. It all happened so fast that it was impossible to get all starstruck about it.” That quote came from a home concert he did last year, attended by a handful of New Jersey fans who were lucky to have been at the right place, in the right time, to have caught the music of the Seventy Sevens. There’s no better example of their work than Sticks and Stones.
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