The Seventy Sevens
The Seventy Sevens
Christian rock group
According to Mark Allen Powell in the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), the Seventy Sevens "are typically regarded as one of the two or three best Christian rock bands of all time." Powell noted that the band has received critical acclaim, and that although their fan base is not large, the "fans they have are intensely, even maniacally, loyal."
The band got its start in the early 1980s at a small church, Warehouse Ministries in Sacramanto, California, where the pastor, Louis Neely, thought that music would draw young people into the congregation. He called on musical members of the congregation to organize a rock band for the sole purpose of evangelizing. Seventy Sevens' founder, Mike Roe, told Powell in CCM that the music the band peformed "was not art. It was strictly pragmatic, an evangelistic tool." At the time, the band was known as the Scratch Band, Roe said, "because we were thrown together from scratch."
At first, "I thought I was supposed to make all my songs like evangelistic tracts," Roe told Ted Olson in Christianity Today. However, he added, "After a while, you don't want your music to be just propaganda. You want it to stand outside of its context."
Neely went on to establish Warehouse Christian Ministries, sponsor a radio show, Rock and Religion, and build a recording studio, Exit Records, which was devoted to producing Christian music. One of the bands he signed was the Scratch Band, soon to become the Seventy Sevens. According to Powell, as the band made this shift, Roe began working toward his goal of broadening the meaning and context of his music. Powell quoted writer John Thompson, who wrote in his book Raised by Wolves, "[The Seventy Sevens] blended everything from new wave to Zeppelin to the Crampz to U2 into a musical spasm that worked on every level…. The band was tight, and the Seventy Sevens quickly earned respect as one of the most skilled bands ever to play in the Christian market."
Members of the fledgling Seventy Sevens included lead vocalist and guitarist Michael Roe, keyboard player Mark Tootle, bass player Jan Eric Volz, and drummer Mark Proctor. The band's first album, Ping Pong Over the Abyss, showed that the band had not completely abandoned its propaganda-driven origins. With songs like "Renaissance Man," which had lyrics such as "You can go to your college, you can go to your school/But if you ain't got Jesus, you just an educated fool," the album fell short of what the Seventy Sevens would later prove they could deliver. Powell quoted Brian Quincy Newcomb, who wrote in CCM that the album's flaws included songs that were merely "witnessing tools and apologetics … as opposed to personal artistic statements." According to Powell, Roe later said, "I consider it a Scratch Band album. That album should never have gone out under the name of the Seventy Sevens."
For their next album, All Fall Down, the band added drummer Aaron Smith. Thompson described the album as having "a heightened sense of texture, lyrical vulnerability, and candor." According to Powell, Thompson also wrote that the album was "one of the most important records of the Christian music genre, an album that would influence an entire generation of other musicians." The album's influence was heightened by the fact that it was distributed by mainstream label A&M, and enhanced by a video for one of its singles, "Mercy Mercy," which was briefly shown on MTV. CCM chose the album as one of the Ten Best Albums of 1984.
Following the success of this album, the band shied away from being labeled as "Christian," hoping they could make the transition to a major mainstream label. "The minute you're called a 'Christian' band it becomes a cartoon," Roe told Mark Brown in the Rocky Mountain News. "We felt our music and art were legitimate and didn't want to ghettoize it in any way. That limits your throw. We wanted to have the widest throw possible."
In an attempt to cross over to the mainstream, in 1987 the band released a "debut" album titled The Seventy Sevens on Island Records. However, the debut was overwhelmed by the release of U2's phenomenal album The Joshua Tree by the same label in the same year. The Joshua Tree drew so much attention from the public that the label's other releases were lost in the shadows. Even so, according to Powell, Rolling Stone critic Margret Mifflin commented that the Seventy Sevens "have come up with a sound that suggests not only that they know where they're coming from, but also that they're going places."
Perhaps because the album didn't receive the attention it deserved, it did not take the band into the mainstream as they had hoped. Roe told Powell that the failure convinced him that he would not achieve widespread acceptance and commercial success in the mainstream market. He concluded that he should drop the idea and concentrate on the artistic merit of his music: "I figured, if we can't get on the radio with [this album], well, it isn't going to happen."
In 1992 the band broke up and then re-formed, with Roe and Smith and new members David Leonhardt and Mark Harmon. They recorded another album, also titled The Seventy Sevens by the record label, although the band called it Pray Naked. The band's own title was meant to refer to prayer in which one was totally honest with God, but many conservative radio stations, marketers, and listeners found the title offensive. The official name The Seventy Sevens simply resulted in confusion with the earlier album by the same name. According to Powell, the album was "probably not one of the best Christian albums of all time, but it's a solid collection of alternative rock and pop songs."
On 1994's Drowning with Land in Sight, the band included a cover of Led Zeppelin's song "Nobody's Fault but Mine," which was originally a gospel song performed by Blind Willie Johnson. The band combined Zeppelin-style playing with the original Christian lyrics of the song, setting the tone for the rest of the album. In addition to drawing from Zeppelin, the band was influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Alice in Chains, and Black Sabbath while making the album. They also incorporated their own emotional struggles into the songs: Roe's marriage was heading toward divorce, and Leonhardt was undergoing cancer treatments for Hodgkin's disease throughout the creation of the album. Although some listeners were uncomfortable with these darker emotions, Roe felt that this emphasis on darkness and suffering fit into the Christian concepts of sin and struggle, and the resulting need for Christ as savior. According to Powell, Thompson called the album "one of the best records the Christian music industry has ever seen."
In 1995 the band changed its membership again; Leonhardt and Smith left, and the band now consisted of Roe, Harmon, and drummer Bruce Spencer. The new trio produced Tom Tom Blues, an eclectic collection of tunes inspired by such diverse artists as Jimi Hendrix, Tommy James and the Shondells, and Tom Petty.
For the Record . . .
Members include Mark Harmon (joined group, 1992), bass; David Leonhardt , guitar; Mark Proctor (left group, 1984), drums; Scott Reams (joined group, 2000), guitar, keyboards; Michael Roe , vocals, guitar; Aaron Smith (group member, 1984-95), drums; Bruce Spencer (joined group, 1995), drums; Mark Tootle (left group, 1992), keyboards, guitar, vocals; Jan Eric Volz (left group, 1992), bass.
Group formed in Sacramento, CA, early 1980s; known briefly as The Scratch Band; released debut album, Ping Pong Over the Abyss, 1982; released albums All Fall Down, 1984; The 77s, 1987; 7&7 Is More Miserable Than You'll Ever Be, 1990; Sticks and Stones, 1990; 88, 1991; Seventy Sevens (Pray Naked), 1992; Drowning with Land in Sight, 1994; Michael Roe Safe as Milk, 1995; The 77s 123 (boxed set), 1995; Tom Tom Blues, 1995; Michael Roe the Boat Ashore, 1996; Echoes o' Faith, 1996; EP, 1999; Late, 2000; Radioactive Singles, 2000; A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows, 2001.
Addresses: Office— The Seventy Sevens, P.O. Box 5, Wentzville, MO 63385-0005. Website— The Seventy Sevens Official Website: http://www.77s.com.
In 2001 the band produced a long-awaited album, A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows, which Powell called "one of the group's finest works." Powell noted that "there is probably no other [Christian music group] that would offer a better entry point for open-minded fans of classic rock … to discover what the parallel universe of Christian music sometimes has to offer." Roe agreed that the band's music should not be pigeonholed. "We don't fit into any corporate structure whatsoever," he told Mark Brown. "Our music is essentially American music. It no more belongs in a church than in an alleyway. It belongs to anyone who digs it."
Ping Pong Over the Abyss, Exit, 1982.
All Fall Down, Exit/A&M, 1984.
The Seventy Sevens, Exit/Island, 1987.
7&7 Is More Miserable Than You'll Ever Be, Alternative, 1990.
Sticks and Stones, Broken, 1990.
88, BAI, 1991.
The Seventy Sevens (Pray Naked), BAI/WAL, 1992.
Drowning with Land in Sight, Myrrh, 1994.
Michael Roe Safe as Milk, VIA, 1995.
The 77s 123 (boxed set), VIA, 1995.
Tom Tom Blues, Brainstorm, 1995.
Michael Roe the Boat Ashore, Innocent Media, 1996.
Echoes o' Faith, Fools of the World, 1996.
EP, Fools of the World, 1999.
Late, Fools of the World, 2000.
Radioactive Singles, 77s, 2000.
A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows, Fools of the World, 2001.
Powell, Mark Allen, editor, Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music, Hendrickson, 2002.
Christianity Today, October 7, 1996, p. 84.
Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), February 2, 2001.
The Seventy Sevens Official Website, http://www.77s.com/ (December 9, 2003).
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