A Guest Feature by Michael Roe, Randy Layton, Jeffrey Kotthoff, and JJT
(Tour Announcement At End)
(In 1989 one of my favorite bands, The 77s, released a side-project / hybrid / mystery disc that I was more than happy to help bring about through the support of True Tunes – my store / magazine / mail-order company. Now, 25 years later, questions are answered, shadows illuminated, mysteries revealed, and tracks remastered. Once again, I am honored to play a small role in helping to get the word out about this worthy project. -JJT)
7 & 7 is ……. 14? Your favorite highball? The blitz proto-punk 1966 single by the group Love? The number 77 separated with an ampersand to indicate that something is in the middle, separating and fragmenting its numerical unity? The 77s with some members missing seeking to capitalize on the band’s logo as a clever marketing ruse in order to disguise and then sell what are technically non-77s records to their fiercely loyal fan base?
Any of these answers, in any combination or taken all together, are correct. Or not. The phrase is an unanswered question, and in the case of fans of The 77s, the answer continues to blow in the wind. I can, however, offer some clarity to the conundrum by attempting to explain how and why this phrase was used for the record album you now hold in your hands, as well as how it has continued to be used now and again to differentiate an official 77s recording project from.. well, whatever 7 & 7 is.. The following is an interview that took place between myself, Randy Layton (Alternative Records), John J Thompson (formerly of True Tunes), and Jeffrey Kotthoff (Lo-Fidelity Records. All key players in the life of “More Miserable Than You’ll Ever Be” ~ past, present, and future. ~ Michael Roe. April 2014
In March of 1989, the second 77s personnel lineup consisting of Mark Tootle, Aaron Smith, Jan Eric and myself, had split apart amidst circumstances too byzantine to recount. I had also left my A&R job at Exit Records – our primary record label during most of the 1980’s – and was casting about for a new way to make a living. During the months that followed the group’s split, I continued to write songs with the hope that I would eventually record them either solo or with some new musicians.
One of the first projects I involved myself with was a power pop trio called ‘The Magnets’ featuring Larry Tagg and Michael Urbano, alumni from our Island Records label mates Bourgeois Tagg. The material, some of which is being heard for the very first time in this new collection, was challenging but very exciting. However, as I began submitting tunes to the group that were previously written for The 77s, I began to develop a troubling sadness and internal conflict that I couldn’t shake. It was if as those 77s-intended tunes were triggering some sense of unfinished business with myself, my previous band and, most importantly, with the fans that loved and supported us all those years previous.
I continued to rehearse and record with The Magnets, but I longed for an additional musical outlet for the songs I’d been writing that weren’t appropriate for this aggressive new band. They were gentler … softer … or in some cases, just the opposite, but way too ‘old time rock & roll’ for a modern group. It was at this point that I also began to miss working with my new best friend David Leonhardt, who had become my right hand man and confidante, first during his tenure as guitar tech and stage manager for The 77s, and later as my songwriting partner and co-worker at Exit Records. Dave and I had developed a strong rapport that was just beginning to blossom around the time that The 77s and Exit Records fell apart, and I was really missing working hand in glove with him on a daily basis. We were both now unemployed and bitter about the loss of our jobs and band, and depression was about to give way to despair.
Now keep in mind that, at this point, neither The 77s’ flagship Sticks & Stones collection, nor our now considered ‘classic’ live album 88, had yet been released. As far as our fans knew, we were still signed to Island Records and were about to ride U2’s coattails all the way to teenage stardom! However, nothing could have been further from the truth. Our band (along with our big time deal with Island Records) was actually in the crapper, and to make matters worse, our fans couldn’t find our Island album in the record stores, which frustrated them at a time when we should have been building some huge momentum with what was essentially the follow-up to our hugely popular All Fall Down album. Dave and I were in deep musical, emotional and financial trouble, and we needed help. Fast. We were sitting there with some cool new tunes that we really liked without the one band that we knew could do them justice.
Enter one Randy Layton, a hardcore fan and old pal of ours from Eugene, Oregon who had previously made a gambit to the principals at Exit Records to help market us to college radio when he realized that our Exit releases on A&M and Island were not being stocked properly in record stores.
Randy: I do remember that after the Island record deal was over, those terrific demos (that eventually became the first side of Sticks & Stones) were being shopped around but no one bit. That was so difficult. You guys should have made it on the music’s own merits, but it didn’t happen. I was at more than one showcase where label reps were invited and didn’t show. And the band wound down to a point where I remember you telling me “It’s all going to end in tears”, which pretty much happened. I thought that The 77s were basically over. We’d talk on the phone and you were depressed, which given everything, was understandable.
During that ’88-’89 period, I had turned Alternative Records, which was a mail order company dealing in rare music, into a record label, mostly to get your label mate Steve Scott’s music out there! Exit Records CEO Mary Neely was really generous, allowing me to use the masters intended for Steve’s unreleased ‘Emotional Tourist’ and ‘Rice’ projects for his Lost Horizon release, some of which you also produced and The 77s played on. And it did very well. By this time, The 77s were dormant at best…and one day I just said, “Why don’t I send you some money and you go make some demos?” And that became that four song 7&7iS EP initially, just on tape. That tape did pretty well. Then, I got the idea to do the infamous ‘box set’ — the one with the tape, a 3 track 3” CD single, and a 2 track gold vinyl 7” single. Those 1000 boxes sold out very fast.
John J Thompson: The 77s were truly one of the main reasons True Tunes came into existence. I couldn’t believe that music as good as theirs was so hard to find. I actually bought copies of the self-titled Island release from a record store called Sound Warehouse at a slight discount, and re-sold them at my store for just a few pennies more. Christian bookstores couldn’t get that record, so having it in stock was important to me. Once I remember finding a cache of Ping Pong cassettes for 99 cents each at a Walgreen’s pharmacy. I bought over 40 copies at that store, and then went to every Walgreen’s I could and picked up more. I think eventually I rescued over 100 copies of that tape and re-sold them for $4 at True Tunes. Yeah – I could have gotten more for them, but the point was to get people to try something they hadn’t heard before.
All that is just background. The point is that my calling was to build the audience for this great music. The 77s were a top priority, alongside bands like Daniel Amos, Charlie Peacock, After The Fire, The Alarm, The Call and T-Bone Burnett. So when Randy called me about helping him bring a 7&7is boxed set into existence I was not very hard to convince.
It’s been a long time, but from what I recall the deal was that Randy would give me a good wholesale price on the boxes, and a sort of “exclusivity” for a time, in exchange for pre-paying for them. In retail you usually get between 30 and 90 days to pay for your orders – which gives you a chance to sell some first. But Randy needed the cash to get the things made, so I had to go to my boss (the owner of Wheaton Religious Gifts, our original parent company) and convince him that this deal made sense. In the end it worked out and I was honored to have played a part. I managed to set two aside for myself, and they remain a couple of my most treasured items in my collection.
Randy: The next move was to do an actual CD, and the concept was to do the main four tracks from the cassette EP, and then fill it with mostly Island era demos and rehearsals. I had to convince you to go with those vocal rehearsals. “What Was In That Letter” really stood out because it was so unhinged… you’re just working it out, but it’s a lot of fun. Made me laugh every time I heard it. We were both lifelong fans of things like Beach Boys or Beatles session tapes, where you get to be ‘a fly on the wall’, so to speak, and hear a track being built, or vocals being added … those kinds of things. Of course, when it came to you letting anyone actually be that fly, you weren’t quite as excited about it! But you got some of those moments out there on this release and I’m thrilled you are using what we know as the ‘Magnets’ tracks, which on the original release were “Tattoo” and another take on “Miserable”. Larry Tagg and Mike Urbano played their asses off on these tracks and “Tattoo” became an instant classic. I’m happy you’re getting more of these demos out for this new version because they’re really great and I spent years telling you so.
Mike: All I had to reference those recordings for the last 25 years was a horrible sounding cassette copy of a copy, plus my memories of being depressed and miserable about my life at the time had negatively colored my opinion of them. Once I got ahold of the original master tape and listened anew, I was surprised at how good the songs were and how well we played them. Even the Magnets’ versions of Miserable and God Sends Quails are quite good, but I was too close to The 77s’ original versions at the time to be objective. It’s too bad that The Magnets didn’t stay together longer – we were really something! But, now we know that there was another version of The 77s on the horizon that would carry us into the 90’s and beyond with some memorable new music. In the meantime, though, we had to get through this transitional period between the original 77s, The Magnets, and then what was to become ‘77s III’ with David Leonhardt and Mark Harmon joining myself and Aaron Smith to carry us through the early 1990s. Mark and Dave had worked with me on the 7&7iS EP tracks and there were still all those unreleased tapes from the original group, plus the Magnets stuff and other odds and ends. I didn’t feel comfortable releasing all this as an official 77s album, but I wanted to utilize the name in some way, especially visually on the cover so it still looked like a 77s record with something that resembled our big band logo that we used for the Island release.
Randy: That’s when you came up with the 7&7iS moniker, which was a nice tie to the past plus, of course, a nod to the classic single by the band Love. Speaking of the album title, you and I had been discussing the record after we chose the tracks, and somehow during that conversation, the famous bootleg ‘Liver Than You’ll Ever Be’ by The Rolling Stones came up. This was one of the very first boots, like Dylan’s ‘Great White Wonder’ and The Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ albums. And I said, “Why don’t we call our record More Miserable Than You’ll Ever Be?” You and I were laughing, like we really can’t call it that! Then we decided we could… why not? So that was it, and I think that helped sell the project. The title certainly stuck in people’s minds.
Jeffrey Kotthoff: I remember the album arriving without fanfare at my local One Way Christian Bookstore in St. Louis, and while it was instantly recognizable, it wasn’t exactly clear what it was. Is it a 77s record? That sure doesn’t look like Mike on the cover. But it has a couple of 77s songs on it. But just what IS 7&7iS…and why are they so miserable? Keeping in mind that this all occurred pre-internet and what is now an almost constant online stream of artist and music news, an album like this showing up on the shelf at the local Christian retailer was not only a bit of a shock, but a source of consternation as you’d often not know exactly what you were getting into. But I figured it kinda said 77s, so it was worth the risk. And while I found a near instant relief upon opening the CD and finding Mike’s name in the credits, it still left me with many unanswered questions. Where are the other band members? What is this acoustic stuff? Who is Devon Siobhan? On and on it went.
I listened to the album over and over … and the more I listened, the less the questions mattered. Whether it was a 77s record, an album of demos, the beginning of Mike’s solo career, or all the above, as a body of songs it made sense to me. Looking at it today, I think we all tend to see “More Miserable” as a bridge between what The 77s had been and what they were about to become, as well as glimpses of the great solo songwriter Mike was at the time and has continued to be to this day. Incidentally, this very album also stirred some teen desires I had to start my own record label one day. Randy Layton deserves credit for being ahead of the game and running an indie rock label before it was cool and the norm. What he did at Alternative Records directly inspired me to start Lo-Fidelity Records some 12 years after “More Miserable” was first released on CD. My thinking was that if a label I’d never heard of (and again, keep in mind that back then the industry was very different — you just didn’t start a label and release cool music without major headaches and hurdles) could release music as great as The 77s, then some day I would too. And I’m proud to say I’ve been able to do just that. And I must say that while I’ve loved being a part of every release that Lo-Fidelity has put out in the last 12 years, getting to re-release the album that started it all for me is a thrill and a genuine honor.
Mike: Looking back, it sure feels good to know we were actually on the cutting edge of something for once, releasing our music on our own and through an indie label, rather than trailing years behind trying to catch up to a trend already out of date. Plus, we didn’t have to go into shock over the loss of machinery because we had already created our own all by ourselves. There was no longer anything to stand between us and our audiences — no middle man taking our money and telling us how to do things we already knew how to do, and better.
Randy: More Miserable got a lot of great press, but one of my favorites is probably the most obscure. There was a magazine called The Music Independent, which covered indie labels mostly for the college market. I had sent the CD to them, and as it turns out, the writer was familiar with The 77s’ Island release, and wrote a really nice review on the More Miserable project. The best line though, and maybe the best thing ever written about you, was him talking about “The Treasure In You” and comparing your vocal to Richard Manuel of The Band, saying he had no idea your voice “had such a pretty tone”. That’s pretty cool, mate.
Mike: Yep, it sure is …
NEW 77s TOUR COMING!
Lo-Fidelity Records is happy to announce that The 77s — Michael Roe, Mark Harmon and Bruce Spencer — will be touring this summer for the first time in six years. Michael Roe says “During my recent More Miserable Than You’ll Ever Be tour with Chris Taylor, I was inundated by requests from fans who wanted to see The 77s perform as a full electric band again. Ironically, I had been thinking recently about the almost uncanny musical ESP and interplay of the trio version of the band and how much my playing always improved when we toured in that configuration. So, I went home and spelled out the idea to the guys about touring as a trio once more. They liked it, and so ROCK & ROLL IS ON THE ROAD AGAIN this summer!”
(For all the scoop on how you could win any of a number of amazing 7&7is prizes – including a limited edition 7” vinyl case – an autographed copy of the incredible new re-mastered Lo-Fidelity records version of More Miserable Than You’ll Ever Be, click HERE fast and get busy!)