It’s 1977 and you live in Seattle, Washington. You stopped in at Central Pontiac on Capitol Hill to buy either a Trans Am or the swoopy new Le Mans-based Can Am. You just got hired on at Boeing and you’ve finally started making pretty good money, so it’s time to upgrade your set of wheels.
You want the Trans Am, but talk yourself into buying the Can Am, justifying the purchase because it has more room to haul the wife and kids around. While waiting in the dealership, you watch your salesman dance back and forth between the cubicle you’re sitting in and the manager’s office. Then, the door from the service department flaps open and you hear it. A loping, thunderous guitar riff and a shrieking female vocal wailing “Oooooh, Barracuda.”
“Oh, that’s Ann and Nancy Wilson’s band, Heart,” you say to yourself, “They went to Sammamish High.” Back in the day, you attended an all-city kegger near there on an open chunk of land called Eighty Acres. All the high school kids would converge on this green belt and party till the wee hours of the morning leaving behind a bunch of red cups and maybe a pair or two of panties.
It’s amazing how two Seattle girls would reach the pinnacle of the music industry in one of rock’s most fertile eras, but that’s exactly what Heart did. Although Ann and Nancy Wilson were the epicenter of the group, the guys in the band were equally as talented and just as essential in forging Heart’s signature sound. If there was ever a soundtrack to Seattle in the late 1970s, “Barracuda” would be high on the list.
Fast forward to today, all the original members of Heart are alive and well, but Central Pontiac is long gone and Eighty Acres is now the world headquarters of Microsoft Corporation.
The perfect driving experience and the melding of music and machine are what Cars and Guitars is all about. So buckle up, drop it into reverse, and floor it back a thousand years to 1977 when Jet City Rock and gigantic sport coupes ruled the earth. This time, let’s look at the 1977 Pontiac Can Am and the song “Barracuda” by legendary Seattle rockers, Heart. We’ll also zoom in on the events of the day, reconstructing the environment that sprouted these two icons.
Back in 1977, long before Seattle unleashed Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, Costco, and grunge rock on an unsuspecting world, it was a small, provincial town tucked up in the farthest corner of the Pacific Northwest. Its claim to fame back then was that it made jet airplanes and supplied wood products to the booming west coast, see Boeing and Weyerhauser. A sleepy, conservative town, it was light years away from the madness of today’s homelessness, tech billionaires, and nutty politics.
Although Pontiac was headquartered thousands of miles to the east, the Detroit area and Seattle had many things in common. Both are hard-core unions towns, even to this day, and each were known as hotbeds of culture and rock music. Sadly, both the original Heart and Pontiac don’t exist anymore, not to mention Seattle. Sure, Ann and Nancy reconstituted the band over the years but for this author, Heart died after the classic lineup broke up. Pontiac didn’t get a second chance and was euthanized by GM in 2010. Seattle died not long after that.
Back in 1977, the world was an exciting place. Jimmy Carter was sworn in as the 39th President of the United States, the Space Shuttle Enterprise made its first test flight on the back of a Seattle-built Boeing 747, Star Wars was released in May, Atari introduced its Video Computer System in North America, three members of the rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd perished in an airplane accident, and The Sex Pistols released Never Mind The Bullocks, ushering in the punk rock era.
Rewinding a bit more, Ann and Nancy Wilson were army brats and moved with their family around the world before settling in Bellevue, a suburb east of Seattle. Ann was a stutterer and found singing was easier than talking, so she immersed herself in music. The origins of Heart began in the early 1970s. Ann joined a band called White Heart, then renamed Hocus Pocus, and then simply Heart, in 1974.
Roger Fisher (guitar) and Steve Fossen (bass guitar) joined sisters Ann Wilson (lead vocals and flute) and Nancy Wilson (rhythm guitar, backing, and occasional lead vocals), Michael Derosier (drums), and Howard Leese (guitar and keyboards) to form the lineup for the band’s classic 1970s sextet. They played clubs all over the Northwest and British Columbia, fine-tuning their musical chops and honing their songwriting skills.
By 1975, the group skyrocketed to worldwide fame on the success of their debut album Dreamboat Annie. It featured “Magic Man” and “Crazy On You” and saw almost continuous radio airplay. The album was released in the United States on February 14, 1976, on Mushroom Records and reached #7 on the Billboard 200. It also reached the top 10 in the Netherlands and Australia in early 1977.
Heart’s sophomore effort saved them from the dreaded one-hit-wonder status. Little Queen was released in May 1977 and contained “Kick it Out,” “Keep Your Love Alive” and of course, the legendary “Barracuda.” Little Queen hit #9 on the US charts and #2 in Canada. For rock fans, “Barracuda” sounded conspicuously like “Achilles’ Last Stand” from the 1976 Led Zeppelin album Presence. Nonetheless, “Barracuda” rocked with a galloping rhythm section, a banshee lead vocal, and a thundering guitar solo in the middle section.
Little Queen also established the Wilson sisters (and the male band members too,) as fashionistas of 1970s rock as well. The Little Queen album Art features the band as medieval maidens and archers. They would become fashion trailblazers by combining feathered hair, kimonos, platform shoes, and spandex. Rock and roll mall girls mimicked the Wilson sisters from coast to coast.
After Heart’s 1978 release Dog and Butterfly, it was all downhill from there. Roger Fisher left the band, followed by Fossen and Derosier. Their popularity waned in the twilight of the seventies, and a new Heart emerged a few years later as an ’80s hair band. They were bigger than ever and had a lot of hits, but it wasn’t the same.
Meanwhile in Detroit, the Pontiac Trans Am was hot, hot, hot. It was selling briskly and the bigwigs at Pontiac were so happy they could hardly count. They hatched an idea to transfer Trans Am DNA over to the slow-selling “Colonnade” Le Mans mid-size model. Additonally, the GTO was gone for 1975, so Pontiac brass hoped the “tape and decal” Can Am would fill the hole left in its lineup. Essentially a Le Mans with a shaker hood, tape stripes, and a rear spoiler, it was Trans Am’s big brother.
The Can Am was outfitted at the famous Poncho acolyte Jim Wanger’s Motortown facility. Completed Le Mans Coupes were shipped to Wanger and converted to Can Ams. The car was powered by the Pontiac 400V8 rated at 200 hp, and Californian or high-altitude areas got the Olds 403cid V8 with 180hp.
The Can Am made a big splash, but after some parts shortages, there was suddenly concern it would cannibalize Grand Prix and Trans Am sales so it was axed after one model year. Sold only in Cameo White, the final production number is estimated somewhere around 1,377 units, making this one of the rarest Pontiacs of modern times.
Compared to today’s obscenity-laden, crappy drum loop “music” and ungainly lozenge-shaped cars, Heart and the Pontiac Can Am seem like towering works of art. The golden days of old Seattle may have vanished into the mist but for now, queue up “Barracuda” and relive the days of Jet City chick rock and smog motor muscle cars. As we say goodbye to this episode of Cars and Guitars, check out this clip of Roger Fisher recounting how the band came up with the idea for “Barracuda.” See you next time.