1968 – My history professor in college taught a full class on ‘1968’ called ‘1968- The Terrible Year’. ’68 saw the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and of prospective Democratic presidential nominee Robert F. Kennedy Jr., as well as the TET Offensive in Vietnam, which escalated the war, when President Johnson was promising a drawing down of troops. The 1968 Democratic National Convention saw both police and protesters turn violent on each other and idealism and hopefulness soon gave way to bitterness and cynicism among the young and the old alike. It was in many ways the beginning of the end of the hippie dream as well as a sea change in the ways both blacks and whites saw civil rights and race relations. Noisy psychedelic music and proto heavy metal reflected and anger and frustration of the times and the accessible soul of the mid-sixties built for crossover appeal gave way to hard-hitting funk and trippier soul.
Perhaps to take a left turn away from the fashion of the times many of music’s most popular bands and artists moved away from psychedelic rock and towards rootsy, stripped down folk-rock and country rock. Bob Dylan had recently survived a motorcycle accident and was holed up in his country home in Woodstock, NY, recording tons of music with a new group called the Band. Dylan’s album “John Wesley Harding” released in the last days of December in 1967, was a huge departure from his groundbreaking rock records, “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Bringing It All Back Home” & “”Blonde On Blonde”, but it wasn’t as much a return to his earlier folk music, as a new move forward. The arrangements were simpler, with a country-ish tinge that he would explore even more on 1969’s “Nashville Skyline”, and no obvious political bent. The Band released their own brilliant debut album “Music From the Big Pink”, which included several of Dylan’s compositions, and was highly influential on nearly all of music’s heaviest hitters. Gram Parsons, who’s International Submarine Band, may in fact be the first country rock music on record, joined the Byrds for their 1968 album “Sweetheart Of the Rodeo”, changing their sound drastically in the process. “Sweetheart Of the Rodeo” may be one of the finest country rock albums, if not country albums period, ever.
Though country music never went away in the sixties, it was becoming increasingly fashionable by ’68. Here you can find the antecedents of mid 70’s Outlaw country with legendary albums like “Live at Folsom Prison” by Johnny Cash “ “Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard. Old school rocker Jerry Lee Lewis had successfully switched over to a country artist and two of his greatest songs “What Made Milwaukee Famous” and “Another Time, Another Place” were released in ’68 as well. Not to be outdone two of country music most popular ladies, Tammy Wynette & Loretta Lynn had huge years as well. Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” will forever be known as her signature cut and Lynn’s “Fist City” is one of her best as well. Country pop artist Glen Campbell, who had previously become a member of the Beach Boys, had a huge crossover smash with “Wichita Linemen”, his biggest hit in a string of solo hits begun the previous year. Country-tinged singer songwriter Joe South released his debut album “Introspect” which includes the great “Games People Play” and “Rose Garden”, which would become a #1 hit for Lynn Anderson in 1970.
The biggest rock groups in the world got into the roots rock act as well. After taking a strange one album detour into psychedelia and enduring the death of Brian Jones, the Rolling Stones released their best album to date with “Beggars Banquet”- still a rock album for sure but with several acoustic offerings like “Salt Of the Earth, “No Expectations” and “Prodigal Son”. Along with non-album #1 single “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Street Fightin’ Man” (both album tracks) became some of the Stones best and most well loved tracks and were certainly anthems of the time period. The Stones were bigger than ever. In ’67 The Beatles had released the seminal “Sgt. Peppers” album as well as a number of defining singles like “Strawberry Fields, “Penny Lane”, “Hello Goodbye” and “All You Need As Love” and the “Magical Mystery Tour mini album, the band seemed to be splintering. They recorded and released the amazing self-titled album, widely known as “The White Album”. It was their largest and most diverse offering yet encompassing both their loudest and quietest music, but was largely recorded as a series of separate solo tracks. Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and even Ringo all contributed great songs, but often the other Beatles did not play on them. Despite the lack of uniformity and that a few tracks were hit or miss, it’s tough to deny the brilliance of the album- it remains one of the best in their catalog. Though it did signal the end of the band and portended the emergence of the singer-songwriter era beginning in the “Me Decade” of the 70’s.
Several other 1968 artists of mention should be given credit in starting the singer-songwriter movement. Laura Nyro’s “Eli & the 13th Confession” may well have been a boilerplate for Carole King’s future success. It contains classics like “Eli’s Coming” (huge later hit for Three Dog Night) and “Sweet Blindness” and “Stoned Soul Picnic” (both later by the Fifth Dimension). The eccentric genius Harry Nilsson released his “Aerial Ballet” album, containing classic tracks like “One” (again a later hit by Three Dog Night) and “Everybody’s Talkin’”, the theme song of the ultra popular movie “Midnight Cowboy” a year later. Poet Leonard Cohen released his debut abum “Songs Of Leonard Cohen” on the same exact day as Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding”. Though it wouldn’t come near having any radio hits, it was massively influential on the present cognoscenti and the future alternative music crowd both. Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”, his first solo record, did almost no sales upon release, but is now thought of as a true album rock classic. It’s one of the most hauntingly beautiful albums of all time. Folk rock duo Simon & Garfunkel reached the peak of their popularity in ’68 with the release of their third proper album “Bookends” as well as the soundtrack to “The Graduate”, containing one of their signature songs “Mrs. Robinson”.
In addition to the Beatles and Stones many other great 1st and 2nd wave British Invasion bands were heavily in the mix in ’68 as well. The Kinks, unable to tour in America and past their biggest radio hit making days, made an album called “The Village Green Preservation Society”, a pastoral album championing and longing for the passed by old British society and traditions. In many ways it was the British counterpart to what Dylan, the Byrds and the Band were doing in the States. It moved completely away from the fashionable music at the time and sold next to nothing- especially in America. Today it’s heralded as their best, or at least one of their best albums. The Who was between albums big released their great “Magic Bus” single. 2nd tier 1st wave hit-makers, the Zombies released the fantastic “Odessey & Oracle” album, which also bombed sales-wise. He group broke up only to find that album track “Time Of the Season” would be released over a year later and would become their biggest hit. Though the album would remain out of print for many years it is now known as another lost classic- ’68 seems to be the first year with more than a handful of lost classics, making it a seminal year for alternative music as well. Tougher edged 2nd wave invasion groups like the Small Faces and the Pretty Things geared their 1968 albums more toward the psychedelic sound. The Pretty Things “S.F. Sorrow” was born was a full-on concept album said to be heavily influential on The Who’s “Tommy” a year later. The Small Faces “Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake” remains largely unknown in the U.K. but is thought of as a classic in Britain and is still their most widely regarded album. Steve Winwood’s band Traffic was riding the success of their late ’67 album “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and released their self-titled album containing the classic “Feelin’ Alright” which became even more famous when covered later by Joe Cocker. Cocker, himself, achieved his first bit of notoriety with Beatles cover “With a Little Help From My Friends” in ’68. Classical music/psychedelic rock hybrid The Moody Blues released “In Search of the Lost Chord” containing classics like “Ride My See Saw” and “Legend Of a Mind”, showing their heavier side after ballads lik “Tuesday Afternoon” and “Nights In White Satin” a year earlier. Blues rock group Fleetwood Mac had some of their first British hits with “Albatross” and “Black Magic Woman” but would remain unknown in America until the middle of next decade with a very different incarnation of the band.
Three of the biggest guitar Gods of the late sixties released huge albums in ’68. Jeff Beck’s album “Truth” was his debut album after leaving the Yardbirds. Supergroup trio Cream (with guitarist Eric Clapton) released their third album- the half studio/half live “Wheels Of Fire”, which held “Crossroads” and “White Room”, two of their mightiest songs. And finally the Jimi Hendrix Experience released their third and last album, the double “Electric Ladyland”. Those three albums would prove to be enormous influences on all heavy metal and guitar rock that came after them.
Some call 1968 the birth year of Heavy Metal. Though neither Black Sabbath nor even Led Zeppelin was alive yet there is a case to be made. The phrase “heavy metal” was coined in the Steppenwolf track “Born To Be Wild”, released in ’68. Though it may not sound very metal to the modern ear, it was heavier than almost anything that had come before it and brought a more metal attitude as well. Steppenwold were a huge commercial juggernaut, also reaping successes with tracks like “The Pusher” and “Magic Carpet Ride”. Even heavier and crazier was the band Blue Cheer, whose debut album “Vincebus Eruptum” and signature cut “Summertime Blues” pushed the boundaries of loud. If neither was ‘metal’ both, along with Cream, Hendrix and Beck, helped to set the table for it.
After the huge success of 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival, San Francisco was the new ‘It Spot’ for new bands. One of the scenes biggest was Big Brother & the Holding Company (featuring star lead single Janis Joplin). Their album “Cheap Thrills” was their first big success and contained the huge single “Piece of My Heart” as well as great album cuts like “Ball In Chain” and “Summertime”. The Grateful Dead release d their 2nd album “Anthem Of the Sun” but they were most re-known for their live shows and became the de-facto leaders of the scene. Jefferson Airplane released their third album “Crown Of Creation” and second tier bands Quicksilver Messenger Service and Moby Grape also saw success as well. Not to be outdone L.A. bands Canned Heat and the Doors had big success in ’68 as well. The Doors were one of the biggest bands in the country in the late 60’s. Their third album “Waiting For the Sun” is not thought of as one of their best it is highly underrated, containing classics like “Love Street”, “Not To Touch the Earth” and lead single #1 hit “Hello I Love You”. Canned Heat was a boogie band who had much in common with the SF bands released their first two albums, which included the biggest hits of their career “On the Road Again” and “Goin’ Up the Country”. SF band Creedence Clearwater Revival released their self-titled debut. Theirs was a mixture of boogie, roots music and swamp rock and within a year they would become one of the country’s biggest and best bands. Finally mixed race funk rock band Sly & the Family Stone released their first big hit “Dance to the Music” as well as their “Life” album. Though “Life” contained a few classic tracks, it was just a prelude of things to come. Their next two albums would change black music, music in general, forever.
Throughout the early to mid 60’s soul music seemed to have three or four different factions. The smooth crossover soul of Motown and the heavily Doo-wop influenced urban Chicago soul, as well as the harder edged funkier soul done at the Stax/Volt labels in Memphis and the deep southern soul often done at Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Though Motown remained a huge entity and still dominated the marketplace in ’68 their sounds began to change with the times. Holland/Dozier/Holland, the major writing/producing of earlier Motown gave way to Norman Whitfield, who wrote darker themes more suited to the times- sex, drugs, war & protest. One could say that the label was no longer as concerned about crossing over to the white audience, but one could also say that the white audiences tastes had changed to the point where middle of the road black music was no longer that appealing to them. Tracks like “Love Child” by the Supremes, “Cloud Nine” by the Temptations and even “I Heard It Through the Grapevine exemplified this change, though the label still hit big with more traditional love songs in ’68, especially hits by the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell duo.
Atlantic and Stax/Volt soul music was running at full tilt. Aretha Franklin released her impeccable second Atlantic album “Lady Soul”, one of the classic soul albums of all time as well as her 3rd “Aretha Now”, which contains classic tracks like “I Say A Little Prayer” and “Think”. Sadly Otis Redding died in a plane crash in ’68 at the peak of his popularity. His signature track “(Sitting On) the Dock of the Bay” was released posthumously and became his biggest hit, showing that he was only just beginning to reach his full potential. Artists like Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, Archie Bell & the Drells, Eddie Floyd, the Impressions, the Dells, Jerry Butler & Clarence Carter had big hits in ’68 also. Philly group the Delfonics released their first singles, pointing toward the smoother Philadelphia soul music that would dominate the airwaves in the early to mid 70’s. Outside of Sly & the Family Stone, James Brown- both the godfather of soul & of funk, had huge hits like “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”, “Licking Stick-Licking Stick” & “I Got the Feelin’”. All of his biggest hits were much anticipated as no one led the way in black music like Brown. The Chambers Brothers combined psychedelic rock, funk & soul and had a huge hit with “Time Has Come Today”. New Orleans funk group the Meters released their first singles and other one hit wonders like “Soulful Strut” & “The Horse” by Cliff Nobles did well on the charts as well. Hard edged soul and funk would continue to expand its sound and be a major factor in music for the next half decade, until Disco blew up everything in its path.
Jazz was in a major transitional phase as well. Though it would be another year before the true fusion of Miles Davis’s “In A Silent Way”, many jazz artists were covering rock tracks and in the case of rock groups like Blood, Sweat & Tears and the Soft Machine rock groups were combing more than a little bit of jazz elements to their sound. The hard bop years for jazz had largely ended by ’68 and a move toward a more rock sound could be seen as cynically commercial for sure, but several artists really made it work. Eddie Harris’s two excellent funky jazz releases “Plug It In” and “The Electrifying Eddie Harris” are two prime examples. The jazz of ’68 acted as a bridge toward the heavier fusion of the 70’s, for better and for worse.
As I mentioned a few paragraphs above underground rock began to forge its path in the late 60’s as well. The Velvet Underground released their 2nd album “White Light/White Heat”, an even crazier, skronkier and drug-addled collection than their amazing debut. Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention’s “We’re Only In It For the Money” challenged the hippie status quo from an insider’s perspective. Dr. John, from New Orleans took on the image of a voodoo priest and combined old-time rock n’ roll, psychedelic-rock, swamp music & tripped out soul with his excellent debut “Gris Gris”. Pink Floyd released their second album “A Saucerful of Secrets”, which was just as spaced out as their debut. In Brazil the very political Tropicalia movement spread across art, poetry, theater and music challenging the status quo, the government and the military. It combined elements of both popular music and the avant garde and took many cues from American and British psychedelic music as well as soul and funk. It’s main practitioners in the music realm at least were Caetano Veloso, Tom Ze, the band Os Mutantes & Gal Costa. All would release major albums and singles in 1968, which is said to be year 1 of the movement. In Jamaica it was year 1 for reggae music as well. The Ska and Rock Steady sound had dominated the 60’s in Jamaica but tracks like “Do the Reggay” by Toots & the Maytals and “The Isaelites” by Desmond Dekkar, though not as fully formed as the reggae sound we know today, were certainly different than what came before them.
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