1968, Part One – Distant Thunder

velvet-underground-1968

As I commented in the previous post (and as many much smarter people than me have no doubt in the past), it’s clear to me that the passing of the year from 1967 to 1968 represented a significant change in popular music.  It was true, almost from the moment the new year dawned. It might be said that, in terms of music and western culture, if the Sixties were about breaking out of the cage, the Seventies were about smashing the cage to bits and running off in all directions. ’66 was the year that your granddad’s jangly rock ‘n’ roll — the early Beatles stuff that was really a continuation of the square, misty, Technicolor Fifties — gave way to rock. ’67 took rock music and twisted it like a lump of clay with all the subtlety that a pocketful of LSD tabs can deliver. But I submit that ’68 is where the splintering-in-all-directions process that would be so firmly embraced by the Seventies really planted its roots. And the process started right out of the gate.

Mid-January saw the release of two albums a day apart that could hardly be more diametrically opposed. The Notorious Byrd Brothers, the fifth outing by the venerable Byrds notoriousbyrdbrothersand their last with David Crosby before he left to team up with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, saw them embrace psychedelia once again while signalling a shift away. Their cover of Carole King’s “Goin’ Back” issued a plea for a return to the ideals of the long-past-at-five-months Summer of Love, with its assurance that, with a little dedication, every day can be a magic carpet ride. But just in case that doesn’t work, there’s psych-tinged country rock (the antiwar “Draft Morning”, “Old John Robertson”), whose foundation the Byrds would sketch out with this album under the guidance of Gene Clark. But it wasn’t all spacey twang (“Space Odyssey”, with its inaccurate predictions about 1996) with pretty harmonies; “Tribal Gathering” saw a couple of momentary out-of-character descents into heavy overdriven guitar, and into the darkest level the band had ever descended to.

And then, a day later, San Francisco’s Blue Cheer dropped Vincebus Eruptum, easily the heaviest and most sonically leaden album ever released up to that point. Grabbing chunks bluecheervincebuseruptumof electric blues (“Summertime Blues” and “Rock Me Baby”) and psychedelia, the trio drenched their sound in feedback, bass and volume, became what Jim Morrison referred to as “the single most powerful band I’ve ever seen”, and produced what luminaries from Eric Clapton to Rush’s Geddy Lee have referred to as the foundations of heavy metal. Iron Butterfly, frequently seen as one of Blue Cheer’s fellow heavy metal ancestors, released their debut that same month; Heavy spoke somewhat to the band’s use of low end, but little else suggesting that ancestry: the album was clearly more an exercise in psychedelia. “Unconscious Power” and “Gentle As it May Seem” bop along with a bit more energy than might have been expected of an appeal to the acid rock crowd, and the cover of Allen Toussaint’s “Get Out of My Life, Woman” manages to be suitably bluesy and organ-laden. Overall a solid example of what’s best described as “heavy psychedelia”, with a pretty clear place as a strand of connective tissue as rock began more and more to mine the sonic darkness.

For White Light/White Heat, the Velvet Underground dumped both Nico and Andy Warhol, and moved John Cale to lead vocals on two tracks. These turned out to be inspired moves, and the resulting disc pushed the envelope again in terms of subject matter and managed for the most part to be avant-garde and utterly hypnotic. “The Gift”, Cale’s spoken word rendering of Lou Reed’s tale of romantic insecurity and tragic irony, gives the listener the story through one speaker and the rock through the other, ending suddenly and slightly frustratingly because you wanna hear more, dammit. Add in the distorted mess from the end of “I Heard Her Call My Name” and the long jam over the tale of a heroin-fuelled orgy gone bad on “Sister Ray”, and the album’s influence on the development of punk rock six or seven years later is clear.

Psych practitioners Spirit released their self-titled debut in January. While the album became something of an underground success and was critically well-regarded spiritfirstalbum(“Mechanical World” is a particularly strong guitar piece, while “Girl In Your Eye” makes liberal use of a theramin, an innovation at the time), its legend largely comes from its association with Led Zeppelin, who were known to include snippets of “Fresh Garbage” in a medley format in their live shows. Page was inspired to start using a theramin onstage after seeing Randy California do so, and it was whispered for years that Page had lifted the famous opening “Stairway to Heaven” riff from Spirit’s “Taurus”. While it would be hard to argue that there’s no sonic connection between the two, in reality “Stairway” borrows only a basic chromatic scale from “Taurus” and augments it considerably. In mid-2016 a US court agreed, and dismissed a plagiarism lawsuit brought by California’s estate.

Boogie With Canned Heat saw the west coast bluesmeisters spread their wings with more original compositions than before. The album is still most notable for its adaptation of Floyd Jones’ “On The Road Again”, their most popular and influential song; the middle of the album, however, features a trio of explorations of the darker depths. “Turpentine Moan” is a bluesy boogie about using the titular substance to take your own life after your girl cheats on you. “Whiskey Headed Woman” serves as an admonition to the protagonist’s girl not so much to stop drinking, but to cut down lest she suffer a number of consequences; sort of a spiritual successor to “Hey Joe”. But then “Amphetamine Annie” offers one of rock’s earliest, most direct warnings about the harder drugs starting to hook Americans (reaching its crescendo with the shouted “Speed kills!”). Once again, the source of the protagonist’s woes is his girlfriend. “Fried Hockey Boogie” gives each band member a chance to shine in a hypnotic psychedelia-tinged 11-minute jam, while handing Norman Greenbaum the riff for “Spirit In The Sky”.

Veteran music critic David Fricke once characterized the opening snare drum strike on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” as a gavel calling musical history to order. If he was right steppenwolfalbum(and in my humble opinion, he was), the same is true of the inaugural snare hit on Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” from their eponymous January ’68 debut. Retreating from social commentary, the song instead advocated defiance in the face of authority and the lure of rebellion for its own sake with its relentless rhythm that only lets up twice, both times to offer a “fuck you, this is who I am”. Appropriate, therefore, that the song would include the first lyrical reference to “heavy metal” and serve as yet another January ’68 inspiration for the genre’s still-embryonic development. Nestled within the album’s sea of bluesy hard rock is “The Pusher”, written for the band by Hoyt Axton, which backtracks a tad from Traffic’s condemnatory “Dealer” to distinguish the friendly neighbourhood dealer offering weed, a few pills and “sweet dreams” from the rapacious pusher seeking to “ruin your body”. Weed good, acid good, smack bad. Not only was the musical unity of ’67 starting to splinter rock into genres, but the drug culture was beginning to fragment and develop identifiable social strata.

On January 30, the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong launched a coordinated attack with 80,000 troops on more than a hundred cities and towns throughout Vietnam in what became known as the Tet Offensive. It’s been widely acknowledged that, though the Offensive was successfully repulsed, it had a profound effect on American public opinion in light of their government’s assurances that victory was in sight, and led to a marked decline in support for the war. With popular music in ’68 having already received a yank into the darker side courtesy of the likes of Blue Cheer, Iron Butterfly and Steppenwolf, much more was to follow. While I maintain that 1966 was the year rock n’ roll became rock, 1968 was setting up to be the year that rock – like the world it inhabited – started becoming heavier.

A concerted attempt at reinvention tends to be a worthwhile exercise anytime a band or musician’s work output is at risk of becoming stale. As with the Beatles on Sgt. Pepper and the Beach Boys with Pet Sounds, the newly-shortened Rascals became noticeably more eclectic on Once Upon A Dream, incorporating more complex orchestration, sonic experimentation, and good old fashioned weirdness (“It’s Wonderful”, “Dave & Eddie”, and the sitar-drenched and possibly misspelled “Sattva” for instance). “My Hawaii”, meanwhile, is a somewhat bombastic un-ironic crooning paean to the Islands that would be equally at home in a Broadway musical or in an Elvis movie; instead, it’s this Rascals album’s “When I’m Sixty Four”.

The fracturing of popular music had the fortunate effect of resulting in some truly inspired fusion works. Child is Father to the Man, the inaugural offering from Al Kooper’s brainchild Blood, Sweat & Tears, was one of these, weaving electric rock with jazz and R&B influences bloodsweattearschildisfathertothemanto create music with one foot in Harlem and the other in Midtown. Similarly Mike Bloomfield, fresh from a stint with the Butterfield Blues Band, recruited a fresh crew and assembled The Electric Flag as a vehicle for electric blues melded with contemporary soul sounds. The one-off result, A Long Time Comin’, was released a month after BS&T’s offering and turned out to be complex album showcasing a powerful horn section and Bloomfield’s blistering lead guitar on several tracks. Regrettably, however, it would be the Flag’s only studio release.

Psychedelia was clearly a natural lead-in to prog rock. Combine snippets from two hundred years of popular songs from Stephen Foster to the Beatles, throw in some snatches from Beethoven and excerpts of speeches by eminent 20th century world leaders, and you get The Beat Goes On, Vanilla Fudge’s grandiloquent statement on the historical interconnectedness of all things. The latter segment is somewhat fascinating, especially for a history geek like me, featuring a periodic refrain of Neville Chamberlain intoning “never to go to war with one another again” superimposed over other evidence suggesting the folly of the sentiment. As a sweeping work of profundity and historical reflection the album has its moments, but much gets lost in the mire; so much so that the band largely disowned it years later as a failed conceptual project by their producer George Morton with minimal input from them.

I think I’ve implied that psychedelia was on its way out in ’68. I still think that decline had begun, but I also suspect that I’ve not fully given the genre its due; The Beat Goes On helped usa_album_papersleevedemonstrate that to me, as did (even more so) the only, eponymous, release by The United States of America. The album is in parts a complex gyre of electronic sounds (generated with oscillators because the band couldn’t afford a Moog synthesizer) interlaced behind the vocals, so much so that a more conventional song like “I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar” comes as a bit of a surprise. The album in parts reflected band leader Joe Byrd’s leftist political leanings, most notably on the romantic, surprisingly non-explicitly political “Love Song For the Dead Che”, while otherwise standing out as a distinctive example of the potential of psychedelic rock, even at the beginning of its waning influence.

As further evidence of the decline of psychedelia and of the Flower Power movement, its rapid growth and maturation had left it vulnerable to merciless satire at the hands of the zappamoney1Mothers of Invention. Frank Zappa saw the Beatles, and Sgt. Pepper in particular, as too corporate or commercial, hence We’re Only In It For the Money and its parody of hippie attitudes on such songs as “Who Needs The Peace Corps?” and “Flower Punk”. Adding to the statement was the fully sanctioned appearance of counterculture icon Jimi Hendrix on the originally intended cover (relegated to inside the jacket due to legal concerns), a flipped negative take on the Sgt. Pepper cover. Odd, in retrospect, that the first half of ’68 would produce some of psychedelia’s most remarkable work, while simultaneously witnessing the beginning of its end.

Legends sometimes get their start quietly, rather than bursting out of the gate. Joni Mitchell’s debut, Song to a Seagull, saw her team up with David Crosby as producer (with Stephen Stills contributing bass on the album’s most rock-oriented track, “Night in the City”) and produce ten self-composed songs of soulful acoustic folk music.

In the midst of all these changes, the rise of new influences and the fall of old ones, there emerged The Move out of Birmingham in northern England. Musically, they were somewhat out of place for the times: the well-constructed songs on their self-titled debut boasted jangly guitars and multi-part harmonies, suggesting a cross between mid-period Beatles and the early Byrds. Ultimately the album made little dent in the still-focused-on-psychedelia US; clearly, for a band of their nature to break in America in ’68, it had to be (a) American, and/or (b) marketed less as rock and more as pop. Such was the case with The Association, whose debut And Then… Along Comes the Association occupied the bubblegum end of pop with their own multi-part harmonies lifted a bit more blatantly from the Beach Boys. Partly on the strength of an appearance at Monterey Pop in ’67, and partly on the strength of hit track “Along Comes Mary” and its not totally oblique odessey_and_oraclereferences to marijuana, the band’s inaugural outing was a success. This wasn’t the case with Odessey and Oracle, the slightly misspelled second album from The Zombies. An exercise in baroque pop with its harmonies and generous use of the Mellotron, the album produced the seminal Sixties hit “Time of the Season” but failed to make much of a critical impact; more recently however, it’s regularly included in best-of lists and is hailed as a pop masterpiece. At the time, however, and despite the assurances of “This Will Be Our Year”, the band closed up shop before the album’s release.

Simultaneously, America was sowing the seeds of another genre, one that would largely dominate stateside rock in the Seventies. The impetus came in part in the unlikely form of Gram Parsons, a Harvard theology student and trust fund baby nonetheless determined to enter the folk music scene. After meeting guitarist and country music fan John Neuse, Parsons ditched his studies and altered his musical course, and the two formed the short-lived International Submarine Band, whose sole full length album Safe At Home arguably safe_at_home_the_international_submarine_band_album_-_cover_artsounded more country than rock (“Luxury Liner” being a notable exception) and made little commercial impact, but would be one of the founding pillars of the hybrid genre, country rock.

There’s more to say about Gram Parsons, but that’s for later. In any event, it’s clear that the first three months of 1968 put down the roots for what was to follow in rock…. though the extent of this wouldn’t be known for a few years yet.

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