I find myself returning to this little musical journey of mine after a three-month hiatus. Too much of a good thing is, well, too much, and I needed to break away from the music of the Sixties for a bit. What took its place in my listening queue? A lot of Motörhead and Iron Maiden, plus a smattering of Scandinavian heavy metal.
With the 2016 presidential election now committed to history and its result committed to reality, I wonder if parallels might be found between the setback for the social progress agenda that the latest election result represents, and the beginning of the crumbling of the same agenda that had informed much of the Sixties up to 1968 or so. Perhaps, but that will probably only be appreciable in hindsight. The upheaval in America that was already well underway in early ’68 spilled over into the political arena on March 31, when President Johnson surprised the nation with his announcement that he would not be seeking or accepting the Democratic party’s presidential nomination in the upcoming election, taking with it any lingering hopes that his “Great Society” initiative might truly come to pass. The party, much like the country, was splintering into competing factions and interests, and while not similarly beset by infighting, popular music would follow suit.
On Journey to the Center of the Mind, the Amboy Dukes achieved a semi-bifurcated sound: the more guitar rock-oriented first side largely written by Ted Nugent and showcasing his guitar skills (“Scottish Tea” being a fascinating example in instrumental form), and the more psychedelic pop second side composed by rhythm guitarist Steve Farmer. Thus the collaborative title track’s appeal to the psychedelic crowd is obvious, though still laced with enough globs of guitar skronk and pyrotechnics to appeal to the rockers, and offering a glimpse into the hard rock that would soon be pouring out of Detroit as an antidote to the more sun-drenched southern California sound.
Simon & Garfunkel’s fourth offering, Bookends, started much like their previous works – though only briefly, blowing the door off in a synthesized blast that opens “Save the Life of My Child”. Then a segue into the seminal “America”, that song of restless searching for a country that, at least for that moment, seemed to be beyond reach. “Old Friends” ends in a period-appropriate Beatles-y gyre of sound, and “Mrs. Robinson”, well…. superlatives fail me. And “A Hazy Shade of Winter” offers easily the duo’s most rocked-out performance to date, on the album that cemented their status as Sixties cultural superstars.
On The Twain Shall Meet, Eric Burdon and the Animals attempted again to capture the prevailing mood of the day, this time with more success than on Winds of Change. “Monterey” offered up a tribute to the pop festival, acknowledging by name several of the luminaries who performed, while the antiwar “Sky Pilot” tells the tale of a military chaplain blessing the troops before they set off on a mission. With its frantic mire of gunfire and terrified shouting in the middle section, its message is unmistakable. The instrumental “We Love You Lil” displays an extended skillful overdriven guitar solo, before the highly psychedelic, somewhat messy “All is One”.
Moby Grape’s second offering took a rather unique approach, being comprised of two separate and musically distinct albums sold together for only slightly more than the price of a single album. The first of the two, Wow, is a highly produced, meandering, lilting affair, and that’s not criticism. Soaring vocals and strings are the focus on “He”, while “Murder In My Heart For The Judge” and “Motorcycle Irene” represent the album at its catchiest (the latter ending in a retrospectively inevitable collision). The second disc, Grape Jam, or at least the tracks named after fruit preserves, is a collection of skillful but largely indistinguishable blues rock jams. This pattern is broken on “The Lake”, with its overdubbed background chatter and periodic gyres of sound. The album would end up inspiring many of the studio jam albums to follow in the coming years.
The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees represented something of a transition for the quartet. They continued to flex their musical chops by writing and playing more of their own material, but it was clear that the band’s days were numbered, both in terms of their original lineup and their popular appeal. Which is a bit unfortunate, since a few of the tracks (“Writing Wrongs” in particular) are strong and display a greater degree of versatility than before. It even managed to include some anti-war sentiment in the final song, “Zor and Zam” – indicative of the freedom the band were able to realize once freed from the shackles of their now-cancelled TV show.
I’ve found a few times on this exploration that it’s helpful to occasionally pause and listen to something period-appropriate but not entirely part of the story. That’s the case with Johnny Cash’s legendary “second wind” album At Folsom Prison, widely regarded as a classic not only of country music, but of American music as a whole. Perhaps the contrast is assisted even further by juxtaposing Folsom against Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, the Small Faces’ third studio release. It’s a solid effort, something of a harbinger of the Led Zeppelin-esque heavy rock soon to pour forth from Britain; in this regard, “Song of a Baker” is a particular standout, melding heavy percussion, piano and skillful guitar into a sonic blast. Being an album from 1968 its second side is a somewhat trippy mini-concept fairy tale interspersed with nonsensical narration but whose “Rollin’ Over” nonetheless pinches the opening riff from Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” to amp up the heavy end. Meanwhile, Quicksilver Messenger Service dropped their eponymous debut the same month, coming off their performance at Monterey the previous summer and showcasing their Grateful Dead-esque jam band chops, most effectively on “The Fool” with its distorted wah-wah inflected duelling guitars.
The Mamas & the Papas’ fourth album, The Papas & the Mamas, signalled a significant change for the folk rock stalwarts. Gone largely were the sun-kissed love songs of the past, replaced with the psychedelia of “Meditation Mama (Transcendental Woman Travels)” and the grungy guitar-drenched “Gemini Childe”. Overall the album eschews love for exhaustion, both with love (“Too Late”, “Rooms”) and with the superficial trappings of fame (“Mansions”), while acknowledging a sense of the world around them going wrong on “Safe In My Garden”, noting “Cops out with the megaphones/ Telling people stay inside their home/ Man, can’t they see the world’s on fire?” Fittingly perhaps, it would be their last album but for a brief, contractually-obligated reunion a few years later.
Another oft-cited proto-metal album from 1968 was Iron Butterfly’s second, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. For the most part the lineage is somewhat tenuous, with the band sonically resembling a slightly heavier version of the Doors. The 17-minute title track makes this connection somewhat more apparent, however, particularly after the 12-minute mark where the amped-up, piled-on fuzzy guitar and keyboard begin to sound like one of heavy metal’s spiritual ancestors.
Pink Floyd’s A Saucerful of Secrets took the band’s exploration of psychedelic space themes a step further. Following the departure/dismissal of Syd Barrett due to ill health/erratic behaviour the band brought in David Gilmour, in time to contribute to several tracks, including the album’s 11-minute title track. This turned out to be a complex ethereal journey of a piece laid over the foundation of Richard Wright’s skillful electric organ. “Jugband Blues”, meanwhile, was Barrett’s only vocal performance, and turned out to be the end of the road for him both as a member of the band and as a prominent musician.
Pure psychedelia, particularly in mid-1968, could be somewhat limiting as a musical form, which accounts in part for the direction taken by Spooky Tooth on their debut It’s All About. The album had a distinctly Gothic feel, probably in part due to their dual use of piano and electric organ, most notably on “Sunshine Help Me”. Indeed, it’s difficult to listen to that track and not feel shades of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”, still years away. There’s also some (skillful?) falsetto on display by vocalist Gary Wright, later to realize solo success on the strength of his hit “Dream Weaver”. And the closing track “Bubbles” can’t help but be literal, sounding like a precursor to Supertramp.
Vanilla Fudge aren’t generally known as a prog rock band, but Renaissance took them in that direction after its producer-dominated, band-disowned predecessor. “Thoughts” in particular finds the band at their most Floydian, complete with echo-laden, ethereal vocal harmonies, a generous dollop of organ, and trippy lyrics likening sex to floating in the sky. Meanwhile the thunderous middle section of “That’s What Makes a Man” manages a pretty spectacular synthesis of guitar, drums and organ. Though failing to make much of a dent critically or commercially, the album stands out as something of an overlooked psychedelic gem.
Women have always been poorly represented in rock, and perversely this was even more true in the halcyon days of the Civil Rights movement than it is now. Indeed, in 1968 their presence was confined to Joni Mitchell, Grace Slick, Cass Eliot and Michelle Phillips, and Linda Ronstadt – Americans one and all. Meanwhile across the pond, traditional folk rock was coming into its own, so it was from this scene that Fairport Convention emerged, fronted initially by Judy Dyble on their first, self-titled album and replaced after by Sandy Denny. Incorporating a softer sensibility but melded with electrification, Fairport not surprisingly became regarded as something of a British Jefferson Airplane (sharing the billing with Airplane at the first Isle of Wight Festival at the end of August), though with the emphasis more firmly on folk than on rock.
Before shifting gears in the early 1970s and becoming skillful purveyors of radio-friendly rock hits, the Steve Miller Band got its start playing psychedelic blues rock. Their debut, Children of the Future, was recorded with producer Glyn Johns in London and featured the de rigeur sonic accoutrements of the day, including the gyres of sound and barely audible voices (and seagulls on “The Beauty of Time is That It’s Snowing (Psychedelic B.B.)”. Meanwhile, tracks like “Steppin’ Stone” and “Fanny Mae” play as more faithful electric blues, while “Roll With It” suggests somewhat the band’s later direction.
Early 1968 had marked one of the stranger episodes in Sixties rock history: the journey by the Beatles, Donovan and Mike Love of the Beach Boys to India to study meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. For the Beatles, the infatuation didn’t last long; Ringo Starr would leave first, disliking the food and comparing the Maharishi’s compound to some kind of deranged holiday camp, while John Lennon would write “Sexy Sadie” as a slag on the Maharishi for supposedly trying to poach his girlfriend during the visit. Mike Love was inspired, however, and returned to the States in time to contribute ideas for a few tracks on the Beach Boys’ next album, in particular “Anna Lee the Healer” and “Transcendental Meditation”. Public reaction to the resulting album, Friends, was underwhelming, as was the attendance at the Boys’ associated tour with the Maharishi; the latter was cancelled after a handful of dates, one of which managed to attract only 800 people at a venue meant for 16,000. The rather limp album thus marked another chapter in the Beach Boys’ continuing popular decline as the decade moved towards its climax.
Every so often, there comes along an album that clearly represents a seismic shift in the direction of popular music. Such was the case with Music From Big Pink, the Band’s debut. The album saw the predominantly Canadian group emerge from its earlier position as backup for Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan and rather gloriously come into their own, with its melding of folk, rock, R&B and country. Nearly half a century later and it still manages to sound fresh and not even remotely dated. While the disc struggled initially to find popular success (though critical accolades were never in short supply), the Band, the album and especially their classic “The Weight” all received significant shots in the arm from the group’s appearance at Woodstock the following summer. More impressive, perhaps, is the album’s legacy. Eric Clapton credits its style as persuading him to quit Cream and forge a different direction in his subsequent work. George Harrison acknowledged having taken great inspiration from Music From Big Pink in composing All Things Must Pass. And Rogers Waters has called it the second “most influential record in the history of rock and roll” (after Sgt. Pepper), stating that it had a deep impact on Pink Floyd. I admit, I’ve never drawn a sonic connection between the Band and Pink Floyd, but I’ll need to try listening to Floyd’s subsequent works with that in mind.
Creedence Clearwater Revival emerged at around the same time as the the Band. However, as a band from California they were something of an oddity initially, given that they largely eschewed psychedelia and instead adopted a sound too bluesy and swampy to be country rock, with a jam band ethic here and there more sonically connected with the soon-to-be southern rock scene of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. Their self-titled debut kicks off with a cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ dark, terrifying “I Put a Spell on You”, John Fogerty’s signature gravelly voice filling in for Hawkins’ doom-laden delivery. The boys largely keep things in minor keys throughout, most notably on “Suzie Q”, “Porterville”, and the aptly named “Gloomy”.
Much more was to follow as ’68 progressed, as new standard bearers emerged and the stalwarts began to produce some of their greatest and most enduring work. Stay tuned….