Prog rock continued to exert a growing pull on pure psychedelia’s audience as 1968 wore on. Deep Purple helped drive this point home with their inaugural release, Shades of Deep Purple, which melded different song styles into a cohesive whole, always underpinned by Jon Lord’s Hammond organ. Lord eschewed the Moog synthesizer that seemingly everybody else was nuts over, instead plugging the Hammond into a Marshall amp and giving it a prominence that could actually rival Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar pyrotechnics. From the album’s thunderous instrumental opener “And The Address”, Shades then moves into radio-friendly territory with their now-classic version of “Hush”, then into a reworking of the Skip James-composed, Cream-covered blues “I’m So Glad”. Throw in a slowed-down, organ-drenched reworking of “Help” even the Beatles likely couldn’t have imagined, and a cover of “Hey Joe”, this time with lengthy instrumental sections, and the pathway for Deep Purple’s influence on the development of both prog and heavy metal is clear.
A few posts ago I roundly slagged the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed for being, in my estimation, boring and pretentious. Thus I made a promise to myself that I would approach their next outing, In Search of the Lost Chord, with an open mind; I am nothing if not a perpetual optimist. And my optimism was rewarded with a collection of interesting, thematically complex songs. It’s been described as a concept album about exploration and discovery, and the description is accurate; hit single “Ride My See Saw” gave the generation a Flower Power anthem with a catchy riff and lively rhythm, this time a plea to listeners to join the narrator on a (LSD fueled?) journey. “Legend of a Mind” offered a tribute to Timothy Leary, psychologist and pioneer in the area of therapeutic psychedelics. “Voices in the Sky” is melodically beautiful, while we’re assured a song later that thinking is “The Best Way to Travel”. And the harmonized ending to “Om” is pretty damned stirring. All in all, a solid entry in the prog/psychedelic canon and a highly worthwhile listen.
Just when it seemed prog rock might be picking up the reins from psychedelia, along came Waiting For The Sun, the Doors’ third album. It starts innocuously enough with the band’s second chart topping hit, “Hello I Love You”, but then two tracks later breaks out “Not to Touch the Earth”, a cacophonous mindfuck of a song right at home with the trippiest offerings from the psychedelic oeuvre. As for “Five to One”, it’s been speculated that the song is an indictment of fading hippie and revolutionary ideals. “You walk across the floor with a flower in your hand / Trying to tell me no one understands / Trade in your hours for a handful dimes” – the revolution on its own won’t feed or clothe you, and in the real world you actually have to do something if you want to eat. Pure idealism is great for awhile, but sooner or later it comes face to face with reality.
On Super Session, Al Kooper took the skills he’d honed in forming Blood, Sweat & Tears and turned them into a collaboration with friends. Side one featured Mike Bloomfield, Kooper’s co-contributor on Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, while Stephen Stills from the terminally ill Buffalo Springfield jammed with him on side two. The end result is a clean album of jazzy organ-inflected electric blues. “His Holy Modal Majesty” on side one is a particular standout, featuring some truly original, frantic organ work by Kooper. Meanwhile Stills’ guitar manipulation and processing on “You Don’t Love Me” calls to mind the Cars’ “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” and Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way”. Long shadows, indeed.
Meanwhile, Stillls’ outfit Buffalo Springfield effectively imploded before the issuance of their final album, Last Time Around, which was released due to contractual obligations. None of the tracks featured all of the band members, and the album ended up being more of a collection of songs by then as individuals. As a result, much of the album seems listless, dour and unfocused, though there are standouts: Stills’ “Questions” features a compelling, distorted, hooky guitar line, while “I Am a Child”, a gentle song of innocence and wonderment, became a fixture of Neil Young’s solo concerts. Stills would imminently go on to found Crosby, Stills & Nash, to be joined shortly after by Young during breaks in the latter’s long and successful solo career. Richie Furay, vocal talents on display in “Kind Woman”, left to found Poco, a fixture in the coming country rock boom.
Anthem of the Sun continued the Grateful Dead’s exploration of the jam-band aesthetic. The real standout was the lively psychedelic boogie “Alligator”, the middle of which features an intricate dance between electric guitar and organ before building to a rather magnificent crescendo. Assembled largely in a cut-and-paste fashion in the studio from many different takes, most of the album is extended multi-instrumental noodling, but that’s at least in part the point.
UK prog rockers Family launched their debut, Music In a Doll’s House, in July. Showcasing the band members’ virtuosity and command of styles, the album is nothing if not eclectic. There’s blues (“Old Songs For New Songs”), some soul influences that manage to work in violin (“Hey Mr. Policeman”), much more obvious psychedelia (the three “Variation on a Theme of…” instrumental snatches), and “Peace of Mind”‘s apocalyptic choir crescendo. Certainly, the overall sound was highly original, but while the band would receive critical acclaim in their own land, popular acceptance in the US would elude them. Doesn’t seem to have mattered much to them though, given the trumpet-heavy snippet of “God Save The Queen” as a hidden track at the end of side two.
Family’s Ric Grech would soon leave the band to team up with Eric Clapton on their next venture, but in the meantime Cream were still very much a going concern. Wheels of Fire, a double album comprised of a studio disc and a live disc, saw them branch out musically. The studio disc featured the classic “White Room”, but also some dips into prog/psychedelia – the standout being “Pressed Rat and Warthog” with Ginger Baker’s heavily cockney spoken word delivery. “Politician”, meanwhile, casts aspersions on the perceived moral failings and cowardice of those manning society’s steering wheel, over one of the band’s heaviest, densest riffs. Wheels of Fire was well received, its songs heavily played live, and it was recognized as the first double album to reach platinum status. The live disc also featured Cream’s first release of their cover of “Crossroads”, Robert Johnson’s classic blues song, and was credited with leading to a return to prominence for the music of the long-deceased legendary bluesman whose work would continue to further influence rock in the coming years.
Gram Parsons, fresh off his shortlived turn as founder of the International Submarine Band, joined the Byrds and managed to steer them in an almost totally new direction on Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The direction in question was country music, and while Parsons won most of the Byrds to this new path, de facto leader Roger McGuinn offered up the most resistance, replacing Parsons’ vocals on three tracks with his own. The resulting album, a collection of country music covers bookended by two Bob Dylan tracks, pissed off fans of traditional country music as an infiltration by smelly longhairs, while alienating the counterculture rock fans who made up their core audience. But while Parsons would move on immediately after and the Byrds would continue their descent from the limelight, the album demonstrated that country/rock crossovers were possible, and would have a profound influence on the development of the hybrid genre that would be front and centre in America for much of the coming decade.
Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills marked a radical step forward for Janis Joplin and her band. This was aided by the complimentary pairing of Joplin’s trademark wail and Sam Andrew’s blistering guitar, producing an acid-dropping, drained-bottle blues offering of considerable grandeur. From the drenched-in-feedback “Ball and Chain” at the blues end to the more psychedelic “Piece of My Heart”, the album was an assured, spontaneous-sounding document, Joplin’s last before leaving Big Brother to all-too-briefly go solo.
The seeds of future Seventies careers continued to be sown in the second half of ’68 with Truth, Jeff Beck’s first full length album following his rather ignominious departure from the Yardbirds. Beck recruited two other young musicians who had performed professionally but similarly without appearing on any full length albums yet: Rod Stewart on vocals and Ronnie Wood on bass. The result was a highly distinctive album (in part due to Stewart’s unmistakable voice) primarily comprised of blues covers, old traditionals and another cover of “Morning Dew”, previously covered by the Grateful Dead. One of the two most memorable tracks is a cover of Willie Dixon’s “I Ain’t Superstitious”, drenched in wah-wah inflected distortion that plays off Stewart’s voice. The other is “Beck’s Bolero”, an instrumental re-imagining of Ravel’s classical piece Bolero. The song was nearly two years old by the time Truth was released, but while it had gone largely unnoticed as a single, its inclusion here gave it a second lease on life, full of guitar feedback and driving rhythm. Part of the track’s significance is that it was the product of a one-off “supergroup” comprised of Beck, Jimmy Page, Nicky Hopkins, and momentary Who refugees John Entwistle and Keith Moon, and that its sessions also generated the name of Page’s next band, Led Zeppelin.
Reality dictated that, for now at least, it was only possible to get so heavy, no matter what drugs you were on or how pissed off you were about Vietnam or society or anything else; the groundwork simply hadn’t been laid yet. Thus Blue Cheer continued largely as they’d started on their second release, OutsideInside. The album is a raucous collection of bluesy electric rock drenched in feedback and volume, with vocalist/bassist Dickie Peterson sounding like a proto-Robert Plant a year early, particularly on “Babylon”. Meanwhile their cover of Booker T. Jones’ “The Hunter” gave Kiss their template for “Love Gun”, still a decade away.
Speaking of one band bestowing gifts on another, I submit that it’s difficult to listen to the slice-of-life scouse-laden pub exchange in “The Immigrant Lad” by Eric Burdon & The Animals without hearing the very same cash register sound effect that would later open Pink Floyd’s “Money”. But that aside, Every One of Us is a solid and varied disc, running the gamut from hard rock on “Year of the Guru” to the relaxed, meditative instrumental “Serenade to a Sweet Lady”. Their cover of anonymously-penned traditional “St. James Infirmary” works in some impressive psychedelic guitar work by John Weider, soon to leave to join Family. As he did on the band’s last two albums, Burdon attempts an epic statement on the times. The good news is that here, he succeeds: “New York 1963-America 1968” is an epic 19-minute odyssey that traces the journey of a young man – Burdon himself, presumably – arriving in New York, becoming enamoured of black culture in general (and one young black woman in particular), and then watching as that culture meets the reality of the pushback against the Civil Rights movement. The song builds to a crescendo of Weider’s guitar and Zoot Money’s Hammond organ before the question “is it really freedom?” is mutedly asked, and ends with a spectacular burst of sound. Add that track to the list, after “A Day In The Life” and “Repent Walpurgis”, of great album finales.
Country Joe and the Fish continued their brand of psychedelic protest rock with Together. Interspersed with snippets of speech, the album was somewhat more disjointed than their last two, yet still offered its own commentary on the times. “The Harlem Song” offers a tongue-in-cheek white man’s patronizing viewpoint while noting that “everything’s blowing up these days”. The penultimate track is “Cetacean”, an instrumental laden with psychedelic guitar soloing, before ending with the anti-Vietnam War “An Untitled Protest”.
The UK’s Status Quo got their start playing primarily psychedelic pop full of jangly guitar and catchy harmonies, before eventually morphing into their more enduring incarnation. Their debut, the awkwardly-titled Picturesque Matchstickable Messages from the Status Quo, certainly left no doubt as to the nature of their sound: primarily upbeat pop ditties by songwriters other than themselves. The standouts, however, are their own works; the vocals on “Sunny Cellophane Skies” make them sound like The Who, while signature hit “Pictures of Matchstick Men” featured the duelling guitars of Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt, incorporated phasing techniques for the second time following Stephen Stills on “You Don’t Love Me” from Super Session, and put the band on the map. Procol Harum, meanwhile, were already fully immersed in the prog rock genre; Shine On Brightly continued their experimentation with breaks from convention, most notably on the 17-minute five-part suite “In Held ‘Twas in I”, interspersed with spoken word snatches, both bizarre and real world sound effects, and bearing a cumbersomely weird title whose explanation needn’t be gotten into here. Part four, “Look To Your Soul”, finds the album’s overall message: a warning to discard self-indulgence in pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. One of prog rock’s hallmarks would be its focus on more complex or higher-minded themes, and Shine On Brightly was no exception.
Jefferson Airplane’s Crown of Creation would mark the end of the band’s first era as psychedelia continued its gradual decline. The commercial success they’d enjoyed on their previous albums proved somewhat more elusive, and thematically the album mined the darker depths. This was particularly true of “The House at Pooneil Corners”, an apocalyptic warning of a coming day when, in the ashes of destruction, “everything someday will be gone except silence… Earth will be quiet again.” Certainly the album’s mushroom cloud cover design gave listeners some idea of what to expect; when Flower Power stalwarts like the Airplane begin to change their tune and go negative, clearly the party’s over to at least some degree.