I pause at this point to wonder aloud at what point the overall cultural vibe of the Sixties went from light to dark. Depending on who you ask, this momentary thought break of mine could appropriately show up almost anywhere in this chronology from mid-1967 onward. People who experienced the Summer of Love in and around Haight-Ashbury have told me that the end began in late ’67, with the creeping incursion of the amphetamines that would overshadow weed and acid and turn the vibe from peaceful and somewhat harmonious to paranoid and violent. And there were undoubtedly powerful outside influences at work; somebody wiser than me once observed that “you’re only as free as the leash they keep you on… if you tug too hard, they’ll hang you with it.” The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in the first half of 1968 made manifest that sentiment in part. Likewise the governmental crackdowns on social change movements around the world that year, of which the heavy-handed police response to protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August drove the point home for Americans. Richard Nixon’s election to the presidency in November ’68, and the expansion of the Vietnam War into Laos and Cambodia that followed, might be regarded as a coup de grace; in any event, his election would cast its own undeniable shadow on popular music and culture.
A musician whose career is in the doldrums in one respect or another can sometimes benefit from a significant change of direction. That was certainly the thinking at work in producer Marshall Chess’s mind for legendary bluesman Muddy Waters in 1968, whose original black audience was gravitating more towards soul and funk and whose adoptive audience, British rock musicians, had long since taken over the limelight from their inspirations. The result, Electric Mud, was a collection of blues standards backed up by feedback-drenched psychedelic electric guitar; the suggestive, slutty lyrics on “Tom Cat” actually benefit from a generous serving of wah-wah pedaling. Muddy’s cover of the Stones’ “Let’s Spend The Night Together” is a marked departure from the original, somehow managing to work in guitar snippets of “Sunshine of Your Love”. However, the album was panned by US critics (though better received across the pond), and largely derided as shit by Muddy himself, whose unmistakable vocals were the most prominent feature but whose usual backing band was pushed aside in favour of studio musicians. Writer Gene Sculatti, however, has opined that “the rhythm seems to anticipate hip-hop by three decades”, and the album is a fascinating document overall, though perhaps flawed in its execution.
The double album Electric Ladyland saw the Jimi Hendrix Experience spread its wings somewhat and experiment, a tall order for the already innovative Hendrix. “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)” took a dip into the waters of soul music, while “Voodoo Chile” takes off into the realm of heavily Hammond-inflected “space blues” courtesy of Traffic’s Steve Winwood. As with the band’s last outing, bassist Noel Redding was given a chance to shine on lead vocals on the harmonic jangly UK pop-inspired “Little Miss Strange”. There’s even some catchy rhythm on “Gypsy Eyes”; I’d go so far as to describe it as ahead of its time, and wouldn’t be surprised to hear it turned into an EDM track by now. The last third or so of the album takes a decidedly apocalyptic turn; “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” is a complex of varied sounds over the narrator’s tale of escaping, with his lover, the war-torn dry land to the sea to be reborn. “House Burning Down” offers warnings of its own about the perilous state of the world with the sky turning “a hell fire red”. Then of course is the legendary cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, with its supposed parable of fallen Babylon drenched in Hendrix’s unmistakable fuzz tone. The whole thing wraps with “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and its dark, bluesy squeals, thuds and moans – the clearest example of the connective tissue between Hendrix and heavy metal. Though signalling the end of The Experience, the album is a ball buster of a psychedelic document.
Deep Purple’s The Book of Taliesyn – I have to confess, I had trouble listening to parts of “Wring That Neck” without thinking of Spinal Tap’s parodic “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight”. The cover of Neil Diamond’s “Kentucky Woman” is passable, but as a pop-ish, hand-clapping tune, seems out of place. In fairness, however, this was supposedly due to pressure from their record company to crank out a follow up to Shades as quickly as possible, which allowed them insufficient time to write more songs. “Exposition”, part one of a two part medley with Beatles cover “We Can Work It Out”, is more of a return to form with its galloping, relentless rhythm and interwoven organ and guitar.
Jethro Tull began life as a blues rock band with occasional jazz influences, the latter partially in the form of Ian Anderson’s flute – pretty much unheard of in rock up to that point. On their debut This Was, those jazz influences were primarily due to original guitarist Mick Abrahams, who initially shared songwriting duties with Anderson. There’s no shortage of skill on display; Clive Bunker’s fiery skin-bashing in particular highlights the instrumental “Dharma For One”. “Cat’s Squirrel” amps up the rock end of the equation, laden with grungy guitar and sounding a bit like a spiritual predecessor to Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused”, before the bass-and-flute-heavy “A Song For Jeffrey”. Tull would change direction after this album – gradually at first, then more completely – following the departure of Abrahams due to differing musical styles. Abrahams would be replaced on guitar, very briefly, by Tony Iommi, before Iommi left to set up shop with Bill Ward, Terrence “Geezer” Butler and John “Ozzy” Osbourne.
Pop rock still had a place in late 1968, courtesy of Three Dog Night. Their debut (sometimes called One) is a competent and varied assortment of covers, showcasing the frontmen’s harmonies and a lot of electric organ. Everything’s up for grabs here: Lennon/McCartney, Harry Nilsson, Traffic, Randy Newman. The standout is their faithful version of The Band’s “Chest Fever”. Meanwhile Steppenwolf released The Second as something of a return to roots; much of the first side is bluesy in nature, with a momentary detour. “Spiritual Fantasy” surprises as a slow, pretty tune offering an invitation to throw off materialism, false spirituality and moral certainty, acknowledging that, while “it’s sad to know it’s just a song… To hope and dream still can’t be wrong”. Only a song later, the recording session is seemingly busted by the police and the band’s dope is flushed down the john, ending side one. Side two is more of an upbeat extended medley, incorporating the band’s famous anthem “Magic Carpet Ride”, but damn… the police bust lingers in your mind for the rest of the album, a harbinger of things to come in America.
In the last few months of 1968, it was clear that jazz influences were finding a foothold in mainstream rock, carrying on the work begun by Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield earlier in the year. This was certainly the case with Traffic’s eponymous second album, with prominent Hammond on “Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring” and an extended sax component on “Feelin’ Alright?”. Dave Mason’s more psychedelic pop oriented sensibilities are in evidence on side two.
The Hurdy Gurdy Man was Donovan’s first album recorded partly after his fabled trip to India with members of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. The influences of that trip are hard to miss (“Peregrine”, e.g.), and turn up mostly in the form of psychedelia. Otherwise the album displays impressive variety: grungy, overdriven guitar on the title track, medieval orchestral influences on “Hi It’s Been a Long Time”, Caribbean percussion on “West Indian Lady”, Berber orchestration on “Tangier”… and “As I Recall It” plays like the Beatles’ “Honey Pie”, released the following month. Notably, the sessions for the album involved three future members of Led Zeppelin.
The Steve Miller Band’s second release of 1968, Sailor, continued the band’s hybrid of psychedelic rock mixed with the radio friendly staples that would become their hallmark in the Seventies. “My Friend” is an excellent example of this, showcasing the energy of this later incarnation, while “Living In The USA” accomplishes the same thing with a touch more psychedelia and a lively rhythm. “Overdrive”comes from the pen of Boz Scaggs, soon to depart for a successful solo career, and comes across as a country-tinged rocker with Miller doing his best Bob Dylan impression. Another Scaggs tune, “Dime-A-Dance Romance”, ends the album with some decent guitar soloing over an impressively grungy rhythm guitar/boogie combo.
Venturing into the slightly more obscure in late ’68 leads to The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, by Byrds refugee Gene Clark and bluegrass pioneer Doug Dillard. I say “obscure” only because finding the album at all took a bit of work; iTunes and Spotify both failed me before I stumbled across it on YouTube. Backed by such luminaries as future-Burrito-Brother-and-Eagle Bernie Leadon and Clark’s former Byrds colleague Chris Hillman, the album has come to be regarded as a masterpiece of the still-embryonic country rock genre.
Astral Weeks, Van Morrison’s “first” solo album, emerged from the ashes of his tarnished relationship with the owner of his original solo record company and the legal hassle that ensued. When Morrison assembled the session musicians he had written the songs already, and gave them the freedom to play what they felt would fit in well. The result was a lilting, breezy collection of songs melding Morrison’s blues and R&B influences with jazz and classical guitar. The combination is particularly clear on “The Way Young Lovers Do”, a lively tune backed by a suitably subtle horn section which matches well with Morrison’s distinctive voice. The rest of the album leans more heavily towards folk music, especially “Madame George” and the title track.
I think I refered to the Kinks as “whimsical” in an earlier post, and the description certainly applied to their November ’68 release, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. It’s been observed that the album was somewhat at odds with the prevailing social unrest of the day, and this is accurate; it’s a collection of vignettes about “simple” English country life. But perhaps that’s the point: obviously not every album from the late Sixties had to confront the social change head on. Band leader Ray Davies described the village green as “somewhere you go to when the world gets too much”, and the album can certainly be listened to in that context; much of it hearkens back to Beatles songs like “Eleanor Rigby”. Its exhaustion and world-weariness reminisce of a simpler time, then on “Do You Remember Walter”, seem to acknowledge past youthful idealism (one of the remembrances being that “….we said we’d fight the world so we’d be free”). While critical appraisals would recognize and appreciate this approach, propelling the album into numerous best-of lists, commercial success proved initially elusive.
Just putting out another album clearly wasn’t enough for Canned Heat in November 1968. Double album? Kid stuff. A song that takes up one entire side of a record? Pfffft. Fuck it, they said – Living The Blues will be a double album, and it’ll feature THREE songs clocking in at twenty minutes each. “Parthenogenesis” represents the band at their most psychedelic, something of a departure from their usual staple, the electric blues. The two parts of “Refried Boogie” were recorded live, and reflected a much more conventional jam band blues ethic; lead guitarist Henry Vestine’s extensive solo in part 2 is a pretty hypnotic display of his chops, and the song gives ZZ Top the riff for “La Grange” a few years early. Plus the album included “Going Up The Country”, one of the unofficial anthems of Woodstock due to the impact of the 1970 soundtrack album of the festival, and its expression of escape and no small measure of being fed up with the whole mess (“Now baby pack your leaving trunk, you know we’ve got to leave today / Just exactly where we’re going I cannot say, but we might even leave the USA / ‘Cause there’s a brand new game that I don’t wanna play”).
It’s been noted before that progressive rock spearheaded the introduction of orchestral or classical sounds into popular music. While those elements had certainly been present prior to November 1968, they’d never before been so comprehensively in the foreground as on Release of an Oath, the Electric Prunes’ fourth album. Crediting the album to the Prunes at all was a decision of their producer, David Axelrod, and a rather disingenuous one at that: only one of the original band members would even play on the album, which was composed by Axelrod and mostly performed by session musicians. There’s undeniable skill on display, but an album of vaguely rockified Gregorian chanting is pretty out there, even for the highly experimental late Sixties. Axelrod left after this outing, and the band would adopt a back-to-basics approach on their next, and final, album.
After retiring the “Bluesbreakers” portion of his stage name, John Mayall left Britain and made a pilgrimage to California. He would later decide to move there on a permanent basis, but in the meantime he was sufficiently inspired by the trip to write and record Blues from Laurel Canyon. The album referred to his experiences meeting Canned Heat (“The Bear”) and, less obliquely, the Mothers of Invention on “2401”, with its references to Frank Zappa’s son Moon Unit and to various members of the Mothers’ associated groupie clique, the GTOs. The Canyon’s effect on Mayall was clear from the album’s closer, “Fly Tomorrow”, which begins with a mournful account of the necessity for him to return home and concludes with his usual skillful blues jam.
Bill Watterson, through his comic strip alter ego Calvin, once observed that “the problem with being avant-garde is knowing who’s putting on who.” Over the course of this chronological journey through Sixties rock music, I’ve never come so fully to grips with that sentiment as I did with John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, which features two 15-minute tracks of what can only be described as background noise. While Lennon subsequently referred to the concept, the album, and its jacket (featuring the two artists stark naked) as reflecting “two innocents, lost in a world gone mad” – an admirable and contemporarily applicable sentiment – presumably the point of an album is to actually enable a listener to get something out of it, or inspire them in one direction or another. But frankly, with Two Virgins, that’s impossible: there’s basically no there there. AllMusic’s William Ruhlmann has described its sound as “not unlike what you might get if you turned on a tape recorder for a random half-hour in your home”, and he’s right, except that a random half-hour in most people’s homes isn’t punctuated by Yoko’s trademark shrieking somewhere in the distance. Well, not in my home, most of the time anyway.
Fortunately, however, American fans were rewarded a little over a week later by the release of The Beatles (aka the White Album), whose release preceded that of Two Virgins in Britain by a week and could thus insulate UK fans almost entirely from the latter. Summing up the double-length White Album and its thirty songs in a paragraph hardly does it justice; indeed, others have written essays and even books about it. Suffice to say that the album delivers: it was unabashedly all over the map (thanks to the distinctive styles and drives of the four members, which would ultimately play a role in the band’s breakup), showcasing subversive surf-ish rock (“Back in the U.S.S.R.”), British music hall (“Honey Pie”), stabs at the Maharishi (“Sexy Sadie”), and the possibly-partly-satirical-but-also-damned-good take on the blues in “Yer Blues”. “Revolution 9” managed, to Paul McCartney’s dismay, to shoehorn in a bit of the avant-garde noise John Lennon had been working on with Yoko at the same time. Its counterpart “Revolution 1”, whose louder, harder-rocking version had been released under the title “Revolution” as the b-side to the “Hey Jude” single a few months earlier, had the effect of pissing off some of the same social revolutionaries who were taking inspiration from the Sixties rock culture. To them, with the song’s warning that “if you talk about destruction / don’t you know that you can count me out”, the Fab Four were selling them down the river and abdicating their role as leaders of the revolution they’d been such a part of up to that point. More likely, however, in the midst of the polarization of the time, the song is a plea for peaceful revolution. Everybody wants revolution, evolution, solution, contribution – no problem with that, man, but if you want to burn and loot, spread hate or follow oppressive ideologies, well… not interested.
“Glass Onion” was a bit of a stab at listeners who would try to pick out hidden meanings from the Beatles’ work. Ironically, however, the song’s message was lost on Charles Manson and his “family”, who only five months later would begin their quest to fulfill the twisted message Manson managed to wring out of “Helter Skelter” and deal a blow to the popular perception of the Sixties generation in America. It’s fitting, therefore, that “Helter Skelter” with its driving, brutal guitar attack, merciless rhythm and shrieked vocals would come to be yet another ancestor of heavy metal’s early focus on doom and darkness. The sentiments expressed in “Piggies”, meanwhile, would be taken to their most horrific extreme by Manson’s followers in their actions the following summer.
Part of the joy of this exploration of mine so far has been getting to experience the ebbs and flows of bands, their peaks and valleys, their deaths and rebirths, in the context of the overall direction of rock at the time. December 1968 marked the true coming of age of the Rolling Stones, with Beggars Banquet – a return to roots yet also a glorious maturation. They tackled country with rock tinges (rather than country rock) on “Dear Doctor”, grungy Chicago blues on “Parachute Woman”, and piano-inflected boogie on “Jig-Saw Puzzle”. But the legendary tracks would be the samba-influenced, darkly humourous “Sympathy for the Devil” with its assertion, following the mass social protest sweeping much of the globe in 1968, that “every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints”. But what of the Stones’ own contribution to the revolution currently underway? Much as with the Beatles simultaneously, the idea of being some kind of standard bearer for the charge of the oppressed was a role from which the Stones recoiled: as per “Street Fighting Man”, even though “the time [was] right for palace revolution”, the only thing for poor boys like them was to play rock n’ roll. Rock musicians would provide the soundtrack to the social revolution, maybe even inspire it in part, but it was up to others to actually lead it.
And here I am, back with Neil Young, who I was listening to when I decided to embark on this project. Young’s first, self-titled solo album was largely critically and commercially ignored, but it set the stage for the Buffalo Springfield alumnus’ career as one of rock’s biggest solo artists. The country influences are on display in the opener, the pretty instrumental “The Emperor of Wyoming” and in “Here We Are In the Years”, while a hint of Young’s later brand of overdriven hard rock is revealed on “The Loner”.
A life battling heroin addiction and crippling depression sounds like it should belong to a man older than twenty, but by that age James Taylor had enough life experience to catch the ear of the Beatles with his heartfelt compositions. He’d met prominent-session-guitarist-to-be David Kortchmar as a teenager, and “Kootch” introduced Taylor to Peter Asher, A&R man for Apple Records, the Beatles’ new label. It was thus that a singer/songwriter of such tender years became the first non-British artist released on Apple, a showcase for Taylor’s smooth voice and brand of folk rock. Despite poor sales (Taylor sunk back into heroin addiction and couldn’t do promotion), the resulting self-titled album would spawn several of Taylor’s classics, most notably “Carolina In My Mind” with an uncredited George Harrison on backing vocals.
On Blood, Sweat & Tears’ eponymous second album, the band continued their experimentation with jazz/rock fusion. Their cover of “More and More” features the band’s skillful horn section paired with some fuzztoned guitar, while “God Bless The Child” takes things in a more Latin-flavoured direction. Meanwhile on “Blues – Part II”, the band pays homage to its roots with snippets from “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Spoonful”.
December 11, 1968 saw an initially ill-fated effort by prominent British rock musicians to break out of the staid, straightforward pattern of albums and concerts and attempt an early multimedia spectacle. That effort was the The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, filmed in a circus tent built on a sound stage in Wembley, London, and featuring musical performances interspersed with big top-style entertainment. As a snapshot of some of rock’s superstars at that point in time, it’s fascinating: Jethro Tull (with the aforementioned Tony Iommi’s only appearance as their guitarist), The Who, Taj Mahal, the Stones themselves, Marianne Faithfull, and impromptu supergroup The Dirty Mac comprised of Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Unfortunately the film didn’t see the light of day in its entirety for several decades; Mick Jagger was supposedly unhappy with the Stones’ performance, as they hadn’t performed live in nearly two years and finally took the stage exhaustedly in the wee hours of the morning after all the other acts. Fascinating, yes, but also bittersweet; sadly the film would mark the final public performance of the Stones’ talented but deeply troubled multi-intrumentalist founder Brian Jones. When finally released, the film’s silent title card somewhat ruefully acknowledged those heady days when it briefly seemed “like rock and roll really would inherit the earth”. While it definitely wouldn’t, it was at least securing its place in the earth’s social history.