The climax of the Sixties was approaching as the spring of 1969 plodded onward. New President Richard Nixon began the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam, though the escalation of the brinksmanship with the Soviets and the war’s expansion into Laos and Cambodia lurked just around the corner. Reasons for hopeful progress could still be found, however, with the USSR’s Venera 5 probe descending into the atmosphere of Venus, and the dress rehearsals for the USA’s moon landing in the summer. Meanwhile John Lennon and new bride Yoko Ono recorded Lennon’s first solo single, “Give Peace A Chance”, at their second Bed-In at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal on June 1, encapsulating as they did the sentiments of the counterculture and the youth generation of the day and giving the growing anti-Vietnam War movement perhaps its most enduring and famous anthem.
Leonard Cohen’s second album, Songs From A Room, was a more sparse, stripped down affair than his debut, featuring “Bird on the Wire”, one of his most famous and oft-covered works. “Story of Isaac” invokes its quiet anti-war protest first with the titular story, then with a condemnation of those who would sacrifice children in ideological or religious crusades, noting that “a scheme is not a vision, and you never have been tempted by a demon or a god”. Meanwhile, “A Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes” features the Canadian wordsmith at his most rock-ish up to that point, with some innovative fuzzed-out guitar in the background.
“Holy shit – Bob Dylan can actually sing!” was no doubt the reaction of at least some first time listeners to Nashville Skyline. Indeed, the change in Dylan’s voice on his new album was staggering, supposedly the result of the temporary cessation of his smoking habit. Similarly surprising was his embrace of country music, evident right out of the gate on “Girl From The North Country”, his duet with Johnny Cash. The influence is even clearer on the obviously titled “Country Pie.” With the genre already being explored by the Byrds and the Flying Buritto Brothers, Dylan was clearly in distinguished company, though there were those who felt that, in the midst of the turbulent sociopolitical atmosphere of the times, Dylan was effectively abdicating his longstanding position as a countercultural icon.
High on the list of “Least Flattering Album Covers” came English singer Joe Cocker’s debut, With A Little Help From My Friends. Showcasing Cocker’s powerful, throaty, Ray Charles-esque baritone, the album of mostly covers kicked off with a reworking of Traffic’s “Feeling Alright” which outshone Three Dog Night’s popular cover and didn’t look back. The famous title track was its standout, with its scorching backing vocals and guitar courtesy of Jimmy Page, and went on to lasting acclaim as a dramatic reworking of the Lennon/McCartney original, receiving a particular boost from Cocker’s distinctive, spasmodic performance of the song at Woodstock later in the year.
Side one of the Moody Blues’ On The Threshold Of A Dream saw the band at their most rocked-out yet, particularly in evidence on tracks like “Send Me No Wine” and “To Share Our Love”. The band goes more high-concept on side two, with the three-part odyssey bookended by “Have You Heard” offering an early into to Seventies prog rock. Meanwhile, where prog rock experimented with classical influences and orchestration, the newly formed Chicago Transit Authority (soon to rechristen themselves simply Chicago under threat of a lawsuit from the actual CTA) took a jazzy approach similar to Blood, Sweat & Tears and opted to play “rock and roll with horns”. Guitarist Terry Kath, chops on display on tracks like “Poem 58”, would find a fan in none other than Jimi Hendrix, while his highly experimental (and almost unlistenable as music, while still possessing undeniable power) “Free Form Guitar” displays, if nothing else, Kath’s masterful control of the instrument. The last side includes “Prologue, August 29, 1968” and its companion “Someday”, with their direct references to the strife-torn Chicago DNC of that day and its now-legendary crowd chant “the whole world is watching”.
From Ireland came Taste, fronted by young multi-instrumentalist prodigy Rory Gallagher. Their self-titled debut was part blues, part folk, part rock – rather Who-esque in places, particularly “Born On The Wrong Side of Time” and “Blister On The Moon”. And Gallagher’s grungy, distinctive guitar tone is gloriously on display on “Catfish”, with sludgy blues raining down like hail. In a similar, distinctly American vein came The Bob Seger System’s debut Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man, a churning, somewhat rough-hewn disc that sounds like it was recorded in a warehouse (and who knows, may have been) but for which that was at least part of the appeal. Seger’s gruff Detroit working man’s voice is a natural fit for the tale of colourful characters he spins in “Down Home”, and it’s clear why Seger would become a fixture of the coming roots rock/heartland rock boom. But for now it was still the Sixties, and the second side breaks out the Hendrixian psychedelia and social protest, the latter most prominently on the blisteringly anti-war “2+2=?” (“So you say he died for freedom, well if he died to save your lies, go ahead and call me yellow, 2+2 is on my mind”), before ending with a plea for love in “The Last Song (Love Needs To Be Loved)”. A notable bit of trivia is the appearance of a young Glenn Frey, soon to co-found the Eagles, on backing vocals on the title track.
Seventies guitar star and producer Todd Rundgren’s first prominent band, Nazz, released their self titled debut in April. Lots of pop sensibility prominently on display, but with some of Rundgren’s chops as well, notably on “Open My Eyes” and in particular on “Wildwood Blues”. Nazz were often described as psychedelic rock, and while the influence is audible, their first disc was best described as radio friendly pop rock. And no shortage of catchy riffs on the more minimalist tracks like “Lemming Song”.
The implosion of their previous careers and a chance meeting and singalong at a party at Joni Mitchell’s house in L.A. brought David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash together. Crosby had been sacked from the Byrds, Stills’ old outfit Buffalo Springfield had collapsed in rancour, and Nash felt creatively stifled in the Hollies. The threesome’s resulting debut album, Crosby, Stills & Nash, was a great success and met with critical acclaim, especially hits “Suite: July Blue Eyes” and “Marrakesh Express”. And “Long Time Gone” offered a tribute to the slain Bobby Kennedy, pointing out that “the darkest hour is always just before the dawn” and urging listeners to “speak out against the madness”. Coupled with the group’s appearance at Woodstock in August, the album also helped blaze a trail for the less bluesy, more folk-rock “California Sound” that would follow in its wake in the early Seventies.
Meanwhile Neil Young, Stills’ old Buffalo Springfield bandmate soon to join CS&N as their fourth member, released his second disc Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, his first with his longtime backing band Crazy Horse. The tracks are more in the rock vein than the folk of his debut this time around; things take a dark turn in “Down By The River” with its protagonist admitting he shot his lover, but that’s the exception. The rest are tales mostly of love and loss and lamentations for what might have been. The most famous is “Cinnamon Girl”, which serves up its mournful melody with a small side of hope.
Rounding out the three May ’69 albums rising most phoenix-like from the ashes of Buffalo Springfield was Pickin’ Up The Pieces by Poco. Richie Furay and Jim Messina continued country rock evolution’s baby steps away from pure country towards the emerging hybrid genre, as displayed prominently on “What A Day” and on the even more rock-oriented “Short Changed”. Bass and backing harmony vocals were courtesy of Randy Meisner; a spat over his participation in the mixing process led to his ejection from the band (and being painted out of the album cover art in favour of a dog), though his work remained on the album. Not a bad deal for Meisner, really; his crystal clear high vocal range would ultimately attract the attention of Glenn Frey and Don Henley, who would recruit him for the Eagles within two years. His replacement in Poco, Timothy B. Schmit, would follow in Meisner’s footsteps again, taking his place in the Eagles in 1977.
By spring 1969, The Who’s last studio album was a year and a half old, but they had spent the time since its release touring relentlessly and were tight and polished. Thus it was Tommy, their masterwork, that would propel them into rock’s stratosphere. A double-disk rock opera, Tommy told the story of the titular deaf, dumb and blind boy who overcomes his life of challenges to attain stardom. An album with a single unified theme or storyline was nothing new by 1969, but unlike prog rock’s efforts in that regard, The Who eschewed high concept and complex orchestration, opting instead for musical accessibility and narrative whimsy. With anthems like “Pinball Wizard”, “I’m Free” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It / See Me, Feel Me”, the album was critically acclaimed and became a pop culture juggernaut, sparking numerous versions over the ensuing decades including a star-studded movie with an accompanying soundtrack and a Broadway musical. Ironic, perhaps, that while the Rolling Stones had been unsuccessful in their effort to create a multimedia spectacle a few months earlier with the participation of Townsend, Daltrey, Moon and Entwistle, The Who would actually pull it off with just an album release.
Just when it seemed like psychedelia was on its way out, along came Unicorn, the third album from the still folk-focused Tyrannosaurus Rex (soon to be renamed T Rex with an accompanying change in musical direction). Plenty of barely-sensical weirdness there, tied together with Marc Bolan’s unique brand of baby talk babbling of the day – I can’t help but picture Adam Sandler behind the mic, which doesn’t do the experience any favours. Certainly more lyrically conventional (and enjoyable) was Joni Mitchell’s second album, Clouds. The largely uncluttered (until “Roses Blue”, it’s just Mitchell’s voice and guitar) songs showcased her growing skill as a singer, with some help from Stephen Stills on guitar. The most famous song from the album is “Chelsea Morning”, written by Mitchell but already recorded twice by others by that
point. The a cappella “The Fiddle and the Drum” offers a condemnation of contemporary American militarism, noting that America was “once again… fighting us all”, observing that “we have all come to fear the beating of your drum”, but sounding a hopeful note as well: “we can remember all the good things you are.”
Pink Floyd released their third album More in June, the band’s soundtrack to Barbet Schroeder’s film of the same name about escalating heroin addiction. Roger Waters has said that The Band’s Music From Big Pink had a huge influence on Floyd, yet More, which was recorded after The Band’s opus, displays little of this. If anything it’s pretty faithful late psychedelia with avant garde smatterings (“Up The Khyber” being a prominent example), though tracks like “The Nile Song” and “Ibiza Bar” show the group at their heaviest yet, with thunderous riffs and crashing percussion.
Some albums succeed in unintentionally capturing an era’s shifting sands. Such was the case with Brave New World, the third outing from the Steve Miller Band, which saw them herald the incoming new while acknowledging the outgoing old in more ways than one. The first of those ways was the album’s comprehensive shift from the psychedelia of the band’s first two albums to the arena rock of their upcoming Seventies work, partly via the blues (particularly on “Got Love ‘Cause You Need It”). “Space Cowboy” introduces a couple of the characters who would show up again in the band’s later hit “The Joker”. The song also borrows the main riff from the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna”, but this was probably at least with the blessing of song scribe Paul McCartney, who showed up to provide backing vocal and multi-instrumental help on “My Dark Hour”, the album’s closer, due to one of the Fab Four’s numerous late-period heated squabbles that night at the same studio after which the other three stormed out. “My Dark Hour” also introduces the band’s legendary riff from their later hit, “Fly Like An Eagle”.
By 1969, Elvis Presley was long past his early incarnation as a rock-and-roller, having spent the decade since his army discharge churning out soundtracks to his critically reviled movies. Smarting from this derision, Elvis decided to record his first non-soundtrack studio album in years, and the resulting From Elvis In Memphis rewarded him with acclaim. Overall the songs were far more soul and R&B than rock, but his early influences did poke their heads out periodically, most notably on the bluesy, suggestive “Power Of My Love”. And while none of the songs particularly fit the rock of 1969, “In The Ghetto” portrayed in straightforward, mournful fashion poverty’s vicious circle, managing to be right at home with the social change movement of the day.
Appropriately timed with The King’s return to the fore was the Jeff Beck Group’s second outing, Beck-Ola, which included covers of “All Shook Up” and “Jailhouse Rock”. Overall the album aimed for a harder-rock sound than on their debut, hence the replacement of original drummer Micky Waller with Tony Newman. The wisdom of the choice is particularly clear on “Rice Pudding”, with Newman’s frequent cymbal strikes giving the song a Zeppelin-esque feel. Piano boogiemeister Nicky Hopkins provided a skillful display of his chops on the instrumental “Girl From Mill Valley”. “Plynth (Water Down The Drain)”, with its funky rhythm and simple, effective riff, sounds like something Kiss took inspiration from in around 1974; not surprising, perhaps, that the album has come to be seen as a seminal work in the early development of heavy metal with its heavily bluesified hard rock on tracks like “The Hangman’s Knee”. The band in its current incarnation would soon fracture, however; despite being scheduled to play Woodstock in August (and showing up on some of the posters), Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood would leave shortly after the album’s release to join the Faces, while Hopkins would appear at Woodstock with Jefferson Airplane and join the Rolling Stones for a few albums in their golden era.
Much like David Bowie shortly before them, the Alice Cooper band’s debut Pretties For You gave little clue as to the work that would make the band famous. “Living” is a full-on hippie anthem with harmonized vocals that recalls the Moody Blues’ “Ride My See Saw”, while “Levity Ball” suggests Pink Floyd’s “Astronomy Domine” with its descending scales; not surprising perhaps, given that the band hung out with the Floyd during one of the latter’s early US tours. Most of the other tracks employ psychedelic weirdness, odd time signatures and eclectic sound effects, and the ahead-of-its-time avant-garde album was received with polite muted praise. “Reflected”, meanwhile, would be rewritten as “Elected” a few years later for the band’s smash album Billion Dollar Babies, a version that is still a staple of Alice Cooper’s solo shows to this day.
Speaking of avant-garde, I’d heard warnings before listening to Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica that it’s an acquired taste. Simpsons creator Matt Groening has said that he hated it at first, coming to see it as the greatest album he’d ever heard after six or seven listens, and it’s clear why multiple exposures would be needed. Produced by Frank Zappa, the album dispensed with musical convention, and is at its most conventional with “Moonlight On Vermont”, and verging towards its less conventional with “Neon Meate Dream Of A Octafish”. “The Blimp (Mousetrapreplica)” was supposedly recorded by Zappa in the studio listening to Don Van Vliet’s vocals over the phone. Suffice to say that the album is bizarre; it clearly has spiritual ancestors in Pet Sounds, Freak Out! and Two Virgins, to name a few. It’s probably best summed up by critic Robert Christgau, who said it’s “great played at a high volume when you’re feeling shitty, because you’ll never feel as shitty as the record” – while nonetheless rating it a B+ and noting that only the album’s weirdness prevented him from rating it more favourably. For an album this original and experimental, I submit that those words are high praise.
Prog rock clearly still had a hold on Deep Purple, whose third, self-titled release was partly the product of guitarist Ritchie Blackmore’s successful resistance to keyboardist Jon Lord’s desire to include more classical music fusion elements in their next album. Not that Lord got shafted, however; his Hammond work is on prominent display here, notably on “The Painter” (and he did get his way pretty much completely on “April”). Besides, he and Blackmore were in agreement that the band was still too much of a Vanilla Fudge clone for their liking, and wanted to shoot for a more Led Zeppelin-esque style of loud hard rock and move further away from waning psychedelia. Hence the driving, bluesy “Why Didn’t Rosemary”, inspired by Roman Polanski’s then-current hit movie Rosemary’s Baby, which showcased the band’s drive towards the hard rock/proto-metal that would become their best-known work. The album would also signify the end of Purple’s “Mark I” lineup, as vocalist Rod Evans and bassist Mark Simper were cut loose after recording was complete and replaced with Ian Gillan and Roger Glover respectively, thus creating the legendary Deep Purple, Mark II.
One might be a bit surprised that arguably the “whitest” of the white blues musicians could produce such faithful, sludgy, drained-bottle blooze, but that’s exactly what Johnny Winter managed on his self titled second disc. The combination of Winter’s swaggering guitar licks and the muddiest Muddy Waters vocal since Muddy himself is mind blowing, right from opener “I’m Yours & I’m Hers”. Meanwhile, “I’ll Drown In My Tears” gives a bit of a hat tip to the jazz/blues fusion of the type churned out so far by Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears. At the same time, the Grateful Dead were entering a new stage, experimenting with the new 16-track recording technology and winding up even further in debt to Warner Bros. in the process. But the result, Aoxomoxoa, would be their first album to emphasize acoustic over electric, and a shift away from psychedelia to the Americana style that they would adopt. “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” is a good example of this, while “China Cat Sunflower” is more indicative of their origins. “What’s Become Of The Baby”, meanwhile, is an utterly simple track: nothing but Jerry Garcia’s chanting, with no backing instrumentation, run through a mixing board and treated with echo effects.
Oh, the events that were to follow in the summer….