All good things must come to an end, they’ve told us. And it’s long been observed that each decade of the twentieth century tended to extend itself into the one that followed by a few years (the Fifties didn’t really end until the Kennedy assassination, the Seventies stuck around through the gloom and doom of the Eighties’ first years, etc.). But culturally at least, the Sixties in America wrapped itself up in big damn hurry in 1969, right on the nose.
The road had run out for Vanilla Fudge, whose last offering (until a reunion years later) was the simply titled Rock & Roll. An obvious or unchallenging title, perhaps, but chock full of songs expressing the difficulty of pressing on through adversity (“Need Love” and Carole King’s “I Can’t Make It Alone” being the clearest on the topic). The bitterness is right at the surface here and there, particularly on “Street Walking Woman”, which might have been a thematic template for AC/DC’s “What Do You Do For Money Honey” ten or so years later when that band was going through its own turmoil. The whole thing wraps with 18-minute instrumental jam “Break Song”, giving each of the band members a chance to shine. But that was to be it for the group; drummer Carmine Appice and bassist Tim Bogert would go on to a partnership with Jeff Beck, while keyboardist Mark Stein and guitarist Vince Martell would fade into relative obscurity.
Meanwhile, September 1969 marked the end of the road for the Beatles, who would never record as a foursome again after the studio time for Abbey Road wrapped in August. Sessions in January for what was intended to be their next album had dissolved in acrimony, and would ultimately be released posthumously the next year as Let It Be. The resumption of recording only a few weeks later was conditional on an understanding with George Martin that he be permitted to produce the sessions in the old way without excessive interference (particularly from John Lennon) and that the band record as a cohesive unit again. Which sounded great in theory, but unfortunately Lennon and Paul McCartney soon clashed over Yoko Ono’s constant presence in the studio (collaboration with her had become the primary focus of Lennon’s interest anyway), and also over album structure: McCartney favoured more of the medley style stuff they’d explored a bit on Sgt. Pepper, but Lennon derided McCartney’s contributions in that style as junk and music “for grannies to dig”. The compromise was to have Lennon’s approach on the first side and McCartney’s on the second, and the result was Abbey Road. The album displayed the usual late-period genre variety, ranging from the “granny music” that John Lennon hated and refused to participate in (“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”), doo-wop (“Oh! Darling”), unconventional and lyrically eccentric rock (“Come Together”), and near-prog rock (“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” with its somewhat cacophonous build-up and sudden, jarring conclusion). And in the category of ear worms, that honour goes to George Harrison’s impossible-to-not-sing-along-to “Here Comes The Sun”. The Fab Four’s farewell to their fans was found at “The End” of the 16-minute medley on side two with “and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Fitting that the last album released during the Beatles’ life as a band would be jacketed by one of the most iconic images in the history of recorded music, so much so that even yours truly couldn’t resist a pilgrimage to the scene in 2014 (me on the left below with my kids).
A similar and more immediately tragic end was approaching for one of the most distinctive vocalists in rock. I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! was Janis Joplin’s first album released since her departure from Big Brother and the Holding Company, and her last album released during her all-too-short lifetime. Freed of the constraints of being part of a band and of having to make collective decisions, Joplin added a horn section to her songs, resulting in a more soul/R&B style than had been evident in Big Brother’s psychedelic rock (“As Good As You’ve Been To This World” being a good example). Temporary Kosmic Blues Band member Mike Bloomfield was given a chance to shine on the guitar on “One Good Man”, the most overtly rocked-out track on the album.
The Band, by contrast, were still building their legend, hot off their performance at Woodstock, and their eponymous second album (sometimes called “The Brown Album”) cemented their status even further. This time the focus for the gang of Canadians was the Americana of the forgotten, hence the truckers’ lament of “Up On Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”‘s tale of Southern despair as the Civil War drew to a close. The album was another nudge forward for the growing country rock genre and a spark for the formation of what would become known as “roots rock”, and is regularly included on critics’ lists of all-time greatest albums.
As the Sixties’ embrace of love, harmony and understanding gave way to the Seventies’ emphasis on fucking, hedonism and excess, another brown album — Led Zeppelin II, sometimes referred to as the “Brown Bomber” — exemplified this shift perhaps better than any album up to that point. That it was a darker, more sexually aggressive record than its predecessor — and more so than any record before it — was clear right out of the gate. “Whole Lotta Love” quickly became a showstopper and a classic, with its slutty, predatory, dangerous riff, lyrics of carnal lust (stolen from Willie Dixon), and Robert Plant’s orgasmic moaning. The album’s theme continued with “The Lemon Song” and its command to the singer’s paramour to “squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg” (courtesy of Robert Johnson), and wrapped with an initially unacknowledged cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Bring It On Home”, with its quiet faithful bluesy intro morphing into a loud, rough-hewn, guitar skronk-laden tale of betrayal at the hands of a lover. Recorded on the road in snatches during the band’s frenetic star-making early years of relentless touring, womanizing and drugging, the album’s tone was unmistakable – except for “Thank You”, Plant’s tribute to his wife. The song would, in spite of the band’s notorious debauchery of the day, cast Plant in part in the role of somewhat androgynous and yet hyper-masculine romantic hero, while leaving plenty of room for the rest of his persona: that of primary lyricist, image exemplifier, and unbridled id representation.
Experimentation and the breaking of new ground was also the order of the day in other genres. The always mercurial Frank Zappa released his second solo album Hot Rats, his second since the dissolution of the original Mothers of Invention, which showcased both his innovative use of recording techniques and his pioneering work with jazz-rock fusion. All the tracks save “Willie The Pimp” (with Captain Beefheart on vocals) are instrumentals, with Zappa acting as composer, producer, arranger and lead guitarist. Pink Floyd, meanwhile, released the double album Ummagumma: the first half a live album approximating the band’s set list of the day, and the second half a collection of compositions by each of the individual members. Contemporary reviews were overall positive, though the band have slagged it repeatedly in recent years as a mess or a disaster. And the criticism isn’t misplaced; the second half is disjointed and excessively soundscape-y, an attempt at trippiness that ends up being meandering and uninteresting.
The newly-formed King Crimson, meanwhile, having been given a big shot in the arm with a spot in the Stones’ Hyde Park concert before a few hundred thousand people, released their opus debut, In The Court of the Crimson King. In doing so they abandoned the blues and dove into experimentation, introducing jazz and classical elements through layers of overdubbed instruments added in the studio. Complexity and depth were the production aim, and the album was lush and dense, paving the way for the prog rock revolution to come. Being a product of 1969 its most prominent track, “21st Century Schizoid Man”, takes issue with the brutality of international power politics, lamenting the “innocents raped with napalm fire”, and sounding a more despairing note than rock had only a year earlier. Though reception was mixed initially, the album – and its iconic cover – have come to be regarded as highly influential, with rock luminaries such as Pete Townshend and Rob Halford singing its praises.
Speaking of Townsend, the reception afforded to the Kinks’ Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) frequently compared the album favourably to Tommy, with some critiques suggesting that ol’ Pete could learn a thing or two from Ray Davies and the lads. Without doubt Arthur was distinctive, both in terms of Kinksish-ness and overall British-ness, expressing the crumbling facade of England’s exalted place atop the world as the century plodded on and the reality of being nothing more than a cog in a machine set in. “Brainwashed” made this particularly clear: “you’ve got a job and a house and a wife and your kids and a car, yeah, you’re conditioned to be what they want you to be.” Having become temporarily stuck as such an exemplification of said British-ness that it prevented them from regaining much of a foothold in America, it fell to the Kinks to instead express the reality and growing disappointments of life in postwar Britain, at a moment in time in which the Swinging London era was over and the gloomy Seventies lurked around the corner. Sort of a spiritual predecessor to Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut a dozen or so years later, though without the latter’s singular focus on geopolitics.
Creedence Clearwater Revival finished their prolific year of 1969 with the release of their fourth album, Willy and the Poor Boys (their third that year alone), with the tale of the titular fictitious band being spun in “Down on the Corner”. The album wraps with the slow, mournful “Effigy” and its allegorical tale of “the fire spreadin’ to the palace door”, with its observation that Richard Nixon’s much-ballyhooed “silent majority weren’t keeping silent no more”. But it was side two’s opener, “Fortunate Son”, which would stand as the band’s most overtly political work with its indictment not of the Vietnam War specifically, but of the disparity between the haves and have-nots as to which group’s members were actually being sent halfway around the world to get their brains blown out for America. Its message was impossible to miss, and the song became a leading countercultural anthem whose status would endure far beyond the era of the Woodstock generation.
A few thousand miles eastward from a San Francisco band that nonetheless came to exemplify swampy “southern rock”, sprung up a six-piece outfit actually from Jacksonville, Florida whose members steadfastly rejected that particular tag as limited, regressive and redundant. The Allman Brothers Band was assembled by the siblings in question, Duane and Gregg, and they built their legacy on their fucking solid jam band ethic as much as on their diverse influences: Chuck Berry and country (guitarist Dickey Betts), the jazz of Davis and Coltrane (drummer “Jaimoe” Johanson), the Stones and the Dead (drummer Butch Trucks), and R&B (the brothers). Their resulting eponymous debut was a churning, grinding collection of electric blues rock, notably “Black Hearted Woman” – which sounds like something Robert Plant was listening to before laying down his vocal on “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” about eight years later – and the legendarily blistering guitar-and-organ symphony that was “Whipping Post”, all angst, regret and pain. Even Lester Bangs could dredge up a few gushing compliments for the pages of Rolling Stone.
The venerable Byrds continued their exploration of country music on Ballad of Easy Rider, the title of which was chosen to capitalize on the hit countercultural movie of the day and whose soundtrack included an acoustic version of the titular ballad. For the most part the album was a collection of covers and traditionals, one of which, “Jesus is Just Alright” – a sop to the conservatives who had attacked the Byrds’ country efforts? – would be covered fairly faithfully a few years later by the Doobie Brothers. And speaking of Easy Rider, Steppenwolf – originators of the song most associated with that movie – released their fifth album, Monster, in which they let the social commentary flow. With “Monster/Suicide/America” the Canadian band traced the history of their neighbours to the south and indicted its incarnation of the day with its political corruption and police violence, but also offered a plea for its hallowed ideals: “Don’t you know we need you now? We can’t fight alone against the monster”, whatever the monster may be. So with those ideals in mind, what are we to make of the instrumental “Fag”? An ode to the simple, toxic pleasure of the cigarette? Or an oblique and early reference to gay rights? Not sure.
David Bowie’s epic ascension as a musician and multimedia artistic force began in earnest with his initially self-titled second album, re-released and retitled in 1972 as Space Oddity. The track of the same name, possibly about space travel as inspired by Kubrick’s 2001 but also possibly about heroin use as inspired by Bowie’s admitted “silly flirtation with smack” in ’68, would become one of his most iconic and most enduring, even being performed by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield a few years ago on an acoustic guitar on the ISS. “Memory of a Free Festival” offered Bowie’s reflections on such a festival that he’d previously organized, and has been interpreted as a jab at the counterculture. But Bowie saved his most damning indictment for “Cygnet Committee”, in which he provided a glimpse into the post-Revolution(ary) world the Beatles had slagged off. “Stoned the poor on slogans such as ‘Wish You Could Hear’, ‘Love Is All We Need’, ‘Kick Out The Jams’…”, and decrying those of the aftermath world willing to “kill for the good of the fight for the right to be right”. What started in Bowie’s mind as a song born of disillusionment with hippie culture (“I gave them life, I gave them all, they drained my very soul…”) became, seemingly, a condemnation of its worst potential excesses — written, coincidentally, shortly after the Manson murders but before the perpetrators became known. Or as the man himself would put it years later, “I basically wanted it to be a cry to fucking humanity… [to attack those] who don’t know what to do with themselves? Looking all the time for people to show them the way.”
Jefferson Airplane were clearly reading the writing on the wall at the same time as Bowie. Finding somebody to love was no longer enough; revolution was on the agenda on Volunteers. “We Can Be Together” made this clear with its anarchist, communalist message, telling the establishment in no uncertain terms that “all your private property is target for the enemy, and your enemy is we”, and co-opting “up against the wall, motherfuckers!” from the Black Panthers. Overall the album’s sound was a significant departure from the Airplane of ’67-’68; the band was starting to fracture with the departure of Marty Balin and Spencer Dryden, and a harder rock feel is very much on display on tracks like “Eskimo Blue Day”.
A transcendent event like the landing of the first human beings on the moon couldn’t help but attract reflections in popular culture. Though opinions in the US on the worth or benefit of the landing were hotly debated at a time when distrust of her federal government was only growing and social strife threatened to tear the country apart, few could help but be moved by the astronauts’ images of Earth taken from the moon’s surface: the idea of our small planet’s people being fundamentally part of the same world was inspiring to both the counterculture and the mainstream. The Moody Blues’ To Our Children’s Children’s Children addressed this, from its cover design featuring cave paintings suggesting humanity’s common heritage, up to tracks such as “Sun Is Still Shining” which provided a late-period plea for understanding and one-ness in the Moodies’ complex, highly orchestrated style.
Blue Cheer’s eponymous fourth saw the band forget the whole bluesy proto-metal thing and shift entirely into vaguely Seventies-style pop-ish rock. But with a Janis Joplin impersonator on “The Same Old Story”. Meanwhile, England’s Fairport Convention – fronted, for the last time, by Sandy Denny – released Liege & Lief, whose folk rock stylings (their cover of the traditional “Matty Groves” and its tale of betrayal and revenge being a great example) would spearhead the development of that new genre, with Robert Plant taking such inspiration that he would invite Denny to provide guest vocals on their untitled fourth album in a little under two years. Plus, I can’t help but be entranced by a song called “Crazy Man Michael”. And Arthur Lee’s Love, with Lee the only remaining representative of the classic Forever Changes lineup from way back in 1967, couldn’t have chosen a more fitting end to the decade. Out Here was a double-disc journey back to the Summer of Love, all twangy pop rock and pleas for peace and understanding (“Love is More Than Words or Better Late Than Never”, “Nice to Be”) to a world that had pretty much abandoned the whole idea. Goodbye, Sixties.
Let It Bleed made crystal clear the Rolling Stones’ ascendancy to their creative pinnacle to any who doubted it. Opening with the ominous, desperate, fight-or-fuck opus “Gimme Shelter”, the band looked around at the world, and in particular at an America beset by a brutal and destructive war and ongoing civil rights strife (the latter brought home by the blistering guest vocals of soul singer Merry Clayton), and realized they bloody well had something to say about the whole mess – not a protest, but a warning. But anyone tempted to conclude that the band was calling on the people to rise up in righteous anger needed look no further than the band’s mature album-ending bit of wisdom to the assembled masses that, while “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, you might just find you get what you need. The point couldn’t be clearer with the use of a children’s choir at both ends of that song; indeed, it’s the last thing we hear on the album. Chill out, man, and don’t be in such a hurry to kick up shit or upend the social order — there’s children to think about. This was certainly true for Keith Richards, who had just become a father for the first time.
The chill-the-fuck-out plea was one that Mick Jagger would employ to minimal effect only a day after the release of Let It Bleed at the Altamont Festival in California on December 6. Altamont had been envisioned as a “Woodstock West”, and featured Santana, Jefferson Airplane, the Flying Buritto Brothers, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and the Stones themselves. But it wasn’t to be: the festival’s fate was arguably sealed early by the management decision to hire members of the Hell’s Angels as security. The level of antipathy between the Angels and the crowd had steadily increased throughout the day, and reached its climax as the Stones’ set began. Jagger stopped the show a few times to appeal for calm and an end to the fights, but to no avail; by then the Angels were too drunk, the crowd was too pissed off by their heavyhandedness already, and the vibe had gotten really, really dark. A young man named Meredith Hunter, who had already been assaulted by the Angels for getting too close to the stage, pulled a gun and was stabbed to death in front of the Stones in the middle of “Under My Thumb”. The documentary Gimme Shelter, released a year to the day later, would capture the whole thing, ending with Jagger’s face freeze-framed in a holy-shit-what-just-happened look of horror and realization — a thousand yard stare from having witnessed the death of a young man, and a social-cultural era, right in front of him.