Sunday, November 4, 2018


While 1968 is the year we lost Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the average age of a young man in Vietnam was 19, it was a year of phenomenal music that rivaled 1967 and 1972 and [pick a year]. A week after RFK was shot, my dog, Taffy, ran up the steps in our apartment complex skidded on the smooth deck and slid under the upstairs railing. I ran screaming into the house imagining the worst. The song on the radio was "Hurdy Gurdy Man." Taffy licked my hand and my brother ran into the apartment. He said, "I've never seen such a thing."

While psychedelia was still in full bloom with Donovan and "Pictures of Matchstick Men," there was a back-to-the-basics reaction to it in 1968: Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding (released in the final days of 1967, his first single being waylaid by a motorcycle accident in '66), the Byrds' country-tinged Sweetheart of the Rodeo and the debut album by the band called The Band reflected a way to escape the craziness and live a simpler life. Three refugees from other bands, simply calling themselves Crosby, Stills and Nash, got together to explore harmony and, along with emerging singers like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, launch the singer-songwriter genre that would flower in the 70s.

Meanwhile, the earliest stirrings of hard rock and progressive rock marked a desire among musicians to push beyond psychedelia into new territories: Bands formed in 1968 included Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, King Crimson, Rush, Yes and the New Yardbirds, who would soon become Led Zeppelin.

While all this was happening, AM radio still played the hits. Some of them were admittedly lightweight: the term bubblegum music was coined to describe purposely frothy tunes like "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy" and "Sugar, Sugar" that couldn't be any further from the turbulence that ruled the news. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Steppenwolf clamored up the charts with "Born to Be Wild" and The Rolling Stones released the genre-bending "Jumpin' Jack Flash."

Motown was still turning out gold and platinum seemingly weekly, with hit after hit from Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and others. James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone pointed the way toward funk.

And of course, we still had the Beatles, whose self-titled double-LP let us know that they were drifting apart even as they continued to collaborate on some of the most diverse and brilliant music in their canon.

It's that diversity that is most impressive about 1968's rock, pop and soul. But it's also the tenacious quality of the music that amazes — so much of what we listened to 50 years ago sounds fresh and innovative. 50 years ago in November, we were privy to The Beatles and if that wasn't enough we got "Lady Madonna" to boot and the biggest selling single of the year in "Hey Jude." The Monkees' Head was released and the debut Neil Young LP. It was the year of "On the Road Again" from Canned Heat and Hendrix' "All Along the Watchtower." It was "Magic Bus" and "MacArthur Park" and "Tiptoe Through the Tulips;" we were that diverse, and all still on AM radio.

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