Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Pops' Big Comeback - 1968

1968 was the year that rock grew up. It was the first year that album sales outdid 45s, the year of the double disk and the mellotron. While 1967 had more in the way of content, 1968 was the year that artists hit the studio like never before. Psychedelia was still a key element with In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida gaining the first RIAA platinum status (1 million sold). Soul music, reeling from the loss of Otis Redding, still had Stax and Motown, with the latest black music offshoot, psychedelic soul, about to go stratospheric. 

In the real world, the idealistic peace/love vibe of 1967 had given way to the grim reality of global unrest as Russian tanks rolled into Prague and the war in Vietnam escalated. Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy were assassinated and there were riots and uprisings in major cities around the world. 1968 was a pivotal year for social and world-changing events, and as befitting the new mature status of the medium, much of the turmoil and upheaval was reflected in the music.

Despite this, 1968 also saw a myriad of pop, jazz and instrumental songs on AM radio. Something that rarely happens today. It wasn't a new phenomenon, Astrud Gilberto had sold over 1 million copies of "The Girl From Ipanema" way back in 1964, but by 1968, jazz pop songs were all over the radio dial.

From a jazz perspective, there was Sergio Mendes and Brazil '66 who had a runaway hit with the Portuguese language "Mas Que Nada" and "Going Out of My Head." A string of hits continued for the next several years and in 1968, two songs made it into the pop charts: "Scarborough Fair," a cover of the Simon & Garfunkel tune and The Beatles' "Fool on the Hill," both with the incomparable vocals of Lani Hall. The LP was produced by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, the A and the M from A&M Records.

Herb Alpert would have a hit with the 1965 pop trumpet version of "A Taste of Honey" and then go on to hit No. 1 in 1968 with "This Guy's in Love With You." Alpert and Moss had an incredible collection of artists under contract from Burt Bacharach to Cat Stevens, The Carpenters, Quincy Jones, Supertramp; an endless list that by the mid-70s made A&M the largest independent record label in the world.

Paul Mauriat's "Love is Blue" was the 2nd biggest selling song of 1968 behind "Hey Jude." The track hit No. 1 in January and would stay there for five weeks. A Francophile fascination that started with the iconic instrumental "A Man and a Woman" and included Andy Williams' wife Claudine Longet (look her up for an interesting story) would continue into 1968 with the recording of "Je t'aime…Moi Non Plu" by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. The song would be banned in many countries for its sexually explicit content. The title roughly translates to "I love you…Neither Do I" causing a ban in France for its explicit sexual nature without love, because of which the song was deemed pornographic.

It's an interesting phenomenon that while music was progressively moving toward harder-edged rock, away from rock 'n' roll, and disassociating itself from the soft pop content of artists like Bobby Vinton and Johnny Mathis, here we were in 1968 with these incredible pop hits staking their claim among the most popular of the year, as if taking one long last breath that put artists like Frank Sinatra back into the limelight. Frank's reclaiming the top spots began in 1966 with the year's biggest single, "Strangers in the Night." In 1967, Frank's comeback would include a duet with daughter Nancy called "Something Stupid." Nancy, of course, had hit it big with "These Boots Were Made for Walkin'." One of Frank's all-time biggest hits would come in 1968, 50 years ago, with "My Way."

Like pop and Frank making a comeback, 2018 has seen vinyl sell more copies than any year since 1989. There is indeed nothing new under the sun.

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