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1968 “Born to be Wild”

May 22, 2013

1968 was an interesting and tumultuous year for US politics, music and for me personally. It was the end of my last year of junior high at Friends Seminary in NYC, and the beginning of living away from home at Taft school in Connecticut. In the political world, there was greater violence with the King and Kennedy assassinations, inner city riots, and a violent end to the Democratic convention on the Chicago streets. Change and conflict was the hallmark of 1968.

1968 was also an important change year for rock music. The Byrds, Mamas and Papas, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, Association, the Seekers, Herman’s Hermits, Hollies, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Lovin’ Spoonful, Peter and Gordon, Johnny Rivers, and Petula Clark and their folk-rock or softer-rock sound of the mid-sixties had largely disappeared from the pop charts by 1968. ( The exceptions being the Association’s “Everything that Touches You”, the Four Seasons cover of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” in early 1968, and Mama Cass’ solo of “Dream a Little Dream of Me”). The Beach Boys surf rock sound which had been a staple from 1962-67 was no longer in vogue , though the Beach Boys did have an excellent single “Do It Again” in early ’68 which spoke longingly about the group’s past. ( In fact, “Do It Again” was a bit of a throwback even for the Beach Boys which had strayed far from their original sound with Brian Wilson’s complex and very different “Heroes and Villains” single and “Smiley Smile” album of 1967). The Monkees pop-rock sound and TV show had dominated the popular music scene in 1966-67 courtesy of the excellent song writing of Carole King, Neil Diamond and Boyce/Hart. However, in early 1968, the group had its last top ten hit “Valleri” in February and their TV show was cancelled in the Spring. The group released a movie later in 1968 entitled “Head” which was bizarre (to put it mildly) and was ostensibly about the death of the Monkees. It was directed by none other than the new, up-and-comer Jack Nicholson.

There were a number of notable exceptions to this trend away from soft/ folk rock . This included most notably Simon and Garfunkel superb “Bookends” album with the hits “Mrs. Robinson”, “At the Zoo” and “Fakin’ It” and the lyrically and musically beautiful “America”. The Turtles scored with one of my favorite melodies “Elenore” which poked fun at themselves with lyrics such as ” I really think you’re groovy, let’s go out to a movie”. The Rascals upbeat “A Beautiful Morning” and the up-tempo “People Got to be Free” kept the group at the top of the charts. Frenchman Paul Mauriat had the instrumental top seller of the year with the soothing “Love is Blue”. However, my two favorite instrumentals by far were “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams (featuring great guitar work and orchestration by the Smothers Brothers show producer) and the eerie “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” by Hugo Montenegro.  Other soft rock vocal favorites of mine for the year included Merilee Rush’s “Angel of the Morning”, Fifth Dimension’s “Stoned Soul Picnic”, Judy Collins version of  “Both Sides Now”, and Mary Hopkins’ “Those Were the Days”.  

However, a hard rock and more electric sound was in ascendancy particular in Great Britain. The Who had their first American top ten single in late ’67/early ’68 with ” I Can See for Miles” which begins with an unforgettable electric guitar riff and later followed it with “Magic Bus”. The Rolling Stones had experimented with a softer, flower power sound (“Ruby Tuesday” and ” Dandelion” in 1967) and imitated the Beatles Sgt. Peppers with the psychedelic “Her Satanic Majesty’s Request” released in late 1967 ( which included the early 1968 hit ” She’s a Rainbow”). However, by mid-1968, they had returned to their hard rock roots with one of the greatest rock songs ever “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” with Keith Richards guitar driving the song. Jimi Hendrix followed up his album success of ” Are You Experienced” with “Axis: As Bold As you love” in 1968 and it’s hard rock version of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”? And the two hard rocking singles from “Are You Experienced” in 1967, “Purple Haze” and “Foxey Lady”, became a staple on the newly emerging rock oriented FM radio during 1968. A new British group Deep Purple produced a hard rock classic “Hush” which epitomized the electric hard rock sound. A one-hit wonder from Chilton, England, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown released the bizarre and combustible “Fire”.

Back in the US, Big Brother and the Holding company burst onto the scene with their album “Cheap Thrills” and hits ” Down on Me” and “Piece of my Heart”. Their lead singer, Janis Joplin, introduced the world to an extraordinary female hard-rock voice. A new group Steppenwolf had two huge hits “Born to be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride” as well as “The Pusher” which was featured at the beginning of the movie “Easy Rider”. Steppenwolf “driving” electric guitars perhaps best epitomized the new hard rock sound in the US.  Even Tommy James and the Shondells moved away from its pop sound in 1967 to the hard rock classic “Mony, Mony” in early 1968.

Hard rock jams and long songs were also relatively new in 1968. On the FM dial, Cream led this new trend with their double album “Wheels of Fire” and it’s hit “White Room” and the lengthy jams “Traintime”, “Crossroads” and “Toad”, the latter two which were over 16 minutes in length.  Another new rock group Iron Butterfly took long songs to an excessive level with its 17 minute annoyingly repetitive “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida”. The Chambers Brothers had an AM radio version of “Time Has Come Today” one of my favorites of the year, and a very long 11 minute version of the song on their album which later became part of the soundtrack of the Jane Fonda/Jon Voight movie “Coming Home” in 1978. Creedence Clearwater Revival had their first hit song with”Suzie Q Part I”, but the whole song was over 8 minutes long and was featured on their first album.

Of course, the leader of these new trends was The Beatles. After the 1967 “thematic” and “psychedelic” albums, Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, the Beatles moved to a simpler, often harder rock and less ornate sound. This started with the rockin’ piano in McCartney’s “Lady Madonna” in the Spring and then was followed by the extraordinary two-sided hit “Hey Jude/Revolution”. Hey Jude is still one of my top ten favorite songs of all time and was the first very long song (e.g. 7 minutes) to be played regularly on top-40 radio. But it was “Revolution” in particular that best epitomized the hard rock trend (with some ferocious guitar playing) while lyrically symbolizing the 1968 tensions between the peace movement and the newer emerging, more violent protests.

The Beatles White Album, despite less critical acclaim than Sgt Pepper, was clearly album of the year and in my opinion, one of the Beatles best accomplishments. Unlike Sgt Pepper, there was far less collaboration in song writing BUT it remains an extraordinary showcase of the three singer/ songwriters of the Beatles. George Harrison had Savoy Truffle; Long, Long, Long; Piggies and perhaps his best single composition, While My Guitar Gently Weeps (which featured Eric Clapton on lead guitar). John Lennon had several excellent compositions most notably Happiness is a Warm Gun, Glass Onion , the slower version Revolution #1, Dear Prudence, Sexy Sadie, Julia and Cry Baby Cry. McCartney’s compositions were outstanding ranging from (1) the soft ballads of Blackbird, Mother Natures Sun , I Will and Martha My Dear (2) the country and western inspired “Rocky Racoon, to (3) the hard rockin’ Back in the USSR, Helter Skelter and Birthday. While not every one of the 30 tracks was good ( I ALWAYS skipped the Yoko Ono inspired “Revolution #9” on side 4), there were only a few that were not up to the Beatles usual standards.

Motown and soul music continued to shine. Sly and the Family Stone burst on the scene with the energetic and catchy “Dance to the Music” which remains their best single ever. Though not as successful as in the prior four years, the Supremes still had two excellent records with “Love Child” and “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” (the latter it recorded as a duet with the Temptations in late 1968.). The Temptations showcased David Ruffin’s vocal talents in “I Wish it Would Rain” a beautiful soulful ballad, but then showed the world they didn’t need him (after he was forced out of the group due to drug problems) when they recorded near the end of the year, the up-tempo soul rocker “Cloud Nine” which featured all the Temps as vocalists. Stevie Wonder had a minor hit earlier in the year with “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day” (the first song he wrote in his career), then capped the year off with one of my favorite upbeat songs ever “For Once in My Life”. Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell had two excellent top 10 hits “Ain’t Nothing the Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need To Get By”. Marvin then finished the year with the great solo “I Heard it Thru the Grapevine” ( covering Gladys Knight and the Pips hit of a year earlier. ). Aretha Franklin had three excellent R&B songs with “Chain of Fools” , “Since You’ve Been Gone” and “Think” . ( The last song was later sung by Aretha in the 1980 “Blues Brothers” movie. ). However, the soul song of the year was the posthumous “Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding ( he had died in a plane crash in December 1967). Unlike the rest of the year, this song was for relaxing.

All in all, it was a good year in music to “get your motor running”.

From → Music 60s70s

5 Comments
  1. “All Along The Watchtower” arrived a year later on Electric Ladyland, not on Axis:Bold as Love. Still this is a good survey of 1968. The interesting thing about Revolution is that the main guitar is played by John Lennon in a far more prominent role than he usually played at that level. Personally I really like Revolution #9 (although I did skip it a lot in 1968) and I am not sure it is Yoko inspired. And while #9 was done by Lennon I was pretty surprised to learn that many of the more avant garde efforts of the Beatles were driven by McCartney, not Lennon (e.g. the backwards and eerie instrumentals in Tomorrow Never Knows. See: http://isbn.nu/9781903111369)

    • Bruce Braine permalink

      Oops. A clear error on my part re: Hendrix, though my confusion is understandable since “All along the watchtower” charted as a single in 1968, before being on an album. Also, another interesting factoid about Revolution #9 which I only realized relatively recently -meaning 10 years ago or so :) – –the male voice saying #9 repeatedly was George Martin.

    • Figures you would know about the single. I don’t think I know anyone who has a more comprehensive collection of 60s singles than you.

      I didn’t realize that that was George Martin on Revolution #9. The weirdest thing about that part of the recording is that the part that is supposed to say “turn me on, dead man” when played backwards is, in fact, the phrase “number nine.” It is remarkably clear, and a lot easier to hear with digitized recordings than, for example, when you and I spun your turntable backwards to hear the missing verse of Mother People from We’re Only In It For The Money that Zappa tagged on to the end of a side backwards. I am amazed we didn’t destroy the motor or the needle.

  2. robertalancarey permalink

    The Suicide Commandos, a Minneapolis punk rock group, used to do a cover of Born To Be Wild with the lyrics changed to, “Get your moped running… Head out of the driveway!”

    • On reflection, I think that was “get out of the driveway” in the SC version.

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