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1969 “It’s the Time of the Season for Lovin”

May 24, 2014

Forty-five years ago, rock music had entered a great divide which would only increase in the 1970s. It was a time of greater distinction between the FM and AM music radio dials. AM continue to feature the top 40 popular hits which included some mainstream rock but “only the hits”. FM began to feature “progressive rock” which still included the most popular rock groups (Beatles, Rolling Stones, Creedence, etc.) but also newer or less well-known groups who weren’t played or seldom played on AM (e.g. the Grateful Dead, The Band, Mountain, Country Joe and the Fish etc.). FM increasingly became album rock where multiple album cuts were played.

For this 14-year old, music from the radio was the only allowable source of entertainment in the first half of 1969 during the end of my lower-middle year (i.e. freshman year) at Taft School, though by the summer when I was back home in New York City my collecting and playing of singles and record albums began anew. Fortunately, by the fall of 1969, Taft had liberalized its rules and record players were allowed and mine was played constantly in my dorm room. Because progressive stations were only just getting started in 1969 in Connecticut, “AM radio” was my main staple in early 1969.

Rock and popular music in 1969 was perhaps best characterized by two important events in the world of music. The rock musical “Hair” moved to Broadway in late 1968 and the cast album soared to the top of the album charts during the spring of 1969. “Hair” was about sex, love, drugs and hippy communes, which was to become a dominant musical theme throughout 1969. As popular as the album was across the nation and at my prep school (imagine the utter glee of group of 14/15-year-old boys listening to some of the explicit sexual lyrics of the Hair album), perhaps more significantly, it spurred four distinctly different “covers” by popular groups:

  • The Fifth Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In” turned two “Hair” songs into a beautiful medley (featuring Marilyn McCoo’s gorgeous voice) which ended up being the best-selling single of the year.
  • The Cowsills did a surprisingly good and fun version of “Hair” which was also a top seller in 1969.
  • Oliver recorded “Good Morning Starshine” which reached #1 on the charts in the summer and was one of my personal favorite uplifting songs of the year.
  • Finally, a new group Three Dog Night (which had its first major hit in the summer with the excellent tuneful and rollicking “One’), had its second major hit with its excellent cover of “Easy to be Hard” from Hair.

The second major music event of 1969 was the Woodstock music festival in August. Woodstock was the largest outdoor concert ever up until that time (400,000 people) and was a showcase of many of the major (and minor) folk/rock groups of the time. This included in order of appearance: Richie Havens, Country Joe and the Fish, Sweetwater, Incredible String Band, Bert Sommer, Tim Hardin, Ravi Shankar, Melanie, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Quill, Santana, John Sebastian, Keef Hartley Band, Canned Heat, Grateful Dead, Mountain, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, Ten Years After, The Band, Blood Sweat and Tears, Johnny Winter (and Edgar Winter), Crosby Stills & Nash, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Sha-Na-Na, and Jimi Hendrix. Several of the acts had very long sets ( e.g. The Who performed almost their entire brand new double album “Tommy”; Crosby Stills & Nash performed 16 songs and almost all of their first album) and the music went from Friday August 15th thru Monday morning the 18th.  (Interestingly, Jimi Hendrix insisted on being the last act and ended up playing Monday morning at 9am to dwindling crowds).  While the number of major acts that appeared was significant enough, it was interesting how many major groups also turned the event down because they didn’t understand how big it was to be, including groups such as Led Zeppelin, the Doors and the Byrds. My favorite reason was Tommy James turning it down because he was told by his secretary “there’s this pig farmer in upstate New York who wants you to play in his field”.

Woodstock was well documented through a movie released a year later and two subsequent albums ( a triple and a double album) of concert music and sounds. It served to cement and expand the popularity of relatively new rock groups (e.g. most notably Hendrix, Creedence, and Sly and the Family Stone who all had their first records  in either 1967 and 1968) and introduced most of the US to a new latin-rock fusion band, Santana, who released its first album and its catchy single “Evil Ways” that year. I was definitely too young to attend Woodstock, though one of my prep school classmates did and described with explicit detail the lovemaking and drug taking that took place all around him.

Rock albums in 1969 were better than ever. The Rolling Stones released “Let it Bleed” which is my favorite album ever by them and most notably includes three of their rock anthems “Gimme Shelter”, “Midnight Rambler” and of course “You Cant Always Get What You Want”. Interestingly, “Honky Tonk Women” ,another outstanding Rolling Stones song, was #1 for several weeks in the summer of 1969 but was NOT on the album. Instead, “Let it Bleed” had the original version of the song  “Country Honk’ – a distinct country-style song featuring fiddles instead of electric guitar.

The Beatles released “Abbey Road” in the fall of 1969 featuring a free-flowing and beautifully paced Side #2 that starts with George Harrison’s best Beatles song ” Here Comes the Sun” and ends fittingly and compellingly with “The End” (though technically the short ditty “Her Majesty’ is actually the last track). Side 1 was almost as good with the two-sided hit single “Come Together” and “Something” starting the album and the side finishing with the infectious and electric “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. The Beatles also had a great hard rocking #1 single in the spring of 1969 “Get Back” which featured Billy Preston on organ. (the only artist to ever be credited on a Beatles single). In addition, they released an animated movie and an accompanying album “Yellow Submarine”.  The album only had four new songs, most notably “Hey Bulldog” another excellent Lennon hard rock composition featuring great guitar and bass playing. Lastly, the Beatles released “The Ballad of John and Yoko” a good rocker about John and Yoko’s public stay-in-bed honeymoon peace demonstration. The song managed to get banned from many AM radio stations (most notably WABC in New York) because of the lyrics “Christ, you know it aint easy” and “the way things are going they’re going to crucify me” which was a thinly veiled comparison to Jesus Christ (and given John’s few years earlier statement that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus Christ” probably made the stations extra sensitive).

My third favorite album of the year was the Who”s “Tommy”. The rock opera “Tommy” was unique in rock music history (it was the first rock opera ever recorded, taking off from the Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper’s”  and Moody Blues “Days of Future Passed” concept albums in 1967). However, it was also musically brilliant largely due to the extraordinary song writing and guitar playing of Pete Townshend, Roger Daltry’s powerful singing and John Entwistle’s bass and Keith Moon’s superb and often manic drumming. The album is nicely bookended by the tuneful “Overture” and “We’re not going to take it” which are also my two favorite tracks on the album. In between, there are the two popular singles from the album “I’m Free” and most notably “Pinball Wizard” in which Townshend excellently combines acoustic and electric guitar playing into a great hook line.

Two of my other favorite albums from the year were from new groups that were formed from mid-60s groups. “Blind Faith” combined Eric Clapton (guitar) and Ginger Baker (drums) both formerly of Cream with Steve Winwood (keyboards and guitar) from Traffic, and Rick Grech (bass) from Family. With the exception of the overly long “Do What You Like”, the album was excellent musically. In fact, three of the songs have become rock standards: Winwood’s beautiful “Sea of Joy” and “Can’t Find My Way Home” and Clapton’s guitar infused “Presence of the Lord”. In many respects, Winwood dominated the album, in terms of songwriting, singing (his haunting voice is prominent throughout) and even playing (he played keyboards, guitar and harmonica). The group was short-lived (lasted only 7 months), as Winwood went back to Traffic and Clapton went on to a solo career.

Another new group, Crosby Stills and Nash (CSN), was formed in late 1968 by David Crosby (from the Byrds),  Stephen Stills (from Buffalo Springfield) and Graham Nash (from the Hollies). CSN released their first album in mid-1969 “Crosby, Stills and Nash”.  The album has wonderful vocal harmonies and several excellent songs including the singles “Marrakesh Express” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (written by Stills about his love interest Judy Collins), as well as four other favorites of mine  “Wooden Ships”, “Long Time Gone”, “You Dont Have to Cry” and “Helplessly Hoping”.

Meanwhile, Neil Young, also from Buffalo Springfield, released his first solo album “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” backed by the group Crazy Horse. I didn’t discover and buy this album until 1972 when I discovered I loved Neil Young (due to his “Harvest” album release from early that year). Yet, this first solo album contains perhaps three of classic rock’s finest songs: “Cinnamon Girl” and the long guitar-jam infused songs “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”. This was the harder side of Neil Young with prominent electric guitar playing throughout and was to sharply contrast with the largely acoustic folk sound in Neil’s next two albums.

After their initial success with “Suzie Q” in 1968, Creedence Clearwater Revival emerged in 1969 as both a highly popular AM group and highly respected FM progressive rock group. Featuring a country-rock, rockabilly throwback sound, CCR had four excellent hits in a row  “Proud Mary” (#2), “Bad Moon Rising” (#2) ,”Green River”(#2) and “Down on the Corner” (#3) and three top ten albums during 1969. However, unlike most rock groups who used B-sides of singles for throwaway songs, Creedence had four excellent songs on the B-sides of these hits, three of which charted: “Lodi” , “Commotion” and most notably “Fortunate Son” which was CCR’s most blatant anti-war song and perhaps its best overall composition of the year.

Several other popular rock favorites of mine included the Zombies “Time of the Season” which was actually recorded two years earlier right before the group disbanded, and the incredibly catchy “The River is Wide” by the Grassroots (and to a lesser extent “I’d Wait a Million Years”). Meanwhile, The Guess Who from Winnipeg, Canada first had major success in the US in 1969 with the hit single “These Eyes” and the double-sided hit “Laughing/ Undun”. In many ways, the understated “Undun” was perhaps my favorite of the three, though Burton Cummings vocals really shine in both “Laughing” and ” These Eyes”. Two of my favorite uplifting pop songs in 1969 included “More Today than Yesterday” by the Spiral Staircase (“but not half as much as tomorrow”!) and the ever inspiring “Hooked on a Feeling” by B.J. Thomas.

Soft pop-rock favorites of mine included Jackie DeShannon’s “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” later featured in the uproarious Bill Murray movie “Scrooged” and the late 1969 hit “Leaving on a Jet Plane” performed by Peter, Paul and Mary and penned by John Denver. And I was a sucker for Johnny Maestro’s comeback record with the “Worst that Could Happen” by the Brooklyn Bridge. (Johnny was the lead singer for the do-wop group the Crests, best known for their late 50s hit “Sixteen Candles”). Blood, Sweat and Tears “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” was a beautiful song though I confess that I tired of David Clayton Thomas vocal style after this first BS&T album with him (which also included some pretty good other songs such as “Spinning Wheel”, “And When I Die” ,”Sometimes in Winter” and “God Bless the Child”). And of course Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” is a slow rock classic (as well as much of the rest of his country inspired “Nashville Skyline” album). However, by far my favorite soft-rock song of the year was the classic “Get Together” by the Youngbloods which has the unique feature of being the only secular song sung by the congregation at my wedding some 28 years ago.

Just like fine wine, Neil Diamond tunes have grown on me with age. 1969 was a pretty good year for Neil with the smash hits “Holly Holy” and “Sweet Caroline” though the latter hit was spoiled for me when the Red Sox adopted it as their 7th inning stretch song several years ago. However, by far Neil’s best composition in 1969 was the less popular but thoroughly enjoyable ” Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”. Meanwhile, 1969 was a comeback year for Elvis Presley who scored with “In the Ghetto” and with my favorite Elvis song since the 1950s “Suspicious Minds”.

Perhaps to avoid the bubblegum pop/rock label, Tommy James turned to “psychedelic” rock songs in 1969 with “Crimson and Clover” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion” his two big #1 hits and , “Sweet Cherry Wine” a lesser hit. These songs were hopelessly overplayed leading to my general disdain and dismissal of them as good music at the time. However, with time and age, I find I really like these songs, particularly “Crimson and Clover” which has been covered by many artists, most notably Joan Jett in a great version in 1982.

And it’s hard to talk about 1969 without touching on perhaps the two most interesting and enjoyable songs ( but for completely different reasons) “A Boy named Sue” By Johnny Cash and “Atlantis” by Donovan. The former was vintage Cash and it was almost as if he were telling his own story as he described his fight “kicking and gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer”. “Atlantis” was pure unintended comedy with Donovan reverently describing ” the antediluvian kings” and exhorting us in the chorus “way down below the ocean where I wanna be”. But both had nice melodies and were utter fun.

On the soul and R&B side, the Temptations led the way (without missing a beat from David Ruffin’s departure in 1968) with their outstanding smash hit “I Can’t Get Next You” and the lesser known but still excellent “Runaway Child, Running Wild”. David Ruffin had his best solo song “My Whole World Ended” which sounded of course much like a Temptation song from 1967. Sonny James and the Checkmates had the great throwback soul hit “Black Pearl” and the Edwin Hawkins singers had a surprise hit with the gospel song “Oh Happy Day”. The Foundations had the highly successful and catchy “Build Me Up Buttercup” and Edwin Starr’s “25 Miles” and its refrain “Got to keep WALKING” had us all moving in 1969. The Isley Brothers had a huge R&B comeback hit with the lively “It’s Your Thing”.Marvin Gaye, though missing his collaborations with the very ill Tammi Terrell (who was felled by a brain tumor in October 1967) , still had two soul classics “To Busy Thinking About My Baby” and “That’s The Way Love Is”.However, Sly and the Family Stone were clearly the kings of R&B with two of the best-selling and best songs of the year, the upbeat soul ballad “Everyday People”, and the silky smooth and soulful “Hot Fun in the Summertime”.

Even instrumentals were pretty darn good in 1969. There was the fittingly emotional “Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet” which went very well with the Oscar-winning movie that year. There was perhaps TV’s greatest theme song “Hawaii Five O” by the Ventures and two top flight songs by Booker T and the M.G.s “Time is Tight” and “Hang em High”.

1969 was not all good of course. Regrettably, Bobby Sherman decided to branch out from his TV role in “Here Come the Brides” and sing the vacuous “Little Woman”. The two-dimensional group the Archies (Ron Dante being the studio singer behind the cartoon) scored with the #1 selling hit of 1969 “Sugar, Sugar”, which also had the distinction of making my top 10 WORST singles list of ALL TIME back in 1979 in an article for the Stanford GSB Reporter.  Other bubblegum music lived on with the 1910 Fruitgum Co. hitting it big with what now would be the politically incorrect “Indian Giver”.

And of course, 1969 was a bad year for several notable groups. It was the beginning of the end for the Supremes with no major hits or good songs except for “I’m Livin’ in Shame” and “Someday We”ll Be Together” which were actually Diana Ross solo efforts backed by the Andantes. This was a direct reflection of the loss of Holland, Dozier, and Holland as songwriters in early 1968 and the obvious fracturing of the group.  Likewise, the Four Tops had little success or good songs in 1969 due to aforementioned loss of the HDH songwriting team. The Rascals after dominating the charts from 1966-68 had much less to offer in 1969 as their career spiralled downward. And though I liked the Doors single “Touch Me”, even the Doors had an off-year, with their 1969 album “Soft Parade” not nearly as good as their first two albums (“The Doors” and “Strange Days”) or as good as 1968’s “Waiting for the Sun”. Lastly, throughout the year and largely unknown to all of us at the time, the Beatles as a group were falling apart at the seams, (Lennon formed the Plastic Ono Band in 1969 and recorded “Give Peace a Chance” which was one clear sign). This of course was the worst of possible news for most rock fans.

Well, I have gone on way too long, and have missed many songs and albums as well (The Moody Blues two entries “On a Threshold of a Dream” and “To Our Children’s Children” will have to wait until my 1970 post next year, which is actually when I first discovered the Moodies). So what are your favorites?

 

 

From → Music 60s70s

6 Comments
  1. John Lum permalink

    As with Bruce, the first half of 1969 was also a black-out period for me since it was the end of my freshman year at St. Mark’s, which prohibited the use of radios and stereos. Unfortunately, SM policy was stricter than that of Taft and their music prohibition lasted, for me, until senior year. That means that the summer of 1969 was my primary exposure to pop/rock music via AM radio; I hadn’t yet become a regular listener to FM’s offering of progressive and/or album rock.

    Bruce highlighted several hits that resonated with me: first and foremost, the Fifth Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In” – I fell in love with Marilyn McCoo’s voice for most of their ensuing releases. I also enjoyed “Good Morning Starshine” and “Easy to Be Hard” but the Cowsills’ version of “Hair” was just okay to me. As Bruce pointed out, what these covers did achieve was raise awareness in a younger audience for the theatrical production of Hair. The show Hair wasn’t really on my radar since it was untraditional fare (versus the musicals of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Lowe, et al. that I loved). Hair was radical even compared to more contemporary musicals (e.g., Hello Dolly, Funny Girl and Mame), but recognizing Hair’s relevance led to interest in several similar productions that soon followed: Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

    I was a little too young to attend Woodstock but several fellow SMers, returning in the fall of 1969, reveled in recounting their experiences at the gathering. I always wondered whether this was mere braggadocio, possibly the regurgitation of the stories that they’d heard from older siblings. But no matter, the festival succeeded in bringing to my attention a number of artists and groups that weren’t mainstream AM fare. Bruce’s post summarizes these artists quite well. The movie and soundtrack were my main exposure to Woodstock but these occurred well after the fact. Woodstock motivated me to buy several albums, namely Sly & the Family Stone (although I waited until the 1970 release of their Greatest Hits album); Crosby Stills & Nash; and Janis Joplin’s Cheap Thrills. The festival also prompted in me an interest in several other artists: Ravi Shankar, Melanie, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, John Sebastian, CCR, and The Band. My general predilection for the softer side of rock (with folk/country overtones) had begun (no surprise there since Peter Paul & Mary and Simon & Garfunkel were already favorites of mine). Finally, Sha-Na-Na’s appearance at Woodstock reinforced my love of 1950s oldies, a preference that was handed down to me by my brother Sunny.

    For me, my favorite songs of the year were definitely AM Top 40 songs: Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye; Take a Letter Maria, Build Me Up Buttercup, Time of the Season, Proud Mary, Sweet Caroline (notwithstanding the Red Sox connection), In the Year 2525, Baby I Love You, You’ve Made Me So Very Happy, Touch Me (probably my favorite tune by The Doors), Lay Lady Lay, This Magic Moment (the last major hit by Jay & the Americans), The Worst That Could Happen (a good retro oldie), and Hooked on a Feeling. Of course, you can add all the hits from the Beatles that year (Get Back, Something, Come Together).

    As for albums, I’m pretty sure I didn’t buy any of 1969’s major releases as they were released. I blame this mainly on the music blackout at St Mark’s. But within a year or two, I was catching up by purchasing albums such as the Beatles’ White Album, Yellow Submarine and Abbey Road, Blood Sweat & Tears, Tommy, The Band, Crosby Stills & Nash, Dusty in Memphis, Chicago Transit Authority, The Moody Blues’s To Our Children’s Children’s Children and On the Threshold of a Dream (both purchased after I reached college, mainly influenced by Bruce), Buffalo Springfield’s Retrospective, Donovan’s Greatest Hits, and Renaissance (also a result of being exposed to Bruce’s musical tastes years later).

    On a final note (and in anticipation of Bruce’s 1970 blog post), I’d like to recognize Casey Kasem’s contribution to the American landscape of pop music. His American Top 40 countdown, which debuted in 1970, became a weekly staple for me as far as radio listening goes. I looked forward to his countdowns and the tradition cemented my interest in pop/rock music.

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