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Four different versions of Donovan's great song of 1966, Season of the Witch, were released last year. One was excellent (that of Julie Driscoll and the Brian Auger Trinity), two so-so (Terry Reid's and Kooper and Stills' on Super Session--if Al could only sing as well as Steve plays the guitar on that cut!--), and one, by the Vanilla Fudge, execrable. If they accomplished nothing else, these various renditions at least left indelibly in listeners' minds the prophetic line, "Beatniks out to make it rich." The Fudge, while smothering the song with mushy pretentiousness, even replaced "beatniks" with "hippies," thus aiding the more dull-witted of their fans (i.e., the bulk of them) in updating Donovan's now archaic reference.
In 1968 a lot of hippies made it rich. Amble into Krackerjacks and eye a few price tags if you doubt me. Did you know that Country Joe and the Fish are slated to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show? And how can a rock magazine, Fusion, be distributed absolutely gratis? A lot of record companies are willing to spend a lo tof money to get back a lot more. Led Zeppelin, a new British group, was signed by Atlantic Records less than three months after forming, and their advance was reported as being $200,000.00. An album is soon to come. If 1967, the year of Sergeant Pepper and After Bathing at Baxter's, was the year when Time and The Partisan Review discovered that rock was Art; 1968 was the year Clive Davis of Columbia Records realized that rock was Business.
Viewed in one light, the plight of all these balding executives is amusing. Here they have a billion dollar business on their hands, yet they don't understand the first thing about it. Last May Capitol simlutaneously released debut albums of two well-known San Francisco groups. The Steve Miller Band was recorded at considerable expense in London and given a fancy fold-out album cover and a lavish promotional campaign. Quicksilver Messenger Service was rather cheaply recorded in California; their album cover was inconspicuous, and about the group little was said. Yet Q.M.S. decisively outsold Steve Miller. Or take Don Kirshner, the man who assembled the Monkees. After a spat he pulled out and tried to duplicate his past triumph. You know those Archie comic books? Well, last fall Kirshner went and bought himself a group, taught Archie to play the guitar and his girlfriend Veronica to shingaling, put a cartoon show featuring them on television, and made a record. The title of the disc was Bang-Shang-a-Lang, and the fact that you've never heard of it should give you an idea of Kirshner's success.
Credit for the most humiliating failure of 1968 must be given to MGM and its Boston Sound. Phluph, Ultimate Spinach, the Beacon Street Union, and Orpheus were signed, millions of dollars were squandered on them, and as a result, while all the other major record companies reported massive profits for the year, MGM staggered through 1968 in the red, their biggest money-earners the Cowsills. The tragedy of the Boston bust is that, although MGM's groups richly deserved the lack of attention they received, two much better Boston groups, signed by different companies, were lumped together with the others by buyers and likewise disregarded.
All of this is not to say that promotion never get results. The Monkees can vouch for its power in 1966 as can Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1968. Before the release of their Columbia album articles on their now-departed lead singer, Janis Joplin, appeared in Life, Time, Vogue, EYE, and The Post. Sippin' Southern Comfort, Janis was everywhere, and it paid off in spades. Their album, Cheap Thrills, soared to the top of the charts on the wings of one of the most impressive promotional campaigns rock has yet seen. Ironically, when the same company tried to do the same thing in 1967 with Moby Grape, although more money was spent promoting the Grape than had ever been spent on a group before (excepting the Monkees), they couldn't dent the charts. That the record companies are totally ignorant of what they are merchandising is undeniable.
Much has been made of the "hip young men" whom the executives have recruited to alleviate this situation. The media have given them -- Paul Rothchild, Tom Wilson, Felix Pappalardi, et al. -- considerable publicity. These producers, however, have proven to be hardly any more perceptive than their employers. Ars Nova and Clear Light (produced by Rothchild), the Bagatelle and the Fraternity of Man (produced by Wilson), and the Kensington Market (produced by Pappalardi) all bombed in 1968. Holland, Dozier, and Holland, responsible for recording the Supremes and the Four Tops, are being sued by Motown Records for failing to equal their past successes. It is clear that no one understands what this thing called rock is all about, and it would be hilarious to watch the executives scurrying confusedly about, were it not for the deleterious effects which the economics of rock have had on the music itself. 1968 made these deleterious effects, not wholly perceived in 1967, painfully evident.
First, consider the Beatles. What does it mean when 3,301,275 copies of their new album are sold within four days? In those four days The Beatles surpassed by half as many copies again the total sales of the second biggest selling record of 1968, The Graduate, even though it retailed at over twice the price of the second record. The state of affairs is unreal. It cannot help but be unsettling of the Beatles to realize that they could release three minutes and fifteen seconds of belches and read in Time that they had made "a cheekily irreverent yet brutally incisive commenatry on the deterioration of traditional values of Western man." Although since their decision to discontinue touring they have escaped the teenies too busy shrieking to listen, today the Beatles are still unable to communicate because you and I and Richard Goldstein of the Times can only say "Wow!" The Beatles are too intelligent not to apprehend that they are being worshipped, not heard.
In as much as no one listens, why should they continue to try to speak to us? So we have The Beatles, a brilliant album -- all Beatles albums are -- but one which says nothing. The Beatles would be the first to admit that The Beatles is a put-on, mocking all of rock, from blues to psychedelia to scholck, all of us, and themselves. Like Picasso, whose joking sketches on napkins, dashed off when the service at a restaurant is slow, are solemnly auctioned at Parke-Bernet, the Beatles are geniuses who are faced with no other alternative save that of laughing at us.
Decadence may be defined as an excessive attention to style at the expense of content, to the medium at the expense of the message. Although I may be branded hopelessly antediluvian for saying this, the Beatles are, in this sense, the epitome of decadence on their latest album, flitting from one style to another, from the ska-beat of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da to the pseudo-Donovan of Blackbird to the neo-Twenties sound of Honey Pie. Each song is executed flawlessly, and each song is vacuous.
The argument can be made that rock is by its very nature eclectic, and that The Beatles is therefore the definitive rock album, but more essential to the folk music we call rock is communication, now labelled soul. Roy Orbison had it and Ricky Nelson didn't. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas have it and the Supremes don't. The Stones, yes; the Dave Clark Five, no. When Otis Redding in the middle of A Waste of Time stops singing and says, "I like love to be from the heart," he is speaking to us. Ditto the Jefferson Airplane when they cry,
"Tell me why if you think you know Why people love when there's no tomorrow
And still not cry when it's time to go."
Communication, soul, must be grounded in a reality shared by artist and audience, but unreality so envelops the Beatles that they cannot touch us. The result is decadence, the puton. Here are the Beatles pretending to be a blues band (Yer Blues) here are the Beatles singing Good Night and pretending to be the BeeGees (who have always pretended to be the Beatles), here are the Beatles singing Why don't we do it in the road? and pretending to be Moby Grape singing Can I walk down the street naked if I want to?
Julia, addressed by John Lennon to his dead mother, is a painful attempt at communication ("Half of what I say is meaningless/ But I say it just to reach you, Julia.") and probably the most moving song on the album. Unfortunately, half of its power is vitiated by the trite McCartney composition, I Will, which precedes it and which features Paul pretending to be his old choir boy self, even if he does have a five o'clock shadow. It's a vicious and self-defeating cycle: the put-on is a reaction to the inability to communicate, yet that put-on in turn makes communication all the more impossible.
In all fairness to The Beatles, it is by no means a bad album. The intent of this criticism has been merely to show that it is not great. Lennon's songs, especially Dear Prudence, Happiness is a Warm Gun, Julia, and Sexy Sadie, bold up, as do George Harrison's Savoy Truffle and While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Most of the album's weaknesses may be laid at the door of Paul McCartney. One of his songs, Mother Nature's Son, begins exactly like his Michelle, and it is interesting to go back to that song, which so wowed the easy listeners in 1966 when it was voted song of the year (Harper Vailey P.T.A. won in 1968). "These are the words that go together well," he sang then, and so he sings today, his words always cute, his melodies always catchy. But his songs are almost invariably devoid of imagination (Lennon's forte) and of sincerity (Harrison's thing). The limp, saccharine tone is so all-pervasive that one easily understands the origins of the rumors that Paul's "girlfriends" are paid to accompany him so as not to alienate the fans. Back in the U.S.S.R. is the only genuinely vital McCartney number on the album.
As I write this, Aretha Franklin is singing Money Won't Change You on my record player. If the Beatles are not sufficient evidence of the untruth of that statement, the decline of Aretha herself, the mediocrtiy of her last studio album, Aretha Now, and the redundancy of her latest single. Your Love is like a See-Saw, ought to clinch my argument. The Beatles is disappointing and emblamatic of the ills of 1968. Money does change you.
These changes are clearly illustrated by the 1968 offerings of the Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish, Crown of Creation and Together are the most depressing albums of the year, barring those of the Union Gap. The two groups are financially the most successful of all those to emerge from San Francisco, and their worlds have been drastically altered since those early and idyllic days on Haight Street. Country Joe couldn't cope with the business world into which he was plunged. At one point he quit the group, and for eighteen months he was unable to write a single song. Listen to the first side of Together. It begins with a recreation of "rock 'n' soul music," a parody and yet a loving one along the lines of Birthday and Me and My Monkey on The Beatles. There follows an attempt to recapture (wistfully looking back has certainly been the dominant mood of 1968!) the quiet joy of the early Fish. Significantly, Country Joe couldn't write it and lead guitarist Barry Melton couldn't play it. The drummer penned it and the organist played guitar, and Susan is hollow and futile. Another return, this time to stoned blues, comes next, and then two of the most bitter and paranoid songs ever recorded. The first struggles to stay light and satirical, but the second loses all restraint and screams at the world which jerked the Fish out of San Francisco. The Streets of Your Town is howled at the city of New York, where, when you're big time, you gotta go, and where Together was recorded. It's an ugly and terrifying song, and it says more about 1968 than this article could ever hope to convey.
Just as ugly and terrifying is The House at Pooneil Corners by the Airplane. They too have had their hassles: with RCA who wants them to sock it to the teenies as they used to do, and with the patrons of the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, who objected to lead singer Grace Slick's profanities during a benefit performance there. The ladies with lavendertinted hair demanded an apology, and they were refused. Were the Airplane still on Haight, they wouldn't have to worry. While The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil on their 1967 album was an exhuberant song of soaring love, the 1968 remake is an apocalyptic vision of the destruction of the earth, of "all the bullshit around us." The imagery is frightening ("The room circles like a vulture") and when all is gone, "All the idiots have left." The lovers can no longer rejoice as they did in 1967, but can only clutch at each other in terror and in vain. As on Together, several cuts on Crown of Creation try to recapture a past stance which can never again be assumed (In Time, for example), and both albums are marred by such attempts, but the honesty of the rest of the music not only touches you, it hits you in a way The Beatles cannot.
In The Streets of Your Town occurs the line, "The subway is not the underground." 1968 bore this out. The Fugs and the MC5 were written up in Time, and record companies scrambled so frantically to sign groups that they were given no time to mature. The Blues Project were together for a year before they recorded their first studio album. When their organist, Al Kooper, started Blood, Sweat and Tears last winter, they were in the studios a month after forming. Miraculously, a good album was produced, but the same cannot be said of the countless Insect Trusts and Comfortable Chairs and Iron Butterflies that litter the Coop's racks. England's Terry Reid, who promises to become one of the great white vocalists and who plays a magnificently percussive guitar, was rushed into the studios long before he was ready. The result was a gawky and amateurish album which isn't selling. The record does have some exciting moments (scat-singing Summertime Blues and several very hard and very driving originals -- listen to Writing on the Wall), but an album recorded six months later would have been twice as powerful.
San Francisco in 1965 and 1966 was a genuine underground scene. Musicians had time to develop, opportunities to exchange ideas, to dig one another and themselves, to establish a rapport with audiences. Now groups are immediately rushed into international tours (Reid was here with Cream almost before he had ever appeared in public) and endless recordings. How could we expect Cream's third album to be anything more than a drag when their talents and energies were so vitiated by the gruel of money-making concert after concert, non-stop for two years? That's why they had to shoot methedrine, why Clapton on White Room could only repeat year-old riffs from Tales of Brave Ulysses, why their blues numbers are so tired, why their live solos are so repetitive, and why there are breaking up. That the business of rock billed, or at least checked the progress of a great guitarist becomes obvious after one listening to Clapton's playing with John Mayall three years ago. He has not equalled those cuts since. Following Clapton's lead, Jim Hendrix has announced that his Experience will disband except for special occasions. The Who, another victim of the touring syndrome, were unable to give us in 1968 anything more on record than Magic Bus, the title track of which was written and first recorded in 1966. The rest of the album is a makeshift and uneven ragbag.
The incredible mortality rate of rock groups in 1968 shows that something in the system is unhealthy. The Buffalo Springfield, the Zombies, the Electric Flag, the Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Experience are no longer, nor are the Grateful Dead, Steve Miller, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Big Brother, Moby Grape, the Byrds, Paul Butterfield, and the Nice recognizable as the groups they used to be.
What has been the positive musical response to all this wretchedness? Primarily a return to simplicity, a search for roots, for a reality to ground one's self upon and with which to protect one's self against the unreality of the business of rock. This created a curious tension in 1968, for many musicians were still working in the tradition of the sophisticated complexities of Sergeant Pepper and Surrealistic Pillow, the two albums which put the $ in rock 'n' $oul. This tradition gave us some excellent records. The first Traffic album is the foremost of these, and a little known offshoot of that record, Family's Music in a Doll's House (produced by the occasional fourth member of Traffic, Dave Mason), is also quite good. But Traffic too came to realize that the artificial fades, the children's voices, and the garbled conversations detracted more from the music than it added, and in their second album, a much better one, they settled down to straighter and more powerful playing. Other groups were not so perceptive, and hence the Beatles inflicted upon us Helter Skelter with its coming and going end, and the Fudge bored us with their bassist's opinions of ice cream. Other good albums in the Pepper-Pillow vein include Electric Ladyland (though Hendrix's approach to music is so idiosyncratic that to classify it borders on sacrilege), the baroque Ars Nova (despite its moments of preciousness), and the only truly electronic album yet made, The United States of America, on which the lead instrument is electric violin and there is no guitar.
This tradition also deluged us with gimmickry. Moby Grape's second album, WOW, could have been a good, hard album, but the group felt compelled to jazz it up with superfluous and cluttering electronic intrusions and sound effects which were no advance beyond what the Buckinghams, a Top Forty teen group (Kind of a Drag, Susan), had done six months earlier for the training bra set. Similarly extraneous gimmicks (a discourse with the Dalai Lama, ethereal choirs, etc.) destroyed the effectiveness of the brilliant music which comprised much of Procol Harum's second album, reducing it to little more than a skillfully executed variation upon the Moody Blues' In Search of the Lost Chord, an album second only to those of the Fudge in rank commercialism and pretentiousness. Another who fell prey to Art Rock was John Mayall, who tried to sophisticate the blues by wedging them into a symphonic form like that of Sergeant Pepper; the result, Bare Wires: A Suite, was ludicrous, as were Steve Miller's related attempts. Parts of the first Electric Flag album could well be mentioned here as part and parcel of the same misguided trend. The music suffered, the honesty was lost, and communication perished, as rock and blues were self-consciously intellectualized.
While John Mayall was becoming lamentably more complex, his former lead guitarist, Peter Green, who had left to form the Fleetwood Mac, was reducing the blues to its ultimate sparsities. His album is by no means note-worthy (simplicity taken to an extreme can be pretty dull), but he and John neatly illustrate 1968's contrary tendencies. The entire blues revival (Canned Heat in the top ten -- my God!), the new prominence of B.B. and Albert King, the success of Buddy Guy, clearly betray this yearning for roots. Such a yearning has also manifested itself elsewhere, in the return to country music, to folk, and to plain old rock 'n' roll.
The author's '68 album list
This is a summary of last year's major rock albums. The albums listed within each category heading are in alphabetical order.
ALBUMS OF GENIUS
Anthem of the Sun -- The Grateful Dead
Eli and the Thirteenth Confession--Laura Nyro
ALBUMS OF GREATNESS
Music from Big Pink -- The Band
Last Time Around -- Buffalo Springfield
John Wesley Harding -- Bob Dylan
Lady Soul -- Aretha Franklin
Electric Ladyland -- The Jimi Hendrix Experience
The Immortal Otis Redding -- Otis Redding
Beggars' Banquet -- The Rolling Stones
Traffic -- Traffic
Odessey and Oracle -- The Zombies
Sweetheart of the Rodeo -- The Byrds
Earth Opera -- Earth Opera
The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter -- The Incredible String Band
Pentangle -- The Pentangle
Ogden's Nut Gone Flake -- The Small Faces
Ars Nova -- Ars Nova
The Beatles -- The Beatles
In My Own Dreams -- The Butterfield Blues Band
Together -- Country Joe and the Fish
Open -- Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and the Trinity
Music in a Doll's House -- Family
Crown of Creation -- Jefferson Airplane
Something Elso -- The Kinks
Super Session -- Bloomfield, Stills, and Kooper
Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack -- The Nice
Balaklava -- Pearls Before Swine
Quicksilver Messenger Service -- Quicksilver Messenger Service
Bang, Bang, You're Terry Reid -- Terry Reid
Bookends -- Simon and Garfunkel
United States of America -- The United States of America
CONSPICUOUS IN THEIR ABSENCE
FROM THE ABOVE LISTS
All records by Phluph, Orpheus, Ultimate Spinach, and the Beacon Street Union
Friends -- The Beach Boys
Truth -- Jeff Beck
Cheap Thrills -- Big Brother and the Holding Company
Living the Blues -- Canned Heat
Fire -- The Crazy World of Arthur Brown
Wheels of Fire -- Cream
Hurdy Gurdy Man -- Donovan
Waiting for the Sun -- The Doors
A Long Time Comin' -- The Electric Flag
The Barry Goidberg Reunion -- Barry Goldberg
Bare Wires -- John Mayall and the Blues Breakers
Children of the Future -- The Steve Miller Band
WOW -- Moby Grape
Shine On Brightly -- Procol Harum
Renaissance -- The Vinalla Fudge
Magic Bus -- The Who
Dylan's John Wesley Harding made country newly fashionable, and though Nashville's sudden chicness spawned some horrors (Buffy Saint Marie claiming kinship to Minnie Pearl), it also produced three of the year's best albums: The Band's Music from Big Pink, Buffalo Springfield's Last Time Around, and the Byrd's Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The three groups use the material quite differently, the Band raunchily, the Springfield prettily, and the Byrds imitatively, but all three are refreshing and sustaining, sounding unfamiliar in these post-Pepper times. A happy result of rock's move towards country is country's move towards rock. On the charts now is Tammy Wynette's Stand by Your Man, a great country single influenced by the Byrds' Nothing Was Delivered. The song and its treatment have absorbed enough of the rock idiom to be able to reach the sophisticates of Cambridge, and yet have retained enough "countryness" so as not to pander to such sophistication.
Folk music, which started it all way back when, is back too. It is only appropriate that the best group in Boston, one of the centers of the original folk revival, is the folk-oriented Earth Opera. Their lyrics, unusually sensitive and beautiful in a vital way totally unlike those of the "beautiful" BeeGees, are set to intricate yet somehow simple ensemble music relying upon quiet piano and amplified but rarely electric guitar. Their album, and that of the Pentangle, a militantly accoustic and folk-with-a-dash-of-jazz group, area healthy antidote to the fuzz and wah-wah which so dominated 1968. The Incredible String Band's The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, though not quite up to the standard of their 1967 album, is likewise a contradiction of the state of affairs in 1968. Although they have been called acoustic Beatles, the ISB's penny whistles and bowed gimbris, their insistence upon intimate communion with their audiences unobstructed by amplifiers and orchestras, are hardly of the same order as I Am the Walrus, even if the obscure and personal mythologies of many of their lyrics may bear comparison. The ISB's Minotaur Song on their last album, incidently, is far superior to the Beatles' imitation, Bungalow Bill. Finally, also folkish is Balaklava by Pearls Before Swine, the most intriguing, though not the best album of 1968. Consequently, with its elevation of the slaughter of the Light Brigade to a metaphor of the death of God ("All your symbols are shattered;/ All your sacred words are gone.") and its attempt to forge a new transcendent ("Love is the weapon left after the fall./ It may not seem like much but girl that's all there is."), it belongs smack-dab in the Pepper tradition, but its primarily acoustic instrumentation manages to absolve it of much of its pretentiousness and invests it with a simple dignity which escapes almost all other "concept" albums.
Other groups, instead of going outside rock's elastic confines, have found their roots in rock 'n' roll itself and their subject matter in the lower middle class of which rock has traditionally sung. For unknown reasons, this alternative has not appeared to be a viable one for Americans, but English groups take to it joyfully. The best of these groups--the Kinks, the Zombies, the Small Faces--have rejected the "canyons of my mind" school of lyrics which is so omnipresent, and have embraced simple story telling backed by a simple yet compelling beat. The songs are populated by characters from everyday life--friendly whores, nagging mothers-in-law, dissatisfied housewives in curlers, best friends, girlfriends--and they all ring true. The Small Faces sing of baking bread and priggish vicars, dismissing pop mysticism, be it George Harrison's or Rod McKuen's with the spoof, "Life is just a bowl of All-Bran." The Kinks sketch a young mother, at first envious of her unmarried sister, who learns that children are worth more than cocktail parties, despite the drudgery of frying eggs. The Zombies tell us how beautiful it is to see one's close friends in love, and put us in to the soggy shoes of a quaking private in the trenches during the first World War. We can all relate to what they are singing, as we can all relate to what they are playing: rock n' roll. The Small Faces in particular have created a visceral music which doesn't blow your mind a la Lucy in the Sky, but which hits you in the gut. Their flop single, Tin Soldier, was the greatest rocker of 1968. The Zombies, who made Odessey and Oracle as a farewell gesture to a world which never appreciated them (they last made the charts in the winter of 1966) and then went their different ways, produced the best rock n' roll album of the year, highly polished, extremely imaginative, and always real.
Although on a superficial level all these efforts may resemble those on The Beatles, in reality they are at opposite poles. The Beatles do not get into the styles they affect; they remain on the outside, smirking. These other groups have sincerely immersed themselves in these forms. Dylan singing of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest is a far cry from Paul McCartney, aping country and Dylan himself, singing Rocky Raccoon. The Beatles' Desmond and Molly Jones are not the real people the Kinks show us. The Beatles' Mother Nature's Son is not the same as the Springfield's I Am a Child.
The Rolling Stones' Beggars' Banquet was one of 1968's most brilliant returns to simplicity. Having jumped onto the Beatles' Bandwagon with Their Satanic Majesties Request, the Stones had the intelligence to jump off quickly. Stray Cat Blues on their latest album has a power undeniably stronger than any cut on The Beatles. When Jagger screams, "But your mama don't know you can scroow like that," we are hit as the Beatles can never touch us. The socio-political songs, close to those of the Airplane and the Fish in their apprehension of the apocalypse, have an overwhelming emotional validity. On B.B., the Stones confronted 1968, Columbia, Chicago, the assassinations, and the rock industry itself, as no other group did. The country and blues numbers are performed not at the expense of forms, and never do the Stones allow the music to degenerate into the camp overstatement of Big Brother's Cheap Thrills.
Not all of the attempts at simplicity have been as successful as those I have been describing. Donovan's simpering irrelevancies on Hurdy Gurdy Man and the giggling treacle of the Beach Boys' Friends do not make it. Nor do the flaccid blues of A Long Time Comin', Mother Earth, the Insect Trust, and Barry Goldberg's album. No doubt 1969 will see us swamped with fake country and fake folk, just as 1968 saw us in synthetic soul: Motown, the Classics IV, Peaches and Herb, the Foundations, the Equals, and Aretha's more recent efforts.
The editor's top 40 albums
This is a list, chosen by the editors of the SUPPLEMENT, of the 40 top rock records released in U.S. in 1968. We excluded consideration of female folk-singers because of a natural prejudice against competing women. The albums are in order of worth.
1. The Beatles: The Beatles
2. The Rolling Stones: Beggars' Banquet
3. Bob Dylan: John Wesley Harding
4. Traffic: Traffic
5. The Band: Music from Big Pink
6. George Harrison: Wonderwall
7. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland
8. Traffic: Mr. Fantasy
9. The Buffalo Springfield: Last Time Around
10. The Zombies: Odessey and Oracle
11. The Steve Miller Blues Band: Sailor
12. The Steve Miller Blues Band: Children of the Future
13. Mother Earth: Mother Earth
14. Aretha Franklin: Lady Soul
15. B. B. King: Lucille
16. Otis Redding: Live at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go
17. Taj Mahal: Taj Mahal
18. Blood, Sweat, and Tears: Child the Father of Man
19. The Kinks: Something Else
20. The Butterfield Blues Band: In My Own Dream
21. Buddy Guy: A Man and His Blues
22. The Incredible String Band: The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter
23. The Byrds: Sweetheart of the Rodeo
24. The Jefferson Airplane: Crown of Creation
25. The Who: Magic Bus
26. Big Brother and the Holding Company: Cheap Thrills
27. Simon and Garfunkel: Bookends
28. The Electric Flag: A Long Time Comin'
29. Jeff Beck: Truth
30. Grateful Dead: Anthem of the Sun
31. Ten Years After: Undead
32. The Small Faces: Odgen's Nut Gone Flake
33. Pentangle: The Pentangle
34. Cream: Wheels of Fire
35. Earth Opera: Earth Opera
36. The Nice: Thought of Emeralist Davjack
37. Lead Zeppelin: Lead Zeppelin
38. The Holy Modal Rounders: The Holy Modal Rounders
39. Reubin and the Jets: Cruising with Reubin and the Jets
40. The Fugs: It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest
Soul too at its best is simple, real communication, and blacks have been as enfeebled as have whites by rock's ills. Motown has reached such a pinnacle of commercial success, has over-extended itself to such an extent, that its grasp on reality and its vital resources have been hopelessly dissipated. What can the Supremes and the Temptations have to say to us when they're boffo! at the Copa and are crooning medleys from the Rogers and Hart song book. The Supremes singing Love Child and nasally complaining of "tenement slums" are little less than fatuous. And when the business demands such incessant production of singles and albums, how can Motown's material not become thin. Thus two current releases, I Heard it through the Grapevine and I'm Gonna Make You Love Me, are revivals of hits less than a year and a half old. And the Temptations are imitating Sly and the Family Stone. As for Aretha, she's simply been asked to perform too many concerts, to make too many records. This, coupled with marital problems and several injuries, made Aretha Now the disappointment it was, coming after the genius of Lady Soul.
With Otis no longer on the scene and those who survive him so weak, the only bright spots in soul in 1968 were Sam and Dave and a remarkable single, Lovers' Holiday, by Peggy Scott and JoJo Benson. Their follow-up, Pickin' Wild Mountain Berries, although selling better, is a pale copy of their earlier single, but Lovers' Holiday, harsh and gutsy, deserves to become a classic in the tradition of Hold On! I'm Comin'!.
Blues are not really in the province of this article and will be passed over lightly, but bluesmen too have been hard hit by commercialism. Muddy Waters turned to preposterous psychedelic remakes of his past masterpieces, Junior Wells came on like a poor man's James Brown, Albert King told audiences that little white girls whose parents wouldn't allow them to ride in their boyfriends' GTO's had the blues, and Buddy Guy, after making the best blues album of the year, A Man and the Blues, also switched over to sockin' it to 'em on his second album, a live recording, with disastrous results. One man who didn't sell out was Magic Sam, who made a good, raw album on the Denmark album.
By this time I have managed to write an entire article without once mentioning either of my favorites albums of the year. One reason for setting them apart from all others as works of genius is the fact that they don't fit into any schematic view of rock. That neither album got beyond number 80 in the charts further attests to their total individuality.
Although Laura Nyro's Eli and the Thirteenth Confession sported a perfumed cover to lure unsuspecting browsers, and although the Fifth Dimension's versions of two of the album's songs made the top ten, this debut Columbia album (there is an unimpressive 1967 Verve-Folkways release) was apparently too far beyond the comprehension of listeners. After all, what can one make of a section of a song (Timer) in which the tempo changes every other measure, or of lines such as "Dig them potatoes/ If you never dug your girl before," of a voice which is quintuple- and sextuple-tracked and which spans two octaves as if they were two notes? A song like The Confession has never been heard on a rock album before:
"I keep hearin
daddy thru his grave
of all the daughters
you were born a woman
not a slave'
Oh I hate my winsome lover
Tell him I've had others
at my breast
but tell him he has held my heart
and only now am I a virgin
I confess Love my lovething
Love is surely gospel"
Laura Nyro wrote the songs, sings the five-part harmonies, and plays the piano, backed by a big band augmented with strings. The result is a fusion of simple soul, extremely complex arrangements, dazzling vocal pyrotechnics, and a revolutionary approach to lyric writing in which rationality is dispensed with and replaced by words unintelligible if read in print, yet more meaningful and evocative when heard than any structured sequence of sentences could ever be. These words, as they appear on paper, are little more than gibberish:
"Whoa God it's hard on the chamber's walls of heartache
Baby don't love me
cause another one do"
Listen to them on the album and they constitute a novel and a total experience. Laura Nyro has realized that lyrics are not words to be read, but sounds to be sung, and she sings them incredibly. To intellectualize her music any more than I already have is a thankless and impossible task; all I can do is urge you to hear her.
Few albums are as unlike Laura Nyro's as the Grateful Dead's Anthem of the Sun, but in its own way, it is an equally revolutionary album. Here the words are underemphasided to an extreme--rarely can they be deciphered. The music is what distinguishes the album.
Rock in 1968 was dominated by virtuoso solos: Ginger Baker battering away on her drums for twenty minutes while Clapton and Bruce twiddled their thumbs, Canned Heat's bassist doodling by himself for twelve, Jeff Beck soaring for five while his sidemen marked time, the Nice's brilliant organist, Keith Emerson, letting out all the stops for twenty-five. All of us can name the greats: Clapton, Hendrix, Bloomfield, Moon Baker, Beck.... What has been lost in this is jamming, group playing as opposed to individual performances. The song has become a pretext for a solo, a nonentity in itself. Musicians are playing for themselves, not for one another. Canned Heat released a record consisting of fifteen-minute solos by each of the band's members. And of course we have Cream's Wheels of Fire. It's all becoming a drag. One can only listen to so many drum solos; there are too many great guitarists.
Anthem of the Sun is unique in its group approach to playing. The album is a fluent series of performances, some recorded in the studio, some live, spliced into one another to create a continuous, ever-changing yet always consistent group improvisation. No one musician overshadows the others, though lead guitarist Jerry Garcia is frequently prominent. What amazes the listener upon every hearing is that so many disparate moods, tempos, and rhythms can be contained in one organic structure, and that six musicians can play so many instruments so well together. The Quicksilver Messenger Service, on The Fool, is the only group to have come close to such music. Blood, Sweat and Tears are too bound to arangers' charts to approach it.
Were Anthem of the Sun and Eli and the Thirteenth Confession more widely listened to, 1969 would be a more interesting year than it promises to be in rock. As it is, the dollar sign shows no signs of relinquishing its death-grip on the music. It may be discovered that when the Beatles and the Airplane appeared on the cover of Life, rock did not come of age, it became moribund. The reactions to business' supremacy in 1968--gross commercialism, the put-on, the retreats to country, folk, and roll--are not solutions to the dilemma, and if 1969 does not introduce new sounds and new solutions, we may hear rock's death-rattle before the year is over.
Ken Emerson '70 was the rock reviewer for Avatar from the time when Avatar started a regular column on music until its format was radically altered last June by the first of its great internal revolutions.
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