Separate But Very Equal: The (Other) Important Albums of 1968
[26 November 2008]
by PopMatters Staff
Big Brother and the Holding Company: Cheap Thrills
Before Madonna, before Sinead or Björk or Fiona or Pink or even Patti
Smith, there was Janisa hard-living, heavy-drinking Ugly Betty of a
girl whose raw, visceral performance was the real deal. When promoter
Chet Helms introduced her to Big Brother and the Holding Company the
combination of the band's heavy psychedelia and Joplin's raspy
throated, Texas blues powered some of the bay area's most memorable
concerts during the '60s. And Cheap Thrills beautifully captures the
spirit of that time.
But before you even get to the music there is the cover. Hailed by
Rolling Stone as one of the 100 Greatest Album Covers of all time (in
the top 10), the artwork was done by underground artist Robert Crumb
who, ironically, released his first issue of the legendary Zap Comix
in 1968. Crumb would go on to create some of pop culture's most
memorable characters such as the "Keep on Truckin'" dude and "Fritz
the Cat". With a busty caricature of Janis holding a bottle (Southern
Comfort was her favorite) the song titles and other credits are part
of the art including a listing of a wide range of American
songwriters not usually seen on one rock and roll record. Alluding to
what would become an unusual alliance with California rock, in the
bottom right corner sits the label "Approved by Hell's Angels".
Opening with guitarist Sam Andrew's "Combination of Two" recorded at
Bill Graham's Fillmore Auditorium, the band urgently jams as Janis
declares "We're gonna knock you, rock you, gonna sock it to you now!"
And they do, immediately, with Janis' "I Need a Man to Love" as a
Hendrix-flavored guitar explodes before settling into a gentle groove
between David Getz' drum kit and Peter Albin's bass while building up
to Janis' insistence that "it just can't be". Then, where George and
Ira Gershwin's "Summertime" would at first appear misplaced, the band
surprises us with its counterpoint guitars before giving way to
Janis' freestyling vocals that make us wince in awe.
The apex of the LP comes, appropriately, in the middle with the
majestic, gut-wrenching interpretation of Bert Berns' and Jerry
Ragovoy's "Piece of My Heart". As The Beatles made Berns' "Twist and
Shout" forever theirs, "Piece of My Heart" is forever Janis-a painful
ode to love where every "take it, take another little piece of my
heart now, baby" is bitten off like a sarcastic declaration of war.
(Berns, aka Bert Russell, also wrote or co-wrote classics like "Here
Comes the Night", "I Want Candy" and "Hang On, Sloopy".)
"Turtle Blues" brings things down and gives insight into Janis' roots
with her self-penned, piano blues number-a genuine bar tune complete
with a smattering of applause and broken glass. And then it's back to
spaced-out, hippie rock with "Oh, Sweet Mary" as Andrew's vocals are
almost overpowered by Joplin's punctuated improv.
Before the release of Cheap Thrills Janis had blown away 1967's
Monterey Pop Festival with her rendition of Big Mama Thornton's "Ball
and Chain" (with an awestruck Mama Cass in the audience). With James
Gurley's burning guitar it's the perfect closer of a classic album
combining traditional blues with the heavy guitar rock that was
already growing with artists like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and, of
course, the great Jimi Hendrix. The pain in Janis' voice is palpable
as she asks, "Why does everything go wrong?"
Janis would go on to a successful solo career with hits like "Me and
Bobby McGee", (written by then-unknown Kris Kristofferson) but the
raw exuberance of the era contained in Cheap Thrills was never
duplicated. Janis' bad habits, primarily alcohol and heroin, got the
best of her before her deadly overdose in 1970.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland
Electric Ladyland was recorded at the very peak of Jimi Hendrix's
recording and playing powers, in a series of marathon, late-night,
drug and alcohol fueled sessions, with guests including Steve
Winwood, Dave Mason, Jack Casady coming in, and a steady escalation
of conflict between long-time Experience bass player Noel Redding and
Hendrix himself. This volatile climate of hedonism, interpersonal
conflict and obsessive perfectionismDave Mason is said to have done
20 tracks of the acoustic guitar part on "All Along the Watchtower"
before Hendrix let him goproduced one of the landmark albums in guitar rock.
The album is, of course, studded with staples of classic rock radio,
songs like "All Along the Watchtower", "Crosstown Traffic" and "Gypsy
Eyes", that have become part of the DNA of every kind of hard and
psychedelic rock. Yet listening it end-to-end again, after all these
years, you may be struck by how odd and multi-faceted this record is.
It begins in a burst of trippy psychedeliathe backwards-voices and
echo of "And the Gods Made Love", the falsetto'd daydream of "Have
You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)"then slips into the hard-guitar
riffery of "Crosstown Traffic". "Little Miss Strange", sung by
Redding and Mitchell, is pretty close to conventional folk rock and
strikingly dull, compared to the rest of the album. If you want an
inkling of what Redding and Hendrix were fighting about, just listen
to this Moby Grape-ish bit of 1960s-ism next to the revelatory,
free-form "1983 (Mermaid I Should Turn to Be)". "Little Miss Strange"
is tightly contained within a country rock idiom, while "1983",
almost never played on dad rock stations, is gorgeously untethered to
almost any convention.
It is also, naturally, a study in the extended possibilities of the
guitar. In 1968, Hendrix, along with Frank Zappa, Eric Clapton and
others, was fairly inventing the sound of the electric guitar, up to
that point mostly used as a louder version of the acoustic. Although
his playing style was based in traditional blues, he was among the
first to augment his capabilities with distortion and effects.
"Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)", recorded with Steve Winwood on organ,
closes out the album with one of the 1960s great wah wah guitar
solos. Joe Satriani, himself no slouch at the solo, called it, "just
the greatest piece of electric guitar work ever recorded. In fact,
the whole song could be considered the holy grail of guitar
expression and technique. It is a beacon of humanity."
Throughout the recording, Hendrix was moving away from his all-white,
hits oriented trio of Redding and Mitchell towards the freer, more
authentic blues and jazz influenced style of his last years. Hendrix
brought in Buddy Miles, who would be his Band of Gypsies drummer, for
"Rainy Day, Dream Away" and "Still Raining Still Dreaming". He
himself played bass for "All Along the Watchtower". Redding,
frustrated with the slow recording process, had slipped out for a beer.
The pleasure of listening to Electric Ladyland lies in rediscovering
its deeper, weirder tracks and in re-hearing its more familiar cuts
in their original context. Most people, at this point, have heard
"All Along the Watchtower" hundreds of times, on the radio, in films
and documentaries, just about any time anyone wants to signify the
1960s. Yet the Dylan cover retains its force here, sandwiched between
the incandescent "House Burning Down" and the twitchy, talking guitar
glories of "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)". The song itself, with its
crashing guitar chords and soaring, electric solo, remains a tense
and hallucinogenic monument, one of those rare covers that eclipses
Even Dylan himself has recognized the power of Hendrix's cover. "It
overwhelmed me, really," he said in a 1995 interview with the Fort
Lauderdale Sun Sentinel. "He had such talent, he could find things
inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other
people wouldn't think of finding in there. He probably improved upon
it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his
version, actually, and continue to do it to this day."
Electric Ladyland was the last Hendrix studio album to be released
during his lifetime and his most successful one, reaching #1 in the
US and #5 in the UK in 1968. Later materials, recorded with the Cry
of Love band and the Band of Gypsies, were released after his death
in 1970, but to many, this remains his definitive achievement and one
of the best guitar rock albums of all time.
Van Morrison: Astral Weeks
You could make the argument that, as much as things have changed over
the past four decades, in some ways we're still seeing things through
the prism of 1968. In music, especially, many of the still-popular
forms and genres people work in were either established or
exemplified in 1968, which makes it even more interesting that one of
the best loved and lauded albums of the year is one that is almost
entirely a one-off.
There is enough background information about the writing,
construction, performance and so on of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks
out there if you're curious, but for our purposes it's enough to note
that even Morrison either couldn't or wouldn't follow in its vein.
The startlingly accomplished and at times even avant-garde
arrangements of Astral Weeks (the seemingly random harpsichord hits
and verbal explosion of "Cypress Avenue," the dense, cyclic
arrangements of "Ballerina" and the title track), the impressionistic
haze and harrowingly emotional tenor of the lyrics (on which Lester
Bangs wrote movingly in an essay you should seek out if you haven't),
even the record's privileging of emotional impact over songcraftnone
of this was ground to which Morrison would really return (or at least
return successfully) in the future.
As great as Moondance is, it's a pop record as opposed to a
folk/soul/jazz odyssey. It has singles, whereas with the possible
exception of "The Way Young Lovers Do" (which still works better in
the context of the album) it wouldn't make sense to package any of
Astral Weeks separately.
And you don't really hear Astral Weeks' influence directly in the
music that's happened since, unless you want to count people reaching
for and failing to grasp Morrison's ability to flip between ecstasy
and devastation without seeming insincere, the music's perfect
balance between genres (never do the arrangements seem awkward or
mongrelized), and particularly his stunning verbal/vocal performance.
Anyone can scat, repeat words, skew their lyrics towards the
poetic/mystical/opaque, but no-one has made it sound as natural or
even elemental as Van the Man did.
This is most striking and obvious on the three epics Astral Weeks is
built around, the title track, "Cyprus Avenue" and "Madame George,"
but even on the more immediate likes of "The Way Young Lovers Do" and
"Sweet Thing" Morrison's vocals bear more resemblance to an
invocation or a dream than to a pop song.
And yet, even as Astral Weeks refuses to conform to the sort of
shapes and forms expected of it (and it's an open but interesting
question as to what extent this is deliberate or a product of
Morrison's youth and relative inexperience) it remains immediately,
viscerally compelling. It's probably not played at as many parties as
Moondance is, but Morrison is enough of a craftsman that nobody seems
to have trouble getting into what honestly could have been a fairly
obtuse listen. The emotional impact of the songs on Astral Weeks, and
the album's overall power, are immediately accessible to the
listener, even though you can easily spend months or years exploring
how exactly Morrison and his band did it.
At one point during "Sweet Thing" Morrison sings "Just to dig it all
and not to wonder, that's just fine / And I'll be satisfied not to
read in between the lines," and that's the perfect description of
what Astral Weeks can do to the listener (even if it turns out
reading between the lines in this case ca be pretty interesting).
It's a fugue, a daydream, a harrowing journey, a fond remembrance.
That most of its putative offspring can be reduced down to mawkish
faux-soul singers trying to emote over limp folk-jazz backings is in
a way a testament to its irreducible, ineffable greatness.
The Kinks: The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society
"This world is big and wild and half insane…"
It was the album that Ray Davies had been building toward since
shifting the direction of his R&B based band. It was almost their
last stand. Eventually it would be viewed as the song cycle that
would forever redefine the Kinks as the rightful heir to the throne
of true English rock eccentrics. A year before, their brethren the
Beatles took a loosely based concept about a group of lonely hearts'
troubadours and turned it into the anthem for the Summer of Love. The
following year, as they wallowed in discontent, Davies drove a tweed
and Earl Grey stake directly into the center of their
The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society is one of the
boldest statements by any act of the modern music era. It's so
focused on its own idiosyncrasy that it avoids the dated trappings of
most '60s recordings to perfectly capture a man and his mood. Having
pushed his brother Dave and the rest of the band toward a more
refined, folk-ish approach, Davies' songwriting was reaching new
heights of stunningly sophisticated simplicity. It had been evidenced
early on, with standout tracks like "The World Keeps Going Round"
from The Kink Kontroversy (1965) and "Sunny Afternoon" from Face to
The latter album was even important, as it represented Davies return
to performing after a nasty nervous breakdown. The pressures of
stardom saw him turn inward, wistful for a time and a country that
was traditional, tempered, and taciturn. So while the Fab Four
explored the studio as a means of expression, the Kinks broadened
such horizons by merely looking out their backdoor. Something Else
arrived during the after burn of the post-Sgt. Pepper's celebration,
and fans were not quite ready for twee tracks about Waterloo sunsets,
afternoon teas, and a head boy at the school named David Watts.
The Village Green Preservation Society faired no better. While viewed
as a masterpiece today (and rightfully so), its British-centric
themes and understated 'golly gee' subtleties were lost within all
the sex, drugs, and flower power. Davies claims the album-length look
at UK hamlet life was inspired by Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood as
well as a growing discontent within the band. Fearing this would be
the last Kinks album, he tinkered with it feverishly, including and
then dropping the sizable hit "Days". As the amount of material grew,
the frightened frontman saw it as a kind of swansongto fame, to
fortune, to a forgotten way of life.
Indeed, all throughout The Village Green Preservation Society, Davies
outlines the basics of his lost England. The title track asks an
uncaring god to bless "the George cross", "little shops, china cups,
and virginity". Later on, he would lament the "Last of the Steam
Powered Trains" and the easy, superficial trappings of celebrity
("Starstruck"). Tossing in a few fairy-style stories along the way
("Phenomenal Cat", "Wicked Annabella") and odes to that most
instantaneous of memory makersthe photograph ("Picture Book",
"People Taking Pictures of Each Other"), he created a kind of
revisionist regression. Davies now thought it was hip to be square,
and wanted to share said sentiments with a hopefully accepting audience.
The musical method he chose, however, would ring hollow in the ears
of eager listeners. The Village Green Preservation Society avoided
the power chord chug of the early Kinks hits ("You Really Got Me",
"All Day and All of the Night") to explore more acoustic, orchestral
settings. Strings and keyboards cascaded over carefully strummed
guitars, and when a tad more meat was needed in the mix, the charges
were more considered and compact. This is especially true of the
terrific "Big Sky". While Davies sing-speaks his soul searching
stanzas ("Big Sky feels sad when he sees the children scream and
cry/But the Big Sky's too big to let it get him down"), a veritable
overview of British music circa the late '60 swirls around him.
In the Orwellian referencing "Animal Farm", the break before the last
verse seems to resonate the loudest:
Girl, it's a hard, hard world, if it gets you down,
Dreams often fade and die in a bad, bad world,
I'll take you where real animals are playing,
And people are real people not just playing.
It's like a reality check slamming into the then current Carnaby
Street din, describing in a set of straightforward words the pitfalls
of getting twisted inside the era's scattered idealism. For Ray
Davies, his time in the limelight started out with a bang. But ever
since making the grade, he was melancholy over the pricepersonal and
professionally. The Village Green Preservation Society was a warning
of where things were going. Too bad too few paid attention at the time.
The Rolling Stones: Beggar's Banquet
It was 1968 and the stakes couldn't have been higher. The world of
rock music was caught up in a fervor and transition that both suited
the times and matched them, upheaval for upheaval.
The Rolling Stones, after years of hit singles that hewed to radio
formula, were in something of a creative cul-de-sac. Her Satanic
Majesties Request, released in 1967, was a blatant attempt to ride
the psychedelic coattails of the broad appeal of the Beatles' Sgt.
Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The work of prog-rock explorers
like Pink Floyd, and the release of Electric Ladyland by the Jimi
Hendrix Experience were changing the vocabulary of music.
It was time for something new.
That something newcreated in a world in utter disarray, and growing
instability within the band itselfwas Beggars Banquet, the Rolling
Stones album that is one of the band's three or four best recordings.
To these ears, it's the best work of the original Stones lineup:
culturally grounded but sonically adventurous, literate, passionate
and, with the death of the Stones' brilliant original guitarist Brian
Jones less than a year after release, tragically moving. Here the
Stones helped change rock music as heard on the radio, breaking with
the three-minute diktat that largely imprisoned rock during the 1960's.
But Beggars also showed the Rolling Stones willing to play against
the prevailing trend: As grandiose, multitracked psychedelia made its
assault on rock culture, the Stones pivoted back to basic American
roots musica cultural anchor in the face of swirling change. Beggars
Banquet was the anti-Sgt. Pepper.
The opening track, "Sympathy for the Devil" was an experiment in both
length and subject. Mick Jagger was said to have been inspired by
Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, a novel that posits
Satan's return to our world in a number of guises. Jagger's acid
first-person statement of the human condition, an indictment of the
cult of personalitythe same one that imprisoned him in an evolving
celebrity cultureremains one of rock's lyric masterpieces.
With tracks like "Prodigal Son" and "Dear Doctor", the Stones
ventured into country and blues like never before. "Prodigal Son", a
blues song by Mississippi bluesman Rev. Robert Wilkins in the 1930s,
was reworked by the Stones as a folky shuffle, a hallelujah romp
straight from the Delta. "Dear Doctor," a wry tale of nuptials gone
awry, borrows from the hill-country music of Appalachia.
For all its wry humor and surreal comic turns, there's a shadow over
this record. You hear it on the plaintive ballad "No Expectations".
It's there we're witness to the twilight of Brian Jones, by this time
a man near the end of the rope. Jones, a drug casualty on a long
downward spiral, performs slide guitar work here that's harrowing in
its emotional honesty. Forty years on, it can still break your heart.
His lead work on "Parachute Woman" and "Jig-Saw Puzzle" is as lean
and inventive as anything he'd recorded before. And listen closely to
"Street Fighting Man"in some ways the song that embodied the year
1968. Inspired by the student protests in Paris, it captures the
spirit of chaos that made the song possible… and throughout, you'll
hear the sinewy thread of Brian Jones' sitar, the kind of singular,
inventive touch that confirms again his singular contribution to the Stones.
There's a before-Beggars version of the Rolling Stones and an after.
As much as anything, it was Jones' slow fade from his role as the
band's visual symbol and musical polymatha process made permanent
when Jones died on July 3, 1969that marks the dividing line between
one iteration of the Rolling Stones and those that followed.
There were later high points in the Stones career: Let It Bleed, the
first Stones album with Jones' able replacement, Mick Taylor; Exile
on Main Street, the sprawling tribute to soul, gospel and the rhythms
of New York City; Tattoo You, a testament to the jaded but vulnerable
creatures of rock's demimonde.
But Beggars Banquet is that first point of departurethe pivot point
that separated the Stones from being just another British Invader and
being a group to be reckoned with, on its own creative terms. As a
musical statement of simplicity in the face of complexity, order in
the face of turmoil, with lyrics Oscar Wilde might have appreciated
and music that still moves you, it more than holds its owna
document, a soundtrack for an era.
Michael E. Ross