January 16 – Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum My Ear Drummum

Blue Cheer – Vincebus Eruptum

A late 60’s San Francisco mainstay, Blue Cheer were heavy metal pioneers.  Along with Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, they proved that a group only needs three members and a large stack of very loud amplifiers to get its point across.  Blue Cheer, named after a variety of LSD created by chemist and Grateful Dead friend Owsley Stanley, made its point loud and clear when it erupted on this day in 1968 with Vincebus Eruptum.  

My first exposure to this band probably wasn’t until the late 1980’s while watching My Generation hosted by Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits on VH1.  The quality of some of the music on film from the 1960’s was so bad (much of the material worth watching has been restored in recent years) that watching a clip of Blue Cheer lip-syncing on American Bandstand didn’t inspire me to explore their music further.  Had I, as a sixteen year old, purchased a copy of Vincebus Eruptum and played it on my not-so-great-stereo (but better than VH1), I might be sitting here in 2018 writing that, for at least a brief moment, they blew Hendrix, Cream, and The Who out of the water whether I believed it deep down or not.  And they may have.  Instead, I finally picked up the album on CD a couple of years ago in a futile last-ditch attempt to stave off middle age.  Yes, I bought this album as a result of a minor mid-life crisis, but also to see what I had missed out on all this time.  I listened to it one time and filed it away, feeling somewhat silly even though I dug it.  It’s almost as if my home was too clean and the beer in my fridge too expensive to listen to this album.  Not Zeppelin or Deep Purple, but specifically this.

With the impending release anniversary I popped the disc in last night and listened through headphones.  I enjoyed it more this time and it will probably be played more often going forward, but this morning my left ear hurts.  It could be that I slept on it awkwardly, but I think I know the real reason:  This album is blisteringly loud whether the volume is turned up or not.  There’s no avoiding it.  (My copy being on CD as opposed to vinyl probably doesn’t help.)  It opens with their most well-known song, a cover of the Eddie Cochran classic, Summertime Blues, and rolls on from there for 32 short but incendiary minutes.  I don’t think I could handle more than 32 minutes of this music in one sitting, just as I feel about AC/DC.  I like it, but after a few minutes it kind of hurts my whole body.  I cannot fathom what it must’ve been like to stand in front of their stack of amps at the Avalon Ballroom.

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Postscript:  It seems that the reason my body was aching had less to do with the sonics of this album and more to do with the onset of the flu, which has had me knocked semi-conscious for three and a half days.  I’m awake now, though.  Must be all that rustling I hear coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Summertime Blues
  2. Rock Me Baby
  3. Doctor Please

Side Two:

  1. Out of Focus
  2. Parchment Farm
  3. Second Time Around

 

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-Stephen

January 15 – Three Byrds (and a Horse)

The Byrds – The Notorious Byrd Brothers

Some bands and individual performers can become pigeon-holed by their sound and/or image over a relatively brief period of time.  MTV certainly played a role in that in the 1980’s, as to this day many non-fans assume Bob Dylan still sings in the nasally tone that they only heard, albeit many times, on his contribution to We Are the World, and Bruce Springsteen to them probably still wears a red bandanna and a jean jacket with the sleeves cut off.  Dylan’s singing voice has probably been through nine or ten distinct incarnations over the years, with at least three different phases since U.S.A. for Africa, and Bruce has added to his playing and singing style a few times and traded the bandanna for a hair piece long ago.  Another such band that many have one impression of, thanks to soul-sucking commercial Classic Rock and Oldies radio formats,  is The Byrds.

The first Byrds album I ever “owned” was their original Greatest Hits that I pirated in 1985 onto cassette from my Uncle Chris’s original 1967 vinyl.  I’m fairly certain it’s out in the garage with my other tapes that I continue to hold onto for posterity, and for those Grateful Dead soundboards my friend Mitch gave me years ago.  But that hits album is the epitome of the early Byrds that is assumed by many to be the one and only Byrds sound:  Roger McGuinn’s jangly 12-string Rickenbacker playing Dylan covers.  While I love that music, the band evolved remarkably over its lifespan, and I consider The Notorious Byrd Brothers, released January 15, 1968, to be a fascinating shift that took a stunning leap with their next album later in the year.

For the heavy hitters in music, 1968 seems to have been a psychedelic hangover of sorts that inspired them to branch out, or at least “return to roots,” while many of the others were still playing catch-up in a commercially paisley world.  Though Dylan didn’t release an official LP that year, he was cloistered in Upstate New York recording stripped down “weird America” music (to steal writer and critic Greil Marcus’s term) with The Band.  The Stones stepped forward and backward all at once with straight forward rock and blues on their followup to Their Satanic Majesties Request, and the Beatles were all over the place on their upcoming double LP release.  While this Byrds record is still considered “psychedelic” and McGuinn’s jingle-jangle guitar is very present, the band integrates hints of country music with a steel pedal, pop (the opening track, Artificial Energy, reminds me of Devol, the studio group  that recorded incidental music for TV shows such as The Brady Bunch, but in a good way), and electronic music with the introduction of a Moog synthesizer into an overall more laid back, sometimes pastoral, sound.  The themes include Vietnam, peace, love, freedom, ecology, and outer space.  Far out, man.

Another theme that might have been considered far out and was put to tape but not the final LP song lineup was found in David Crosby’s Triad, which the band subsequently gave to the Jefferson Airplane to record and which Crosby would go on to include in CSNY live sets.  The Byrds’ version finally ended up on the album’s remaster almost thirty years later.  Crosby’s anger over this song about a ménage à trois being considered too risqué for inclusion, along with his increasingly unbearable personality, caused him to be fired during the album’s recording.  Drummer Michael Clarke had quit briefly before this, due in part to disputes with Croz, only to return after the latter was fired.  Clarke was then let go after recording was completed.  Founding member Gene Clark (from my home state of Missouri), who had quit the group in 1966, returned for three weeks before quitting again.  Despite all the group upheaval (i.e., drugs and ego) and the various styles and instrumentation introduced, this is a very cohesive album which stands on its own merits fifty years on without a major hit to anchor it.

Tracklist

Side One:

  1. Artificial Energy
  2. Goin’ Back
  3. Natural Harmony
  4. Draft Morning
  5. Wasn’t Born to Follow
  6. Get to You

Side Two:

  1. Change is Now
  2. Old John Robertson
  3. Tribal Gathering
  4. Dolphin’s Smile
  5. Space Odyssey

Fun with Album Covers:

The location of the group photo on the cover of The Notorious Byrd Brothers is in Topanga Canyon, L.A.  The horse in the photo was thought to represent the recently fired David Crosby, although perhaps the wrong end of the horse.  It’s also the scene of another album photo shoot – for Linda Ronstadt – the following year.  Today it appears to be a renovated guest house next to a rather posh Topanga spread.

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http://www.popspotsnyc.com/the_byrds/

-Stephen

 

January 8 – Otis Redding

Otis Redding – (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay

I’m only a few days in, and I’m already going to employ one of those words that will be difficult to avoid overusing as I move through 1968:  timeless.  You could say that about a lot of Otis Redding’s work in his way too brief life and career, but (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, released 50 years ago today, just never gets old.  Co-written by Stax Records producer and Booker T. & the M.G.’s guitarist Steve Cropper, the lyrics came together the previous August while Redding was renting a houseboat in Sausalito, CA (hence the song’s theme) shortly after his historic appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival.  His final work on the song was on December 7, 1967.  Three days later Redding perished in a plane crash outside Madison, WI.  It became the first posthumous single to reach number one in the U.S.

On a personal note, this song was included on a Best of Atlantic Records LP box set my brothers owned.  As a result, to this day whenever I hear it on the radio, I think Hush by Deep Purple will come on next.  I hate it when that happens.

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-Stephen

 

January 2-6 – Richie Havens and Merle Haggard

Richie Havens – Something Else Again

I wish I could say I’ve seen live all the musicians I’ll discuss in this blog.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen a handful of them, and in the case of Richie Havens I was able to meet him as well.  He radiated just as much grace and peace while chatting with me and signing my copy of his debut album Mixed Bag as he did on stage.

This followup to that fantastic 1966 debut came in January.  While Havens is best known for his unique and very tasteful covers of songs by other major songwriters, the opening track was written by Richie and covered two years later by Yes on their Time and a Word album.  There will be more on Havens come August of 1969 when he opened Woodstock with a very memorable and courageous performance.

 

January 2

Merle Haggard – Sing Me Back Home

After all my prefacing about my music interests and the incredible rock music from 1968 to be discussed, one of my first official posts on a 1968 release is about…a country album?  I won’t pretend to be very knowledgeable about country music.  Growing up, country music was for the shit kickers at the back of the school bus who spat tobacco juice into their communal Folgers can strategically placed on the floor in the aisle.  Johnny and Willie, o.k., but the rest of it?  No thanks.  Thankfully I’ve come around, at least with some of the classics.  I saw Merle Haggard a few years back when he opened for Dylan.  I quickly came to view it as a twin bill because on that night I thought Merle was better than Bob, and I consider myself a fairly serious Dylan fan.  I was driving through Muskogee, OK a couple of years ago and noticed a billboard advertising a country music festival to be headlined by the Okie himself that June.  Sadly, Merle had passed away on his 79th birthday, April 9.  The billboard remained up for some time.

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The title track to that January 2, 1968 release spent a couple weeks at #1 on Billboard’s country chart, and was written in tribute to a fellow inmate of Haggard’s at San Quentin where he spent three years:

 

January 6

On this date, the Gibson Guitar Corp. patented the Flying V guitar.

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Just Who Do I Think I Am?

 

Before we dive deeper into the sounds of 1968, perhaps I should give a little more insight into my attitude toward music from more recent years, just for full disclosure.

As one who is admittedly out of touch with much of the current music scene, one pitfall I certainly want to avoid is the attitude of “music from the 1960’s and 70’s is so much better than today’s music.”  I know there’s good music today just as there was in the final two decades of the last century, but I just keep peeling layers off the onion that is music from “back in the day” and I don’t want to stop.  By the time I finish learning the roots of a band or individual performer I end up in places like the Mississippi Delta in the 1920’s or some bizarre nooks and crannies of Appalachia, and that’s exciting to me!  When I hear something from the last decade that I enjoy, it doesn’t take long for me to realize it’s because it sounds a bit derivative, but that’s not a bad thing in my book.  I think the difference in my mind is that, for example, the British blues-rock bands of the late 60’s trace their roots to the Delta or Chicago, whereas a band like Wolfmother sounds like its roots are found in the aforementioned British bands.  The War on Drugs sounds a little like late 1970’s-early 1980’s Fleetwood Mac.  Michael Kiwanuka’s first release is somehow a mix of Bill Withers, Van Morrison, and a whole stew of audio goodness (though his more recent album certainly blazed a nice trail of its own).  Madeleine Peyroux sounds like Billie Holiday singing Dylan and Leonard Cohen covers.  It’s all good!

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But 1968?  The list of bands that disbanded and formed I find rather remarkable.  Some of the groups who called it quits half a century ago this year:  Buffalo Springfield, Cream,  The Righteous Bros., The Yardbirds, and the Zombies.  And some of the heavies who got it together that year?  How about Black Sabbath (as Earth), Deep Purple, Free, King Crimson, Led Zeppelin (as the New Yardbirds), Nazareth, Rush, Yes, and Crosby, Stills and Nash.  And let’s not forget Neil Young’s solo debut.  Mercy, that’s a nice little chunk of my music collection!

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We’re already four days into January and I haven’t gotten to our first album yet.  We’ve lots to get into, so let’s get rolling.

-Stephen

 

January 1, 2018 – Lifting Off in 1968

Music, history, and meaningless trivia: These are a few of my favorite things. They won’t earn me an early retirement, but I derive enjoyment from them nonetheless. As I grow older, the opportunities have become fewer and further between for sitting around the shack with a buddy over a six-pack, dissecting various albums or comparing/contrasting the multitude of live performances of Like a Rolling Stone available through official and bootleg releases. Thank goodness my wife likes or at least tolerates my musical interests, not to mention the fact that she has introduced me to sounds I probably never would’ve learned of had I not met her.

This past spring (of 2017) my fascination with the radical transformation of popular music 50 years ago was rekindled. Not that my interest ever went away, but I had long ago begun taking much of it for granted even though there was much I had yet to discover. Often referred to as the soundtrack to the fabled Summer of Love of 1967, that musical and social revolution had already been in motion for a year or two prior and even earlier than that on the US coasts and in European cities. But by Sgt. Pepper, “psychedelia” was becoming mainstream culture, at least as mainstream as possible pre-24 hour news cycle and social media when the war du jour was still a relatively popular one (at least for a few more months). Even some straights tried to look hip. I probably would’ve been one of those nerds hopelessly trying to look and act groovy, as evidenced by my adolescence in the 1980’s when I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be preppy or a hippie, but ended up just another hum drum Midwesterner with a mullet.

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Back to 1967: In the midst of becoming acquainted with Country Joe and the Fish’s Electric Music for the Mind and Body for the first time last spring and trying to get past the Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request as nothing but a Pepper satire or bad rip-off (or a good one), the thought came to me: Oh man, what about 1968? To me, that’s the year the music scene really took off in terms of both quantity and quality. The latter element for me probably didn’t peak until 1970 or ’71, the year I returned to life as we know it as Stephen. But I had to push ’68 to the back burner, lest I overlook the brilliance of Love’s 1967 release Forever Changes or Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk. Now the 50th anniversary of that crazy, tumultuous year of losses of great American leaders, riots, trips to India, another Cardinals World Series, and of course the music, has inched its way to the front of the stove, bringing with it something a little heavier for the next twelve months and beyond.

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So, how to keep these interests fresh and stimulating when I’ve waxed poetic ad nauseam about that lost, out of print Van Morrison classic from 1974 I’ve only recently discovered for myself by cobbling the pieces together from various YouTube sources into a playlist to the point where my wife is repeating my blathering to her co-workers? Some people (o.k., my therapist) say I should write about it. Maybe create a blog. A blog? What could I possibly say that hasn’t been said a bazillion times before by Boomers who were actually alive when these albums were current and the big news stories of the day were unfolding?

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“Traffic’s self-titled album was released on October 25.” “MLK and RFK were assassinated.” “The Tet Offensive occurred, causing Walter Cronkite to opine that the U.S. should honorably vamoose from Vietnam.” These are facts that can easily be found on Wikipedia timelines should one be interested enough to do a simple search. But to me, this is the most fascinating period of culture and history in general, and the core of my favorite music has always been the period from roughly 1965-1975. So, to any Baby Boomers who might read this, I say relax, I’m not trying to encroach on the era you rightfully own. I just have my own relationship with the music as a Gen X-er just as my 17-year-old son or the two teenage girls I overheard in my local record shop (yep, I’ve got one of those right around the corner!) the other day asking the owner for Jethro Tull recommendations have theirs. It’s a beautiful thing!

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To understate it slightly, stuff happened in 1968. Much of it looked really cool and exciting from the distant land of 1988 (“when I was young…”), and much of it even now. At times I’ve thought it would’ve been great to have come of age in the mid-late 1960’s. Alas, I probably would’ve died in the muck of Southeast Asia (maybe I did, but that’s a topic for another blog). My hope is that this might stir some thoughts for you and that you might in turn occasionally share some of your own musings on these things: where you were and what you were up to (if you were alive), and of course any opinions on the music, positive, negative, or otherwise.

For now, I’d like to offer an occasional reminder of some of the many 50th anniversary milestones in music from the year 1968, subjectively handpicked by yours truly, as well as occasional thoughts on music from other eras when the urge arises. I’ll focus on albums, but sprinkle in the occasional notable single from albums not otherwise mentioned. Many of these albums have specific release dates I’ll stick to, others only have the release month available. Some are apparently so forgotten that only “1968” is given as their release date. Some are obvious choices that most of us know and many of us love.

Other albums I’ll list because I’m aware they’re “important,” but I really don’t know much about them other than maybe a track or two that ended up on greatest hits compilations (see most Motown and country). Occasionally I’ll throw in a side tidbit that relates to the music, or a historical factoid to add perspective. If I leave out an album or song you feel I should have included, you can let me have it for my ignorance or for being such a snob. Sorry, but the 1910 Fruitgum Company and the early works of the Bee Gees probably won’t make the cut – unless you want them to. And by all means, please let me know of any factual errors. Without further adieu, Happy New Year, and welcome back to 1968 (and beyond). May we all be Bold as Love.

-Stephen