Fifty years ago is a long time. Rock music was young. The British Invasion was just a few years old, the surf music tide was going out to sea, and folk music was fading, after Dylan had gone electric.
In 1968, music began to get serious. Gone was the psychedelic sound of the preceding couple of years, heavy rock and blues was building steam, thanks to Cream and the Yardbirds. The concept album, begun with Sgt. Pepper, where songs were constructed to fit together thematically or musical linkages, would prosper, especially as British progressive music hit the beach in waves.
By 1968, there was a dividing line with the breezy pop and traditional easy listening on one side, and the more adventurous and mature sound on the opposite side of the platter. They youth market had planted it’s flag in the consumer market a decade ago and now was clearly driving the recording industry. The 45 rpm single was still important but the industry lived off of 33 rpm, the long play album format. FM radio was new, and it’s appetite would be fed from the LP, not the 45.
This year saw the debut of many musicians and bands that had real staying power, many of who are still on the music scene today. Others were one or two albums deep into their careers and used 1968 to shift gears into deeper, more accomplished recordings.
The year in music also reflected the year in current events. It was an election year, a year of tragedy, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam would mark a shift in our culture on the home-front, social norms were in transition, big music festivals were sprouting, and the world was spinning a little off center.
Of the artists making news in 1968, some are still around today; they are the senior citizens of popular music. “I hope I die before I get old,” was a popular song lyric.
Let’s look at what was popular then, see what had happened to those folks, and what 1968 brought.
David Gilmour joins Pink Floyd, replacing Sid Barrett. Pink Floyd would tighten and refine their sound, and release a series of commercially and critically successful albums over next two decades before Roger Waters departs. Gilmour, Mason and Wright continue before retiring the band in 2014 with The Endless River, completed after the death of Richard Wright.
The Beatles released The White Album and “Hey Jude”, and would break up less than two years later. The solo efforts of the Fab Four going forward are well-documented. In 2018, Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Ringo Starr still record and tour.
The Buffalo Springfield released their final album and break up. Richie Furray and Jim Messina form Poco; Stephen Stills joins with David Crosby and Graham Nash; and Neil Young flies solo (for awhile) or joins the others when he feels like it. All of these folks are still active, recording and touring. It would appear that Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are over (but we will see).
YES performs for the first time. The band will undergo a variety of lineup changes, reformations and the death of founding members Peter Banks and Chris Squire. The band is currently two groups: YES with Steve Howe and Alan White; and YES featuring Jon Anderston, Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman. In 2018, both bands tour in celebration of YES’s 50 year anniversary.
Johnny Cash records his groundbreaking concert at Folsom Prison, is one of his most released as commercially successful albums ever, and jumpstarts his slumping career. The album has been re-released to include songs recorded but not released on the original album.
The last television episode of The Monkees is shown. The group would release several more albums of declining sales, but the dream was over. Davy Jones passed away in 2012. In 2017, the remaining Monkees released an album of new music. Various combinations of the surviving Monkees continue to tour together.
The Yardbirds disband. Jeff Beck releases The Jeff Beck Group album, featuring Rod Stewart on vocals. Jimmy Page forms Led Zepplin. I wonder what happened to these three guys.
Cream plays their last concert before breaking up. Eric Clapton forms Derek and the Dominoes, then essentially spends the rest of his career as a solo artist. Cream would reform in 2005 for a series of concerts and released a live album and DVD. Jack Bruce would pass away in 2014, and Ginger Baker would become immortalized in Beware of Mr. Baker in 2012 and his autobiography, Hellraiser.
Janis Joplin closes the year playing her last concert with Big Brother and the Holding Company before going solo. She would die two years later.
The film The Graduate is released. The soundtrack by Simon & Garfunkel is a big hit, including Mrs. Robinson. Joe Dimaggio scratches his head wondering why people think he’s gone away, he says he hasn’t. The duo’s Bookends album is also released during the year. A big year for S&G.
“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay is released after the death of Otis Redding. The song became an instant classic.
“MacArthur Park”, written by Jimmy Webb and sung by Richard Harris, reaches number two on the Billboard chart. The song has charted by many different artists including Donna Summer. Critics called the long ponderous and pretentious, but radio played it with a vengeance, even with its very long length. It served as a reminder to not leave cakes out in the rain.
In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, featuring the 17-minute title song is released by Iron Butterfly. The band continued, on but never had the same level of success, and missed playing at Woodstock due to transportation difficulties.
Creedence Clearwater Revival was the group’s debut album. “Susie Q” was the standout song, but you’d have to wait till the next album for John Fogerty to offer up hit singles. After the group broke up, and Fogerty was engaged in legal battles with the record company he refused to play any CCR music in concert. Eventually, new owners of the record company worked out a new deal on recording royalties, and Fogerty began playing his old hits again.
The Moody Blues release In Search of the Lost Chord, their first full album of all original material (after Days of Future Past). This lineup stayed together until the late 1970s when Mike Pinder left. Ray Thomas left in 2002 and died in January 2018. The three remaining members continue to tour and release live albums, including a live recording of Days of Future Past.
Music from Big Pink is the debut from The Band, who had backed Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, before stepping out on their own. “The Weight”, from their debut album, was the first of many hit singles to follow until The Band broke up in 1976. Only Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson are still living.
Shades of Deep Purple was the debut by Deep Purple, and featured “Hush”. Since then, the band has gone through several major lineup changes in which they refer to as Mark I, II, III and IV. The band had numerous hits through the mid 1970s, though their albums were solid sellers even after the hits stopped. A loyal following and strong concert sales has kept the band touring today.
The Who did not release an album during the year, they were at work on Tommy, to be released the following year. In 2017, as part of the 50th anniversary tour celebration, The Who played Tommy in its entirety, something they hadn’t done since the late 1980s. The Who continues on its open-ended 50th anniversary tour. Roger Daltrey steps outs in 2018 with a solo album and tour.
The Jefferson Airplane released Crown of Creation, their fourth album, and although the album didn’t have any hit singles it climbed to number six on the Billboard chart, on the strength of penetrating songs like “Lather” and “Triad”. The JA was in a very fertile period of songwriting that would continue with Volunteers, their next studio album.
This Was, was the debut album by Jethro Tull. The first album sounds very different from what would result over the next decade, as the debut was hard-pounding blues and jazz, and showed little of the progressive nature and folkiness that would soon emerge. “A Song for Jeffrey” is the lone song that seemed to stay in the Tull song list in future years. A good start, but the best was yet to come. Jethro Tull remains an active recording and tour entity, essentially with leader Ian Anderson and sidemen. Longtime Martin Barre joined with the second album but left when Anderson disbanded Tull in 2011, enlisting a new band without Barre. Martin Barre tours and releases his own albums.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience released their final album, Electric Ladyland. The album contained the classic Bob Dylan song, “All Along the Watchtower,” on which Dave Mason plays the acoustic guitar. Listed on a variety of top 100 albums of all time, it was Hendrix’s only number one album in the U.S. The album shows Hendrix experimenting with a variety of styles, combining blues and jazz with a heavier rock approach. His next group would continue the musical journey until his untimely death.
Astral Weeks is the second album by Van Morrison, but the first as part of his new deal with Warner Bros. The album did not sell well but became a darling of the critics and is included on many top album lists. The songs are very mature, with strong jazz stylings, and very intricate arrangements. Forty years after its release, Van Morrison performed the album live and later released the live recording of those concerts. His next album would be Moondance, when he would link what he learned on this album with a more commercial sensibility.
The Rolling Stones released Beggar’s Banquet. “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Street Fighting Man” were two singles released from the album. The album was praised for its earnest approach, somewhat stripped down and serious focus, compared with their psychedelic recordings of the previous year. Also in 1968, the Stones released “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” one of their most enduring and rocking songs.
James Taylor released his first album, James Taylor, recorded on the Beatle’s Apple label. Recorded in England and embellished with orchestrations and connecting links between the songs, it included “Something in the Way She Moves” and “Carolina in My Mind”. His later albums would have a leaner and less cluttered feel, as he and Peter Asher developed a style that worked best for Taylor’s songs and his voice. This was a good start but the best would come quickly for Sweet Baby James.
Blood, Sweat & Tears released their self-named, and second album. It topped the charts for seven weeks and placed three singles in the top five of the chart (“Spinning Wheel”, “And When I Die”, and “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”). A great blending of classical, jazz and pop, the songs were all over the radio, and still can be heard on classic rock stations. The hits would quickly stop coming. The candle burned brightly for this group but the it did not have the staying power of a band like Chicago, which had a similar sound.
Aerial Ballet was the third release from Harry Nilsson, a great songwriter but also a great interpreter of other people’s music. On this album he does “Everybody’s Talkin’”, a song heard in the film Midnight Cowboy. Also on the album is his own song, “One”, which was a big hit by Three Dog Night. Nilsson would go on to have some very big hits including “Without You” a song written by members of Badfinger.
In 1968, Mama Cass, Herb Alpert, Mill Brothers, Sergio Mendez, The Lettermen, Bobby Goldsboro, Paul Mauriat and many no-rock records rode high on the charts, as musical tastes were very diverse and AM radio embraced more traditional music formats. Motown had a large slice of the market; country radio was changing as outlaws like Waylon, Willie, Johnny and Merle staked their claim; and bubblegum music would sweeten the charts with The Archies, Ohio Express and the Partridge Family over the next few years.