I stated at the front end of my first Chartbusting entry that I’d be setting out to debunk the myth that music was better back in the day, but 1968 makes that very, very hard. Coming after the previous year’s famous “Summer of Love” (with some of ‘67’s releases carrying over to the new year’s charts) and its release of albums like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper and Jimi Hendrix’s debut had opened the floodgates of heady experiments in pop music, this year showcased a music industry more adventurous than it had ever been before, and certainly more than it ever would be again. Even a self-proclaimed bubblegum pop group like the Lemon Pipers could turn out incredibly credible psychedelic pieces. And I’m not just talking about the standard Boomer touchstones here – the Hot 100 features everything from the score to an Italian western to Irish folk music based on the poetry of Shel Silverstein, with releases from as far afield as France, South Africa, and Brazil. And in the shadows of the flashier stuff, R&B labels like Motown and Stax-Volt were turning out some of the most carefully-crafted and deeply felt pop music ever made. I ended up dinging a lot of last month’s songs for sounding too much like 1985, but I loved a lot of 1968 songs because they sounded so much like 1968. Is that an unfair bias? Of course, but even more than most media, it’s impossible to talk about music without it.
12. James Brown – Say It Loud (I’m Black and Proud)
A year like 1968 – after the death of Martin Luther King in April – needed one heck of a civil rights anthem, and the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business was happy to oblige. Unlike most of his groove-driven songs, Brown’s brilliance here is mostly on the lyrical end, twisting the old Cole Porter-era cliche “we’re like the birds and the bees” with a follow-up shout of defiance “and we’d rather die on our feet than live on our knees.” And it opens with a statement that’s more relevant than ever in our age of respectability politics: Some people say we got a lot of malice/Some say it’s a lotta nerve/But I say we won’t quit movin’/Until we get what we deserve.” But that’s not to say it isn’t as good a dance jam as anything else and his catalog – Brown and his band balance the two halves to create what Public Enemy would call a “Party For Your Right to Fight.” Making its LP debut on a Christmas album of all things, “Say It Loud” has nevertheless proven itself timeless.
11. Status Quo – Pictures of Matchstick Men
While it’s only the tenth-best song on this list, “Pictures of Matchstick Men” still has the best ten seconds of any of the year’s biggest hits: the piercing, looping electric guitar that introduces it. The whole thing is full of gleeful psychedelic pscrewing around, dropping in phasers and wah-wah pedals, making even Francis Rossi’s human voice sound like a strange, alien instrument. The lyrics are purely decorative, the kind of material about seeing a lover’s face everywhere that you could find in a thousand other song, but the context gives it some much more hallucinatory implications, especially since the eyes he sees in the sky are “a funny kind of yellow.” : what do pictures of matchstick men have to do with anything? What’s a matchstick man anyway? Does it matter? Just bang your head or pump your fist and play along on your handy invisible guitar.
10. Vanilla Fudge – You Keep Me Hangin’ On
While James Brown put revolutionary subject matter in a pop-friendly package, many other artists opted to go the opposite direction. The bare bones of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” comes from pop masters Holland-Dozier-Holland, recorded by the even more legendary Diana Ross and the Supremes two years earlier (one year from the song’s original release in 1967). The fact that the album version’s full name is “a) STRA (Illusions of My Childhood – Part One) b) You Keep Me Hangin’ On c) WBER (Illusions of My Childhood – Part Two)” should be your first clue Vanilla Fudge will be doing something a little different with it. And yet, lead singer Mark Stein’s greatest strength is the same one that Ross brought to her best work, and that’s soul. While Diana put those skills on hold for her version, gliding over the lyrics’ darker implications for a breezy dance song, Stein seems to be dredging out pain from the bottom of his guts. A lot of that comes from the ponderous pace of the song, inspired by how the original sounded under the mind-altering effects of drugs. But the inspiration is less important than the result. Listening to the Supremes’ original, you can see how the breakneck guitar riff morphed into the heavy sound of Vanilla Fudge’s take, but what really matters is that it shreds. You can recognize the backing vocals in the earlier song, but that doesn’t explain away the haunting cry they’ve morphed into.
9. Cream – White Room/Sunshine of Your Love
My definition of “psychedelia” can be summed up as “sounds I’ve never heard before,” and the hooting bassline of “Sunshine of Your Love” more than qualifies. It’s ironic that a song about sunshine could be so dark, but the weird, violent sounds Clapton and company create here are certainly that. Those war drums and fuzzed-up guitars creates the tension that makes the song so memorable, and it’s also a reminder of what they’re really up to – Trojan-horsing some of the strangest experiments rock and roll has to offer in a conventional love song. They don’t bother with any of that on “White Room,” though, handing Jack Bruce some defiantly inscrutable lyrics from poet Pete Brown to sell to the record-buyers of America: “She’s just dressing/goodbye windows/tired starlings.” With a backing choir of voices that can’t quite be identified as human or inhuman, the music does nothing to contradict the strangeness of the lyrics. Yes, the single version is cut down almost by half, but even then, it’s more than a little hard to imagine this nestled on the dial between Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand. We could analyze Brown’s lyrics for hours, but since that would be an exercise in futility, let’s just sit with some of the loveliest ones for a minute: “Silver horses/ran down moonbeams/in your dark eyes.” “I’ll wait in the queue when the trains come back./Lie with you/where the shadows run/from themselves.”
8. Donovan – Hurdy Gurdy Man
“Hurdy Gurdy Man” is, if nothing else, an incredible balancing act: childishly simple lyrics (“roly-poly/roly-poly/roly-poly he sang”) given menacing weight, meditative tanpura side by side with shredding guitars and thundering drums. That single, droning hum is as audacious an opener in its own way as Status Quo’s screaming riff, a simple note filled with all the dark energy of a nightmare. It’s hard to imagine something not like that not sending radio listeners for the dial today, or would be if anyone still listened to the radio, (Pro-tip: don’t play this song so low that you can’t be sure you’re actually hearing it.) Donovan’s incredible vocal control is essential to making all these mismatched pieces hang together: he unearthly, possibly post-production-aided vibrato (“songs of lo-o-ove”) transforms the Mother Goose banality of the lyrics into an indelible dream-vision.
7. The Animals – Sky Pilot
If James Brown gave a definitive statement on the state of civil rights in 1968, the Animals did the same for another aspect of the sixties’ cultural struggle in this antiwar ballad, and it’s as good an example as any of just how adventurous listeners could be in ‘68 – a bleak, novelistic seven-minute epic that it’s hard to imagine charting now, or indeed, in any other decade. It certainly couldn’t be the catchy chorus, which is simplistic to the point of minimalism and barely even on-key. Instead of a good beat you could dance to, “Sky Pilot” opens with a stark, half-spoken bit of narrative, accompanied only by its own echo. The story here is of the dubious piety of the military, from the perspective of the chaplain blessing soldiers as they go out to kill. It seems he and not the air force men is the “Sky Pilot” of the title, trying to lead the way to heaven, which makes the refrain “you’ll never, never, never reach the sky” downright chilling. The lyrics contrast his comforting homilies with “the stench of death” that “drifts up to the skies.” If these lyrics can be too blunt or simplistic in their nursery-rhyme couplets, the Animals compensate by giving nearly half the song to an abstract soundscapes of the horrors of war (again, only in the sixties.) But it’s almost unnecessary, when Eric Burdon’s delivery, aided by the rest of the band, making lines like “He remembers the words/Thou shalt not kill” and “If it all was worth it/Only time it will tell,” pound with haunting impact.
6. The Chambers Brothers – Time Has Come Today
After that, I’d say we’re all ready for a little fun, wouldn’t you? Straddling, like James Brown, the line between soul and rock, but with a sound that’s more what the lyrics call “psychedelicized,” they paved the way for the funk rock of the next generation. Also like James Brown, they put on a party that might be a war party, with lyrics hinting at the revolution that always seemed to be just around the corner in those days. With Lester’s rev-em-up delivery and enthusiastic support from his brothers. And that’s without what Christopher Walken would call “more cowbell,” creating a dance beat that also evokes the ticking away of time described in the lyrics, most powerfully when everything but it and an occasional “time!” drops out around the three-minute mark. The original is it a tightly constructed little three-minute piece, but, because the past is a foreign country, the version that charted two years later is an eleven-minute extended cut with a psychedelic instrumental break. Fortunately, it also upped the energy that much further, and that “trip” sequence is as good as anything else. As a bassline slowly invades the silence around the ticking percussion and the vocals become progressively more echoey and distorted, the song effectively simulates a head-trip with no drugs necessary. The band makes a slow build from the near-silence of the percussion solo through guitar freakout to the triumphant return of the vocals, but, as the little “coo-coo!” at the beginning makes clear, this kind of experimentation isn’t about dry theory so much as a bunch of guys having fun – and possibly changing the music world while they’re at it.
5. Aretha Franklin – Think/I Say a Little Prayer
Aretha Franklin was on top of the world in 1968, releasing two studio LPs and a live date, and still riding high on the previous year’s “Chain of Fools” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” These two follow a similar pairing of danceable groove and tender love ballad, but, if anything, they improve on it. Immortalized in The Blues Brothers the following decade, “Think” gets able backing from Jerry Wexler’s band, a backup chorus that breezes on by the usual Motown style to the power of gospel, and her own boogie-woogie piano. And it don’t take too much I-Q! to appreciate Lady Soul’s vocal gymnastics. “Prayer”’s pleasures are subtler, but possibly even greater. The backing vocals (this time from The Sweet Inspirations) here are softer, replacing “Think”’s individualized shouting with a lush wall of sound. Wexler’s arrangement of the original Davis-Bacharach melody is hypnotic, seamlessly transitioning from the soothing groove of the verses to the energetic chorus. But, of course, the real star here is Aretha herself, filling every line with soulful, aching sincerity: in fact, her delivery of the single word “one” is every bit as good a one-note summation of soul as Sam Cooke’s.
4. The Rolling Stones – Jumpin’ Jack Flash
It’s hard to write about the complexities of music, but you know what’s really hard? Writing about music that’s brain-dead simple in its perfection. I could tell you all what brand of guitar Keith Richards is playing here, and what time-signature it’s in, and where it took its influences from, but that wouldn’t explain why my face lit up when it came on. The Stones have rhythm, and they’ve got music, and I can’t ask for anything more. The lyrics certainly don’t hurt any though, with their synthesis of American folklore (you can draw a straight line from “I was born in a crossfire hurricane” to Muddy Waters’ “Now, when I was a young boy/At the age of five/My mother said I was gonna be/The greatest man alive”) and their own British heritage (“I was raised by a toothless, bearded hag”). “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is better than just alright. In fact, it’s a gas.
3. Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – You’re All I Need to Get By/Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing
Gaye and Terrell’s collaboration was one that was tragically cut short. If you want to know just how tragic, these songs are evidence of what could and should have been one of the most durable pairings in pop history. Certainly, Tammi’s illness (she would collapse onstage mid-performance later that year) gives extra poignance to “You’re All I Need to Get By.” Coming from here, this isn’t just sweet nothings, but the cry of someone in a life of struggle who might well be asked how she gets by. Their chemistry always suggested that they were standing together against a hostile world (“ain’t no valley low enough/to keep me away from you”), and that was never more powerful than it is here. Their angelic harmony on the high note, “you’re all I need,” is so perfect it almost sounds like a single voice. The same is true of “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”: though I’ve never seen any indication they were involved in reality, no two people have ever sounded as deeply in love on record. If “All I Need” was a showcase for Tammi, “Real Thing,” does the same for Marvin, his soulful line readings and incredibly falsetto woops.
- Big Brother and Holding Company – Piece of My Heart
In an industry where female singers were squeezed into a narrow range of squeaky-clean soprano, Janis Joplin was a true original – a blues shouter who could howl like Howlin’ Wolf and scream like Screamin’ Jay, with a gravel-gargling voice more manly than most men. “I’m gonna show ya, baby, that a woman can be tough,” indeed. If the Stones rocked harder than anyone else that year, Joplin’s Holding Company rocked even harder than that. The chorus – “come on, come on, come on, come on, and take it!” builds and builds to orgasmic heights you can’t find anywhere else in music. It’s a song full of complicated emotions, of deep pain and almost-masochistic ecstasy, and Joplin sells every one of them. The rest of the Holding Company isn’t about to be outdone either, with Peter Albin’s screaming guitars and David Getz’s pounding drums somehow managing to keep up with Janis.
- Otis Redding – (Sitting on) The Dock of the Bay
From the moment I read through Billboard’s rankings, there was never any doubt what would be taking the number one spot. Otis Redding’s picture of melancholy streaks miles ahead of all the other releases, not just of 1968, but of any year. Like “You’re All I Need,” “Dock of the Bay” gains extra power from its creator’s untimely death, but it doesn’t really need the help. Redding grounds the song in detailed specificity about how he “left his home in Georgia/headed for the Frisco bay,” and yet there’s something about it that’s universal. It doesn’t really matter what dock he’s sitting on, or really whether it’s a dock at all; it’s the same feeling we all know from sitting on hillsides, or in the car, or behind a desk. His raw, powerful voice is unusually tender here, almost trembling. In the bridge, he reaches for total, bone-deep exhaustion and despair: “Look like nothing’s gonna change/Everything still remains the same/I can’t do what ten people tell me to do,” before, in the blink of an eye, transitioning into joyful resignation with one of the greatest lyrics he or anyone else ever wrote, “So I guess I’ll remain the same.” The whistled ending leaves us with the same perfectly-realized note of bittersweetness, and has just the right ghostly air for a posthumous release. Redding isn’t the only genius on this track, either, working with Stax-Volt’s stable of some of the greatest session musicians to ever live. Co-writer Steve Cropper accents with ringing riffs, that, appropriately for the beach setting, evoke Hawaiian steel guitar, and Donald “Duck” Dunn provides the earth-rumbling bassline that sets the mood. In its own quiet way, the song incorporates touches as audacious as the flamboyant rock acts on the dial, incorporating squeals that could be seagulls or Cropper’s guitar opening with ambient sounds of the ocean that seem to wash over the whole track.
So yeah, this was a truly excellent year for great pop music, certainly better than the previous years I’ve covered. Fortunately, the bad stuff made up for it for by being even worse.
CONTENT WARNING: PEDOPHILIA
NO I’M NOT KIDDING
I WISH I WAS
- Tom Jones – Delilah
With instrumentals that sound like full-frontal assault by chopsticks and vocals like an operatic walrus, Tom Jones comes blaring onto the charts, spreading migraines wherever he goes. One gets the impression he heard that music was getting louder these days and wildly misunderstood. It’s an operatic performance without operatic pipes, or, more accurately, like a cartoon opera singer who desperately needs to be pantsed by Bugs Bunny. Not helping him is Les Reed’s arrangement, a crazy-quilt of carousel rhythm, German oom-pah-pah, mariachi horns, and the aforementioned utensils of mass destruction. If John Mulaney had put this on loop in the Salt and Pepper Diner, he probably would have been jailed for manslaughter.
4. Bobby Goldsboro – Honey
I’ve mostly avoided judging these songs by the lyrics, but oh lordy lord, we’ve got a doozy here. For those of you considering writing your own songs, here’s a little tip: don’t write a love song that could plausibly be a hate song instead. For example, don’t call the shows your honey laughs at “silly,” never describe her as “kind of dumb and kind of smart,” and if you laugh your head off when she falls flat on her face, maybe keep that to yourself. Not that Goldsboro takes an unsentimental view of the relationship. Oh, no no no. He buys her a friggin’ puppy. And there’s such Hallmark picture=postcard images as “in the early spring/When flowers bloom and robins sing.” Better still, there’s that lovely old standby, where it ends with her death, and if you’re imagining something sappy, imagine something sappier. She doesn’t actually die, you see. The angels came. And dear old Bobby sings about it all with the bleat of an asthmatic lamb. How is it the same ghostly wail that made Ennio Morriconne’s scores so haunting just sounds ear-bleeding here? And before we give our parents too much credit for their taste, it’s worth remembering that this came in third on the year-end chart – ahead of every single song we’ve covered so far. You people deserved Vietnam.
- Gary Puckett and the Union Gap – Young Girl
Ah, Gary Puckett, your three (three!) charting singles this year shot you straight from “who?” to the top of my enemies list. Their allmusic biography says it all: “Likely the only pop band of the era to play two nightly shows in the Catskills — the early gig for their younger fans, the later appearance for the fans’ parents — the group pioneered the hip-to-be-square concept two decades before spiritual descendants Huey Lewis and the News; clad in Civil War-era get-ups (complete with fictitious military ranks) and bizarrely pedophilic lyrics, Puckett and the Union Gap were in their own way as far-out and singular as any other act of the period.” While all three songs are hysterically histrionic granny-friendly garbage, it’s that “bizarrely pedophilic” one that takes the cake. Suffice it to say, the “young girl” of the title is a bit younger than you’d expect. On the bright side, at least he seems to recognize it’s probably not the best that he’s all hot-and-bothered over a little girl…but on the other hand, he seems to think it’s all her fault. Yup, it’s all about her leading him on with her “perfume and makeup,” and how he thought she was older, honest, really she wanted him…Gag, I think I’m on a federal watchlist just for typing that. It seems like he has finally decided not to be total creep, and then…
So hurry home to your mama,
I’m sure she wonders where you are.
Get out of here
Before I have the time
To change my mind
‘Cause I’m afraid we’ll go too far.
So yeah, I think she’d better hurry.
2. Richard Harris – Macarthur Park
I’ve talked a lot about soul in this series, and conveying intense emotions on record is a tricky, tricky thing. What is it that makes Tammi Terrell’s over-the-top emoting so powerful and Tom Jones’ so ridiculous? I think it comes down to believability, the difference between drawing from the depths’ of one’s own soul or seeming to and faliling onstage for the cheap seats. For instance, if we had a singer whose career was mostly on the stage… While putting together his Bad Song Survey, Dave Barry found this one leading by a landslide, and, as he puts it, “It’s hard to argue with this selection. My 12-year-old son, Rob, was going through a pile of ballots, and he asked me how `MacArthur Park’ goes, so I sang it, giving it my best shot, and Rob laughed so hard that when I got to the part about leaving the cake out in the rain, and it took so long to bake it, and I’ll never have that recipe again, Rob was on the floor. He didn’t BELIEVE those lyrics were real. He was SURE his wacky old humor-columnist dad was making them up.” I would like to say Richard Harris elevates the material, and…he certainly elevates it to something. Not quality, but something. When he gets to that bit about the cake in the rain, he tries to make it sound like the most important thing in the world, and he may fails, but oh good gosh does he try, wailing “oh nooooooo!” at the pitch of a laryngitic elf. While that cake is the most be-unloved of the lyrics, it’s far from an outlier in a song that describes characters “pressed/In love’s hot, fevered iron/Like a strip-éd pair of pants” (emphasis Harris’) and features “birds like tender babies” that would make Bobby Goldsboro’s puppy gag. So what could be worse than the myth, the legend, the Macarthur Park? I’m glad you asked!
- Ohio Express – Yummy Yummy
Not coincidentally the first runner-up in Barry’s survey (I told you this year had high highs and low lows), “Yummy Yummy” might have gifted us the hardest lyrics to sing with a straight face ever written. The title is only a warm-up. Would you like to hear what they rhyme it with? “Yummy yummy yummy I got love in my tummy” (occasionally livened up by a chorus of what appear to be geese on helium). That would be enough to make the list on its own, but they don’t stop there. Dale Powers’ obnoxiously cheery vocals, like some kind of kiddie show host out of IT’s nightmares, are just the perfect match for the awfulness of his material. Wikipedia says that “Although marketed as a band, it would be more accurate to say that the name “Ohio Express” served as a brand name used by Jerry Kasenetz’s and Jeffrey Katz’s Super K Productions to release the music of a number of different musicians and acts,” and in this case, I’ll believe it. As vomit-inducingly wholesome as it is on the surface, it gets much grosser as you peel back layers, like the distinctly bedroom-ready moans you can just hear Powers making before the second verse. And instead of spending any more time thinking about that, I’m just gonna cut this article off right here.