Why Is The Music Of 1968 So Enduring? 'It Was Allowed To Be Art' | KERA News

Why Is The Music Of 1968 So Enduring? 'It Was Allowed To Be Art'

Dec 31, 2018
Originally published on January 2, 2019 10:01 am

In 1968, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were at the top of their game. Aretha Franklin released two great records. The Kinks, The Byrds and Van Morrison put out some of their best work, too.

One of the most tumultuous years of the 20th century also produced some of its greatest popular music. And it's not just baby boomers who are nostalgic for the sounds of their youth: Even to people born decades later, the music of 1968 stands out.

"There's this kind of blossoming in what was possible," says Meg Baird, a singer and musician who performs under her own name and in the band Heron Oblivion. She lives in San Francisco, the city that nurtured a flowering of psychedelic rock bands half a century ago, including Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.

"I really don't know what was the magic formula," Baird says. But she's not the only who'd like to recapture it. "I think everybody is always trying to go back there, to be honest."

Maybe part of the fascination is hearing musicians trying to break free from the industry's formulas. "There was a cookie-cutter aspect to most pop music at the time," says John Simon, an in-demand producer during the 1960s and author of the 2018 book Truth, Lies & Hearsay: A Memoir of a Musical Life In & Out Of Rock and Roll. "People wanted to make hits," he says.

By 1968, that was changing. The world outside of the recording studio was in upheaval. And musicians wanted to capture of the spirit of what was going on.

"I realized that I was part of the rebellion, and not part of the establishment," says Simon, who earned a degree in music from Princeton University before getting a staff job at Columbia Records. "Part of being the rebellion is, you could rebel musically in the studio. You didn't have to be as formulaic as in the past."

John Simon worked on some of the most acclaimed albums of 1968, including Bookends by Simon & Garfunkel. He produced Cheap Thrills by Big Brother & the Holding Company — the record that introduced Janis Joplin to a wide audience.

And he produced the first record by a group of musicians who were best known for backing up Bob Dylan. He remembers the first time he heard the demos that became Music from Big Pink by The Band.

"What I heard was just great. It was just so different," Simon says. "The forms were different, the instrumentation was different, the attitudes. And so I said, yeah, count me in."

The Band recorded live in the center of the studio, trying to recreate the magic of the basement of "Big Pink," the house in the Hudson Valley where they'd spent much of the last year honing their material. They knocked out almost half of the album in a day, while other bands spent hours obsessing over a single track.

But no one pushed the recording studio — or the electric guitar — further than Jimi Hendrix.

"Nobody had recorded guitar sounds like that," says Vernon Reid, founder and guitarist of the band Living Colour. "No one had made sounds like that in the studio."

When Hendrix started out, he was a sideman who was supposed to play second fiddle to others. "He played in rock and roll and R&B bands where the lead singer was the was the king," Reid says. "He got fired all the time."

But Hendrix's very first album of his own was a Top 10 hit. So in 1968, he was free to pursue the sounds in his head on a groundbreaking double album called Electric Ladyland that brought together blues and R&B with jazz and space rock.

"He took this notion of freedom seriously," Reid says. "He was one of the great musical liberators."

Sometimes the musical rebellion of 1968 was about sonic abstraction. Sometimes, it was more direct.

James Brown recorded the song "Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud" in August of 1968. Saxophone player and bandleader Pee Wee Ellis co-wrote the song. He says it was Brown's idea to bring in a bunch of neighborhood kids to sing the chorus.

"Their part was very simple," Ellis recalls. "All they had to say was, 'I'm black and I'm proud.' It was done in one take."

Ellis says audiences across the country learned their part quickly, too. The band recorded the song in Los Angeles, and played a gig at New York's Apollo Theater a few weeks later.

"James Brown came on stage and said, 'Say it loud!' And the whole entire audience said, 'I'm black and I'm proud,' " Ellis says. "That gave me goosebumps."

So why does the music of 1968 still give audiences goosebumps half a century later?

"People were making music they wanted to be make," says Meg Baird. One of her favorite records of 1968 is not on many top-10 lists from that year. It's a double album — half live, half studio — by the British folk-jazz band Pentangle, called Sweet Child.

"You can feel how fun it must be to be in that band," Baird says. "They're so good, and the way they're playing together, it gets shared with the listener and the audience. This is music that was meant to be heard in a hall. It's not meant to be in a rock club, or a folk club. It was allowed to be art."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

All this year, we've looked back at the events of 1968 in a series called How We Got Here. In today's finale, it's the musical soundtrack of '68.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REVOLUTION")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) You say you want a revolution. Well...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINK")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) You better think. Think. Think about what you're trying to do to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE ROOM")

CREAM: (Singing) In a white room with black curtains...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASTRAL WEEKS")

VAN MORRISON: (Singing) Could you find me?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Pleased to meet you. Hope you guess my name.

CORNISH: Yes, we probably left out some of your favorites. That's because 1968 stands out as one of the greatest years in the history of pop music. We asked NPR's Joel Rose to find out why.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: It's not just baby boomers who are infatuated with the music of their youth. Even people born decades later hear something happening in 1968.

MEG BAIRD: I think everybody is always trying to go back there (laughter) to be honest.

ROSE: Meg Baird is a singer, songwriter and musician who lives in San Francisco, the same city that nurtured its own sound half a century ago, in a flowering of psychedelic bands, including Jefferson Airplane.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFFERSON AIRPLANE SONG, "CROWN OF CREATION")

BAIRD: You get these crystalline, crazy guitars. You get Grace Slick just singing almost like through her third eye, you know, (laughter) through the room.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CROWN OF CREATION")

JEFFERSON AIRPLANE: (Singing) In loyalty to their kind, they cannot tolerate our minds. In loyalty to our kind, we cannot tolerate their obstruction.

BAIRD: There's this kind of blossoming in what was possible.

ROSE: Why do you think that was possible?

BAIRD: I really don't know what was the magic formula. People were so - you know, their minds were just open for it.

ROSE: Maybe part of the fascination is hearing musicians trying to break free from the industry's formulas.

JOHN SIMON: There was a cookie-cutter aspect to the most pop music at the time. People wanted to make hits.

ROSE: John Simon was part of that machine as a staff producer at Columbia Records in the 1960s. But by 1968, the world outside of the recording studio was in upheaval. And musicians wanted to capture the spirit of what was going on.

SIMON: They really realized that I was part of the rebellion and not part of the establishment. Part of being the rebellion is you could rebuild musically in the studio.

ROSE: John Simon worked on some of the most acclaimed albums of 1968, from Simon and Garfunkel's "Bookends" to "Cheap Thrills" by Big Brother and the Holding Company, the record that introduced Janis Joplin to a wide audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIECE OF MY HEART")

BIG BROTHER AND THE HOLDING COMPANY: (Singing) I want you to come on, come on, come on, come on and take it. Take another little piece of my heart now, baby.

ROSE: And Simon produced the first record by a group of musicians who were best known for backing up Bob Dylan. He remembers the first time he heard the demos that became "Music From Big Pink" by The Band.

SIMON: What I heard was just great. It was just so different. The forms were different. The instrumentation was different, the attitudes - and so I said, yeah. Count me in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WEIGHT")

THE BAND: (Singing) I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling about half past dead. I just need some place where I can lay my head. Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed? He just grinned and shook my hand. No was all he said.

ROSE: The Band recorded live in the middle of the studio and knocked out almost half of the album in a day. Other bands spent hours obsessing over a single track. But no one pushed the recording studio or the electric guitar further than Jimi Hendrix.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE YOU EVER BEEN (TO ELECTRIC LADYLAND)")

JIMI HENDRIX: (Singing) Have you ever been to Electric Ladyland?

VERNON REID: Nobody had recorded guitar sounds like that. No one had made sounds like that in the studio.

SIMON: Vernon Reid is the founder and guitarist of the band Living Colour. When Hendrix started out, Reid says, he was a sideman who was supposed to play second fiddle to others.

REID: He played in rock 'n' roll and R&B bands where the lead singer was the king. And he got fired all the time.

ROSE: But Hendrix's very first album of his own was a Top 10 hit. So in 1968, he was free to pursue the sounds in his head on a groundbreaking double album called "Electric Ladyland."

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMI HENDRIX SONG, "1983... (A MERMAN I SHOULD TURN TO BE)")

REID: He took this notion of freedom seriously. He was one of the great musical liberators.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1983...(A MERMAN I SHOULD TURN TO BE)")

HENDRIX: (Singing) Well, it's too bad that our friends can't be with us today. Well, that's too bad. The machine that we built would never save us. That's what they say.

ROSE: Sometimes the musical rebellion of 1968 was sonic abstraction, and sometimes it was more direct.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY IT LOUD - I'M BLACK AND I'M PROUD")

JAMES BROWN: (Singing) With your bad self, say it loud.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) I'm black, and I'm proud.

ROSE: James Brown recorded his anthem to black empowerment in Los Angeles in August of 1968. Saxophone player and bandleader Pee Wee Ellis co-wrote the song. He says it was Brown's idea to bring in a bunch of neighborhood kids to sing the chorus.

PEE WEE ELLIS: Their part was very simple. All they had to say I'm black, and I'm proud. They'd done it in one day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY IT LOUD - I'M BLACK AND I'M PROUD")

BROWN: (Singing) Say it loud.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) I'm black, and I'm proud.

BROWN: (Singing) One more time. Say it loud.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) I'm black and I'm proud.

ROSE: Pee Wee Ellis says audiences across the country learned their part quickly, too.

ELLIS: We recorded that song in Southern California. And by the time we got to New York a couple weeks later, we were playing the Apollo Theater. James Brown came on stage and says, say it loud. And the whole entire audience said, I'm black, and I'm proud. Gave you goosebumps.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: (Singing) Yeah. Say it loud.

AUDIENCE: (Singing) I'm black, and I'm proud.

BROWN: (Singing) Say it loud.

AUDIENCE: (Singing) I'm black, and I'm proud.

BROWN: (Singing) Yeah, lord. Lord.

ROSE: So why does the music of 1968 still give audiences goosebumps half a century later?

BAIRD: If you are trying to think about 1968, hearing those audiences in those rooms is a pretty cool way to at least get a peek.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: Thank you very much.

ROSE: Singer and musician Meg Baird says one of her favorite records of 1968 is not on many Top 10 lists from that year. It's a double album, half live, half studio, by the British folk jazz band Pentangle called "Sweet Child."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PENTANGLE: (Playing, "The Time Has Come").

BAIRD: You can feel how fun it must have been to be in that band. They're so good, and the way that they're playing together, it gets shared with the listener and audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PENTANGLE: (Singing) Oh, my babe, don't you know the time has come for me to go.

BAIRD: People were making the music they wanted to make. This is music that was meant to be heard in a hall. It's not meant to be in a rock club or a folk club. It was allowed to be art, you know?

ROSE: To suggest that popular music could be art, that might have been the most rebellious move of all. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET CHILD")

PENTANGLE: (Singing) Sweet child come to me now. Let me take your hand. Well, I do not know you well, yet I've tried so hard. Through four and 20 years, sweet child, I still don't understand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.