Skip to content

Gordon Campbell – The Music of 1968

A post for the Labour History project May 1968 seminar.  Based on the outline of a factory associated with 1968.The text reads:  May 68 2008 1968 - Year of Revolution?  A 40th Anniversary Seminar  Saturday 6 December 2008, Loaves and Fishes Hall, Wellington Cathedral, Hill Street, Thorndon, Wellington (opposite Parliament). 10AM to Late Afternoon.  Topics include: 1968 in France, 1968 Nil Wage Order in NZ, the Student Worker Alliance in NZ - and more!
Poster for the Labour History Project’s 1968 seminar

There is a sort of hungover decadence to much of the key music from 1968. It in no way reflected the revolutionary optimism of Paris ’68. Instead, the music of 1968 had more in common with the frustrated rage of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and with the tragic, pissed-off sense of inevitability with which the killings of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were greeted that year. The western world seemed to be falling apart, and the music itself felt played out.

It was as though aeons had passed since the musical annus mirabilis of 1965. The naive, hurt innocence of the first wave of Vietnam protest music “Universal Soldier”, “Eve of Destruction” etc., was long gone. Even the acid-drenched optimism from the Summer of Love only a year before, had curdled by 1968 into something a whole lot darker. Donovan, the flower child par excellence, released “Hurdy Gurdy Man” in 1968, a song whose sinister undertones were finally tapped a few years ago in the film Zodiac, as the theme for a serial killer.

The Rolling Stones had one of their biggest hits in 1968 in “Street Fighting Man” but this too, was an oddly ambivalent song. Street fighting aggression, sure, but the Stones seemed aware of the impotence of their own posturing, as in this lyric /Hey! said my name was called disturbance/ I’ll shout and scream /I’ll kill the king / I’ll rail at all his servants/ Well, what else can a poor boy do / Except to sing in a rock ‘n roll band/ At a time when the likes of Jefferson Airplane were striking revolutionary poses, the Stones  here at least) seemed to be conscious of the limitations of their role as social agents. At best, as Greil Marcus once said, they were situated in a revolutionary playground, safe inside the corporate walls.

The playlist I’ve chosen reflects some of this. Peace sentiments do appear in the Rascals white soul pop hit “People Got to be Free” but they were the least interesting part of the song, and they felt about as credible as Cat Stevens telling us we a peace train was about to arrive. By 1968, psychedelia had been mainstreamed too. The endearing “Green Tambourine” by the Lemon Pipers was the first of a sub-set best described as stoner bubblegum. (See also “Hot Smoke and Sassafras” by Bubble Puppy, and “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin” by Crazy Elephant.) Or best of them all, “Crimson and Clover’ by Tommy James and the Shondells. Drugs have stayed in the mainstream ever since.

1968 was in some ways a transitional year; more like a platform for the 1970s, than a continuation of 1965-67. Otis Redding had died late in 1967. At Motown, the label was moving uncertainly beyond its hit factory phase into half-assed social commentary (see “Love Child”) on this playlist. Its biggest hit that year “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” had been almost a fluke; intended as an album track, but beautifully arranged by Norman Whitfield, who died a couple of months ago. Elvis made a comeback in 1968, but only briefly. All but unnoticed, Van Morrison released Astral Weeks, later a quintessential album of the 1970s, and an album that he played in its entirety last November in Los Angeles for the first time in 40 years, with 78 year old Richard Davis on bass, and guitarist Jay Berliner as well from the original session. Down at a subterranean level, funk was being born, and James Brown was about to embark on the most explosive and influential phase of his brilliant career.

To my mind, one of the most interesting political dimensions of music in 1968 was the ongoing, unselfconscious integration of white and black musicians. Jimi Hendrix did Dylan. Almost everyone- from Van Morrison to Italian kids like the Rascals to guys like John Fred in trailer parks- had white boy soul hits. The late Otis Redding, another hippie favourite, had a huge hit with “Dock of the Bay” in 1968 but Redding had also recorded- with black musicians, and a white guitarist called Steve Cropper- a version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”.

Talk about a racial hall of mirrors. Sam Cooke had written this song after feeling inspired by Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”. His song became one of the most celebrated anthems of the civil rights movement, and it now regularly appears on lists of the top ten most important political songs ever recorded. Last November, President-elect Barack Obama quoted from it in his election night speech to the crowds in Chicago: “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, change has come to America”.

Here and there, the music of 1968 offered glimpses of that vision. You could find examples of a classless, colour-blind, regional music, even at the top of the charts. Like the blue-eyed soul of “Judy in Disguise”, a terrific white trash parody from the Louisiana backwoods, of John Lennon’s “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”.

Or take the Box Tops 1968 hit “Cry Like a Baby” as another example. This was a record made by a bunch of self-confessed white hillbillies (Dan Penn, Chips Moman, Spooner Oldham) who used to drive around in a hearse, drinking cough syrup. They had already produced and recorded some great soul songs like “Dark End of the Street” by James Carr, for a small label owned by a black hardware salesman and a white guy who ran a pharmacy. This time, the soulful lead singer on “Cry Like a Baby” was a 17 year old white Memphis kid called Alex Chilton, an indie rock icon over the next three decades. 1968 wasn’t the greatest of years, but it did have its moments of greatness.

More Information about the 1968 Seminar can be found here.