The Arts

Tastes May Change, but the Classics Remain: the Best Albums of 1968

A landmark year for music, 1968 gave the world spectacular albums like The Beatles' White Album and Simon and Garfunkel's soundtrack for The Graduate that will remain forever young.

For any rock music aficionado tracing the history of popular music, 1968 was a landmark year. There were an immense number of outstanding albums released during that pre-Woodstock year that have earned their place in musical pantheon of the best of the best. These include debut albums by Jethro Tull, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Fleetwood Mac, to name just a few.

The year was a proving ground for many artists and yet others to giant leaps forward. Among the albums that are now considered classics are Music From Big Pink by The Band, Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, Beggars Banquet by inimitable Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd’s A Saucerful Of Secrets and Iron Butterfly’s iconic In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.

Since it’s easy to get carried away, to ensure conformity in picking a top five, this list uses Billboard‘s album chart as a reference. Here are five of the best albums of that momentous year:

1. White Album, The Beatles

Tracing the career of the Beatles, one finds that each album of theirs, since debuting in 1963 with Please Please Me, is a landmark in its own way. Besides achieving No. 1 on the UK charts for 30 weeks before being replaced by the band’s very own With The Beatles, this instance itself was especially surprising because the album charts were then dominated by film soundtracks and by crooners.

Of the album’s 14 songs, eight were written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney (originally credited “McCartney-Lennon”) and, in turn, they became one of a handful of artists who not only wrote their own songs – most of the others utilised professional songwriters – but also played their own instruments (no sessions musicians)! Their ninth album, The Beatles, is more popularly known as the White Album due to its plain white sleeve that had no graphics and no text other than the band’s name embossed on it. In all likelihood, the cover is thought to reflect the serenity the band felt when they visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh in February 1968, where a few of the album’s songs were written.

Expectedly, the duo of Lennon-McCartney wrote the bulk of the 30 tracks that appear on the album, but it is notable that Ringo Starr wrote his first – Don’t Pass Me By. In fact, during recording sessions for the White Album, Starr actually quit the band for two weeks. Nevertheless, the White Album is undoubtedly one of their finest efforts, both adventurous and fresh – containing songs that are now global live concert standards such as Back In The U.S.S.R., Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, and Helter Skelter.

While the album’s songs are indeed varied with musical styles including straight forward rock ‘n’ roll, rock, and the blues, an eternal favourite is George Harrison’s melancholic While My Guitar Gently Weeps, featuring the uncredited guitar talent of Eric Clapton. Much of the music for the song had been composed by Harrison in Rishikesh, but he only wrote words after the band returned to England.

2. Bookends and The Graduate soundtrack, Simon & Garfunkel

Commencing their career as Tom & Jerry and also scoring a hit of sorts with the Everly Brothers’-sounding Hey Schoolgirl in 1957, it did not take time for Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel to establish themselves as a superior folk duo with a penchant for harmonising. As they moved into the mid-‘60s, two of their albums, Bookends (their fourth studio album), and the soundtrack of The Graduate, released the previous year, reached No. 1 on the charts in 1968.

On request from director Mike Nichols, Simon created two new tracks for the The Graduate film, Punky’s Dilemma and Overs, neither of which impressed the director, but it was a new song which brought about a fresh perspective for Nichols. The “new song” was “about Mrs. Roosevelt and Joe DiMaggio and stuff” but, as Nichols advised Simon, “It’s now about Mrs. Robinson”. The rest, as they say, is history.

On the other hand, Bookends was a concept album of sorts that explores a person’s journey from being youthful to becoming old, which serve as “bookends” for life. The second side of he album largely consists of unused material created for The Graduate soundtrack. Simon’s lyrics discuss problematic relationships, disillusioned themes, and transience in humanity, with the album producing the No. 1 single Mrs. Robinson.

Bookends was considered a breakthrough for the duo, placing them on a plateau for the cultural movement of the ’60s. Among the many favourites it includes is Old Friends, an acoustic ballad which reminisces about the past while being wary of what the future may hold, a perfect reflection of the mood of reverie in the entire album.

3. Electric Ladyland, Jimi Hendrix Experience

Electric Ladyland, the third and final studio album by Jimi Hendrix with the “original” Experience – bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell – was a double, and commercially their most successful release. The reasons behind the success are not hard to find as the amazing guitarist – supported by the then unprecedented talent of engineer Eddie Kramer who had the band indulge in “echo, backward tape, flanging, and chorusing”, all new techniques at the time, who took the then popular sounds of psychedelia to another level.

The 16-track Electric Ladyland also included an electrifying rendition of Bob Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower, which became the Experience’s highest-selling single.

Key songs include the rock guitar riff special Crosstown Traffic, the psychedelic sounding fuzz of Burning Of The Midnight Lamp, the rhythmic guitaring on 1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be), and Voodoo Child (Slight Return) – originally titled Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) on the UK release – a landmark in Hendrix’s playing.

4. Waiting For The Sun, The Doors

Waiting For the Sun is the third album by American band The Doors, recorded from February to May 1968 and released in July. It became the band’s first and only No. 1 album, spawning their second US No. 1 single, Hello, I Love You. Guitarist Robby Krieger denied allegations that the song’s musical structure was stolen from Ray Davies, though I sincerely believe that its riff is genuinely similar to The Kinks’ All Day And All Of The Night. Nevertheless, in a 2014 interview with the Rolling Stone magazine, Davies suggested that an out-of-court settlement had been previously reached with the Doors.

The recording of Waiting For The Sun had its own set of difficulties for the band as they had used up most – if not all – Morrison’s original collection of lyrics and ideas, following the release of their first two albums. Further, producer Paul A. Rothchild was a perfectionist, taking at least 20 takes per song, though on one of the two military thematic tunes, The Unknown Soldier (Five To One being the other), the producer apparently took 130 takes. The material on Waiting For The Sun is comparatively a lot more mellow, as seen on season-flavoured tracks like: Summer’s Almost Gone, and Wintertime Love. Not the best album from the Doors, but it still it made to No. 1.

5. Wheels Of Fire, Cream

Wheels of Fire was the third studio album by British rock band Cream. It was released in July 1968 as a two-disc vinyl with one disc recorded in the studio and, the other, recorded live, eventually becoming recorded music history’s first platinum-selling double album.

With each member – drummer Ginger Baker, bassist Jack Bruce, and guitarist Eric Clapton – being heavyweights of their respective instruments, as well as having gained fame through their previous stints with established bands/players, led to an obvious and constant power struggle between the trio, resulting in a series of disparate tracks and, if not for the common thread in Clapton (who I have been fortunate to see perform live twice), Wheels Of Fire would have certainly fallen short.

Just listen to Clapton’s distinctive solos on the live tracks or his manic and, yet, paradoxically controlled guitaring on White Room. Other memorable tracks include As You Said, Deserted Cities Of The Heart, and Politician.

Wheels Of Fire is filled with superior work from Cream, capturing the faith and fury of a band that was living or – dependent on your perspective – just surviving for the moment.

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In conclusion, the question that begs to be answered is: are these albums still relevant and/or can they still be considered classics? The answer is in the affirmative for several reasons. For instance, there are youngsters who are still discovering them, and enjoying them thoroughly.

In fact, the vinyl listening sessions on Thursdays at Mumbai’s Adagio certainly seem to bear that out where the average age of those attending is in the 20s. In fact, interacting with this youthful audience is a revelation as they listen in awe when one speaks of having lived through that bygone, classic era.

Yet, objectively speaking about these albums, The Beatles appear as relevant as ever with two of their albums selling in excess of 66,000 units each last year – on vinyl itself! Meanwhile, the White Album is undergoing a mix by original producer George Martin’s son, Giles, and is due for re-release in November this year.

Simon & Garfunkel’s repertoire also remains as strong as ever, receiving validation with US heavy metal band Disturbed taking The Sound Of Silence to No. 42 on the US singles chart in 2015 with the music video garnering over 333 million views in all on YouTube till last month. Simon & Garfunkel’s importance gained more significance with the recent news that Paul Simon is delivering, on July 15 at London’s Hyde Park, a concert under the banner of “Homeward Bound – The Farewell Performance”.

On March 9, Jimi Hendrix’s “new” album is due for release. Called Both Sides Of The Sky, it contains 13 studio recordings made between 1968 and 1970 – ten of which have never before been released before – which goes to show the ongoing relevance of this amazing guitarist.

The Doors plan to continue releasing 50th anniversary versions of their albums, which puts 1968’s Waiting For The Sun on the runway this year. “You can never say what Jim would’ve thought or done,” says guitarist Robbie Krieger. “Jim always said that artists are, should be like, mirrors of society…they should mirror what’s going on so people can get a different perspective.”

As for Cream, bassist Jack Bruce’s demise in 2014 put an end of any possibility of further reunions, but the relevance of Cream remains alive through guitarist Eric Clapton who, as of his last live concert held on January 23 at Théâtre Mogador in Paris, covered White Room and Crossroads, both featured on the band’s Wheels Of Fire.

As they say, tastes may change, but classics remain…

Parag Kamani is a rock music aficionado.

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