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Spirit of ‘68, Part One

Best known in counter-cultural lore as ‘The Year of Revolution’ and les evenements in less-than-gay Parie, 1968 was a year of increasing confidence in the nascent ‘rock’ music scene and in its recorded product. Long-playing ‘albums’ (even by that time an outmoded term that originally denoted a  compilation of 78 rpm ten-inchers) were beginning to outsell 45 rpm ‘singles’ for the first time, and the year saw the release of doubles by the three most important acts of the time - the inescapable Beatles put out The White Album, The Jimi Hendrix Experience introduced the term Electric Ladyland into everyday parlance, and the soon-gone Cream unleashed the live/studio mish-mash of Wheels of Fire. On the whole, history has been kind to these ambitious works that had been potentiated by 1967′s Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, whose shadow was to extend over the decade to come and beyond.

These three were maximalist in size, length and concept - The White Album had an embarrassing wealth of material (with another potential double album’s worth of material left in the cutting room, only to be eventually made public half a century later), Electric Ladyland took the electric guitar into uncharted waters that invited the attention of most creative composers and improvisers, including Miles Davis, and Wheels of Fire demonstrated that improvisation could inform rock music to a degree previously unimagined, as a companion to baroque pop songs that were spry and humorous even if very much ‘of their time’. The possibilities seemed endless at this point in time, and individual musicians and writers were caught up in the sense of adventurousness  and boundary-blurring that Pepper had pioneered in popular music By 1970, the term ‘singer/songwriter’  came into usage, represented by the immense popularity of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Neil Young, to name but four. As a counter-balance to the sheer heft of our three double heavyweights, I’d like to offer three rather more modest works from 1968 which, if not ‘minimalist’, certainly offer an alternative to the ‘heaviosity’.of blues-based rock trios such as The Experience and Cream (which soon developed into ‘rock’, a form that is still with us today and soon proved to one of the greatest unit-shifters in recorded musical history).

Songs of Leonard Cohen will be familiar to many, many people.and can be seen as one of the essential progenitors of ‘bedsitter’ music (Dylan of course being its primum mobile).Some may describe it as ‘bedwetter’ music, in comparison to the macho posturing of so much rock. Cohen wanted his songs sparse and unadorned, but, thankfully, producer John Simon was allowed to add some basic added frills in the form of string and harpsichord accompaniments. These made them, along with the composer’s powerfully understated guitar work, memorably tuneful and accessible (compare to his 1970 Songs of Love and Hate, which was far more brutal and stark). The door that Dylan had unlocked was now kicked open, and a flood of solo artists of both sexes, usually with a travelling guitar in tow ,resulted. Some, however, wanted more than a guitar or piano, so the sub-genre of ‘orchestral pop’ or even ‘art pop’ emerged, with artists as diverse as, inter alia, Jim Webb, Scott Walker, Barry Ryan, David Ackles and (on Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter) Nick Drake,  producing ambitious ‘mini-symphonies’ of varying quality and interest, with perhaps Van Dyke Park’s Song Cycle as the most fascinating, even though he is very much one of the ‘awkward squad’ in terms of classification. Just coming out of co-writing the star-crossed Smile with Brian Wilson (the tracks Surfs Up and Cabinessence remain enduring classics of the form), Parks was at the top of his game and Song Cycle is sui generis. Critically showered with praise, the album, although it is only just over thirty minutes long (like Drake’s spartan Pink Moon, which is its precise opposite of in every other respect apart from poor sales), it suffered from a lack of ‘hooks’ or memorably ‘catchy’ melodies, and soon disappeared into obscurity, where it has largely remained ever since.

To be continued...

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