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All hell breaks loose: 1968 in review, Part I

Amid the racial strife and political turmoil, 1968 proved to be a watershed year for rock.

1968 was the morning after the very long night before, the year, insist the history books, in which rock ’n’ roll lost the innocence it had only just regained the summer before.

It was the year in which the double album came of age, and politics carved its presence into the grooves. It was the year when the first supergroups arose from the egalitarianism of the past, and profits first became a paramount concern. But most of all, it was the year in which rock realized that everything it had accomplished in the past was simply a rehearsal. 1968 was the year in which things turned serious.

Troubled waters

The previous year had seen record sales in America reach an all-time high.

With more than $1 billion worth of music shifted in just 12 months, record-industry profits had more than doubled in a decade. For the first time, too, LP sales were outstripping singles, and that, too, made an impact.

It would be misleading to say that it was high finance alone that pushed so many bands into new realms of musical seriousness — the ambitious pastures opened up by The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper accomplished that, and the artists who followed its lead did so for artistic reasons. But, record companies were another matter entirely.

They scented big bucks, and they wanted them, and the notion that the youth of America suddenly had previously untold sums of disposable cash to flash and splash on their hairy rock idols was not something that could be easily ignored.

Bands, too, understood that their audiences wanted something more than the lightweight two- or three-minute ditties that had sustained their careers until now. In 1967, many — too many, in fact — had looked toward literature and fantasy for inspiration and turned out some remarkable music in the process. But the real world was not like that.

It was not peopled with hobbits and goblins and rainbow-riding unicorns. It was a place where bloodshed was commonplace and death was too easy, and rioting was the only means by which a raised voice could be guaranteed to be heard.

The façade of love and peace that sustained youth fashion through 1967 had finally been punctured. The three-year-old Vietnam War was turning ever uglier every day, and the previous year’s death toll — 9,353 Americans were killed there during 1967 — was more than double that of the first two years combined. The launch of the Tet Offensive at the end of January 1968 suggested that, this year, the numbers were set to climb even further.

The anti-war movement was gaining momentum; the Civil Rights movement was gathering arms. Again the previous year, race riots had become common-place throughout the inner cities, but now, the rioters were lethally organized, as Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of peaceful black equality was translated into the gun-toting Black Panthers’ cry of black power.

In February 1968, eighth-grade students in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant all but rioted in protest at the quality of school dinners; in March, Columbia University was stricken by a daylong boycott of classes, organized by anti-war protesters.

The turmoil was not confined to the United States alone.

In France, students were agitating loudly against the DeGaulle government’s ambition of exemplifying law and order in an increasingly lawless world. In Czechoslovakia, Slovakian-born, Chicago-conceived Alexander Dubek took over the leadership of the local Communist Party and ushered in a Prague Spring of enlightenment and — dare the people even breath the word? — freedom. In Spain, the Fascist government was experiencing, for the first time, the lashings of a pro-democracy movement, rising in furiou