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All hell breaks loose: 1968 in review, Part II

In Part I of our look back at 1968, we reviewed the troubling historic events that marked that year. With Part II, we begin to dive into the music that provided the soundtrack for life after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and we explore The Godfather of Soul's new role as a voice of calm and reason.

There’s a riot goin’ on

The immediate response to the killing, however, was considerably less calm and respectful, as rioting broke out across America — the country’s most serious outbreak of civil unrest since the Detroit riots of the previous year.

It might have been worse, too, had it not been for James Brown. Amid the turmoil that exploded in the wake of the first reports of MLK’s slaying, Brown broadcast appeals for calm on the radio stations WJBE and WEBB, before hurriedly arranging a live TV broadcast of his scheduled show at the Boston Garden the following evening.

Unquestionably, the gesture quelled at least a little of the violence; Boston, having expected absolute chaos, was almost peaceful that night, and the Boston Phoenix subsequently ranked the show among the most important live performances the city had ever seen.

From the Boston Phoenix: “The show was an absolute tour de force. Brown soothed his mourning audience by dedicating the concert to Dr. King and delivering a million-watt performance packed with greats: ‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,’ ‘Cold Sweat,’ ‘That’s Life,’ ‘Try Me,’ ‘Please, Please, Please,” and more. He invited [Boston Mayor Kevin] White to speak to the crowd and the cameras. And when police reacted to fans who rushed the stage at one point, Brown assured them he could handle things himself, pleading, successfully, for everyone to return to their seats. On this night, music literally helped determine the course of Boston’s history.”

The concert broadcast on local PBS station WGBH, together with a wealth of supplemental footage, is now available on DVD.

It would be so misleading, however, to recall 1968 as a year dominated by protest and riot. True, the all-pervading image of the MC5, kicking out the jams at the head of the Detroit underground, is a difficult one to shake free of, and it certainly cannot be divorced from any discussion of the year.

But, the MC5 was little more than a local cult at that time, destined for infamy more through its associations with radical kingpin John Sinclair, and their unequivocal refusal to tone down the language on their Kick Out The Jams debut album. To America and the rock world at large, 1968 was the year of a series of triumphs that could scarcely have been further removed from the political tumult if they’d tried.

Cream, after all, was one of the most apolitical bands you could hope to find, at least in a major rock arena, yet they were also one of the biggest in the land; and their contribution to the unfolding year, Wheels Of Fire, was gargantuan, as well.

A double set, half of this eye-catching new package drew from the studio recordings Cream had spent the last year working on. The remainder was to be boiled down from live shows recorded earlier in the year, because it was onstage that Cream’s brilliance was at its most vivacious.

A masterful album, a stunning achievement, a Herculean melding of craft and creativity, the centerpiece of Wheels On Fire was the dichotomy that dogged Cream throughout their career; the uneasy marriage of, on the studio disc, a succession of sharp, tight rock songs and, on the other, four sprawling jams.

To modern ears, accustomed as they are to the “legend” of Cream, the two faces are not so extreme. Journeying through the strangely Yardbirds-y “Passing Time,” the haunted neo-orchestrations of “As You Said,” the lumbering “Politician” and the eerie “Deserted Cities Of The Heart,” we can slip from the whimsy of the studio record’s “Pressed Rat And Warthog” to the thunder of