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All hell breaks loose: 1968 in review, Part III

In part I and part II of our look back at 1968, we reviewed the troubling historic events that marked that year, and we began to dive into the music that provided the soundtrack for life after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In this installment, we take a closer look at the albums that marked the year, from the then-dismissed (but now oft-revered) Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks, to the heartbreak and betrayal Jeff Beck felt over Led Zeppelin I.
Led Zeppelin's first album, Led Zeppelin I, was one of the biggest albums to make waves in 1968. Photo: Atlantic Records.

Led Zeppelin's first album, Led Zeppelin I, was one of the biggest albums to make waves in 1968. Photo: Atlantic Records.

Bumper crop

From the commercially sublime to the disastrously ridiculous. The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society album scarcely sold a bean upon release, although it has long since ascended to that rarified strata of albums that (say it softly) are now widely proclaimed to be “better than Pepper.”

That’s a yardstick that may only be worth the weight of whichever critic says it, but still, it has ensured the immortality of a record that even Ray Davies describes as “the most successful failure of all time” — successful in that the album said everything he wanted it to; “failure” in that… well, in that it barely sold a bean on release.

The people who always loved the album, of course, will always love it, and for good reason. From the hymnal title track through to the heart-tearing nostalgia of “Village Green” itself; from the scatty whimsy of “Phenomenal Cat” to the fiendish fairy-tailoring of “Wicked Annabella,” Village Green Preservation Society is the childhood memory you recall but cannot quite grasp, the favorite TV episode that never turns up in the reruns, the old lover whose photo was eaten by the cat.

It is certainly The Kinks’ greatest album, and one of the decade’s finest, as well. 1968 would have been a lot poorer without it.

Valuable, too, is Pink Floyd’s A Saucerful of Secrets, an album of cosmic rumination and painstaking improvisation that sought only to prove that its makers could survive life without frontman and songwriter Syd Barrett but wound up creating far more than that.

The title track alone remains one of the most pivotal numbers in the Pink Floyd catalog, not for what it is, but for what it represented; as guitarist David Gilmour later pointed out, it set the stage for so much of what Floyd would accomplish in the years to come, while bandmate Roger Waters confirmed that “it was the first thing we’d done without Syd that we thought was any good.”

Their adhesion to those principles over the next five years would ultimately birth The Dark Side of the Moon.

Some of the most important records of the age were released in 1968. The Jeff Beck Group uncorked Truth and singlehandedly served up the blueprint that would create Led Zeppelin.

Beck remembers the day he sat listening to a white label of Zeppelin’s year-end debut album with Jimmy Page. Page was so proud of that record, and Beck agreed that he ought to be, at least until the needle hit the third track on Side 1, and “You Shook Me” shook out of the speakers. The same “You Shook Me” that Beck had included on Truth; the same “You Shook Me” that a passing John Paul Jones had gifted with an immortal organ line. “I looked at him and said ‘Jim… what?’ and the tears were coming out with anger. I thought, ‘This is a piss take, it’s got to be.’ I mean, there was Truth still spinning on everybody’s turntable…. Then I realized it was serious.”

Hard ‘Truth’

It is probably no more accurate to say that without Truth, there would have been no Led Zeppelin I, than it is to argue that, without the Velvet Underground (whose White Light White Heat sank without trace this same year) there would have been no David Bowie.

But, without the Beck Group to pave the way, Zeppelin would certainly have found its own elevation a little harder to pull off, not only because Beck and his own savage brand of Truth opened the country up to a whole new style of blistered blues, but also because the man who managed Zeppelin, Peter Grant, was the same man who road-managed the Beck Group, and knew, therefore, precisely which markets would be the most receptive to the new group’s dynamic.

Truth hit hard, after all. With radio already primed by advance copies of the record, and a spellbinding reconstruction of “Ol’ Man River” receiving so much attention that it was briefly scheduled for release as a single, Truth entered the Billboard chart buoyed by a crop of genuinely enthusiastic reviews. Truth, declared Robert Christgau, was “the best thing from England this year, with the exception of Traffic. Deluged by British blues bands, they said it with a rock ’n’ roll difference, a good record characterized by new sounds and a respectable tour.”

Other reviews were equally complimentary. It was a dynamite album.

What is interesting, however, as we filter through what are today adjudged some of the year’s most significant releases, is that few of them were especially huge hits. Truth reached the giddy heights of #15, only five places below Zeppelin’s maiden flight. But The Zombies’ purposefully misspelt Odessey and Oracle barely scratched the Top 100, and who among us paid any attention to such delights as the pioneering fusion of Brian Auger-Julie Driscoll Trinity’s Open? The eponymous debut by the Crazy World Of Arthur Brown made #7 on the strength of the all-consuming “Fire,” but The Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake climbed no higher than #159 in America, even as it topped the U.K. chart.

The reformed Byrds had already run out of feathers, as The Notorious Byrd Brothers flapped around the lower reaches of the Top 50; Moby Grape and the Vanilla Fudge were already in decline; and, though the Mothers of Invention certainly scored their biggest hit yet with We’re Only In It For The Money, a week at #30 was scarcely going to dent the big boys… especially when Frank Zappa’s second album of the year, the delightful Lumpy Gravy, foundered a full 129 places lower down.

And so on.

Of course, one can never judge an act’s importance by its popularity, as a swift glance at a list of the year’s #1 albums will prove. In the United Kingdom, balladeers Andy Williams, Val Doonican and the perennial soundtrack to “The Sound of Music” did battle with the expected Beatles, but not the Stones; The Small Faces and Scott Walker, The Hollies and Tom Jones and, reflecting the U.K.’s long-standing love affair with soul music, hit collections by The Supremes and The Four Tops, and the recently deceased Otis Redding.

Here in the United States, the picture was no less distorted. The Beatles bookended the year’s chart toppers with Magical Mystery Tour and the double White Album (see Goldmine #738 for the full story behind that behemoth), while new offerings by Simon and Garfunkel, The Rascals, Janis Joplin and Big Brother and The Doors, plus double-album delights from Cream and Hendrix pointed to the strength of the relatively recently launched FM-radio boom.

But such a triumph for sensible listening is balanced by the three months at the top that were divided between Paul Mauriat and his Orchestra (purveyors of the lush instrumental hit “Love Is Blue”), country singer Glen Campbell and the jumping rhythms of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

The singles chart offers an even more bizarre barometer. American chart-toppers in 1968 included John Fred and the Playboy Band’s stupendously original “Judy In Disguise (with Glasses),” Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA” and Bobby Goldboro’s snuff-rock epic “Honey.” And bubbling behind them, taking the charts by storm almost every time they released another 45, the arch bubblegum factory of Kasenatz Katz was peaking so high in 1968 that it seemed unlikely they would ever come down again.

Stay Tuned for Part IV, the conclusion to our look back at 1968.

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