Some five decades later, it’s still hard to aptly sum up the influence the 1960s had on our country, both historically and culturally. A decade born out of buttoned-up conservatism quickly morphed into a counterculture age where everything was subject to questioning. That skepticism translated into the music of the times. Out in San Francisco, bands like the Grateful Dead were trying to change the world through positivity. The Hippie Revolution sought to turn people on to a new way of living, one based in community, togetherness, peace, and sexual freedom. And for a while they succeeded. But in an example of just how quickly the world was moving, it took only a year for the Summer of Love to devolve into feelings of anger and cynicism.
Music often holds a mirror up to the world it’s created in, and in 1968, the picture was anything but pretty. The deaths of progressive leaders such as Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as growing anti-war sentiment, sowed seeds of societal angst that pushed the counterculture, as well as segments of the mainstream, in a darker, more aggressive direction. A lot of rock music, in particular, got louder and more abrasive, channeling the energy of a nervous world seemingly overwhelmed with the change before it. If rock and roll was born out of rebellion, a need to shake up and upset the status quo, then 1968, in retrospect, gave scores of up-and-coming bands some very real, tangible things to push back against. Many answered the call. Some explicitly rebelled against cultural chaos while others channeled their subversion through their music. But all told, 1968 marked a seminal year for the development of underground and independent music, both in sound and philosophy.
In some cases, the proto-punk sounds germinating in the underground were a direct reaction to the political climate of the time. Perhaps no act in 1968 lit a musical fuse quite like the MC5. A far cry from Big Brother and the Holding Company’s pleas for brothers and sisters, friends and family, to come together a year earlier, the Detroit outfit famously demanded that protesters and revelers outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” The legendary Chicago performance, set against a second Kennedy assassination and mass instances of police brutality against demonstrators, collided art with politics in breakneck, head-on fashion.
The concept of fighting the establishment is as old as rock and roll itself, but the degree to which the MC5 walked the walk was frightening and unprecedented. The band had aligned itself with the White Panthers, a militant anti-racist movement formed with the encouragement of Huey Newton and Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers. They befriended the likes of Abbie Hoffman, who helped the band stage the convention performance before a crowd of thousands. Even the band’s management was knee-deep in the revolutionary spirit. John Sinclair, the band’s manager, soon after the performance was indicted for his role in blowing up a CIA office in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The MC5’s use of music as a way of resisting authority proved a pivotal influence on the development of punk rock and hardcore and inspired generations of bands that followed in its wake to actively take on the world before them. Rage Against the Machine, arguably the band’s most prominent descendant, went as far as to host their own protest performance outside of the Democratic National Convention in 2000.
While the Chicago performance was as much a political exercise as rock concert, it nonetheless drew the attention of major labels. Elektra Records, which had already begun building a reputation for taking risks on more dangerous acts than their contemporaries (the label released The Doors’ legendary self-titled debut in 1967), offered the band a contract shortly after the convention performance in September 1968. At the same time, the label also brought another Detroit band under its wing. The Psychedelic Stooges were but a year old, but the punk forefathers had already cultivated a reputation for being a controversial (and in some cases obscene) live act. By the time of the release of their iconic self-titled debut, Iggy Pop, brothers Ron and Scott Ashton, and Dave Alexander had shortened their moniker to The Stooges. Both that and the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams, the latter of which was recorded live at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, were later released in 1969.
The signing of MC5 and The Stooges to a major label indicated there was a window for underground rock and roll to penetrate the mainstream, but they weren’t the first band floating under the cultural radar that major labels took a chance on. Verve Records, which built its name on jazz releases from the likes of Stan Getz, Nina Simone, and Billie Holliday among others, put out the massively influential debut from art rock provocateurs The Velvet Underground in 1967, a record whose experimental sound and fascination with drugs, sadomasochism, and other lurid subject matter rendered it a commercial flop. But the label saw enough in the Velvets to stick with them. The band rewarded that loyalty with the 1968 release White Light/White Heat, a record that went all in on the New York group’s ugly underground impulses. Having severed ties with both Nico and their art guru/manager Andy Warhol, the Velvets regrouped with a sophomore record whose willingness to disrupt and frustrate listeners proved to be its raison d’etre. Be it 17-minute noise rock precursors that relish in frank lyrics about mainlining drugs (“Sister Ray”), open references to amphetamine use (“White Light/White Heat”) and taboo sex (“Lady Godiva’s Operation”), or sly sexual innuendos (“Here She Comes Now”), Lou Reed and company packed every ounce of perversion they could into the deceptively heavy six-song slate. The Velvets would streamline their sound for broader audiences with their following two efforts, but White Light/White Heat is where noise rock, proto-punk, and experimental rock at large first got its wings.
In what proved to be a busy year for Verve, the label also released not one, but two records by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention in 1968. We’re Only in It for the Money, released in March of that year, continued with the band’s category-defying stew of rock, jazz, prog, spoken word snippets, and general musical weirdness. And with song titles like “Who Needs the Peace Corps”, “Hot Poop”, and “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black”, Zappa and the Mothers took bipartisan glee in pissing on both sides of the political spectrum. In a year seemingly consumed by political infighting, Zappa’s snarky indifference ironically made for one of the year’s great political statements. Cruising with Ruben & the Jets, released in November, satirized doo-wop almost two well, as radio stations were duped into believing its songs were by the record’s namesake band.
Lest you thought only marginalized misfits were having all the subversive fun in 1968, some established acts of the era also busied themselves with pushing things outside of their musical safe places. Free from the more conventional blues rock of The Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, alongside Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, moved the blues in a noticeably heavier direction with Cream. Having found success with the heavy blues formula on 1967’s Disraeli Gears, the English trio quite literally doubled down on their efforts with 1968’s Wheels of Fire. The double record, which boasted an album of studio tracks followed by one of live cuts recorded from a show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, marked the point where the band’s love of blues gave way some to a fascination with psychedelia. In addition to becoming the world’s first platinum-selling double record, it’s also one of the earliest precursors to what would become heavy metal. Across the pond in San Francisco, Blue Cheer also were doing their part to lay the burgeoning genre’s foundation. The trio’s debut, Vincebus Eruptum, turned the rock world on its ear with a scorching cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues”. Even today, it’s not hard to hear the band’s titanic riffs in the work of doom metal heroes such as Sleep and Neurosis, among others. Even Clapton copped in a 2014 interview that the trio were “probably the originators of Heavy Metal.”
Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Iron Butterfly, Blue Cheer, and others weren’t the only ones exploring the space where blues and rock and roll met. In some cases, even seasoned blues heavyweights were looking for a shot at reinvention. Marshall Chess saw an opportunity for introducing Muddy Waters’ music to a younger audience, this given the legendary bluesman’s influence on the likes of Hendrix, Paul Butterfield, Cream, and others. On Electric Mud, released on Chess Records subsidiary Cadet in October 1968, Muddy turns a handful of Willie Dixon staples (“I Just Want to Make Love to You”, “Hoochie Coochie Man”) as well as a particularly choice Stones cover (“Let’s Spend the Night Together”) on their heads, filtering everything through waves of trippy distortion and flavorful blues licks. Today, it’s one of Waters’ most unique and rewarding offerings, even if it was initially met as a failed experiment that alienated blues purists while failing to latch on with newer audiences. But Muddy dug it, as did scores of future bands and musicians (ahem, Black Keys, anyone?) that took the record’s genre blending to heart.
Then there are The Beatles. The Fab Four’s unrivaled 10-year run boasted just about every pop music innovation you can think of, and in 1968, they were in the difficult spot of having to follow up on their masterpiece. The White Album (officially released as The Beatles in November 1968) doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights of Sgt. Peppers, but it’s still a remarkable record boasting some unique tricks of its own. The McCartney-penned “Helter Skelter” can throw its hat in the ring for proto-heavy metal bragging rights, too. More broadly, the record might be the most mercurial of the band’s cannon, chock-full of weird riddles (“The Walrus is Paul” was a line John Lennon admittedly threw into “Glass Onion” just to confuse people) and splashes of silly mock pop (I dare you not to have a chuckle at “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road”). Right up to the end, the band continued to get bolder and stranger, proving that even The Beatles weren’t immune to popular music’s need to push boundaries at the time.
Like The Beatles, The Beach Boys also wasted little time in the ’60s stretching beyond their simple pop rock origins. Not content to settle for being the music world’s ambassadors to beach culture, Brian Wilson moved the band into more ornate (and inarguably drug-influenced) territory with Pet Sounds and the records that followed. Not all of them were wild successes, but they still give a glimpse of how the band had become products of the strange, new world ushered in by the counterculture. Friends, released in June 1968, isn’t the group’s finest hour, but it’s undeniably a product of its era. Influenced largely by transcendental meditation and the work of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Friends is a mellow affair that owes more to Hippie ideals than the darker, angrier manifestations of rock and roll of the period. It’s also the last record on which Brian Wilson assumed production and songwriting control of the band, marking the end of an important era not only in Beach Boys history, but in popular music at large.
The daringness, danger, and willingness to push the boundaries of convention still live on within these records. We could go on about 1968’s musical year of riches; about how you can hear notes of The Band’s Music from Big Pink in the soul of just about every bearded, flannel-draped indie band working today or how Sly and the Family Stone’s Life and Dance to the Music captured the vibrancy and eclecticism of the era. How about how The Kinks nearly perfected the concept album with The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society? Take a listen for yourself. Maybe Timothy Leary put it best: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”