The Greats of '68

It may not get its due, but 1968 helped alter rock's reality

Considering that 2008 marks the 40th anniversary of a year that produced innumerable musical milestones, it's surprising how little has been made of it so far. While pundits were quick to offer retrospectives of 1967, the year that ushered in Sgt. Pepper, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Cream — not to mention the Summer of Love and its psychedelic soundtrack — those same music scribes make little reference to the 12 months that followed, where trends and changes were established that resonate even today.

Indeed, 1968 found the newcomers from the year before building on their debuts, spawning follow-up efforts of equal or greater importance. Hendrix released the most ambitious album of his meteoric career, Electric Ladyland. Cream and Jefferson Airplane did the same with Wheels of Fire and Crown of Creation, respectively. Traffic tied up the disparate strands of folk, jazz, and psychedelic prog rock with its self-titled sophomore set, while Dylan, the Band, and the Byrds redefined Americana, capping a trajectory that began with John Wesley Harding, Music From Big Pink, and The Notorious Byrd Brothers.

When it came to radio, seminal songs like "Hey Jude," "The Dock of the Bay," "Hello, I Love You," "Mrs. Robinson," and "Born to Be Wild" made impacts that linger to this day.

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Meanwhile, the Beatles and Stones were also going back to basics with more modest intents, as expressed in the disparate strains of the Beatles' so-called White Album and the Stones' Beggars Banquet. Meanwhile, their colleagues on America's Left Coast — the Doors, the Dead, and Buffalo Springfield — were winning raves... even though for the latter, a breakup was brewing. As recompense, 1968 would usher in the next phase in the careers of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, both solo and as partners in the CSN&Y collective.

Forty years on, the indelible imprint of 1968 lives on — in the psychedelic sensibilities of Radiohead and My Morning Jacket, the outlaw country sound of Steve Earle, the fuzzy folk of Devendra Banhart, the Stones-speak of blues and bluster proffered by the Black Crowes, and the diehard Deadhead mentality that inspires many a jam band and their faithful following. It resonates with every guitarist who aspires to be the next Hendrix and every foppish frontman who mimics the sexuality and suggestion of Jim Morrison.

Unfortunately, in some cases, what was once nouveau cool is now wearisome and obnoxious. Pete Doherty was busted and branded a renegade rock star, but in 1968, the Stones were setting standards for badass behavior. As for you, Amy Winehouse — you may be fodder for the tabloids, but when it comes to scandalous singers, Grace Slick and Janis Joplin could easily burst your beehive.

 
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