Any discussion of the music of 1968, or any other year, is incomplete by solely focusing on albums. So I thought I’d offer some assorted (jumbled) thoughts on some of the singles that reached the Top 10 of the Hot 100, Country and R&B charts during the year. Here’s the latest installment. This is just a smattering of the hits, of course. There are some that I’ve avoided because I’ll talk about the albums on which they were included, or some because I don’t have much to say about them, and still others that I left off for no good reason. But these capsule portraits hopefully reveal some of the individually noteworthy moments on the upper reaches of the Hit Parade, as well as some surprising connections between them.
The Doors – “Hello, I Love You”
A prime example of the fact that The Doors were always at their best when they embraced pop sleaze. Over a set of purposefully artless come-ons, the Lounge Lizard King slithers around his romantic conquest as Ray Manzarek’s organ pulsates behind him. The group’s sometimes underappreciated gift for radio-friendly melodies – the go-go grooves of this song, the Sinatra-ready croon of “Touch Me” – offered Morrison the best and most dynamic vehicles for his lithe baritone. This dark crystal is far creepier, and way sexier, than their outlaw blues or apocalypto fantasias.
Gary Puckett & The Union Gap – “Lady Willpower”
If Morrison trades in puckish filth, Gary Puckett stakes his claim in eww-y gooey earnestness. Puckett and his Union Gap were consistent and consistently successful pop mansplainers, with a run of hits that offer pseudo-supportive “m’lady” affirmations and “well, actually” gaslighting but can’t hide their lip-licking condescensions underneath the sweet arrangements and sharp turtlenecks. Here, they pull a classic nice-guy routine: they beg a strong woman (whose “willpower” is both personal and feminist-era political) into giving it up for a man who respects her strength but knows that she’s secretly longing to let go a little bit. Perhaps the most yuck-tastic thing about this and the rest of Puckett’s string of inappropriate musical hugs is that they’re such finely-crafted examples of the fertile shared terrain between AOR croon and folk-rock hooks.
Richard Harris – “MacArthur Park”
This record is nowhere near as bad as some tee-heeing “worst song ever” types might make you think. With its swirling arrangement and rhythmic changes, it paves the way for a decade of delicious pop-rock pomposities like “Live and Let Die” or “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” And, sure, the lyrics are ridiculous, but Donna Summer and Waylon Jennings each found emotive gold in those rainy, cake-melting hills. Ultimately, then, the weak spot come through Richard Harris’s vocals. A gifted actor, Harris manages to be simultaneously too reserved and too over-the-top as he searches for profundity in the goofy lyrics and strains for footing in Jimmy Webb’s shifting melody. Unsurprisingly, the song worked better – if less grandly – when Webb’s great late-‘60s muse Glen Campbell got a hold of its cinemascope sonic breadth and unabashed cornball intensity a few years later.
The 5th Dimension – “Stoned Soul Picnic”
(#3 Pop/#2 R&B)
Jimmy Webb also was well served by The 5th Dimension, whose run of buoyant, genre-crossing hits defined a warm and reassuring brand of late-‘60s pop utopianism. Their community of voices took listeners “Up, Up and Away” in their Webb cover and announced the arrival of the Hair-raising “Age of Aquarius.” Here, they follow Laura Nyro’s directions and invite listeners to a gathering of friends and neighbors that is specific enough in its detail to feel epic in its scope. With the soul invocations both lyrical and sonic, the group offers a new-world vision that feels both tangible and transformative. Let the sunshine in.
The Cowsills – “Indian Lake”
Even beyond the fact that they each scored a chart hit with a version of a song from Hair, The 5th Dimension shared a surprising similarity with The Cowsills. The family group offered a similarly utopian run of hits, exploring pop dreams with their cascading waterfall of “The Rain, The Park and Other Things” and the wowee-zowee anthem “Hair.” This track isn’t their best, but it might be their most enthusiastic. The family jubilates with Laura Nyro-level specificity (although nowhere near Laura Nyro-level craft) about a getaway where time stops and fun starts. Its jingly exuberance masks a surprising level of resonance, mapping onto the historical construction of “wilderness” spaces as getaways for urban denizens and the connected racial romance of what historian Philip DeLoria called “playing Indian,” both of which proved crucial and problematic to the hippie counterculture. All this, plus a bustling arrangement and insistent harmonies that both recall the late-60s work of the Beach Boys.
Donovan – “Hurdy Gurdy Man”
On lyrics alone, this would seem to be another utopian vision of hippie freedom. But, musically, it’s pure creepy crawl, with crashing minor chords and reverb-soaked vocals that, particularly in the circular chorus, sound like a doomy incantation. Used expertly by David Fincher as the theme song of the titular killer in his 2007 film Zodiac, Donovan’s unsettling trance is more Spahn Ranch than Summer of Love. Which is maybe why it sounds less dated and more relevant than many of its cheerier counterparts.
The Rolling Stones – “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”
In this beautiful dark twisted fantasy, the Rolling Stones conjured much of the sound and mythos that continues to define them. Jagger’s playful and pernicious snarl never sounded more convincing, and the band’s hypnotic pounding accentuates its brutal and seductive power. Jack Flash isn’t the Devil – the Stones would give us Satan’s side of the story later in the year – but he clearly knows him well. He’s also not far from Donovan’s hurdy gurdy man, pointing towards an equally dangerous new world. In a year of Tet, Prague, Chicago and Baltimore, the crossfire hurricane isn’t a far-away metaphor. It’s a gas, gas, gas.
James Brown – “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”
(#1 R&B/#10 Pop)
James Brown’s demand for a new world is rooted in a Black political tradition that stretched across centuries and continents and propelled by a sound that synthesized the funky diasporic innovations of the late-‘60s. Brown’s call for solidarity, platform for power and celebration of Black pride is as revolutionary now as it was in 1968 (or 1848). Especially since its stabbing arrangement and shifting verse structure decenters the expectation of a hit song as powerfully as its lyric defy the theory and practice of white supremacy. Black lives matter.
The Temptations – “I Could Never Love Another After Loving You”
From an opening bass line that sounds like a remix of the famous opening of “My Girl,” this urgent plea sounds like a tragic sequel to that earlier classic. With punchy late-period “Motown Sound” backing, the Temptations – led by David Ruffin in his final group appearance – document the end of the love affair that began with such hope and promise. At one point, Ruffin and company even utilize a similar litany of sweet similes as he describes his sadness and desperation. Earlier in 1968 the group had “wished it would rain,” and now it sounds like nothing will hurt more than losing the one who had been their sunshine on a cloudy day.
Smokey Robinson & The Miracles – “Yester Love”
The author of “My Girl” is thinking back, too, on a track that gazes to the past even as its lead singer remains determined to move beyond. As it always does, Smokey Robinson’s sweet falsetto sounds the ambivalence and delicacy outlined his brilliant songwriting. In the middle of a busy arrangement that reflects the protagonist’s internal turmoil, and with complementary stabs from a bluesy electric guitar, Robinson outlines a memory of a “yester love” and offers a soul-era riff on William Faulkern’s famous suggestion that “the past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”
The Impressions – “I Loved and I Lost”
The Impressions assess the same landscape. Like Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield’s falsetto expressed multiple registers of feeling and meaning, and this confession is a perfect vehicle for his signature mix of brittle vulnerability with soul-deep perseverance. Aided by the Impressions’ sympathetic backgrounds, and repeatedly riven by horn blasts, “I Loved and I Lost” paradoxically amplifies its pain by wrapping it in a bed of supple orchestrations. At the end, a shocking, shrieking end makes the pain even more exquisite. And, somehow, even more beautiful.
Eddy Arnold – “It’s Over”
It makes sense that Eddy Arnold – with his buttery croon and resonance with strains of jazz, pop and R&B – would do similar emotional work on the country side of the fence. He treads the same terrain as Mayfield and Robinson, substituting his stately and sublimated baritone. Standing on the verge of crying it out, Arnold’s graceful tremolo just barely masks a world of pain.
Loretta Lynn – “You’ve Just Stepped In From Stepping Out On Me”
Loretta Lynn’s still tired of your shit. A threat to turn “Honky Tonk Angel” before you’ve got time to wonder who made them, this track is in the unvarnished vein of Lynn’s other great hits and in the great tradition of country women who illustrate and condemn the intertwined relationship between sexual pleasure and gender privilege. With bluesy clarity, Lynn’s protagonist recognizes exactly what she needs and what he wants, leading her to a satisfying surprise ending that presages the lesson of Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love” and reveals that Lynn’s more than woman enough for any purpose.
Barbara Acklin – “Love Makes A Woman”
Lynn and Barbara Acklin reach across genre to slyly affirm women’s love rights. Over a swaying Chicago-soul arrangement that breathes deep and clutches tight, Acklin – who sighs and swoons with equal effectiveness – asserts the need for female self-actualization through love, defined broadly through Acklin’s dynamic vocals as a matter of the body, mind and soul.
Stevie Wonder – “You Met Your Match”
1968 was a transitional year for Wonder, then in the process of moving from the exuberant early years to the adult sound that made him one of the very best recording artists of the 1970s. “You Met Your Match” sounds the presence of both periods and Wonder’s process of moving between them. Musically, the track marries the buoyant gospel-soul of the early years to the deepening funk, with its edges of rock and jazz, that marked his coming work. Lyrically, too, the song blends childhood romance and adult sexuality in a coy and deeply seductive manner. Strutting across the borderline from one “genius” phase to another, “You Met Your Match” centers the joyous mastery that’s defined every phase of his remarkable career.
Waylon Jennings – “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line”
Another artist in transition, Waylon Jennings rumbles and grumbles towards the Outlaw ‘70s. “Only Daddy” is a slow-burn stomp that remixes Johnny Cash’s single-minded assurance (and single-note electric guitar licks) through a brash declaration of romantic steadfastness. With Jennings’s trembling vocals offsetting the deliberate rhythms, it all comes off as a bit defensive – maybe protesting too much to the kind of evidence that Loretta Lynn presents in “You’ve Just Stepped In.” Whether or not you believe him is up to you.