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 key here is that it’s “never wanna die,” as opposed to the “never gonna die.” Even as John Kay’s bruising vocals suggest an anthem of defiance, there’s a sense of fantasy at its core. The protagonist’s descriptions are almost cartoonish, and – even as it roots in the real (and dangerous) biker culture of the late 1960s – it’s hard not to hear the celebrant at the center of the song as a faker, or at least a newbie, whose visions of the open road owe as much to the hog-wild mythos of Corman movies and pulp fiction, a mythos that Steppenwolf ultimately soundtracked with their heavy-metal thunder in Easy Rider and afterwards. No matter what, it still shakes the floorboards.
Yuck. The Fruitgum Company spends the entirety of this odious (and boring) song complaining that the woman they desire always rebuffs their advances. And I don’t mean that she won’t open her heart or look in his direction: I mean that she doesn’t want to get busy with him despite his apparently numerous requests. This is bubblegum, sure, but it’s a filthy wad that’s stuck under the corner of an incel’s desk as he tweets vile shit at women he doesn’t know and stalks the Facebook profiles of those he does. No means no, asshole.
(#1 R&B/#10 Pop)
A return smash from one of soul’s stateliest ensembles, “Stay In My Corner” is both a throwback (a faithful updating of an older hit) and a call forward. Its form and ooh-wee crescendos revisit the warm glories of doo-wop and early Chicago soul, but the luxury of its length and arrangement points the way to the velvety funk of The Isleys, Millie Jackson or Isaac Hayes. The molasses-thick grooves match the intimacy and generosity of the lyric, and lead vocalist Marvin Junior draws every drop of hot-buttered soul from its swooning request.
(#7 Pop/#1 R&B)
It starts out perfect and it just gets better. The glistening intro, where the title swirls up and out like the mantra it is, opens into a sparkling gem that offers one of the best examples of what became Gaye & Terrell’s trademark mixture of sweet harmony and deep love. The open-throated joy of building a world around each other is matched by a subtle ache that suggests – at least in hindsight – the fated fragility of that safe place. But, whether momentary or forevermore, Marvin and Tammi escape into each other’s breaths and carry us along with them.
Deep Purple’s bruising hard rock never swung harder than their first hit, which dips Joe South’s horn-dog groover in a bath of flange and fuzz that renders it psychedelic and poptastic in equal measure. Loud-quiet-loud in both form and function, “Hush” wears its gospel influences on its wailing organ solo, “calling my name” lyrical tropes and the sweet supplication of Rod Lord’s vocal.
It’s a particularly Beatles-y trick that their most anthemic song are words of love directed to a child. It’s an even more Beatles-y trick that the central metaphor for these gentle encouragements is to “take a sad song and make it better.” After years of writing love songs to the young, Paul McCartney here targets one in particular – John and Cynthia Lennon’s son Julian – then witnessing his parents split up. The famous tonal shift halfway through takes the sweet song and makes it bigger, and – while it kinda wears out its welcome after four minutes – its all-sing grandiosity makes it a wake for their own period of seeming innocence, a nah-nah-nah goodbye to the yeah-yeah-yeah days. Very soon, they’d release an album that was simultaneously their most childlike and adult. And they’d be broken up a year later.
Mendes and his combo not only turn the soppy Beatles original into simmering bossa nova, but – thanks in part to that sonic reframing – they also complicate the narrative. Where McCartney’s vocal (and the solo video that he offered in the ill-fated Magical Mystery Tour film) suggest a wide-eyed admiration for the innocent main character, here the vocal by Lani Hall render the story something of a cautionary tale, less a hippie dream than a warning about what can happen when you disengage.
(#6 Pop/#2 R&B)
No artist had a better 1968 than Aretha Franklin, who released three masterful LPs and remained a consistent presence on both Pop and R&B singles charts throughout the year. This blazing track sees Franklin standing in the shadows of love, which – in this iteration – is a well-built house with a picket fence and a car in the driveway. She laments how she pushed away the “upright man” who built a house on “land he worked by hand,” implicitly denying a dream of post-war domesticity and middle-class stability that didn’t satisfy Franklin in any number of implied ways. It’s a lost-love blues, for sure, but – like so much of Franklin’s best stuff from this period – it doubles as a warning to her listeners to be careful how they proceed in a period of social and cultural transition. Franklin’s trapped in a nice house with a nice fence around it, and that good car that won’t let her escape no matter how far or fast she drives.
(#6 Pop/#2 R&B)
From the first lyric – the cornerstone soul sentiment of “What would I give for just a few moments?” – Carter establishes the dynamic that defined his great run of hits: his chuckling swagger rode atop an ocean of hurt. He also establishes the warm, twangy sound that propelled those hits, as the Fame Gang struts behind him and Rick Hall’s crisp production plants it on the funky road that led from Muscle Shoals to the world.
In their brief moment, the Grass Roots were awfully good at interpreting the pop-rock subgenres then occupying mainstream white attention. Although the folk-rock of “Let’s Live for Today” or Motown burst of “Sooner or Later” have their charms, this bit of stomping blue-eyed soul is easily the best of their run of hits. With its pulsing rhythms and supportive horn section, it would’ve made a great Box Tops record. But, frankly, I don’t think Chilton and company could’ve done better with it.
The Turtles always seemed to be having a laugh, which could either improve and limit their effectiveness. Here, it’s a total plus, and a purposeful one, since the song was designed as a goofy parody of the “Happy Together” formula. But the joke was on them, because the song’s too good to be mere satire. Flo and Eddie play along a bouncing arrangement as they describe a lover who – despite their best efforts – renders them speechless. The sputtering “you’re my pride and joy, et cetera” undercuts the conscious clunkery of “Gee, I think your swell” and especially “you really do me well.” But it does so in a way that, perhaps unintentionally, finds the giggly glow of lust-love in the foolish attempt to articulate the inarticulable. Maybe they’re making fun of the whole idea of silly love songs. But we’re laughing along as they try to say somethin’ stupid like I love you.
The clarion guitar duet that opens “Mama Tried” gives an immediate sonic signal of the ambivalence at its center. On one side, the delicate finger-picked arpeggios that sound a note of sad elegance as the curtain rises on one of Merle Haggard’s most enduring narratives. On the other, the electric notes offer a piercing interjection before they resolve into a two-beat declaration as Haggard’s protagonist describes his journey. Even as he remains imprisoned, the guitar lines sound the lonesome memories of the roads that led him there.
Arnold finds yet another successful outlet for his seemingly-bottomless reserves of sweet regret (or maybe it’s a regretful sweetness). It’s not his best effort: his silky phrasing sounds slightly out of step with the John D. Loudermilk song and the string-heavy arrangement seems too eager to prove the continuing relevance of Nashville Sound thickness. But, as nearly always with Arnold, his easy mastery is on display as he sways through a song that maps the style-crossing music that made him a star and a favorite of artists in pop and R&B.
Just like Marvin & Tammi, Dolly and Porter were never better than when using their duets to model a larger strategy for survival in a cruel world. Here, the duo faces that world by facing the music, addressing their lack of money both by bemoaning a system where it’s hard to find work and even harder to save, and also by challenging each other to rely less on material things and more on the tangible and intangible benefits of successful partnership. Neither scoldy nor naïve, Parton and Wagoner find solace and even joy in the journey.
The lyrics are sharp and the melody won’t quit, but what makes this one of the great truck-driving songs is the propulsive rhythm that rolls underneath the hotshot delivery. It’s a working-man’s blues, eschewing the brash affirmations of highway brotherhood or the gothic fantasias of crashes and phantoms. Instead, Reeves’s voice sits right on the edge of total exhaustion even as the wheels keep rolling underneath his proud and poignant narrative. Mama tried to raise him better, too, but he’s born to be wild, so he’s headed out on the highway. It’s not for fun or freedom – he needs to fulfill his fate and collect a paycheck.