Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Billboard Top Ten November 2, 1968

For this month's installment of the Top Ten retrospective I thought I'd look back at the eve of the election of 1968, perhaps the last election year as momentous as this one. (I should add that there was a lot more going on in that year than now, so it's not an equal comparison.)

10. Cream, "White Room"

Cream was pretty much the first hard rock group, or at least the one that set the template for so much to follow. along with The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Ginger Baker's drums stomp like a Stegosaurus and Eric Clapton's guitar bludgeons out a caveman riff. While Clapton would abandon Cream's heavy psychedelic sound for the rootsier Derek and the Dominoes, Cream would beget Led Zeppelin and by extension the whole hard rock universe. At the end of the sixties, this is a clear taste of the seventies.

9. Diana Ross and the Supremes, "Love Child"

Motown finally started getting a little more topical in the late sixties, even with the Supremes, perhaps the label's most successful and mainstream act. This is full Motown pocket symphony mode, the stabbing strings insistent behind Diana Ross's breathy, fragile voice. It is a song about shame and also about a woman claiming her independence. The song's narrator refuses to have sex with her boyfriend because she does not want to give birth to a "love child," since she herself was one who grew up in a "tenement slum." It's the Supremes' first hit without the great Holland-Dozier-Holland production team, and also a sign of a new, more socially relevant Motown.

8. Johnny Nash, "Hold Me Tight"
I honestly never knew that Johnny Nash had a hit in the US before "I Can See Clearly Now." This is a sweet little rocksteady song with a Jamaican rhythm beneath Nash's smooth, sweet voice. Like the last two songs, it's a sign of things to come, as in the next decade Jamaican music would start having a major influence on the US and UK. I hear this and also realize how narrow oldies stations are in their playlists. Some wonderful songs just get left by the wayside to be forgotten.

7. Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, "Over You"
On the other hand, oldies stations in the Midwest play the shit out of Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. I wish they wouldn't. This group was responsible for a lot of overwrought, bombastic pop balladry, including "Young Girl," perhaps the creepiest song to ever hit the top ten. This is the kind of thing that The Guess Who and Bee Gees were doing a whole lot better at the time. Unlike the preceding songs, this is the sound of a kind of pop music on its way out.

6. The Turtles, "Elenore"
The Turtles as another group very firmly rooted in this period, but much more pleasant to listen to. The song has a swingy, jazzy beat and interesting vocal harmonies. It also hits on that common theme of sixties pop songs: "I love her but her parents think I'm a loser." It's a trope one almost never hears after this point in time, apart from Bruce Springsteen songs.

5. The Grass Roots, "Midnight Confessions"
It's yet another vocal pop (as opposed to rock) group. This was still an obviously popular formula in 1968, and not much afterward. The Grass Roots had a sackful of hits, but aren't remembered all that much these days. This song has the advantages of a pleading vocal and an almost freakily insistent organ sound.

4. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, "Fire"
Ahhhh yeah! Now this is what I'm talking about. "Fire" has got to be one of the weirdest fucking songs to ever climb this high on the charts. I mean, it starts with ol' Arthur screaming "I AM THE GOD OF HELL FIRE!" Musically it's mostly just drums, a demented organ and some scratchy horns with Brown getting progressively more psychotic in his singing. A performer who took the stage in a flaming helmet, he paved the way for KISS and Alice Cooper.

3. OC Smith, "Little Green Apples"
Now this here is a strange song. It combines Burt Bacharach, southern soul, and some country music twang. It was written by Bobby Russell for country singer Roger Miller, and the song's waking up in the morning with the blues lyrics are very country. Smith's version has got a loose, funky background but with a prominent glockenspiel. It's a reminder of a time when songs existed much more independently of the artists who sang them, and that they could cross over genres much more fluidly. It's one thing about the pop music world of this time that I truly envy.

2. Mary Hopkin, "Those Were The Days"

Nobody does maudlin and sentimental like the Brits. All of the emotions they spend their days repressing come out in sappy-ass pop music. This is a song of nostalgia, of remembering old friends past. The music (produced by Paul McCartney) recalls old timey Western barrooms, even if it has its origins in a Russian folk song. The fact that this song hit so high on the charts on the eve of Nixon's election perhaps shows a strange longing for a pre-sixties past, the kind of "make America great again" nostalgia that plagues us today.

1. The Beatles, "Hey Jude"

I've heard some songs so many times that it's difficult hard to see their greatness anymore, no matter how good the song is. "Hey Jude" is one of those songs. But if I think really, really hard I can remember the 11 year old who got a Beatles comp for Christmas and would listen to this song over and over and over again, absolutely transfixed. Yes Paul McCartney made some schlock at this point in the Beatles, but he also made some real pop music magic. The melody is irresistible, but what makes the song is the powerful ascent into the fade out chorus, an ecstatic emotional outpouring like a gospel song. I get high every time I hear it, even now.

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