Was 1968 the greatest year in popular music? To me that seems self-evident, unless you want to claim 1967. Or maybe 1969.
OK, so I was 14 years old at the time and it is well-known that the most meaningful music in your life is the music that was popular when you were in adolescence and beginning to have a sexual awakening. But it wasn’t my hormones that made 1968 such a great year – it was the music itself.
At least that’s what I thought until I listened to a Slate.com podcast featuring music historian Chris Molanphy, who pointed out that many of the top songs from 1968 were little more than schlock or elevator music. In other words, for every fantastic Number One like Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” there was a dog like Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey.”
Molaphy’s theory is that music served as a refuge because 1968 was such a horrible year politically (assassinations, riots, war, etc.). Therefore some of the year’s most popular songs were mindless diversions from the evening news. Maybe that’s the reason, or maybe the truth is that every year is full of schlock and it takes a couple decades to realize it. Looking at the full list of top hits in 1968, though, it seems that about half the songs aimed to change society through social commentary that you’d never find in pop music today so I’m not sure how escapist it was.
In any event, here are ten interesting nuggets I learned from Molanphy or my own observations about the top hits of 1968.
1. “Hey Jude,” one of the all-time great songs, is still the longest single ever to top Billboard’s pop charts. It was also the Beatles song that stayed longest at Number One (nine weeks). At seven minutes and 11 seconds, it was twice as long as most pop hits, and every radio station played the whole thing. Even more unprecedented, the Beatles ended the song with a four-minute chant, giving pop music a rare sense of mysticism. I will never forget watching the “Hey Jude” clip (below) that appeared on The Smothers Brothers in October 1968. In retrospect, that moment, even more than Woodstock, was the high point of the feel-good “flower power” movement.
2. Another really great hit from 1968 was Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” a fragment of which had appeared in Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate” the year before. Paul Simon hadn’t finished the song when the movie premiered and it wasn’t released until the next summer. The song was initially titled “Mrs. Roosevelt,” but when Simon showed it to Nichols the director convinced him to change it the name of the seductress in the movie. The famous line if the song, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?” was originally intended to refer to Simon’s boyhood hero Mickey Mantle but the syllables didn’t match up. In a song so deeply contemptuous of 1960’s America it was probably better anyway to refer back longingly to DiMaggio’s generation.
3. There were two instrumental Number One hits in 1968, both by international artists. First we had “Love Is Blue” by the French composer Paul Mauriat, who remains to this day the only French artist to have a chart-topping Billboard hit. The song was composed – with lyrics – for the Eurovision contest (as Luxemburg’s entry.) It didn’t win at Eurovision but became a huge hit in the U.S. Molanphy dismisses this song as the greatest piece of elevator music ever composed, but I have to admit that I owned this record and played it constantly.
4. The other major instrumental hit of 1968 was “Grazing in the Grass” by the South African musician “Hugh Masekela.” Of course I’ve heard this song a million times; it arguably invented the smooth jazz genre. But I never knew the music was from South Africa. Partly that’s because The Friends of Distinction added words and released their own hit single, which is now better known than the original. (And “Love is Blue” and “Grazing in the Grass” weren’t the only instrumental hits that year – only the two number one hits. Other notable instrumental songs from 1968 include “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” and my favorite, “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams. I can’t remember any instrumental hits in the 21st Century.)
5. Another Number One hit that might as well have been an instrumental recording was “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell and the Drells. This is a proto-Funk record in which Bell directs the band and the dancers on how to perform a dance called The Tighten Up. The remarkable thing about this song is that Drell had been drafted into the army and was recuperating in a German hospital from wounds suffered in Vietnam when the song hit Number One.
7. And then there’s Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, a hugely popular instrumental band that had 17 Top 100 hits before they finally charted a Number One song with “This Guy’s in Love With You.” To demonstrate the oddity of 1968, this song was NOT an instrumental record. Nope, the band’s first Number One hit was vocalized by Herb Albert himself. Originally inserted as a knock-off number in a CBS TV special, the song so charmed viewers that it was rushed out as a single. And not only was this the first Number One hit for Herb Albert, it was the first Number One song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Go figure.
8. Molanphy reserves his greatest scorn for Bobby Goldsboro’s weeper “Honey,” about a husband mourning his dead wife. He claims that it is considered by many to be the worst Number One song ever, although I’m sure the competition for that title is very steep. I have to admit that it’s pretty bad: consider these immortal lyrics: “She was always young at heart/Kinda dumb and kinda smart/And I loved her so”
9. If “Honey” was notable for anything other than its schlock, it was for exemplifying the trend toward country music crossing over into pop. A worthier country/pop entry in 1968 was Jeannie C. Reilly’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.” which scathingly attacked the hypocrisy of small town life.
10. Then there are Number One songs from 1968 that seem downright dangerous. The Doors’ “Hello I Love You” is ostensibly about Jim Morrison’s yearning for a girl walking down Venice Beach but the aggressiveness of the lyrics and the pulsing way in which they’re delivered seems scary even today. In any event it was the first 45 rpm stereo record.
So is 1968 the greatest year in music? I consistently liked more top songs from 1967 (Aretha’s “Respect,” The Monkees’ “I’m A Believer,” The Turtles’ “Happy Together,” The Doors’ “Light My Fire,” Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe,” The Association’s “Windy,” The Supremes’ “The Happening,” even Lulu’s “To Sir With Love.”) But any year in which “Hey Jude” could be heard on the radio for month after month has to rank high.
Suffice it to say that the Sixties really were the Golden Age of pop music. Almost every week another great new song appeared on the top 40 and since we all listened to the same Top 40 format we all had the same frame of reference. Those were the days, my friends. In fact, there was a big hit with that very title in 1968.