When I was 17, it was a very good year

Last weekend, I returned to my home town of Cleveland and participated in my 45th high school reunion.  It was so great to see old (in both senses of the word!) classmates and wander the grounds and the halls of my alma mater, which brought back fond memories of my formative years.

I was particularly pleased to hear a lot of great music playing in the background — songs from 1972 and 1973, when we were in our senior year.  My friend Chris, a former DJ and music lover like me, played a pivotal role in compiling the tunes we would be hearing, then activating the “shuffle” mode and letting the music wash over us.

It was an incredibly fertile year.  At that time, the 45-rpm single was no longer the 1973-featureddominant form of recorded music, although there was still a vibrant Top 40 Billboard chart that offered everything from romantic soul and glam rock to straight pop and syrupy ballads.  More people were buying albums by then instead, and the list of albums released that year is truly mind-boggling.

Let’s look at the hit singles first.

As the 1972-1973 school year started in September 1972, the singles charts were still dominated by some of the songs from the summer months:  “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass; “Long Cool Woman (in a Black Dress)” by The Hollies; “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers; “Alone Again (Naturally)” by maxresdefault-16Gilbert O’Sullivan; “Hold Your Head Up” by Argent; “Where Is The Love” by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway; “Goodbye to Love” by The Carpenters; “I’m Still in Love With You” by Al Green; “The Guitar Man” by Bread; “Saturday in the Park,” Chicago;  “Black and White” by Thee Dog Night.

A new batch of singles began their rise in October and November:  “Backstabbers” by The O’Jays; “Go All the Way” by The Raspberries; “Everybody Plays the Fool” by The 117397274Main Ingredient; “Garden Party” by Rick Nelson; “Listen to the Music” by The Doobie Brothers; “Tight Rope” by Leon Russell; “Summer Breeze” by Seals and Crofts; “Burning Love” by Elvis Presley; “Living in the Past” by Jethro Tull; “Nights in White Satin” by The Moody Blues; “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash; “Elected” by Alice Cooper; “Ventura Highway” by America; “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” by The Temptations; “Operator” by Jim Croce; “My Ding-a-Ling” by Chuck Berry.

As the holidays rolled in, these were the songs Top 40 radio was playing:  “Me and Mrs. Jcover-large_file-1ones” by Billy Paul; “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon; “It Never Rains in Southern California” by Albert Hammond; “Your Mama Don’t Dance” by Loggins and Messina; “Do It Again” by Steely Dan; “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy; “Dancing in the Moonlight” by King Harvest; “Crocodile Rock” by Elton John; “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder; “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” by James Taylor; “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” by Johnny Rivers.

During the first three months of 1973, the airwaves were filled with tunes like:  “Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver; “Oh Babe What Would You Say” by Hurricane Smith; “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” by Dr. Hook; “Don’t Expect Me to Be Your Friend” by Lobo; “Killing Me Softly With His Song” by Roberta Flack; “Could It Be 131hook32973I’m Falling in Love” by The Spinners; “Danny’s Song” by Anne Murray; “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” by Tony Orlando and Dawn; “Right Place Wrong Time” by Dr. John; “Sing” by The Carpenters; “Witchy Woman” by The Eagles; “Duelin’ Banjos” by Eric Weisberg; “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I Got)” by The Four Tops.

My senior year concluded with the radio playing hits like these in April, May and June:  “Cisco Kid” by War; “Space Oddity” by David Bowie; “Drift Away” by Dobie Gray; “Frankenstein” by Edgar Winter Group; “Peaceful” by Helen Reddy; “Hocus Pocus” by Focus; “Will It Go Round in Circles” by Billy Preston; “My Love” by Paul McCartney lou-reed-walk-on-the-wild-side-rca-5and Wings; “Kodachrome” by Paul Simon; “Love Train” by The O’Jays; “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple; “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealer’s Wheel; “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed; “Give Me Love” by George Harrison; “Long Train Runnin’” by The Doobie Brothers; “Reelin’ in the Years” by Steely Dan.

Talk about a mixed bag!  Like every year, there was garbage in there (I think my readers can identify which tunes I’m talking about) along with the stellar tracks that still hold up very well many decades later.

Meanwhile, over on the album charts, my senior year offered an almost unbelievable cornucopia of excellent stuff.  Some artists even found a way to release two solid LPs in one calendar year.  You never see THAT happen anymore…

Typically, albums do better on the charts when they include a hit single or two carney-frontsimultaneously climbing the Top 40 listings, and there were many examples of that:  Leon Russell’s “Carney,” Paul Simon’s “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon,” Rod Stewart’s “Never a Dull Moment,” Steely Dan’s “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man,” Cat Stevens’ “Catch Bull at Four,” War’s “The World is a Ghetto,” Bill Withers’ “Still Bill,” The Doobie Brothers’ “Toulouse Street” AND “The Captain and Me,” Lou Reed’s “Transformer,” Carly Simon’s “No Secrets,” Jethro Tull’s “Living in the Past,” The Temptations’ “All Directions,” Elton John’s “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player” AND “Goodbye 16b47c4f5272ccc3becd0087f8f95961Yellow Brick Road,”  Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly,” Jim Croce’s “Life and Times,” The Allman Brothers’ “Brothers and Sisters,” Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Red Rose Speedway,” Alice Cooper’s “Billion Dollar Babies,” America’s “Homecoming,” Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book” AND “Innervisions,” Neil Diamond’s “Moods,” Chicago’s “Chicago V,” Joe Walsh’s “The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get,” The Moody Blues’ “Seventh Sojourn,” Dr. John’s “In the Right Place,” Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” Steve Miller’s “The Joker,” Edgar Winter Group’s “They Only Come Out at Night,” Grand Funk Railroad’s “Phoenix,” Pure Prairie League’s “Bustin’ Out.”

220px-DavisBowieAladdinSaneAnd yet, some of the classic LPs of the year sold well without benefit of a hit single:  David Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane,” Yes’s “Close to the Edge,” Todd Rundgren’s “A Wizard/A True Star,” J Geils Band’s “Bloodshot,” Emerson Lake & Palmer’s “Trilogy,” Humble Pie’s “Eat It,” Van Morrison’s “St. Dominic’s Preview,” Joe Walsh’s “Barnstorm,” Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken,” Jethro Tull’s “A Passion Play,” Diana Ross’s “Lady Sings the Blues,”  Led Zeppelin’s Yes-closeHouses of the Holy,” Johnny Winter’s “Still Alive and Well,” The Who’s “Quadrophenia,” The Small Faces’ “Ooh La La,” Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Birds of Fire,” Traffic’s “Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory,” Joni Mitchell’s “For the Roses,” Santana’s “Caravanserai,” Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” The Grateful Dead’s “Europe ’72,” The Eagles’ “Desperado.”

Also, in the same year came debut albums by artists who would soon be major stars:  Aerosmith, The Marshall Tucker Band, Bette Midler, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Peter Frampton, Bob Marley, Lynyrd Skynyrd, KISS, Jackson Browne, 10cc.

And then there were the albums that flew under the radar that I was lucky enough to stumble upon at the right time.  Technically released in 1971 but discovered by me in the fall of ’72, Batdorf and Rodney’s “Off the Shelf” was on my turntable for untold hours in the winter and spring of 1973.  It’s interesting, almost creepy, to note that the lyrics to the leadoff song, “Oh My Surprise,” addresses the issue of reminiscing about the good old days:  “I thought I could never go back to those years I loved so well, oh my surprise, oh my surprise…”

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517EgECnPrLThe year 1973 was a significant year for another big reason, according to Michael Walker, author of the revealing 2013 book, “What You Want is in the Limo.”  In his introduction, he maintains that 1973 was the year that the Sixties finally died and modern rock stardom was born, when bands like Led Zeppelin, The Who and Alice Cooper put together monumental, physically punishing concert tours that set new standards — for attendance, for the quality and quantity of recreational drugs, for the amount of equipment and lighting on stage, for backstage and hotel hijinx, for the sheer volume of sound coming from the speakers.

“The bands and music of the ’60s created an outsized hunger for rock culture but lacked the infrastructure to deliver it,” Walker writes.  “In 1973, supply finally catches up with demand.  As the ’60s bled into the ’70s, the naive counterculturalism that bound rock bands in generational solidarity to their audience began to fray.  A new generation of AliceCooperfans too young for Woodstock inherited the tropes of the ’60s, minus the boring poli-sci socio-overlay.  Thus do peace, love, and understanding devolve into sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  The sex was younger, the drugs harder, and the rock and roll louder, longer and infinitely more belligerent.”

Walker makes a valid case that, post-1973, the rock music got bigger but more indulgent, more of a business and less of a pleasure, more destructive and less creative.  “The template created in 1973 will, three years later, metastasize into mega-albums by Peter Frampton and Fleetwood Mac and, in the ’80s and ’90s, tours upsized from civic arenas to Jumbotronned stadia and records shipped in R-52_LedZeppelin1973_Gruenthe tens of millions, though by then the rituals, commodified by corporate patronage, will seem increasingly scripted.”

Of course, there were many exceptions to these statements, but there’s no question that rock stars became more distant from their fans by the mid-Seventies.  In 1970-1972, you could still go see a show by a big name group and not have to take out a loan to buy a ticket.  Walker sums it up this way:  “1973 distills a decade’s worth of decadence into twelve awesome months and resets the clock for the rest of the Seventies and all that they imply.  It’s a year that, by any measure, ought to be its own decade.”

For a guy who graduated from high school that year, I must say I wholeheartedly agree.  The singles and albums outlined above demonstrate that fact.

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I’ve compiled two playlists on Spotify for this post.  The first includes some of the more commercial hit singles from ’72-’73, and the second offers a sampling of some of my favorite deeper tracks from the albums of that period.

 

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A long long time ago, I can still remember

Historians often point at 1968 as a pivotal, transitional year in America, and elsewhere.  Fifty years ago, riots, assassinations, demonstrations, even political conventions turned ugly and violent.  What had been simmering under the surface for several years exploded during the 12 months of that dizzying year.

5a6b8e64a172a.imageIn pop culture, the same upheaval was underway.  Pop art, op art, nudity on Broadway, “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” on TV, and films like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” were rocking our world.

In pop music, 1968 was very much a transitional year.  Throughout the ’50s and up until 1968, the 45 rpm single was the dominant format consumers chose to enjoy music.  Most people didn’t care yet about full albums of songs.  Many people didn’t even have the equipment to play them.  As the ’60s waned and the ’70s approached, the hit single began its slide in popularity as the full-length album became the favored format.

If you peruse the list of albums released in 1968, you’ll find several subgroups.  There were loads of “Best Of” and “Greatest Hits” collections of artists’ top-selling singles, compiled on one disc for the customers’ convenience.  There were the rudimentary efforts by bands that would someday be great but were still finding their way at that point (Joni Mitchell, Jethro Tull, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grateful Dead).  There were, as always, horrible LPs of filler that contained maybe one or two decent songs.  And the smallest segment, perhaps, consisted of the truly groundbreaking, excellent albums full of top-quality material that, even 50 years later, stand up well to repeated listenings.

I have selected a dozen albums from 1968 that I believe are still worthy of attention, even by newer generations of fans.  Beyond these, I have named another dozen “honorable mention” albums from 1968 that are historically noteworthy if not musically top-notch.  As I said, it was a transitional time…

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Unknown-19“Wheels of Fire,” Cream

Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, each regarded as virtuosos on guitar, drums and bass, respectively, formed Cream in 1966, hoping to use improvisational jazz techniques within the pop/rock song structure.  They succeeded on albums like “Fresh Cream” (1966) and “Disraeli Gears” (1967), but it was their landmark double album “Wheels of Fire” that truly cemented their status as iconic trailblazers.  One album of nine studio tracks (including the hit “White Room”) and another disc of four extended live recordings (the incendiary “Crossroads” as well as the 16-minute mindblower “Spoonful”) showcased the band at its best.  Sadly, their volatile personalities and a murderous touring schedule brought about the group’s demise by the end of the year.  But their legacy lives on, thanks to records like this one.

220px-Bigpink“Music From Big Pink,” The Band

Bob Dylan’s mid-’60s backup band, originally known as The Hawks, decided the time was right in 1968 for them to record their first album on their own.  Songwriter-guitarist Robbie Robertson, drummer-vocalist Levon Helm, organist Garth Hudson, keyboardist Richard Manuel and bassist Rick Danko convened in the garage of a modest pink house in Saugerties, NY (where they had recorded many songs with Dylan in what were to become known as “The Basement Tapes,” released in 1975).  It was there that they came up with “Music From Big Pink,” the 12-song album that is now regarded as the harbinger of the “back to nature” movement that killed acid rock and ushered in the country rock movement and the singer-songwriter era.  Neither the group, its members nor its music became million-selling superstars, but they were widely respected and praised within the music community and among a loyal legion of fans.  Songs like “The Weight” and “Chest Fever” are prime examples of the lasting influence of this album.

In_search_of_the_lost_chord“In Search of the Lost Chord,” The Moody Blues

The Moodies had almost been cut from their record deal in 1967 before they were paired with the London Festival Orchestra to combine orchestral/classical music with rock instruments to produce the landmark “Days of Future Passed” LP.  After that successful project, the group was given more leeway to create their own vibe, which was decidedly more psychedelic and progressive.  Beginning with their 1968 album “In Search of the Lost Chord,” the British group embarked on a legendary career full of spacey yet accessible music on multiple Top Five LPs, led by Justin Heyward’s songs and vocals, Mike Pinder’s mellotron and keyboards, John Lodge’s bass and vocals, Ray Thomas’s flute and Graeme Edge’s percussion.  On this fine album, check out “Ride My Seesaw,” “Legend of a Mind,” “Voices in the Sky” and “Om.”

220px-Aretha_Franklin_-_Aretha_Now“Aretha Now,” Aretha Franklin

The amazing pipes of Aretha Franklin came bursting forth from Stax Records’ Memphis Studios in 1967 when she took Otis Redding’s “Respect” and made it one of the iconic soul tunes of all time.  From there, it was hit after hit, mostly just as singles, but Stax wisely put enough great material together to create a fabulous LP, “Aretha Now,” in 1968.  Spurred on by the hugely popular “Think” (later re-recorded in a rollicking remake for “The Blues Brothers” movie soundtrack in 1980), and other killer tracks like “I Say a Little Prayer” and “Night Time is the Right Time,” Franklin reached #3 with “Aretha Now,” her fourth Top Five album in less than two years.

flat,550x550,075,f.u6“Bookends,” Simon & Garfunkel

With songs like “The Sound of Silence,” “Homeward Bound” and “I Am A Rock” in 1966, Paul Simon established himself as a major songwriter, and his recordings with partner Art Garfunkel reached the Top Five.  In 1967, they were asked to contribute songs to the soundtrack of the game-changing film “The Graduate,” and the soundtrack LP went to #1 in early 1968.  Their next studio LP, the extraordinary “Bookends,” came out in April and also reached #1.  It included the full-length version of the #1 hit “Mrs. Robinson” (the film soundtrack included only the chorus because Simon hadn’t completed the song in time!), and other 1967 hits like “Hazy Shade of Winter” and “Fakin’ It.”  Most important, it included an “ahead-of-its-time” song cycle about aging, from the teen angst of “Save The Life of My Child” and the early-adult soul-searching of “America” to the depression of divorce in “Overs” and the reflection of old age in “Old Friends/Bookends.”  Simon and Garfunkel have been household names ever since, and with good reason.

Supersession“Super Session,” Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield, Stephen Stills

Al Kooper was only 21 when he played an important role in recording sessions for Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” among others, and had founded the rock/brass group Blood, Sweat and Tears in 1967, contributing vocals and keyboards.  But he was forced out of his own group, and he went off to lick his wounds by recording with blues guitar great Mike Bloomfield.  But Bloomfield was a volatile soul who dabbled deeply in drugs, so when he failed to show up for a session, Kooper asked Stephen Stills, who was recuperating from the disbanding of Buffalo Springfield, to step in.  The result is “Super Session,” a magnificent album with Kooper on vocals and keyboards throughout and Bloomfield on Side 1 and Stills on Side 2.  This album just gets better and better whenever I put it on.  By all means, immerse yourself in this one.

Rolling-Stones-Beggars-Banquet“Beggar’s Banquet,” The Rolling Stones

I doubt if they realized it yet, but upon the release of this well-rounded LP in December 1968, The Stones were at the beginning of a five-album run that would prove to be the apex of their 50-plus years in the business.  Their reputation as cheeky delinquents was solidified by the album cover art of a dirty, graffiti-laced bathroom, which was, of course, 220px-BeggarsBanquetLPrefused by the US record label and replaced by a formal wedding invitation design.  More important was the music, particularly the rocking “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Street Fighting Man” and “Salt of the Earth,” all offset by acoustic gems like “No Expectations,” “Parachute Woman” and “Factory Girl.”  Mick Jagger and Keith Richards really stepped up here, with co-founder Brian Jones sliding further into the shadows, and the rhythm section of Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman had developed at that point into one of the very best in rock.

220px-Cheapthrills“Cheap Thrills,” Big Brother & The Holding Company

By all rights, this album should officially be a Janis Joplin album, but when it was recorded, she was still just the vocalist of this unrefined blues group from San Francisco.  The album includes both studio and live recordings, all of which feature Joplin’s alternately powerful and gentle vocals.  This LP, with its marvelous R. Crumb comic illustrations, reached #1 in the summer of ’68, thanks in part to the popular “Piece of My Heart” single.  Only months after its release, she left Big Brother behind and went off to form the Kozmic Blues Band, touring incessantly until she died of an overdose in the fall of 1970.  By all accounts, her take on Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” is one of the most sensational tracks released that entire year.

220px-Jeff_Beck-Truth“Truth,” Jeff Beck

Sadly, many Rod Stewart fans are unaware of Rod’s roots, when he was an unknown blues singer who joined the Jeff Beck Group and first appeared on Beck’s excellent debut LP “Truth” in 1968.  Stewart offered seriously raw vocals, perfectly complementing Beck’s accomplished blues guitar stylings.  And look who else is playing on this LP:  future Faces/Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood on bass, future Led Zeppelin bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones and freelance keyboard wizard Nicky Hopkins.  Even Who drummer Keith Moon and Zeppelin guitar master Jimmy Page are on the amazing “Beck’s Bolero” track.  This LP is a solid testimony to Beck’s stature as one of the best guitarists in rock history.  

61GfhksAxcL“Electric Ladyland,” Jimi Hendrix Experience

At his seismic US debut at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 and on his incredible first LP, “Are You Experienced?,” Jimi Hendrix had brought shock and awe to every guitarist on the British rock scene, and to the US record-buying public as well.  Only a year later, on his third album, the sprawling double LP “Electric Ladyland,” he was exploring ever-new horizons, using guest players like Steve Winwood and Dave Mason and trying a broad palette of song styles on originals and covers alike.  The 16-minute jam “Voodoo Chile” still sends chills up my spine, and his rendition of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” reinvented the idea of reinventing a song.  There is self-indulgence here, but there’s so much great stuff as well, it just doesn’t matter.

Van_Morrison_-_Astral_Weeks“Astral Weeks,” Van Morrison

First came the garage rock of his first band Them and their 1966 hits “Gloria” and “Here Comes the Night.”  Then came his 1967 solo debut and biggest hit single “Brown-Eyed Girl.”  But before he kicked off an amazing run of FM radio favorites like 1970’s “Moondance,” 1971’s “Tupelo Honey” and 1972’s “St. Dominic’s Preview,” Van Morrison put together an astounding, free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness beauty called “Astral Weeks” in 1968.  It didn’t sell well, and even a lot of Van’s fans aren’t all that familiar with it.  But you would do well to look it up and give it a try.  There are eight very thoughtful, delicately performed story-songs here that show Morrison in a pensive and creative mood.

316GrhxGleL._SY355_“The Beatles (The White Album),” The Beatles

Ah yes, the crown jewel of the entire calendar year.  The Beatles had been pretty quiet since “Sgt. Pepper” in June 1967, although the September 1968 two-sided single “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” had dominated the Top 40 throughout the fall.  But very few anticipated the outpouring of 30 new songs on the group’s November release, “The Beatles,” which instantly became known as “The White Album” because of its stark white album THE_BEATLES_THE+BEATLES+WHITE+ALBUM-128538bcover.  This expansive collection had something for everybody.  Harrison offered his best track yet, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” featuring an uncredited guitar solo by pal Eric Clapton.  McCartney kicked ass with rockers like “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Birthday,” and “Helter Skelter,” and also offered some fine acoustic stuff like “Blackbird,” “I Will,” “Mother Nature’s Son” and “Martha My Dear.”  Even Ringo wrote a song, the country ditty “Don’t Pass Me By.”  Lennon, meanwhile, stepped up with nearly a dozen of his best songs — “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” “I’m So Tired,” “Dear Prudence,” “Sexy Sadie” and a slow-burn version of “Revolution.”  He insisted the album include his nightmarish sound collage, entitled “Revolution 9,” as well as his saccharine lullaby,”Good Night,” sung by Ringo.  Because the recordings were so good, no one was aware the group was continually at odds and headed for a breakup.  For now, this was an outstanding Christmas present.

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Honorable Mention:

jamestaylorappleJames Taylor,” James Taylor;  “Living the Blues,” Canned Heat;  “Eli and the Thirteenth Confession,” Laura Nyro;  “Traffic,” Traffic;  “Song to a Seagull,” Joni Mitchell;  “One,” Three Dog Night;  “Diana Ross and The Supremes Join The Temptations“;  “In a Gadda Da Unknown-20Vida,” Iron Butterfly;  “Tell Mama,” Etta James;  “Last Time Around,” Buffalo Springfield;  “Creedence Clearwater Revival,” Creedence Clearwater Revival;  “This Was,” Jethro Tull;  “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” The Byrds;  “Odessey and Oracle,” The Zombies;  “Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake,” The Small Faces.