1968: Half a century on, looking back on the year that rock music came of age

Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri

Jul 08, 2018 14:00:07 IST

A young Benjamin Braddock nervously eyes Mrs Robinson as she rolls up her stocking. The coming of age film of a 20-something directionless lad being seduced by an older woman, was released at the turn of 1967. By the end of 1968, the theme of The Graduate and its iconic music had resonated far and wide.

Seduced by seminal albums and the launch of newer bands who would become legends in their own right, 1968 stood at the threshold of a new decade, heralding heavier, eclectic sounds that went far beyond the tie-and-dye fabric that defined the norm of the time. Like the unsure, nervous gaze of young Benjamin, music lovers were hit by an aural experience so far removed from what they were accustomed to, it’s little wonder that 50 years, on we still look back at 1968 as the year that changed it all.


The sheer qualitative depth of the debutants that 1968 saw is staggering. Fleetwood Mac became an overnight success with their self-titled album helmed by famous blues guitarist Peter Green. A mix of covers and originals, its typical raw British 12-bar blues rock sound took the album to 4th place despite not having a hit single. Led Zeppelin (who were still billed as the New Yardbirds) started touring in the second half of 1968, quickly rising to prominence due to their lingering guitar riffs and bluesy sounds, held together by a formidable rhythm section. It set the foundation for the band’s January 1969 eponymous release.

Shades of Deep Purple and The Book of Taliesyn were two albums Deep Purple released in 1968. Both followed similar formats of a mix of rearranged covers and originals, with the former being more widely popular. Like most great success stories, they didn’t initially receive much praise though the band’s debut Shades of Deep Purple eventually garnered a great deal of interest for songs such as Hush. Formed in 1968 as Polka Tulk Blues Band, a chance horror film playing across their rehearsal space gave Black Sabbath their new name. The employing of a musical tritone that creates a darker, more ominous sound, inspired the band to work in a direction diametrically opposite from the popular music of the '60s. Black Sabbath is today widely credited for being the pioneers of heavy metal music.

Canadian rock band Rush was formed the same year and waited six years until they made their studio debut. In the 50 years since formation, Rush has established itself as one of rock’s most versatile bands. Its musical style has been through various changes; from a quintessential British blues-based hard rock sound to progressive rock and synth-heavy music, to dabbling with new wave, reggae and more, Rush has been through the entire musical gamut with distinct extended songs and shifting time signatures.

 1968: Half a century on, looking back on the year that rock music came of age

Music lovers were hit by an aural experience so far removed from what they were accustomed to, it’s little wonder that 50 years, on we still look back at 1968 as the year that changed it all.

Along came Yes, an English progressive rock band that was formed in mid-1968. By November, Yes was listed as one of the supporting acts for Cream’s farewell tour. Over the years, the band gained the reputation of being one of the most successful, influential, and longest-lasting progressive rock bands. British prog rock band Jethro Tull, also formed in 1968, released their debut album This Was, heralding a new sound that combined typical British blues with jazz styles and a distinct brand of wit. Ian Anderson-led Tull is still deeply respected for its musical depths that spanned folk to hard rock.


If those who made their debut went on to become legends, the year 1968 also saw several of the already popular bands of the time release their most seminal works. The Beatles released the White album, The Rolling Stones released Jumpin’ Jack Flash, The Doors released Waiting for the Sun, The Jimi Hendrix Experience released Electric Ladyland, while Van Morrison released Astral Weeks. Cream bid farewell with The White Room, Neil Young made his solo debut, Jeff Beck released Truth (an album that introduced Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood to the world), Canadian Steppenwolf caught our attention with Born to be Wild from their eponymous debut album, and David Gilmour joined Pink Floyd signalling a new era for the band with A Saucerful of Secrets. How does someone recover from a year like that?

Waiting for the Sun was The Doors first and only No. 1 album, featuring songs such as 'Hello, I Love You'; 'Spanish Caravan'; 'Five to One'; and 'The Unknown Soldier'. Not the band’s best, but one that cemented its royal status in the music world despite having a frontman doggedly on the path to self-destruction. The Beatles, inching closer to disbanding by 1968, came fresh off a trip to Rishikesh in February, to put together a 30-track album of musical versatility. Ranging from the brand of pop they so exemplified, to rock and blues via the Orient, the White Album was a musical adventure with classics such as 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps', 'Helter Skelter', 'Back In The USSR' and more.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s final studio album Electric Ladyland was also the band’s only number 1 album. Featuring an electrifying cover of Bob Dylan’s 'All Along the Watchtower', the album is also renowned for what Joe Satriani popularly called “the Holy Grail of guitar expression and technique” 'Voodoo Chile'. With 'Crosstown Traffic', 'Gypsy Eyes' and 'Burning of the Midnight Lamp' too featuring in the album, Electric Ladyland gave the uniquely Hendrix sound another overhaul.


For the highly established bands, 1968 was crucial in setting the foundation for what would be subsequently called arena rock. As reported in the LA Times, “Thanks to back-to-back league expansions by the NBA in 1966 and the NHL the following year, a bumper crop of new sports arenas — most notably the Forum in Inglewood and Madison Square Garden Arena in New York — opened to house multiple new sports franchises: 14 NBA teams and a half dozen for the NHL in a relatively short period.”

They were preceded by English power trio Cream and opening act Deep Purple. On its farewell tour, Cream headlined Madison Square Garden's first rock concert on 2 November 1968. The Doors, which until then had been a club and small theatre staple, headlined at the Forum on 14 December 1968. In the next few years, the concert business experienced a great side effect to developments in the world of sports. The advent of these large sized venues that also regularly hosted music's biggest names, brought about the streamlining of the live music space in terms of its structure, content and economics.


In the decades to follow, there have been many commemorative album reissues and anniversary tour by bands across generations. But the iconoclastic nature of 1968 makes the celebrations half a century later in 2018 seem just as unique. Fleetwood Mac announced earlier this year that they will be going on what appears to be a final tour. The Doors have announced that the 50th anniversary reissue of Waiting for the Sun will also feature 14 unreleased tracks. Deep Purple are on their commemorative Long Goodbye Tour, also said to be their farewell tour.

Yes is so thrilled about its 50th birthday that there are two Yes bands currently celebrating the band’s milestone. The official Yes is helmed by guitarist Steve Rowe while the other band called Yes ARW features founding vocalist Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman.

Led Zeppelin, it is understood, is working on a series of tribute concerts featuring other musicians paying homage to the Zeppelin legacy. Flautist-vocalist Ian Anderson is currently on a musical celebration of the band’s half century legacy. Officially billed as 'Ian Anderson Presents 50 Years of Jethro Tull', the frontman is clear that this isn’t a Jethro Tull gig per se.

A lot has changed in this half century in the world of rock music and live performances. With changing fan tastes, newer genres and sub-genres making their way into our consciousness, and technology changing the way we consume music today, celebrating a 50-year milestone gains even more prominence given how historic a year 1968 was in the first place. To even be able to sustain a legacy that has long outlived the longevity of the band — as in the case of Led Zeppelin that disbanded in 1980 — or to survive the various addictions and tantrums that have threatened the existence of many such bands, is nothing short of a feat. For record labels, previously unreleased tracks of some of these bands make for great opportunities. For concert promoters, bands going on a nostalgic celebration of their own brilliance is huge draw.

But finally, for fans who play a big role in keeping an artist or band alive, commemorative editions and celebratory tours are a reminder that some chapters in history are far more prolific than some others.

And just like Benjamin Braddock, an entire generation of music fans came in to 1968 unsure of what the future holds for them. Legions of fans can retrospectively affirm that it was eventually the year that rock music came of age.

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Updated Date: Jul 08, 2018 16:40:08 IST