Music in 1969

Recently we talked about the transformative and culture-defining year of 1999. Thirty years before that—fifty years ago now—1969 was a transformative one too. The turbulent sixties were drawing to a close, ushering in a decade of stagnation and disco. Hollywood was changing, with grittier, more artistic films like Midnight Cowboy and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid reaching great acclaim. Momentous works of literature like The Slaughterhouse Five and A Boy and His Dog released. And we can’t leave out the most overrated concert in music history: Woodstock. Seriously, other than Jimi Hendrix’ National Anthem, there’s not a moment worth remembering from Woodstock.

That’s not to say popular music didn’t have a big year in 1969. On the contrary, it had one of its most important, as the old guard of rock and roll reached their swan song status, and new players in town burst onto the scene. Already we’ve looked back on Led Zeppelin and their big debut in 1969, but they weren’t the only artists to have a big year…

CCR GOES FOR BROKE

Creedence Clearwater Revival is sometimes thought of along the same lines as Lynyrd Skynyrd, with ignorant people deriding them as just another “southern” rock band with catchy hooks and not much to say. On the contrary: The California-based band, led by John Fogerty, had a lot to say, and they said most of it in a single year.

Their debut album came out in May of 1968 but it failed to make an impact. In 1969, however, the band recorded and released three albums, each one highlighting the band’s growing confidence, song-writing ability, and musical prowess.

The first, Bayou Country, released in January and gave the world Proud Mary…

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Their follow-up, Green River, dropped in August of 69 and released alongside the hit single Bad Moon Rising…

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By this point, the band had become humongous superstars, and their final album of the year, Willy and the Poor Boys, cemented their legendary status, featuring not only the classic Down on the Corner, but also one of the most ubiquitous Vietnam protest songs ever released, Fortunate Son…

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Though the band was not long for the world—they broke up just a couple years later—the impact they made in 1969 is still felt today, just as their music is still known today, fifty years later.

ELVIS TOUCHES THE MOUNTAINTOP ONE LAST TIME

I can’t talk about music from yesteryear and not mention Elvis. I’ve written too much on the subject not to write a bit more. In 1969 Elvis was coming off a much-needed comeback, having produced a highly successful TV special for NBC in December of ’68.

Looking to ride the momentum, he stepped into Chips Moman’s American Music studio and laid down close to thirty tracks, the best of which became the tremendous album, From Elvis in Memphis, and his final number one hit single, Suspicious Minds…

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The album is the last time Elvis was challenged in a studio setting, as Moman drove him to exhaustion recording take after take, insisting that he be perfect. It was the kind of drive that the younger, more eager, Presley had in the mid-50s but had lost during the doldrums of the mid-60s and its endless stream of boring soundtracks. The result is the last great Presley album, one of the best purely-rock and roll albums of the decade (featuring everything from Gospel to R&B, to Country, to Blues, to Rock), and a record that’s still a gem, fifty years later…

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After this, Presley signed with the International Hotel (later Hilton Hotel) in Las Vegas, recorded more sporadically and less enthusiastically, and began a seven-year plunge into drug-induced death. 1969 was the last year the King could sit confidently on his throne.

JOHNNY CASH TRIES FOR A REPEAT

A year ago we looked back on the fiftieth anniversary of Johnny Cash’s huge FOLSOM PRISON concert. It was the show that brought him back to the national spotlight and ended up being one of the best live recordings of the decade. Check out that article here…

Fifty Years ago Johnny Cash did Folsom Prison…

A year later, Johnny went back to the well and performed another concert, this time at the SAN QUENTIN PENITENTIARY. In almost every respect, the album/concert was the lesser of the two prison shows, but it did afford Cash the chance to serenade a crowd of hardened criminals (some of the most vicious ever incarcerated in California) with a little story about a boy named Sue…

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Cash never really went away. Jerry Lee Lewis dropped off the face of the earth before the end of the ’60s. Elvis went into seclusion died. Carl Perkins played back-up but never became a major recording star. Johnny Cash, however, kept plugging away. He had a hit here and a hit there throughout the ’70s, faded a bit more the ’80s and ’90s and then made a big comeback sprint just before his death. 1969 didn’t really represent his peak, nor was it his last hurrah in the spotlight, but it was the last time he commanded an audience as a “modern” force in music. From here on, he would be a relic, albeit an important one with a lot of stories left to tell.

THE BEATLES BID ADIEU

The Fab Four began 1969 riding high and giving none of their fans any reason to worry that an implosion was around the corner. They launched the Yellow Submarine soundtrack in the middle of January and followed it up with the infamous Rooftop Concert at the end of the month. To outside observers, the band was hard at work on their next album, and would soon begin hard work on the one after that, etc.

Little did anyone (outside the band) know that this was the last gasp before the end.

Sure, the Let It Be album came out in 1970 but its material was recorded in early 1969. It was shelved and deemed less than the quality the band expected for a major studio release. With tensions high, particularly between John and Paul, the group reconvened in April to work again on a new album. And even though it wasn’t plainly stated, everyone involved later would say they all had an unspoken understanding that it would be their last time working together as a foursome.

It was.

The result of their efforts was Abbey Road, one of the band’s greatest achievements, particularly on its second side, which features a medley of unfinished song fragments and little bits of nothing, strung together into a symphony of rock and roll. There are too many gems on the album to pick out only one or two; if you have never listened to it, I can’t imagine why not (expect a full retrospective on it in October).

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If I had to highlight just one song, however, it would be that medley, particularly the final movement.

It’s impossible for me to listen to Abbey Road and follow it up with the vastly inferior Let It Be. When I do my annual listen of the Beatles catalogue, I slot Let It Be (the “naked” album version) in where it belongs, between the White Album and the band’s true finale, Abbey Road, giving that 1969 the proper placement it deserves, as the band’s true farewell performance.

*****

Nineteen sixty-nine was a long time ago, but some of the music that released in that year still resonates today.

What is your favorite song/album from the last year of the ’60s?

Let us know in the comments below.

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