The Summer of Love wasn’t just over, it died. The peace and love ideals of the hippies were challenged in 1968 with the assassinations of Dr King and Bobby Kennedy. The DNC riots resulted in the Democratic Party looking like the party of chaos, and Richard Nixon assumed the White House on a law and order ticket. The Tet Offensive at the beginning of 1968 had turned public opinion on the war in Vietnam from a necessary struggle to fight Socialism into a meaningless unwinnable quagmire. England was still climbing out of the economic disaster from the Second World War as the first generation to not have to fear conscription was still rising. But what’s better for music than a little political turmoil?
1967-1969 (arguably even 1970) were probably the most defining, revolutionary years for popular music. From Bob Dylan’s retreat to Woodstock birthing Americana to Black Sabbath and Deep Purple developing heavy metal to David Bowie’s breakthrough of glam rock, it’s enough to write several books on (and believe me, people have). But in this 50th Anniversary of 1969, I thought it appropriate to look back at the albums from that year that shaped what we know as music today. It’s far too much for me to cover in one short article, but I’ll do my best to cover everything that formed the music I listen to.
1969 started out with a bang with the release of Led Zeppelin. The greatest cover album ever released (it has been argued by greater scholars than I that there is only one original song on that album, “Good Times Bad Times”), Jimmy Page broke out of the jangly bluesy mold The Yardbirds had put him in and created a whole new type of music. Haunting and eerie on songs like “Dazed and Confused” (Jake Holmes) and “How Many More Times” (Howlin Wolf), along with hard core rock and roll on “Good Times Bad Times” and “Your Time Is Gonna Come,” Led Zeppelin ushered in a new era of music in January with this release. Their follow up that October Led Zeppelin II would build on these themes and be met with more commercial success (Zep II charted higher than Zep III the month the latter came out), with “Whole Lotta Love” being a defining moment for them in pop culture.
The public didn’t have much time to recover from Zep’s breakthrough before MC5 broke down another door with their live album Kick Out The Jams. There is no better summary of the political beliefs of the youth of this year than the intro monologue to this album. Although there were punk songs before Kick Out The Jams (notably “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks and “Wild Thing” by The Troggs), MC5 became the first band to make it big with a punk LP. The energy on tracks like “Ramblin’ Rose” and “Motor City Is Burning” is something bands for the rest of time would struggle to achieve. Bluesier than what we usually think of as “punk,” MC5 built off the Canned Heat records of 1967 and 1968, but brought their energy and anger to a new level unmatched by electric blues bands before them.
Fairport Convention is the most forgotten band I’ll be addressing. Richard Thompson’s first band went through a transformation in 1969 as they released their first record with singer Sandy Denny, who became an icon in her own right. The evolution across the three albums they released over the course of this year, starting from the very folky What We Did On Our Holidays to the slightly more rock and roll Unhalfbricking until in December they broke through with Liege and Lief to develop possibly the first folk punk album. “Meet On The Ledge,” off What We Did remains their most enduring song, most recently covered by Greta Van Fleet on their From The Fires double EP.
It was a tumultuous time for Small Faces and The Jeff Beck Group which would prove good for Ian MacLagan, Ronnie Lane, and Kenney Jones. Effective January 1st, 1969, Steve Marriott was out of Small Faces, leaving them in a pickle. Marriott was their guitarist and singer (Ronnie Lane was a lovely guitarist, but preferred bass guitar in this period), so they were out of luck it seemed. Until, after the release of Beck-Ola, the second breakthrough record by ex-Yardbirds guitarist Jeff Beck, Ronnie Wood was fired and Rod Stewart left in solidarity. The two joined up with the former Small Faces, who rebranded themselves Faces (as Rod and Ronnie were a fair bit larger than the founding four members), and started work on the finest moment in any of their discographies.
Americana was also born in 1969. After Bob Dylan’s motorcycle accident, he had retreated to Woodstock, NY with his World Electric Tour band and Levon Helm. These five would become The Band and in September they released their groundbreaking self titled album. The second album by The Band, this album broke through to the mainstream in a way that Music From Big Pink would only do after this album brought attention to it. Musicians across the world started embracing folk music again and growing out their beards to mimic Levon. Although it contains none of The Band’s most enduring hits, it is definitely the most enduring album they would produce.
There were two big goodbye’s in 1969 as well. Cream, the power trio that had defined the 1960s, bid the world farewell as Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce could no longer get along. It was one of the many signals that the 60s were over. Simultaneously, The Beatles were at each other’s throats as John Lennon started to loathe McCartney and George Harrison felt neglected. Although 1970’s Let It Be is technically the last Beatles record made, it was the one where the band had resigned to breaking up and much was composed or recorded in isolation from other members. In this way, September 1969’s Abbey Road is the last true Beatles album, and the song suite that is Side 2 of that album (“Sun King” through “The End”) remains one of the most powerful sides in the history of vinyl, and proves the value of the album format more than even Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
I can only scratch the surface of the breakthroughs of music throughout 1969. I have neglected in this to discuss much of prog rock or heavy metal’s development, nor the advances in folk music beyond The Band. But I hope this provides a glimpse into this revolutionary year in popular music.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.