Tuesday, 06 January 2009

It’s been a while since I posted an installment of My Life In Music. Since I’ve been writing a lot of new stuff lately, and finishing up some old ones, I thought it was high time for the next chapter: 1968.

1968 brought us the formation of Yes, Rush, The Carpenters, Led Zeppelin. Warren Zevon also started his musical career that year, and we saw Janis Joplin start her solo career after parting ways with Big Brother & the Holding Company. The Monkees ended their TV run after 58 episodes, the Beatles formed their record company, Apple Corps, Ltd., Gibson Guitar patented the Flying V design,and the musical Hair launched on Broadway.

But we’re here to talk about the music itself, not the comings and goings. And there’s quite a bit to talk about.

Let’s start with The Transformed Man by William Shatner. Yes, Capt. Kirk put out an album. It was a terrible mix of Shakespeare and pop lyrics. George Cloony once cited the album as a Desert Island Album — for its motivational qualities — “If you listen to [this song], you will hollow out your own leg and make a canoe out of it to get off this island.”

1968 also brought Bookends by Simon and Garfunkle. Notable for the songs “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” “At the Zoo,” and the unforgettable “Mrs. Robinson.”

Generally regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time, The White Album from the Beatles was released that year. And who could argue? Beatles classics like “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Dear Prudence,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Rocky Raccoon,” “Martha My Dear, “ “Blackbird,” “Julia,” “Birthday,” and “Helter Skelter” were all on this one. That’s a ton of great songs, many of which are my favorite Beatles tunes. Yet it’s still not my top pick for 1968.

Now, you might think I’m about to call out Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison as my choice for 1968 Album of the Year, and with good reason. The album, recorded at Folsom Prison (funny how that works), is quite possibly the best of Cash’s career. The title song, although recorded for an earlier release, leads off this one, and the album includes Cash’s well known renditions of a couple songs “Jackson” and “Orange Blossom Special.”

But, alas, no.

For me it’s Switched-On Bach by Wendy Carlos (Walter, at the time). S-OB, as the title implies, contains a selection of J. S. Bach compositions performed entirely on a Moog synthesizer. While they are fairly common by today’s standards, it was a pretty rare thing in 1968. Even for one song. Even as a background instrument for a single song. To record a whole album, where it’s the only instrument, it was completely unheard of. Yet there it is.

S-OB was reviled by some, but others were excited by the virtuosity in the work and recognized it for how groundbreaking it was. The album sold far better than anyone expected, and spawned a rash of synth albums — many just copycat renditions of redone classical works.

You have to give Switched-On Bach, and Wendy Carlos, a lot of credit. If it hadn’t been for Carlos and this single album, I don’t know that we’d have any electronic music today. You simply can’t deny the influence of a single work from which an entire musical genre is born.