First Wednesday: January 1968

In this space ten years ago, I put up a series of monthly posts looking at the year of 1968, then forty years gone. I thought it would be interesting to rerun those posts this year as we mark the fiftieth anniversary of that remarkable and often horrifying year. We’ll correct errors or make notes as necessary, but the historic portion of the posts will otherwise be unchanged. As to music, we’ll update our examination of charts from fifty years ago and then, when possible, share the same full albums from 1968 as we did ten years ago, but this time – as is our habit now – as YouTube videos. The posts will appear on the first Wednesday of each month.

Looking at the list Wikipedia presents of events that took place in January 1968, one wonders if the year started with a sense of foreboding. Probably not.

We have the advantage of hindsight, of course, so – to take one example – when we see in a list of events the notation, “January 5 – Prague Spring: Alexander Dubček is elected leader of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia,” we know that the Prague Spring, the easing of social and political repression in that small corner of Eastern Europe, was doomed. We remember the news footage from August showing Soviet tanks in Prague and in other cities. We recall the reports of students and other protestors shot or arrested as a new and much more repressive government took over, one whose approach continued for another twenty-one years, until the Communists in Prague fell in the series of mostly peaceful revolutions of 1989-90.

If there was no sense of foreboding, of tense anticipation as the year’s events began to spin out in January, there is now, forty years later, when one reads the list. It reminds me of something film director Alfred Hitchcock said once. He described a scene in which a woman comes in off the street, climbs a staircase and finds a dead body. The best way to show the scene, he said, is not to follow the woman and show her finding the body, but to show the body in its place and show the woman entering the building. Then, Hitchcock said, keep the camera on the street. The audience knows what the woman will find, and the anticipation of her discovery will heighten the tension and horror.

So when one reads the list of the events of January 1968, it’s like watching the first moments of that scene, like we’re watching the world enter the building of 1968. We know the building is full of bodies.

On January 23, North Korea seizes the U.S. ship The Pueblo, claiming that the ship violated its territorial waters, with more than eighty U.S. sailors and officers taken prisoner. The crew was moved twice to POW camps during the ensuing months, and – crewmen said after their release in December – was systematically starved and tortured. That treatment was said to have worsened, Wikipedia notes, when the North Koreans realized that the sailors were flipping the camera off during the taking of propaganda photos.

On January 30, the Tet (or New Year’s) offensive, an attack by the People’s Army of [North] Vietnam and Viet Cong guerillas, began in Vietnam. As I wrote in an earlier post, Americans had been assured time and again by military and political leaders that the opposition was were no longer strong enough to mount major operations. Oops! During the Tet offensive, some of the fighting took place on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in the city that was then called Saigon.

It was not an auspicious start to the new year. There were, of course, some more pleasant events during the month. The NBC network aired the premiere of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Johnny Cash recorded his live album, At Folsom Prison. In Super Bowl III on January 12, the New York Jets, in what has been described as one of the two most important professional football games ever played (the 1958 NFL title game is the other), defeated the Baltimore Colts 16-7.

(And that bit about the New York Jets and Super Bowl III is wrong, of course. The championship game played in 1968, as faithful reader Steve reminded me in a comment, “was Super Bowl II, where the Vince Lombardi-led Green Bay Packers repeated as champions, defeating the Oakland Raiders.” Thanks, Steve!)

Here are the Top 15 records from the Billboard Hot 100 released on January 6, 1968:

“Hello Goodbye” by the Beatles
“Daydream Believer” by the Monkees
“Judy In Disguise (With Glasses)” by John Fred & His Playboy Band
“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Gladys Knight & The Pips
“Woman, Woman”by Gary Puckett & The Union Gap
“I Second That Emotion” by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
“Chain of Fools” by Aretha Franklin
“Bend Me, Shape Me” by the American Breed
“Boogaloo Down Broadway” by The Fantastic Johnny C.
“Skinny Legs And All” by Joe Tex
“Honey Chile” by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas
“Green Tambourine” by the Lemon Pipers
“If I Could Build My Whole World Around You” by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
“Summer Rain” by Johnny Rivers
“Incense & Peppermints” by the Strawberry Alarm Clock

Sitting at No. 50 was “Dear Eloise” by the Hollies, and “Born Free” by the Hesitations was at No. 100.

And the record at No. 14, Johnny Rivers’ “Summer Rain,” leads perfectly into the album I shared here ten years ago, Rivers’ Realization. Here’s what I wrote about it then:

While the album’s single, “Summer Rain” is well-known – it went to No. 14 during the winter of 1968-69 – and is a great song, it’s quite likely not the best track on the album. The entire album is full of sparkling performances, but if I had to select three that stand above the rest, I’d go with “Look To Your Soul,” written by James Hendricks (who also wrote “Summer Rain”), “Brother, Where Are You,” written by Oscar Brown, and Rivers’ own composition, “Going Back to Big Sur.”

It’s difficult, though, to separate out those tracks, as the entire album is truly great. Among the eye-openers are three covers: The album’s first track, “Hey Joe,” credited here to William M. Roberts and Rivers; “Whiter Shade of Pale,” released only a year earlier by Procol Harum; and Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street.”

Personnel on the record included Hal Blaine on drums and percussion, James Burton on guitar, James Hendricks on rhythm guitar, Joe Osborn on guitar and bass and Marty Paitch in charge of the strings and the horns. Rivers produced the album.

There’s nothing there I disagree with now, ten years later. Back then, I knew that the story of the origins of “Hey Joe” was a complicated one, so I just listed the credits as they were on the LP (and eventually got around to touching on the writing of “Hey Joe” in another January 2008 post about the Indigo Girls’ cover of “Get Together”).

I suppose I should note that over the years, I have included Rivers’ “Summer Rain” in the list of my four favorite singles of all time. It remains there.

The tracks on Realization are:

Hey Joe
Look To Your Soul
The Way We Live
Summer Rain
Whiter Shade Of Pale
Brother, Where Are You
Something’s Strange
What’s The Difference
Going Back To Big Sur
Positively 4th Street


2 Responses to “First Wednesday: January 1968”

  1. Steve E. says:

    I look forward to the further installments of the 1968 series (I hadn’t discovered your blog when it ran a decade ago). That was the year “I came in” as far as pop and rock music and buying singles and listening to the radio (KHJ in Southern California). I was 10. Until that year, I had a couple of Beatles albums, but ’68 was the key year of discovery. I also adore “Summer Rain” and Rivers’ material from that period. I do have one correction, though: The Super Bowl game played in January 1968 was Super Bowl II, where the Vince Lombardi-led Green Bay Packers repeated as champions, defeating the Oakland Raiders. The famous Jets-Colts game was in January 1969.

  2. whiteray says:

    Now how did I manage to mess that one up, being the football fan I am? And I’m surprised that none of my football fan friends noticed it – or mentioned it to me – when the piece first ran. Thanks, Steve!

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