First Wednesday: June 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 update information 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.

As 1968 entered June, nearing its halfway mark, the body blows kept coming.

June 5 was a Wednesday, one of the first days of summer vacation, so I slept in, as did my mom. We weren’t sluggards, but neither of us had risen with Dad as he left for the college before seven o’clock, which was his custom. Instead, we wandered downstairs about eight o’clock.

And there was a note on the kitchen table, in Dad’s distinctive hand, sharing the news he’d heard on the radio as he had his breakfast: Senator Robert F. Kennedy had been shot in Los Angeles after winning the previous day’s California primary. He was in critical condition. I’m not sure if it actually said so, but the note at least gave the impression that Kennedy’s survival was unlikely.

I was not necessarily a supporter of Bobby Kennedy; I had some parochial pride that two of the Democratic candidates for president – Eugene McCarthy and Hubert H. Humphrey – were Minnesotans. I was, however, beginning to pay some attention to Kennedy’s message, and so – I think – was my father. My mother’s political sympathies, I know, were on the other side of the aisle. But those preferences and differences were unimportant at that moment.

I remember standing there, next to my mom, looking at the note, reading it a second time. Its content was, as had been so much already that year, difficult to grasp, to process. To a boy of fourteen – even to a fairly bright boy who kept up pretty well with current events – it was one more piece of an adult-sized puzzle, a mystery that seemed further and further from solution as every bit of new information came to light. The import of the morning’s news and its insanity – there is no other word for it – tumbled through my mind as I ate breakfast and went out to take care of my only chore of the day.

And I remember clearly that as I pushed the lawn mower that morning, I was distracted. It struck me as strange, as somehow wrong and disrespectful, to be doing something so ordinary, so mundane, while in a distant hospital room a life, a family and – yes, I thought this – maybe even the country hung on the edge of tragedy. And early the next morning, Robert Kennedy died.

The next days felt unhappily familiar and unreal: The ceremonies of grief and farewell, the funeral in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the slow train ride from New York to Washington, D.C. with crowds of mourners lining the tracks. My attention wandered; I was tired of grief, conflict and anger, and that seemed to be all the adult world was offering. So I paid less attention to those ceremonies than I otherwise might have.

And when those events ended, the rest of the month went by with little notice. In an odd bit of cosmic timing, James Earl Ray, the suspected killer of Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested in London on the day of Robert Kennedy’s funeral. And with that, the major news of June pretty much ended.

The days lengthened, at least for a couple more weeks, and turned warmer. For all the sorrow that 1968 had brought so far, there was a summer. And I think a lot of us moved toward that warm season numbly, wondering “What next?”

During those moments we sought comfort from music, as many of us always have done, what did we hear that month? Here’s the top fifteen from the Billboard Hot 100 for June 1, 1968:

“Mrs. Robinson” by Simon & Garfunkel
“The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” by Hugo Montenegro
“A Beautiful Morning” by the Rascals
“Tighten Up” by Archie Bell and the Drells
“Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro
“Yummy Yummy Yummy” by the Ohio Express
“Mony Mony” by Tommy James and the Shondells
“Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
“Cowboys to Girls” by the Intruders
“Do You Know The Way To San Jose” by Dionne Warwick
“This Guy’s In Love With You” by Herb Alpert
“MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris
“Think” by Aretha Franklin
“Love Is All Around” by the Troggs
“She’s Lookin’ Good” by Wilson Pickett

Well, that’s about seventy percent okay. Of the top four, I can imagine a large number of people looking askance at the Hugo Montenegro single, but I’ve always loved it for some reason. So the first four on that list are just fine with me. The bottom eight are fine, too: “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” was one of best things Marvin and Tammi did during their too-brief time as partners; the Intruders’ track is pleasant, if a little slight; and “Do You Know The Way To San Jose” might be the third best thing among these fifteen, challenged for that spot only by the Marvin and Tammi duet, “Mrs. Robinson” or “Think.” As to the top two for me, the Alpert single and “MacArthur Park” have always been favorites of mine.

But those other three, from No. 5 through No. 7! They look like a bad tongue twister. Of the three, the Goldsboro is the worst, but I’ve never cared much for the other two, either. Those three singles would create a ten-minute segment on the oldies countdown when I’d find a reason to leave the room, maybe change the furnace filter or take out the recycling.

You’ll note that even the good singles there are all pretty light. There are some R&B grooves in “Tighten Up” and hints of that in “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” and “Cowboys to Girls,” but this is a pretty soft Top Ten. Maybe the album chart was a little tougher.

Bookends by Simon & Garfunkel
The Graduate soundtrack by Simon & Garfunkel and Dave Grusin
The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees by the Monkees
The Beat of the Brass by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass
Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme by Simon & Garfunkel
Honey by Bobby Goldsboro
Aretha: Lady Soul by Aretha Franklin
The Good, The Band And The Ugly soundtrack by Ennio Morricone
Disraeli Gears by Cream
Music From “A Fistful of Dollars” & “For A Few Dollars More” & “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” by Hugo Montenegro

Again, those are pretty light, with only the Cream and the Aretha entries having much weight, although it should be noted that Simon & Garfunkel were always a good listen. The soundtrack to The Good, The Band And The Ugly had originally been released with the film in 1966 and popped back into the album charts after the success of Montenegro’s album of covers.

I’m not sure when the album I’m sharing today was released, beyond the fact that it was 1968. And it’s an odd album, even though there are portions of it that I enjoy very much.

Fever Tree came out of Houston, Texas, and recorded and released four albums between 1968 and 1970 without drawing much attention. In fact, I’d wager that the group is better known these days as a result of its music having been released on CD than it ever was back in the Sixties.

Still, there is some interesting music in Fever Tree’s catalog, especially on the first, self-titled album from 1968. The song that most folks know is “San Francisco Girls (Return of the Native),” which has popped up on a number of anthologies over the years, including one of the highly regarded Nuggets collections in the 1980s. It’s a track that, if not great, is at least fun to listen to and worthy of some attention because of, All-Music Guide notes, its “dramatic melody, utopian lyrics, and searing fuzz guitar.”

(Ten years ago, my music library was in process, so I was unable to report that a single release of “San Francisco Girls (Return of the Native)” had spent six weeks in the Billboard Hot 100 but never got any higher than No. 91. It was Fever Tree’s only chart entry. As to the album, it went to No. 156 on the Billboard 200. I should also note that when it came time to compile the records in my Ultimate Jukebox in early 2010, “San Francisco Girls (Return of the Native)” was one of the 240 records included.)

The rest of the album? Well, it’s all over the musical map. The opening track – “Imitation Situation 1 (Toccata and Fugue)/Where Do You Go?” – begins with a Bach quote and a snippet of what sounds like a lift from an Ennio Morricone soundtrack before settling into a swirling song that alternates harsh vocals and lilting flute. On my first listening some time ago, that first track reminded me of a review of another musician I once read, noting that the performer in question “never threw away any idea.” That’s kind of the sense I got about Fever Tree and its producers, Scott and Vivian Holtzman (who wrote or co-wrote all of the original material on Fever Tree).

Elsewhere on the records, the Wilson Pickett cover “Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won’t Do),” doesn’t work all that well as a psychedelic freakout, but a couple other covers connect: A medley of the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” and “We Can Work It Out” includes sly brass quotes from “Norwegian Wood” and “Eleanor Rigby,” and the cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” is simply beautiful.

Of the originals, beyond “San Francisco Girls (Return of the Native),” the two closers come off best. The other originals are not bad, but “Unlock My Door” and “Come With Me (Rainsong)” are mellow, maybe sentimental, and close very nicely an album that seems to have wandered all over the map before coming home at last.

Tracks:

Imitation Situation 1 (Toccata and Fugue)/Where Do You Go?
San Francisco Girls (Return of the Native)
Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won’t Do)
Man Who Paints The Pictures
Filigree & Shadow
Sun Also Rises
Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out
Nowadays, Clancy Can’t Even Sing
Unlock My Door
Come With Me (Rainsong)

Here’s a link that will take you to the entire album as an automatic playlist at YouTube: Fever Tree (1968).

Historical error corrected after first posting.

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