Sounds of ’69: first time plays

Jan 2019 Sounds of ’69: first time plays

By Pat Murphy

Looking back a half-centu­ry, 1969 was a pretty decent year for pop music. Here are 10 records to prove the point. The organisation is chronological, based on my recollection of when I first heard them on Toronto radio.

The Fifth Dimension: Aquari­us/Let the Sunshine In

Although I wasn’t initially keen on this, it did eventually grow on me. It’s actually a medley of two songs from the (then con­troversial) stage show Hair. As producer Bones Howe put it, he decided to “jam them together like two trains.”

Glen Campbell: Galveston

This came to market at the peak of Glen’s popularity. His imme­diately previous single – Wichi­ta Lineman – had sold a million, his North American prime-time weekly TV show was a big rat­ings winner and his musical col­laboration with songwriter Jimmy Webb was still humming.

Interestingly, while Webb vis­ualised Galveston as a Vietnam War protest song, Glen chose not to present it that way.

Frank Sinatra: My Way

Legend has it that Sinatra came to detest My Way, but felt stuck with it. If true, this would be another example of an artiste intensely disliking a particularly emblematic item from his reper­toire. And loved or not, it’s the biggest UK seller he ever had.

My Way began life as a 1967 French song that Paul Anka acquired the right to adapt, write English lyrics for, and publish. Knowing that a fed-up Sinatra was contemplating retirement, he turned the raw material into a tailor-made per­sonal testament. Imbued with swagger, attitude and defiance, it fitted the Sinatra public perso­na like an expensive bespoke suit.

Peter Sarstedt: Where Do You Go To, My Lovely?

This is one of my favourite pop records. Melodic, clever and distinctive, Sarstedt’s self-com­posed chart-topper is a bona-fide gem.

The musicologist Mark Steyn has characterised the record as “a wacky one-off Eurowaltz heavy on the accordion, that skewers with absolute precision the cultural moment.” That’s exactly right.

Lyrically, the song speaks of chic conti­nentals, 60s jet-setting and inner loneliness. You could even call it cynical, but it’s not cruel.

Simon & Garfunkel: The Boxer

This is another durably first-class piece. Along with Mrs Robinson, it ranks as the very best of Paul Simon’s songwriting and Simon & Garfunkel’s recording.

Ostensibly about poverty and loneliness in New York City, The Boxer is really about Simon’s own personal experi­ence with critics. After a couple of years of effusive praise, sud­denly some negative stuff began to come his way, which he found difficult to deal with. The lyric’s battered boxer is a stand-in for Simon himself.

One might be tempted to view this as a pampered musician’s excursion into self-pity. But whether it was or wasn’t, it’s still a great record.

Creedence Clearwater Revival: Bad Moon Rising

The quartet that became Creedence Clearwater Revival had been playing together for almost a decade before striking gold in 1968. Then, the follow­ing year – 1969 – they truly scaled the heights with four smash singles and three huge albums.

Written by lead vocalist/lead guitarist John Fogerty, Bad Moon Rising is swamp rock at its finest. The group may have hailed from San Francisco, but there’s no hint of West Coast psychedelia or flower power in the music. Calling it a driving rocker grossly understates the level of energy and power that it brings to the table.

And the B-side – Lodi – is equally compelling.

The Beatles: Get Back

For me, Rubber Soul represent­ed The Beatles at their peak. After that, things became much spottier. Yes, there were gems like Eleanor Rigby, but there were also excursions into com­plexity and special effects that just didn’t work for me.

Get Back is different. Written by Paul McCartney, it’s a real back-to-basics toe-tapper. When I first heard it, I was vaguely reminded of Chuck Berry at his most infectious.

The Archies: Sugar, Sugar

I know we’re supposed to turn-up our noses at bubble gum music, to dismiss it as mere kid­die fodder. But, who among us is truly immune to the seductive charms of a catchy tune with an earworm hook?

Tommy Roe had two such entries in 1969 – Dizzy and Heather Honey. And very late in the year, Vanity Fare came along with Hitchin’ a Ride. However, Sugar, Sugar (Ron Dante) was the genre’s sweetest 1969 example.

Although credited as record­ing artistes on the label, The Archies weren’t a real group but rather a studio ensemble put together by Don Kirshner to provide music for the TV series inspired by the Archie comic strip. Sugar, Sugar – their third single – was a monster interna­tional hit, topping charts in North America and Europe. It spent 18 weeks on Billboard’s US Top 40.

Elvis Presley: Suspicious Minds

Elvis Presley’s recording career can be divided into three acts.

Act 1 was the mid-to-late 50s when the erstwhile Hillbilly Cat morphed into the wildly suc­cessful rock ‘n’ roller. Substan­tially different from any previ­ous pop idol, he generated great controversy and not a little trep­idation, all of which magnified his attraction to his youthful audience.

Act 2 was the post-army peri­od in the early 60s. Although more restrained and polished than the earlier incarnation, he could still make formidable records.

Then came Act 3, kick-started by the celebrated December 1968 TV special, where he shook off the ennui of his later Hollywood years. Suspicious Minds is one of the high points of that revival.

Described as “a grown-up tale of love and infidelity,” Suspi­cious Minds was written and first recorded by Mark James. But his 1968 release did nothing commercially. And while the Elvis version borrowed heavily from the James arrangement, the vocal was very different, bring­ing an edge and a pres­ence that the original didn’t have. After a seven year absence, Elvis was back at the top of Bill­board’s US chart.

Neil Diamond: Holly Holy

Neil Diamond already had five US Top 20 singles under his belt when I saw him perform live at a Toronto night­club in early 1968. And his records were in regular rotation on the city’s premier Top 40 radio station. Surprisingly, though, the size and enthusiasm of his audience was less than overwhelming, comparing unfa­vourably with what I’d seen for The Everly Brothers at the same venue a few months earlier.

But if Diamond was somehow under-appreciated in 1968, that all changed the following year. Two million-selling 1969 hits – Sweet Caroline and Holly Holy – exponentially elevated his profile. I wasn’t too keen on Sweet Caroline but I was very fond of Holly Holy.

Gospel-like in feel, it built with a barely controlled intensi­ty. I was even sufficiently moti­vated to acquire the album on which it featured.

So there you have it, 10 of the best from 1969. And here’s the thing: I could easily add another 10 without materially diluting the quality.

A native of Ireland, Pat

Murphy now lives in Toronto, Canada.