The year 1968 was an incredible one for music. A year on from the summer of love and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, many of the best artists from the psychedelic ‘60s were taking their music to new and fascinating places as the hippy movement reached its peak. In this article, we’re taking a look at five albums that are celebrating their 50th birthday in 2018, and why these records have stood the test of time.
1.) The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland
The 1960s was a decade that spoke the language of the guitar, and nobody was more fluent than the legendary Jimi Hendrix. Electric Ladyland is the finest hour in his all-too-short discography, which was brought to an end when he overdosed on barbiturates and died at the age of 27. This album features countless all-time classics like ‘Crosstown Traffic’ (two of the most perfect minutes of rock music ever recorded), ‘Gypsy Eyes’ and ‘All Along the Watchtower’. Then there’s the absolutely epic ‘Voodoo Chile’, in which we can hear Hendrix writing himself into rock music mythology right before our very ears: ‘Oh the night I was born, lord I swear the moon turned a fire red…” Electric Ladyland oozes virtuosity, confidence and raw sexuality from its every note, even fifty years on.
2.) The Velvet Underground – White Light / White Heat
No artist from the 60s was as influential as The Velvet Underground. This is a band that were relatively unknown when they debuted in 1967, but in the presiding 50 years their experimental and noisy songs have been a blueprint for generations of forward-thinking rock musicians. White Light/White Heat is their weirdest and darkest album as well as my personal favourite – it features scuzzy, lo-fi rock songs about heroin, orgies, and a lobotomy, as well as ‘The Gift’, in which an entire short story is read aloud to music. And to top it all off is the infamous ‘Sister Ray’, a controversial, 17-minute noise rock freak-out that is pure, uncensored chaos. The Velvet Underground were always torn between the musical interests of their two primary songwriters: the experimental John Cale and classic popsmith Lou Reed. But on White Light/White Heat, they found the perfect balance of beauty and filth, and created an experimental rock album for the ages.
3.) The Beatles – The White Album
The Beatles wrote and recorded much of their classic White Album – officially titled just The Beatles – while travelling in northern India. The group flew in to Rishikesh to visit Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a guru who taught them the practice of transcendental meditation. It was a trip intended to creatively recharge the group and bring them closer together, after they had burned out on touring and the music industry in 1966 and ’67. And though it did prove a fruitful period creatively, it also highlighted the growing division between the bands four members: McCartney, Lennon and Harrison wrote many of their songs separately, and the results were then compiled into one huge double album, thirty songs long. It’s for this reason that The White Album, as brilliant as it is, often feels quite uneven – there are timeless classics like ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and ‘Helter Skelter’, but there are also throwaway tunes like ‘Rocky Racoon’ and ‘Piggies’ that mostly serve as filler. In the end, you have to take the good with the bad and appreciate the whole for the brilliant, indulgent mess that it is.
4.) Van Morrison – Astral Weeks
Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is one of the most gorgeous albums ever recorded, but it’s a bit of a difficult record to pin down. Stylistically it is somewhere in between folk, jazz and soul, but its winding songs have an elusive, dreamlike quality. They feature strummed guitar, bass, violin, flute and many other instruments, all combining in semi-improvised harmony. Van Morrison’s wild scat singing style binds it all together, as his voice latches onto words and notes and spins them in dizzying patterns. His lyrics are poetic and difficult to make sense of, but always beautiful: “From the far side of the ocean / If I put the wheels in motion / And I stand with my arms behind me / And I’m pushin’ on the door…” Astral Weeks is the definition of a cult classic, and its stature has only grown over the course of the last 50 years. Today, it rightly takes its place among the greatest folk albums ever recorded.
5.) The Mothers of Invention – We’re Only In It For the Money
Many bands and listeners were swept up by the idealistic views of the 1960s, but Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were not among them. We’re Only In It For the Money is an album that tears down the hippy subculture, and its naïve belief that love, drugs and tie-dye t-shirts could change the world. The cover of the album is a parody of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, featuring the band members posing in frilly tutus. And the songs, likewise, miss no opportunity to skewer the long-haired stoners flocking to San Francisco and Woodstock: on ‘Who Needs the Peace Corps?’, Zappa sings “Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet / Psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street.” We’re Only In It For the Money is a surreal, satirical concept album that feels very much of the 1960s, but its quirky sense of humour and playful songwriting have allowed it to stand the test of time.