First Friday: January 1968

Originally posted January 4, 2008

(This is the first of what I plan to be monthly posts this year, a series called “First Friday,” looking at that long-ago year of 1968, with an accompanying album from 1968. It would be really cool if the albums end up being posted in their anniversary month, but I doubt that will happen, as I’m not that organized. The albums featured, I hope, won’t be the usual suspects but they won’t be utterly obscure, either, so the series will at times include, no doubt, albums that are in print on CD, which is something I generally try to avoid.)

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 when one listened to the radio, one heard, among others:

“Baby, Now That I’ve Found You” by the Foundations
“Bottle of Wine” by the Fireballs
“I Wish It Would Rain” by the Temptations
“I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight” by Boyce & Hart
“Love is Blue” by Paul Mauriat
“Monterey” by Eric Burdon & the Animals
“Nobody But Me” by the Human Beinz
“Some Velvet Morning” by Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood
“Sunday Mornin’” by Spanky & Our Gang

For this initial First Friday post, I decided to start the year with an album that ranks high on my list of albums all-time, not just in 1968: Realization by Johnny Rivers.

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.

As so many of the songs on the album blend into the next song, I’ve ripped the album as two long mp3s, one for Side One and the other for Side Two, representing how the album sounded on vinyl.

Tracks, Side One:
Hey Joe
Look To Your Soul
The Way We Live
Summer Rain
Whiter Shade of Pale

Tracks, Side Two:
Brother, Where Are You
Something Strange
What’s The Difference
Going Back To Big Sur
Positively 4th Street

Johnny Rivers – Realization [1968]

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