I read an opinion piece the other day about Tommy at 50. You may ask, Tommy who? Tommy, by the Who, which was released 50 years ago this month.
The online column was interesting and well done, and gave the album — a landmark work for one of the great rock and roll bands of the 1960s and ’70s — the credit it is due. Personally, in the category of rock operas written by Pete Townshend, my preference is for Quadrophenia, but I like Tommy a lot.
But the article set me to thinking about the time when the Who’s first rock opera album came out, 1969. That was an amazing year for rock albums — if not the high point of the LP-as-art-form trend, certainly the beginning of its heyday.
The year got off with a bang, with the Jan. 5 release of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bayou Country. Although it was not critically acclaimed (and its making foreshadowed the coming collapse of America’s hottest band at the time), and it was not the commercial success that CCR’s other two 1969 albums were, it was a No. 7 and produced the two-sided No. 2 hit single, “Born on the Bayou/Proud Mary.”
Coming out a week later, and more in tune with the album-as-concept idea, was the self-titled debut album of Led Zeppelin. Reviewed negatively at first, the LP put the three-month-old band on the map, charted at No. 10 and eventually gained regard as a turning point in rock; it ranks at No. 44 on Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”
The day after the Zepp rollout, Yellow Submarine was released. The soundtrack to the animated film of the same name, and the fulfillment of a contractural obligation for the Fab Four, it was much less of a concept than the Beatles albums that preceded and followed it; it did, however, include new material of some quality, and showcased George Harrison’s blossoming songwriting skills.
The third week of the month saw the release of a critically-acclaimed but since-neglected Aretha Franklin LP, Soul ’69; Iron Butterfly’s followup to In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, Ball; and Dr. John’s Babylon, the Doctor's musical diagnosis of what ailed us in 1968, a cataclysmic year for America. The remainder of January 1969 featured the eponymous solo debut album of Neil Young.
February opened with the release of Goodbye, the final studio album from Cream, which had disbanded two months earlier. The LP took some critical flak, but was a No. 2 in the U.S., and ranked in the top 150 of a “best albums of all time” poll of music critics.
The second week of the month debuted the Monkees’ first completely-post-TV-show album, Instant Replay; Cloud Nine, the Temptations’ — and Motown’s — first foray into psychedelic soul; and Post Card, the debut album for Mary Hopkin, produced by Paul McCartney and one of the early products of the Beatles’ Apple Records. Other albums released during February 1969 included the Flying Burrito Brothers’ debut LP, and Kick Out the Jams, the first offering from MC5, considered an influence on punk rock and a No. 294 on the Rolling Stone list.
March releases included debut albums from Free, Genesis and the James Gang. From Genesis to Revelation was notable for its dismal sales, literally numbering in the hundreds — record stores often mistakenly put it the religious music racks — and the fact that it caused the group to disband, reform as a full-time performing ensemble and go on to become a progressive rock monster.
Albums released in March 1969 also included two concept LPs from highly-successful acts. Odessa almost caused the breakup of the Bee Gees, was critically and commercially unsuccessful and led to a drop in popularity for the band that was only reversed by its 1980s disco turn.
The Rascals’ Freedom Suite was equally ambitious, a double LP that included one disk of instrumentals, artwork by the band members and the use of noted session musicians. It was greeted with critical disclaim, but charted at No. 17, and produced the group’s last No. 1 single, “People Got to Be Free.”
April 1 was no Fool’s Day, with the release of the debut album by Taste, the Irish band that brought us guitar wizard Rory Gallagher. Other initial offerings that April included Chicago Transit Authority, by the band that, under threat of lawsuit, had to change its name to just Chicago; With a Little Help from My Friends by Joe Cocker; and Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man from the Bob Seger System.
April 9 saw the release of Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, the critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful album on which the folkie-turned-rocker went completely country. Other notable April releases included: Uncle Meat by the Mothers of Invention, which broke new ground in recording techniques and electronic music; On the Threshold of a Dream, the Moody Blues’ third concept album and their most successful up to that point; P.J. Proby’s Three Week Hero, most notable as the first time that the four members of Led Zeppelin played together, when it was recorded in September 1968; and the Broadway cast recording of Hair, an album that spent 13 weeks at No. 1.