In 1969 man landed on the moon: back on Earth, rock got rolling

Buzz Aldrin on the moon looking at a Woodstock flag
(Image credit: NASA JSC Media Services Center)

In June 1969 the New Musical Express published a Top 20 albums chart for the first time, largely in response to a reader survey which concurred with the music paper’s finding that album sales were finally outstripping those of singles in the UK, following a trend established in the US the year before. 

While the music press had published Top 10 albums charts before this, the change in buying and listening patterns was significant. Retail sales on LPs were finally compiled and audited – much to the annoyance of the record companies who would find themselves in constant royalty payment conflict as the lunatics took over the asylum. 

The change was overdue. In the 1950s and 60s the 45rpm format held sway over long players and were often collated by accountants. Jukebox culture still ruled, with most homes owning primitive machines manufactured by the likes of Bush and Ferguson, which could play eight singles in succession – dropping them from a great height on to warped turntables; dusty styli promptly scratched them to distraction. 

But as one-hit wonders Thunderclap Newman noted on their Pete Townshend-produced single, there was Something In The Air, and while 1969 is far from being Year Dot as far as the development of the album goes there is no denying that it dates a complete shift in tastes. 

For one thing – in 1969 the structure of the music business changed, with groups on family-friendly package tours being replaced by all-nighters, a college circuit and festivals. Representing the latter, and the mantra ‘the man can’t bust our music’, Denver Pop, Atlanta Pop, the Atlantic City Rock Fest, the legendary Bath Festival, Woodstock, the Isle of Wight Festival and Altamont all symbolised a new communal expression, whereby the unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed chose to gather in fields, farms and speedway circuits to share in a cosmic ritual which suggested that the underground scene had become the mainstream. 

In 1969 pop music was almost an anachronism. Rock now ruled and the biggest bands began to believe their own publicity. They formed supergroups with endless permutations. Words like ‘sessions’ and ‘jams’ were borrowed from serious jazz buffs, along with an instrumental indulgence, all overthrowing the quaint notion of the disposable plastic platter. The standard patter of fave food/colour and ‘qualities looked for in a girl’ (blonde, wears a miniskirt, usually), replaced with earnest discussions about the Vietnam War and student sit-ins. With the world in conflict, chirpy little three-minute tunes seemed inappropriate.

Meanwhile, men were circling the Moon, and on July 21 would get out and take a highly significant ‘one giant leap’ on it. The Pink Floyd, guesting on BBC2’s Omnibus arts programme, commemorated the event by playing a hastily written composition, What If It’s Just Green Cheese? (later known as Moonhead) – very Syd Barrett, although their troubled frontman had long-since flown to another space. 

The 60s, having swung, were starting to become introspective as callow teens became quizzical 20-somethings with beards and bedsits to maintain, while their rock-star heroes were trading in their wives for new old ladies and developing a taste for real estate and posh motor cars and dabbling in being entrepreneurs. 

The Moody Blues, who released On The Threshold Of A Dream and To Our Children’s Children’s Children in 1969, started their own Threshold label and opened a chain of record shops in Surrey, and nobody batted an eyelid. 

Singles were hardly a dying art form yet they couldn’t contain the burgeoning pseudo-intellectual concerns of one John Lennon who began the year sharing a bag with his new missus Yoko Ono and ended it lounging around in bed all day in Amsterdam or Montreal with his enigmatic muse, pontificating about peace, drug busts, establishment-inspired crucifixion and his overall disaffection towards his other wife – The Beatles – and especially Paul McCartney.

The transition from loveable Mop Tops to Sacred Cows bothered our John almost as much as his antipathy towards Paul, who seemed to have usurped him as the leader and was evidently a much saner proposition when exposed to public scrutiny. Lennon noted: “On tour we were like fucking Roman Emperors. When we came to a town we took it over. It was like Caligula, or Fellini’s Satyricon.” For him, The Beatles could no longer be relied upon as a valid vehicle for expression. 

An adoring public made sure that The Beatles so-called 1968 White Album stayed in the charts all year, until Abbey Road emerged as the holy grail, but they wouldn’t have known of the anguish Lennon suffered when McCartney presented the group with chirpy songs Lennon despised – Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, Come And Get It, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and Teddy Boy being the major culprits. 

“We have millions of songs to sing… but how can we fit them into this little 10-minute thing?” he pondered. “This is the compromise of being The Beatles… there’s no more time for me to put a Revolution No. 9 on Beatles albums because that’s a John Lennon thing.” Evidently the band’s spirit was broken.  “I hated those novelty songs O-Bloody-Di and Maxwell’s. I told Paul – it’s mad for us to put those on an album when nobody digs ’em, just ’cos it’s going to be popular. The LP doesn’t have to be like that.” 

A shaken McCartney agreed he wasn’t so keen on them either. 

“So why not just give those to Marmalade and Mary Hopkin then?” Lennon sneered. “Those were only for singles at best… songs of that quality. For a Beatles album we should be doing songs we all dig.” 

McCartney was too tactful to point out that Lennon and Ono’s side projects – The Wedding Album, Two Virgins and Life With The Lions – weren’t filling Apple Records’ coffers, though in fact Apple enjoyed a profitable 1969. The subsequent tales of chaos within may have been true but John, Paul, George and Ringo used them to deflect attention from the fact they hated each other’s guts. 

As a sideswipe, however, McCartney, who had been the only Beatle to assist Lennon on The Ballad Of John And Yoko, provided a caustic sleevenote for the Two Virgins album: ‘When two great Saints meet, it is a humbling experience.’

The year 1969 also witnessed the birth of ‘head culture’. Unlike hippies, heads weren’t necessarily political. It was hippies who calmly walked into a disused office block on 144 Piccadilly in London and made squatting a household term. Eventually the police stormed the squat, assisted by gangs of marauding skinheads. Skins and suedeheads were the younger disaffected brothers of mod and despised everything that album-loving heads held dear. 

Sensing an imminent class war Pete Townshend and The Who wrote the first ‘rock opera’, Tommy, which they performed in its entirety in Bolton and then at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London with Townshend dressed like a cross between the warring factions, sporting a beard and steel toe capped bovver boots. 

Left to their own devices middle-class heads lapped up made in ’69 albums from The Moodies, The Nice, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Yes, Free, Fleetwood Mac and Deep Purple, who recorded a concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. 

Led Zeppelin epitomised the weird feeling of the time best. The former New Yardbirds refused to release singles at all in Britain yet brought out their groundbreaking first and second albums in short order, with guitarist Jimmy Page handling production. 

When Led Zeppelin headlined a Lyceum Sunday concert in October of ’69, with the import US single Whole Lotta Love in every fan’s collection, they received the highest single fee ever paid to a rock group in Great Britain. Meanwhile, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles had drafted in hard-nosed New York management operator Allen Klein who negotiated hugely improved royalty deals for his clients by telling EMI and Capitol that his charges would simply “sit on their arses for the next six years unless they get a fucking pay rise”.

The supergroups soon got a slice of that action by breaking up their previous bands and forming, effectively, rock corporations. Blind Faith contained ex-Cream members Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker, Traffic whiz kid Steve Winwood and former Family man Ric Grech. Although they released only one album, in 1969, each member made an estimated million dollars from the project. But that was peanuts compared to the $3 million per head picked up by Crosby, Stills And Nash from their debut. 

Former Buffalo Springfield legend Stephen Stills used his lolly to fly into London to buy a customised Rolls-Royce and Ringo Starr’s house, while former Byrd David Crosby bought a fleet of Mercedes Benz’s finest, and hippy Hollies cat Graham Nash bought up half of Cheshire. Associate CS&Y member Neil Young, himself a founder member of the Springfield, vacillated between releasing two grand solo albums, the self-titled debut and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, or joining CS&N, before climbing on board by the end of the year and snaffling himself a ranch in Topanga Canyon purchased with future earnings. 

Pop music couldn’t buy you this stuff, but the new rock deal certainly could. Rock stars were the risen elite, living high on the hog. In the US, albums became the important currency. The US’s biggest band The Doors went gold with The Soft Parade – even though its singles were relative flops. Bands such as Grand Funk Railroad, Santana, Vanilla Fudge and Blue Cheer were resolutely long-player oriented. The biggest emerging act, Creedence Clearwater Revival, bucked the anti-singles trend somewhat but still found time to make three platinum blockbusters in 1969 – Bayou Country, Green River and Willie And The Poor Boys

Elektra Records remained in the thick of the action. Their 1969 began with Jim Morrison arrested for indecent exposure and the loss of Arthur Lee and Love. By way of insurance they signed up the incendiary MC5, house band for the White Panther revolutionaries. The MC5 were allowed to release a live album containing the lyric ‘Kick out the jams motherfuckers’ but were dropped when they responded to local record chain Hudson’s objections by taking out a full page advert that shouted ‘Fuck Hudson’s’ using the Elektra logo. 

Fellow Detroit rockers The Stooges were no less menacing. Their signature punk anthem 1969 was an anarchic salvo of anger and boredom – ‘Another year of nothing to do’. Whether flummoxed by their attitude, or more likely their appalling sales figures, Elektra boss Jac Holzman passed on a third album and signed the accomplished soft rock group Bread, who didn’t rattle any cages.

The year 1969 was predominantly a time of flux. The 60s were about to end and there was a feeling of cosmic hangover about. Bedsit favourites Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, Tim Buckley and Joni Mitchell or folk rockers Blodwyn Pig, Family, Fairport Convention and Caravan became the alternative to frantic hedonism for those who sought a more purist streak, while there were truly peculiar singles to ponder over – the aforementioned Thunderclap Newman song Something In The Air, Zager & Evans’ In The Year 2525 and David Bowie’s astro-treading Space Oddity

Light relief was provided by bubblegum, exemplified by the Archies’ fantastic hit Sugar Sugar and The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s I’m The Urban Spaceman. Plus, Britain got colour TV for the first time, so locals could watch first flight of Concorde and the Kray Twins being jailed for life, since the death penalty had been abolished. 

The Rolling Stones, who sacked Brian Jones in June of 1969 and learnt of his death a month later, provided perhaps the most poignant moments of the year. To commemorate Jones’ passing Mick Jagger released thousands of butterflies at a free concert in Hyde Park. 

On December 6 the Stones played another free festival at the Altamont Speedway track in Livermore, California, with the Flying Burrito Brothers, Santana, Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead, the latter pulling out when they sensed trouble ahead. Having hired Hell’s Angels as security in London the Stones gave the Altamont gig to their San Francisco cohorts. The fatal stabbing of a black man, Meredith Hunter, after he pulled a gun during the Stones’ intro to Under My Thumb brought the end of the 1960s crashing down. 

Less than two weeks later John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band played at a UNICEF concert for peace at the Lyceum Ballroom in London with the ultimate supergroup, one that included Lennon, Yoko Ono, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann, Keith Moon and Delaney & Bonnie. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were not invited, nor did they attend. 

On the other hand, Abbey Road returned to the No.1 slot in the album charts, having been deposed by The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed for one week only. 

The Beatles had owned ’69, like they’d owned the rest of the ’60s, after all.

Max Bell

Max Bell worked for the NME during the golden 70s era before running up and down London’s Fleet Street for The Times and all the other hot-metal dailies. A long stint at the Standard and mags like The Face and GQ kept him honest. Later, Record Collector and Classic Rock called.