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Mr. Pop History Presents 1969 Week-By-Week

Overview by Robert Neill


Undoubtedly the most significant historical event of 1969 was the Apollo 11 Moon landing. Earth astronauts in science-fiction had been routinely visiting the Moon for decades, but the remarkable reality of Earthlings actually walking on and exploring the Moon was accomplished on July 20, 1969. This incredible achievement captivated the attention of virtually everyone back home on Earth, with many of them watching the landmark event on live television. News coverage of the Apollo 11 mission frequently pre-empted regularly-scheduled TV shows.


Despite the global space-mania surrounding the Moon Landing, this event had less impact on popular entertainment than one might expect. By 1969, the US public's fascination with outer space and astronauts was already being thoroughly exploited in movies and on TV. Not only did the Moon landing not cause an increase in space fiction, such entertainment actually dwindled in the wake of the real thing. "Lost in Space" and "The Invaders" had already both been canceled the previous year and "Star Trek" ended its network run shortly after the end of the Apollo 11 mission. 1968 had been the big year for astronaut movies. The 1969 imperiled-astronaut drama "Marooned" (released in late Fall) felt to many like a gasping afterthought that had missed out on the excitement. Science-fiction continued to be a popular genre following 1969, but once viewers were familiar with the reality of manned lunar missions, some of the genre's more outrageous traditions were replaced by more mundane realities (at least, until 'Star Wars' resuscitated the outrageous traditions in 1977).


Another major event of 1969 was the fabled Woodstock Concert / Fest / Love-In in mid-August. To some, this outdoor music event featuring many of the top bands of the period was the apotheosis and quintessential realization of the counter-culture's values and a magical event of tremendous meaning. To other observers, Woodstock was just a bunch of dirty, smelly hippies embarrassing themselves by rolling around in the mud, ingesting drugs and engaging publicly in wanton sexual activity. Both viewpoints may be accurate.


The Woodstock event itself continued to loom large in counter-culture mythology, inspiring rhapsodies, songs and a documentary movie release. Some of the musicians who played at Woodstock found that their participation became a defining event in their lives for decades to come, overshadowing their other career accomplishments. Subsequent attempts to recreate Woodstock fell short of the original. As a result of the concert, the suffix "-stock" entered the English language as a noun appendage indicating a Festival or Convention. The name 'Woodstock' itself also became the name of a character in the popular "Peanuts" comic strip.


Although the hippie era continued into the early 1970's, like any movement it faded after a few years. By February of 1969, the concept of a "Generation Gap" between younger and older Americans had become so entrenched and trivialized, that ABC capitalized on it with a prime time game show actually called "The Generation Gap," in which opposing teams grouped by age answered questions about each other's Pop History.


The Beatles continued to be one of the dominant musical forces of 1969. As the Beatles' songs became more complicated, experimental and multi-dimensional, a macabre rumor circulated that Paul McCartney had 'secretly' died in an auto accident and had been replaced by an impostor. Supposedly symbolic clues to the truth about his death were visible in the artwork and graphics on the Beatles' albums, with cryptic audio clues hidden in the music itself. The "Paul is Dead" rumors proved unusually persistent for a hoax / Urban Legend. If someone wanted to be considered hip in 1969, they had to know how to find all the McCartney death clues.


One British sixties icon that genuinely did come to end in 1969 was the internationally-successful TV series 'The Avengers.' The spy craze in general did continue beyond the end of the 1960's, but 'The Avengers' was one spy show that had peaked and fallen from favor, partially due to sex symbol Diana Rigg's departure from the series. A revival in the mid-1970's and remake in the 1990's failed to recapture the Avengers' magic.


Several highly-lucrative franchises also began in 1969, some inauspiciously. "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You" debuted that September as just another Saturday morning cartoon show. The titular animated canine has exploded since then into a multi-generational favorite. With even less attention, the British comedy troupe Monty Python's Flying Circus began its television run in October of 1969, eventually developing into a world-wide phenomenon that spawned feature films and added the word 'Pythonesque' to the English language to describe the style of zany humor proffered by the comedy troupe. CBS unleashed another perennial in June of 1969 with "Hee Haw," which aimed at the audience that appreciated cornpone humor and traditional country and bluegrass music. Even after CBS canceled the series after two years, "Hee Haw" went into syndication and perpetuity, reaching a demographic usually ignored by the networks.


A fourth 1969 TV newcomer that gives the impression that it will endure forever is the family sitcom "The Brady Bunch." This TV series, which premiered in September, has inspired numerous spin-offs, revivals, adaptations, parodies and remakes and remains a perennial favorite among many generations. By 1969, a fairly generic sitcom like "The Brady Bunch" could become a hit, but something as creative and imaginative as the much-missed Emmy-Award winner "My World and Welcome To It" failed to find much of an audience. Gimmick and novelty TV series were falling further out of favor and usually being replaced with more realistic, routine and ordinary programs. A few long-running novelty / gimmick sitcoms were still on the air ("Bewitched" and "I Dream of Jeannie," for example), but even the most enduring exemplars of that 60's trend were losing momentum.


One attempted gimmick-experiment that failed in 1969 was the scheduling on Monday nights on ABC of two shows that ran 45-minutes each. Most TV series in prime-time run 30 or 60 or 90 or 120 minutes. Playing with that standard length seemed like a clever new concept, but neither the hippie-oriented "The New People" drama nor the "Music Scene" top-hits countdown reached enough of an audience for the experiment to be deemed successful enough to repeat.


Previous seasons had proven that not only were US audiences now ready to accept African-American performers as central characters in weekly TV series, but that such shows could garner huge ratings. "Julia," "Land of The Giants," "Mission: Impossible" and "The Mod Squad" were among the series currently featuring African-Americans either as leads or co-stars. Added to these in 1969 were a sitcom for Bill Cosby and variety series hosted by Leslie Uggams, Della Reese and Barbara McNair.


The networks were, to some extent, catering to the tastes of younger, hipper audiences in 1969 with youth-oriented shows like "Then Came Bronson" (about an angst-ridden young man traveling America on his motorcycle) and "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour" (the musical variety series designed to reach the same demographics that appreciated the Smothers Brothers, but without duplicating the controversy). At the other end of the target-audience spectrum, 1969 was also the year that Jim Nabors was featured in a variety series, as were septuagenarian vaudeville comic Jimmy Durante and the retro-chanteuses The Lennon Sisters. Venerable Westerns like "Gunsmoke," "Bonanza" and "The Virginian" continued, as did the more conservative sitcoms and variety series built around Lucille Ball, Doris Day, Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason and Dean Martin. Attempting to appeal to both young and old audiences was the variety series starring Johnny Cash, featuring as musical guests veteran Nashville entertainers like Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl and hip young folkies like Bob Dylan and James Taylor.


Another new musical-variety show that didn't simply fall back on traditional TV-variety shtick was "The Andy Williams Show." The amiable singer's weekly program was patterned more after the quick pace, wacky gags and loony characters of "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In." While some new TV series were striving to be innovative, others were simply regurgitating long-proven formats. Debbie Reynolds' eponymous new sitcom was often berated for simply being a re-tread of "I Love Lucy." New generic sitcoms and lawyer shows began in 1969, as did "Marcus Welby, M.D," with Robert Young as a cranky, but caring physician--a throwback to the traditions of medical dramas like "Dr. Kildare." "Room 222" may have been decorated in hippie trappings, but it was squarely in the tradition of dedicated-teacher programs like "Mr. Novak." Hokey game shows such as "Let's Make A Deal" and "The Newlywed Game" were also popular in prime time in 1969.


By 1969, Hollywood was aiming more and more films at the younger side of the Generation Gap. The drugs-and-bikers adventure "Easy Rider" proved so popular, that numerous copycat films tried to reach the same hippie audience. The Love Generation was even represented among the Oscar-winners for 1969 movies: former "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" bikinied, go-go dancer Goldie Hawn won for Supporting Actress for her role as a wacky flower child in "Cactus Flower." The new, more permissive Hollywood gained respectability and credibility when the Best Picture Oscar was voted to "Midnight Cowboy," the gritty, downbeat drama featuring seedy characters like drug addicts and male prostitutes. The factoid that this is the only X-rated film to ever win a Best Picture Oscar has become the answer to one of those ineluctable trivia questions that get regurgitated in just about every movie trivia quiz ever created; it's hard to imagine there's anyone left who doesn't know that information.


Old-time Hollywood was honored with Oscars for films of 1969, too. John Wayne won his only Actor Oscar for the violent Western "True Grit," beating out, among others, the two male leads from "Midnight Cowboy." Wayne was one vintage Hollywood icon who had not been thoroughly embraced by the retro-movie film buffs among the younger generation; his conservative image and right-wing politics alienated the same young radicals who idolized the more at-odds-with-the-Establishment images of Humphrey Bogart, James Dean and the Marx Brothers. The Actress and Supporting Actor Oscars also went to more mature performers: Maggie Smith (for "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie") and Gig Young (for "They Shoot Horses, Don't They"). The other acting nominees that year were an interesting amalgam of funky newcomers like Jack Nicholson, Elliott Gould, Jane Fonda, Dyan Cannon and Liza Minnelli and distinguished veterans like Anthony Quayle, Peter O'Toole, Jean Simmons and Richard Burton.


Westerns had a particularly strong year in 1969, not just with "True Grit," but also the ultra-violent "The Wild Bunch," the crowd-pleaser "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," the cliché-spoofing parody "Support Your Local Sheriff" and numerous others. Free-love and promiscuous sexuality were explored in hit films like "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," "Gaily, Gaily" and "I Am Curious (Yellow)," along with an ever-increasing abundance of low-budget, exploitational skin-flick romps.


Lavish Hollywood musicals were represented by film versions of "Hello, Dolly" and "Sweet Charity," but this genre was already starting to seem garish and anachronistic in the grittier 1969 cinematic milieu. More in tune with contemporary musical tastes and counter-cultural values was the fuzz-busting, make-fun-of-authority-figures film based on Arlo Guthrie's epic folk song "Alice's Restaurant."


Even the movie musical sub-genre known as "Elvis Presley Movies" was starting to seem outdated, though new Elvis movies were still being filmed in 1969 anyway. Another one-man movie genre debuted in 1969 with "Take The Money and Run," the first film directed by Woody Allen. Just as Elvis had played slight variations on the same character throughout his film oeuvre, Woody Allen would continue for decades playing a character similar to the one he introduced in "Take The Money and Run."


Popular TV faces continued to cross over onto theatre screens in 1969. Rowan & Martin starred in "The Maltese Bippy," designed to capitalize on the success of their TV show. The Peanuts comic strip characters had proven so popular in animated TV specials, that they made the transition to feature film in "A Boy Named Charlie Brown." Other genres thriving that year include family films, comedies, war movies, social satires, action thrillers, historical epics, horror and science fiction films, cop and PI stories and social commentary dramas. 1969's "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" demonstrated that the James Bond movie franchise could continue even without Sean Connery playing 007.


The pop music charts were as eclectic in 1969 as they had been for several previous years. Veteran acts like Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones and some of the Motown artists continued to have enormous hits. Easy Listening songs by Henry Mancini and Frank Sinatra competed for record sales and radio play with the shrieking heavy metal bombast of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" and the energetically rhythmic sounds of Creedence Clearwater Revival's rootsy 'swamp rock.' Folk musicians continued to receive critical acclaim and commercial success, but much of the folk music that was getting airplay in 1969 was becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate from the pop and rock hits of the period.


Although soul music maintained a noteworthy presence on the charts, it wasn't selling quite as well as it had in previous years. The funky Sly and the Family Stone was one group that defied that trend with strong record sales in 1969. Another African-American group especially popular in 1969, The Fifth Dimension, managed to cover both ends of the musical spectrum by releasing the funky soulful "Let the Sunshine In" (combined in a medley with the more sedate 'Aquarius') and the geared-for-easy listening "Wedding Bell Blues" in that one year. In 1969, Stevie Wonder also seemed particularly good at covering all musical bases.


The hit TV shows hosted by Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell helped those country artists sell even more records in 1969 than they might have otherwise. "Hee Haw" co-hosts Buck Owens and Roy Clark also enjoyed above average record sales in 1969 due to their weekly presence on television. The appreciation for country music that these shows helped engender among TV audiences may also have been a factor in Merle Haggard getting some rare crossover pop radio airplay in 1969, especially for his right-wing patriotic anthem "Okie From Muskogee."


Country singers weren't the only musicians in 1969 benefiting from TV exposure. Teen idol Bobby Sherman's 1969 hit songs probably owed as much to his continuing role on the "Here Come The Brides" TV series as they did to his limited singing skills. The lush, odd-sounding Instrumental hit "Shadows of the Night" ("Quentin's Theme") was a huge-seller for The Charles Randolph Grean Sounde in 1969 as a result of the song's origin and regular use on the daytime supernatural serial "Dark Shadows," which was then in its most highly-rated year.


While many rock n' roll bands were louder and more raucous in the late 1960's than their earlier counterparts, some of the biggest-selling artists in 1969 were aiming their sounds at the Middle of the Road. The Grassroots and Tommy James and the Shondells undeniably qualified as rock n' rollers, but most of their 1969 hits were mellow-sounding enough not to generate parental apoplexies. Even The Doors' one 1969 hit "Touch Me" sounded a lot calmer and more radio-oriented than the group's earlier records. One section of the melody even reminded some listeners of the Bing Crosby Christmas perennial "Do You Hear What I Hear." Groups like The Foundations, The Brooklyn Bridge, Gary Puckett and The Union Gap, Spiral Starecase and Dennis Yost and the Classics IV presaged the mellower MOR sound that grew increasingly popular on into the early 1970's.


Some of the singers who were considered rockers in 1969, have in more recent years, been re-categorized as Pop or Easy Listening. For example, those who now regard Neil Diamond or Tom Jones as genteel popmeisters might be surprised to realize how hip or even hard-edged those performers and their records seemed to many 1969 fans.


Although it barely qualified as a trend yet, reggae music made tiny inroads into the American pop charts in the late 1960's. Johnny Nash had a few reggae-influenced pop hits from 1968 through1973; in 1969, Desmond Dekker and the Aces joined him on the radio with "Israelites," a song that captivated the attention of US radio listeners by sounding completely different from any musical styles most of them had ever heard before.

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