The al­bum that cap­tured the spirit of 1968 is per­fect for 2018

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - John Har­ris

Two months re­main of 2018 – but if you view some of the events of this strange, volatile year from a cer­tain an­gle, it might just as well be 1968. In the US, so­cial and po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions sug­gest a re­play of ten­sions that ex­ploded at the time of the Viet­nam war, with a para­noid and un­hinged pres­i­dent only height­en­ing the sim­i­lar­i­ties. Two weeks ago, AfricanAmer­i­can for­mer ath­lete Tom­mie Smith was pic­tured recre­at­ing the clenched-fist salute that caused such con­tro­versy at the ’68 Olympics; to­day’s US ath­letes take the knee.

Across the west, there is ris­ing anx­i­ety – and no lit­tle deja vu – about Rus­sia in­ter­fer­ing in af­fairs be­yond its bor­ders. Ear­lier this year, stu­dent protests and strikes by rail­way work­ers and pi­lots in France trig­gered com­par­isons with the un­rest that had gripped the coun­try 50 years be­fore. On and on the echoes go: the re­ac­tionary prime min­is­ter of Hun­gary, Vik­tor Or­bán, has told his fol­low­ers that if next year’s Euro­pean par­lia­ment elec­tions go the way he wants, they will say “good­bye not sim­ply to lib­eral democ­racy ... but to the 1968 elite”.

This Fri­day will see the release of an ar­ray of 50th an­niver­sary edi­tions of the epic cre­ation its au­thors sim­ply ti­tled The Bea­tles, but that in­stantly be­came known as The White Al­bum – now given an im­pres­sive remix, and com­ple­mented by of­ten rev­e­la­tory un­re­leased ma­te­rial. I have spent quite a lot of the past nine months think­ing about all this mu­sic, while writ­ing a long es­say that will ap­pear in the most ex­pan­sive of the reis­sues. And what has hit home again and again is the du­al­ity of an al­bum that won­drously chan­nelled 1968’s tu­mult, while also be­ing so open and univer­sal that it would re­peat­edly chime with events that hap­pened long af­ter its release – a qual­ity ac­ci­den­tally cap­tured in Richard Hamil­ton’s fa­mously blank cover art and its sense of an arte­fact whose mean­ing is open to end­less change and in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

I first heard The White Al­bum when I was 10, and it was only a cou­ple of years older. Hav­ing bor­rowed it from the lo­cal li­brary with no idea of what I was about to hear, I ex­pe­ri­enced an in­stant sense of fas­ci­na­tion and won­der – and a dis­quiet that some­times teetered into fear. Why was the mu­sic punc­tu­ated with un­ex­plained mut­ter­ings, ran­dom shouts, and mu­si­cal snatches that some­times lasted only sec­onds? What thoughts had sparked John Len­non’s mind-bog­gling Hap­pi­ness Is a

Warm Gun, or Paul McCart­ney’s in­sanely chaotic Hel­ter Skel­ter? In even the

su­per­fi­cially straight­for­ward songs, there were men­tions of car crashes, sui­cide and in­som­nia, seances, and shoot­ings; very near the end there was Rev­o­lu­tion 9, eight fright­en­ing min­utes of sound, pur­posely cre­ated by Len­non to ap­prox­i­mate “a draw­ing of a rev­o­lu­tion”.

Which brings us to the record’s re­la­tion­ship with 1968, and things I only dis­cov­ered a few years af­ter first be­com­ing ac­quainted with it. Some of its songs evoke the zeit­geist of that year as a mat­ter of mood; oth­ers do so ex­plic­itly. The mus­ing on left­wing re­volt writ­ten by Len­non and recorded in two very dif­fer­ent ver­sions, the sin­gle-only Rev­o­lu­tion and The White Al­bum’s Rev­o­lu­tion 1, su­per­fi­cially sug­gests a mock­ing of the van­i­ties of self-styled rebels, but ac­tu­ally cap­tures a fas­ci­nat­ing am­biva­lence (“Don’t you know that you can count me out … in”). McCart­ney’s Black­bird was writ­ten as a sub­tle and very mov­ing ex­pres­sion of sol­i­dar­ity with the civil rights strug­gle. In one of its early ver­sions, Ge­orge Har­ri­son’s While My Gui­tar Gently Weeps is re­vealed as the thoughts of some­one sur­vey­ing a world full of con­flict, and sound­ing a note of quiet dis­may: “I look at the trou­ble and hate that is rag­ing … as I’m sitting here, do­ing noth­ing but age­ing”.

There are ob­vi­ous rea­sons why all these un­der­cur­rents bub­bled up through The White Al­bum. Martin Luther King’s mur­der, and the ri­ots it caused across ur­ban Amer­ica, hap­pened right be­fore Len­non and Har­ri­son re­turned from the band’s so­journ in In­dia. Bobby Kennedy was killed just af­ter ses­sions for the al­bum had started; Cze­choslo­vakia was in­vaded by War­saw Pact troops when there were still two months of work to go. Al­though the cliched idea that The White Al­bum is the sound of the Bea­tles start­ing to split apart is a lit­tle over­stated, its of­ten-trou­bled aura also speaks of ris­ing in­ter­nal ten­sions, and the fact that less than a year lay be­tween its release and the group’s ef­fec­tive breakup.

Over time, it be­came a by­word for the dark­ness and dis­quiet that took root at the end of the 1960s and lin­gered on, partly be­cause cult leader Charles Man­son claimed to have heard a hand­ful of its songs as in­cite­ments to the in­fa­mous “Hel­ter Skel­ter mur­ders” com­mit­ted by him and his so-called fam­ily. Those as­so­ci­a­tions en­sured that Joan Did­ion bor­rowed The White Al­bum’s in­for­mal ti­tle for a bril­liant col­lec­tion of es­says writ­ten from 1968 on­wards, and pub­lished in 1979. Ac­cord­ing to a New York Times pro­file pub­lished at the time, Did­ion al­ways found the mu­sic it con­tained “omi­nous and dis­turb­ing”.

The truth is that the mu­sic’s air of un­ease was locked in from the start, and en­dured long af­ter such grisly as­so­ci­a­tions had faded into his­tory. The White Al­bum even­tu­ally be­came a touch­stone for such tal­ents as Siouxsie and the Ban­shees, the Smiths, Ra­dio­head and Blur, all of whom drew on its sense of noth­ing ever be­ing quite right. In 2004 the Scot­tish au­thor An­drew O’Ha­gan wrote that the record had “a so­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal res­o­nance that peo­ple are still con­jur­ing with to­day”, an ob­ser­va­tion that feels even truer 14 years on: its songs may have been quintessen­tially of their time, but what’s strik­ing about be­ing im­mersed in them again is how point­edly they speak to ours.

Fifty years is not re­ally that long: the jour­neys from Nixon to Trump, Brezh­nev to Putin and Black Power to Black Lives Mat­ter may look like they took an eter­nity, but in the con­text of his­tory’s long cy­cles they rep­re­sent only the short­est of jumps. Be­yond the Bea­tles’ in­cred­i­ble tal­ent, this is one of the rea­sons why The White Al­bum still sounds not just amaz­ingly ac­com­plished, but su­per­nat­u­rally rel­e­vant. Rather than be­ing a pe­riod piece, it is full of mes­sages that have still to com­pletely un­fold – and in an age when tech­nol­ogy end­lessly kids us that ev­ery­thing is un­prece­dented, it re­minds us that most of what we see in the world ought not to be a sur­prise.

One hes­i­tates to bring the Bi­ble into all this, but the ba­sic point is per­fectly cap­tured in Ec­cle­si­astes: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is noth­ing new un­der the sun.”


The Bea­tles in Lon­don in 1968

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