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