Natural disasters, mass shootings, constant political turmoil, and the sense that long-standing alliances might be irreparably damaged: 1968 was the year when everything seemed to be falling apart. And the eponymous double album The Beatles released near its end was the perfect mirror, a testament to the centrifugal forces that could break even the strongest bonds of fellowship. How fitting that it should be reissued now, on the heels of a year so filled with madness that recalling the milestone events of a half-century ago almost became an afterthought.
We didn’t have time to reconstruct the feeling of a world out of control in 2018. And it seemed like we didn’t need to, because we were experiencing it in real time. But sifting through the archives can prove indispensable precisely when it seems superfluous. And the substantially expanded experience of the so-called White Album made possible by the new 2018 release, with new production by George Martin’s son Giles and four discs worth of rough drafts and alternate versions, provides us with the perfect opportunity to revisit the time of its creation with an open mind and ask whether the stories that have come down to us from 1968, told over and over and over, are still the stories we want to be telling.
The reason is both clear and complicated. For a great many young people who experienced the excitement of the 1960s personally and plenty more who followed wistfully in their wake, it is difficult to avoid conflating the story of The Beatles with the history of the decade. Their rapid ascent to stardom, their remarkable aesthetic progression from basic rock and roll to peripatetic innovation, and, above all else, the equally sudden dissolution of the bond that had held them together: all contributed to a narrative arc perfectly in sync with the passage from hope to despair, joy to rage, bliss to disappointment that soon became the dominant theme in histories of the decade. And the White Album played a crucial role in encouraging the conviction that The Beatles somehow represented the 1960s in microcosm.
Or at least perception of the White Album did. As the recording sessions documented on the new box set demonstrate, The Beatles were a lot more coordinated during 1968 than was commonly believed, despite the devastating loss of their manager Brian Epstein the previous year. Yes, they were taking full advantage of their massive financial resources and major improvements in recording technology to work more independently, confident that they could eventually put a coherent album together out of the vast number of pieces they produced over the course of the year. But it is clear from the between-song banter preserved here and the difference between rough drafts and final versions that the band was also doing more collaborative work than had previously been possible. Even if the material presented here, a tiny fraction of what they put on tape, has been selected to show the band in the best possible light, there is still incontrovertible evidence that the sessions were fulfilling and sometimes fun.
In other words, the picture of The Beatles that this new release provides is not of a band that was inevitably going to break up within the year, but one that could just have easily taken a path similar to the Rolling Stones, doing some of their best work in the decade ahead. While it is understandable that the dissolution of the world’s most popular band would come to be identified with the dispersing of hope for a durable transformation of the entire social order, this mental coupling proved to be a problem for popular historiography. That’s why this new and expanded conception of the White Album is valuable for reasons that have nothing to do with music.
Maybe part of the reason why this year’s half-century commemorations have been more muted than expected is that 1968 had already been so extensively revisited on previous anniversaries. Because I was born in May of that year, during the height of the student protests in Paris, I long ago made it a point to collect any material I could find about it. And there has been a lot over the years. I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley in 1988 and, although 1964 and 1969 are bigger milestones for that campus, the “thirty-something” Baby Boomers who still dominated the Bay Area’s progressive community eagerly participated in the international Left’s melancholy remembrance of those heady days when another world seemed not only possible but probable. And the global economic crisis during the fall of 2008, as harrowing as it was, reminded some people of 1968 in revealing how easily seemingly solid institutions could disintegrate. Thus, while the often-apocalyptic sentiments of 2018 invite comparisons with 1968, they have been offset by remembrance fatigue.
Some years don’t seem truly “historical” for decades. 1968, though, acquired that patina almost immediately. As a result, we have become so familiar with the dominant storylines used to convey it, right down to the incessantly reiterated cues from popular culture, that it is particularly difficult to discern potential counter-histories. Our capacity to make new connections with timeworn material atrophies, leaving us with the same indelible images – the execution by handgun of a plain-shirted prisoner; tanks streaming into an old European city; people pointing from a motel balcony; a busboy stooped over a fallen man – set to the same soundtrack of classic rock and soul. 1968’s overwhelming significance, the degree to which it seemed an exceptional year in every way, long ago flattened its folds of meaning into banality.
For example, most people who follow politics closely know that the Democratic Party in the United States self-destructed in 1968, culminating in the disturbing spectacle surrounding its Chicago convention. And that this implosion paved the way for Richard Nixon to win the presidency on a “law and order” platform perfectly suited to the Southern Strategy that would help the Republican Party wrest states below the Mason-Dixon line from a century of Democratic control. As a consequence, the fact that Nixon actually lost five states in the former Confederacy to the insurgent third-party candidate George Wallace does not get the attention it deserves.
This surprising result – no other third-party candidate in the previous half century had managed to win so many electoral votes and none have won any in the half-century since – has typically been explained away as a temporary roadblock on the way to the political map we hold today, evidence of what Raymond Williams famously called a residual formation. Southerners were not quite ready to embrace the party of Lincoln, the story goes, even though they could no longer tolerate the party of Kennedy. But what if it was the party of Lincoln that was a residual formation in 1968? What if Wallace’s candidacy were not the last gasp of the segregationist South, but rather the first step towards the mainstreaming of white supremacy we are witnessing today, a leading edge rather than a trailing one? In other words, what if the roadblock were not those Southern states’ devotion to institutionalized white supremacy so much as the Republican Party’s historical opposition to it?
If you were to examine the results of the 1976 presidential election, when Jimmy Carter became the first Southerner since Woodrow Wilson – though the latter ran as a New Jersey resident – to win the presidency, sweeping the former Confederacy running as a moderate Democrat from the supposedly progressive New South, or even 1992, when Bill Clinton and his running mate Al Gore became the first all-southern ticket to win since Andrew Jackson ran with John C. Calhoun, carrying six former slave states in the process, you might readily accept conventional wisdom that the forces that supported Wallace’s candidacy had been forever vanquished. Yet the Reagan and Bush victories for the GOP and Barack Obama’s struggles with Southern white voters during his two successful campaigns suggest that this conclusion might be premature. And the recent surge in racially motivated hate crimes and police shootings definitely do.
In short, though it may be painful to revisit such a dark and tumultuous time in American history, doing so is more likely to provide fresh insight than just reinforcing tried-and-true narratives. The same holds true for other events in 1968, whether in the United States or elsewhere around the globe. No matter how firmly people brought up in the West might want to believe in the inherent goodness of the Prague Spring, for example, there is no denying that it signalled the continued viability of nationalism within the context of communist internationalism. And that, as a consequence, the uprising offered a foretaste of the sentiments that would eventually break the Eastern Bloc apart and pave the way for the authoritarian populism that is increasingly dominating the region.
The two counter-histories I’ve briefly outlined here can be fleshed out with a wealth of supporting detail. So can others, however, including ones that directly contradict them. It depends where you start your search. The sheer volume of material available to us from 1968 precludes any hope of a comprehensive examination of primary sources. Because when we begin to study that tumultuous year in earnest, it rapidly becomes apparent that we must always contend with layer after layer of commentary that was produced then, as events were unfolding. Unlike most of the landmark years in world history that preceded it, 1968 does not confront us with a paucity of sources, but a staggering surfeit. Instead of having to extrapolate conclusions from limited knowledge, historians confront a different problem. We know too much. And too much of what we know has come down to us pre-packaged with conclusions that are hard to separate from the facts and fictions marshalled to support them.
To be sure, this problem is not unique to 1968. Our capacity to store and access knowledge efficiently has been increasing exponentially ever since, so that anyone attempting to write the history of subsequent years will also have to make excruciating choices about what material to examine. There is so much to see, but so little that can actually be looked at carefully. As a consequence, historians of the recent past have to hope that the content they choose not to study is superfluous where their object of inquiry is concerned.
If you’ve seen one hour of CBS’s coverage of the Vietnam War, including Walter Cronkite’s famous editorial suggesting that it was unwinnable, would you really benefit from seeing twenty more? If you’ve read every newspaper story about the civil unrest that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Washington D.C., how profitable would it be to do the same for other affected cities? While such exhaustive research might be entirely justified for a history of those particular events, it would likely pass the point of diminishing returns for a more general treatment of 1968. Yet that assessment has a way of averaging out potentially important details. When there is such a wealth of material that can be classified as redundant, the scope of inquiry is usually constrained by its starting point. And it is difficult to resist the impulse to begin where one’s predecessors did, even if motivated by the desire to reach different conclusions.
This is why the new reissue of The Beatles’ White Album resonates so powerfully. The skeletal and sometimes fragmentary versions of songs that the band’s fans know well make it possible to hear them with fresh ears. And the songs that didn’t make the final cut or ended up being released elsewhere reinforce this sense of novelty. While I already knew that “Hey Jude” was recorded alongside album tracks, hearing that single in their midst is revelatory, just as hearing “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” as part of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was for that album. At a time when streaming music services are rapidly making the album seem like an obsolete category, it makes perfect sense to group all the material from recording sessions together. But the result also has the potential to change the way we think about history.
I realize that this revisionist approach to music has been developing for quite a while. Napster turned our sense of rarity on its head in the late 1990s and other file-sharing platforms have tried to keep its renegade spirit alive. Google made sure that YouTube could continue its legacy, providing access to material that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to obtain, in more-or-less legal fashion. And streaming services continue to normalize the conviction that all music should be available in seconds, for only a small fee.
Although I purchased the White Album box set on the day of its release from Zia Records in Phoenix, using the points I’d saved up to buy it for half price, I was immediately able to listen to it on Spotify without having to pay anything extra or keep track of which of the three CDs of rough drafts and rehearsals contained the songs I wanted to hear. For a relatively small monthly fee, subscribers to a streaming service can rapidly summon material that would have once taken years of collecting rare official releases and bootlegs to access. That is why the box-set mentality, in which the inclusion of outtakes, alternate versions, and extra tracks is taken for granted, shapes the listening practices of people who have never bought a box set or even, for that matter, a traditional record album. While singles reign supreme in a streaming environment, anyone who wants to dive deep into the catalogue of a favourite artist can do so without fear of missing important material.
As exciting as this vast expansion of access may be, it reproduces in microcosm the difficulty of writing recent history. When there is very little that can’t be tracked down, figuring out what music to listen to poses a challenge. Even dedicated fans report that they frequently feel overwhelmed by an excess of options and end up selecting, not what they originally set out to hear or what they have long wanted to listen to, but what happens to pop up on their device at the point when they need to end their deliberations.
Reissue culture is an understandable response to this conundrum, permitting people to choose what they have already chosen before instead of having to select from a range of new options. All the extra material that is packaged with box sets like The Beatles’ White Album or the massive new eight-disc release of Metallica’s . . .And Justice for All lets fans have it both ways, listening to something that is technically new to them while still hearing it within the context of music they know backwards and forwards.
This mode of consumption can be deeply conservative, leading to the reinforcement of conclusions listeners arrived at long ago. But it does not have to be. It depends on how the relationship between the original and supplemental material is conceived. So long as a clear hierarchy is maintained, in which the original is always considered superior, then reissue culture will serve a reactionary function. But if the supplemental material is presented in a way that facilitates questioning of such assumptions and if listeners keep an open mind, then reissues have the potential to inspire profound reflection about historiography.
Some of The Beatles’ best songs are on the White Album. And, as almost any fan will tell you, several of their worst. But despite producer George Martin’s insistence that the record would have been much better as a single LP containing only its strongest material, it succeeds precisely because it makes room for failure. Freed of the intense demands touring placed upon them and flush with the money required to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, The Beatles created a work that repudiates the economy of scarcity. And the new box set amplifies that message a hundredfold. This is not the music of individuals who feel pressured to meet a quota or deadline. Whatever came out of the White Album sessions – good, bad, or indifferent – was the product of a freedom from want that the band could hardly have imagined a few years earlier.
They had attained a position of rare privilege in society, able to make art – or not – purely as their inclinations dictated. Yet because they came from a world where humble working-class culture prevailed and remembered keenly what it was like to go without, their improbable success had a politically utopian aura. No matter how talented they were, they never lost touch with the ordinariness that made them special. If they could produce something as impressive as the White Album amid radical plenitude, then others could do so as well, giving the lie to the notion that constraints are necessary for the creative process.
The sheer volume of material they produced while working on the album demonstrates how deceptive the lapidary assessment of its significance really is. Nothing about the completed tracks was inevitable. Taken together, they can be interpreted as telling a confusing yet compelling story about The Beatles and the time in which they working on the record. But there was a wealth of other potential stories that did not make the final cut. That’s a crucial lesson for anyone who wants to write history, whether of the album itself or the year in which it was produced. As hard as figuring out how to manage a surplus of potential sources may be, the insights we stand to derive from that process are invaluable. The impulse to condense and compress is very strong. But the one that refuses to do so can be even stronger.
When Joan Didion looked back on the madness of her late 1960s, she chose to title her essay “The White Album”. The main reason was that songs like “Piggies” and “Helter Skelter” had played a role in the notorious killings perpetrated by Charles Manson’s followers. I wonder, though, whether she wasn’t also thinking about the nature of that record itself, not as a fan – she confesses that most rock and roll bored her – but as someone attuned to the aesthetic problem posed by excess.
Even in its original double LP form, the album amounts to a repudiation of traditional editing. We know how much material from the recording sessions didn’t make it onto the record, whether because it was set aside for a single, saved for later use, or simply consigned to the dustbin. And now we can hear what some of that material sounded like, confirming that the many months that The Beatles worked on it involved a great deal of decision-making about what to leave in and take out. Yet they went out of their way to preserve a sprawling, haphazard feel on the finished product, against their producer’s stern objections. They edited and edited and edited, only to release a work about which critics and fans alike would declare that, “It needed editing.”
Conceptually, nothing could be further removed from the minimalist aesthetic Didion had refined throughout 1960s. But that’s why The White Album served as the perfect metaphor for her attempt to impose order on material that resisted each and every attempt at minimalism. In the end, she decided to write about the problem of excess and how it made her feel, in terms that shine a brilliant light on The Beatles’ achievement:
I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no “meaning” beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience. In what would probably be the middle of my life I wanted still to believe in the narrative and in the narrative’s intelligibility, but to know that one could change the sense with every cut was to begin to perceive the experience as rather more electrical than ethical.
For someone desperate to make sense of the seemingly senseless, this “cutting-room experience” must have been destabilizing. But acknowledging it is a better way of responding to a time when history felt like a runaway train than trying to slow it down to a reasonable pace. As we look back on 1968, from a year that feels similarly out of control, we would be well served to use the new reissue of The Beatles’ White Album as a model instead of turning to something more neat and tidy. If we want to understand why attacks on the so-called “68ers” continue to be a cornerstone of the European ar right or why white supremacists in the United States are once again “out and proud”, we have to forget the footage of 1968 we know by heart and find new ways of reassembling it. It’s time to start treating the historical record more like a box set.
Screenshot courtesy of Abbey Road. All rights reserved.