In the summer of 1968 when the Beatles released their single “Hey Jude / Revolution” the world seemed to be moving in a radically new, and frightening direction. In that year the Tet offensive of the Vietnamese resistance successfully repelled the U.S. imperial army enough to threaten their entire military project. Soon after, partly because of his failed policy in Vietnam, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson declined to run for a second term. A few days later, in the U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. One month later, the French working class and allied students exploded in revolt, in the largest wildcat general strike in French history with 11 million workers participating, 22% of the population.
The strikes and student revolts threatened the foundations of French capitalism and forced a significant retreat by the French government of Charles de Gaulle, who briefly fled the country. Then in August, Robert Kennedy was assassinated while campaigning in California. The threats of global rebellions held tremendous promise, but in the moment, the fear and uncertainty of a world turning upside down was palpable. In the words of American state planner Henry Kissinger, “the very fabric of government was coming apart.”
These transformation of 1968 held potentially liberatory possibilities, but they also contained the real fear and violence, the horror of a world being born anew. The artistic work of the Beatles in that year captures both the liberatory and horrifying aspects of 1968, it is the year of some of their greatest artistic accomplishments, the point at which the band emerges as fully mature. Horror and violence play a large part in this, but so too does fear – fear of a new and unrecognizable world, fear of personal grief and loss, and mostly fear of the end of an artistic collaboration that had accomplished so much. The loss of the partnership of the Beatles were potential horrors that some in the band were coming to embrace, and the themes of fear, horror, and liberation found outlet in the band’s artistic production.
At the outset of 1968, the Beatles were riding high from their commercial and artistic victories of 1967; the release of the watershed Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band at the height of the summer of love. A global television performance and the first global satellite TV link-up of their “All You Need Is Love.” Next they followed up with their psychedelic film and musical romp in The Magical Mystery Tour. While MMT met a lukewarm reception, Pepper was quickly picked up as a triumph, the landmark artistic development of decade, and one of the major works of the 20th century. In their personal lives the band members were growing and finding new accomplishments as well. That summer Ringo Star and his wife Maureen had their first child, Jason. In December, Paul McCartney and longtime girlfriend Jane Asher announced their engagement. 1967 was a year of tremendous achievement and possibility for the band.
But as 1968 broke, the new year began to take on a dark pallor. World events certainly propelled the feeling of ominous and uncontrollable change. But the Beatles also took a turn for the worse. In a cascade of events through late 1967 and into 1968 the Beatles slid into a series of painful and tumultuous personal and professional conflicts that would ultimately lead to their breakup the following year. Their manager, Brian Epstien, died suddenly in 1967, leaving their business affairs, already badly managed, to their own hands. The Beatles learned of Brian’s death while in Bangor meeting the Maharishi, a spiritual guru they would travel to India with, only to become disillusioned by his philandering. In their romantic lives, they also seemed to enter a period of turbulence. Both John Lennon and McCartney would end long time relationships. Lennon to his wife Cynthia, and McCartney to Jane Asher when she came home early from a trip to find him in bed with another woman. Both singers began the process of difficult divorce and separation, and later in the year Lennon and his new partner, Yoko Ono were arrested and charged for drug possession. Perhaps most troubling of all, the relationships in the band began to fray as well. Ringo was the first to leave the band in August of 1968, only to come back a short time later. But more would follow. The tight group of collaborators and friends began to give way to the pressures all around them.
All of these uncertainties, anxieties, troubles, and volatility made it on to their artistic work in 1968, and none so spectacularly as their November double album, The Beatles, subsequently known as the White Album. Indeed, the album seethes with fear and trepidation, dark humor, and political forays previously unknown to the world’s largest pop act. It rather perfectly captures the emotional turn for the world and for the group, from optimism to anxiety, as the promise of the 60s seemed to unravel around conflict and violence. Musically and lyrically the work speaks to the horror of tumult, chaos, and dischord unknown in the groups pervious artistic work. Earlier dark themes by the band always contained the spirit of optimism, the desire to “turn on” listeners to a deeper, more significant reality. On the White Album that optimism is almost wholly absent. The lyrical themes of revolution, suicide, isolation, murder, violence, haunting, grief, sadness, excess, and gluttony dominate.
One of the more striking artistic accomplishments of the album, John’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” shows us both musically and lyrically the tumult and horror that underlies the album. The song itself is broken into four distinct musical passages with unique time signatures and structure, and little connection or repetition. The melodic phrases burst out of their measures, as first heard in the “I need a fix” section, which rhythmically pulls the listener hither and thither before jumping into an entirely different section, the one on “Mother Superior.” The opening chord, an A minor seventh contains the triad for both major and minor chords, pulling the listener in two directions at once, and contributing to the effect of dislocation and confusion that seems to be songs major opening themes. These themes are carried in the lyrical content as well, a collage of nonsense phrases and oblique references and allusions.
We are more secure in the second section where the singer is in need of fix and “going down,” before kicking into the third section where mother superior has “jumped the gun.” The song only reaches resolution in the final section, a glorious doo-wop homage that brings us to harmonic resolution C major, but continues the feeling of dislocation in the rhythm that jolts between 4/4 and 3/4 time signatures. But something is off here. The safe feeling of the harmonic resolution and predictable chords is undercut by not only the odd time signature, but the lyrics. Happiness is found, but it comes in John’s spoken word ode to the safe feeling from “fingering” or threatening or enacting violence. The innocuous back ground vocals of 1950s doo-wops replaced with the ominous and humorous “bang – bang / shoot – shoot.” The song is one of macabre horror, a pastiche of rock genres, at once humorous and horrifying, in which the singer’s confusion seemingly only finds resolution in violence at final section.
If any other single song comes close to replicating the themes and feelings of “Happiness” it’s Paul’s “Helter Skelter.” What “Happiness” does in its composition, “Helter Skelter” achieves in its production. Its use of punctuated echo on the vocals, overly loud mix of guitars, the lead guitar’s ungraceful bending notes, and the song’s bridge which is more of a sonic collage than a proper musical bridge, complete with tape loop sound effects and eerie background vocals. The fade out best captures this, creating a sonic landscape with surprising turns and disturbing vocal deliveries from Paul; it is not so much a song, as a frightening soundscape. Famously, the song was so disturbing it was later understood by Charles Manson as an inducement to murder.
Numerous other songs on the White Album speak to similar themes, but none so well as “Happiness” and “Helter Skelter.” But in fact the whole album can be read in a similar light, the tension between genres, styles, and arrangements; or in the huge leaps the album makes between lovely ballads like “Blackbird” and “Julia,” and rockers like “Yer Blues” or “Helter Skelter,” or the pastiche of Paul’s “Honey Pie.” The listener is left with a sense of dislocation and unpredictability. The album moves so fast, references so much, and denies the listener any safe space of musical cohesion, or expectations that are easily met. The musical transitions, interludes and codas between songs also speak to a strange eeriness. Listen to the coda of George’s “Long, Long, Long,” with soft and intimate but disturbing arraignments. Or Paul’s “can you take me back” lament at the end of John’s “Cry Baby Cry.” All evocative of disease and the quiet caution born of fear.
Of course the album’s coup-de-grace is the fantastic and frightening “Revolution 9” a bit of experimental indulgence for which there was significant effort to remove from the track listing. But the song is the masterpiece of the album and serves as the artistic lynchpin for the whole work. It’s difficult to imagine the White Album without “Revolution 9.” The song consists of low murmurous conversations and orchestral crescendos, interspersed with sounds of riots, fire, gun fights, crowds, ghoulish laughter, tape loops, and chaos and confusion. It is a masterwork, and the singular song that makes the entirety of the album work together. More than any other track it provides the sense of the world out of control, out of synch with expectations and traditions of the past. The sense of fear is palpable in the song, and part of the effect is that the Beatles included it at all. The dark joke is partly on the listener; this is the Beatles, the most famous and successful pop group of the era, engaging in frightening and obtuse experimental music, and one with obvious reference to the violence and disruptions of the social movements of 1968. And indeed the experience of listening to “Revolution 9” is frightening, like a musical bad trip, and one in which the listener struggles to find their bearings musically, or in any sense – much like the whole album, and much like the events of 1968.
The effect of the disruption of the song is enhanced by its introduction, John’s soothing “Cry Baby Cry,” and the languid coda, “Can you take me back” written by Paul. The jump to sonic collage, eased into with audio of a short row between Harrison and producer George Martin, is startling. One that feels as if they’ve entered another world entirely, or something has gone horribly wrong with the record player.
But for the Beatles this fear, dislocation and tumult expressed in the album was personal too. Recording the album was driving a wedge between the members themselves, with spats (some of them recorded and placed on the record), break ups, drug arrests, and new pursuits and new interests pulling the group in different directions. For one, Paul’s work ethic and perfectionism was causing frustrations. Paul would routinely take charge of the bands artistic direction, on projects like the well-received Pepper, and the disparaged Magical Mystery Tour.
More than this, Paul was micro-managing production decisions on songs, telling George not to add fill licks on a song like “Hey Jude,” and playing and recording the drums on songs like “Birthday” or “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da.” Indeed, on that song he forced so many recorded versions, drilling the song on his band members over and over again, that he engendered long term resentments. Both George and Ringo and were increasingly fed up. Ringo left the band because of this treatment mid-way through the recording.
These resentments showed up in the artistic work too. In George’s best contribution to the album, “Savory Truffle,” he sings directly to Paul, “We all know Ob-La-Di, Bla –Da / But can you show me where you are?” This was not the first time that the Beatles wrote diss tracks to one another. Earlier in the year John’s “Hey Bulldog” is partly a takedown of McCartney. The opening metaphor of the song, “Sheep dog, standing in the rain” is reference to Paul through his English sheepdog Martha. The rest of the song speaks to growing distance between the singer and the “childlike” and “innocent” subject of the song, who can’t talk with the singer because the subject of the song doesn’t “listen to your fears.” These were likely jabs at McCartney’s tendency to write melodic, and family friendly ballads, or jaunty pop numbers like the recent “Hello Goodbye,” released in late 1967. But these lyrics suggest a much more personal critique of Paul, one of emotional immaturity and frustration. John’s harshest line, however, and the one that speaks to their growing artistic divergences came in the final verse: “You think you know me but you haven’t got a clue.” This was a partnership on the fray, and one that threatened not only the musical and artistic collaboration either had known, one that both partners dearly loved, and were afraid to lose, but their personal relationship too. In later years Paul sued his band mates, John bricked out Paul’s windows.
Paul’s artistic response to these tensions and fears was one of his masterworks, “Hey Jude,” and one of the most emotionally sophisticated as well as the best selling singles the group ever released. Paul always explained the origin of the song as a message to John’s son, Julian, on the eve of his parents impending divorce. But clearly the song seems directed at John himself and a salve to Paul as well to not fear the new disruptions and transformation that was propelling the band into uncomfortable and uncharted territory. The opening lines to “take a sad song and make it better” and to not “make it bad” seem more suited for John than anyone else. And his ‘you have found her / now go and get her” a reference to John and Yoko’s growing relationship. This was a relationship that directly threatened Paul’s artistic partnership with John; Yoko and John were inseparable, but also growing artistic partners. Paul’s encouragement to pursue that relationship was bighearted, despite how personally painful that must have been. Here the line to “Remember to let her into your heart” could be directed at either band member, to find the love, to grow with this new person in both their lives. And the “for well you know” line and to “let it out and let it in” again directed at either member, a reminder to embrace the pain and difficulty of this frightening transformation.
While John took the fear of dislocation in “Happiness” and made it a macbre rocker and twisted paean to violence, Paul’s “Na-na-na” coda to “Hey Jude” is transcendent. One of the most recognizable segments in all of recorded music, Paul’s coda demonstrates his ever optimistic, wholesome, and in this case emotionally mature and sophisticated approach to embrace the pain and fear of loss and change. Comparing “Happiness” and “Hey Jude,” the singers both use predictable chord changes in the codas to bring a musical and emotional resolution to their heartbreak and confusion, but with very different purpose and effect. John’s work was very dark, Paul’s ultimately optimistic. The dueling approaches point to the core personal and artistic differences that were driving the band apart, and foretold the acrimonious break that was quickly to come.
But the artistic content of the bands work says much more. Just like the social disruptions and violence of 1968 were at times frightening, it was also liberatory – a portend of an empancipatory future. The strength of the Beatles artistic work in 1968 is that both songwriters embraced a vision of the future rooted in fear and dislocation. Both were not afraid to stand in that place proclaim their comfort there – John just living with it, Paul’s seeking transcendence and growth. Although this drove the band apart, it drove the two major artistic members into greater personal fulfillment and artistic maturity. Paul to his first wife, Linda McCartney, and his work as a mature solo artist. In fact, this period would produce for Paul some of his most musically, and emotionally mature and resonant work, from the medley on Abbey Road, to “Let it Be,” and his solo works “Back Seat of my Car,” “Dear Friend,” and “Little Lamb Dragonfly.” So to for John, and his lifelong collaboration with Yoko and increasing self-discovery. There is real pain here; but growth too.
1968 was the beginning of the end for the band, and it was a good year for the Beatles. It was also a good year for liberation and collective self-discovery, as painful as it is. The horror of that process is captured in their artistic production of 1968, and reflected the social and political prospects of that year as well. Out of the horror of facing loss, dislocation, and confusion, comes the possibility of something new. Maybe this won’t be better, but it will come to be. Embracing the horror of grief and loss, dislocation and confusion, is part of personal maturity. It is also evident here in the Beatles artistic maturation. The White Album is a testament to the Beatles process of artistic maturity, it speaks to living with the horror of personal loss and change, and embracing that horror in the process of liberation, fulfillment, and even happiness.