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, African-American 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.