I remember that year well as a time when I was beginning to come of age. On the other hand, many thought the world itself was beginning to come to an end. 1968 was a year of profoundly painful birthpangs in the U.S. and around the world...
- In Viet Nam...it is the year of the Tet Offensive, the Battle of Saigon, and the My Lai massacre. President Johnson orders the cessation of bombing in North Viet Nam by November. However, in the same month, 3 million tons of bombs are dropped on Laos. Student protests grow around the world.
- Presidential politics...Lyndon Johnson announces he will not run for re-election, Bobby Kennedy is assassinated, it's Nixon/Agnew for the Republicans and Humphrey/Muskie for the Democrats after a famously riotous convention in Chicago. Nixon is elected.
- Civil rights battles explode...Dr. King is gunned down. America's cities are on fire—sit-ins, riots and scenes of frightening urban chaos proliferate. The issue even shows up at the Mexico City Olympics with "black-power" protests.
- Near year's end, Apollo 8 orbits the moon and for the first time in human history, people see the far side of the moon and a complete view of Earth from space. The astronauts read from Genesis.
This record shares similarities with Sgt. Pepper, and it takes even greater advantage of the musical variety and technological advances that made the earlier record so innovative. In fact, I think of the White Album as Sgt. Pepper gone to seed—a further experimental "concept" album more like an encyclopedia of ideas rather than any one focused concept. As with Sgt. Pepper, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, although, unlike Sgt. Pepper, which has only a few exceptional songs, many songs on the White Album are true classics—and have no trouble standing on their own to this day.
Critics have asserted that this album represents the work of four individuals more than that of a cohesive band, that it is uneven, that it includes debatable material (e.g. "Wild Honey Pie," "Revolution #9," etc.), that it is pretentious, overblown and would have been much tighter as a single record, and so on. However, the simple fact is that musically and culturally this is one of the greatest albums ever recorded, that both its flaws and strengths work together to create a magical world in the listener's imagination as only the Beatles could, and that when the White Album is listened to as an album, it stands as a work of musical genius that enables its hearers to journey through the crazy-making, mind-bending days of the world that was in 1968.
It blew me away back then and it still does 40 years later. I encourage you to take some time and listen to it at one sitting and see if you don't agree.