The Beatles, “Long, Long, Long,” from The White Album (1968): Deep Beatles

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Artistically, John Lennon is often credited as being the most avant garde of the Beatles. Indeed, his involvement with Yoko Ono and their subsequent collaborations (Two Virgins, “Revolution 9,” and numerous experimental films) support that conclusion. Paul McCartney affirmed his early interest in the 1960s art movement through supporting the Indica Gallery and his interest in noise music pioneers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen.

However, George Harrison also dabbled in experimental music, such as his 1969 album Electronic Sound. In his 1987 interview with the late Billboard editor-in-chief Timothy White, Harrison claimed that the album was “a load of rubbish” and added “the word avant-garde, as my friend Alvin Lee likes to say, really means, ‘Aven’t-got a clue!’ So, whatever came out when I fiddled with the knobs went on tape — but some amazing sounds did happen.”

Despite his later comments about the avant-garde, Harrison clearly showed some curiosity about the movement, not only through Electronic Sound but on the White Album track “Long, Long, Long.” Its eerie tone, unconventional structure, and sound effects reflect the experimental sound of other Beatles tracks such as “Tomorrow Never Knows” or “A Day in the Life.” In addition, the lyrical content foreshadows a frequent trope in Harrison’s solo work: comparing spiritual and romantic love.

As Harrison explained in I Me Mine, the lyrics address God rather than a lover. Another inspiration came from a close friend: Bob Dylan. Harrison based the song’s chord structure off Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”; as he explained, “D to E minor, A and D—those three chords and the way they moved.” According to Keith Badman’s The Beatles: Off the Record, Harrison wrote the lyrics on “week at a glance” calendar pages for August 11-14, 1968. At this point, the song’s working title was “It’s Been a Long Long Long.”

Recording began on October 7, 1968: At that time, the revised title was “It’s Been a Long Long Long Time.” Harrison (guitar), McCartney (organ, bass), and Ringo Starr (drums) laid down a staggering 67 takes of the rhythm track, including the strange sound toward the end of the song. The mysterious noise resembles a vibration that increases in intensity, causing an uneasy feeling in the listener. Similar to the guitar feedback from “I Feel Fine,” the sound resulted from a fortunate accident. “There was a bottle of Blue Nun wine on top of the Leslie speaker during the recording, and when our Paul hit some organ note the Leslie started vibrating and the bottle rattling,” Harrison wrote in his autobiography.

The Beatles conclude the track with a ghostly howl from Harrison, a final G minor eleventh chord, and Starr’s pounding drums. Recording continued the next day, with Harrison laying down lead vocals and additional acoustic guitar parts. (McCartney also finished another bass track.) On the final day of recording, October 9, McCartney contributed backing vocals while George Martin’s assistant Chris Thomas played a piano part.

Musicologist Alan Pollack describes “Long, Long, Long” as “an off-beat mixture of styles typical of the times: a three-way cross between jazz waltz, folk song, and late 1960s psychedelia.” Walter Everett, author of The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology, calls the song “interesting text painting.” In other words, the musical technique of composing music that evokes the meaning of the lyrics. Everett’s thesis concerning text painting applies even in the slightly distorted acoustic guitar riff, serving as a centering chant or mantra.

The music reaches a crescendo as George Harrison realizes how much he has suffered to reach this spiritual plateau. His apparently double-tracked, ethereal voice initially exudes peace and tranquility. “It’s been a long long long time / How could I ever have lost you / When I loved you,” he croons softly. When he draws out the word “love,” he emphasizes his devotion to his newfound spirituality. “So many tears I was searching / So many tears I was wasting,” Harrison wails, drawing out the last “oh” as if in emotional turmoil.

The music then descends, reflecting how finding God has calmed his chaotic life. “Now I can see you, be you / How can I ever misplace you?” Harrison asks, the words “see you” possibly referring to his experiences with transcendental meditation. The lines “How I want you / Oh I love you / You know that I need you” could easily be interpreted as romantic love and passion; in the context of “Long, Long, Long,” however, it refers to his devotion and desire to know and understand a higher power. It is an admission of his growing dependence on spirituality.

Despite this initial calm, the ending mimics the chaos evoked in the “So many tears I was searching” section. Ringo Starr’s drums crash in as the vibrating sound swirls in between the speakers, with Harrison’s otherworldly howl ending the song. It is here that “Long, Long, Long” reflects the avant-garde, as the rattling Blue Nun bottle functions as an unlikely instrument.

Noise music pioneers such as John Cage used such techniques, turning everyday objects into musical instruments. The howl illustrates Harrison’s struggle to find peace and tranquility in his life, that spirituality symbolized by the acoustic guitar riff. That motif grounds the song as God has similarly grounded the composer’s life.

A short time after “Long, Long, Long,” George Harrison would delve further into noise music through Electronic Sound. While he did not continue that experimentation in his solo career, he did further explore spiritual themes: “What Is Life” (All Things Must Pass), “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long” (Living in the Material World), and “Learning How to Love You” (33 1/3) feature lyrics intertwining romantic and religious imagery, allowing listeners to determine the words’ meaning for themselves. “Long, Long, Long” represents a rare journey into the avant-garde, but it also stands as a harbinger of Harrison’s solo career.

“Long, Long, Long” experienced an unusual revival in 2004, when DJ and producer Danger Mouse sampled the track for “Public Service Announcement,” the opening song for a Beatles/Jay-Z mashup project titled The Grey Album.

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Kit O'Toole
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