The White Album: Side Three

24. Long, Long, Long

Primary Songwriter: Harrison

Recorded: October 7-9, 1968 at Abbey Road

Following McCartney’s twisted, gas-guzzling, heavy metal-incarnate “Helter Skelter”, Harrison, in an underhandedness that befits his moniker as “the quiet Beatle”, takes the stage: “It’s been a
looong, long, long time.” Floating in from the ethereal netherworld, the Harrison of “Long, Long, Long” is a spiritually exhausted disciple, quietly singing the praises of a higher being after having fumbled through countless dark years seeking enlightenment.

Almost haiku-like in its exultation, hardly any of the words in “Long, Long, Long” are more than a syllable long. Each verse has a first line of seven syllables, followed by a second line of eight, then a final phrase of four. Despite its lyrical directness, however, “Long, Long, Long” is more than anything a subtle number. Subtle meant “bad” in 1968, the year of Jimi Hendrix’s
Axis: Bold as Love, Cream’s Wheels of Fire, and the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat. Yet with careful nurturing and repeated listens, “Long, Long, Long” is unveiled as one of Harrison’s most supremely refined songs with the Beatles, and a gem on the “White Album”.

Harrison’s contributions to the Beatles from 1965-1968 reflected his preoccupation with Hindu philosophy and Indian music, which culminated in his taking up the sitar and leading his band mates to India for a period of meditation in early 1968. Returning from the upper echelons of 1967’s
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles (among other things) heralded the group’s return to rock. For “Long, Long, Long”, this meant the ideal marriage of Harrison’s firm inner beliefs with the traditional instrumentation of rock ‘n’ roll — in the track, one can hear the blueprint for his entire solo career.

To understand the spare beauty of “Long, Long, Long”, it is even more important to grasp the chaos and conditions that gave birth to it.
The Beatles was the band’s opportunity to project its growing dysfunction and disassociation with the world at large back upon it. Giving up touring in 1966 had the effect of confining the band to a shell at Abbey Road Studios, in the company of only themselves and an elite inner circle, working through nights to record their double LP. Yet reports from this time generally agree on the fact that the group were not getting on particularly well; Mojo magazine’s anniversary edition of this album sensationally labels it “the album that tore them apart!” Out of this disassociation, eccentricity, and tension emerged, in this writer’s mind, the best collection of songs the Beatles ever put to vinyl. Many disagree. But what no one can deny is that unease is reflected in The Beatles‘s music unlike perhaps any other album before or after it: it captures the dark underbelly of the ’60s before the Rolling Stones ever did.

Not that you would know it, listening to “Long, Long, Long”. The elusive hymn begins in the key of F major, yet introduces its verses in a chord away from the tonic, mirroring Harrison’s sense of “so many tears [spent] searching”. It grows from a lone, ponderous guitar to the ethereal billow of a Hammond organ that distorts and shades and provides an eerie cloak for his voice. Ascending to a surging bridge, the song waltzes on jazzy ninth-chords, clumping drum fills coloring the anxious harmonies: “Oh, oh, oh!” With that, the song finally reaches its yearned-for climax, dying away. Then Harrison resumes an absolute outpouring of worship: “How can I ever misplace you? / How I want you / Oh I love you.”

“Long, Long, Long” finishes on what the late, great Beatles scholar Ian MacDonald describes as “the luckiest accident in any Beatles recording”: a wine bottle in the studio that would rattle when certain notes were played on the organ, providing the backdrop for a dissonant guitar scratch, an anguished, out-of-body wail, and a final conclusion through a thundering drum roll. This majestic complexity of a conclusion, he continues, signifies “death, a new beginning, and an enigmatic question”. It also shrouds the song in unearthly mystique, touching the avant-garde and the spiritual, closing
The Beatles‘ third side with a graceful shudder.

Contrary to what one would expect given the song’s heavily theological overtones, the song was not written during the group’s retreat in India but from the studio. Contrasting this with Harrison’s bitter “Not Guilty”, also from these sessions, or even the manic charge of the track before it (a sequencing order that must have provoked some chuckling when the album was being assembled), “Long, Long, Long” proves that the key to transcendence through music is a clear head and peace at the end of a long search. It is a gift of the sublime.

Andrew Blackie