In-depth Look @ Side Three

An in-depth Look at the Songs on Side-Three

1. Birth­day

Pri­mary Song­writer: McCartney
  

With all the past pop cul­ture revi­sion­ism going on, it’s easy to for­get the Bea­t­les’ basic rock ‘n’ roll roots. This was a band for­mu­lated not on puffy psy­che­delia, bawdy British musi­cal hall, or pure song crafts­man­ship (though they excelled at them all). No, the neo­phyte Fab Four found instant com­mon ground as lovers of clas­sic Amer­i­can icons—Elvis and Buddy Holly , Lit­tle Richard and the Everly Broth­ers . When­ever they needed to recharge their cre­ative bat­ter­ies, so to speak, they returned to the raw, unbri­dled energy of the sounds that inspired their ado­les­cent affec­tions. McCart­ney would later admit that he “bor­rowed” a bit of his favorite ‘50s rave-ups to craft this sim­plis­tic sing-along. But there is much more to “Birth­day” than a back­ward “Lucille” with a splash of “(Oh) Pretty Woman”.

“Birth­day” may have been meant as a big, brassy group hug—even cur­rent gal pals Yoko Ono and Patti Har­ri­son sang backup, a first for the all-boy band—but there is some­thing some­what sin­is­ter about Side Three’s open­ing track. It’s a call out to party, but at the same time, it sug­gests a quar­tet being forced into the posi­tion of host. One can just imag­ine the boys belt­ing out the track, their ani­mosi­ties side­lined for the time being in order to cre­ate a new rock ‘n’ roll take on a creaky old stan­dard. Rumor has it that the Bea­t­les halted rehearsals on the song so that they could head back to McCartney’s and watch the Jayne Mans­field gem The Girl Can’t Help It. If one lis­tens care­fully, you can hear that film’s title tune pep­pered through­out “Birthday‘s“ basic blues progression.

The entire effort has the feel­ing of pre­planned anar­chy. The first thing you hear before sound even set­tles is Starr’s resilient drum­ming. After a fum­bling fill that feels part well prac­ticed and part impro­vised, the boys run in with their Penni-Orbison riff. It’s a mem­o­rable hook, but also one that appears incom­plete. Like most of The Bea­t­les, it has a tossed-off qual­ity that coun­ter­mands the group’s pre­vi­ous stu­dio fas­tid­i­ous­ness. Soon, McCart­ney is doing his best rock­a­billy howl, with some rec­og­niz­able help from the supe­rior shouter, Mr. Lennon. With its Moon/June/Spoon lyri­cism fur­ther wick­ing away the com­plex­ity, we wind up with the world’s most famous pop artists play­ing jam band.

But it’s the break where things get interesting—very inter­est­ing indeed. As Starr rocks steady and some­one counts down the time, we learn of the immi­nent cel­e­bra­tion. Voices mix and har­monies merge, once again bring­ing in the influ­ences of the past. As an effects-laden gui­tar joins a treated piano as quasi harp­si­chord (more honky tonk, actu­ally), McCartney’s voice bel­lows for the lis­tener to “take a ch…ch…ch…chance” and “dance”. In between each stanza, a wist­ful, melan­cholic respon­so­r­ial from the gala of the track’s title resem­bles the last breathy sigh of a dying ghost. Its inher­ent eeri­ness coun­ter­mands the song’s sock hop sen­ti­ments. The freaky fade out of the treated key­boards fur­ther ampli­fies the sense of dread.

As a result, when “Birth­day” comes bel­low­ing out of your speak­ers (or in these post-modern tech­no­log­i­cal times, your iPod), it more or less fails to remind one of a Bo Did­dley date with Fats Domino and the rest of the roots revival­ists. Instead, what the Bea­t­les man­aged here was indica­tive of their entire career. Instead of copy­ing other musi­cians, recre­at­ing their approach with student-like seri­ous­ness, they took the sig­na­ture styles and made them wholly their own. This is Elvis as envi­sioned by his fans, except in this case, said devo­tees were geniuses of sound and struc­ture. If they were sad that their take on the syrupy annual sen­ti­ment didn’t instantly replace the jer­ryrigged “Good Morn­ing to You”, orig­i­nally com­posed in 1893, they never showed it. Instead, “Birth­day” remains the anthem for every proto-punk’s impend­ing mat­u­ra­tion. It sig­naled some­thing very sim­i­lar for its cre­ators as well.

—Bill Gibron

2. Yer Blues

Pri­mary Song­writer: Lennon
  

For all that chat­ter about The Bea­t­les pre­dict­ing the band mem­bers’ solo work, only two of its Lennon tracks would be of a piece with his Plas­tic Ono Band, arguably the defin­ing post-Beatles disc. One is the muted, ten­der “Julia”; the other, the sear­ing, spooky “Yer Blues”. “Yer Blues” is the only offi­cially released Lennon-McCartney orig­i­nal to be chris­tened a blues, and one of few to strictly fol­low a 12-bar blues struc­ture. Fur­ther­more, while many Bea­t­les songs grap­ple with death in some form (“Run for Your Life”, “Eleanor Rigby”), “Yer Blues” is the band’s only track to explic­itly dis­cuss suicide.

And why? Lennon never expresses “the rea­son why”, other than to con­temp­tu­ously grunt, “Girl, you know the rea­son why.” But given that this is a man who, three tracks later, will fem­i­nize the Mahar­ishi in order to evis­cer­ate him, who ear­lier in the album bit­terly blamed some woman for his insom­nia, whose entire oeu­vre (and biog­ra­phy) is pep­pered with prob­lem­atic gen­der inter­ac­tions, he might as well be say­ing, “Girl, you are the rea­son why.” Fol­low­ing in the grand blues tra­di­tion of women doing wrong and leav­ing a man in pain often sim­ply by leav­ing him, Lennon seethes in heart­break. But his intro­spec­tion (call it his utter self-absorption) turns the mis­deed inward, and the song focuses on his reac­tions rather than what­ever wrong she sup­pos­edly com­mit­ted. This is not a revenge story, or an attack on an unfaith­ful woman. This is instead an attack on the man who, through some or many unspec­i­fied flaws, doomed him­self to soli­tude. Typ­i­cal of Lennon, the girl is a scape­goat but sec­ondary, even irrel­e­vant. Lennon is who mat­ters here. Like many of his most per­sonal com­po­si­tions, “Yer Blues” bridges the roots of rock ‘n’ roll with the incip­i­ent singer-songwriter solipsism.

“Yer Blues” is, para­dox­i­cally, both ephemeral (like life) and eter­nal (like death). Its cycli­cal four min­utes feel as though they could be drawn out and repeated ad infini­tum; this is a song that some overindul­gent rock band could turn into a 20-minute opus, full of false end­ings and (hope­fully) unex­pected left turns. The track begins with a count-off in which two is the first audi­ble num­ber, and Lennon’s vocal starts with an author­i­ta­tive “Yes, I’m lonely”, as if answer­ing a ques­tion never posed. What fol­lows is an in-the-moment snap­shot of a shat­tered psy­che, with few of the pre­ced­ing details filled in. What brought him to this extreme state? Beyond some parental info (“My mother was of the sky / My father was of the earth”), lit­tle insight is offered or needed. The imme­di­ate feel­ing is more impor­tant, the spon­ta­neous laments of a man who feels like a decom­pos­ing corpse, right down to the ani­mals peck­ing away at his carcass.

With such a sparse lyri­cal base, “Yer Blues“‘s chief impact is musi­cal. It is a fairly abra­sive Bea­t­les song, laced with feed­back and white noise; after the psy­che­delia of 1967, it is refresh­ingly raw and tough, per­haps influ­enced by the elec­tri­fied blues of bands like Cream, and son­i­cally not that far removed from the blues-based hard rock that Led Zep­pelin would per­fect a year later. The song actu­ally sounds like the death its singer antic­i­pates. Lennon’s vocal is throat-shreddingly intense—when he asserts “I am of the uni­verse, AND YOU KNOW WHAT IT’S WORTH, the Niet­zschean despair in his scream sug­gests it’s worth noth­ing. Being of the uni­verse is scant con­so­la­tion, nor is his lifeblood—Lennon iden­ti­fies with Dylan’s noto­ri­ously square Mr. Jones, the pur­ported antithe­sis of rock ‘n’ roll cool, and even music fails to pro­vide solace. In fact, once he con­fesses that he “feel[s] so sui­ci­dal, EVEN HATE MY ROCK ‘N’ ROLL, the slow, fore­bod­ing 12/8 blues speeds up into a juke joint shuf­fle, from which Lennon quickly retreats—leaving a fran­tic, blood-rushing jam that con­jures an inju­ri­ous adren­a­line rush, capped with a weep­ing gui­tar solo that sounds like bleeding.

He never fully returns; when the song reverts back to the ini­tial tempo, Lennon’s vocal is off-mic, a buried echo, the final whim­pers of a man about to tran­scend this earthly plane. He is fad­ing, and the music is about to fade with him, leav­ing an ulti­mately unset­tling mes­sage: a man will dis­ap­pear, and even­tu­ally so shall his cre­ations. A mes­sage that, 40 years later, “Yer Blues” has suc­cess­fully refuted.

—Charles Hohman

3. Mother Nature’s Son

Pri­mary Song­writer: McCartney
  

By 1968, folk rock had become a well-established notion. Bob Dylan embod­ied it a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ways while hybrids of pop and old-world Anglo-Saxon swirled about the British scene in the form of Fair­port Con­ven­tion and the Pen­tan­gle. The Bea­t­les’ folk rock tracks on the “White Album” cer­tainly reflected all of this while look­ing directly toward the upcom­ing singer-songwriter movement.

To put the songs into that lat­ter con­text, though, feels a bit like say­ing Keats’ odes fore­told the dime novel craze. This is not only because they dis­tin­guished them­selves through inven­tive gui­tar play­ing, crafty chord sequences, and melody to spare, but they were also such sin­gu­lar per­for­mances. “Black­bird” and “Julia”, for exam­ple, seem like pieces sim­ple enough for the every­man to sing and play, but you’ll never hear them at a campfire—they’re just too com­plex as com­po­si­tions and self-contained as recordings.

“Mother Nature’s Son” is another one of these and it’s a stand­out. McCart­ney wrote the song dur­ing the group’s sum­mer with the Mahar­ishi Mahesh Yogi, whose lec­tur­ing about nature had inspired both McCart­ney and Lennon to write one song each. Lennon’s “Child of Nature” even­tu­ally mor­phed into “Jeal­ous Guy”, which appeared on his 1971 LP, Imag­ine (hear the early demos on bootlegs like The Alter­nate White Album). McCartney’s “Mother Nature’s Son”, of course, flour­ished into the fully real­ized pan­the­ist hymn that appeared on side three of The Bea­t­les. It’s an utterly sim­ple, almost incon­ceiv­ably beau­ti­ful track. Acoustic gui­tars trickle play­fully like the moun­tain streams he sings about. Eng­lish horns echo through­out ancient hills, while soli­tary drums rum­ble over dis­tant, grassy peaks.

“Lis­ten to the pretty sound of music as she flies,” sings McCart­ney, who’s at once as sweet and melan­choly as he’d ever sound. These con­tra­dic­tory qual­i­ties lend the track so much of its unique atmos­phere. Bea­t­les his­to­ries like Mark Lewisohn’s Com­plete Bea­t­les Record­ing Ses­sions, of course, have told us that intra-moptop ten­sion char­ac­ter­ized this album’s late summer/early fall stu­dio dates. Here’s engi­neer Ken Scott about “Mother Nature’s Son”: “Paul was down­stairs going through the arrange­ment with George and the brass play­ers. Every­thing was great, every­one was in great spir­its. It felt really good. Sud­denly, halfway through, John and Ringo walked in and you could cut the atmos­phere with a knife. An instant change. It was like that for ten min­utes and then as soon as they left it felt great again. It was very bizarre.”

We can spec­u­late end­lessly on the rea­sons for the hard feel­ings, but we needn’t ever doubt their musi­cal ben­e­fits. (Lennon and Starr were appar­ently work­ing that day on Lennon’s nerve-rattling “Yer Blues”, which hap­pens to pre­cede “Mother Nature’s Son” on The Bea­t­les and per­pet­u­ates for­ever the McCartney-as-softie conception.)

While singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon, among oth­ers, could cer­tainly rival the Bea­t­les in the sophis­ti­cated folk-rock depart­ment, none of that ilk could match their abil­ity to sound so effort­less and sim­ple. And John Den­ver, nowhere near their level on any count, turned “Mother Nature’s Son” into a live sta­ple dur­ing the ‘70s by bypass­ing the song’s more com­plex and melan­choly lay­ers alto­gether. Such is the pas­toral ele­gance of the Bea­t­les’ orig­i­nal record­ing of “Mother Nature’s Son” that noth­ing call­ing itself folk, folk-rock, or any other such thing, has ever epit­o­mized the oft-recurring “nature’s child” motif to the same degree before or since.

—Kim Simp­son

4. Everybody’s Got Some­thing to Hide Except Me and My Monkey

Pri­mary Song­writer: Lennon
  

The record­ing of “Everybody’s Got Some­thing to Hide Except Me and My Mon­key” can be seen as the moment when Lennon-McCartney turned into Lennon-Ono. To shame­lessly mix metaphors, if the Wal­rus was Paul, then the Mon­key was Yoko. In June of 1968, Lennon’s affair with Ono was quickly over­whelm­ing every aspect of his life, includ­ing his mar­riage with Cyn­thia Lennon. The other mar­riage in Lennon’s life, his song­writ­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion with McCart­ney, was also in sham­bles. The days of sit­ting in the same room and fin­ish­ing each other’s songs were over. Ono quite lit­er­ally moved into Bea­tle ter­ri­tory by becom­ing the first out­sider ever allowed in the studio.

It’s impor­tant to note the dou­ble mean­ing of the tit­u­lar “mon­key”. 1968 was the year Lennon and Ono descended into heroin abuse, at once iso­lat­ing Lennon from his band mates and solid­i­fy­ing his bond with Ono. This mon­key on the back showed up in the lyrics (“the higher you fly, the deeper you go”). As Bob Spitz states in his land­mark biog­ra­phy, The Bea­t­les, the new level of drug use “man­i­fested itself in John’s adver­sity and crazi­ness, but the under­ly­ing influ­ence had also crept insid­i­ously into the songs”.

“Adver­sity” and “crazi­ness” are two words that could eas­ily sum up the manic freak­out that is “Me and My Mon­key”. One can hear a sense of urgency in Lennon’s pleas to “come on” and “take it easy”. Lyri­cally, it’s a defen­sive crouch that begs for empa­thy. The only hitch, of course, was Lennon wouldn’t return the favor for any of his band mates. He had imploded his life from many to Ono and was angry that any­one would ques­tion his motives. As Lennon him­self later said, “Every­body seemed to be para­noid except for us two, who were in the glow of love.”

But for all the tur­moil, the song never loses its joy­ful sense of aban­don­ment. A spaz-out of the high­est order, “Me and My Mon­key” jet­ti­sons all lim­its in a maze of ring­ing bells, rac­ing blues, and shouted come-ons. In other words, it’s Chuck Berry on crack.

Fur­ther­more, though it might not have the typ­i­cal mak­ings of one, “Me and My Mon­key” feels like a punk song. It is aggres­sive and urgent with a lack of self-consciousness. Sounds like a descrip­tion for the Ramones. Just another genre in which Lennon’s influ­ence can be heard.

As if it needed more help, “Me and My Mon­key” also stands out for its track place­ment. Sequenced between McCartney’s pas­toral “Mother Nature’s Son” and the lilt­ing Lennon ditty that fol­lows, “Sexy Sadie”, “Me and My Mon­key” juts out like the mark­ings of a poly­graph dur­ing an egre­gious lie. It is a true WTF? moment. “Love Me Do” this ain’t.

In his self­ish­ness and defi­ance, Lennon cre­ated a track for those who com­plain the Bea­t­les don’t rock enough. It’s use­ful to view “Me and My Mon­key” as a com­pan­ion piece with McCartney’s “Hel­ter Skel­ter”. Where Lennon goes weird, McCart­ney goes fore­bod­ing, in effect pro­duc­ing a fun­house mir­ror image of finger-blister freakouts.

(Fur­ther Lis­ten­ing: The blues-boogie ver­sion Fats Domino(!) recorded in 1970. It’s a great insight into Lennon’s song­writ­ing prowess. Even in the most fre­netic of songs, he pro­vided a song struc­ture to bat­ten down the hatch.)

—Tim Slowikowski

5. Sexy Sadie

Pri­mary Song­writer: Lennon
  

THINGS YOU MAY NOT KNOW ABOUT THIS SONG INCLUDE:

1. Lennon wrote this lit­tle kiss-off as he was pack­ing to leave India in late spring, 1968, upset over his dis­cov­ery that the Mahar­ishi had made a pass at one of the women in the Bea­t­les’ entourage.

2. Charles Man­son thought that the song had been writ­ten about one of his fol­low­ers, the whacked-out soon-to-be-murderer Susan Atkins, since he had nick­named her Sadie Mae Glutz before the song came out! (The logic is impres­sively lyser­gic on this one, no?)

3. This was one of my favorite songs for a cou­ple months when I was 12, and also again when I was 17. It is not even my favorite Bea­t­les song now.

4. Lennon’s first attempt at the lyrics was out­stand­ingly straight­for­ward in its anger and bit­ter­ness: “You lit­tle twat! Who the fuck do you think you are? Who the fuck do you think you are? Oh, you cunt!” These lyrics were even­tu­ally soft­ened to “Mahar­ishi, what have you done? You made a fool of every­one.” Improvement?

5. When I first heard Radiohead’s “Karma Police” I thought it was a rip-off of “Sexy Sadie”, and then Thom Yorke told peo­ple that it sort of was. I still don’t know how to feel about this.

6. Har­ri­son per­suaded Lennon to change the lyrics after they got home from India because he found them to be offen­sive (and he wasn’t talk­ing about the swear­ing! He was talk­ing about using the name Maharishi—he sug­gested “Sexy Sadie” instead). So, instead of this being a song about the crush­ing dis­il­lu­sion­ment Lennon felt at see­ing his idol revealed to be a false prophet, it ended up sound­ing like a mean-spirited jab at a loose woman. See point #3.

7. Back at Abbey Road Stu­dios, Lennon scrawled the lyrics onto a piece of wood for some rea­son (which rea­son I’m guess­ing was drug-related, since these were the fuck­ing Bea­t­les, so you’d think he could have found paper and maybe even a pen if he’d wanted to) and this piece of wood was sold recently at auc­tion by Starr’s one-time wife Mau­reen. For a lot of dough.

8. The woman that the Mahar­ishi made the pass at was not Mia Farrow.

9. I actu­ally know some­one (I am not mak­ing this up) who tried to lose his vir­gin­ity to “Sexy Sadie”, but was detained, rea­sons unclear, on the way to the, you know, forum, and he ended up hav­ing what was already bound to be an awk­ward and anx­ious first-time sex­ual expe­ri­ence to the cacoph­o­nic dis­so­nance of “Hel­ter Skel­ter”. Burn.

10. At one point dur­ing record­ing, the song had been clock­ing in at eight min­utes. See point #9. He just might have made it.

—Stu­art Henderson

6. Hel­ter Skelter

Pri­mary Song­writer: McCartney
  

We got the engi­neers and George Mar­tin to hike up the drum sound and really get it as loud and hor­ri­ble as it could and we played it and said, ‘No, it still sounds too safe, it’s got to get louder and dirt­ier.’ We tried every­thing we could to dirty it up and in the end you can hear Ringo say, ‘I’ve got blis­ters on my fin­gers.’ That wasn’t a joke put-on: his hands were actu­ally bleed­ing at the end of the take, he’d been drum­ming so fero­ciously.
Paul McCart­ney

Hav­ing writ­ten such pop­u­lar mel­low tracks like “Yes­ter­day”, “Michelle”, and “Black­bird”, it was often assumed by casual lis­ten­ers that McCart­ney played the rosy-eyed sap to Lennon’s rocker per­sona. On the con­trary, not only did Macca pos­sess the best pure rock ‘n’ roll voice in the band, but he was respon­si­ble for some of the Bea­t­les’ most fero­cious tunes, from “I’m Down” to “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” to the mother of them all, “Hel­ter Skel­ter”. Of course, ven­tur­ing into the heav­ier side of rock was never exactly the Bea­t­les’ forte, espe­cially in 1968 when band after band con­tin­ued to push the enve­lope, but that didn’t mean they weren’t up for a chal­lenge. After read­ing a Pete Town­shend quote in which the gui­tarist boasted about the raw­ness of the Who’s “I Can See for Miles”, McCart­ney, in an inspired moment of “if they can do that why can’t we?”, penned a track that would prove to be every bit as pri­mal, potent, and loud as not only the Who, but Jimi Hen­drix, Cream, Blue Cheer, Vanilla Fudge, and White Light/White Heat-era Vel­vet Under­ground as well. Yet again, it was proof that these four aston­ish­ingly ver­sa­tile musi­cians were capa­ble of anything.

Ini­tially recorded as a series of extended, slinky, blues-inspired jams in July 1968 (the unre­leased 27-minute third take achieved leg­endary sta­tus among fans), by the time the band recorded the album ver­sion on the night of Sep­tem­ber 9 with 21-year-old assis­tant pro­ducer Chris Thomas at the helm in place of an absent George Mar­tin, “Hel­ter Skel­ter” had mor­phed into a full-throttle rocker. No fewer than 18 takes were recorded that evening, with the last one mak­ing the cut. The sweat, the blood, and that uneasy bal­ance between adrenalin-fueled may­hem and late-night fatigue is all pal­pa­ble through­out the song’s four and a half minutes.

That jar­ring stac­cato riff kicks it off, more dis­so­nant than any other Bea­t­les track prior, McCart­ney join­ing in with his famous first line, play­fully ref­er­enc­ing the children’s spi­ral slide (“When I get to the bot­tom I go back to the top of the slide”), his voice ascend­ing omi­nously (“When I stop and I turn and I go for a ride / Till I get to the bot­tom”) as Starr adds ner­vous snare beats, McCart­ney then explod­ing into a mani­a­cal, out-of-breath scream: ”Till I see you AGAIN!” On that cue, the entire band launches into an absolutely vicious groove, McCart­ney and Har­ri­son on gui­tar, Lennon pro­vid­ing a thick bass line, as McCart­ney con­tin­ues with one of his great­est vocal per­for­mances, his voice ragged and hoarse, under­scored by the famous descend­ing seven-note riff in the cho­rus. And like a bunch of pre­co­cious kids fool­ing around while the headmaster’s away, Lennon and band assis­tant Mal Evans add some hilar­i­ously ama­teur­ish sax­o­phone and trum­pet respec­tively dur­ing the outro, which fades out, in, out, and back in again, in time for us to hear Starr add three exhausted cym­bal crashes, fling his drum­sticks, and let out his infa­mous exclamation.

The ambi­gu­ity of the title works bril­liantly through­out the song. Is it about a person’s descent into mad­ness? The dizzy­ing temp­ta­tion of pure, phys­i­cal lust? Or just about a kid play­ing on a slide? On the other hand, a creepy lit­tle dude in Cal­i­for­nia named Charles Man­son had other ideas what the song was about, and after the grisly events of August 8 and 9, 1969, “Hel­ter Skel­ter” would gain more noto­ri­ety than McCart­ney and the Bea­t­les had ever intended. But in the end, the song far out­lasted that con­tro­versy, with many promi­nent artists record­ing cov­ers, and while U2’s obnox­ious 1988 ren­di­tion is arguably the most famous, Siouxie and the Ban­shees’ feral 1978 inter­pre­ta­tion, Möt­ley Crüe’s pul­ver­iz­ing 1983 cover, and Hüsker Dü’s cacoph­o­nous 1986 decon­struc­tion actu­ally come clos­est to equal­ing the pure, raw, inim­itable power of the original.

—Adrien Begrand

7. Long, Long, Long

Pri­mary Song­writer: Harrison
  

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



Note: The sound files on this page are demos, out-takes and/or alter­nate mixes selected from the authors per­sonal col­lec­tion and to his knowl­edge have never appeared on an offi­cial Bea­t­les release.