1968’s The Beatles, aka “The White Album,” is the Beatles at their most frightening: the sound of drugs, of implosion, of tension and competition. Added to that are the numerous songs which present the band at their most menacing, loaded with echo and reverb; sound collages and mumbles; the sudden bursts of vocals from Yoko Ono on “The Continuing Adventures of Bungalow Bill” and “Birthday.” A primary example is the slash and burn of “Helter Skelter,” which leaves the listener on edge as it fades out and back in, then starts to fade out again, but rushes back with a final crash, followed by the most punk moment in the history of the band: Ringo’s scream of “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” and a final guitar slash. This song is scary enough as it is — made even more so by the claim from Charles Manson that it contained secret messages that led him to order the Tate-La Bianca murders.
Then there’s “Revolution 9,” which really isn’t a song — it’s an experimental art piece — but is spooky enough as it is, with the seemingly endless swirl of moans, crowd noises, backwards tracks, and the monotonous repetition of “number nine.” Add the rumors that it contains a secret message — that if played backwards, the “number nine” becomes “turn me on, dead man” — and you’ve got more possible chills. (As for the “dead man” rumor: yeah, it sounds a bit like that, if that was specifically what you were listening for when you played it. Otherwise, nuh-uh.)
But the track that really gets me on “the White Album” is what follows “Helter Skelter”: a track by my favorite Beatle, George Harrison. “Long, Long, Long” is, for some critics, Harrison’s high point with the group: a languid, swirling love song — possibly to God. Both the composition and arrangement are effective at keeping the listener on edge: it opens with an acoustic guitar amped to sound almost sitar-like, and doubled with a Hammond organ playing slow, Gothic triplets through a Leslie speaker to give it a swirling effect. George starts singing, double-tracked with himself — almost in a whisper, and a little behind the chord, as if he’s caught up in prayer. Then….THWACK, Ringo’s drums come in, puncturing the quiet with rolls drenched in echo. The basic structure of the song plays out a second time, then producer Chris Thomas joins in with a piano in the more forceful bridge, as at least three Georges sing in unison, almost screaming the “Oh!”‘s at the end of this portion, then switch back to the creepy placidity of the verses one final time.
The entire song is almost claustrophobic; the arrangement almost smothers the listener with waves of creeping sound. The use of 3/4 time, the sound of the organ, and the miking on the ride cymbal give much of the proceedings the feeling of a haunted carousel. Additionally, Harrison’s use of “non-standard” pop song chords (the verses repeatedly go back to C-major and G-minor 9ths) bring a certain discomfort to the proceedings; it leaves the listener on edge, and the slow pacing allows you to to reflect on what you’re hearing while hearing it — able, in a way, to try and anticipate what is to come next.
This sense of anticipation increases the effect of what occurs in the song’s final 35 seconds: Paul hits a note on the Hammond, and the Leslie speaker — together with a bottle of wine on top of it — begins to vibrate; other random organ notes are hit; Ringo starts in with a drum roll to match and double the speaker vibrations; George literally scrapes a dissonant G-minor 11th chord repeatedly on his guitar, then starts emitting a howling moan that can only be called ghost-like. Finally, all the instruments slow down, a final grating strum of the guitar, and one last THUD of the floor tom. Done. This coda is disturbing on its own. For those who experience the album on vinyl, the effect is even more chilling, as “Long, Long, Long” ends the album’s third side, leaving the listener to experience an eerie silence at the end of the song, instead of being immediately rescued by the more upbeat “Revolution 1” on the CD.
Harrison did a lot of things, in both his life and music, that could be labeled as unusual, perhaps odd, even eccentric: his close friendships and associations with Monty Python and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band; his devotion to Indian music and Eastern mysticism; his decision to retire for a while in the 1980s to devote himself to race cars and gardening; even taking on multiple fake personas as the de facto head of the Traveling Wilburys. But nothing crossed the line from odd or unusual to straight-out creepy like “Long, Long, Long.” The fact that it is a beautiful, fantastic song as well as something that can give you the willies speaks to the artistic abilities of this still underrated composer. God bless you, George.