The Beatles: Let It Be

LetItBeIn “The Hollow Men”, T.S. Eliot wrote the famous lines “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but with a whimper.” Eliot was writing about despair, but the lines could be applied to the implosion of the Beatles in 1969 and 1970. Since 1963 in Europe, and 1964 in America and throughout the world, the Beatles were the Sun in the musical sky, the immense star around which everything else orbited. They did it all, they did it first, and they did it best. They managed to grow in startlingly fast ways, while always increasing the size of their audience. They changed the musical landscape forever, and their impact is still felt today, nearly fifty years after the band broke up. Their legacy has proven immune to the ravages of time as every year a new generation of fans is created. There has never been anything like them in popular culture. There’s never really been anything even remotely close to them. The story is extraordinary.

And yet, their final release is one of the weakest albums in their canon. While the final work they recorded, Abbey Road, was a masterpiece, the final album released under their name was a half-hearted collection of overproduced filler. These were the tracks that they had recorded in early 1969, then shelved because they hated the result. What’s truly remarkable…astounding, really…is that this album is still very good, far better than it has any right to be. Even at their worst, the Beatles light shone bright.

After Abbey Road, the tapes from the Get Back sessions, as they’ve come to be known, were handed to Phil Spector, the megalomaniac who pioneered the Wall of Sound-style production in the early-1960s. Spector had spent years wanting to get his hands on the Beatles and now he had his chance. He was given the rough tapes and the instructions to turn it into an album. The Beatles didn’t want much involvement in the process, and were content (“happy” is too strong a word to describe any of the Beatles at this point) to let Spector do his thing.

Many years later, Spector was convicted of murdering an actress named Lana Clarkson. She was not his first victim. His first victim was Let It Be (his second was All Things Must Pass).

Spector does deserve credit for some good decisions. The first is that he picked the best take of every song. His ear was perfect for that. The second good decision was to keep the loose feel of the original concept by including snippets of studio banter and between song jams. The third good decision was to take George Harrison’s slight “I Me Mine” and loop it to make it longer.

These good decisions were undercut by his desire to drown some of the songs in molasses. Strings, choirs, hordes of angels…attend! McCartney was hardest hit, though Lennon’s “Across the Universe” was also targeted for the Muzak treatment.

In 2003, the Beatles released the poorly titled Let It Be…Naked, which changes the song running order, takes out the studio chatter, adds in Lennon’s brilliant “Don’t Let Me Down” in place of “Dig It” and “Maggie Mae”, includes some different takes, and most importantly takes out Spector’s heavy hand and leaves the music to the band and Billy Preston. This is actually the better version of the album. It also comes with a second disc with about 20 minutes of studio chatter and rough run-throughs. That disc is mainly useful as a coaster.

The Let It Be album starts off very strongly with Lennon introducing the lead off track as “I Dig A Pygmy, by Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf Aids! Phase one: In which Doris gets her oats!” It’s not exactly the excited count in of “I Saw Her Standing There” or the drugged count in of “Taxman”, but it’s a surprising, light-hearted moment that leads into one of the album’s best songs.

“Two Of Us” was written by McCartney about a road trip he took with this soon-to-be wife, Linda Eastman. It’s a mostly acoustic number, loping briskly in something that is related, but not that closely, to country music. A lot of Beatles fans, myself included, think that the song works beautifully as an elegy to the partnership of Paul McCartney and John Lennon. It may have started as a song about being on the road with his lady love, but there’s no denying that the lyrics are a nearly perfect summation of Macca’s years-long partnership and friendship with Lennon. For starters, it’s both John and Paul singing the song in harmony, and the lines “You and me chasing paper/Getting nowhere” is almost certainly about the business troubles the band were in. Similarly, the line “You and me wearing raincoats/standing solo in the sun” could also easily reflect the mindset of McCartney at that time in the band’s life. But it’s the “You and I have memories/Longer than the road that stretches out ahead” that is almost certainly about the band. Why would McCartney write such a line about a woman he’d known less than a year and expected to be with for a very long time to come? He wouldn’t. But a man reflecting on his life with his friend since they were teenagers, and knowing it was all coming to an end? Yes, he’d write that line about Lennon.

More studio chatter and a blown intro lead into “Dig A Pony”. The lyrics are mostly nonsense. Lennon said he was just having fun with words, incorporating little jokes throughout. Given the spirit of the album, a return to their roots, “moon dog” is more likely to be a nod to Johnny and the Moondogs than it is to the celestial phenomenon and “I roll a stoney/you can imitate everyone you know” is almost certainly a good-natured dig at the Rolling Stones. Lennon, in the infamous “Lennon Remembers” interview in Rolling Stone magazine, accused the Stones of copying the Beatles every step along the way (not entirely inaccurate, but a vast overstatement). The music itself is good, but not great. The band sounds less than truly inspired, which is true of several tracks on the album. They play the notes just fine, but the passion that fueled their earlier work seems lost.

“Across the Universe” has one of Lennon’s best lyrics and was originally recorded in early 1968. A stripped down version, with overdubbed bird sounds, was released in late 1969 on an album called No One’s Gonna Change Our World, a charity release for the World Wildlife Fund. It was also later released on the Past Masters collection of non-LP tracks. That earlier version is the superior version. For Let It Be, Spector brought in the Heavenly Host to gild over the flaws in the track. Lennon later complained that he was singing and playing out of tune on the final release, but it’s hard to notice under all those strings that were ladled throughout. Lennon’s correct…if you listen to the beginning, before the orchestration, it sounds like a very well recorded demo. It’s also interesting in that it’s the last Lennon song to reflect positively on his time in India. Nearly a year after denouncing the Maharishi, the lyrics include the Sanskrit “Jai Guru Dev Om” which loosely translates to “Victory to God divine”.

George Harrison steps up to the plate for the first of his two songs with “I Me Mine”. Contrary to popular belief, the attack on a blatant egotist is not about Paul McCartney or John Lennon. It’s about George Harrison, who claimed that his experiences with LSD had opened his eyes to his own ego, and he didn’t like what he saw. The song has a place in music history as the last song the Beatles ever recorded, completing the overdubs in 1970, but that’s about all it has. A “heavy waltz” (as George described it), it’s a simple song with simpler, repetitive, lyrics. Spector looped the song, stretching it from 1:46 to a little under two and a half minutes, then brought in the strings to fill any space that might have been left between Paul, George, and Ringo (John didn’t play on the track). It’s a filler track that may well have never seen the light of day if the band hadn’t given up on themselves.

Side one of the album concludes with a very odd triptych. The first part, “Dig It”, is a 50 second excerpt of an interminably long jam the Beatles did in the studio, with Lennon singing extemporaneous lyrics. Talk about filler! But it’s also fun, as is the third part, a very loose rendition of a traditional song about a Liverpool prostitute named “Maggie Mae” that clocks in at 40 seconds. Sandwiched between these trifles is Paul’s classic title track.

“Let It Be” doesn’t escape Spector’s obsession with drowning the Beatles in schmaltz, but it survives intact. For starters, the orchestration is narrowed down to a small horn section and some cellos. More crucial is that the song is the type, a lovely piano ballad, that can actually benefit from some sympathetic orchestration. Add in terrific organ and electric piano accompaniment from guest star Billy Preston, a blistering guitar solo (George Harrison in overdrive), a magnificent vocal from McCartney, ably backed by Lennon and Harrison, and stellar drums from Ringo, and you’ve got a Beatles classic. It’s also helped by the fact that the somewhat repetitive lyrics, about a dream McCartney had in which his deceased mother, Mary, came to him to console him about the problems in the band, are sentimental without being maudlin.

Just as good, albeit in a different way, is “I’ve Got A Feeling”, which kicks off the second half of the record in fine style. It’s a tough rocker, recorded live at EMI Studios as part of the famous “Rooftop Concert”. This is the last true songwriting collaboration between Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Paul brought in his love song to Linda Eastman, “I’ve Got A Feeling”, while John supplied his White Album-era song “Everybody Had A Hard Year” and the two of them collaborated on how to stitch them together. The result is a brilliant blend of McCartney looking forward and Lennon looking backwards. As he did on “Oh! Darling” McCartney breaks out every weapon is his vast vocal arsenal, singing as if his heart was about to burst, and the result is thrilling. It’s one of the best vocals McCartney ever recorded.

Macca’s got a feeling that he can’t keep inside, a feeling everybody knows, and that keeps him on his toes. For years he’s been wandering around wondering how come nobody told him that all that he was looking for was somebody who looked like Linda Eastman.

Lennon casts his eye to the past, inadvertently putting an epitaph on the Beatles by summing up their career from their hardscrabble beginnings to their increasingly bitter and angry infighting.

Everybody had a hard year
Everybody had a good time
Everybody had a wet dream
Everybody saw the sunshine
Oh yeah, (oh yeah) oh yeah, oh yeah (yeah)
Everybody had a good year
Everybody let their hair down
Everybody pulled their socks up (yeah)
Everybody put the foot down, oh yeah

The fact this is a live recording adds to the excitement. It’s the Beatles rocking together, seemingly having a grand time as Lennon and McCartney swap and blend vocals, and Ringo and George play tough support. The knock against the Beatles was always that they were a lousy live band, but that’s never been true. “I’ve Got A Feeling” shows that, even unrehearsed and spontaneously, the Beatles were capable of creating a joyous racket when they played together. It’s unfortunate that they never toured when the sound systems were louder than the audience. “I’ve Got A Feeling” is a great example of what might have been.

Also live from the rooftop is “One After 909”, a song that is a genuine throwback. Lennon and McCartney wrote it in the early Sixties, and the Beatles even recorded a version of it in 1963. The lyrics are simple; clearly they were still finding their way as lyricists, and the music is raw. This is the Beatles “getting back”, which was the purpose of the album. Essentially it’s the 1969 Beatles doing a cover version of a 1963 Beatles song. An enormous amount of musical growth had happened during those years, and “One After 909” isn’t even as sophisticated as what the Beatles were writing in 1964, never mind 1969. It’s a fun rocker, souped up from it’s original version, and they clearly are having fun doing the song. It’s nice to think that for three minutes the Beatles could leave Apple, Allen Klein and contract negotiations behind, and see themselves as they had been when they were so close Mick Jagger called them “the four-headed monster” because they always went everywhere together.

The joy of “One After 909” gives way to the sadness of McCartney’s “The Long And Winding Road”. If there is one song that was most hurt by Phil Spector, it’s this one. It was released as the Beatles final single and dutifully went to number one on the charts, becoming a very well-known track, but the version on the Let It Be album is a mess.

At its core, “The Long and Winding Road” is a strong piano ballad, not too dissimilar from “Let It Be”. But it was also not well performed. Lennon plays bass on the track and makes a lot of noticeable mistakes (perhaps intentionally?), and the take that was used for the album is more of a full band demo than a master take. Phil Spector wanted to cover the bum notes and too-loose feel of the song, so he applied his famous kitchen sink approach to production and poured on strings, horns, and a choir. Then he poured it on some more.

The result was that McCartney’s plaintive piano balled was turned into Muzak. The Beatles had released songs before that contained few or no Beatles playing, only singing. “Eleanor Rigby” had Paul and John on vocals only. “Yesterday” was Paul playing acoustic guitar and singing over a string section. But those songs sound more like the Beatles than this one, on which all four band members play. George Martin had written scores to accompany and support Beatle songs (as had Mike Leander for “She’s Leaving Home”), but “The Long And Winding Road” is Spector’s show. The band is merely supporting the pomposity and grandiosity of the producer. This is further evidenced by the fact that Spector erased one of McCartney’s two vocal tracks in order to use the tape for the orchestration. McCartney was furious, but his protests were too late and the song was released in this format. It’s a shame, because the underlying song is quite good, with a lovely melody.

George comes up again with “For You Blue”, which was also the B-side of the “Winding Road” single. It’s another very slight song, a sort of goofball happy blues with Lennon playing lap steel guitar (using a shotgun shell as a slide). Contrary to George’s encouraging words, John is no Elmore James. The band sounds like a band again, but I’m not really sure which band. It’s a decidedly un-Beatlesy song. What’s most confusing, however, is that in 1968 and 1969 George Harrison was improving as a songwriter almost exponentially, yet for Let It Be there are only two lightweight tracks. Songs like “All Things Must Pass” were already in their early stages, and were far superior to “I Me Mine” and “For You Blue”. The Beatles took a few passes at “All Things Must Pass” but never did a completed recording. Too bad. A stripped down Beatles recording of “All Things Must Pass” would have been as perfect an ending for the band as the closing of Abbey Road. Considering what Phil Spector did to the song on George’s first solo album, perhaps it’s for the better.

The album concludes with the mission statement for the recordings. McCartney’s “Get Back” is a brisk little rocker that was described by Lennon as a better version of their 1968 single, “Lady Madonna”. The song is helped immeasurably by the electric piano playing of their old friend Billy Preston…so much so, in fact, that when a different version of the song was released as a single in 1969 the label carried the credit “The Beatles with Billy Preston.” Eric Clapton didn’t even rate a mention for his work on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” although that may have been due to record company permissions.

“Get Back” is a great tune, but its fame may be somewhat outsized compared to its quality. It was the last song on the last Beatles album, and so holds a place in the heart of Beatle fans everywhere. It began life as a political statement, a satire of British attitudes towards immigrants, but fortunately the world was spared McCartney’s “don’t dig no Pakistanis” lyrics in favor of the story of Jo Jo and Sweet Loretta Martin. The truth is that the verses (of which there are only two) are somewhat nonsensical, but are saved by the swing of the music and the earworm of the chorus. There are also two very good guitar solos, played by John Lennon.

Ironically, it was Phil Spector who may have been the one who immortalized the song. Spector added a bit of studio chatter at the beginning of the song, and more importantly added a bit of banter from the rooftop concert to the end. Although the song is entirely a studio recording, it ends with the applause of the onlookers from the roof of Apple Records. McCartney thanks Ringo’s wife, Maureen, for her support and then Lennon gets the final word as the last song on the last Beatles album closes out a truly legendary career: “Thank you. On behalf of the group and ourselves, I hope we passed the audition.”

There was never any doubt that they had.

Grade: B
Grade (Let It Be…Naked): A

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