All the phases, stages and winding roads to Let It Be
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
What’s your memory of the Beatles?
For arguably the most famous band in the western world of the past century or so, that question will have an innumerable set of answers. But, among others, mine rests primarily on the band’s latter days, something like the four faces collected on the cover of the album in question here, Let It Be.
As I write this, I have a Let It Be coffee mug sitting on a coaster next to my keyboard, with the album cover printed on one side of the ceramic. Going back further, my first band t-shirt of any sort featured the Let It Be album printed on a white, short-sleeve shirt, and I wore that for years until it eventually disappeared in a move. And then there are those late nights, from high school right into my budding middle age, where I sit in the dark, drop the needle and let music do its thing. For a catalog as loaded as any could be, Let It Be is a highlight. At least it has been for me.
That’s not always how this album is remembered, though. This might stray a bit too close to a straw man argument, but here’s how the harshest criticism of this record usually goes: Let It Be is the worst Beatles album, it’s the sound of a band breaking up, Phil Spector ruined it, it never should’ve been released, the songs suck, there aren’t enough John songs, blah blah blah. Most of this is exaggerated because of the natural tendency to stack the album against the other pillars in the Beatles catalog, but the point remains that, as Beatles music goes, Let It Be falls short.
It’s always been a favorite of mine, though, and in no way am I unique in that take. And in that light, this package is a boon, serving up a refreshed mix of the original album, two LPs of sessions, jams and outtakes, a recreation of the original Get Back concept that never made it out and, for good measure, an EP of some lost mixes of the accompanying singles. This album has long been a close friend in that way that all the best albums can be, and hearing it in all the phases offered here — from the loose jams to the live takes to the final product — is more often than not a thrill.
The LP that eventually made it to record stores in 1970 is presented here in a mix overseen by Giles Martin and Sam Okell that doesn’t work to rewrite history or create an alternate take on reality. Like taking apart a car engine, cleaning the pieces and reassembling the machinery, Martin and Okell present the songs with magnificent clarity and power. The Let It Be album, always a bit underrated when stacked against The White Album or Abbey Road, deserves to shine on its own. It is, and always has been, a tremendous record in its own right.
Straight out of the gate, “Two of Us” punches through the speakers, with Ringo Starr’s signature stomp in tandem with Paul McCartney’s loping bass providing the low end, all melding with shimmering acoustic guitars and dual lead vocals to paint a picture of a band in perfect harmony. That wasn’t always the case with this group, of course, but the final product always presented the Beatles at their collective best. The music flows from there true to your memory, but more vivid. “Let it Be” is as elegant as ever, “Get Back” has all its humor and punch, “Across the Universe” sounds like it indeed came from another world.
If nothing else, this version breathes new life into a 51-year-old LP, offering an excellent excuse to revisit the music and reminding listeners that, despite all the hardships and disappointment that came with making the album, the final product was a brilliant flash of light. But since Let It Be is a chronicle of compromises and re-worked ideas, all the roads that led to it — and some side tracks that ultimately weren’t explored — are given all the requisite attention on the bonus discs.
Overshadowed by the moments of palpable frustration the Beatles felt while working in Twickenham is, again, all the music that resulted. But as has become more and more apparent with the release of these expanded Beatles albums, there’s more evidence of collaboration than infighting on the tapes. Lennon is heard encouraging Harrison on in the recording of “Something.” Where George Harrison is openly asking John Lennon and McCartney what he could sing to get through a hangup on the lyrics, Lennon suggests that he should just work through any struggles and not abandon the song. “Just say whatever comes into your head each time — ‘attracts me like a cauliflower‘ — until you get the word, you know?” It’s not resolved here — George winds up singing “attracts me like a pomegrante” on this take — but it’s evidence of the group’s two primary songwriters helping out on their bandmate’s track, and indeed, of a band working together on a Beatles song, not a John or Paul or George song.
The session and jam material will be vital for the hardcore fans, of course. All these glimpses of the Beatles in progress are historic and, importantly, a blast to listen to. But the real draw for this set comes in the form of Glyn Johns’ original 1969 mix of the proposed Get Back album. McCartney tried his own hand at this in 2003 with Let it Be ... Naked, and while stripping away Phil Spector’s third-party orchestrations make for an interesting listening experience, that attempt always felt a little too bare.
Where Let It Be ... Naked was exactly that — the traditional album, recompiled and stripped of all Spector’s overdubs — Johns’ Get Back captures what the Naked record didn’t. This is a wild glimpse into an alternate reality where the project came out as intended, as loose and free and brilliant as the best moments in Apple’s Savile Row studio could be captured. If Spector’s Let It Be is over-produced and McCartney’s Naked is too clinical, the version of the Get Back LP featured here hits all the right notes, wrong notes included.
The Naked album tried to portray the informal feel of the sessions within the bonus “Fly on the Wall” disc, but this Get Back album mixes those bits back in, making the record feel like one extended, impromptu session. Lennon’s famous “... and I hope we passed the audition” quip moves from the end of “Get Back” to right after the opening “One After 909.” From there, the group jumps from song to song on a medley of oldies, cracking themselves up in the process, before stepping right into a declarative version of “Don’t Let Me Down.” “Dig It” exists on bootlegs as a take exceeding eight minutes, but here we get one that clocks in at 4:10, keeping all the excitement of the underlying jam without dragging. Elsewhere, Lennon calls for the band to try “Dig a Pony” and have it fly right into “I’ve Got a Feeling,” which is how those two are presented here. And long a bone of contention with McCartney, the version of “The Long and Winding Road” here might be definitive. It does away with the strings, but doesn’t sound so bare as to lose the excitement of its arrangement. The song still feels regal, but the band brings its personality to the track a bit more, with Preston’s organ allowed to swell and Ringo’s drums getting a bit more atmosphere.
One of the goals of this massive reissue project, paired with the Get Back book and Peter Jackson’s upcoming film, is to shed light on what has long been seen as a sad chapter in the Beatles history, one that firmly planted the seeds for the band’s inevitable break up a few months later. And while those divisions were present, what’s been overlooked, this set argues, is the camaraderie and simple joy that the Beatles still had when the music clicked. For whatever reason, the original Let It Be album was not enough to prove that point, at least for some.
That shouldn’t be an issue anymore. There are any number of funny quips in the session and jam materials. The lost Glyn Johns version of the album is a revelation. And the Martin/Okell mix of the original album sounds as present and vital as it ever has. In the book accompanying the box, McCartney notes that this is “how I want to remember the Beatles.” I’m happy to remember them as they are on this set, as well.
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com