THE BEATLES: LET IT BE (1969-1970)
1) Two Of Us; 2) Dig A Pony; 3) Across The Universe; 4) I Me Mine; 5) Dig It; 6) Let It Be; 7) Maggie Mae; 8) I've Got A Feeling; 9) One After 909; 10) The Long And Winding Road; 11) For You Blue; 12) Get Back.
I am going to go for a little change of protocol here. Technically, Let It Be was the last original Beatles album, since it was released on May 8, 1970, exactly one month after the infamous McCartney press release about his leaving the band. It was also the last album on which three out of four Beatles (no Lennon) recorded a new version of an older song (George's ʽI Me Mineʼ, with the final sessions dated to January 1970), and most of the mixing was done in March/April 1970 by Phil Spector. Naturally, most discographies and review sets place it at the end of the line. Besides, it's called Let It Be. The title track is called ʽLet It Beʼ. How could there be a more perfect title and a more perfect title track for the Beatles' swan song?
But, ironically, the first rehearsal of ʽLet It Beʼ took place on January 3, 1969, at a time when tension was already running high, but there was no thought yet of an actual break-up — and the song was never intended as a musical testament, as it is quite easy to see from the lyrics. On the contrary, it is a pacifying piece, maybe even a subconscious plea for everybody to just take it easy. Which no one did, unfortunately, because by early 1969, Paul's «take it easy» was unequivocally understood by everyone as «take it easy and just do as I say», whether he really meant it or not.
The «finished» album may have come out in 1970, but in 99% of all possible ways and manners, it belongs in early 1969; and props must be given to Spector for preserving much of the attitude of early 1969. Upon release, Let It Be was heavily criticized for sounding ragged and unfinished, but that is exactly what the Beatles' musical grip was at the time — ragged and unfinished. If you ever saw the movie, you might even get the feeling that the Beatles themselves were quite ragged, although much of this has to do with the cold London climate and the necessity of getting up early in the morning to participate in the filming.
I have no reason to doubt that Paul's complex plan to revitalize the band was undertaken with the best of all possible intentions. Unfortunately, it just proved what many might have felt all along: namely, that being a genius composer does not automatically make you eligible for «smart politician». Probably the most correct strategy at the time, if one really wanted to preserve the band as a single entity, was to take a break — let everybody's nerves cool down after the already heated White Album sessions, invent alternate outlets for everybody's individuality, maybe even settle on part-time solo, part-time collective careers. Instead, less than two months after The Beatles was finally launched, Paul was pressing the band back in the studio, and how.
The idea of getting «back to the roots», playing much of the material «live in the studio», like they did in 1963, without giving in to studio trickery where each band member would sit in his own cubicle, turned out to be disastrous. For one thing, it'd been a long, long, long time since they ever did anything like that — two or three years at least. Listening to the early takes of Let It Be material, or watching the Twickenham footage in the movie, shows just how painfully rusty, and, at times, quite sloppy the results came to sound. For another, it actually involved spending more time in the presence of each other, and an increased necessity of compromising — something that was much more easily done in 1963 than in 1969.
And finally, it was just plain wrong. It is one thing to abandon an idea that did not work, and retrace one's steps back to the previous level when things were going all right. But the concept of «getting back to the roots» from a level that you have perfectly mastered is nothing short of ridiculous. (Four years later, a similar change of mind would forever destroy the «hipness» of Eric Clapton). Simply put, Paul's plan was completely doomed from the start, and it also laid to rest whatever hopes there might have been of the Beatles eventually sorting out their mutual problems. In a way, Paul did kill the Beatles with the «Get Back» project — injecting a lethal dose of camaraderie instead of a careful, step-by-step treatment.
Still, the Beatles could be fairly great even at their collective worst, and for demonstrating that, we have to say a big thank you to Phil Spector. These days, mostly due to active counter-propaganda on Paul's part, his role in the album is usually remembered as that of «the guy who put those corny strings on ʽThe Long And Winding Roadʼ, but I am completely on John's side of the debate: strings or no strings, Spector took the chaotic, confusing, incoherent mass of tapes from the January 1969 sessions and made the best of them. And, furthermore, he did not merely select the «cream of the crop» — he somehow managed to convey the dishevelled, tense spirit of the sessions, while at the same time avoiding showing us all of their blandness. In other words, Let It Be manages to be a glorious mess, as compared to the depressing mess that we can now officially observe in the outtakes included on Anthology 3.
Paul's original idea was to record the final version live, and Spector actually respected that intent: although only four songs were included from the «Rooftop Concert» — the culmination of the whole enterprise — there is certainly a live feel to the entire album, conveyed by the inclusion of snippets of dialog, pseudo-announcements ("I Dig A Pygmy, by Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf Aids! Phase One, in which Doris gets her oats!"), and little odd bits like the band launching into an accappella comic rendition of ʽDanny Boyʼ at the end of one of the rooftop numbers. Throw in such snippets as ʽMaggie Maeʼ and a little slice from the large ʽDig Itʼ jam that introduces ʽLet It Beʼ, and the informal, messy feeling is complete.
It does not necessarily help, because the ʽDig Itʼ jam is pointless, ʽMaggie Maeʼ is just a moment of occasional silliness, and the jokes and adlibs are only funny for the first time. But it provides some authenticity. There is no way that Let It Be could ever demand to be included into a Beatles «Top 3» or something like that, anyway — so, if this is going to be a relatively minor release, one might as well throw on something special that would indirectly hint at why it is a minor release. Sure, the best explanation would probably have to be the heated McCartney / Harrison studio exchange, captured in the movie, but that's carrying it a bit too far. We're happy enough with Lennon's self-ironic "thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition" at the end of the album. Would there ever have been a reason for asking that question on any previous record?
Still, there are at least three fully accomplished, well-produced, «completed» Beatles classics on the record — one of John's (ʽAcross The Universeʼ) and two of Paul's (the title track and ʽThe Long And Winding Roadʼ), which is already more great stuff than there is on... er, Yellow Submarine. John's song is intentionally «transcendental», and probably the quintessential «transcendental» Beatles song altogether — again, not without irony, considering how this stately, gracefully flowing, humbly meditative anthem was written and recorded at the height of the Beatles' personal quibbles and quabbles. Discussing the religious ecstasy of ʽLet It Beʼ is hardly necessary, although I must mention that this particular version is my personal favorite, compared to the single release and the movie take — because of Harrison's decision to make the solo a little more dynamic and «screechy» by going all the way up before elegantly coming down again.
As for ʽRoadʼ, well... frankly speaking, the song is not one of my favorite McCartney ballads anyway, so it is hard for me to say whether it works better or worse with Spector's strings or without them. It's got plenty of romantic pathos in its original incarnation anyway, so if it is the «corniness» that annoys the listener, it's right there from the beginning. If, however, it is the amazement at yet another impeccable piano/vocal combination from Macca's heart that you're after, the strings arrangement hides neither part of it from you.
Of the «rooftop» numbers, ʽGet Backʼ is the only one that approaches the same level of accomplishment, and for good reason: the band must have spent plenty of time working on the song in the studio, to get locked in such a tight, ideally directed groove, with Billy Preston on electric piano as the star of the show. Arguably McCartney's greatest contribution to the restrictive world of the boogie — that stomping, cavalry-charging rhythm seems so simple when you come to think of it, but somehow, nobody ever did it just like that before. Had all of their new songs come out sounding thus easy-going and inspired, the message of "get back to where you once belonged" might not have been wasted on the band.
The bad news is, instead of going on another creative rampage, a lot of studio time was wasted on remembering, rehearsing, and re-recording old standards — from ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ to ʽBesame Muchoʼ — none of which had any reason to appear on the final album, and none of which, fortunately, did. The only exception was made for the Beatles' own ʽOne After 909ʼ, a song they'd originally tried to record at least in 1963, and now replayed it «rootsy-style» on the rooftop. It's funny, and they had lots of fun playing it, and it features an original Billy Preston piano part with a cool «electronic» ring to it... but for some reason, I've always enjoyed the original version more: the slower, more relaxed, laid back original matched the sarcastic lyrics better than the rooftop version, which tries to kick more ass in a rowdier way. Besides, John and Paul's voices do not mix up all that well on the live performance.
On the other hand ʽI've Got A Feelingʼ is, to me, the forgotten gem on the album. It makes for a classy, fresh, inspiring start of Side Two; it's got one of the band's best ever «looping» riffs; it's really two songs alternating with each other and then locked onto one another; it has George Harrison playing the nastiest licks of his career at 1:25 into the song (and it's hilarious how he never managed to get them quite right in the Twickenham Studios part of the footage — and then got it so perfectly once the band was finally on the roof) — and even the lyrics make sense, because it is... well, it's probably the world's finest ode to human ability to feel. In that respect, it's funny how, in this battle, it is Paul who is the herky-jerky one, whereas John is all but playing the Dalai-lama on the "Everybody had a hard year..." part. Down with stereotypes!
Sure, the album feels incomplete. Some of the songs are objectively underworked — George's ʽI Me Mineʼ, fantastic as it is, lasted all of 1:34, and Spector had to replay the same section twice to bring it to a more logical completion (with brass overdubs on the second verse so it wouldn't feel too obvious). John's ʽDig A Ponyʼ gives the feeling of leaving too many melodic lines unresolved, as if he wasn't given enough time to complete all the sections. ʽFor You Blueʼ feels a little naked, too, although I love the song dearly because of its odd combination of sounds — John playing lap steel and Paul getting it on with an electric piano that seems to have been dragged out into tropical sunlight and left out to dry for twelve hours straight (I almost physically feel dehydrated myself each time after the performance).
But let us also remember that, much to the Beatles honor, they realized it full well themselves: this is why the final album was indefinitely shelved, as the band regrouped itself for the final effort of Abbey Road, and this is why it was only released after it became clear to everybody that a brand new studio album from the Beatles was not forthcoming. Let It Be is a self-acknowledged failure, with a few moments of utter brilliance and some moments that are not quite up there (but, goes without saying, still better than 99% of the... well, you know). It should not be passed off as «just another Beatles album» — it is in equal parts a Beatles album and a historical document, and should be taken as such.
Which brings me to my last point: the recent re-invention of Let It Be as Let It Be... Naked is little more than a postmortem curio (I'm not saying «cash bait», because the process of messing around with the tapes again may have meant much more to Paul than simply an extra source of revenue). By discarding the Spector «innovations», taking out the «live» bits and snippets, and reshuffling the tracks, the Naked version tries to pass it off for «another Beatles album» — but it doesn't work that way. That Beatles album never existed in the first place. And I have no interest whatsoever in hearing ʽTwo Of Usʼ without the "I dig a pygmy...!" introduction, or ʽOne After 909ʼ without the ʽDanny Boyʼ bit.
Particularly the latter. Watch the Let It Be movie and you'll have to agree with the obvious: throughout that cold and miserable January of 1969, the happiest moment in the Beatles' collective life happened during those forty minutes of playing on the roof — fueled by the genuine excitement of it all and the impending danger of getting their heads smashed in by the police. The more of those minutes we have included on our copy of Let It Be, the better it makes us feel — realizing that the whole venture was not a complete waste, after all. At the very last moment of his crazy plan, Paul finally had it going right. Too bad that forty minutes of playing live in the cold never got around to compensate for twenty days of misery that preceded it. Not even Billy Preston helped in the long run.
I can only hope that future re-editions of the Beatles' catalog will never succumb to the mistake of replacing the original Let It Be with the Naked version — although, perhaps, both have a reason to exist. To me, the Beatles are interesting not only as masters of the pop hook, but also as live human beings with a juicier feel for the universe than my own, and I sense their presence as such much better on the original album than on the sterilized «remake». Not that it's a matter of life and death or anything — screwing around with a Beatles album is nowhere near as dangerous as screwing around with the multiplication table — but on that little grading scale of life's tiny nitpicks it at least feels more important to me than the Greedo controversy. Am I wrong in thinking that Paul McCartney is more precious for humanity than George Lucas? You tell me.