Album Spotlight: The Beatles—Let It Be

Like Magical Mystery Tour, Let It Be can’t be discussed without an extensive knowledge of what the Beatles intended for the record. Following is a brief rundown, but there’s plenty more to learn if you take the time.

The Beatles originally recorded the songs for Let It Be, then known as Get Back, in January of 1969. They planned to film the sessions and end with a live performance, also taped and filmed, and then release the album along with a TV special about the making of the record. In the past, the Beatles had overdubbed instruments and edited their songs, polishing them to perfection, but none of that was to take place for this record. The new songs would be presented “live”, without any overdubbing or correction of mistakes. It was a great concept, and could have made an excellent record and TV show.

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way. The band first began playing at Twickenham Studios right after the New Year, but several things were working against them. The studio was large and cold, not intended for recording music, and they were forced by its schedule to film in the early morning when they’d previously recorded late at night. Also, John was not very interested in the new record, being involved with Yoko and fooling around with heroin, and George resented Paul’s domination of the project, resulting in an argument captured on film which was followed by George’s leaving the group for a week.

When George was talked into staying and filming resumed, it was at Apple Studios, in the basement of their offices. Recording equipment had to be brought in because their flunky’s planned 72-track studio had not worked out, but they were happier in the new environment. George’s invitation to keyboardist Billy Preston to join them also helped ease the tension in the atmosphere, and resulted in the excellent song Get Back.

Still, Paul’s insistence on perfection in his songs resulted in take after take, with no one agreeing on which one was “best”. In between playing, the group also argued about where to play live. Suggestions to play at the Roman Coliseum and on board a ship were ridiculed by George and John, the latter of whom suggested an asylum at one point. Finally, to finish the project, they agreed to play on the rooftop of Apple, where their lunchtime concert drew crowds who couldn’t see them and police who forced them to cease and desist without the drama of an actual arrest.

Once the record was finished, the tapes and films languished in drawers since no one could bear to complete the project. Glyn Johns, who became a famous record producer and was then an engineer, mixed the result and mastered a record for the group, but none of them really wanted to release it since the general aura was sloppy and unhappy. So apart from the single Get Back, nothing was done.

Then, after Abbey Road was recorded and John announced privately that the group was over, Allen Klein, the Beatles’ manager, pressed them to release Get Back, now Let It Be. John had the idea to have the famous American producer Phil Spector work on the tapes, remixing them to improve the record. Meanwhile, some overdubbing was done by the Beatles prior to Spector’s participation on the song Let It Be for its release as a single in March 1970, thus killing the project’s original concept.

Phil Spector came in, listened to the tapes, chose the performances he thought best, remixed them and overdubbed orchestras and choirs onto I Me Mine, Across The Universe (actually recorded in 1968, but that’s another story) and The Long and Winding Road. He sent an acetate of the results to the group. Paul didn’t like what Spector had done to “Road” and demanded changes, but wires got crossed and nothing happened, depending on whether you believe Paul’s or John’s account of events. Anyway, Let It Be was released as an album and film, with mixed reviews. Many people felt Spector had ruined the songs, but some, including John, claimed that he had saved them. Paul, however, seldom lost an opportunity to complain about Spector’s production.

All takes were recorded in or on Apple Studios in 1969 unless otherwise specified. All remixing done at Abbey Road by Phil Spector unless otherwise specified.

Two of Us: Recorded January 31st; remixed March 25th, 1970. The late Nicholas Schaffner in his groundbreaking The Beatles Forever described this as a Rubber Soul type tune, and that fits perfectly. Acoustic guitars, remixed by Spector to accentuate their chime, ring out with Everly Brothers harmonies from John and Paul. Paul wrote the tune about Linda and himself, but it could just as easily apply to Lennon-McCartney, and in that respect is rather bittersweet. Unfortunately, the effect is diminished by John’s raucous shout of “I DIG A PYGMY!” at the beginning (Spector added this in) and the limp ending which on a proper Beatles album would have faded out.

Dig A Pony: Recorded January 30th on the rooftop of Apple Studios; remixed March 23rd, 1970. A good guitar riff but a mediocre song. John’s lyrics are a string of nonsense lines, which may have worked well for I Am The Walrus but here just seems as if he said, “Eh, fook it, that’s good enough” and dashed it off. Spector eliminated the “All I want is you” line (from which the song originally took its name) at the beginning and end.

Across The Universe: Recorded February 8th, 1968, at Abbey Road. Overdubs recorded April 1st, 1970, under Spector’s direction; remixed April 2nd, 1970. Never intended for this album, but because it was busked at Twickenham and included in the final print, it was retooled to be on the soundtrack. Spector took the original, which had been drastically sped up, and slowed it back down even more than its original tempo. He also cut out the Beatles’ backing vocals and the harmonies from two fans who had been drafted to sing, and added an orchestral string arrangement and choir. The result is beautiful, a dream musically and lyrically. John wrote the words when he was pissed at Cynthia for not shutting up so that he could get to sleep, but it’s obviously inspired by meditation.

I Me Mine: Recorded January 3rd, 1970, at Abbey Road. Overdubs recorded April 1st, 1970, under Spector’s direction; remixed April 2nd, 1970. Like Across The Universe, this was a last-minute inclusion to make the album match the film. Paul, George and Ringo laid it down after John had left the group, in a session that must have been rather sad. George’s lyrics capture the bitterness of the sessions quite well. Significantly, they recorded overdubs of electric organ and piano, additional guitars and vocals, abandoning the original “live” concept. Spector took the brief ditty and extended it by going back to the last line of the first verse and then repeating the chorus and final verse. This was quite a clever solution that never got noticed until Mark Lewisohn analyzed the recording sessions. Spector also added choral and orchestral backing, but kept it subtle.

Dig It: Recorded January 26th; credited to Lennon/McCartney/Starkey/Harrison. Remixed March 27th, 1970. A snippet of a jam session. Matt Busby was the manager of Manchester United, a football [soccer] team. I would rather they had included the entire jam, which included young Heather Eastman on backing vocals and Paul singing “Dig it up” over and over in the background; or else have cut it entirely. John’s comment about “Ark The Angels Come”, from the original take done January 24th, leads into the next track.

Let It Be: Recorded January 31st; lead guitar solo overdubbed April 30th, 1969 at Abbey Road; additional overdubbing January 4th, 1970, at Abbey Road, including another lead guitar solo. The brass and cello overdubs were done at this latter session, for the single, not done by Spector. Remixed and edited by Spector March 26th, 1970. One of Paul’s last great Beatle ballads, with lyrics about his mother, Mary. It shows the anguish he was experiencing at the time. I prefer this version to the single, but both are the same take, merely remixed with the different guitar solos brought to the fore. Spector also repeated the second to last line to maintain the illusion that this was an entirely different take.

Maggie May: Recorded January 24th; remixed March 26th, 1970. A cover of an old Liverpudlian folk song about a lady of the evening. Cute, but unnecessary.

I’ve Got A Feeling: Recorded January 30th, also on the roof; remixed March 23rd, 1970. Like Dig A Pony, a strong riff with not much else to make it a memorable song. One of the last instances of John and Paul collaborating, with the latter writing most of the beginning while the former contributed the “Everybody had a hard year” portion. The resulting contrapunctual singing is the best part of the tune.

One After 909: Recorded January 30th; the third rooftop number. Remixed March 23rd, 1970. A vast improvement over the 1963 recording (found on Anthology 1). One of the few instances in which the band sounds as if they’re enjoying themselves. Billy Preston’s keyboard work is superb, as is George’s solo. John sings and Paul harmonizes, and for that brief few minutes they forget about all the shit that’s been going down.

The Long And Winding Road: Recorded January 31st. Overdubs April 1st, 1970, under Spector’s direction; remixed April 2nd, 1970. When Paul claims that Spector ruined Let It Be, this is what he’s really talking about; and while I’ll defend every other decision that the producer made for this album, I have to agree with McCartney here. This is a lovely ballad with some stirring lyrics which, in its naked state on Anthology 3 or in the film, is timeless (although hindered by some lousy bass work from John). Spector decided to give this the Wall of Sound treatment, and overdubbed a sweeping orchestra and choir which is as over-the-top as it could possibly get, to the point of parody. Still, a lot of people liked it, as it was a #1 single when released.

For You Blue: Recorded January 25th. Remixed March 30th, 1970. Originally entitled George’s Blues (Because You’re Sweet And Lovely). A beautiful love song with nice acoustic guitar work from George and some terrific slide guitar by John. Billy Preston plays a nice solo, too. A vastly underrated song by George. Spector added a snippet of dialogue from the Twickenham sessions just before the song begins, the only bit used from Twickenham.

Get Back: Recorded January 28th, with the beginning spoken section recorded January 27th. Remixed March 26th, 1970. For once, the group was on fire during this take, with John playing lead guitar and Billy Preston contributing electric piano. Spector took this take, used as the single, added the beginning chat and some dialogue from the rooftop session, cut the reprise after the pause, and hey presto! Everyone thought it was a different version.1

Released May 8th, 1970, moved back from its original planned April release because Paul threw a fit to Ringo about being asked to move his solo album McCartney back. Originally released on CD in 1987; the remaster was released September 9th, 2009.

Never having been satisfied with this record, Paul pushed and pushed until finally he got Apple to redo the album as Let It BeNaked, released November 17th, 2003. This was meant to be closer to what the band had originally intended. You can find more of my thoughts on the release at this link: Let It Be…NOT 2 Here, I’ll just say that Naked has its own issues, and in its own way betrays the original concept every bit as much as Phil Spector’s “reproduction” did.

The Beatles’ last record is a mess of an album, but having heard the original Get Back proposed release, let me tell you that in my opinion Spector did the best he could (excluding the Wall of Sound on The Long and Winding Road). Still, a sad note to end on. Fortunately for all, they did later record one final album, which was released in late 1969: Abbey Road.