Technical note before we begin: for this album I used the Naked version. This (unfortunately) does not mean that the four of them stripped to their birthday suits when they were recording, only that this is a less ornate remixing of the album carried out under the auspices of Paul McCartney in 2003, which the surviving Beatles agreed was more like their intended version. So though I don’t see much evil in Phil Spector’s original 1970 mix (unlike many Beatle fans, who see him as Satan incarnate) I think it would be nice to get a version that did bring out what the Beatles wanted. So, with the exception of “Dig It” and “Maggie Mae”, two snippets that are only found on the 1970 mix, all tracks mentioned are based on what I could hear on the Naked edition.
With that cleared up, here goes…
Let It Be (released 8 May 1970)
Dear Let It Be,
Unfairly maligned as the worst Beatle record (if one discards that ghastly Yellow Submarine), you have borne the brunt of criticism since you were released, almost as an afterthought, a month after Paul left the Beatles. As I’ve noted in my letter to your elder sibling, Abbey Road is considered to be the Beatles’ final statement, the final climatic hurrah before all of them decided to call it a day. You were recorded right before all that, when George was losing his temper with John and Paul and John was losing his temper with Paul and Ringo was… also losing his temper with Paul. (He had a knack for pissing everyone off.) In any case: these rehearsals were fractious, distracted and very non-standard for the band, and these have been blamed for your slipshod quality.
But, I mean… why? Having listened to you so much (you’re one of my most replayed Beatles albums) I’m still scratching my head over what is it that the critics don’t like about you. In fact, I think that you’re not that bad: yes, you may have your unsatisfactory moments, but at the same time, we should never lose sight of so much of the good stuff that you bring to the table. And best of all: you actually have an argument for me to make. Which is very good news for somebody trying to write 2000 words or something of that ilk.
And it’s this: you are a perfect time capsule of where the band stood at this point in their career. You are a perfect snapshot of a band at a crossroads, unsure of where to turn next. Early 1969 can’t have been an easy time for everyone involved: lots of decisions to make, lots of hatred flying around, lots of press screaming at the band (but mostly Yoko). But it’s also a special period, a time where everyone was focused on delivering the best they had — Paul especially. And so to have an album which deals with the past, present and future of George, John, Paul and Ringo is perfect as a sort of epitaph for the band.
The album opener states this fact perfectly. “Get Back” was the original title for the album that was planned to come after your Very White Sibling, and the lyrics are pretty blatant on what the intended message was, too. “Get back to where you once belonged” is not merely a command for sweet Loretta, whoever she is. It’s a rallying cry for the band to get back to basics, do what they did best to become a real band again. It’s Paul’s version of “Come Together”, if you like. The only problem is he isn’t as convincing as John: he went for a simple style on this one, as if arguing for his (and the band’s) new stripped-down approach, but this just makes him sound tired. There’s no energy to both his “get back”s (I never thought I’d use this adjective on Paul McCartney, but they are FEEBLE) and the beat just seems lame, as if none of his bandmates were making an effort, either. (John barely makes an effort to harmonize with Paul.) This was the last track on the original album (with a bit of the rooftop concert’s cheeky banter tacked on) but the Naked version reverses this — and the result is that you can hear for yourself, right away, how tired everyone was with recording. Certainly brings an interesting (read: bad) perspective to things.
Still, the band did try to get their act together, and the result was a return to some of their musical roots in “One After 909”. This is a song that was written back in 1958 — one of the first songs written by Lennon-McCartney, in fact. They’d toyed with the idea of releasing it as a single in their earlier days, but it was not until their rooftop concert in January 1969 that this song finally saw the light of day. Perhaps it’s due to this performance factor that the song sounds perfect for such a purpose: there are whoops and interjections from Paul when he’s not singing backup for John, and that “alley-oop” feel the opening vamp give us is just so brilliant (but then again, this song takes its cue from the American bluesy songs about trains popular in the 1950s). Yes, it’s unadventurous and mediocre compared to what they’ve produced before that, but close your eyes and it’s suddenly 1958 all over again: this is no longer the Beatles, but John’s former band the Quarrymen, bashing it out in seedy dance clubs and second-rate music halls, and charging into another rendition of this song like the brave, fearless musicians they were back then. At least here it sounds like John and Paul could be having a grand old time, as if to say “arguments were so 1968”. So I like this song: not because of the things that it does, but because of a past it evokes. Perfect in an album that’s all about nostalgia.
Further down the line, we find a combination of the past and the present too: “Across the Universe” was written in 1967 and recorded in 1968, but because the Beatles (or more accurately, Phil Spector) were a song short when it came to assembling an album out of the gloopy mess of the January 1969 sessions, they added this on. This song has about the most official versions of any Beatle song: you can find it in C-sharp, D and E-flat majors, and all with varying amounts of birdsong and instruments. (This was originally released as a charity single for the World Wildlife Fund, so the engineers, in their infinite wisdom, immediately thought “tropical island”.)
It calls back to a more innocent era for the Beatles, when John was a lot more comfortable with being hazed all day and exploring the infinite mysteries of the world. It’s one of my favourite songs from the album: people have spoken out a lot against the background “aah”s that were mixed in in the original 1970 version, but when you’re aiming for the majestic — no, hang on, “cosmic” — then I think you actually NEED a choir. It helps that the song slowly builds, from a few simple strummed guitar chords to a full-blown affair with strings and a choir, as if it’s lifting off from Earth and slowly expanding to show you the entire cosmos, in all its glory. Maybe it’s just cause I started with the original, but the slowed-down version for me has a sense of hollowness and distortion that matches perfectly with the sense of disorientation you’re looking for when you’re travelling, as the song says, across the universe. That grandeur has a sense of wonder to it, like a slow dramatic reveal that the Naked version and the WWF version, sadly, will never be able to replace. (And in case you missed the clue at the top of this page: it’s one of my favourite songs. Faithful Christian and all.)
It’s with a heavy heart that I tear myself away from all the dreaminess of the past and head into the present, where we get plenty of updates on what the band is like now. This is where most of the songs fall: “Don’t Let Me Down” and “The Long and Winding Road” are passionate love songs, reflecting how both John and Paul had found their life partners, and someone they could rely on, circa 1969. Once more, the difference between Lennon and McCartney asserts itself: while Paul goes for the mushy poetry (of which — sigh — more later), John goes for the very straightforward, anguished howls in “Don’t Let Me Down”. I’ve spoken a lot in the past how John’s howling works most of the time but started sounding ridiculous after Yoko entered the frame: here, he proves me wrong by giving us something simple. The difference between the gentle verses — nonsensical, bordering on “Strawberry Fields” territory — and the loud raucous chorus, Punctuated! With! Emphasis! by the title, is a masterpiece of contrasts that is so striking, that I can’t help but love what it’s done.
Speaking of the blues, George also contributes to the style with “For You Blue”. The best thing you can say about this song is that George has proven himself that he too is adept at all the song types: this is truly something which clearly shows the love he has raging in him. Sadly, it’s also not a very memorable song. I mean, I remember that it was loud and stuff, but it’s just not the sort of thing that sticks around in your head very long. And I feel that it’s not worth opening up Spotify just to check, so let’s just call it mediocre and leave it at that. I have much to write.
Onwards we march, and this is a time as good as any other to mention the two short bits left out of the Naked version. “Dig It” and “Maggie Mae” are snippets of a band at work. These short improvised sessions are nothing more than jams of songs that caught the band’s fancy at a certain moment, and they’re just 30 or so seconds through. But even with such a length (or lack thereof) it has its own value as well: these selections tell us just how easy it was for these four to come up with new ideas and let it progress in such a short period of time — and at the same time, they could have fun while doing it. Given what was happening at this same period, this seems a bit odd, but that’s the Beatles for you. When they got deadly serious, things could go downhill fast, but when they didn’t give a damn, they could be nice and funny with each other. If Paul hadn’t been so controlling and John hadn’t been such an arsehole to George, maybe things would have turned out different. We’ll never know.
But back to the album: I mentioned that most of the songs fall in what I call the “present” category, but when I say fall, I also mean that some of the songs don’t work here. It’s only to be expected from such tension, and there are some not very good songs. This is where Paul pales in comparison to the other two: I know that “The Long and Winding Road” was a song that Phil Spector is supposed to have ruined, but even without those sentimental strings, I can’t say that it’s an improvement. The lyrics are the problem: they are just SO SAPPY, they’re more like trees than songs. Paul sings them in such a melancholy way that it’s really hard to not take it as a joke. “Dig a Pony” also shows that John is not the almighty when it comes to songwriting: his obsession with the blues can be cool sometimes, but here it just sounds uneven. He drags (or more accurately, drawls) 80% of his lyrics and shouts the other 20%: it might sound wise and raw (simultaneously?) to some people, but even if you’re a hardcore fan (which I’m not) it’s hard not to see it as just sloppy work. You can do better than this, John, don’t just throw any old sentimental crap at us to see if it sticks.
The songs that really show the mood of the times, though, are the condemnatory and/or tired songs we get in between the big guns: there are only two offerings from George, but “I Me Mine” is definitely the better one, short as it is. John was infamously dismissive of this one and in fact danced around the studio with Yoko while the other three were working this out. Ironic that he should miss the very obvious message: that everyone was being incredibly selfish, especially around him (okay, it’s also easy to see this as George throwing a hissy fit). Catchy tune it certainly is, though, and I have a certain pride in saying that it’s one of the good ones here. “I’ve Got a Feeling” is an acknowledgement of how, as John puts it, “everybody’s had a hard year”, with a slow buildup that really doesn’t get anywhere, and a song where John, again, doesn’t make any sense. You always get a feeling that you’re running around in circles — and I, for one, am interested in listening to songs that resolve themselves. (A metaphor for the band again, right there.) But these songs, to give them their credit, are pleasant to listen to, and again there are the glimpses of genius that are struggling to make themselves heard over the band’s distracted shouting matches. (I wonder if their shouting matches were harmonized, though… anyway.)
With that chaotic background in mind, everyone was asking the same question: where would the band go from here? This is where songs for the future come into play. Surprisingly, these are all Paul’s: it seems that both George and John preferred to think about the here and now rather than romantically harping on about their fate. But because the two of them don’t try to steal Paul’s thunder, he shines in this category: both “Two of Us” and “Let It Be” are my personal highlights of this album. It’s hard not to read both of these songs as Paul’s statement on their future as a band, especially given their inclusion onto an album which says so much about exhaustion and finality. The first has lyrics about companionship, as if reminiscing on happier times. He may deny it, but “you and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead” is definitely Paul’s message to John, that after having gone through so much, their brotherly relationship was close to a thing of the past. This makes their singing together on a song especially poignant, backed by nothing but George’s background lead guitar and Ringo’s steady drumming: our focus is directed towards Lennon-McCartney’s wonderful relationship, as they harmonize together, one last time.
And of course, we can’t let an album called “Let It Be” pass without talking about the title track. That it’s placed as the last track on this album certainly means a lot: it may have originated as Mrs. McCartney’s words to her son, but the message applies to everybody, really. This is a song that seeks to calm everyone down, and from Paul’s soothing piano tunes to George’s uplifting guitar solo, everything about this tune seeks to tell you that it’s gonna be okay, that there will be hope even in your darkest hours — and just as important, that there is a time to let our desires go.
But the thing that sells it for me is not the positive message, or the fantastic instrumentation. It’s Paul’s genuine belief in what he’s singing. Call it a bit of pretentious posturing on his part, but he obviously put a lot of heart into this song and as he repeats “let it be”, it’s evident that he really wants everybody to know this as well. Which brings me back to a well-trodden path: even after so many years, Paul McCartney remains true on his songwriting. He continues to deliver his words with the utmost earnestness and heart, and his voice does have genuine emotion behind it. And when you listen to him, you think: yes. It may be over, but still you can go on, if you just let it be. Not many songs sound convincing when they try to tell you that. This one does, because — and I know that I risk stooping to Paul’s level of sentimentality if I say this, but it’s undeniably the truth — it really does sound believable.
So to return to the assertion I made at the start of this letter: you are not the forgotten masterpiece that everyone should really listen because they are missing out on so much why can’t anyone listen to me. Your first half is hard to get through, and you have more than the usual share of bad songs. But for a band disintegrating at record speed (pun not intended), you’re good enough a time capsule of that moment, and once you get past the opening clunkers (seriously, screw “The Long and Winding Road”) you’re very much a pleasure to listen to. I certainly don’t mind making you the band’s final statement — it’s not perfect, but it’s them, and that’s all we need.
(looks at word counter) I wrote HOW MANY WORDS for this letter?!
Favourite song: Although the Naked version still shakes things up a bit, “Two of Us” is still a poignant reminder of what could have been. It is the perfect encapsulation of this album, and it’s like Paul’s giving us a farewell message. What more could you want?
(Featured image from cover of Let It Be, copyright EMI Music/Parlophone Records.)