Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Beatles: Let It Be

The last Beatles album of original material was released this week 40 years ago. It was not the last Beatles album to be recorded: Abbey Road has that honor, but it was released before Let It Be. All old Beatles fans like me know the premise behind the album. The Beatles, after producing works that could never be produced in a live setting [Revolver, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour], wanted to abandon all studio trickery and return to their roots. They wanted to record songs live in the studio with no overdubbing. According to the plan, not only were they going to record their new songs this way, they were going to film all the rehearsals and eventually play a live show. In keeping with the intent of returning to their roots, the project had the name Get Back. The timing of this project was awful, however. Just a few months before, the Beatles finished recording The White Album. The sessions for that album took five months, which was an unheard of amount at that time. John Lennon was in the throes of heroin addiction and was not enthusiastic about the project. To put it more bluntly, here’s what John Lennon thought of the album:

When Spector came around, it was like, 'Well, all right, if you want to work with us, go and do your audition, man.' And he worked like a pig on it. He'd always wanted to work with The Beatles and he was given the shittiest load of badly recorded shit - and with a lousy feeling to it - ever. And he made something out of it. It wasn't fantastic, but I heard it, I didn't puke. I was so relieved after six months of this black cloud hanging over, this was going to go out. I thought it would be good to go out, the shitty version, because it would break The Beatles, it would break the myth. That's us with no trousers on and no glossy paint over the cover and no sort of hype. 'This is what we're like with our trousers off. So would you please end the game now?' But that didn't happen, and we ended up doing Abbey Road quickly and putting out something to preserve the myth. - John Lennon, 1970, Lennon Remembers

Since I didn’t participate in the recording of the album, I don’t have such a jaundiced view of it. Some of it is very good, the rest is only average, but “shit” it is not. In fact, the sessions that produced this album, despite the acrimony attested to them, were very productive. Most of the songs included on the album were recorded in the span of about ten days.

The songs:

Two of Us – for the longest time I thought this song was about Lennon and McCartney. The lines “you and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead…” and “you and me chasing paper, getting nowhere…” clinched the deal for me. With John and Paul singing harmony for most of the song, I thought it was about them, but no. It was only much later that I learned this was a song Paul wrote about his fondness for getting lost in the country with his girlfriend [Linda Eastman, who later became the first Mrs. McCartney]. Interestingly, it was during the rehearsal of this song at Twickenham Studios that led to George Harrison quitting the Beatles for a short spell.

Dig a Pony – this is one of the few original Lennon songs on the album as he was in the middle of a dry spell. This one was recorded on the rooftop of Apple, one of three to be included on the album. There’s not much to this one – even Lennon agrees:

I was just having fun with words. It was literally a nonsense song. You just take words and you stick them together, and you see if they have any meaning. Some of them do and some of them don't. – John Lennon, 1972

Across the Universe – this one is a Lennon original that was originally recorded in February 1968 before the Beatles went on holiday with the Maharishi in India. It was done during the same sessions as Lady Madonna, Hey Bulldog, and George’s vocal for The Inner Light [Lady Madonna’s flip side]. It was the first song he wrote since I Am the Walrus. This song appeared first on a charity album for the World Wildlife Fund called No One's Gonna Change Our World. There is a clip of John rehearsing the song in the Let It Be movie, so since it was in the movie, the Beatles decided to include it on the album. The movie version was pretty crappy and uninspired, so the original was resurrected and given the full Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” treatment, complete with orchestra and choir. Joe Satriani once cited this as one of his favorite songs like this – when the clown says something serious, you notice, or something along those lines. For the longest time I had no idea what Jai Guru Deva Om [जय गुरुदेव ॐ ] meant, so I looked it up. In Sanskrit, it’s loosely translated as “Praise to the teacher.” It was one of John’s favorite songs. I think it’s similar to his #9 Dream from his 1974 Walls and Bridges album. It has that same mystical, ethereal vibe to it.

I Me Mine – this song has the distinction of being the last Beatles song recorded before they broke up. A George Harrison song, only George, Paul and Ringo played on it. Unbeknownst to the general public, John Lennon quit the Beatles immediately after the release of Abbey Road in September 1969. Prior to one of the takes, George made a telling comment about John’s absence:

You all will have read that Dave Dee is no longer with us. But Mickey and Tich and I would just like to carry on the good work that's always gone down in number two.

The Beatles did not record this song during the original Get Back sessions, but like Across the Universe, since there was a rehearsal clip of it in the movie [John can be seen waltzing with Yoko while George plays] it would be on the album.

Dig It – a throwaway jam. No other comment necessary.

Let It Be – the last Beatles single before the breakup. This is the same take as the single, but with a few differences courtesy of Phil Spector. The album version includes a different, grittier guitar solo from George, reverberation added to Ringo’s hi-hat, and two trumpets, two trombones, and cellos. I think the single version is much better. For the single the guitar solo from George was recorded through a rotating Leslie speaker, the reverb on Ringo’s hi-hat was removed, as were the brass and the cellos, making it a much uncluttered, cleaner-sounding recording. The re-mixed version from Let It Be…Naked is closer to the single version.

Maggie Mae – this one is a traditional Liverpool folk song about a prostitute who robbed a sailor. John sang it in his most pronounced Liverpudlian accent. A whopping 38 seconds long, only Her Majesty from Abbey Road is a shorter Beatles song.

I’ve Got a Feeling – taken from the rooftop concert on January 30th, this song sees the Beatles rediscovering their inner rock stars. If anybody ever has any doubts about whether the Beatles could cut it live, one needs to look no further than this song. In my opinion it’s one of their most underrated songs. The guitar intro is John’s. Paul is in full-throated tonsil-shredding form in places. George’s playing is flawless. His entrance kicks in like a mule. This is really two songs put together. Paul’s I’ve Got a Feeling is another song for Linda, the girl he’s been looking for all along. The other is John’s Everybody Had a Hard Year. John really did have a hard year in 1968 [most problems were of his own making]. He divorced his first wife Cynthia, Yoko had a miscarriage, both he and Yoko were busted for marijuana possession, and he started using heroin. The rooftop performance is flawless.

One After 909 – another song from the rooftop. This is one of the first songs John ever wrote. The Beatles originally recorded it in 1963, but were unhappy with the result. The Beatles resurrected the song for Get Back/Let It Be, and it’s obvious in hearing it that they had much fun playing it. More evidence the Beatles were a pretty good little group live.

The Long and Winding Road
– this was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. After manager Brian Epstein died in 1967, Paul was the one who had the most enthusiasm about having the Beatles continue as a group. He envisioned this song as a simple piano ballad. However, when John Lennon asked Phil Spector to produce Let It Be out of the many hours of tapes from the sessions, Phil Spector added horns, harps, and a women’s choir to The Long and Winding Road. When Paul got an advanced copy of his song, he wasn’t pleased with the result. He demanded that several changes be made to the “Spector-ized” version, but none were made. It was when Paul realized he had no control over his own music that prompted him to quit the Beatles. Listen to the re-mixed version on Let It Be…Naked and you’ll find that McCartney was right. It was a pretty good song that didn’t need Spector’s schmaltz.

For You Blue – written by George for his wife Pattie, originally titled George’s Blues (Because You’re Sweet and Lovely), this features John playing the lap steel, Paul on the piano and George playing acoustic guitar. Immediately prior to the song, one can hear John saying "Queen says no to pot-smoking FBI members." According to George: It's a simple 12-bar song following all the normal 12-bar principles, except that it's happy-go-lucky! Of note, Paul sang this song at the Concert for George in 2002.

Get Back – like Let It Be, another classic from Paul McCartney. When you listen to the recording it sounds like it was one of the songs recorded on the rooftop, but it wasn’t. Splices of dialog from the rooftop concert were added to a studio take by Phil Spector to make it seem like a rooftop take, including John singing “Sweet Loretta fart she thought she was a cleaner, but she was a frying pan…” At the end [also from the rooftop] John says "I’d like to thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we passed the audition." In 1970, when Jann Wenner interviewed John Lennon for Lennon Remembers, John stated that if George was the “invisible vocalist” in the Beatles, then he was the “invisible guitarist.” John didn’t play lead too many times, but he did on Get Back. In addition to John’s two solos, Billy Preston got to play an electric piano solo in the middle. Such was his contribution that Get Back was credited to The Beatles with Billy Preston, as was the flip side Don’t Let Me Down. Let It Be should also have been so credited [Billy Preston plays the church-sounding Hammond organ on the song], but I digress.

All things considered, this album wasn’t the pile of shit that John Lennon made it out to be. But there are thoughts of “what might have been…” To wit, there are several songs from John and George that were rehearsed during the Get Back/Let It Be sessions. John’s songs include Child of Nature [which became Jealous Guy on Imagine] and Gimme Some Truth [also from Imagine]. When one listens to the Fly on the Wall disc from Let It Be…Naked, one can hear John’s Piano Melody, which sounds like the beginnings of the song Imagine. George’s songs that didn’t make Let It Be include All Things Must Pass, Isn’t It a Pity, Let It Down, and Hear Me Lord, all of which appeared on George’s album All Things Must Pass. Paul had two songs left off as well – Teddy Boy and Junk, both of which appeared on Paul’s debut album McCartney. There is one song missing that the Beatles recorded properly – John’s Don’t Let Me Down. I have no idea why this song was left off the album. Let It Be…Naked corrected this crass mistake. Were I to compile Let It Be, it would have included the single versions of Get Back, Let It Be, and Don’t Let Me Down, in addition to the aforementioned songs that got left off. Hell, I might even throw in Old Brown Shoe and The Ballad of John and Yoko. It could have been a masterpiece – instead it was the Beatles epitaph. Oh well, such is life. I like it anyway.

I've Got a Feeling - from the Apple Rooftop, January 30, 1969

One After 909 - from the Apple Rooftop, January 30, 1969

Get Back - rehearsal with John Lennon on lead vocal


drp said...

I don't know why everyone likes the 45 of "Let It Be" better, I much prefer the album version. On the single George's solo is forgettable, he rips it up on the album version. Bring out the horns, crank up the guitar, I think the album version is darn near perfect. As for "The Long And Winding Road", I have no problem with the Spector-ized version of that song either, mainly 'cos I don't particularly care for either of them. I think the "...Naked" CD sounds great, nice and clean, but I don't think it's any better than the original.

El Viejo Loco said...

Point taken. George does let it rip on the album version of Let It Be, but I can do without the horns. Thanks for reading.

Anonymous said...

It's my understanding that John does the solo on the album version, George on the single. I always like the George version better because it was the first I heard, as I could afford the 45 but not the album.
Bootleggers have put together a version that has both solos playing simultaneously.

Anonymous said...

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