FEATURE: The Long and Winding Road: The Beatles’ Let It Be at Forty-Nine




The Long and Winding Road

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The Beatles’ Let It Be at Forty-Nine


I think every album from The Beatles...

 IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles during their final photoshoot on 22nd August, 1969/PHOTO CREDIT: Ethan Russell and Monte Fresco

warrants celebration when it has a birthday. In September, Abbey Road turns fifty and it will be quite a sad occasion. Not only was it the final album the band recorded together but it was a superb way to go out. In fact, Abbey Road was released before Let It Be, of course, but you wonder why that was the case. By the time Let It Be came out on 8th May, 1970 (in the U.K.), the band had already split up and many critics were not so kind. It is understandable that a lot of the tension that was running through the group at the time would bleed into the album. Not only was there stress within the ranks – the increasing presence of Yoko Ono in the studio did not help – but you got the feeling that the band were moving in different directions. This all sounds rather bleak and you might wonder why I am including Let It Be on my site at all. Well, it is a Beatles album and that is reason enough. The fact that it was released after they broke up has a sad tinge but I think, some forty-nine years after its release (Wednesday is the official anniversary), it does get the attention it deserves. Paul McCartney famously was keen to get Let It Be… Naked out: a stripped-back and reworked album that took away a lot of Phil Spector’s production layers.

The fact George Martin had left before the album – after the rather tense experience with The Beatles in 1968 – meant that there was a lot of change regarding production. You can hear that but I think there are a lot of golden moments! The band wanted to go back to a simpler style of recording. Given their move into more complex and experimental territory; Let It Be was a chance to return to a slightly less fussy and boundary-pushing album. One can hear that throughout the record but, as things often go, there were kinks. With a new producer and some tense moments in the studio (George Harrison briefly left the band), there were some challenges to overcome. By late-1968, The Beatles had stopped touring but McCartney wanted the band to hit the road again. The fact that, since 1966, The Beatles had been recording and, often, in separate rooms meant there was a slight split and not the same brotherly bond they had in the early days. Maybe, too, live gigs would help sharpen their material and give them fresh ideas. I do like the suggestion from McCartney and do wonder what would have happened if The Beatles got back on the stage and did some gigs pre-Let It Be. One of the worst decisions was letting cameras into the band’s orbit as they were recording the album. Never a good idea with any artist, that intrusion and sense of expectation further strained an already-frayed band. The band was not keen on McCartney’s idea of touring and, whilst George Martin did offer ideas, he was not a central part of the production.

I shall mention the great songs and the reasons why Let It Be is an album to celebrate but, when the bands were rehearsing the song, the tension that was there during 1968 presented itself. Ever since their eponymous album, The Beatles were drifting apart. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were not the same unit as they were and, with a sense of fatigue creeping in, one could definitely see the band were not long for the world. Lennon was in a rather fragile emotional state and Yoko Ono’s presence in the studio caused some argument. The fact there were cameras filming a lot of these spats and icy moments did not really help the band. There is a film coming later this year I believe that shows some of that rehearsal footage and actually gives us a really deep look at Let It Be and what was happening in the band at that time. The band were quite tired and ragged when recording and rehearsing and McCartney did try to galvanise them and get some energy back in the ranks. During a rehearsal of Two of Us, there was a heated argument between McCartney and George Harrison; Harrison also was annoyed that Lennon seemed detached from the band and less focused – Harrison would leave the band after the anger and tension became too much (he would return). After The Beatles abandoned Twickenham and having their rehearsals recorded, the rest of the filming would be them in the studio getting Let It Be down.

On 30th January, 1969 The Beatles, alongside Billy Preston, took to the roof of the Apple building to perform a famous concert. It would be the last time they performed as a band and whilst it was a bit of a publicity move for the film, the band got up there and performed. The set was cut short when the police intervened by a select group of people got to see The Beatles perform a very unusual gig at a very difficult time. You could sense some sense of harmony and togetherness from the band during the songs, something that had been missing up until that point. Whilst The Beatles were not completely rejuvenated after that gig, you sensed that it was needed and a reminder that they were together and they were incredible. During the recording sessions, countless songs were played – many would find their way onto the band’s last-recorded album, Abbey Road. I often wonder why Get Back was not chosen as the opening track for Let It Be but it actually works really well as a swansong. It is a classic McCartney track and one of the most famous in The Beatles’ cannon. In the opening half, there is the beautiful Two of Us: led by McCartney, one can attribute some of the lyrics to the changing relationship between he and Lennon (“You and me, chasing papers/getting nowehere…”).


  IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles during their final photoshoot (in Tilehurst Park) on 22nd August, 1969/PHOTO CREDIT: Ethan Russell and Monte Fresco

Across the Universe is a gorgeous and underrated Lennon song (covered by artists such as Rufus Wainwright) and I Me Mine is actually one of Harrison’s best songs of the period – he would better himself on Here Comes the Sun and Something on Abbey Road, mind. Dig It and Maggie Mae are not essential but they are interesting tracks in their own right. What I also get from Let It Be is a sense of conversation and playfulness that had been absent from previous albums. There are little jokes and spoken word bits that give Let It Be a live feeling and sense of fun. Although the band was not entirely happy throughout, they still managed to turn out some of their best material. Let It Be is a sensational McCartney track and, again, one of the best he ever wrote. Written about his mother, there are visions of her coming to Macca in his sleep and letting him know everything will be okay. I think it should have ended the first side (Maggie Mae does) but it is, in my view, the best track on the album. I’ve Got a Feeling and One After 909 open the second half with aplomb. Although neither track is the best the band came up with the latter, especially, held fond memories for McCartney. Lennon wrote it when he was seventeen and it seemed like this was a special track for both of them. The Long and Winding Road is another McCartney emotion-drainer that is beautiful, sweeping and hugely memorable.

McCartney wanted the track to be quite spare but Phil Spector modified it and, as such, there is a bit too much happening on a song that works best when stripped back. One of the reasons McCartney was eager to put Let It Be… Naked out was so he could finally have The Long and Winding Road in its natural state – he also changed the track order as well so that the album flowed a bit better. For You Blue is another Harrison effort and, at the end, we have the terrific Get Back. There are some weaker moments on Let It Be but, when it really hits fifth gear, the effect is mesmerising. One would forgive The Beatles for splitting at that point but there was a feeling that they had another album in them. Knowing that the end was in sight, they recorded Abbey Road and recaptured their earlier genius. Let It Be is a fascinating album that is more associated with its weaknesses and strains than the actual material. I like the fact there are loose edges and there are some sublime moments of Beatles brilliance. It is a patchy album in places but one that deserves its place. Although some critics in 1970 were a bit cold, there has been ample retrospective acclaim. AllMusic had this to say:

Although most of the album, then, has a live-in-the-studio feel, the main problem was that the material wasn't uniformly strong, and that the Beatles themselves were in fairly lousy moods due to inter-group tension. All that said, the album is on the whole underrated, even discounting the fact that a sub-standard Beatles record is better than almost any other group's best work. McCartney in particular offers several gems: the gospelish "Let It Be," which has some of his best lyrics; "Get Back," one of his hardest rockers; and the melodic "The Long and Winding Road," ruined by Spector's heavy-handed overdubs (the superior string-less, choir-less version was finally released on Anthology Vol. 3). The folky "Two of Us," with John and Paul harmonizing together, was also a highlight. Most of the rest of the material, by contrast, was going through the motions to some degree, although there are some good moments of straight hard rock in "I've Got a Feeling" and "Dig a Pony." As flawed and bumpy as it is, it's an album well worth having, as when the Beatles were in top form here, they were as good as ever”.

Sputnikmusic provided their thoughts:

The highlight of Let It Be is its moving center piece, the title track. The track is introduced by Lennon in a high pitched voice saying "That was 'Can You Dig It' by Georgie Wood, and now we'd like to do 'Hark The Angels Come'," before the melancholy cadences of the piano of the main verse welcome in Paul's voice. Soon the piano is met by drums and Spector's trademark orchestral production with some light brass before it bursts into George Harrison's beautifully uplifting guitar work. McCartney's lyrics perfectly complement the somber instrumentation, weaving strong Catholic imagery with the bubbling spirit of hope ingrained in the times. "Let It Be" reaches its moving peak at the final verse when Paul sings "And when the night is cloudy, there is still a light, that shines on me/shine until tomorrow, let it be/I wake up to the sound of music, mother Mary comes to me/speaking words of wisdom, let it be”.

Maybe Let It Be looks better naked but I have a lot of respect for the 1969 version. The band would continue on for Abbey Road but it was clear a lot of the spirit and air was out of the tyres. The best moments on Let It Be – the title track and Get Back among them – are more McCartney-led than anything: Lennon was still a powerhouse but would produce finer work on Abbey Road. When it turns forty-nine on Wednesday, it will be a bittersweet day. On the one hand, marking any Beatles album is great; there are some terrific songs to be found. On the other hand, one feels there is a lot of disconnection and a feeling that things were coming to an end. There is a film coming soon where Peter Jackson gets to grips with all the footage from that time and tries to piece together the story of The Beatles during Let It Be. I have always loved Let It Be and, whether you prefer it dressed up or naked, it is a record that…

POSESSES moments of pure brilliance.