'Let It Be' revisited: digging into the Beatles' rushed, troubled, non-breakup project
Updated: Nov 24, 2021
Here’s a key point often overlooked regarding Let It Be, the persistent problem child in the Beatles catalog: The album’s sessions began less than three months after the band completed work on their self-titled double album, a.k.a. the “White Album.”
The final The Beatles song recorded was “Julia” on Oct. 13, 1968, with sessions for “Savoy Truffle,” “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road,” “Glass Onion” and “Piggies” having taken place over the previous few days. The band was back in the studio—that is, the inhospitable Twickenham Film Studios—on Jan. 2, 1969 to begin work on a back-to-basics album, TV special, live concert, documentary…they really weren’t sure what, though it had the working title of Get Back.
The Beatles were reconvening barely seven months after they started their five months’ work on the "White Album," with a landmark single, “Hey Jude”/“Revolution,” thrown in for good measure. No wonder these guys were bereft of material and tired of each other and in general.
This chronology is notable because Let It Be often is seen as the Beatles’ breakup album thanks to its sour vibe and the fact that it wasn’t released until May 8, 1970, a few weeks after Paul promoted his McCartney solo debut by announcing the band’s demise. Yet not counting the later “I Me Mine” recording, the Get Back/Let It Be sessions covered a mere four weeks, all in January 1969. Work on Abbey Road, the Beatles’ true, worthy swan song, began a mere three weeks after the band (with Billy Preston) wrapped up Get Back with an impromptu Jan. 30 lunchtime concert atop the Apple Corps building in central London.
•John Lennon and Yoko Ono got married in March 1969, as did Paul McCartney and Linda Eastman.
•The “Get Back”/“Don’t Let Me Down” single was released on April 11, 1969.
•Three days later John and Paul recorded the single “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” and the whole band played on the flip side, George’s “Old Brown Shoe.”
•John and Yoko were hospitalized on July 1 after he crashed their car while driving in Scotland, prompting John to install a double bed in the Abbey Road studio for the still-injured Yoko.
•The Beatles finished recording Abbey Road on Aug. 20, and the album was in stores Sept. 26, just 10 months after the “White Album” was released.
•Four days later John recorded his first solo single, “Cold Turkey.”
So although NME critic Alan Smith famously declared Let It Be, upon its release, to be “a cheapskate epitaph, a cardboard tombstone, a sad and tatty end to a musical fusion which wiped clean and drew again the face of pop," it was a relative quickie project knocked off between two more accomplished works and amid much other activity.
Given its prolonged, troubled gestation as an album and film, Let It Be has cast a disproportionately long shadow over Beatles history. The album’s back-to-basics concept went out the window when producer Glyn Johns’ original warts-and-all mixes were jettisoned in favor of producer Phil Spector’s shall-we-say-inconsistent approach to the material, as he presented some songs in their natural state while overwhelming others with strings and choirs.
Aside from the rousing rooftop concert at the end, Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s fly-on-the-wall documentary portrayed the band as cranky and fatigued, with John distracted by Yoko, Paul acting bossy, George bristling and Ringo nodding off. The Beatles never allowed Let It Be to be released on DVD or Blu-ray and instead hired Peter Jackson to recut the many hours of footage to become a seven-hour-plus, three-part Disney Plus series, Get Back. It streams over three consecutive nights, starting Thanksgiving Day.
So it goes that one of the Beatles’ most rushed, least inspired periods generated the most documentation on film and tape. If only we could watch seven hours chronicling the making of Revolver. Or Rubber Soul. Or Sgt. Pepper. Or….
Just as Jackson’s Get Back will provide an alternate narrative to Lindsay-Hogg’s Let It Be, the recently released Super Deluxe vinyl and CD box sets are meant to expand our view of the original Let It Be album. Giles Martin’s and Sam Okell’s remix of Let It Be makes subtle tweaks, filling out the sound and playing down some of Spector’s indulgences; those choirs aren’t quite so in your face now. (Note: The Martin/Okell mixes of the Beatles anniversary editions, starting with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, have been top notch.) It’s still a weird album of incongruous elements, though. One tiny example: Breaking the mood of the majestic “Let It Be” with the silly sing-along snippet “Maggie May” to end side one.
The box also offers the original Glyn Johns mix of the album, which has some advantages and disadvantages over the released version. Johns’ Get Back is more consistent with the band’s capture-it-live intent, with the off-the-cuff chatter feeling at home amid the looser performances. It includes Lennon’s essential “Don’t Let Me Down,” left off Let It Be despite being a rooftop performance highlight. There’s also a casual run-through of McCartney’s “Teddy Boy,” with John’s impromptu “do-si-do” chants, that has more life than in its later incarnation on McCartney . Less essential is a shambling take on the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me” that, if nothing else, alerts the listener that this is anything but a polished Beatles album.
As the album opener, Johns anoints “One After 909,” a revisiting of an early-days Lennon-McCartney rocker that has a forced “Look what fun we’re having!” feel. The take Johns chooses of “Dig a Pony” is relatively draggy. Missing in action are Harrison’s “I Me Mine,” which was tackled later, and “Across the Universe,” which was recorded before the “White Album” and refurbished for Let It Be. A 4-song EP in the box includes unreleased mixes of both songs, which are superior to the overproduced Spector versions.
Get Back may make more sense as an album than Let It Be, but you can see why the Beatles didn’t want it released. A raw album should pulse with energy, no?
A key attraction of the Let It Be Super Deluxe box is two discs of “Sessions” and “Rehearsals and Apple Jams.” These include early stabs at songs that wound up on Abbey Road (“Something,” “Oh! Darling,” “Octopus’s Garden,” “Polythene Pam” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”) and solo albums (John’s “Gimme Some Truth,” George’s “All Things Must Pass”). These are more sketches than complete performances, but it’s fun hearing Ringo delighting everyone with what he has of “Octopus’s Garden” and George discussing his struggle to come up with the line after “Something in the way she moves.” (John suggests he sing whatever comes into his head, and George responds with “attracts me like a pomegranate.”)
Still, the alternate versions tend to be songs that appear on Let It Be or related singles. This is well-plowed ground by now; other versions of Let It Be songs already have appeared on Anthology 3 and Let It Be…Naked, and the distinctions among takes of “Dig a Pony,” “One After 909” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” are not dramatic. Yet none of these collections, including this one, have included the faster, electric version of “Two of Us” (as seen in Let It Be) or the widely bootlegged songs that show the evolution of “Get Back.”
“Commonwealth,” in which Paul mocks British politician Enoch Powell’s anti-immigration stance and has Premier Harold Wilson telling immigrants, “You better get back to your Commonwealth homes.” John and Paul crack each other up on this one, with John’s chirps of “Yes!” and ad lib that the commonwealth is “much too common for me.”
•A harder-edged anti-Powell parody, dubbed “No Pakistanis,” in which Paul sings, “Don't dig no Pakistanis taking all the people's jobs/Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged!”
•A faster “Get Back” driven by Ringo’s four-on-the-floor drumming instead of his familiar gallop.
I can see why the Beatles powers-that-be might have feared that the band’s satirical approach on such a hot-button issue could be misinterpreted. Still, given the abundance of material out there, this box is offering a relatively narrow slice. John’s “Watching Rainbows,” a two-chord rambler recorded after George temporarily quit, isn’t here; nor are some of the band’s livelier oldies run-throughs.
All that said, I love "Two of Us" and like “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “Get Back” and others, and the Glyn Johns and “Sessions” takes of George’s “For You Blue” feel more natural than the Let It Be version, with its labored “Go, Johnny, go!” call. It’s notable that George’s Let It Be contributions are inconsequential compared to what he delivered to the “White Album” and Abbey Road—and I’d take “Old Brown Shoe” over “I Me Mine” and “For You Blue” as well (and wish they'd recorded "All Things Must Pass").
The biggest revelation for me is a weirdly obvious one. “Let It Be” appears on all five discs, and each version, no matter how sparsely arranged, pops out of the speakers. I never much cared about “The Long and Winding Road,” though the stripped-down, pre-Spector versions are superior, and “Let It Be” is so much part of our collective consciousness that I don’t think about it much. Yet it towers above everything else here: a great song and a great band performance. “Let It Be” has nothing to do with getting back; they’re moving forward and doing what they do best: making Beatles music, no strings attached.
These guys could still scale the heights together when they wanted to. They reiterated this point emphatically on Abbey Road.
Then they broke up anyway.