The Beatles: Let It Be – [Record 184]
Let It Be is the twelfth and final studio album by the English rock band the Beatles. It was released on 8 May 1970, almost a month after the group’s break-up. Most of Let It Be was recorded in January 1969, before the recording and release of the Beatles’ album Abbey Road. For this reason, some critics and fans, such as Mark Lewisohn, argue that Abbey Road should be considered the group’s final album and Let It Be the penultimate.
The recording sessions began at Twickenham Film Studios as part of a planned documentary showing the Beatles preparing to return to live performance. A project instigated by Paul McCartney, the filmed rehearsals were marked by ill-feeling within the band, leading to George Harrison’s temporary departure from the group. As a condition of his return, the Beatles reconvened at their own Apple Studio, where they completed the recordings with the help of guest musician Billy Preston.
Let It Be was originally intended to be released midway through 1969, as Get Back, but the Beatles were unhappy with the version mixed and compiled by Glyn Johns, and the project was temporarily shelved. A new version of the album was created by Phil Spector in 1970 and finally released as Let It Be, serving as the album for the 1970 motion picture of the same name. While three songs from the sessions were released as singles before the album’s release, “Get Back”/”Don’t Let Me Down” and “Let It Be”, the songs were remixed by Spector for the album and “Don’t Let Me Down” was not included.
Despite a mixed review from Rolling Stone at the time of its release, the album was ranked number 86 in the magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time in 2003. This was, however, adjusted to number 392 in the 2012 version. Let It Be… Naked was released in 2003, an alternative version of the album, stripping much of Spector’s production work and using some different versions of songs.
1. Two of Us.
2. Dig a Pony.
3. Across the Universe.
4. I Me Mine.
5. Dig It.
6. Let It Be.
7. Maggie Mae.
1. I’ve Got a Feeling.
2. One After 909.
3. The Long and Winding Road.
4. For You Blue.
5. Get Back.
Background: By late 1968, more than two years after the Beatles gave up touring, Paul McCartney was eager for the group to perform live again. The sessions for that year’s The Beatles (commonly known as the White Album) had seen a number of serious arguments and strained relations among the group. McCartney felt that the group’s cohesiveness had been lost through years without playing live, and from using the studio not to record ensemble performances but to make increasingly complex recordings made up of parts played individually by each Beatle as overdubs rather than as a group. He believed that the best way to improve band relations and revive enthusiasm was to get the group back into rehearsal as quickly as possible (the White Album sessions having only been concluded in October 1968) and begin work on a new album that made little or no use of studio artifice or multiple overdubbing. This would allow the group to return to their roots by playing as a true ensemble, perhaps recording some or all of the new album during a one-off live concert or full concert tour. This idea mirrored the “back to basics” attitude of a number of rock musicians at this time in reaction against the psychedelic and progressive music dominant in the previous two years. McCartney believed that a return to live performance would reinstill the same sort of ensemble spirit and sense of unity that they had in their early years together.
McCartney also decided to invite producer/engineer Glyn Johns to contribute to the recording. His proposed role was apparently not clearly defined, as McCartney also wished to retain the services of George Martin. As a result, Johns was not entirely sure whether he was supposed to be producing (or co-producing) the album or merely engineering it, with Martin having no clear idea of where he stood either.
The other three Beatles were less enthusiastic about McCartney’s proposals. They had just completed five months’ work on their previous album and were sceptical about the prospects of returning to live performance. George Harrison in particular was very opposed to the idea of touring, having taken the strongest dislike out of any in the group due to the gruelling tours of the Beatlemania era. However he had recently enjoyed a series of jam sessions with Bob Dylan and the Band in the US, rediscovering his liking for straightforward ensemble playing, and he was attracted to the idea of the “back to basics” approach. The same approach greatly appealed to John Lennon, who had grown increasingly wary of what he regarded as the excessive technical artifice used on their recordings since Revolver and had also made a recent return to no-frills ensemble playing in the shape of an appearance on The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. In addition, all the group members had greatly enjoyed the recording of Lennon’s song “Happiness is a Warm Gun” during the recent White Album sessions which, due to its multiple sections and myriad time signature changes, had required the Beatles to focus sharply and revive their ensemble playing skills to lay down a coherent basic rhythm track before any overdubbing could be applied. In the end, the group agreed to convene for rehearsals immediately following New Year’s Day 1969 to begin work, even though no suitable conclusion or even firm direction for the new project had been agreed upon.
Recording and production: The rehearsals and recording sessions for the album did not run smoothly. The acrimony that began during the recording of the previous year’s The Beatles album, resumed soon after the rehearsals began. The Beatles were not getting along, and Lennon and McCartney weren’t working together as before. McCartney assumed the role of the leader, while a laid back Lennon was more interested in spending time/making music with his soon-to-be wife Yoko Ono, who was now present in the studio with him at all times. All of these factors led to friction within the band. At one point, Harrison walked out and quit the group after several arguments with McCartney and a severe fall-out with Lennon, due to the former’s perfectionism and the latter’s increasing lack of interest in the band. Harrison was eventually coaxed back a few days later. The film version is famous for showcasing a number of conflicts between the group members and has frequently been referred to as a documentary that was intended to show the making of an album but instead shows “the break-up of a band”.
Twickenham rehearsals: Since all the rehearsals were to be filmed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and his film crew, the decision was made to use a film studio for rehearsals and the sound stage at Twickenham Studios was chosen. The group began rehearsals there on 2 January 1969. Sound recordings were made on Nagra mono recorders solely for the purpose of the film sound track; no professional multi-track recordings were made of these sessions as the Beatles were simply rehearsing for a proposed live performance. Phil Spector later used a snippet of dialogue from one of these rehearsals (Lennon announcing “Queen says no to pot-smoking FBI members”) to introduce “For You Blue” on the finished album. Numerous bootleg records taken from the many hours of these soundtrack recordings are in wide circulation and various bits of music and dialogue from the same source were eventually used on the second disc of the 2003 release Let It Be… Naked.
The rehearsals quickly disintegrated into acrimony. Unable to generate much enthusiasm or focus their attention, the Beatles’ playing was largely ragged and unprofessional, not helped by the fact that they were severely out of practice at playing as a live ensemble. McCartney tried to organise and encourage his bandmates, but his attempts to hold the band together and rally spirits were seen by the others as controlling and patronising. Matters came to a head on 6 January, when Harrison had a heated argument with McCartney during a rehearsal of “Two of Us”, which later became one of the most famous sequences in the Let It Be film. What is not shown in the film is another, allegedly much more severe argument Harrison had with Lennon on 10 January. Harrison had become fed up with Lennon’s creative and communicative disengagement from the band and the two had a blazing row. According to journalist Michael Housego of The Daily Sketch, this descended into violence with Harrison and Lennon allegedly throwing punches at each other, though in a 16 January interview for the Daily Express, Harrison said, “There was no punch-up. We just fell out.” After lunch, Harrison announced that he was “leaving the band now” and told the others “see you round the clubs”. He promptly walked out, getting in his car and instead of returning home to his wife Pattie at his Esher home Kinfauns, he drove straight to his parents’ home in Warrington near Liverpool.
After Harrison’s departure that afternoon, the three remaining Beatles attempted to continue the rehearsal. As a practical solution to the problem of Harrison’s absence, Lennon suggested hiring Eric Clapton to replace Harrison, possibly as a full-time member of the Beatles if Harrison stuck with his decision to quit the band permanently. McCartney and Starr vetoed this suggestion, with the former arguing that the group could not truly be considered as the Beatles without all four original members of the band.
Continued Sessions: A week later the band agreed to Harrison’s terms for returning to the group, which included abandoning the cold and cavernous soundstage at Twickenham. Sessions resumed on 22 January when the Beatles moved to Apple Studios. Multi-track recording began on that date and continued until 31 January. Harrison brought in keyboardist Billy Preston to ease tensions and supplement the band for the live performances. Preston worked with the Beatles throughout their stay at Apple Studios.
The live concert idea culminated with the Beatles and Preston performing on 30 January on the rooftop of the Beatles’ Apple Building at 3 Savile Row before a small audience of friends and employees. The performance was cut short by the police after complaints about noise. The complete concert has circulated among bootleg collectors for many years. Three numbers recorded at the rooftop concert, “Dig a Pony”, “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “One After 909”, do appear on the album, while several spoken parts of the concert appear between tracks that were recorded in studio.
The band played hundreds of songs during the Get Back/Let It Be sessions. Aside from original songs ultimately released on the Let It Be album, there were early versions of many songs that appeared on Abbey Road, including “Mean Mr. Mustard”, “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”, “Sun King”, “Polythene Pam”, “Golden Slumbers”, “Carry That Weight”, “Something”, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, “Oh! Darling”, “Octopus’s Garden”, and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. Still others would eventually end up on Beatles’ solo albums, including Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” (called “Child of Nature” at the time and originally written and rehearsed for the White Album) and “Gimme Some Truth”, Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass”, “Isn’t It a Pity”, “Let It Down” and “Hear Me Lord”, and McCartney’s “Another Day”, “Teddy Boy”, “Junk” (originally written for the White Album) and “The Back Seat of My Car”. Much of the band’s attention was focused on a broad range of covers, extended jams on 12-bar blues, and occasional new efforts such as Lennon’s uncompleted “Madman”. These included classical pieces such as Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”, jazz standards such as “Ain’t She Sweet”, and an encyclopaedic array of songs from the early rock and roll era such as “Stand By Me”, “Words of Love”, “Lonely Sea”, “Bésame Mucho” by Mexican composer Consuelo Velázquez (a song that was part of The Beatles’ repertoire in the early days) and “Blue Suede Shoes”. Multiple Bob Dylan songs were also played, including “Positively 4th Street”, “All Along the Watchtower” and “I Shall Be Released”. Only a handful of these were complete performances; the vast majority were fragmentary renditions with at most a verse or two of misremembered lyrics. The rehearsals and recording sessions were filmed and formed the basis of the Beatles’ film of the same name.
Two songs appearing on the album were not recorded during the Apple Studios sessions. “Across the Universe” had been recorded at EMI Studios in February 1968, and “I Me Mine” was not recorded until January 1970 after John Lennon’s unannounced departure from the group. Lewisohn recognises “I Me Mine” as the final song to be recorded by the Beatles before their official dissolution. Additional overdubbing of vocals and instrumentation for other tracks on Let It Be continued into April 1970, a mere month before the album’s release.
Get Back Albums: After increasing use of overdubs and multi-layered recordings on recent albums, there was at first a consensus to record the new album live. In keeping with the back-to-roots concept, the cover artwork was planned to be an update of the cover of their first album, Please Please Me, with the band looking down the stairwell of EMI’s headquarters office block in Manchester Square, London. A different photograph from the same photo session was later used on the compilation album 1967–1970 (aka The Blue Album).
Days after the sessions at Apple ended, engineer Glyn Johns put together a rough mix acetate of several songs, for the band to listen to. A tape copy of this acetate made its way to America where it was played on Radio in September 1969 (A second “official” mix also arrived in the States at the same time – see below). In March 1969, Lennon and McCartney called Johns to EMI and offered him free rein to officially compile an album from the Get Back recordings. Johns booked time at Olympic Studios between 10 March and 28 May to mix the album and completed the final banded master tape on 28 May. Only one track, “One After 909”, was taken from the rooftop concert, with “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “Dig a Pony” (then called “All I Want Is You”) being studio recordings instead. Johns also favoured earlier, rougher versions of “Two of Us” and “Let It Be” over the more polished performances from the final 31 January session (which were eventually chosen for the Let It Be album). It also included a jam called “Rocker”, a brief rendition of the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me”, Lennon’s “Don’t Let Me Down” and a 5-minute version of “Dig It”. Acetates were prepared for the Beatles, who were not really interested in the project any longer. At least one copy of this acetate made its way to America and was aired on radio stations in Buffalo, New York, and Boston in September.
Get Back version one, May 1969.
The Get Back album was intended for release in July 1969, but its release was pushed back to September to coincide with the planned television special and the theatrical film about the making of the album. In September, the album’s release was pushed back to December because the Beatles had just recorded Abbey Road and wanted to release that album instead. By December the album had been shelved.
On 15 December, the Beatles again approached Glyn Johns to compile an album from the ‘Get Back’ tapes but this time with the instruction that the songs must match those included in the as yet unreleased Get Back film. Between 15 December 1969 and 8 January 1970, new mixes were prepared. Glyn Johns’ new mix omitted “Teddy Boy” as the song did not appear in the film (but more likely because McCartney had indicated to Johns that he had re-recorded the song for his upcoming McCartney album). It also added “Across the Universe” (a remix of the 1968 studio version, as the January 1969 rehearsals had not been properly recorded) and “I Me Mine”, on which only McCartney, Harrison and Ringo Starr performed (Lennon was on holiday in Denmark and had secretly left the band by that time). “I Me Mine” was newly recorded on 3 January 1970, as it appeared in the film and no multi-track recording had yet been made. The Beatles once again rejected the album.
Final Mix: In March 1970, the session tapes were given to American producer Phil Spector. Spector worked on the tracks and compiled the eventually released album—by now entitled Let It Be. The album and the film with the same name were released on 8 May 1970; the Beatles had already broken up by that time. The film captured the critical tensions within the band, and also included footage from the rooftop concert. The rooftop performance closed with the song “Get Back”, and afterwards Lennon said, “I’d like to say ‘thank you’ on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition.” The joke was added to the studio version of the song that appeared on the album.
Several songs from the recording sessions have been released officially in versions different from those on the Let It Be album. “Get Back”/”Don’t Let Me Down” and “Let It Be” were released as singles in 1969 and 1970, respectively. Seven tracks were live performances, in accordance with the original album concept: “I’ve Got a Feeling”, “One After 909” and “Dig a Pony” from the rooftop performance, and “Two of Us”, “Dig It”, “Get Back” and “Maggie Mae” from studio sessions. Contrary to the original concept, the album versions of “For You Blue”, “I Me Mine”, “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” feature editing, splicing and/or overdubs. “Don’t Let Me Down”, also recorded live and previously released as the B-side of “Get Back”, was not included on the album. The twelfth track on the album is an edited version of the original 1968 recording of “Across the Universe”, slowed down from D-natural to D-flat, which had only been rehearsed at Twickenham and not professionally recorded on multi-track tape during the January 1969 sessions.
McCartney was deeply dissatisfied with Spector’s treatment of some songs, particularly “The Long and Winding Road”. McCartney had conceived of the song as a simple piano ballad, but Spector dubbed in orchestral and choral accompaniment. McCartney unsuccessfully attempted to halt release of Spector’s version of the song or at least have it altered. Despite the criticisms levelled at Spector over the years for his handling of the material, Lennon defended him in his 1971 Rolling Stone interview, saying, “He was given the shittiest load of badly-recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever, and he made something of it.”
Reception: Although Let It Be would earn the top spot on both the American and British record charts, with the “Let It Be” single and “The Long and Winding Road” also reaching number one in the US, the album was met with mixed reviews at the time of its release. The NME critic Alan Smith wrote “If the new Beatles’ soundtrack is to be their last then it will stand as 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.” Rolling Stone magazine was also critical of the album, citing Spector’s production embellishments as a sore point: “Musically, boys, you passed the audition. In terms of having the judgment to avoid either over-producing yourselves or casting the fate of your get-back statement to the most notorious of all over-producers, you didn’t.”
Release History: In the UK and Canada, the album was originally issued by Apple (and distributed by EMI) in a lavish box that also included a book featuring stills from the Let It Be film. Several months later, the album was reissued in a standard LP jacket (the same one that was included in the box set), sans book. In the United States, the Let It Be album was issued in a gatefold cover, without the book.
Original American copies of Let It Be bore the Apple Records label, but because United Artists distributed the film, United Artists Records held the rights to distribute LP copies of the album in America. (EMI subsidiary Capitol, which held the Beatles’ US contract, had simultaneous rights to the music on the album, allowing them to distribute pre-recorded tape versions of the album, as well as to release its songs on singles and compilation albums. Capitol, however, did not have the rights to release or distribute the album in LP format.) To indicate that Let It Be was not distributed by Capitol, the Apple logo and record label in America sported a red apple, rather than the Beatles’ usual green Granny Smith apple.
In early 1976, when the Beatles’ EMI contract expired, the group’s catalogue in the US transferred from Apple to Capitol; Let It Be, however, went out-of-print in America for three years. In 1979, Capitol/EMI acquired United Artists Records; with this acquisition, Capitol acquired the rights to two Beatles albums previously distributed in the US by United Artists, Let It Be and the soundtrack album A Hard Day’s Night. (As A Hard Day’s Night had never been issued by Apple in the US, it remained in print in America under the United Artists label when the Apple contract expired in 1976.) Shortly after acquiring United Artists Records, Capitol re-issued both UA distributed Beatles albums on the Capitol label.
The album was first released on CD on 19 October 1987. Along with the other Beatles albums, EMI released a re-mastered CD on 9 September 2009 and an electronic version (24-bit FLAC and MP3 formats on a USB drive) on 4 December 2009. Most critics felt that the sound was significantly improved over the 1987 CD, given the superior digital transfer technology available in 2009.
The Beatles won the Academy Award for the Best Original Song Score in 1970 for the songs in the film.
Let It Be… Naked: At the same time the film’s re-release was announced, McCartney announced plans to release a new version of the album that is closer to what he had originally intended for the project. The new collection, Let It Be… Naked, was released on 17 November 2003, in a two-disc format—the second disc contained fly-on-the-wall recordings of the band chit-chatting during the Get Back Sessions. The songs were re-mixed from the original multitrack recordings. The recording did not contain the humorous spoken passages and lavish orchestral overdubs from Let It Be. The album received mixed reviews, some critics praising the simpler re-mixes and others expressing disappointment that the new album lacked the fun and humour of Let It Be.