The Beatles – Let It Be album review

Let it Be album cover

This was the last Beatles album released, but was actually recorded before Abbey Road, hence it’s review before that album. I also prefer to see Abbey Road as the last Beatles’ album anyway because it is a much better send off. Anyway, I digress. The reason ‘Let It Be’ took longer to be released was due mainly to a turbulent sound-mixing and production process.

Paul McCartney wanted to get back to doing more rock n roll like the old days, rather than the studio experimentation seen in the Sgt Pepper’s era. So he organised a documentary film crew to follow the recording process of the album in early 1969, which at the time was going to be called ‘Get Back‘, with the intention of performing a concert again, their first since August 1966.

This decision was probably a bad idea. After recording mainly separately for the White Album, the Beatles were forced to work very much business hours and more collectively as a band to accommodate the filming crew. The process, if you listen to the Beatles’ account, was terrible with arguments and tension in every aspect. Lennon, whose addiction to heroin at the time was becoming more problematic, said he didn’t care at all about the process so was less than productive, and was getting increasingly bitter at Paul for his attempt to lead the band. Harrison also was very unhappy and even left the band for two weeks, because allegedly Yoko Ono took some of his biscuits (yeah, really), causing a huge argument and even possible fisticuffs with Lennon. He would later come back and they would finish recording, but as part of the agreement for his return the concert was scrapped. McCartney was becoming also increasingly overwhelmed by handling dealings on the corporate side after the death of manager Brian Epstein, and all members seemed to be looking more at their future solo work. The presence of Yoko Ono at all recordings, and her apparent push to be involved in the actual production and workings of the songs further created friction.

Oddly, interviews with the documentary film crew painted a very different light on everything as they all said how fun the atmosphere was with all the Beatles making jokes and spirits in general were very good.

After completing the majority of the album and to avoid a proper concert, the decision instead was made to perform songs on the roof of Saville Row studio, which would ultimately become one of the most iconic moments of their careers.

Rooftop beatles

The sound-mixing of the album would not be handled by the Beatles at all. Music engineer Glyn Jones twice attempted to create the album in 1969, but both times it was rejected by the band and it seemed the album was dead. That is until Lennon, who quietly left the band in late-1969, gave the tapes to Phil Spector without informing the other members of the band, who added all sorts of production including heavy use of orchestra bits and choirs. This was the version that was released. Incidentally, Paul would effectively give an interview revealing that he’d left the band in 1970 (and also launch his solo career), which would further anger John as he’d agreed to keep his own leaving secret from the media.

Ringo and Lennon both spoke well of ‘Let It Be‘, but Harrison and McCartney, in particular, did not. Paul was so angered by the over-production put on by Spector that he would release a stripped-down version called ‘Let It Be…Naked‘ years later. But despite the occasional reunion between some of them, the Beatles as a band were finished and all pursued solo careers from here on.

The album was released in summer 1970 and reached the top spot in both the UK and American charts.

The Album – Side One 

Get Back album cover

Two of Us‘ opens the album, and is McCartney’s ode to getting lost. It’s written about traveling with Linda McCartney, but can easily be seen as about the Beatles themselves as John and Paul sing together ‘we’re on are way home’ implying its about the Beatles’ journey coming to an end. It’s got a light-hearted Willy Nelson ‘On the Road Again‘ type feel to it that I find quite charming, but feels, weirdly for an album opener, a lot more like a McCartney solo song than a Beatles effort.

Dig a Pony‘ is an admitted ‘nonsense song’ from Lennon. He was pretty dismissive of it saying later, “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.” Despite the dismissive nature of Lennon’s comments, I actually really like it, and the strong Lennon vocals really add to the chilled bluesy sound of it.

Lennon was never shy of suggesting the Rolling Stones copied the Beatles and this song continues this, with the line “I roll a stoney, well you can imitate anyone you know.” There also seems to be a vague nod to Dylan as well with the ‘I feel the wind blow’ and the ‘all I want is you’ chorus is clearly directed at Yoko Ono so there is visibly a bit more method to the ‘nonsense’ than Lennon alluded to later.

This is Lennon one real contribution to the album that came from the ‘Get Back/Let it Be’ sessions (‘Across the Universe‘ and ‘One After 909‘ were recorded much earlier and ‘Dig It‘ was basically improvised), which really shows his admitted lack of commitment at the time. It is a shame that ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, one of the single releases and a far superior song, was not added to the track-listing as it would have improved the quality on display greatly and shown what Lennon could do at this time despite his apparent indifference.

Across the Universe was recorded a year earlier for the World Wildlife Federation charity album. Lennon wrote it after he couldn’t sleep one night, and went to his kitchen at about 4am and the lyrics flowed out of him freely as if he was possessed by the universe, like some cosmic ballad as Spock would say.

The original recording has animal noises to go with the motif of the charity album and girls picked from the crowd outside Abbey Road giving backing vocals. Lennon was not impressed and would later complain that Paul would unconsciously sabotage his good songs by not putting the same effort into the recordings of Lennon’s work as went into his own. He said later, “He’ll deny it, ’cause he’s got a bland face and he’ll say the sabotage doesn’t exist. But this is the kind of thing I’m talking about, where I was always seeing what was going on… I began to think, well maybe I’m paranoid. But it’s not paranoid; it’s absolute truth.”

Something really makes me laugh about John calling Paul’s face bland but this angle was spoken about often in the most bitter post-Beatle interviews Lennon would make and something he seemed certain of believing.

The version on the album, Lennon would say Phil Spector did a great job with the production (they were friends at the time), although all other members of the group and the production team greatly criticised the recording. Despite his accusations towards Paul, the version McCartney did on the ‘Let it Be…Naked‘ album is greatly stripped down and the best version of the song released.

Personally, I absolutely love this song and think it is one of Lennon’s greatest triumphs. Lyrics like “Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup
They slither wildly as they slip away across the universe” are worthy of the greatest poets of any age. Harrison had really explored spirituality in his writing earlier, but Lennon nailed it here. To me this is his greatest lyrical triumph and a song of infinite beauty and warmth.

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Following on, ‘I Me Mine’ has the unfortunate, maybe even depressing, privilege of being the last Beatles’ song ever to be recorded (Free As a Bird and Real Love recorded for the Anthology set in the 1990s I guess count, but obviously lack Lennon, although this did too as he’d left by the time it was recorded).

The song is Harrison bemoaning the ego and self-involvement of people. He sings, “All through the day, I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.” What he would think of today’s selfie-obsessed youth, one can only imagine. He would write later in his book, also named ‘I Me Mine’, the song was a good example of how he felt about being in the Beatles’ towards the end with McCartney and Lennon greeting the song with indifference, but making him rehearse for hours and days on their songs. Funnily enough the book, which predominantly was about Harrison’s song-writing, would hurt Lennon who said he was barely mentioned. In particular, John spoke of the writing process for ‘Taxman’, Harrison’s first major contribution to a Beatles’ album, which Lennon greatly helped with and Harrison didn’t mention at all.

Dig It is only the second song to have a song-writing credit to all members of the band after ‘Flying’ from the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ album. It was an improvised jam that originally was over 7 minutes long but was cut down to under a minute. Lennon screams ‘like a Rolling Stone’ a couple of times before name-dropping people of importance of the time like BB King, Doris Day and Manchester United manager Sir Matt Bubsy.

It’s pretty much the most half-assed song they have ever done and almost completely forgettable, accept maybe for Lennon sounding, intentionally or unintentionally is not known, like he is doing a Mike Jagger impression throughout. If it was intentional, then it could be another dig at the Rolling Stones implying their songs are just half-assed versions of the Beatles, but that would probably be reading too much into it all.

let it be recording beatles

Let It Be’ is quite easily one of the Beatles’ most loved and well-known songs. Written during the White Album sessions when conflict within the band was particularly bad. Paul claims he had a dream in which his deceased Mum came to him giving him kind words to not take it all too seriously, hence the lyric, “When I find myself in times of trouble Mother Mary comes to me.” This would later take on religious connotations to some listeners due to the ‘Mother Mary’ lyric, which Paul was perfectly fine with, but appears coincidental.

Lennon would later (like a broken record post-Beatles) be dismissive about the song saying it could have been a Wings song and just Paul’s attempt at writing a ‘Bridge over troubled water’. But this is inaccurate as ‘Let it Be’ was recorded about six months before the Simon/Garfunkel song.

It’s a song I’ve liked, but never loved. To me, it always felt like the final song of the Beatles, a goodbye, which may explain my apprehension to it; it depresses me to listen to the sound of the Beatles breaking up. It’s similarities to other ballads ‘Long and Winding Road’ and ‘Hey Jude’ also hurt it as I prefer them and it feels like an emptier version of McCartney best ballad in my opinion ‘Yesterday’. But still it lasts, and more prefer this to those according to numerous national polls so it all goes down to preference.

Maggie Mae‘ is surprising in that it is the first cover they had done since ‘Act Naturally’ on the Help! Album. Other than that, the jokey non-serious way it’s recorded seem more symbolic of the lack of cohesion and focus on the album. The traditional Liverpool folk song is sung by Lennon with a strong-Liverpudlian accent and is pretty much instantly forgotten after hearing it. For a band that is famed for writing the greatest albums of all time, it feels strange listening to a song that is so obviously filler. It basically shows how badly the sessions and the band were going at the time.

paul-let-it-be

Side two

I’ve Got a Feeling‘ really shows the bad production in many ways. Paul’s voice seems constantly going closer and further from the mic making the volume go up and down, and it never sounds crisp at all to the point it’s almost like a live recording. The song is sort of a shouty Paul song, more familiar in his Wings days, and the Lennon vocal sounds very lazy on this. It just seems all very disjointed all around. The cross-over of the two vocals sounds in particular awkwardly done- which makes sense as this is a combination of a half-written Lennon song and a half-written McCartney song. While combining songs worked for ‘A Day in the Life‘ and ‘Baby You’re a Rich Man‘, it doesn’t really work here. It’s kind of a shame, because I could see potential in Lennon’s half if it was conceived as a stand-alone track.

One After 909‘ sounds so much like a Chuck Berry song that it doesn’t even feel like a Beatles song at all. It really has that Americana feel about it which really isn’t what four lads from working class Liverpool should be doing. If it was back to their roots then this feels like ‘Kansas City’ from their fourth album. But then the aged sound makes total sense as the song is actually one of the oldest, Lennon wrote it when he was 15-16 and still obviously finding his musical voice at that time. Paul wanted the album to revisit their rock n roll days and this more than any other really does, and remains a favourite of Paul’s despite its more throwaway nature.

The Long and Winding Road is by far the most controversial song on the album, and a defining moment in the break-up of the Beatles. Written in Scotland by McCartney, he describes it as a mournful song about the “unattainable; the door you never quite reach. This is the road that you never get to the end of.” Although not clearly stated, it appears to be McCartney mourning the end of the Beatles.

The reason this song became such a contentious song is Phil Spector. In the production, he added a huge orchestra back track, drowned out piano parts with a harp and added a female choir, whilst keeping the Beatles vocals and instruments low in the mix. When Paul heard the tape of it, he was infuriated enough to send an angry letter demanding parts be taken out, but they weren’t, and Spector’s version appeared on the album. Paul’s anger at the song being completed behind his back disenfranchised him enough that the break-up with the Beatles seemed inevitable, and the production of this song was actually given as one of the reasons by McCartney in a lawsuit seeking for dissolution of the Beatles’ contractual partnership.

The song itself, even with the over-the-top production, is one I like. Some Beatles fans call it ‘The Long and Boring Song’ but I think it is one of McCartney best forlorn ballads. It is an emotional song, but the emotion doesn’t come from Spector’s orchestra but from Paul’s lost and broken vocals.

These types of ballads have never been my favourite songs, but there is no doubting their mass appeal. I think the need of every artist from Guns N Roses (November Rain), Green Day (Wake Me Up When September Ends) to Christiana Aguilera (You Are Beautiful) and the Rolling Stones (Wild Horses) to have that big sad, mournful ballad can easily be traced back to the enduring popularity of ‘Let It Be’ or ‘The Long and Winding Road.’

Harrison’s ‘For You Blue‘ is not exactly a standout, but one of the most enjoyable moments from the album for me. It’s a joyous, bluesy little love song with fun bouncy guitar work from Lennon that is quite reminiscent of early White Stripes work in a way. Despite Harrison’s admitted misery during the recording sessions of the album, this is the happiest sounding song on the record, and you get a feeling Lennon and Harrison are enjoying themselves performing this.

The Beatles, while very political in their own lives, never really overtly presented those politics in their music (they would obviously, with Lennon in particular, do more so in their solo work). ‘Get Back’ originally was going to counter this with McCartney writing a song that satirised Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, about the danger of immigration to Britain.

The original version included the lyrics, “Pretty Ado Lamb, was a pakistani, living in another world. Want it thrown around, don’t dig no pakistanis, taking all the people jobs.” It added a completely different meaning to the chorus “Get back to where you once belonged.” This was construed by many as racist, but it doesn’t seem to be the intention as I really don’t think McCartney was anti-immigration. I think he is echoing in the “don’t dig no Pakistanis, taking all the peoples jobs” the words a new immigrant would hear yelled about them on the streets at the time, and his intention was to highlight there is racism on the streets and the need to address it to a wider audience.

Paul would later say, “There were a couple of verses to Get Back which were actually not racist at all – they were anti-racist. There were a lot of stories in the newspapers then about Pakistanis crowding out flats – you know, living 16 to a room or whatever. So in one of the verses of Get Back, which we were making up on the set of Let It Be, one of the outtakes has something about ‘too many Pakistanis living in a council flat’ – that’s the line. Which to me was actually talking out against overcrowding for Pakistanis… If there was any group that was not racist, it was the Beatles.”

The song eventually morphed into something more vague about characters moving to a different place instead, which I’m glad at because the original lyrics were too confusing and easy to mistake as not satirical. The final version is another classic song on the album and the perfect big ending to the record, although one that would infuriate Lennon, who claimed it was a subtle dig at Yoko as apparently Paul would look at her every time he sang the “Get back to where you once belonged” lyric. McCartney denies it though. And Lennon had no other bad words to say about it, and seemed delighted in other interviews with his guitar work on the song which is some of his best guitar work on any Beatles record.

Final Thoughts

The somewhat shambles of the recording and the music production debacle with Phil Spector quite predictably created an uneven album at best, but also one with something that seems out of sorts with the Beatles – filler. Songs like ‘Dig it‘ and ‘Maggie Mae‘ sound like a band that don’t care given the talent they had.

But then you can’t dismiss an album that contains ‘Long and Winging Road‘, ‘Let It Be‘, ‘Get Back‘ and ‘Across the Universe’ which are songs bands with 20 year careers can only dream of writing.

While some of Spector’s production decisions are dubious, it doesn’t really hurt the experience to me, like others have said. While, ‘Let It Be…Naked‘ is the better version, I think the difference is not really that large. And without Lennon getting him to do work on the album, it’s possible the album may not have gotten a release at all, as other attempts had failed, which would have been a great shame.

I’d said in a previous review that ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ was my least favourite Beatles’ record (I don’t count Yellow Submarine as a full release), but revisiting this has made me change my mind (it might have been rose-tinted glasses of my youth). This is their weakest and least enjoyable record to listen to, but then again it is a Beatles release so there is still plenty of great things here.

Seven out of ten and a lego parody

legoitbe

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