THE CONVOLUTED EVENTS OF JANUARY 1969 CONTINUE TO ECHO AS SOME OF THE MOST DRAMATIC AND LEAST UNDERSTOOD MOMENTS IN THE BEATLES’ MIND-BOGGLINGLY SUCCESSFUL CAREER. AND NO ALBUM IS MORE ASSOCIATED WITH THE GROUP’S BREAKUP THAN LET IT BE.
The convoluted events of January 1969 continue to echo as some of the most dramatic and least understood moments in the Beatles’ mind-bogglingly successful career. And no album is more associated with the group’s breakup than Let It Be, which they began recording less than three months after completing the ground-breaking White Album (1968). With the release of Let It Be . . . Naked, the Beatles dare us to go back in time and reconsider their most controversial album in all its unfettered glory.
Originally entitled Get Back in order to communicate the notion of the Beatles “getting back” to their roots, the project was largely Paul McCartney’s brainchild. As both the subject of a documentary and an eventual album release, the Get Backproject was designed to allow the group to dispense with experimentation and multi-track production and embrace a more raw, simplified version of their highly original rock fusion. In the spirit of “getting back,” McCartney even floated the notion of the Beatles concluding the documentary with their first live performance in three years. They considered a number of outlandish venues, including London’s famed Roundhouse, a Roman amphitheatre in North Africa, onboard a ship at sea, or even in the middle of the Sahara desert. John Lennon suggested, only half-jokingly, that a concert in an insane asylum might be more appropriate, given the band’s recent spate of interpersonal problems.
Not surprisingly, the Get Back project went terribly wrong almost from the beginning: shooting the documentary itself forced the Beatles to assemble at London’s frigid Twickenham Film Studios — the same soundstage where they filmed A Hard Day’s Night five years earlier — on January 2nd, 1969; within a few days, George Harrison briefly quit the group after a dispute with Lennon; by the middle of the month, the Beatles temporarily scuttled the film project after they realized that they were documenting their breakup as opposed to recording their creative magic for posterity; toward month’s end, they relocated to their new and very expensive “state-of-the-art” basement studio at their Savile Row office building, only to discover that its designer, the eccentric Magic Alex, knew little, if anything, about engineering a recording studio; desperate to eke out a conclusion to the documentary, the Beatles assembled on the roof of their office building for what would be their final concert on January 30th, 1969.
Yet the drama, it seems, had only just begun. The Beatles soon moved on to other projects — most notably, Abbey Road (1969), their magnificent swansong — leaving some 29 hours’ worth of tape in their wake. By the time that work resumed on both the album and the film in the early months of 1970, the Beatles had begun the legal process of dissolving their partnership. Meanwhile, they altered the title of the album from Get Back to Let It Be in order to synchronize the marketing of its release with the documentary of the same name. In a hasty effort to circulate the album in time for the film’s May 1970 premiere, Lennon invited renowned record producer Phil Spector, the architect of the legendary “wall of sound,” to enhance Let It Be‘s lifeless contents, a feat that he accomplished by grafting string and choral arrangements onto the album’s songs. McCartney, for one, was especially disgusted with Spector’s work on the disintegrating band’s behalf: “I’m not struck by the violins and ladies’ voices on ‘The Long and Winding Road,'” he complained. “It was a bit rough after Abbey Road had been so professional.”
But that was then. Nearly 35 years after the fateful sessions that produced Let It Be, the Beatles have released a “new” version of the album entitled Let It Be . . . Naked. Given Lennon’s senseless murder in December 1980 and Harrison’s untimely death in November 2001, it is difficult to ascertain what the surviving Beatles are getting back to in the first place. Not surprisingly, the most glaring difference between the two releases involves the deletion of the artificial sheen of Spector’s orchestration. This factor alone results in a substantially different album, despite the fact that almost all of the same songs appear on both releases. In contrast with the forced humor and bombast of the original album, Let It Be . . . Naked seems positively tranquil-a far cry from the raw textures of which McCartney dreamt in the twilight of the band’s career.
Yet that’s not to say that the new album isn’t a veritable feast for the ears. Perhaps most importantly, the album’s acoustic tracks benefit from a richer, more nuanced sound in the absence of Spector’s orchestration. In this vein, Lennon’s “Across the Universe” emerges as the strongest cut. On the original album, “Across the Universe” suffers from a peculiarly muddy mix that pits Lennon’s vocal against a wall of choral sound. In the new version, Lennon’s sublime lyrics are finally given their due in a simpler palette that highlights his ethereal vocal and guitar work, Harrison’s sitar, and Ringo Starr’s understated percussion. In a similar fashion, “I Me Mine” — Harrison’s haunting number about the ills of unchecked narcissism — reaches new sonic heights without the overblown dramatic pomp of Spector’s orchestra. A remixed and slightly faster version of “Two of Us,” McCartney’s nostalgic duet with Lennon, rounds out the album’s lush assortment of acoustic tunes with style. While it differs only marginally from the original track, “Two of Us” demonstrates the rich possibilities that a remastered Beatles catalogue would entail — if only it were available.
Many Beatles fans are already familiar with the versions of “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” that appear on Let It Be . . . Naked. Vastly similar performances of each song were showcased in the band’s ill-fated documentary, and both tunes feature spare arrangements and only the most essential instrumentation. In the case of “Let It Be”, McCartney’s classic song loses its quasi-spiritual overtones and emerges instead as a moving tribute, as it was always intended, to his mother Mary, who succumbed to breast cancer in 1955. Stripped of its overwhelming orchestral accompaniment, “The Long and Winding Road” evokes a somber motif in contrast with the original track’s unremitting schmaltz. With Billy Preston’s contemplative keyboard solo replacing the overbearing crescendo of Spector’s string arrangement, the song emerges as a soothing meditation about the power of memory and regret.
Interestingly, both “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” effect a poignant counterpoint about life’s inevitable trials and tribulations. While “Let It Be” counsels us to reflect upon “words of wisdom” during our hours of darkness and to embrace the gentle consolation of peace, “The Long and Winding Road,” in many ways, knows better. For the song’s speaker, nostalgia’s torturous road “will never disappear.” And while it always leads us back to the memories of lost friends and loved ones, the long and winding road never quite gets us there. In this way, the panacea inherent in “Let It Be” merely produces “a pool of tears” in the harsher reality lost amidst the restless and unconvincing hopefulness of “The Long and Winding Road.”
One of the new album’s finest aspects concerns the fashion in which its up-tempo and more guitar-oriented songs take on a crisper, edgier quality. With “One After 909”, for example, the Beatles’ sound hearkens back to their early years in Liverpool’s Cavern club. Written during Lennon and McCartney’s salad days as songwriters, the new “One After 909” offers a spruced-up version of the band’s rooftop performance. Meanwhile, Let It Be . . . Naked also includes a revised version of “I’ve Got a Feeling” edited from the song’s two variant rooftop performances. This tactic results in an astonishing new mix distinguished by Harrison and Lennon’s rousing guitar work and a tighter rendition of the vocal round that concludes the song.
One of Let It Be . . . Naked‘s more intriguing aspects concerns the welcome removal of the eminently forgettable “Dig It,” the Liverpudlian ditty “Maggie Mae,” and most of Lennon’s sardonic verbal asides. The surviving Beatles deftly substitute the rooftop performance of Lennon’s arresting blues ballad, “Don’t Let Me Down,” in their place. The only genuinely problematic omission from the original album involves the hit song “Get Back”, the last number that the band performed during their rooftop concert. On Let It Be, the song concludes with Lennon’s famously ironic remark, “I’d like to say ‘thank you’ on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition!” For many fans, Lennon’s words continue to resonate as the composer’s fond farewell to his mates. With the release of Let It Be . . . Naked, we can only mourn their very conspicuous absence.
In a sense, Let It Be . . . Naked finally allows the Beatles to Get Back to where they once belonged. If nothing else, the revised album essentially reshuffles Beatles history by rewinding, if only metaphorically, the emergence of Let It Be from May 1970 back to January 1969, where it rightfully exists as a crucial evolutionary stepping stone between the White Album and Abbey Road. When you listen to Let It Be . . . Naked in that context, it makes for a very different experience. Rather than languishing as yet another version of the Beatles’ gloomy, ill-conceived epitaph, Let It Be . . . Naked reveals the band in full creative bloom. And that’s a far cry indeed from the original album’s lackluster finale.