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let it be...or don't
on 23 May 2014
I think people miss the point about Let It Be. It wasn't just another lark thought up by the Beatles because they could; they didn't want to tour but, consciously or subconsciously, they realised that, if they were to have any chance of continuing as a band, they somehow had to get back to playing as a band. That - as the rooftop concert showed - was the solvent that cut through their growing differences and animosities, and brought them together again. Maybe inevitably, it didn't work out. The thing that made the band great, their high expectations of one another, was the very thing they were sick of; each wanted to be answerable to himself alone.
This is why the idea I've seen a lot on the web, that 'their next album would've been awesome', is a fallacy. Of course their next album was Abbey Road, and it *was* pretty awesome. But you can't stick together the best bits from their solo albums and call that the lost Beatles album. Lennon simply couldn't have done things like Mother or God, or McCartney Man We Was Lonely, with the group; they didn't fit the Beatles' style and, being so personal, were difficult to present to the others. Easier to record them privately in a room and then release them to a worldwide audience. Several of them were in fact tried out for Let It Be, but didn't make the cut; instead, for both this and Abbey Road, John and Paul took refuge in relatively evasive, emotionally neutral fare (only George, arguably, told it like it was with I Me Mine). If it had meant less, if they'd been content to let it all hang out, pass no comment on each others' work and simply act as session musicians, they might (as someone suggests) have continued as a money-making machine, like the more cynical, less creative Stones; I for one am not sorry that they didn't.
But I digress. As a result of the way the Let It Be sessions petered out, they never really signed off on these songs - never got to the point where they were happy to release them to the world. Beatles fans will know that Phil Spector was then brought in to perform an industrial laminating process on several tracks, to make them (as it was felt) presentable. It's easy to be dissatisfied with the result, but not so easy to see what to do about it. Engineer Glyn Johns had already tried to cobble together an album from the studio material, but the band weren't happy with it. You may not like the Wall of Sound but the fact is that the slower songs did need *something* else, something extra - and the band realised that at the time. Fed up of the whole thing, they just couldn't face doing it.
This album is therefore not 'the way it was meant to be' except perhaps in the Beatles' heads, before they actually started recording. With takes in some cases edited together and 'cleaned up' in various ways, it's not the way things actually were either. The one number which is definitely better here is The Long And Winding Road - but I bet even now McCartney thinks, 'that's not the way I imagined it'*. The title track, which did get a proper production job from him and George Martin, is not improved by stripping those elements out. Across the Universe, on the other hand, will never amount to much no matter what anyone does with it.
The other point missed by most of these reviews is that these are not just remixes; in most cases they are actually different performances, different 'takes' by the band. I guess a lot of people just didn't notice, but it's something I would have liked to know before buying. The versions of Let It Be and Long and Winding Road featured here are very similar to those in the film, but I don't know whether they're the same ones; frustratingly, the accompanying notes are of no help whatever.
(The aim of the package, with its snippets of carefully-chosen studio byplay, seems to be to promote Beatles mythology rather than help you get to the reality. Presumably disk 2 is so short because they could only find 20 minutes of the band being nice to each other! Even so you can hear the tension behind the politeness, and Paul's mounting exasperation at the others' refusal to get down to work properly.)
The Beatles had become masters of presenting their albums, and making them seem greater than the sum of their parts. That's another element you lose here: with the changed running order (it was far cleverer to end on Get Back, which inexplicably also loses its drum-introduced coda) and the removal of Dig It and all the studio bumff ('I Dig a Pygmy, with Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf Aids...') this ironically seems less of a coherent album than before. An alternative Let It Be, yes, but not a better one. Beatles-sceptics (not me!) might even say that it only further exposes some already slightly sub-standard material. As they say, you can't go back...
*It's interesting that these days, when he does the song live, McCartney replicates Spector's string part fairly closely.