Let It Be
(mostly recorded in 1969 and released in 1970)
It started with the best intentions: make a live recording of brand new, back-to-basics material, and film the rehearsals. By the time the Get Back project was renamed and released over a year later, what resulted was a film chronicling the downfall of the biggest band in the world, and an album often lost in its midst. Nowadays, Let It Be is infamous for its reputation as “the album that broke up the Beatles”. The documentary showcases the infighting and fast-waning camaraderie between them—these recording sessions led George Harrison to briefly leave the band, encouraging him to write his solo hit, “Wah Wah”, in a clear dig at Paul McCartney.
The film’s soundtrack continues to struggle for its status as a Fab Four classic despite the fact that behind all of the drama and Spector (over-) production lay 12 truly solid tracks that ultimately more than fulfill their purpose. The LP opens with a little dose of Lennon wit, a play-on-words intro that sets a tone of frivolity that thankfully broke through the Twickenham Film Studio’s bad vibes. Dueling acoustic guitars launch immediately into “Two of Us”, clamoring for attention and tidily offset by John and Paul’s tight yet gentle harmonizing. Simple and organic, it takes only a moment’s rest before it moves gracefully into the unrestrained “Dig It”.
Track two opens with a heavy blues riff and quickly descends into a deceptively complicated web of overlapping instrumental parts that weave around each other and meet at surprising intervals throughout. McCartney’s sandpaper backing vocals are a fine accent to Lennon’s undulating lead, with obvious Elvis undertones helping to push each verse to an impassioned climax. The pureness of these opening cuts firmly establishes the spirit of the album’s original conception in a brilliantly concise way.
Enter “Across the Universe”, and the first example of Spector’s heavy hand in the Beatles’ oeuvre. Though originally recorded during the White Album sessions, Lennon was left unsatisfied by its austerity and set it aside. With Spector’s later involvement thankfully came the missing pieces: bright, shimmering guitars complimenting Lennon’s innocent and hopeful vocals; a steady, deliberate rhythm providing a solid foundation beneath the fluidity of its surrounding parts; an angelic choir furthering the ethereal effect as much as the transcendental meditation mantra of the chorus. It’s a brilliant use of the famous “wall of sound” technique and effectively renewed Lennon’s faith in what he would later call one of his best efforts—and that’s without considering the profoundly poetic lyrics, surprisingly inspired by his first wife’s penchant for rambling speech.
Here, the album treads close to losing its conceptual course, although the quality remains characteristically high. Harrison’s melancholic “I Me Mine” is a haunting waltz with an irefully bluesy contrasting chorus and surges of building intensity, helped by Spector’s added orchestra. Next is a snippet of the 15-minute “Dig It” jam, having devolved into a steadily repetitive breakdown and highlighting Billy Preston’s cheeky gospel organ against McCartney’s hulking piano. It ends with a falsetto Lennon serving as MC, aptly introducing the next ditty as “Hark, the Angels Come”.
This label proves fitting for the title track, McCartney’s ode to his deceased “mother Mary”. Part lullaby, part prayer, and performed like a hymn, “Let It Be” is the Western response to the Eastern mysticism of “Across the Universe”. The vocals are silken, glossy but tender; the biting guitar solo adds an earnest passion, punching in sudden intervals like a beacon in the piano’s night sky. Spector’s orchestration, less appreciated in this occurrence, is menacing yet joyful, like the power of the heavens come to carry the world’s troubles away. As usual, Preston’s organ is the icing on the cake, adding levity to McCartney’s demure piano and cementing the track’s standing as a masterpiece.
In typical Beatle fashion, the track that follows is the lighthearted “Maggie Mae”, an ol’ Liverpuddlian standard about a prostitute who robs a sailor. Lennon’s comic sensibilities are on full display as he confidently harmonizes in his best mock-Scouser intonations. The unfinished bit of silliness provides a fine launching point for the Southern rock “I’ve Got a Feeling”. Played dirty and heavy to harden the jaunty nature of the tune, every dissimilar element seems to compliment each other impeccably. McCartney makes good use of his wild, gravely warble from “Long Tall Sally”, notably in the howling bridge. Lennon’s antithetic cannon proves a perfect fit, sung in hippie response to the old bluesman of the verses and thus connecting two like-minded musical generations. The song demonstrates, once again, the truthfulness in McCartney’s long-held view of the group as “a great little band”, albeit one with an intrinsically big sound.
The playfulness continues into the Lennon-McCartney classic, “One After 909”, an oldie that had been a rehearsal staple for over a decade. A rollicking skiffle jam, it stands as one of the best demonstrations of McCartney’s intention for the Get Back experiment, jolly good fun though unfortunately lacking in substance. The track is arguably more memorable for Lennon’s farcical rendition of “Danny Boy” in the fade-out.
The lively tone is interrupted by “The Long and Winding Road”, a well-crafted and sophisticated pop ballad that unwittingly ushered in a good number of ‘70s hits to follow. McCartney was never impressed by Spector’s tailoring of his stark madrigal, preferring the stripped-down piano version so much that it inspired him to create the infamous Let It Be… Naked some three decades down the line. But Spector’s version is not without its merits, to say the least: his lush orchestration paints a haunting image of heartache and longing, complimented by McCartney’s understated vocal and tender piano accompaniment. Amid the swelling strings and warm, inviting brass, a stray bit of tape leftover from a discarded overdub remains as the single identifying Beatle feature, tucked away just before the coda.
After this brief distraction, a quiet aside from Lennon (“The Queen says no to pot-smoking FBI members”) ushers in Harrison’s “For You Blue” and a return to the laid-back groove that has dictated much of the album. This easy rhythm-and-blues number is played ukulele-high, dripping with slide guitar and staccato accents as a borderline-falsetto vocal does a neat soft shoe around the melody. Harrison’s charming comments in the instrumental break enhance the song’s amenable nature; the “12-bar blues” rarely sound so blithe.
And it’s this chipper mood that builds into “Get Back”, the album’s exuberant finale. Lennon opens the song with a mocking recitation of the second verse (“Sweet Loretta Fart, she thought she was a cleaner/But she was a frying pan”), and signals the musical build-up to commence. McCartney sings the subtly subversive lyrics in pinched modulation, echoing the held-back instrumental work that, led by Ringo Starr’s galloping drums in one of his greatest contributions, play out a driving rhythm that explodes every few bars in rebelliously knowing bursts. The album version, taken straight from the rooftop concert, breaks from the single release immediately after the first chorus, stopping suddenly and casually with little sonic resolution (the single employed a false-ending followed by a pop-y fade-out). In place of a proper conclusion, it closes with John’s famous exit line, again from the impromptu performance: “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition.”
So ends what would become the Beatles’ final album, as incendiary as it began. While Let It Be failed to live up to McCartney’s lofty intentions, it did not fully abandon them in the end. It easily stands apart from the documentary, countering the grim footage with a boisterous spirit and a number of sonic gems to match. And even if the warmth and congeniality is feigned, it takes an awful lot of talent to disguise it so well.
Carole Ann Wright