[7 May 2010]
“Let It Be is the 12th and final studio album released by the English rock band The Beatles. It was released on 8 May 1970 by the band’s Apple Records label shortly after the group’s announced breakup.”
Most of us of a certain age recall the last Beatles concert with a degree of awe—here was a group able to give a world class final performance on top of a London office building on a windy day in January, despite being in the advanced stages of breaking up. Without too much effort, we can all recall the image of Lennon’s odd looking fur coat, long hair blowing crazily in the wind, his wild looks contrasting with McCartney’s darkly bearded, confident rocking self, and that curious crowd of city workers, who slowly crept out of their offices to stare up at the roof of the Savile Row Apple Headquarters studio watching with puzzled, amazed expressions.
Although the album that came out 40 years ago was to be their last, the film of the same name has yet to be released on DVD. While videotaped bootleg copies have circulated for years, it seems that that the group’s diehard fans will continue to be denied. Official sources claim that “neither Paul nor Ringo would feel comfortable publicizing a film showing the Beatles getting on each other’s nerves,” but in an age where reality television continues to trump synthetic TV drama, surely it is time for Paul and Ringo to rethink and offer an opportunity for all of us to reflect on how we remember the Beatles four decades on.
Regardless, Let It Be the album is worth revisiting not just for Beatles nostalgia, of which there still seems plenty, but because of the way album foreshadowed what was in store for the popular music that dominated the next decade and beyond. With hindsight, we can see that Let It Be represents, albeit on a reduced scale, the battle between at least three styles of music that were going to follow the Beatles` demise. Firstly, there are a number of tracks, mostly by John and George, that express the voice of personal authenticity—a voice that was going to dominate in the singer-songwriter era—tracks like “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I Me Mine”. Secondly, there are the high production tunes that express Paul’s sensibilities, “The Long and Winding Road” being the most obvious. Finally, in the middle as it were, are the efforts to return to their roots—“The One After 909” and “Get Back”, which are arguably among the most successful songs on the album.
Let It Be represents then something of a turning-point. The Beatles had mastered each one of these three styles, but had come to the end of their interest in pursuing any one of them as a band. Paul goes his own way, diving right into the commercial market by composing the soundtrack for a Bond movie, Live and Let Die, and forming Wings; George as a solo artist seeks to integrate his transcendentalist beliefs with his music; and John becomes politically edgier in his choice of songs and causes. As the ‘70s wore on, it became increasingly apparent that the kind of rock music that the Beatles had led the way in crafting—a distinctive personal poetic vision—was blurring into sounds that were mellow and forgettable, the kind of background music that would never make you sit up and listen in the way “Eleanor Rigby” or “I Am the Walrus” made you listen. This was the age of the faux personal voice and the pleasing melodies, the era of Elton John, the Bee Gees and, for better or worse, Wings.
The reason for the change in music between the ‘60s and ‘70s might in part be attributed to the Beatles’ astonishing success. They had helped create a new, highly lucrative popular music industry that became a target for corporate takeover, so that by 1973, due largely to the success of the Beatles’ massively selling albums and the Woodstock festival and associated film, the music industry took in $2 billion dollars—a sum greater than the total Hollywood and sports entertainment industries’ income combined. The Beatles’ fan base had been mainly formed from the largest generation the world has known, a fan base that had developed an appetite for music as a way of establishing personal identity, whether it be through attending rock concerts or by visibly displaying their choice of albums in their apartments. The growing baby-boom-dominated market was such that it became tempting enough for Kinney Corporation, an owner of parking lots, to take over Warner Brothers, which then swallowed up Electra/Asylum and Atlantic/Atco, becoming WEA. By 1973, the top six record companies had 60% of the market place. David Crosby talks about going to meetings with record companies during this period in which new songs are referred to as “pieces of merchandise” that needed to be “moved.”
We can see more clearly today how Let It Be stands at a particular crossroads in popular music, valiantly trying to oppose the homogenizing trend in musical taste that was just about to set in as they sought to return to an earlier authentic style—a style that they had left behind when they made the decision three years prior to record Sgt. Pepper’s Lonley Hearts Club Ban and in so doing begin their own music revolution. The 700 hours spent in the Abbey Road studios painstakingly recording the tracks as opposed to the 200 hours spent on their first album sent a clear signal to their peers that the group’s true calling was not as concert performers but as studio artists. Sgt. Pepper’s was a breakthrough album that, in stealing back artistic control from the studio heads and record promoters, created a new kind of respect for pop music. Leonard Bernstein, for example, referred to the album as a new kind of classical music, and Kenneth Tynan went even further, calling its release “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization.” But John Lennon, almost as quickly as he could, distanced himself from the album, calling it, among other epithets, “over produced.”
Ever since their touring days, the Beatles were used to a high state of motion, physically and intellectually. They were always rushing to see what was, in their own delightful words, the “toppermost of the poppermost.” In Let It Be, it could be said they had reached their “poppermost”. They walked away from the Sgt Pepper’s achievement as if it had never happened and produced The Beatles (The White Album), that eclectic mix of songs that, if it demonstrated anything, demonstrated clearly that each singer had developed their own songwriting style—and could almost record their music independently from the others. Let It Be simply brought this fragmentation far more out in the open. It signaled that as a group they could no longer sign onto a coherent artistic vision. Lennon’s cruel dismissal of McCartney’s deeply personal title song, “Let It Be”, provides a case in point: “That’s Paul. What can you say? Nothing to do with the Beatles. It could’ve been Wings.” But then, after the recording sessions were over, the final twist in the saga began when Allan Klein, their new bottom line US manager, stepped in. Klein was less willing to assume the commercial risk of the live sound that the group had originally aimed for, so Phil Spector was summoned to do post-production work and “The Long and Winding Road”, complete with newly dubbed strings and female choir, becomes an ironic and unwitting anthem to the long-term failure of the Beatles to wrest artistic control from the men in suits.
There the dream ended for many. But it need not have been that way. Just after the success of Sgt Pepper’s, the group created Apple Corps to help new artists break through into the mass market without selling their soul to the record companies. The optimism of the time was palpable as hundreds of recording artists applied to be put on the label, but the Beatles’ genius was in coming up with creative ideas, not always with their execution. The quaint but naïve belief that they could all share management responsibilities helped make this particular hippie dream fade faster than the money and merchandise that vanished from the Apple retail store. However, the fantasy died not without a few wins, such as the discovery of James Taylor and the Welsh singer Mary Hopkin.
So it is good to remember the four of them atop of the empire, Apple HQ, singing like they were truly enjoying every minute—free at last—navigating their own brave pathway into the future. Unfortunately, just around the corner we are aware of the blue meanies—not just the police poised in the background to break up that last concert together, but also those corporate suits, with their big plans and large checkbooks, the forces of change poised to do their work that windy January day all those years ago.