When the Lumineers were making their second album — 2016’s Cleopatra, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and spawned the hit single “Ophelia” — lead singer Wesley Schultz and his writing partner, drummer Jeremiah Fraites, found themselves returning to an inspiration from their youth.
They were on a Beatles kick again, just like old times.
Back when the Grammy-nominated folk rock band was still playing in bars, their set would include a few gems from the Fab Four’s catalog. But by the time they’d progressed to the point of making
Cleopatra, there was now a craftsman-like edge to their appreciation. As established writers and performers, Schultz and Fraites were now “sort of obsessed” with one song in particular: “Two of Us”, the John Lennon and Paul McCartney duet that kicks off The Beatles’ final album Let it Be, released 50 years ago this month and which is the subject of a documentary from director Peter Jackson coming later this year.
“We just couldn’t believe how they did that one,” Schultz recalls about the song, in a phone interview from his home in Denver. “It was almost like … so fluid, and it had this kind of reset button, you know? Where the song kind of starts over and everything drops out and then it goes back to — I think it’s a 12-string. And then it picks back up. We were writing ‘Ophelia’ at the time, and we were like … how do you do that? Almost trying to study the DNA of it.”
That’s always been one of the most confounding things about the Beatles, even half a century after the breakup. New generations of fans can keep putting their music back under the microscope, but even when you understand it all the way down to the sonic equivalent of the double helix, there’s no one-size-fits all definition of why it still works. “Let It Be” may have been the title of the Beatles’ swan song — released on 8 May 1970, one month after Paul announced he was leaving the group — but it also
represents an emotional response that most seem unable to associate with the band — we still cannot simply let the Beatles be.
You see that in people like Hillary Clinton, who told Howard Stern during
an interview last year that whenever she replays The White Album, it’s almost like “you learn something every time. It’s unreal.” It’s the same reason why hospital staff at Long Island’s Mount Sinai South Nassau have been playing “Here Comes the Sun” on the PA system whenever a coronavirus patient is discharged.
Speaking of the latter, you could argue that the Beatles’ 12th and final album — the making of which is the subject of Jackson’s forthcoming documentary, titled
Get Back — is as suited for the unsettling moment we found ourselves in now as it was for the transition from 1969 to a new decade. “Let It Be” is nothing if not a soundtrack for people teetering on the edge of being broken. The band sings, for example, about finding one’s self in times of trouble, of how everybody had a hard year, “the many times I’ve been alone”, and the ennui of “the two of us riding nowhere”.
The plan had been for “Let It Be” to be a lo-fi affair, the antithesis of their pop masterwork from the ’67 Summer of Love,
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. George Harrison had recently hung out in Woodstock with Bob Dylan and his band, and the spontaneity in the recordings they called The Basement Tapes showed groups like the Beatles a way forward. Plug in, play, record — that was to be the formula for the new album. “It was an exercise in low-grade technology, literally just playing live,” said Alan Parsons, a tape operator and assistant engineer during the “Let It Be” sessions whom I spoke with. “The idea was they wouldn’t go through the whole process of overdubbing all the vocals, adding lots of tracks, spending lots of hours on a guitar solo, backing vocals and so on.”
On top of that, the group was also trying to shoot a movie at the same time. Within a cavernous soundstage at London’s Twickenham Film Studios — and adhering to the union filming hours of 9AM to 5PM, not exactly the kind of schedule rock stars are known to keep — the boys ran through songs and tried not to drive each other crazy, while director Michael Lindsay-Hogg shot footage for the eventual documentary, 1970’s
Let It Be, that would show what the Beatles were really like amongst themselves, and how they went about coaxing an album into existence.
There’s a reason you’ve probably not seen that documentary.
It got a short theatrical release, and then that was that. The Beatles’ organization let the film languish for decades partly because of the squabbles it captured. Like McCartney bossing around his bandmates the way you would talk to a hired session player. Ringo looking sullen behind his drum kit, keeping the beat for a band that’s losing its internal rhythm. “I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play,” George famously snipes at one point to Paul. “Whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it.”
Lindsay-Hogg screened a rough cut for all four Beatles the same night the rest of the world was watching Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon. He got a call afterwards from a Beatles factotum who said he himself had gotten three phone calls about there maybe being too much of John and Yoko shown together in the movie (the calls presumably coming from the three Beatles not named John).
Everybody already knows where the Beatles story goes from there. No sooner had
Let It Be been released than the biggest band of the ’60s was … no more.
The thing that nobody could have predicted is how, in spite of it all, the world would never seem to tire of Beatles stories, and especially Beatles songs. Even five decades after the fact, when Disney chairman Bob Iger announced to the world in March of this year that Jackson had combed through 55 hours of Let It Be-era footage from the Beatles’ archive and that an all-new making-of documentary will arrive in theaters on 4 September 2020.
Iger raved that the Get Back film (distributed by Disney) would revisit the creation of Let It Be by giving audiences a “front-row seat to the inner workings of these genius creators at a seminal moment in music history, with spectacularly restored footage that looks like it was shot yesterday.”
When you ask Beatles fans today to name a favorite song from the group, chances are you’re going to hear at least one title from Let It Be. The reason why is the same reason that, when McCartney resumes his touring schedule post-coronavirus, his concert setlist will almost certainly include the same four songs from the Let It Be album that have been staples of his live show for years now. Because Let It Be, for whatever its flaws, tidily wraps up the Beatles’ legacy in one 12-song capsule.
Even when the group was at its nadir, when the band jettisoned studio sophistication, when they leaned in to sad songs and stopped trying to hide the cracks that had started showing — even then, we loved them anyway. Let It Be made it plain in a way that perhaps no previous Beatles studio album had, that even when they were on the precipice of saying goodbye, when the bandmates all had one foot out the door, they could still leave you reeling. And not just reeling, but like the Lumineers frontman, enthralled at the deceptive simplicity of the Beatle magic therein.
“I feel like as a band, they’re sort of this … with the Beatles, they sort of set the bar so incredibly high that they ruined it for a lot of other bands,” Schultz said. “That’s how good they were.”