Reconsidering the Beatles’ ‘Let It Be … Naked’

Back in college, a friend of mine loaned me a bootleg of The Beatles’ “Get Back” sessions. The three- or four-record box (I can’t remember, now) of roughly done recordings represented what was only a small portion of the 100-some odd hours of tape amassed during those ill-fated recording sessions. The records were a mixed bag —- some strong material, some weak, a lot of tension bubbling to the surface. And listening to it back then I could sense why the band decided to walk away from the project and start over.

At the same time, it offered me my first chance to hear “The Long and Winding Road”, stripped of the strings and other effects that always has marred one of Paul McCartney’s more beautiful compositions. Stripped down, it is a soulful wonder. McCartney’s talent as a ballad singer is sometimes forgotten, given his often-tepid solo work and the light weight stuff he’s been prone to, especially since Wings at the Speed of Sound. But his greatness is apparent in this performance. (You can hear the demo now on the third Anthology collection.)

So the Apple Corps release on Nov. 18 of Let It Be . . . Naked, a stripped-down version of Let It Be, the album culled by producer Phil Spector from the sessions shortly after the band broke up, is creating a bit of a buzz. Apple Corps, in a press release on back in September, said Naked is the “no-frills, back-to-basics album that The Beatles first set out to make back in 1969 — but which was never released as intended, the band back to the bone.” Which was the band’s intention when it entered the studio.

Let It Be . . . Naked
US release date: 18 November 2003
UK release date: 17 November 2003

The idea was to record a collection of straight-ahead rockers, a mix of new material and covers from the late 1950s and early 1960s, that would get the band back to making the kind of records they started out making. It had been slated as a return to roots outing called Get Back, but the bickering and obvious jealousies that were wracking the band during the sessions (documented on film) forced the band initially to drop the project in early 1969. Instead, the band reconvened in April and put together the hard-rocking Abbey Road, an effort as tight and as energetic as — though far less joyous than — anything they had ever produced.

Abbey Road, released in September 1969, turned out to be the last album released while the band was still together. Paul McCartney announced the breakup in April 1970, a full month before the band released the rechristened Let It Be. The album, labeled a soundtrack, had been dumped in Spector’s lap against McCartney’s wishes. The history of the album often overshadows the actual music. And it’s easy to see why. McCartney pitched the idea to the band as a way of cutting through the bickering and obvious jealousies that marred the band’s previous effort, the eponymous The Beatles (known as “The White Album).

While the two-record The Beatles contains some great music, the strains that were wracking the group had become too apparent to ignore, both in terms of the music and the album’s packaging. Aside from the splendid rocker, “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, a McCartney tune with a heavy John Lennon influence, the white album could be viewed as a collection of solo efforts — some of it brilliant, to be sure, but there is no confusing the Lennon songs with the McCartney songs on the album as can easily be done on earlier efforts. And The Beatles marked the first time in the group’s history that the album art did not include a group shot. Instead, there is a white cover on which The Beatles is stamped in raised lettering. The band photos are inside — four separate shots of each Beatle.

As the various biographies of the band note, the album could have spelled the end of the group — and perhaps should have. Brian Epstein, their longtime manager and the group’s steadying force, had died in 1967 before they went into the studio to record the album. Lennon said later that Epstein’s death signaled band’s death, as well. The cohesion, already in diminishing supply as each member began working on side projects, finally dissipated, resulting in a fractious, convoluted record held together only by Ringo Starr’s drumming and George Martin’s production. And it didn’t help that the band had embarked on an ambitious business venture, the quixotic Apple Records, which sapped their energies and set each at each other’s throats.

But, at McCartney’s suggestion, the band attempted the ill-fated Get Back, which only inflamed tensions — there is a scene in the film version of Let It Be in which George Harrison snaps at McCartney for trying to micromanage his guitar playing. The entire enterprise went up in flames and the tapes were dumped in Spector’s lap. And yet, somehow, the band still managed to record some real solid rock and roll. Let It Be, as released, is flawed album that manages to rock nearly as hard as McCartney and Lennon probably intended. It is marred by the band’s own lack of interest and by Spector’s heavy hand. Spector, of course, had created so much great music, virtually inventing the girl-group sound in the early 1960s. But his attempt to place his own imprint on Let It Be proved to be a mistake. Spector added strings and reverb and other effects, often burying the band. The syrupy strings on “The Long and Winding Road” overwhelm the song, taking a tender love song and pushing it as close to schmaltz as the Beatles ever came.

The album also suffers from some odd musical choices. The strange traditional “Maggie May” is a very Beatle-esque joke and not nearly as bad a song as it is made out to be (actually quite fun), while “Dig It” is just plain nonsense. There also is a slew of background conversations and oddities that run through the disc that sometimes get in the way of the music, though the talking does add an odd bit of energy. (Both songs and the background dialogue has been removed, according to Apple.)

One of the things that strikes me about this album 33 years after its release and nearly 35 after its recording is that despite it being one of the weaker Beatle efforts, it stands above so much else recorded by so many other lesser bands across the years. The “Two of Us” is a sweet little love song that avoids cliches and rides along on the Lennon-McCartney harmony — a sometimes overlooked element of The Beatles’ sound. It is a song that reconnects the band with one of its earliest influences, The Everly Brothers. “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “One After 909” are straight-on rockers and it was Spector who selected the particular takes to be used on the record and then left them unembellished. Lennon and McCartney shared the vocal on both songs, with John’s voice taking on the breaks. They are examples of the kind of songwriting and vocal collaborations that always made The Beatles rock in their earliest days.

But more than anything, the songs are driven by Harrison’s great guitar work. For my money, Harrison is the quintessential band guitar player, meaning his solos are economical and in service to the song. Rather than show off his chops, he uses his solos to fill gaps and accent the songs. That approach to his playing is evident on all the harder rocking songs on the disc. “I Dig a Pony” opens with a wicked guitar line played on the deeper strings, while “I Me Mine” rises above its origins as a failed experiment and manages to swing. (Spector deserves some credit for pulling this track out of the trash heap, taking a minute or so stretch of tape and turning it into a two-plus minute tune that George Harrison liked enough to take as the title of his autobiography.)

“Get Back”, however, is the album’s best rocker, a charged up affair initially released in 1969 as a single. That version, produced by George Martin and engineered by Glyn Johns, is tight, controlled — just a great rock ‘n’ roll song. The version on Let It Be, which uses a different take, offers a fairly clear view into all that is both good and bad about the Spector version of the album. As produced by Spector, the song still rocks hard, but loses some of its tautness and edges into novelty, with Spector including the intro (“Sweet Loretta Fart thought she was a woman, but she’s in the frying pan”) and adding an outro that was not there during the recording (“On behalf of the group and myself, I hope we passed the audition”). The outro, which closes the album, had actually closed the famous rooftop concert captured in the film and was designed to give the impression that “Get Back” was recorded as part of the concert and acts as a bookened to the opening quip, John proclaiming “‘I Dig a Pygmy’ by Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf Aids, phase one in which Doris gets her oats.”

“Let It Be” and “Long and Winding Road” suffer from too much attention. Both get weighed down in an array of effects that muddy up two of Paul’s best ballads. (Glyn Johns had told Rolling Stone in January, when word leaked that Apple planned a new version of the album, that Spector “puked all over it.”) The new version is supposed to fix these flaws and, in addition to the deletions, feature a scrubbed version of “Across the Universe” and the addition of “Don’t Let Me Down”, the bluesy b-side of “Get Back”. (A great song and a great addition). It also reorders the songs, opening with “Get Back,” possibly as a way of returning the disc to its original vision.

Whether it meets this goal is, of course, a matter for the debate. So far the reviews are mixed. Alan Kozinn in The New York Times said the new version is “a real treat” in “sonic terms”. “Remixed from the original multitrack session tapes, these performances have a warmth and fullness that makes the sound on the original album seem flat and squashed,” he writes. “The most notable difference, and the one that occasioned the remix in the first place, is that the lush choirs and orchestrations that Phil Spector larded onto the songs ”Let It Be’, ‘The Long and Winding Road’ and ‘Across the Universe’ have been shorn away, leaving the unadorned performances that the band originally meant to release.”

At the same time, he says, the new album is not the open and unadorned disc that had been intended back in 1969. “Instead of suggesting an informal session in which the Beatles play their new songs, chat and run through oldies, Let It Be . . . Naked treats the album as if it were Rubber Soul, or Please Please Me.” So, as far as posterity is concerned, the debate over the “Get Back” sessions is likely to continue – and maybe that’s as it should be.

Ultimately, I think, Let It Be has to be viewed as what it is: a flawed document, but still a remarkable record and that could have been better. Some Beatle fans, musicologists and critics may view it harshly, but it remains a solid rock and roll record than most bands have recorded or will record in the future.

As Mark Lewisohn points out in his book The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, the failures of Let It Be were not all Spector’s fault. Most of them lied with the band and with the tension and bad feelings that had come to poison their relationships. “The best producer in the world or not, he couldn’t re-write or re-record the songs, which were mostly of a second-class Beatles standard, recorded at a time of boredom, arguments and intense bad feeling within the group, recorded live on borrowed sound equipment, deliberately devoid of the superior studio polish so characteristic of the Beatles post-1965 output.”

Lennon, in a 1971 Rolling Stone interview, said he believed Spector managed a miracle. “He was given the shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever, and he made something out of it.”

The songs and recordings, the production and ultimately the original album itself are truly a mixed bag. The material was better than Lennon and Harrison believed, though not the best the band had recorded. And Spector’s choices ranged from the bizarre (“Dig It” is a bit of nonsense that will not be missed) to the inspired (pushing Ringo’s drumming closer to the front helped create a level of energy that apparently was missing from the sessions) to the downright inane (“Long and Winding Road”).

But perhaps my judgment of this album is clouded — it was the first Beatle album I bought and “Let It Be” was probably my first favorite song as a kid — but I do think it holds up better than many fans are willing to admit. Instead of looking at Naked as a replacement for Let It Be, which is how Apple Corps is billing it, we should view Naked as a reconsideration of some interesting material that deserves a place it along side the original.