How Let it Be Brought The Beatles Back to Their Roots

Phil Spector built a wall of sound around the Beatles' Let It Be, but he couldn't cover up great raw performances.

Photo: The Beatles

The Beatles dropped their final studio album Let It Be 50 years ago, on May 8, 1970. It came out a month after Paul McCartney announced the group’s breakup in a press release (At least it was better than doing it with a Post-it Note like on Sex and the City). The original plan for the album, which had been recorded over a year earlier, before the sessions and release of Abbey Road, was a return to basics. There would be no underlying “concept” and there would be no overdubs, just four guys (and occasionally Billy Preston on keyboards) playing live. The world would have to wait for 2003 for the remixed album Let It Be Naked to hear this vision for the album, though. Let it Be was the first album George Martin didn’t produce for the band. The album, initially slated to be called Get Back, which was to be the Beatles’ antidote to overproduction, was handed to Phil Spector, the creator of the Wall of Sound. But it was a long and winding road from how the band first envisioned the album to what was finally released.

McCartney came up with the idea of the band playing the new songs live in the studio. The rehearsals and recording sessions were filmed for what was supposed to be a documentary catching the Beatles preparing new songs for their first live show since 1966. McCartney was upset at how the White Album separated the band behind more than sound-attenuating dampers. He felt the album was a collection of songs by songwriters using the other Beatles as a backing band, often doing most of the work in separate studios. 

While this may appear true on the surface, there is a recording on The Beatles Anthology 3 where we can hear McCartney encouraging John Lennon on his song “Julia,” the only song Lennon did alone during his tenure with the group. McCartney didn’t play on the song, but he was there in the booth, giving his bandmate the confidence to capture the intricate fingerings in one take. Despite McCartney’s later misgivings, the band dynamic was always in full force, even on that album, with “Yer Blues” recorded live in one of EMI’s smaller studios to capture the intimacy of the four players.

McCartney was inspired to do the live album after having so much fun recording Lennon’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” The song was intricately structured with liquid time changes and a section of polyrhythms, and the group had to get it together as a band. When the band recorded their first album, Please Please Me, in 1963, they were still playing concerts and basically did their live set while the tapes rolled. They began developing song ideas during studio sessions in late 1964. They had been layering their instruments in parts and scheduling sessions for string quartets and eastern instruments since Rubber Soul in 1965, and were using the studio as an instrument and overdubbing tape loops since Revolver in 1966. 

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Let It Be is considered the Beatles’ breakup album. It wasn’t. They recorded and released another album (Abbey Road) while it sat in the can. The film Let It Be also appears to capture the breakup of the band, but the band had splintered before. Ringo Starr quit during recordings for The White Album. When George Harrison took a break he came back with Preston, who almost became a Beatle until McCartney pointed out that four Beatles were hard enough to deal with. But it didn’t break the band up.

What Let It Be really is is an album the band made when they were tired and in a bad mood, not that you can hear a trace of animosity in any actual song. Lennon complained about the hours the band had to wake up to play for the cameras of the documentary. They preferred late night work to morning sessions and they didn’t have time to adjust their sleep habits during these two months. Lennon, who wrote the songs “I’m Only Sleeping” and “I’m So Tired,” used to slip off for a nod during sessions. Although we know now, it had less to do with catching up with sleep as it was the beginnings of a heroin phase. He came clean about getting clean in his Plastic Ono Band song “Cold Turkey.”

Because of the documentary on the project, the Beatles started the rehearsals at the Twickenham Studios sound stage. The band rehearsed over a hundred songs during these sessions. After Harrison’s short hiatus, the band and Preston continued the sessions at the Beatles’ Apple Studios, which had a soon-to-be-famous rooftop.

Enter Phil Spector

Because the music was being done live, the sessions were produced and engineered by Glyn Johns. Martin didn’t play a large part in catching the raw tracks and didn’t have the time to go through the hundreds of hours of takes for further production. Instead, Johns mixed the tapes and assembled them for what would have been the Get Back album, set for release in the summer of 1969. The band didn’t like it and he went off to do a remix. Johns dropped a second attempt at a Get Back mix in 1970, while the band was working on Abbey Road. The band didn’t hear the magic on them and scrapped it.

With United Artists threatening a lawsuit if a soundtrack wasn’t delivered to go along with their upcoming film, Lennon gave the tapes to Spector for final production. He didn’t tell the other Beatles. Spector is known as the creator of the Wall of Sound, and rejected the notion of the warts-and-all, live-with-no-overdubs concept the Beatles went into the studio with. This doesn’t mean he couldn’t do it. Spector produced Lennon’s John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band album, which was a stellar achievement in minimalism.

Spector added orchestral strings, arranged by Richard Anthony Hewson, to Harrison’s “I Me Mine,” and McCartney’s “Let It Be,” which also had horns, and “The Long and Winding Road,” to which he also added harp and a choral arrangement by John Barham. Paul was so appalled he wrote a letter to Allen Klein, who was managing the other three Beatles, about the overproduction, according to the Anthology book. “Don’t ever do it again,” he threatens. 

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McCartney was very particular in how he wanted his songs to sound. If he wrote a piece for piano, guitar, bass, drums, and an elegant electric piano solo, it should sound as it is conceived. It’s not that McCartney was afraid of schmaltz. He embraced it for songs which called for it. He didn’t hate the harp. He let it be used to great effect on “She’s Leaving Home,” and it had that Marx Brothers connection, which must have pleased him on a cellular level. But he despised the harp on “The Long and Winding Road.” And who can blame him? The only reason it’s bearable is because the vocal choir is worse. The song has one of the greatest set of lyrics in the Beatles’ catalog. They are poetry. We don’t need all those guardian angels acting as road signs telling us how to feel.

To be fair, once Spector was brought in, the Beatles broke the no-overdubs rule by coming in to add parts. When United Artists said the finished soundtrack album would include Lennon’s ”Across the Universe” and Harrison’s ”I Me Mine,” The band re-recorded a two minute version of “I Me Mine,’ which Spector expanded the same way George Martin had elongated the song “I’ll Cry Instead.” It was just the same recording doubled. Spector slowed down a 1968 take of ”Across the Universe” and cushioned it in lush strings and droning eastern instruments.

The Songs

The album opens with McCartney’s ode to getting lost, “Two of Us.” He always claimed the song is written about traveling with his newly wed wife, Linda. But that relationship was only getting started, so the line “you and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead” sounds more like something he would be saying to Lennon. The “you and me chasing paper, getting nowhere” line also sounds more like the contractual “funny papers” he sang about in Abbey Road‘s “You Never Give Me Your Money.” But there is no bitterness in the recording. The film captures a chunky electric version with Lennon and McCartney sharing a mic and trying to crack each other up.

The album’s version is acoustically driven with tight Everly Brothers-style harmonies. A clip of it was broadcast on The Ed Sullivan Show on March 1, 1970. It was the last time the Beatles would appear on the show which broke them in America. The song opens with Lennon larking about, saying “‘I Dig A Pygmy’ by Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf-Aids! Phase one, in which Doris gets her oats!” Hawtrey played a flamboyantly gay character on Britain’s The Carry On film series.

“Dig a Pony” is a neat piece of messy word play in 6/8 time. While Lennon does a strong vocal, he’s got his tongue firmly in his cheek while insisting he can also “feel the wind blow” as well as Bob Dylan, and insinuating the Rolling Stones “can imitate anyone you know,” while he would “pick a moondog,” a reference to the Beatles’ short-lived name Johnny and the Moondogs. Lennon also sounds vaguely Jaggeresque in “Dig It,” which is the second song credited to all members of the band. The first was the instrumental “Flying” from the Magical Mystery Tour album. “Dig a Pony” is the first of the three rooftop songs on the album, performed live on Jan. 30, 1969. Lennon plays Epiphone Casino electric guitar, McCartney is playing his 1963 Hofner 500/1 bass, Harrison fingers his rosewood Fender Telecaster, Starr is on Ludwig Hollywood Maple drums, and Preston is tinkling a Hohner electric piano.

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“Let It Be” is introduced by Lennon saying “That was ‘Can You Dig It’ by Georgie Wood, and now we’d like to do ‘Hark the Angels Come.'” And it is an angelic song with a very earthly premise. The “Mother Mary” Paul is singing about is his own, who died when he was 14. He wrote the song during the White Album sessions when the band was in a rough patch. Like “Yesterday,” McCartney said it came in a dream. When McCartney wrote “Let It Be,” he sent an acetate demo to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records to give to Aretha Franklin.

The album even contains the first cover they’d done since “Act Naturally” off the Help! album (“Maggie Mae”), and also included classics like the title song and the originally scheduled title song, “Get Back,” along with snippets of jams like “Dig It.”

Side two opens with two performances from the rooftop concert. “I’ve Got a Feeling,” which is a combination of two songs, much like Lennon and McCartney had done on “A Day in the Life” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and “Baby You’re a Rich Man” off Magical Mystery Tour. “One After 909,” was resurrected from the band’s earliest rock and roll days. Written in 1960, it was one of the original songs included on the famous Decca demo tapes, the recordings which were rejected by the label because “guitar groups” were “on their way out.” Harrison and Preston have a blast on the old time rock and roll.

Harrison’s “For You Blue” obviously thrilled Lennon, who slides through his lap steel guitar part with the assurance of someone playing for the sheer fun of it. The keys on the piano may have been restrained by a cloth mute, but McCartney’s fingers are celebrating with wild abandon, or abdomen as Lennon wrote in In His Own Write. George’s sweet croon always seems to have a smile behind it, and his rhythm guitar bounces happily around Starr’s upbeat downbeat.

“Get Back” started out as an anti-racist song. It was inspired by a 1968 speech British Parliament Member Enoch Powell gave about the perils of immigration known as “The Rivers of Blood Speech.” In post-breakup interviews, Lennon contended Paul was singing to Yoko.The song which closes the album was the first single to be issued from the sessions. It was credited to “The Beatles with Billy Preston,” the first time another the band included another artist’s name on a sleeve.

Released as the opening glimpse into the new, unadorned sound, ”Get Back” was promoted as “The Beatles as Nature Intended.” They didn’t need the fig leaf of large productions. The live songs and “Two of Us” proved the Beatles had nothing to cover up. 

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Years later, the Beatles released Let It Be . . . Naked, stripping all the sonic enhancements from Spector’s production. While the no-overdub rule remains in effect, some songs are edited together from different takes. Naked is clean and clear and perfectly mastered, with a fuller sound, warmer acoustics and brighter electrics, but it is a little clinical. This is not the album Glyn Johns presented the band. His included count-ins and studio chatter. We don’t even get to hear Lennon asking if the band passed the audition.

Let It Be is neither the album it was intended to be nor the album it is reputed to be. It happened to be their last release, but while it was recorded, the band was playing with an eye to the future. The songs remain strong and the performances are as enthusiastic as any the band ever released. Not a single song should be taken off this record, though some could have been added. This is most obvious by the songs which came out on Harrison‘s All Things Must Pass. Some of those songs were part of the rehearsals during recordings. Yes, it sorely misses “Don’t Let Me Down,” but it is no let down. It is exactly where the Beatles once belonged.