50 years ago today, The Beatles’ sad swan song Let It Be was released. Then and now, there was much to confound and confuse the casual observer about this ill-fated project. For just a few examples, it was released a month after the band had broken up, yet it was described in the liner notes as a “new phase Beatle album”, implying that much more was to follow. Yet it wasn’t new. Most of the recordings dated to nearly a year and a half earlier, hard on the heels of the White Album and months prior to their actual final statement Abbey Road. And one of the compositions on the record (“One After 909”) dated from a decade prior, two years before they’d recorded their first single “Love Me Do.” And beyond this, the record was a sort of snapshot that captured only one tiny portion of a vastly more sprawling whole.
For a long time, as a young person, I didn’t quite understand the largely negative feelings many critics harbor toward the album, and I’m sure millions of fans continue to share that bafflement. After all, the record contains three classic Beatle hit singles, “Get Back”, “Let it Be”, and “The Long and Winding Road”, as well as the oft-played “Across the Universe”, and contains loads of trademark Beatles’ humor in the form of ad libbed chatter between the numbers. The hits were Paul’s, the jokes mostly Lennon’s. The musicianship was palpably loose, but that seems a forgivable aspect of the concept, which was to present something that felt spontaneous and live. So why hate on it?
Because of what it COULD be. The project was conceived by Paul McCartney as an attempt to stave off something he saw happening during the making of the White Album, which was the fatal dissolution of the group. In 1966 the Beatles had made two crucial decisions: they had stopped making films and stopped touring. The following year their manager Brian Epstein, who had shepherded them to the pinnacle of success and brought them a measure of leadership and professional discipline, died of a drug overdose. 1968 saw the quartet growing farther and farther apart, a process which one can clearly hear on the White Album, which feels like a collage made by four solo artists. McCartney’s idea, in January 1969, was to return to first principles, to recapture the spark of the early days and restore group cohesion, by working towards a return to live performance, requiring a period of rehearsal, which would be filmed for a documentary. Hundreds of hours of material was recorded during those few weeks, comprised of new songs, covers, and improvised jams. Unfortunately, a process that was intended to rekindle the chemistry of the band backfired, and they fought throughout the duration for a wide variety of reasons. Finally they aborted the project, though some early versions of the album, originally known as Get Back, were assembled and rejected. After this, they took a different tack and recorded the much more disciplined Abbey Road, which cannibalized some of the best Get Back material. Once Abbey Road was out, they realized that they still had all of this other material in the can, and that having put in the effort, it should be released in some form. They also contractually owed a film to United Artists. The documentary and accompanying record would answer those needs, and of course, generate revenue.
The problem, however, as it had been since the beginning, was the raw material. The Beatles had become the opposite of what they had been in their amphetamine-fueled Liverpool and Hamburg days. You can hear a lot of the unedited recordings on Youtube: their performances are flaccid, inattentive, unfocused, desultory, meandering. They’re often off-key, forget the song lyrics, and, more often than not, only complete parts of songs, trailing off mid-rendition like a dog dropping a stick to chase a butterfly. Those not singing can often be heard talking through the numbers about irrelevant topics. They never seem to buckle down and get to work. There was no longer a manager to make them do so, and John Lennon, the band’s founder and ostensible leader, was on heroin, making him perhaps the least engaged of the four. Even the live performance, intended as the climax to the process, ended up being thrown together, with an impromptu, unannounced concert on the roof of their studio building. The only audience was made up of their own technicians and spouses, and whoever happened to be walking down the street. They might have booked the Cavern. They might have done something with a modicum of showmanship like the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus. But instead they did it on the fly, practically between bites of a sandwich. And so producers and engineers and the Beatles themselves were left to pick up the pieces. Ultimately, the legendary American producer Phil Spector was brought in, and he assembled the record as the world now knows it, adding his trademark choirs, harps, and strings, and so forth, which most critical listeners felt was precisely the wrong impulse. Ironically, Lennon, who is not well represented on the album, was one of the few who seemed to like it. McCartney detested it, and decades later released Let it Be…Unplugged, which may have satisfied himself, but really is not any kind of giant leap toward realizing the potential of the recorded material.
How do I know? Because so much of what was left off the record is available to listen to nowadays. First there were bootlegs dating back to even before Let it Be came out. Some more stuff got official release on The Beatles Anthology in 1995. In recent years more and more has been sifted through and released online. And what has come to the fore is fairly astonishing. There is a wealth of good stuff amongst the dreck. Lest we blame the creators of the original album too much, imagine the scale of the task. Confronted with the chaos and the volume of material, the Beatles and their producers were clearly overwhelmed. But now there have been five decades of excavation by an army of devoted experts. Gems have been discovered that ought to be heard. There is no reason that in the right hands you couldn’t get an album more like Dylan’s The Basement Tapes or The Beach Boys Party, a real solid classic all the way through instead of an LP with a couple of tent poles and lots of weak filler and jokes.
The possibly good news is that there will be some new anniversary material coming out. Peter Jackson has made a new documentary film out of all the raw footage from the vaults. Called Beatles: Get Back, it is due to be released September 4. There will also be a newly restored release of Michael Lindsey-Hogg’s original 1970 Let It Be film. Presumably there will be an album reissue to accompany these, along with extras, though nothing has been announced.
Such releases tend to be conservative, though, and I do not dare hope for something as spectacular as what I believe could be made of the existing tapes. And, letting the imagination run wild, one can also picture an even better album made out of the compositions they played during these sessions, but didn’t get a good recording of. Some of what belongs on my dream Let it Be is well known stuff, for it was released as singles (“Don’t Let Me Down”, “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, “Old Brown Shoe”, “You Know My Name, Look Up the Number”) or wound up on Abbey Road (“Something”, “Oh Darling”, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, “Octopus’s Garden”, “I Want You”, “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”) or on Beatles’ solo LPs. Of the latter, the compositions include Paul’s “Every Night”, “Another Day”, “Back Seat of My Car”, “Teddy Boy”, and “Suicide”; Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth”, and Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” and “Let it Down“. Some of my favorite songs off the bootlegs include Lennon’s “Suzy Parker”, “Watching Rainbows”, the much longer “Dig It”, and McCartney’s “Back to the Commonwealth”, and “The Palace of the King of the Birds”. In addition to this there were a number of Lennon-McCartney’s much earlier songs in the spirit of “One After 909” which the band recorded during the sessions, such as “Thinking of Linking” and “I Lost My Little Girl”. And lots and lots of covers of Tin Pan Alley and blues standards, ’50s rockers, and even contemporary Dylan songs. These get into rights issues, but snatches of them do add to the atmosphere of the record, as would the wealth of spoken witticisms and conversation still unheard. And lastly some of the best material to my mind consists of very groovy spontaneous jams, the kind of music people were dancing to in the late ’60s. I picture fading in and out of these bits between songs, almost like playing with a radio dial.
As you can see, like many fans, the last thing I want to do with this misbegotten body of work is “Let It Be”. At any rate, if you’d like to mark this anniversary in a special way, rather than playing the official release, I heartily recommend surfing your way through the rabbit hole of bootlegs on Youtube. I can’t think of a more pleasurable way to while away a few hours while sheltering in place.