Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Beatles: Let It Be (1970)



Phil Spector did not ruin Let It Be. Sure, he ruined "The Long and Winding Road." But if anything ruined this album, this multimedia project, it was the Beatles' ambivalence with it and the discomfort of four intensely (and increasingly) private people dealing with having their every move filmed and recorded. Embarking on this odd journey barely two months after wrapping up the White Album and emptying a huge backlog of songs could not have helped morale. In fact, we know it didn't -- because again, all of this, including every fucking embarrassing moment of insider bickering, was captured on tape and often on film throughout these January 1969 sessions at the Twickenham film studio and then the newly constructed (and botched) Apple Studios,. Everything the Beatles had recorded at this point was on its way to becoming, in some large or small way, iconic; now their petty arguments would enjoy or suffer the same fate.

The album was originally called Get Back, with Glyn Johns on the dials, and was correspondingly touted as the Beatles' "back-to-roots" project. The problem with this logic is that the Beatles had already redeemed any psychedelic overindulgence they'd suffered via the White Album, which had some back-to-roots material but didn't totally abandon studio wizardry, thereby giving a full and unforced picture of the Beatles in 1968, not one diluted through some sort of preconceived notion of what type of music they should release. The band's own lack of enthusiasm for the results of the Get Back project is borne out by the full year-and-change it took to actually see any kind of release (singles aside), both in cinemas and on disc, by which time two versions of the record had been counterfeited and the group had given the mass of tapes to star producer Spector to attempt a remix and "reconstruction" for a coherent LP. It was an unenviable task, and it may not have been possible to do much better than he did, though in comparison to the spontaneity of many of the performances of these same tracks later preserved on Anthology 3, the record often seems flat and charmless. It was thrown out on the market almost as an afterthought a month after the band's official breakup, with its new and newly loaded title.

That said, anyone who's a sucker for basic rock & roll was bound to be somewhat lured in by the hype, and the songs that aren't labored or studied or boring here are pretty good; moreover, the distinctively raw sound of the undoctored tapes, not to mention the immortal Billy Preston's frequent presence on piano and organ, helps quite a bit. (Preston had toured with and befriended the Beatles when they opened for him as part of Little Richard's touring band in 1962; George Harrison is said to have brought him into these sessions to try and break some of the considerable studio tension. He also contributed to two songs on Abbey Road.) No other Beatles material sounds like this, presumably because of Johns' methodology as an engineer being so different from George Martin's (Martin was still present as an advisor, and by some accounts including his own, coproduced the sessions, though his role was never clearly defined, nor was Johns'); it's the only chance we really have to hear the band properly interpreted by anybody else. And make no mistake: after the tortured genesis of all this, the sound of the group running through several songs on top of the Apple building in London -- following the cancellation of lofty plans for a proper live show -- is indeed a moment of full-on triumph, even without the iconic visuals; if only Spector had seen fit to include more of that performance.

"I've Got a Feeling" and "Two of Us," two John-Paul duets, are beautiful in every sense and are among the Beatles' most moving, straightforward recordings since Revolver along with "Don't Let Me Down." McCartney would never again match the direct power of "Two of Us," a gorgeous paean to simple true love dedicated to his new partner, soon-to-be wife Linda Eastman; nor would he come close to the anthemic glory of "Let It Be," as much an ode to private introspection as the Beach Boys' "In My Room," as much an ode to the pain of solitude as "Eleanor Rigby," as much a love song -- to his mother rather than a partner -- as "Two of Us." The single version feels thin next to Spector's powerful remix, which allows the guitar solo to almost violently cut the song in half, to provide a cathartic peak to its emotional exorcism. It's a song that sounds like neither the Beatles nor any other mortal could have created it, save perhaps Aretha Franklin (if she qualifies as a mere mortal), who simultaneously released a brilliant cover version and took the song to unfathomable heights on stage.

Paul also brings us the deliberately low-key rocker "Get Back," one of the most unorthodox of the Beatles' hits, lifted up greatly by Preston's stellar work and on the LP, John's famous closing joke and career summary ("I hope we passed the audition") to an audience of wives and intimates. America also ate up Paul's "The Long and Winding Road," released here as a single and buried by Spector in strangling string and choral overdubs that render it unlistenably, infamously sugary. In its original incarnation, reproduced later on various releases and in the film at the time, it's one of the most chilling things the man's ever written -- a breakup ballad as mournful and powerful in its fashion as "For No One," but less distant, less ideological, more sparse and fragile and yearning. Improbably, Spector transforms one of Paul's finest, barest compositions ever into one of the Beatles' absolute worst studio masters. Paul himself was disgusted by the result, and probably bewildered by the reaction in the U.S. (it wasn't a single in England), the always-good-for-a-laugh country where more people bought More of the Monkees than Something Else by the Kinks.

That's the key to the album's problem; call it mission creep or confusion (the band's relative lack of interest was fatal), or just material and producer running at inexplicable cross-purposes. It's not that I mind string overdubs, it's just that they seem like a bad idea on these songs for which part of the point is their stripped-down nature, a point underscored by Spector's interpolation of between-take chatter and dicking around (dominated by John with non-sequiturs like "queen says no to pot-smoking FBI members"). And of all the songs to augment, "The Long and Winding Road" simply doesn't need the help of Spector or anyone else to be grand.

Although I presume he was saving all his good stuff for his first solo album, still the greatest post-1969 work by any Beatle and actually superior to several classic Beatles albums, I still wonder where John Lennon is throughout this record. His contributions (his best song of the era, "Don't Let Me Down," didn't make the cut) are lazy and fun but seem like supreme b-side material, nothing of great longevity or significance. The fifty-second "Dig It" (composed by the whole band but led by John; it was supposed to be a six-minute jam) and the even shorter take on the traditional "Maggie Mae" speak for themselves, while although "Dig a Pony" may have its moments, the song drags with the lumbering sound of late-'60s British blues-rock nonsense, just what John had recently mocked on "Yer Blues" with a great deal more energy.

Lennon also provides, with Paul, the fine rocker "One After 909," given a splendidly manic performance during the rooftop show, but that was written before Beatlemania existed. Then there's "Across the Universe," which he'd been trying to get on a Beatles record for about three years by this point. It had been thrown onto a charity collection with awful choir and wildlife overdubs. Spector's schmaltzy B-movie strings (the man's "wall of sound" simply is not made for stereo speakers) aren't a big improvement, but they are an improvement, and the song wouldn't get respectable treatment on disc until 1996.

George offers the bizarre "I Me Mine," subject of the very last (Lennon-less) Beatles session in January 1970, which seems to go on forever despite its scant length -- Spector looped a whole verse to make it more substantial -- though in the film John and Yoko's concurrent and just as odd dance sequence is one of the few highlights; and "For You Blue," probably his best upbeat song ("Old Brown Shoe" is the only runner-up). It's a bouncing blues number with John on ruthless slide guitar, and it's joyous and sexual enough that it could be reimagined as the soundtrack to a hardcore porn flick. No reason not to like it, then.

Much like Michael Lindsay-Hogg's messy film Let It Be, a currently lost artifact that's far more of a slog than the mythology that's grown around its unavailability would imply (again, apart from the rooftop scene, when the Beatles take to the London skyline to deliver a missive to an unsuspecting public, a moment of high-stakes harmony and glory, and brilliant music, theater and filmmaking), the album is just too erratic to make much of an impression, too muddled and incomplete, which is significant because nearly everything else in the band's catalog is nothing if not decisive and precise. The Beatles were dissatisfied enough to shelve it and record another LP, Abbey Road, but once they ceased to exist the music couldn't stay unreleased for long.. Spector's work, the third attempt at a final sequence and mix after two of Glyn Johns' were rejected by Apple, has endured decades of criticism, much of it deserved, but despite the beautiful idea behind these sessions, the underlying problem here is just that despite certain expected highlights, the wealth of material was shapeless and uninspiring. The Beatles were worn out and the dream, as John later said, was over.


[Fleshed out from a 2003 review of the album.]

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