Saturday, January 5, 2019
The Beatles: Purple Chick deluxe- Let It Be (1969)
The sessions for the Beatles' Let It Be (originally Get Back) album are the most extensively mined by bootleggers over the decades. Nearly everything the Beatles rehearsed and recorded (and even a great many of their conversations) in the hellish, ill-advised early morning sessions at Twickenham and Apple throughout January 1969 is out in the world for us to hear, which in many cases -- especially if you're otherwise a completist for their work -- might not be such a blessing. To experience these dejected, disappointing sessions that culminated in one gloriously spirited moment (the rooftop concert on January 30th) the Beatles fan of whatever degree of obsession has several options. There are the obviously inadequate official releases of Let It Be ("reproduced" by Phil Spector) and Let It Be Naked and the slightly more redeeming Anthology 3. For the slightly less casual and more curious sort there are the numerous versions of Get Back that exist in the world. Those who are willing to listen to the Beatles play just about anything and are curious about the musical depths of the '69 tapes might be interested in the sixteen-disc reel of highlights from the sessions entitled Thirty Days; there are a few sublime moments scattered around that collection, and most of what's been gathered there is at least slightly interesting. Only true scholars and those with ridiculously dedicated archival impulses will want to proceed to the next step, the 83CD complete collection of the Get Back tapes labeled A/B Road (for convoluted reasons we'll explain later) by Purple Chick. That's the nuclear option for those who've completely run dry of Beatles amusement and still need more, more, more; very few people in the world will ever want to struggle through it.
Somewhere between the two extremes thereby outlined is the PC "deluxe" collection for Let It Be, which is in some ways as conceptually flawed as the album it documents and serves a purpose that occasionally seems arbitrary, as if it's just meant to fill out the empty slot for the Beatles' last album in the PC archives even though the music is more properly examined elsewhere. That said, it's an engaging and listenable collection provided you take it a disc at a time, which is more than can be said for A/B Road and even a lot of Thirty Days; and talking of archival impulses, this set does offer sort of a fascinating sociological history of bootlegging. Instead of delving into the recording process of the album, the point here seems to be to explore the ways in which Let It Be's music has variously escaped into the world, and the ways its release and construction was variously considered before the final, unsatisfying product was arrived at. It is made clear in the process, though, that there was enough good music completed within the sessions to make a better album than the one we got, an argument more subtly made prior to this by Anthology 3. Still, if you're enough of an enthusiast to want this collection -- which, taken together, is unnecessarily repetitive, ironic given the 83 discs worth of material that exist to work from -- then you may as well spring for (seek out, rather) one of the longer compilations, which will tell you a lot more about how the Beatles actually worked during this debacle as opposed to the ways in which the band and others considered collating and releasing the results. (Don't forget that the original Glyn Johns mixes of Get Back constitute arguably the second most essential Beatles boot of all behind the full set of BBC sessions; it was in third place before the Esher demos were officially released in 2018.)
We start in the usual straightforward manner. With the A/B Road take numbers (prompted by Doug Sulpy's book about the sessions) helpfully amended, we start with the "masters" for the canonical album as chosen and embellished by Phil Spector in 1970 and follow this with the single versions of "Let It Be" and "Get Back," both vastly different mixes of the LP performances with additional or different material included -- the former lacks Spector's bombastic touches and has a different, quieter, more ornate guitar solo on the 7", while the "Get Back" single includes a bawdy coda from Paul cut on the LP and lacks the dialogue before the intro. Both singles had non-album b-sides, "Don't Let Me Down" inexplicably so as it's the finest song from the sessions; and "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)" actually a vintage novelty recording mostly created during the aimless summer of 1967 shortly after Sgt. Pepper was completed -- one participant in the session, Brian Jones, had died between recording and release -- though John and Paul put some finishing touches on it in April 1969. The 45 variation of "Let It Be" was only mixed to stereo, while "You Know My Name" never saw release in stereo until an extended version on Anthology 2 almost thirty years later. "Get Back"/"Don't Let Me Down" was mixed in both mono and stereo, for the UK and U.S. respectively. All versions find a home on the first two discs here. Disc one is rounded out with a series of alternate mixes from various video and DVD releases, including the Imagine version of the rooftop "Don't Let Me Down" (different from the single, recorded two days earlier) and a couple of good, unadorned performances of "Let It Be" and "The Long and Winding Road" from the Anthology DVD set, both dating from the very last day of the sessions.
Let It Be, the album, was only released in stereo, but there are semi-official mono mixes of most of its songs from the Let It Be film, which are offered on the second PC disc, though there are a couple of caveats: "For You Blue" comes from different performances, on different days, than the released version. And because neither "Across the Universe" (recorded nearly two years earlier) nor "I Me Mine" (recorded in 1970 without John, though it was played in the Get Back sessions and appears in the film) are actually from the Get Back recording process, we get weird substitutions: a speed-corrected stereo version of "Universe," not a bad idea, and a vague "alternate mix" of "I Me Mine." Just what we need, more confusing variants of these songs. Lastly, the mono single mix of "Get Back" is slotted in rather than the film performance -- which is actually far superior, but more on that later. A few further extracts from the Let It Be film follow, namely a couple of oldies medleys, which come off kind of a drag in the film but do have some enjoyable moments (I love listening to John and Paul gradually remembering the lyrics to Little Richard's "Miss Ann" and starting to groove on it, though anytime their 1969 selves tackle a song from the "early days" like "Kansas City" the results sound forlorn, sometimes endearingly but usually not).
Discs three and four delve into the convoluted history of Glyn Johns' Get Back acetates, which were the sources for some of the earliest Beatles vinyl bootlegs, the first of which -- Kum Back -- surfaced before the band had even broken up. You can read all the gory details of these various compilations here but the essence is that we start off with one that was pretty much just an assembly reel for the Beatles to listen to and evaluate. Again, these performances made up the famous Get Back bootlegs that got considerable press in the later parts of 1969 and were at least partially to blame for Paul's infamous remark that Let It Be was an "old" album by the time it was released. Very few of the performances Johns mixed in late January and gathered here are the same as those on the eventual LP: the exceptions are "The Long and Winding Road," portions of "For You Blue" and one of the two included versions of "Get Back"; the other "Get Back" and the "Let It Be" we get here are actually unique to this acetate. The reel also incorporates a few goofy extracts of this and that and the most contempible and bizarrely ubiquitous song from these sessions, "Teddy Boy," which brings us to one of the biggest obstacles to listening to this set in complete form.
There is so much "Teddy Boy" spread across these discs, folks, and like a lot of what made the cut of McCartney's early solo efforts, it's the writer and performer at his smarmiest and cutesiest -- a fake folk song that's not even a shadow on the already slightly condescending "Rocky Raccoon" -- and on top of there being multiple versions of (nearly without exception) the same performance of the song, that performance runs well over five intolerably trite, repetitive minutes. It's easy to not mind the song when it's treated as a trifle, but when they jam on it for that length of time, never taking it anywhere, it's enough to make you wonder what you're doing here. Conversely, the surplus of variations on the nine "canon" Get Back-era songs does point up the virtues of those that do work, like "The Long and Winding Road," "I've Got a Feeling," "Let It Be" itself, "Two of Us" and "Don't Let Me Down," because they never seem to really wear out their welcome the way "Dig a Pony" and "Teddy Boy" do; really pretty impressive for a band that had issued thirty new tracks a month and a half before all this started.
We'll discuss this in the future, but the great fact of the Twickenham sessions was a whole hell of a lot of the Beatles fumbling around trying to figure out what exactly it was they were doing. Ostensibly the film -- initially intended as a TV special -- was to be a documentary about the Beatles recording a new album just like always, only because it was transferred to a movie studio due to unwieldy equipment and staff, it really couldn't be the fly-on-the-wall experience the Beatles and director Michael Lindsay-Hogg envisioned. The subsequent move to their new Apple studio -- after George Harrison's blowup and temporary departure, a depressing and telling situation exacerbated by the constant presence of outsiders -- improved the situation a little but only further confused the project, which had been meant to culminate with the first live Beatles show in three years, an idea half-heartedly tossed aside in favor of the spontaneous, impossibly iconic rooftop concert on January 30th. TV show became film. Album was shelved. Raw "unfiltered" Beatles came to be overdubbed with strings by the father of the Wall of Sound. The notion of spontaneity and unapologetic rock & roll couldn't be captured by force of will, which this band of all bands should have known. But one way in which they tried to force it was in the unpolished, haphazard recording of "oldies" throughout the sessions during various lengthy jams that came out during the excruciatingly long setup process for the film crew or in general downtime. With an eye apparently toward putting some of these on the Get Back album -- which was always apparently intended to include false starts, tossed-off "dialogue" and jokes and such, some of which was awkwardly interpolated on the Spector LP -- the Beatles had Johns prepare mixes of a few of them and prepare an acetate of said mixes at some point, resulting in the Apple disc cryptically labeled Beatles Sunday. That record is included in full on disc two.
It's not just oldies, as it does start with a version of "I've Got a Feeling" and the full eight-minute "Dig It," a four-way composition that runs its very unengaging groove into the ground at great length and is the only Beatles performance to feature any of their children: Paul's stepdaughter Heather on droning background vocals. But after that we get four examples of the session jams of the group wistfully revisiting items they'd have known intimately in the Hamburg days or even earlier. There's not really a feeling, as Anthology tries to posit, of coming full circle -- more of the cruelty of time passing and the attendant aging process, as the Beatles here are sufficiently unhappy that they end up sounding like old men (none of whom had yet cracked thirty). You probably know their versions of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and "Blue Suede Shoes" from the '90s official release, but if you've never heard 1969 Beatles attempt to reconnect with the magic 1963 Beatles had wrought on Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold on Me," brother, consider yourself lucky; labored, drunk-sounding and obnoxiously flaccid, it's among the worst things they ever put on tape, and makes you grateful for the breakup.
The fourth disc moves on to material we will cover with more devotion elsewhere in this discography, namely the three versions of Get Back that Glyn Johns actually prepared for release, all of which were rejected by the Beatles over the course of the year past the recording sessions, during which time the band recorded and released Abbey Road and unofficially disbanded (John Lennon quietly left the band in September 1969, preceding Paul's official announcement of the breakup by seven months). Johns' second collection of the material (third if you count the initial early 1969 acetate on the prior disc) is the one that was actually on Apple's schedule and came closest to release, and is the source of the vast majority of bootleg editions over the decades, so it understandably leads off this disc, with the slight variants on "Get Back" and "Dig It" from the prior acetate (turned down by the band in the spring) dutifully inserted afterward. This is followed by the additions and alterations for the final Johns mix, which was scrapped in favor of Let It Be sometime in early 1970. This version uses the same performances as the more familiar acetate but adds a few mix and dialogue variations, all preserved here, plus a new 1970 lead vocal on "For You Blue" as well as the addition of "I Me Mine" and "Across the Universe," which would end up making the final cut with some trademark Spector enhancements.
Get Back is obviously a better album than Let It Be, rejected strictly because of the largely fragmented nature of the Beatles in 1969 and their dispirit over the way the January recording sessions had turned out, or perhaps even more than that, the general negative vibe of those sessions. But their apprehension is understandable when hearing any collection of these performances. The problem is the affectation aspect. Returning to the unaugmented rock & roll of their youth is a nice idea in theory, but they're just not great or convincing at this kind of music by this point in their lives -- the blues revival-based "hard rock" that was coming into vogue doesn't really become them, even though a handful of the songs they wrote for this project are incredible, and so are some of the performances. One of the major advantages Johns' theory of the record has over Spector's is the presence of the best of all these, John's astonishingly soulful "Don't Let Me Down," admittedly a record that would not survive the exclusion of a third party, Billy Preston. Still, every time John sings the song on these discs, you can hear how much it means to him -- at last, a break through the sarcasm and goofing off that seems to almost overwhelm the rest of his contributions to the band in this era. Paul too has moments of undeniable passion, which may be less of a shock since he seems the most gung ho (and therefore bossy) about the film project, on "Let It Be" and "The Long and Winding Road," while the two have a couple of shared moments of real harmony on "Two of Us" and "I've Got a Feeling," the latter being one of the few really effective hard rock performances to make the final record. "One After 909," another youthful apparition come back to life, manages to escape the dregs of the oldies medleys, though it doesn't quite have the charm of the long-unreleased 1963 versions of one of the earliest compositions in their repertoire. As for the would-be title track and actually-was hit single, "Get Back," initially written as a satire of Enoch Powell's anti-immigration rhetoric that was politically neutered out of fear of being misunderstood (though props to Paul for using Sweet Loretta's preferred pronouns), never was there a more alarming example of a song not just upstaged but completely trounced into kingdom come by its b-side, "Don't Let Me Down."
There is one outstanding performance of "Get Back" in the archives, the one that finally allowed me to "get" the song after a whole lifetime of not particularly being moved by anything except Preston's brilliant piano solo, but it comes from the rooftop performance of January 30th. One huge mark against both Spector and Johns' interpretations of these sessions is how little they used from this day. Spector employs rooftop versions of "Dig a Pony," "I've Got a Feeling" and "One After 909" for the canon album; Johns only goes for "909." But I would be shocked if anyone hears the version of "Get Back" from the roof in the Let It Be film, preserved here in a few different mixes, and fails to find that ferocious performance by the band to be unquestionably superior to the one included on the album and single. There's simply no contest. That's not quite as true for "Don't Let Me Down," but the wonderfully brutal rooftop version of that song is a gift as well, as good a demonstration that exists of what a tight and emotive live band the Beatles were capable of being at their best -- it's like Hamburg come back to life for just a moment, with a whole different perspective brought along. And the entire rooftop sequence is a remarkable moment of redemption, visually and musically. Suddenly all of the negativity seems to wash away. Songs that were being slavishly worked and reworked on the floor days earlier come out to breathe. Some repeat, and it doesn't even matter. John is relaxed and vicious and full of spark and life, Paul grooves like he's forgotten he's confined to his own body, and George and Ringo play like they know tomorrow will never arrive. It makes the rest of Let It Be, ballads aside, sound like a jokey afterthought.
The last two discs of PC's set are slightly redundant, mostly collecting performances that are readily available elsewhere or alternate mixes of same (the entire sixth disc is comprised exclusively of alternate mixes and is basically useless, in part because half of it is mono mixes that PC admits may just be fold-downs). But I quite enjoy disc five simply because it's a good single disc compilation of some of the best discarded Get Back stuff all in one place, including the two rooftop extracts praised just now. Essentially the premise is that PC is pretending here that the A/B Road session tapes and the many extensive compilations built from those Nagra reels don't exist, and that this was just like any other Beatles LP. So we get the major outtakes and alternates that have slipped out into the world over the years, many officially and many not. Most of it is better explained in other contexts, but it is a highly listenable approach at least, and among the things you might not have heard before, the highlights are an unusually well-performed oldies medley that peaks with a noisy version of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" and an interesting, lengthy instrumental jam. The nearly infinite base of material from which to work here, however, precludes any sense of completeness; most fans will object to the absence of legendary Get Back jam outtakes like "Watching Rainbows," and there are other quibbles that PC set themselves up for just by including this largely superfluous disc.
Of course, the central problem with all this material is that the most exhaustively complete set of Beatles session tapes we have is dedicated perhaps the least desirable collection of music they laid down in their whole career. Some thrive on exploration of this chapter in their history, but even for those who do enjoy it, there's so much confusion with the numerous takes, rehearsals, performances and proper takes of this material, it can be a nightmare to keep it all straight, or if you're less charitable, to go hunting for diamonds in the mine. Add to all this the band's obviously listless mood; yes, we've been told that they always ran material into the ground while they were rehearsing it, hence the indelible precision inherent to the appeal of their records, but you can't mistake how much timing and setting took a toll on them in this case. All the same, when you want that lonely sad feeling of hearing something in the process of breaking apart -- and sometimes, oddly enough, you do -- or when you do want to share in the fantasy of a latter-day Beatles record as raw and unkempt as their earliest work without the sprawling experimentation of the White Album (which already, in the context of January 1969, sounds like a totally different band), this is a good set to dive into for your Sunday morning sulk. And its matter-of-fact comparisons of the two engineer-mixer-producers' differing approaches does make one surprising point to put in the official Let It Be album's column.
Johns' Get Back pretends that everything is fine, that the big back-to-roots experiment was a success; hell, it's right there in the title and on the cover. It furthers the illusion of the Beatles as an ivory-tower bubble among rock bands. Let It Be deconstructs that illusion, acknowledges the bleakness of the band's collective state of mind, and recommissions this abortive attempt at reconnection as a funeral march. This sober stock-taking is to the album's benefit, to the benefit of its legacy, and maybe even to the benefit of the Beatles' punctured legend. After all, the breakup itself and the images of disarray and discontent captured in Lindsay-Hogg's film are now the stuff of rock & roll mythology just as much as the moptops of A Hard Day's Night were. The ending is baked into the story; they might have wanted "The End" to be the final word, but this portrait of disintegration and ugliness was the finale they couldn't prevent from slipping out. Whatever Let It Be's flaws, the Beatles' narrative and mythos would be diminished by its absence; Get Back was the better album, but Let It Be was the necessary one.