Friday, 31 December 2010

Let It Be (2)

When Let It Be... Naked was released in 2003, the critical focus was very much on the removal of Phil Spector’s post-production work. This is understandable. Although Spector was a fine producer (past tense, as he’s unlikely to do anything decent again), bringing him in to work on already-recorded material was a huge mistake. A notorious control freak, he was always likely to smother the tracks in overdubs to ensure his own stamp was on them. Perhaps the greater surprise is that more of the tracks weren’t affected. Hearing Spector’s work on ‘The Long And Winding Road’ throws into sharp relief just how thoughtful and tasteful George Martin’s orchestrations for The Beatles are: I always feel horribly deflated when the 1 album stumbles into this puddle of slush at the end.

However, this focus on Spector’s work obscured two important issues about Let It Be... Naked: one, that the album’s title was so bad that it’s difficult to use it in ordinary conversation; the other, that although the album had been improved substantially by stripping it down, it had benefited just as much from the tracklisting being rearranged.

No amount of polishing and shuffling can disguise the fact that this isn’t a strong collection of Beatles tracks. In his haste to get The Beatles started on a new project, McCartney harried the group into the rehearsal studio just ten weeks after wrapping a 30-track double album, and it shows. Lennon’s three-and-a-half songs on the original album include one that was over a year old and had apparently been abandoned by the rest of the group (‘Across The Universe’) and one that had been written in 1957 and been abortively recorded at the ‘From Me To You’ session in 1963 (‘One After 909’, which cops the skiffle style so completely it even has a railway-themed lyric). And of the other one-and-a-half, ‘Dig A Pony’ seems to be a cunning steal from Joe Cocker’s radically reworked cover of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, released in October 1968. So the tracks aren’t top-drawer. But just as a film can be made or ruined in the edit, an album can be made or ruined in the sequencing.

‘Two Of Us’ is a good opener, but ‘Across The Universe’ kills the pace of the album early on, whilst the two most melodramatic tracks – ‘I Me Mine’ and ‘Let It Be’ – are used up too soon. The second side also begins well but badly loses its way – ‘For You Blue’ doesn’t really go anywhere and is a terrible choice for the penultimate track. ‘Get Back’ is a logical choice for the closer – it was the last song they played at the rooftop gig – but Spector’s odd decision to lop the end off means the album peters out in an anticlimactic splutter.

Also, whilst the studio chatter is entertaining in itself it breaks up the flow of the album. The false start on ‘Dig A Pony’ deflates the entire track, and Lennon’s comment before ‘Let It Be’ is snide mockery of a song he wasn’t keen on (admittedly it’s a poor man’s ‘Hey Jude’, but still a very good song. It has also been widely misinterpreted – ‘mother Mary’ is not the Virgin Mary, but McCartney’s dead mother, whose name was Mary). The chatter is all Lennon, and he seems to have been responsible for the final sequencing. Given that he later suggested he was glad the album had blown the Beatles ‘myth’, I wonder if he arsed it up on purpose (Ian MacDonald also suggests that Lennon was responsible for okaying the use of the dodgy take of ‘The Long And Winding Road’, when McCartney could easily have been called in to redub Lennon’s inept bass-playing).

This project originally had a clear focus – to create a stripped-back album of live performances – but the finished product seems totally unsure of what it’s trying to be. The studio chatter gives it a ‘documentary’ feel which reflects the film it’s meant to be a soundtrack for – but Spector’s heavy overdubs on ‘Across The Universe’, ‘I Me Mine’ and ‘The Long And Winding Road’ work against this aesthetic and are nothing like the music heard in the film. Several attempts were made at compiling an album from the tapes, including drafts that featured McCartney’s ‘Teddy Boy’ (included on Anthology 3) and a brief cover of ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ (bafflingly left off Anthology 3), and they still made a hash of it. The Beatles always left sequencing to George Martin, and when you see what happened when he wasn’t involved you realise how good at it he was.

The Naked version is an infinitely better piece of sequencing. ‘Get Back’ is still truncated, but by making it the opening track the effect is to make the album move on more quickly, and removing the false start from ‘Dig A Pony’ creates an excellent transition. ‘For You Blue’ is still a minor track, but placing it earlier in the album rescues it and gives it a chance to breathe. The album now opens with three upbeat rockers, so ‘The Long And Winding Road’ is a welcome change of pace. The most successful segueway from the original album, ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ into ‘One After 909’, has been retained. ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ – by far Lennon’s best song in these sessions, which could easily have been on the original album even though it had already been released as a B-side – raises the overall quality by replacing ‘Dig It’ and ‘Maggie Mae’. But best of all, a new closing sequence has been created from three tracks originally located on side one. ‘I Me Mine’ is much better for the removal of a heavy-handed orchestra, and thunders tempestuously before the zen moment of ‘Across The Universe’ (at the correct speed, for the first time ever – and the stripped-down clarity improves it hugely) and finally the catharsis of ‘Let It Be’. The album is tighter and flows much better, with the only minus point being that the unsung gem of these songs – ‘Two of Us’ – gets a bit lost.

I’ve heard people say they don’t like the Naked version as much; that McCartney took advantage of the death of his colleagues to indulge in some spurious revisionism. For me, this is a case where you’re entitled to your opinion but you’re wrong. The original album is still out there – has now, in fact, been cleaned up and reissued – and after a month of both albums in rotation, I’m in no doubt which is the better. That’s possibly cheating the original intention of the blog, but it’s still true.


  1. Rushing the Beatles into another project so soon after the White Album was certainly a mistake, but I don't think the lack of adequate material was necessarily the problem. They tried out loads of songs during the sessions, including stuff like 'All Things Must Pass' and 'Gimme Some Truth' and 'Junk' that would end up being highlights of the early solo albums and could, with a bit of effort, have made Let It Be a much richer record. But the real problem was that the Beatles were no longer functioning as a group by this stage. It's dispiriting listening to bootlegs of the sessions where they plod through half-arsed versions of songs that could - and later would - be brilliant. If they'd been able to get it together Let It Be could've been a great album.

  2. Of course the fact that John was fucked up on heroin and Yoko didn't help either.

  3. I always think there's something monumentally intellectually disingenuous about accusing McCartney of either revisionism or taking advantage of the deaths of his bandmates. He had almost no involvement in the final mix/selection in 1970 because he was excluded from it. Anyone who thinks he doesn't have the right to assert his own identity over 'The Long & Winding Road' is on pretty shaky ground talking about revising "history".

    Anyone who can't see how much better the 2003 version is deserves to be followed around by a Mantovani Orchestra and Children's Choir at all times, so that their own every action is drowned out by the aural equivalent of sugary tea.

  4. Eddie, I've really enjoyed reading this blog. It's inspired me to revisit the albums, and listen to them with fresh ears. Thank you. Now, I hope you do the red/blue/anthology albums?!

    My only criticism is that I would have liked to see you cover the singles in more depth: Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane, Hey Jude, The ballad of John and Yoko - I'd've been interested in your thoughts on all of these and how they fit into the story.