Re-evaluating the beginning of the end
It seems that 2021 is going to be the year of Let It Be, because this Friday the Special and Deluxe edition is released; which follows those of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (2017), The BEATLES (better known as the The White Album) (2018) and Abbey Road (2019); and on November 25 the highly anticipated documentary by Peter Jackson The Beatles: Get Back arrives. Jackson’s documentary seeks to offer an alternative perspective on these sessions that have been identified as ‘the audiovisual testimony of the end of the band’. And the fact is that Let It Be is one of the most problematic albums of the Beatles, despite (the vast majority) being recorded before Abbey Road they did not appear until after that and, when they finally did, the band had just made their separation official. It is by no means the band's best work, but it is utterly fascinating and full of great songs.
We have to start by putting its creation and origin into context. First of all, the recording of The White Album had seen the band’s first serious conflicts, with Ringo Starr even leaving the group during their sessions; but its huge success, as well as that of the single Hey Jude, had proved that the band's popularity was still very strong. After The White Album’s release on November 22, 1968, each of the Beatles went their own way: George Harrison went to New York with Bob Dylan and The Band, John Lennon started shooting up heroin with Yoko Ono, while Paul McCartney was already planning the next step for a band that he had practically taken over since Brian Epstein's death.
McCartney's idea was as follows: after several years of not playing and focusing exclusively on studio work, he was going to inject new energy into the Beatles by having them rehearse their new album live, without overdubs, returning to their roots as a band, and presenting it at a concert in an exotic location, which could serve as the start of the band's first tour in three years. The idea was presented and approved; Lennon in particular was excited to play again and even offered some wild ideas, such as putting the Beatles on a cruise ship with thousands of fans, and going to play in a Roman amphitheater.
In the event what happened is that on January 2 they went to Twickenham film studios, which was chosen so that the cameras and film recording team could shoot without problems. But the first problem came there, because as a place to make music it was cold and unwelcoming, plus relations within the band were still a bit strained. McCartney kept telling everyone how to play; Lennon was more concerned about Yoko than the band and his foray into heroin had affected his songwriting ability; while Harrison missed Dylan and The Band and saw Paul's impositions and, worse still, John's unwillingness to work on his songs as an ordeal (unlike Lennon, Harrison was blossoming as a songwriter and had brought a handful of songs to the sessions). Ringo, for his part, was still the glue that held them together and looked like a child watching his parents fight.
The friction continued, as can be seen in the famous incident between McCartney and Harrison when the latter, after one of those moments when Paul was telling him how he should play on Two Of Us says "I'll play... whatever you want me to play, or I won't play at all if you don't want me to play. Whatever pleases you, I'll do it." That's the reason everyone thinks McCartney was responsible for Harrison's departure, but actually it was due to a falling out with Lennon - who went so far as to meddle in his songwriting - that made Harrison decide to leave the band on January 10. The falling out between the two guitarists, who had been the closest since '67, can be seen as caused by jealousy - Lennon was jealous of Harrison's growing songwriting ability, especially at a time when he was not particularly inspired, while Harrison was jealous of Yoko, whose relationship with Lennon had fractured their tight relationship.
McCartney is usually blamed for how bad things became but listening to the audios from the time, the bassist can often be seen as trying to salve the wounds. When Lennon proposes signing up Clapton as Harrison's replacement ("He's just as good and he's not a headache") , for example, it is McCartney who tells him that Harrison has to come back - and when Harrison criticizes Yoko for being around all the time, McCartney tells him that this is Lennon's new reality and it has to be dealt with. Despite that - as said - it is McCartney who is commenting the most on how the songs should sound; never accepting a suggestion from others about his own songs; and, on the contrary, trying to impose his opinion on others.
Nonetheless, once Harrison returned, and the band swapped Twickenham for Apple studios and definitively discarded any idea of a public performance, things improved a lot. This was also due to the incorporation of keyboardist Billy Preston, at Harrison's suggestion, with the Beatles enjoying playing together again, as in those improvised 'jams' in which they resort to their favorite songs, rock & roll songs from the 50's by Little Richard, Elvis and Buddy Holly, or old Motown hits like You've Really Got A Hold On Me by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, of which they already had done a cover version on their second album, With The Beatles.
Their own material was also improving and McCartney brought into the equation two of the best songs of his career: Let It Be and Get Back. The latter might be interpreted as a sign that the band's chemistry had returned, as Ringo totally transforms the song with that special rhythm on drums and Lennon can be heard ‘enjoying the Beatles 100%’ with that rockabilly solo on his beloved Epiphone Casino.
By the time they take to the roof of the Apple building for a concert on January 30, the group sounds spectacular, despite the years of inactivity. But that famous concert highlights something else that was leading them to the end, and that is that in the concert they only play songs by Lennon and McCartney, leaving out all of Harrison’s contributions (here it is worth recalling that he was the most opposed to the live performance and had missed a week of rehearsals). Nonetheless, three of the songs played are truly exceptional: the aforementioned McCartney's Get Back, Lennon's Don't Let Me Down, in which his voice and Paul's again match as in the best of times, and I've Got A Feeling, another great rock song by McCartney, with a great riff on Harrison's Telecaster, which is joined by a final coda by Lennon, who is having a good time like in the old days, even joking at the end " I'd like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we've passed the audition".
Studio versions of Let It Be, The Long And Winding Road and Two Of Us were also recorded, as well as reprising one of the songs Lennon had composed in India, Across The Universe. Several numbers that would end up on Abbey Road were also presented (in the Let It Be documentary Harrison can be seen helping Ringo with the composition of Octopus's Garden), as well as a number of songs that would end up on the solo albums of its members, such as All Things Must Pass, Gimme Some Truth and Teddy Boy.
However once it was finished nobody was very clear about what to do: Get Back and Don't Let Me Down were released as a single in April 1969 and then they passed the tapes to Glyn Johns to make a record and he presented them with a version for release in May 1969 (a version that now appears for the first time in the Deluxe version) and even a photo was made for the cover in which that idea of returning to their roots was completed, with the Beatles posing in the same place and in the same way as on the cover of their first LP Please Please Me, as well as opening with One After 909, an old Lennon and McCartney song.
But the group had already embarked on recording Abbey Road and its release was cancelled. In December '69 they returned to it, again with Johns, and the group reunited in January 1970, without Lennon this time, to record a new version of Harrison's I Me Mine and add some new things, like a magnificent Harrison solo for McCartney's Let It Be. However, it was rejected again, and in the end Lennon, without consulting McCartney, passed the tapes to Phil Spector who added orchestral arrangements for several songs, something that would annoy McCartney greatly, especially those of The Long And Winding Road (in 2003 he would release his own version of the album without Spector's contributions, such as Let It Be... Naked). With Spector's arrangements the album was finally released on May 8, 1970, having transformed from Get Back to Let It Be, and from the album that was to breathe new life into the Beatles to their death certificate (McCartney had announced the band's split to the world a month earlier, on April 8).
Seen now, without the heavy emotional burden it had at the time, it is a great album, inferior to its predecessor, The White Album, and its predecessor, Abbey Road, but still an outstanding album. McCartney is the clear protagonist, delivering two of his best piano ballads, one of the great specialties of the house, with the immortal Let It Be and The Long And Winding Road, as well as the folkie Two Of Us, proving again that his voice and Lennon's together are unbeatable; plus the powerful I've Got A Feeling, where he proves he is an exceptional singer; as well as the wonderful Get Back. Lennon, for his part, contributes the delicate acoustic delight, Across The Universe, but also two of the weakest pieces on the album, Dig A Pony and One After 909, while Harrison shows his enormous progress with For You Blue, with a great Lennon on lap steel, and, above all, the powerful I Me Mine, with which he referred to the problems of selfishness on the part of the two leaders of the band: Lennon and McCartney.
It is evident that Abbey Road was the real farewell by the big door of the four from Liverpool but Let It Be is an album to vindicate. Within the Beatle discography there are, at least, six better albums, but within all the music that was published in the splendid decade of the 70s, in which it was finally released, there are not even 80, being very generous, that can compare to it.