By early 1970, all four members of the Beatles were already busy with their own solo projects. By the end of 1969, John had already come out with four albums–three of them experimental noise recorded with Yoko, and the fourth being a live album he’d recorded in Canada with a hastily gathered all-star band–as well as two big singles, “Give Peace a Chance” and “Cold Turkey” (with “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)” to be rush-released in early February 1970). Ringo had recorded an album of standards called Sentimental Journey that would be released in March. George had only snuck out a single experimental album in May 1969, Electronic Sound, but by the end of 1970 he’d have a triple album release of All Things Must Pass.
Paul, on the other hand, had chosen to lay low. He’d been recording himself, and had only chosen to release his debut solo release, McCartney, when he was good and ready. As luck would have it, however, the original release date of Let It Be would originally conflict with McCartney, and it was only through stubborn will and frustration that he would win out, pushing the final Beatles album out a month. The decision was not without acrimony, however. On Paul’s side, he’d planned the 17 April release date for some time, and was not informed of the Let It Be release date until he’d already made concrete plans. On the other hand, the other members argued that he should move the date, considering the band’s release was more important. Paul would eventually win the debate, it was a bitter victory. John and George had sent Ringo, the always amicable best-buddy to plead one more time…only to have Paul explode at him in a rage. He wasn’t so much angry at Ringo, per se…it was more that they’d been so coy about breaching the subject and sending someone else. And it ended up being one of the final wedges that split the band. Perhaps not entirely due to this event but certainly related to it, when promotional copies of McCartney were sent out, he’d attached a self-scripted Q & A, which contained vague but telling news: he really didn’t see the Beatles recording anything else anytime soon. He hadn’t exactly come out and said they’d broken up…but he hadn’t dismissed the idea, either.
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Single: “Let It Be”/”You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)”
Released: 6 March 1970
By March, the planned Get Back project had gone through multiple revisions, and was now being given to Phil Spector to see if he could do anything with them. In the meantime, they chose to release the next single from the sessions as sort of a precursor to the eventual album. This particular single was recorded at the recently built (and rebuilt, to working order this time) Apple Studios, in the basement of their Savile Row business office, with George Martin stopping by to produce. It was recorded on 31 January, technically the final date of the Get Back sessions, and a day after their ersatz “live” rooftop concert the previous day. This session was primarily to record tracks they would not have been able to perform up on the roof; it was a sort of “live in studio” performance instead. Three songs would be recorded and finished after multiple takes, and would all eventually show up on the album.
It was also at this time that the end result of the sessions had changed its name to Let It Be, not just to coincide with the latest single (and one much closer in date than “Get Back”), but also because of the change in the related film/performance project. The filming, originally planned as a “band at work” documentary to release alongside a potential television special, had turned into a full-blown feature film documentary instead. The idea of “getting back” to their roots was now obscured enough that a new title was necessary. This single would have been the first official mention of the title, its picture single cover saying as much.
Side A: Let It Be
Paul’s lovely piano piece dates back to late in the sessions for The Beatles (Paul was noodling around on the piano with this piece at least around 15 September 1968), and finally gets its full, gorgeous release here. It’s a solemn ode to his long-departed mother Mary, who’d been a nurse and midwife and definitely a force of nature in the McCartney household in his youth. She was strong and independent, but she was also deeply caring to everyone she loved, and she’d deeply affected Paul in that way. The lyrics are said to be very indicative of her, a solid emotional anchor when everything around was chaos (which makes sense, considering when Liverpool had gotten bombed in the early 1940s, she would gladly offer assistance to any wounded civilians).
The performance here is strong and heartfelt, with Paul on grand piano, John on bass, George on guitar, Ringo on drums, and their guest Billy Preston on organ. Interestingly, however, by this time their “no overdubs” policy had pretty much been dropped, so any tweaking on the music was given the go-ahead. On 4 January 1970, George Martin added a simple orchestral backing quite similar to “Hey Jude”, with the orchestra playing minimal notes. Also during that session, George Harrison dubbed on a guitar solo to replace the one he’d recorded on 30 April 1969. This solo is how one can tell the difference between the single version and the album version, as otherwise they are exactly the same: George’s solo is much slower and more meandering here.
Side B: You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)
This would most likely have to be the most curious of Beatles b-sides, and for many reasons. Originally started way back on 17 May 1967 during the Yellow Submarine sessions, it was dropped and returned to on multiple occasions as time and interest warranted. It’s somewhat similar to their cabaret/pantomime Christmas recordings of that era, recording the same melody and lyric (the entirety of it being “You know my name” and “look up the number”, natch) in varying music styles. The May ’67 recording was the crunchy and boisterous first segment; it was revived on 7 and 8 June of that year with additional styles added, with Rolling Stone member Brian Jones playing an admirable alto saxophone solo. It wasn’t until 30 April 1969–the same day George overdubbed the above solo–that John and Paul revived it once more, this time on a later-aborted plan to release it as the b-side to “What’s the New Mary Jane”, itself to be a Plastic Ono Band single. It was eventually edited down from a nearly six-minute track (its nearly full version is available on Anthology 3) and used as the b-side to their final single. Perhaps an odd choice, but an interesting one nonetheless, as each song balances the other out quite nicely.
This would be the final Beatles single in the UK canon, at least until whatever became of the Anthology sessions of 1994. However, the US chose to release one last single after this, the equally strong ballad “The Long and Winding Road” with George’s “For You Blue” as its b-side. Either way, this is a fine choice for a final single–despite everything, the band soldiered on and delivered a highly memorable and much-loved release.
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Album: Let It Be
Released: 8 May 1970
For those who have not followed the history of the band and only know them by their releases, this album is somewhat of a let down, especially after the brilliance of Abbey Road. Its many flaws are apparent; some of the songs only reach jam session-level professionalism, others are tightly played but weak in melody, and others suffer from the Spector-ized bombast of overproduction. It’s not entirely a soundtrack to the movie’s tracks, either; some were recorded at Twickenham, others at Apple after filming had ended, and there are many overdubs and edits, despite the album’s liner notes commenting otherwise. Still, it’s an interesting collection in and of itself, and there are fine moments that rose out of the troubled sessions.
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Track 1: Two of Us
Paul’s folky traveling song may have originally been inspired by his northern travels with Linda Eastman, but it can also easily be seen as a return to the folky singalong of “Love Me Do” in a way. With Paul and John dueting on vocals and Martin acoustics (George is on bass and overdubbed electric guitar, Ringo on drums), it’s a lovely example of the band recapturing their early to mid-60s folk-based sound. The lyrics are simple, maybe even a little silly and self-deprecating, but that’s part of its charm…it’s supposed to be that way. The album version was one of the songs recorded “live in studio” on 31 January 1969, and it’s actually a different take on their original version, which was much more electric and upbeat. [This version can be heard in part in the Let It Be film.]
Track 2: Dig a Pony
John’s first offering isn’t one of his best–he’d dismissed this one as “garbage” later on his career”–but it’s certainly up his alley in terms of quirkiness. This one of the few tracks recorded on the roof of the Savile Row Apple building, and after a quick false start (which you can see in the movie–Ringo yells “Hold it!” so he can quickly stub out his cigarette and pick up his drumsticks), it kicks into a quick 6/8-time introduction that has little to do with the main melody, which is a much slower 3/4. The song itself is a sort of blues, but its constant and unexpected chord changes give it an off-kilter ambience, which fits nicely with the odd wordplay. The lyrics don’t really mean much, an attempt at playing with as many differing and strange variations of “You can do anything if you set your mind to it”. The verses are balanced out with an “All I want is you” passage which may or may not serve as a chorus, and borrows the melody from the introduction. Again, it’s not one of John’s best, but it’s an interesting attempt nonetheless.
Track 3: Across the Universe
The first Spectorized Beatles song makes its appearance here. This is also a strange choice of track, as the version here is the early 1968 recording massively remixed and overdubbed with orchestral and choral layers and slowed down to its original speed. The band did practice full versions during the Get Back sessions, but the original was used instead. One reason was that a portion of the track does show up in the movie, but the other is that John’s donations to the album are so slim here that they felt this would be a good addition. The album version is the most well known version, and does have its own dreamlike quality similar to the No One’s Gonna Change Our World version, and though the strings and chorus sound like overkill now, it does in fact sound more polished and cleaner than the latter.
Track 4: I Me Mine
George provides his first of two tracks for the session here, and it’s one of his most personal and scathing. It’s partly inspired by his ongoing studies in Indian philosophies, but more to the point, it’s his second track in just under a year, just after “Not Guilty”, that’s squarely (but obliquely) aimed at John and Paul. By early 1969 he’d about had enough of his two leading bandmates’ egos, having passed over so many of his songs, only to work on half-baked tracks like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” or some such. The result is short (just under two minutes in the original April 1970 studio recording), but in those few minutes he spares nothing, all but singing “yes, it’s all about you, isn’t it?” This is also one of the tracks on the album that actually benefits from Phil Spector’s remixing; he repeated one full section to lengthen it by another thirty seconds or so, and the horns are only added to the back end of the verse. It’s one of the rare times where Spector truly understood how the Beatles worked with overdubs.
Track 5: Dig It
This fifty-second snippet is part of a much longer jam recorded at the Apple studio on 26 January, much shorter than even the four minute version shown in the movie. There’s not much to say here other than it’s a three-chord repetitive riff echoing Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” but much bouncier, and featuring Billy Preston on organ and George Martin on maracas. John’s ad-libbed vocals don’t go very far other than riffing on the Dylan line and listing off random famous names. The only excitement here is John’s silly ad-lib at the end (taken from an earlier version of the same jam), which dovetails nicely with the next song on the album.
Track 6: Let It Be
Paul’s lovely piano ballad makes a return here. Again, it’s features the same backing tracks as the single version, though Spector tweaks this one as well. The orchestration has been punched up, some effects have been added, and a few of the lyrics have gotten slightly rearranged, especially near the end. A livelier guitar solo (recorded 4 January 1970) played by George is used here instead. The two versions are so similar that it’s quite hard to tell the two apart other than by George’s solo, but this one seems much more complete.
Track 7: Maggie Mae
The first side closes with a forty-second leftover from the Apple studio jams, which they would often rely on for warming up. On 24 January 1969 this particular morning’s warmup featured a number of their old skiffle favorites from their Quarrymen days, including this old standard about a prostitute who would rob her clients. It dies out rather quickly, but it’s a fun little aside nonetheless.
Track 1: I’ve Got a Feeling
The second track on the album to be culled from the rooftop concert, it’s a catchy track equal parts Paul and John. John kicks off the song with his excellent fingerpicking style he’d honed so carefully during sessions for The Beatles, but it’s Paul’s offering of the main “I’ve Got a Feeling” melody that drives the track. John’s “Everybody Had a Hard Year” (a Beatles demo that never got recorded) and “Watching Rainbows” (the origin of the fingerpicked riff, and found on many bootlegs) is a perfect counterpoint to Paul’s melody. An almost unintelligible bridge pops up twice in the middle of the track, a pounding, climbing riff, only to stop cold and be brought back down to earth by George’s quick solo guitar drop. [That drop may have been quite the source of contention during the sessions; soon after a run-through of this track in the movie, Paul and George quietly argue until George delivers the infamous “I’ll play whatever you want me to play” remark.] This is probably the strongest song of the entire rooftop concert.
Track 2: One After 909
Paul mentions this old track (probably written around 1957 and attempted but never released in 1963) in the film as one of the “Lennon-McCartney Originals” they wrote in the pre-fame days. They dismiss it as a rather corny lyric, but chose to include it in the sessions as part of their warmup jams of old favorites. While the original from way back when was a bluesy rocker, the album version, recorded as part of the rooftop concert, is more of a honkytonk country track. It’s played very loosely, perhaps a little too much so, as their performance sounds less than enthusiastic. On the other hand, it’s obvious that they’re having fun playing this old gem.
Track 3: The Long and Winding Road
Paul’s slow piano ballad may have been a hit single in the US and a much-loved track for many, but it has one of the most troubled of histories of any Beatles track. Musically, it’s inspired by Paul’s drives with Linda through the sparse landscape of Scotland, to and from his farmstead near Kintyre, and the original version, heard in the film and later on the 2003 release Let It Be…Naked, is actually quite lovely. It’s very sparsely arranged, with Paul on piano, John on bass, George on quietly-strummed guitar, Ringo on delicate drums, and Billy Preston on organ, including quite a moving hymn-like solo. However…the album version is the end result of an increasingly unstable Spector, who added such cloying and overbearing orchestral and choral overdubs that it turned a decent ballad into a horribly over-the-top schmaltzy track. The version is so precious that it enraged Paul to the point of quitting the band once and for all. He’d asked to have it redone without the overdubs, but his request was ignored and the version was the one released. Paul sued Allen Klein (their ersatz manager at this time, but more of a financial manager if anything) and the other three to dissolve the company they’d only created a few years before, and used Spector’s mishandling of the track as one of the major points. He’d hated Klein for some time and had never trusted him (John and George liked him, and Ringo was his usual ambivalent self), but he’d chosen to be the bigger man for some time…but this blatant mishandling had been the final straw. No other track in the Beatles catalog has this sound, and thankfully so.
Track 4: For You Blue
George brings things back to normal with an easy, fun twelve-bar blues track recorded at the Apple studio on 25 January. It’s jangly and lightly played, with George on acoustic guitar and vocals, John on a slide guitar (the slide used was actually a shotgun shell!), Paul on restrained piano, and Ringo playing soft but tight drums. It’s clear they’re all having fun playing this track–it’s evident even in the movie, where all four are full of smiles as they play. Lyrically it’s a simple love song that could easily have fit in with the lyrics of their early years, but the highlight is George’s asides of “Go, Johnny, go!” and “Elmore James has got nothing on this, baby!” during John’s spirited slide solos.
Track 5: Get Back
The album ends with another version of their early 1969 single. It’s exactly the same take, though expertly rearranged by Spector here to sound like a different one. He adds a bit of studio chat, including a tongue-in-cheek rewrite of the lyric from John (“Sweet Loretta Fart, she thought she was a cleaner, but she was a frying pan”), and instead of the breakdown at the end of the single version, he treats that as the end of the song and edits the classic ending line of the rooftop concert and the movie itself: ” “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition!” This is a bittersweet line, considering it’s a play on their very early days of auditioning for shows, as well as the very last lines heard by the band on vinyl as they broke up. Saving the track for last was a brilliant move, as it leaves the listener on a high note. It’s a reminder that, despite the band’s history (and the dodginess of the album itself), the band remained as true to their goals as entertainers and accomplished musicians.
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Let It Be is often seen as a flawed masterpiece, and not exactly a fan favorite, due to its unhinged performances and lack of inspired musicianship. It’s glaringly obvious that this was an album of tracks where Spector was given, in the words of John a year later, “…the shittiest load of badly-recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever, and he made something of it.” Glyn Johns had done what he could, and the Get Back version of session does sound admirable if extremely disjointed, but John had a point–the band had been in a bad place and going in a bad direction after sessions for The Beatles, and no one was really in the mood. They’d been trained so soldier on despite their mental and emotional states, however, as that was the norm for the music industry in the sixties. Had they truly taken time off, time away from each other, and especially after sessions for Sgt Pepper back in 1967, perhaps things would have turned out differently. As it stands, however, the era of 1968 into the first half of 1969 was a band on the wane.
That said, the album itself does have merit. There are many interesting tracks that, if taken in a chronological context, serve as a middle ground between the angry and organic The Beatles and the slick and poppy Abbey Road. Many of the tracks here could fit on either album. “Two of Us,” “Dig a Pony” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” would have fit nicely on the former; “Let It Be” would have been a brilliant standalone single on par with “Hey Jude”; the non-Spectorized “The Long and Winding Road” and “I Me Mine” would have fit on the latter; “Get Back” could have remained a great standalone single as well. This view would also make Abbey Road the final album, which also makes sense, considering its own deliberate finality.
It also has been given much love over the years as well; in 1988, Slovenian industrial band Laibach recorded their own interpretation of the album (minus the title track) in a multitude of interesting ways, including a disturbingly dark “Get Back”, an operatic “Two of Us”, and an angelic “Across the Universe”. Many of the tracks have been covered over the years, and Paul himself has revisited “Get Back”, “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” many times during his solo tours. It’s by no means their best album, but as Beatles albums go, it’s still a solid one, despite its faults.
It would be the last new Beatles album released during their career, and the last release of their official canon, but it was by no means the last release ever. In 1973, Capitol released the 1962-1966 and 1967-1970 compilations, and for the next ten years they released various further compilations, each one a solid mix. In 1987 these compilations were all out of print and the entire catalog finally released on compact disc, with only the two Past Masters volumes serving as a compilation, collecting all non-album tracks. Still…these were all albums of previously released tracks. There would be no more new Beatles tracks.
At least, not until twenty-five years later, in 1995.
Next Up: the Anthology series, and the “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love” singles