So this year’s Super Deluxe Beatles Reissue box set will be their final released album, Let It Be. It’s one of the most written-about, bootlegged and debated projects of their entire career, and that’s a hell of a lot for a project that lasted less than a month.
For years I only knew about the Beatles discography in a chronological order, and even though I knew this project took place before the recording and release of Abbey Road, there was a sense of finality to this record that was hard to miss. It wasn’t until I did the Blogging the Beatles series a few years back that I really took the event chronology seriously and revised my thoughts about the record.
I first saw the film back in the early 80s over my cousin’s house when it was on The Movie Channel, and like Yellow Submarine, I’d recorded it onto cassette so I could listen to it again at a later time. I’d bought the record at the local department store not that long before so I knew the songs. By the mid-80s I knew about the numerous bootlegs that had come from those sessions, thanks to Charles Reinhart’s You Can’t Do That!: Beatles Bootlegs and Novelty Records 1963-80, which I’d bought around the same time.
But what about the whole Get Back/Let It Be project, anyway? Is it really as bad as John Lennon made it out to be in his 1971 bile-fueled Rolling Stone interviews (“[Phil Spector] was given the shittiest load of badly-recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever, and he made something of it”)? Well, in all honesty, I think it was an interesting project that could have been a lot better and helped turn the corner in their career as a band…if they and those around them had given the band a decent hiatus. And I’m not talking a few weeks off, I’m talking maybe a few years, like most bands do nowadays between records. Give them time to be people. Do a solo record or two. Learn how to be human again instead of an icon. Sure, it was a different time and a different place and expectations were absurdly high. They’d just finished recording and releasing The Beatles just a few months earlier just after their India trip, along with the release of the Yellow Submarine movie, and by all accounts they should have taken that overdue vacation.
And yet, only months later they were back together, kicking out all sorts of ideas to top themselves once more. A return to touring? Their semi-live performances of “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” for their proto-music videos had inspired Paul and John more than they’d expected. But Ringo was already starting his film career, working with Peter Sellers in The Magic Christian (thus their hanging out at Twickenham), and George wasn’t keen on being shifted around all over the place like a few years earlier. Eventually they decided to have themselves filmed to perhaps be used as a television special.
The recordings from the Twickenham Studios are loose and meandering due to the soundtrack being recorded on a Nagra tape deck instead of a professional studio one and left running all day long. They were only there for two weeks, but most of the bootlegged material seems to stem from that time. Some of it is well-known: the “Commonwealth”/”Enoch Powell”/”No Pakistanis” riff that morphed into “Get Back”, the countless oldies covers they played to pass the time, and of course That Argument between Paul and George. Thanks to the Let It Be movie, we’re kind of led to believe it was a tense and angry time, though to be honest that tension rarely shows in the music itself, and Peter Jackson’s upcoming miniseries promises to show there were a lot of happy times as well.
Unhappy with the chilly and cavernous film studio, they took a week off, met with each other at George’s house to talk out some personal issues, and headed to their newly-complete Apple Studios on Savile Row. These recordings comprise the tighter, more complete songs that made the final album, as well as the famous rooftop performance that took place on the next-to-last day of the project.
The Super Deluxe box, which drops October 15, has been a source of a lot of debate between music blogs, Beatle podcasters, and even fans. For a project that had a ridiculous amount of source material, the box set remains conservative: A 2020 remix/remaster done by Giles Martin, the first producing attempt by Glyn Johns (he did two), an EP of related non-album remixes for completeness, and two cds of sessions and outtakes. Some feel they should have provided so much more, considering.
My take? I think it’s just the right size. I haven’t heard every single Nagra/Apple recording out there, but I’ve heard enough to know that, like the previous special editions, there’s a point where some of it really is not worth the effort. Never-completed songs that last less than thirty seconds, loosely played covers, and a lot more talking than you think. I mean, if you’re really hankering for that uber-completeness, look for the insanely involved A/B Road, an 83-cd bootleg from Purple Chick that features nearly a hundred hours of recordings.
Perhaps John wasn’t too far off when he called it “badly recorded shit”, but perhaps it was actually because so much of it essentially a weeks-long jam session with very little aim or reason to it. The Beatles were insanely creative and productive when they put their minds to it, but they (especially John) could be insanely lazy and dithering when they weren’t in the mood, especially by that point in their career. And they really were desperate to take a long overdue break by then.
Listening to the original 1970 album now, it still feels like it has a bit of finality to it, but a positive finality, of wanting to end on a high note, even if they had to dig through the source tapes to find it. While Abbey Road was the proper send-off on a high-quality, high-moment note, Let It Be was the final relaxed exhalation.