This carefully crafted collection might not be everything you want, but it’s everything you need
There are a few dates seared in the souls of rock fans, but the Beatles brandish the branding iron for two of them.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
One is their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964—after which throngs of boys rushed out to buy Sears Silvertone guitars. The other is January 30, 1969, when the Beatles played their final live concert on the rooftop of Apple Studios—a performance of their album to be called Get Back, released on May 18, 1970, as Let It Be—memorialized in the May 1970 film of the concert, Let It Be. The performance occurred after almost a month of the band’s working in the studio to rehearse new material to perform for a live audience; the studio sessions were filmed, and the life inside the goldfish bowl raised tensions among the group that had already begun to develop internally.
VIDEO: The Beatles perform “Don’t Let Me Down” on the rooftop of Apple Corps
Let It Be, the band’s final album—though Abbey Road was recorded during the summer of 1969 and released on September 26, 1969—of course, has been touted as the band’s breakup album. The 1970 film depicts more disharmony than harmony amongst the group, and in large part fostered the mythos of the unhappy Beatles, bickering and not wanting to work together on their music. As Paul McCartney points out in his foreword to the book accompanying the new Let It Be box set: “I had always thought the original film Let It Be was pretty sad as it dealt with the break-up of our band.” McCartney recalls that those days spent in the studios working on this new material reflected the camaraderie among the band and their enjoyment in making music together.
Now, we have the opportunity to peer behind the curtains of the making of the Beatles’ final album in this treasure trove of a special deluxe box set that contains 5 CDs and one Blu-ray audio of Let It Be, a detailed book with track-by-track descriptions, essays by Beatles historian Kevin Howlett and music journalist John Harris, an introduction by Giles Martin, George Martin’s son, and a remembrance by Glyn Johns of being behind the boards for the mix of the Get Back LP, as well as hundreds of never-before-seen photographs of the band in the studio and of original handwritten song sheets by Ethan A. Russell and Linda McCartney.
Disc one contains a new mix of the original album; disc two features outtakes and conversations during the Apple sessions for Get Back, while disc three contains rehearsals and Apple jams—as with disc two this CD features several songs that would not appear on Let It Be but would appear either on Abbey Road or songs such as “Wake Up Little Susie” that the band played to warm up; disc four contains Glyn Johns’ mix of the Get Back LP, while disc five contains the Let It Be EP (and contains unreleased versions of “Across the Universe” and “I Me Mine,” as well as new mixes of the original single versions of “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Let It Be.”
No matter how familiar the story and the music of Let It Be have become over the last 51 years, this special set is revelatory, allowing us to hear these songs as Paul, John, George, and Ringo develop them in the studio, adding their own flourishes and taking time to comment on what works and what doesn’t. In fact, the least exciting of the CDs here is the new mix of the original album, although we still hear the songs anew. Who recalls, for example, the drecky, syrupy strings of “Across the Universe”? Listening to it again in this new mix recalls that the best way—and maybe the only way—to listen to the soaring psychedelic playfulness of the song is by dropping acid.
The most exciting aspects of this set—and we can seldom make this claim of such box sets—are the outtakes and the rehearsals. These moments illustrate the remarkable unity of the Beatles and their constant search for new channels for their creativity; the band never relied only on the traditional rock and roll that fueled their early efforts, but they sought new sounds, and—as the jam sessions and comments between takes demonstrates—they did it with a jovial give and take that showed forth a unity of creative effort. As Ringo reflected, “Between the four of us it was telepathy. Sometimes it was just indescribable, really. Although there were four of us, there was one of us. All of our hearts were beating at the same time.”
As Howlett observes in his introduction to his splendidly detailed track-by-track notes, Let It Be is unique among Beatles’ albums in “offering us not only the available session tapes to investigate, but also many hours of other recordings that chronicle the LP’s creation. The film crew’s Naga mono tape machines were running almost constantly during the ten days of rehearsals…By capturing the group’s dialogue and many rehearsals and takes, the Naga reels documented the evolution of songs—minute by minute, step by step.”
Disc two opens with a raw take of “Two of Us” that unfurls slowly, giving space for Paul’s and John’s harmonies to develop; in the rehearsal, the song opens at a leisurely pace then hits the rhythmic stride that marks the version we hear on the original Let It Be album. The band’s rollicking humor shines through on their tongue-in-cheek jam on “Maggie Mae,” delivered in an up-tempo country skiffle; following the instrumental bridge, the band moves into “Fancy My Chances with You,” written by Lennon and McCartney in 1958 (it appeared on the bonus disc of Let It Be…Naked in 2003), on which Paul and John can hardly contain their laughter as they’re singing. The song ends with Paul’s frisky bass notes, and John’s yelling “yes.” John reflects on why he’s bothered so much by the changes in a certain song in his remarks “I Don’t Know Why I’m Moaning” that precede the acoustic blues of “For You Blue.”
AUDIO: The Beatles “Let It Be”
One of the highlights of this disc is Paul’s piano work on “Let It Be.” He opens with the first words of the chorus of the song, then elides into the chorus of “Please, Please Me” before moving into the full version of “Let It Be” to illustrate the ways that the songs are sonically similar. This take on “Let It Be” contains a startlingly different guitar lead on the instrumental bridge, but one that may mimics the song’s emotional vulnerability than the solo played through the Leslie on the single. Take 14 of “Dig a Pony” lacks the introduction of the cut on the original album.
There’s a moment when the band discusses whether they feel like they’re making an album or just practicing new songs, agreeing that maybe they have one or two good songs–namely “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I’ve Got a Feeling”–just where they should be. On this disc’s final track the band warms up briefly with “Wake Up Little Susie” before launching into an instrumental version of “I Me Mine.”
Disc three—“Rehearsals and Apple Jams”—contains many moments that reflect the band’s unity and their desire to help out one another, an impulse that comes after all those years of working together. George introduces a song he’s written, “All Things Must Pass,” by saying that the emotional feeling is “you know, very band-y.” After singing a few phrases, George quips: “If there’s people joining in, I’d appreciate it.” The harmonies the group manages on this take produce a palpable beauty and a feeling of unity. John works out “Gimme Some Truth” (which would appear on his Imagine), asking what lyrics might fit, while the group runs through a bluesy opening to “She Came in through the Bathroom Window” as well as pared down version of “Polythene Pam.”
On “Octopus’ Garden,” Ringo plays a piano part and sings the first few lines before saying “that’s all I’ve got.” While everyone laughs, George plays some chords that fill out the song. John says, “I think Paul will want to play the drums, won’t he? With his strong left arm. I’m not getting on that kit without a ciggie in me hand!” The warm, downright jubilant jam on Paul’s “Oh! Darling” is a highlight of this disc, with John and Paul trading verses in a call and response fashion and with a soul piano climbing the vocal heights as they spiral higher on each verse. John add his own lines toward the end: “Just heard that Yoko’s divorce has just gone through! Free at last!”
Billy Preston adds some soul blues to the rehearsals on “Without a Song,” on which he’s joined by John and Ringo. George brings “Something” to rehearsal. He offers the opening line—“Something in the way she moves”—but says he’s stuck on the second line, whereupon John offers, “Just way whatever comes into your mind. ‘Attracts me like a cauliflower.’”
The Glyn Johns mix of the Get Back album opens with a long suite of songs begins raucously with a freewheeling take on “One After 909” that flows into a medley of “I’m Ready” and “Save the Last Dance for Me” before moving into an elegant, blues lounge version of “Don’t Let Me Down, featuring banter among the band, which elides into “Dig a Pony,” ending with “I’ve Got a Feeling.” The long medley reveals the Beatles’ roots as a rock and roll band, but it also illustrates the way that the group moves with ease from rock to blues to a combination of soul, rock, and jazz. The album features one take on the title track and ends on a reprise of the same song, and includes McCartney’s song “Teddy Boy,” which was replaced on Let It Be with “Across the Universe.” “Let It Be” has evolved by this mix to its more familiar single version, replete with organ and Leslie. The Johns mix also reveals the extent to which the group work closely together to help solve musical issues and find the right notes and directions for the songs.
In his introduction to the book that accompanies the CDs, Giles Martin reflects on the album Let It Be: “Let It Be is not at all a break-up album. It sounds instead like an attempt at a reconciliation through trying to find the spark that had never previously failed to ignite their unsurpassed musical creativity…The Beatles were trying to rediscover the fun of just being a band.”
VIDEO: Get Back Official Trailer
Every Beatles fan is in for a treat with the Beatles Let It Be: Super Deluxe Edition. Sometimes box sets simply empty the vaults, but this one offers musical sketches of a band trying to find a way forward, even when its members seem to be headed in different directions. We can feel the spirit of John, Paul, George and Ringo as they banter and kid around, as they help each other with song lines or chords, and as they listen for the right mixes that reflects their take on the songs. It’s a real joy to have this set, and to hear the Beatles breaking out in new musical directions but trusting one another enough to be able to try out new sounds on one another.
The set comes just ahead of director Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back, which carries us back to the Beatles’ intimate recording sessions. Each two-hour episode runs over three days—November 25, 26, 27—on Disney+. Jackson’s series is also accompanied by a just-published book The Beatles: Get Back, with a foreword by Jackson and an introduction by Hanif Kureishi.