Whisper Words of Wisdom: Let It Be at 50
On the day that marks the golden anniversary of their official breakup, the Rock & Roll Globe looks back on the Fabs’ difficult swan song
1969 should’ve been the Beatles’ swan song; after the tumult of the Get Back sessions in January, the group came together in the end to record one of their best albums.
Abbey Road was the perfect goodbye from the Fab Four to their fans, with a great medley to send off arguably the most important group of the Sixties. It was almost perfect.
But of course, perfection isn’t easy to achieve in the real world, and the Beatles didn’t end on a perfect note. They couldn’t, with the egos involved. And honestly, if they’d ended before the tapes from those January 1969 sessions were handed over to Phil Spector, we wouldn’t have an album like Let It Be, which turned 50 in March.
The composition of the album is a long and winding road; Paul McCartney wanted the Beatles to “get back” to their live performing roots, so he booked a film studio for early-morning sessions devoted to working through old favorites and new material. Of course, this went over about as well with the other three Beatles as a lead zeppelin, so the tapes captured more rancor than harmony. Still, there was something there, because John Lennon later brought these tapes to the attention of Spector, long a notorious producer and some decades removed from his notoriety as a convicted murderer. To say that he “murdered” the Beatles’ album would be the height of hyperbole, but it’s fair to suggest that he wasn’t the ideal match for the recordings, with his patented “Wall of Sound” drowning every last earnest note of music in a sea of bombast.
But in spite of its troubled past and troubling present, the album emerged in April 1970 as a more or less fitting swan song to the decade that preceded it. Everyone likes to think of the Sixties as a great, bathetic period when everyone loved one another and got along. But the Sixties were also marked by discord, anger, and violence. The group whose songs were the soundtrack of that era couldn’t help being influenced by that, and like many troubled marriages of the ensuing decade, their partnership was headed towards an acrimonious divorce. That tension is reflected in the album, the end of a fruitful collaboration leaving four young men looking ahead into an uncertain future.
To suggest that Let It Be is a classic Beatles album would be wrong, I think; it lacks the consistency of a masterpiece like Revolver or Rubber Soul, but if it has an antecedent in The White Album, it is a bit too streamlined compared to the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink quality of the Beatles’ most expansive album. There are cuts that should’ve been left on the cutting-room floor, even by Spector: “Maggie Mae” is a charming ditty but doesn’t really have any place on an official release, and I have never dug “Dig It.” When I was younger, “Get Back” was great even if I didn’t understand the lyrics; nowadays the best thing about it is that it inspired the Rutles’ “Get Up and Go.”
But there are obvious great tunes here; the title track masterfully captures the mood of Paul’s motherless existence and his spiritual longing for assurance. “I’ve Got a Feeling” rocks about as hard as anything from the late-sixties period, and “For You Blue” is a whimsical George Harrison number that I like in spite of the dismissal it gets from a lot of Beatles scholars. There’s no Ringo song on here, but his presence is still there in the great drumming. “Two of Us,” despite Paul’s protests that it was about his wife Linda, is too steeped in inside jokes and information to be about anyone but Paul and John, the most successful bromance in pop culture.
VIDEO: The Beatles perform “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” in the film Let It Be
Probably the best song on the album, “The Long and Winding Road” also suffers the worst at the hands of Spector: the gloopy strings and heavenly choir predate the schmaltz-meister Barry Manilow’s style by a few years, but damn if this wasn’t the blueprint to “Mandy” and “I Write The Songs.” The basic song itself ranks among McCartney’s best, but it would be better if Spector had never come near this one. I was reminded of the song’s beauty when I heard the version of it in the movie “Yesterday.” Of all the (musical) crimes Phil Spector committed, his treatment of this song is among the worst.
So no, Let It Be the album is not a classic Beatles album, but even a second-, third-, or fourth-rate Beatles album is better than a lot of the stuff that came out at the same time. By coming out when it did, it even trumps Abbey Road as the last Beatles album. In a way, it’s a far more fitting send-off from a group that parted ways not because of women or money, but because they just lost their purpose as a four-piece. During a decade where the rest of the world was clamoring for a reunion, the four gentlemen involved decided to let it be. And that has made all the difference.
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