The Long and Winding Road to the Reissue of The Beatles’ Let It Be
Finally. On the 50th anniversary of the Beatles last live performance, when they played an impromptu set on the roof of their Apple Corps. office building on January 30, 1969, came the news Beatles fans have long been waiting for: a planned reissue of the Let It Be documentary, which chronicled the making of the album of the same name.
And not only that. The same press release also confirmed the production of a new companion documentary, drawing on hours of unseen/unheard audio and video footage, and helmed by Lord of the Rings director Sir Peter Jackson (trivia: the Beatles once contemplated doing a film version of Tolkien’s trilogy as well). Though no release date was announced, it’s likely to be in 2020, the 50th anniversary of Let It Be’s first release, when the film had its premiere in New York City on May 13, 1970.
Originally, the film was to be an adjunct to the Beatles’ return to live performance. After the completion of The Beatles double album in 1968, it was announced that the group would perform a show, or series of shows, before an invited audience, which would be taped and later broadcast on television (the December 1968 issue of the fan magazine The Beatles Monthly Book had a coupon fans could send in to win tickets). Rehearsals for the shows would also be filmed, with the first day of shooting set for January 2, 1969, at Twickenham Film Studios, outside of London.
The studio did not prove to be a conducive environment for the band. “It was a dreadful, dreadful feeling,” John Lennon told Rolling Stone the following year. “You couldn’t make music at eight in the morning or ten or whatever it was, in a strange place with people filming you and colored lights.” Indeed, in the available footage of the Twickenham sessions, the group appears tired, desultorily going through the motions. On the seventh day of filming, January 10, tensions came to a head, and George Harrison walked out, announcing he was quitting the Beatles. After two more days of shooting, the Twickenham sessions were cancelled. But Harrison eventually returned to the group, and here were 11 further days of shooting at the newly made studio in the basement of the Apple Corp. building.
The band also cancelled the concerts, but realized they needed some kind of live performance to bring the film to a satisfactory conclusion; hence the rooftop gig on January 30. Over roughly 40 minutes, the Beatles performed “Get Back,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “One After 909,” and “Dig a Pony,” the first three songs all performed more than once. When the police finally arrived, in response to noise complaints, the Beatles were somewhat relieved; they had no more numbers they planned to play.
“Get Back”/“Don’t Let Me Down,” were the first songs to emerge from the sessions, released on a single in April 1969, and plans were made for the release of an album also called Get Back. The cover art was set to mimic the artwork used on the Beatles’ first album, Please Please Me, which featured the fresh-faced group smiling down from a stairwell at EMI headquarters; the new shot had the older, mustachioed and bearded group in the same pose (the photo was later used on the cover of the the Beatles 1967-70 compilation).
Glyn Johns prepared various versions of the Get Back album, but none were deemed suitable for release. In the meantime, the Beatles recorded another album, Abbey Road, released in September 1969, delaying Get Back yet again. By 1970, it had been decided that the footage shot during the sessions would earn more money as a theatrical film, and producer Phil Spector was brought in to finish work on the album to accompany the film’s release. The film and album were renamed Let It Be, after the group’s most recent single.
Issued in the wake of Paul McCartney’s self-written interview in April 1970 that he had no future plans of working with his fellow Beatles again, Let It Be was scrutinized for clues to the reasons for the group’s demise. Much has been made of a scene where McCartney and Harrison quibble about the latter’s guitar playing, Harrison finally responding, “Well, I don’t mind. I’ll play whatever you want me to play. Or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play, you know. Whatever it is that’ll please you, I’ll do it.” Yet it’s hardly an overly hostile moment. Most of the time, with the notable exception of McCartney, the band merely seems disinterested and disengaged.
The bickering has been the presumed reason why the film has been unavailable for so long. Let It Be was initially released on VHS in 1981, and was later released in LaserDisc, CED videodisc, and Betamax formats. But it was then allowed to go out of print. A planned reissue as a tie-in to the 2003 release of the Let It Be Naked album was scrapped. Neil Aspinall, a longtime friend and aide to the Beatles, and the head of Apple Corp., explained in 2007 that, “When we got halfway through restoring it, we looked at the outtakes and realized: this stuff is still controversial. It raised a lot of old issues.”
But there now seems to be some revisionism concerning those “old issues.” While the recent press release notes that the film and movie “have often been viewed in the context of the struggle the band was going through at that time,” Jackson, in the same press reIease, bats that away, saying, “I was relieved to discover the reality is very different to the myth … Sure, there’s moments of drama — but none of the discord this project has long been associated with.” Acclaimed Beatles author Mark Lewisohn, working on the second and third volumes of his massive Beatles history, similarly tweeted on January 31 about the sessions: “Finally I know how it was — how I’ve been wrong in all my past writings. We’ve ALL had it wrong. Roll on Peter Jackson’s film and my Volume 3.”
As it happens, the sessions have been widely bootlegged, allowing the dedicated collector the ability to draw their own conclusions. Authors Doug Sulpy and Ray Schweighardt drew on all extant audio and video footage in compiling their remarkable book Drugs, Divorce, and a Slipping Image: The Complete, Unauthorized Story of The Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ Sessions (initially self-published in 1994, and then republished in 1997 by St. Martin’s Press as Get Back: The Unauthorized Chronicle of The Beatles’ Let It Be Disaster). It’s a day-by-day chronology of the sessions, revealing that there certainly were moments of drama — and discord. January 10, 1969, has always been highlighted because it’s the day Harrison quit. But the conversations between McCartney, his then-girlfriend Linda Eastman, Ringo Starr, Neil Aspinall, and the film’s director Michael Lindsay-Hogg on January 13 and 14 the following week are more illuminating. While it’s long been posited that it was McCartney’s bossy demeanor that led to friction within the group (with his tiff with Harrison in the film used as proof), the contemporaneous discussions indicate that the real tension lay over John Lennon’s lessening interest in the Beatles due to his absorption in his relationship with Yoko Ono. “Linda tries to divert the topic by claiming that the real problem is a lack of communication between the four Beatles,” Sulpy and Schweighardt write, “but Paul insists that Yoko is part of the problem because she’s so much a part of John’s life. He then explains that they have two options, to oppose Yoko and get the Beatles back to four or to put up with her.” It will be interesting to see how Jackson navigates these turbulent waters.
Revising a documentary to suit a new agenda is not unknown. In 2001, a new edit of Elvis: That’s The Way It Is was released, adding more live footage and cutting that which was seen as extraneous, such as footage of fans discussing how much their cat loved Elvis. But it was such footage that gave the original edit its character, and thankfully in 2007 a new DVD set featured both edits of the film. Similarly, Jackson’s new film won’t replace the original Let It Be film, which will also be resorted and reissued. Though not mentioned in the press release, it would be surprising if an expanded version of the album wasn’t released as well.
Most Beatles fans are probably just glad there’s not just one, but two releases to look forward to. “That the Get Back/Let It Be sessions have been relegated to the ‘breakup/the Beatles hate each other/low quality’ bin has been tragic,” says Jeff Lockhart, drummer with highly regarded Seattle Beatles tribute act Crème Tangerine. “This was a different and low period for them, but still nonetheless brilliant and ahead of its time in its simplicity, honesty, spontaneity — and bravery. On the heels of the 18-month run of Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour and The Beatles, this was groundbreaking and laid a foundation for the alt/roots/punk/grunge that others would later follow. Besides the insights to Apple and collaborative process, it would be incredible to see the Rooftop performance unedited and in its entirety if it exists. Seeing this in a theatrical setting would be incredible. In short — can’t wait — it’s about time! Thanks Beatles!”