Let It Be is easily the most flawed Beatles album. It may also be the most underappreciated of the band’s late output, a collection of powerful tracks that summed up The Beatles’ illustrious career, though it almost wasn’t to be.
The studio sessions for the album were filmed for use in the Beatles’ Get Back movie, and the presence of cameras may have contributed to the fights that marred the Let It Be studio sessions. Though Abbey Road was actually recorded after these sessions, the band’s disagreements during the recording of Let It Be ultimately signaled the end of The Beatles.
Completion of the sessions didn’t end the contentions surrounding it. The record company chose Phil Spector to produce and overdub the record. Paul McCartney, long dissatisfied with the final release, oversaw a complete remix and remaster of the album that was released as Let It Be… Naked in 2003.
McCartney so thoroughly disliked Spector’s version of the album, especially the “Wall of Sound” treatment given to “The Long and Winding Road,” that his anger over its release largely spurred his decision to dissolve the group. Meanwhile, John Lennon preferred it. Lennon told Playboy in 1980, “[Spector] was given the shittiest load of badly-recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever, and he made something of it.”
Unsurprisingly, when Naked was released, it received polarized opinions. As a result, neither version of the record can be considered the definitive Let It Be.
Spector’s version is filled with hee-haws and doo-dads, vocal echo and sweeping strings. The stripped-down re-release sounds more barren but not immensely different, the most important difference being the use of alternate takes on several songs, including “The Long and Winding Road” and “I’ve Got a Feeling.”
Also, despite the less-processed sound of Naked, the original record actually feels more spontaneous. This can be attributed to McCartney’s removal of the between-song studio banter and background noise that had been intentionally included on Spector’s version.
Even with all the distractions, the quality of the songwriting on Let It Be did not flag, and the strength of the tunes shines through on every version of the album. Abbey Road may have been a more complete statement, but little – even in the Beatles’ unparalleled catalog – can compete with the sun-breaking-through-the-clouds splendor of “Let It Be” or the road-ready “Get Back.”
Much of Let It Be bore signs of the Beatles’ progression into the ‘70s, leaving Summer of Love psychedelia behind in favor of hard rock. “Get Back,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “One After 909” and the chorus of “I Me Mine” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, with their chugging blues rhythms and Billy Preston’s soulful Hammond organ.
“I’ve Got a Feeling,” a joyous showcase of McCartney’s delirious roar, hints at what the world might have heard from the band had it managed to survive into the next decade. The “Oh yeah!” shouts and major key rhythm guitar line belie the bad vibes flowing in the recording studio, sounding every bit like the start of something big rather than the end. The slightly out of tune guitars simply add to the charm. Even Lennon’s slightly more pessimistic verse, taken from another unreleased song, is buoyed by McCartney’s irrepressible glee. It’s a perfect example of how the delicate balance between the band’s two main songwriters made everything work. Without Lennon, McCartney’s optimism entered the sickly-sweet; without McCartney, Lennon’s cynicism overtook his musical sensibilities.
“The Long and Winding Road,” then, is the spiritual opposite of “I’ve Got a Feeling.” A fitting final single for such a storied band, McCartney already had the band’s dissolution in mind when he wrote it. Lennon played bass on the song, making several well-documented mistakes that were as symbolic of the band’s breakup as McCartney’s sorrowful lyrics. Spector cited the need to cover up Lennon’s flubs when defending his decision to include massive orchestral overdubs. Uncharacteristic of the band’s normal recording style though it was, it became the The Beatles’ final farewell as a group.
Several of the other tracks are almost ramshackle in comparison to the sheen of Spector’s additions. “For You Blue” is mostly acoustic, an exercise in the 12 bar blues, while song snippets “Dig It” and “Maggie Mae” both clock in at under a minute. The record would probably have formed a more cohesive statement had either or both of those unfinished song ideas been deleted. Yet they add to the charm, proving The Beatles’ humanity.
Which brings us to the high points of an already stellar set. “Get Back” closed the Beatles’ rooftop concert, and the studio version closes the record (with banter and applause from the live version edited in to the album by Spector). It’s the quintessential road song, its rhythms almost syncing with mileposts whizzing past the windows. It also sums up the record, in which the band was trying to “Get Back” to its roots in Chuck Berry rock ‘n’ roll.
And “Let It Be” may be the greatest musical pick-me-up of all time, a cathartic burst of piano, choir, organ and guitar. The raucous horns on the original album version seem a little out of place, but Preston’s organ line and Harrison’s heavenly solos elevate the song even above McCartney’s falsetto “be-eee”s in the chorus. Many have tried, but no one since has captured the sad-yet-happy feeling that “Let It Be” embodied.
While its prominent role in the demise of The Beatles tarnishes its image and its flaws ensure it will never be in contention for the title of the band’s best album, Let It Be stacks up with the rest of the catalog. If nothing else, goes to show that even one of The Beatles’ lesser albums is still one of the best records ever.