Had the phrase been in vogue in May 1970, a record review would have called Let It Be a “hot mess.” I absolutely love the record, but I get how it’s a little off-kilter, off-putting and, frankly, a little bewildering.
Apple Corps announced the 51st anniversary reissue of the Beatles’ final LP on Thursday, and befitting the record’s legacy, it’s complicated and conflicted.
I say this as a sincere apologist of the original Let It Be. It’s a bizarre compilation album that’s nothing like anything they had done previously: Part-live, part-studio. Re-recorded and remixed older tracks, and songs written on the spot during the sessions. Novelty songs sequenced adjacent to their deepest statements. A rich overproduction of a loose session that wasn’t initially meant to be an album at all. Packaged along with a rich book of photos and dialogue and in conjunction with the film, Let It Be was a true, albeit helter-skelter multimedia experience.
Before getting to 2021, let’s first take a quick spin at the long and winding road (ugh, sorry) that got us here, just for the sake of background. It’ll be fun!
After spending January 1969 split between Twickenham Film Studios and Apple Studio at 3 Savile Row (see this fabulous blog for more on that history), the Beatles themselves were never unanimously satisfied with the record pulled together over the subsequent months. Glyn Johns, ostensibly the producer/arranger at the sessions, mixed and sequenced multiple versions of a Get Back LP throughout 1969, and told the story of his first compilation in his 2014 memoir Sound Man, outlining what became the “concept” of the album.
Having no real end in sight for the album, one evening after our session at Savile Row, I took it upon myself to take the multitrack recordings I had made during our rehearsals to Olympic Studios to mix and edit what I thought could be an idea for the album. This was to show in an audio documentary what I had witnessed in the previous days, as a “fly on the wall” insight to the four of them interacting, having fun, jamming, taking the mickey, stopping and starting and creating some wonderful music, warts and all. I had five acetates cut the following morning and gave one each to the band, keeping one for myself, saying it was just an idea and and asking them to take a listen. The next day I got a resounding NO from each of them, which I completely understood and had fully expected.
By May 1969, the Beatles reconsidered, delivering Johns a pile of multitrack tapes from the sessions, asking him to create a mix from their recordings at Savile Row on his own, without the group’s input. He wrote that he “soon realized that the real reason had to be that they had lost interest in the project.”
“We let Glyn Johns mix it,” John Lennon said in 1970. “We didn’t want to know.”
From the June 1969 Beatle Book
After multiple postponements and revisions to the mix — delays in part because of film delays — the Get Back LP (d)evolved into the Let it Be album as John and George Harrison tasked Phil Spector to produce the final version of the record in late March 1970.
We all have opinions on Phil Spector’s Let It Be, and I’m not here to judge.
John said Spector “worked like a pig” on the production, which used Glyn Johns’ mix as a starting point. “When I heard it, I didn’t puke,” John said. Ringo Starr likewise kept in his lunch, going as far as saying in the Anthology book, “I like what Phil did, actually.”
Paul McCartney, meanwhile, literally sued the other Beatles over Spector’s production of “The Long and Winding Road” (among other things, of course) on the last day of 1970. Macca has since made a cottage industry of rerecording and reissuing non-Spector versions of the song at every opportunity.
Bootlegged since before Let It Be was even released, the first raw recordings from the sessions were officially released in 1996 on Anthology 3, with a somewhat randomly selected 12 tracks culled for the collection.
Glyn Johns (as pictured in the Peter Jackson’s Get Back trailer)
By the time Let It Be … Naked was released in 2003, half the band was dead (although George had previously given his approval to the project). Its existence is primarily owed to Paul’s wishes to avenge Spector’s production (although the addition of “Don’t Let Me Down” to the rest of Let It Be is welcome and it sounds great, even if the collection completely lacks the occasional humor of the original, stripping it of the between-song banter). It’s other saving grace is the addition of the “Fly On the Wall” disc, a little starter set for the Nagra-curious, compiling all manner of song and conversation snippets from the sessions.
And that pretty much brings us to this very glorious day, when we formally learned what would be on the “Special Edition” of Let It Be.
This is a great time to be a fan of this era, with the Get Back book of photos and dialogue coming out October 12, the album coming out just three days later and the new six-hour Get Back documentary series by Peter Jackson streaming November 25-27. That’s a lot of product for a period that the Beatles couldn’t stop bashing for several decades, and that we see from the start was something they weren’t really enthusiastic to release in the very first place.
The transformation of the Beatles’ Winter of Discontent in the upcoming Fall of Rehabilitation seems built around the documentary, the apparent centerpiece of the revival.
We can guess what will be in the film (and I tried to guess — check out the above!) but now we know for sure what a Let It Be deluxe entails. Beyond the Giles Martin/Sam Okell remixed version of the original album — “guided” by Phil Spector’s version — the box will contain:
- Glyn Johns’ mix of the Get Back LP (looks like his third compilation)
- An EP featuring two unreleased 1970 Johns mixes (“Across the Universe” and “I Me Mine”) and two 2021 remixes (“Let It Be” and “Don’t Let Me Down” singles)
- 27 “previously unreleased outtakes, studio jams, rehearsals”
It’s easy to welcome the release of the Glyn Johns mix, a historic document and true “lost album.” It’s a natural and expected addition to the set, even if all four Beatles nixed it more than half a century ago. The two lost 1970 Johns mixes make sense as add-ons. As for the 2021 remixes … sure, why not.
That leaves the outtakes. Oh, the outtakes. While a microscopic fraction of what was captured at Twickenham and Savile Row, it could well be representative in a remarkably scaled down fashion. But until we hear more selections, read more reviews or get dates, even, of some of the tracks, they’ll be a bit of a mystery until we put the record on. What’s in mono (sourced from the Nagras) and what’s in stereo (recorded on multitrack) gives a hint where certain tracks were recorded, but that’s one of the very few clues for you all.
The track list
For instance, what is “I Me Mine (rehearsal)”? The Nagra reels have more than an hour of the song being rehearsed, over more than 40 tracks.
Every track that ultimately appeared on the original Let It Be is represented by at least one outtake/rehearsal version. That’s not a bad thing. Some songs that dominated the sessions did not surface — like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” a significant Twickenham work-in-progress. “All Things Must Pass” seems to be represented by one of these early takes, but only this one. That’s not a good thing.
It’s nice to have the origin story of “Something” and “Octopus’s Garden” (as seen in the Let It Be film) as links to Abbey Road and an early working rehearsal of “Gimme Some Truth” as a tie to their future solo career. This is a great introduction to a wider audience to the concept that the January 1969 sessions were creatively sprawling and carried a legacy beyond Let It Be alone.
All of this needs to be in there. But every track draws attention to missed opportunities of every scale. The tapes record Paul debuting “Golden Slumbers” and “Carry That Weight” on separate occasions and then later linking them together alone at the piano, but these are left to the bootlegs alone. George and Paul introduce numerous future solo tracks during these sessions, but we don’t get “Here Me Lord” or “Another Day,” to name just two examples.
The set features two Savile Row versions of “Get Back,” but the signature song of the sessions and its 2021 reboot was written while the cameras were rolling over the course of early January 1969. We hear the song spring from a jam and later become a foray into politics (“No Pakistanis”) before Paul and John work together to finalize the lyrics we know today. To those who know the takes, those earlier, nascent versions are conspicuous by its absence.
To me the development of these songs represent the essence of the January 1969 sessions. It’s what makes this collection have the potential to stand out from the others (Sgt. Pepper, White Album, Abbey Road), in which the songs arrived in the studio mostly formed. The songwriting build should be central to the bonus content, but it doesn’t appear to be.
Over the course of the Peter Jackson documentary, I would guess we’ll get such moments. And maybe this is where Let It Be and Get Back separate after 50 years of sharing the same exact space. You almost get a sense that’s what the group is doing, when you look at the Beatles’ homepage, and the image promoting the set: “LET IT BE” is “taped” over “GET BACK,” making clear this thing is different.
To its credit, this box feels too narrow to be seen as revisionist. There’s just not enough material to redefine any narrative (barring whatever’s in the accompanying book). That job will likely be left to the documentary.
I know I’m spoiled. I’ve heard 80-something Beatles hours from January 1969. I want it all, with better sound, in a fancy box I can put on my shelf and not let my kids touch until they wash their hands twice. That beats having of a partition on my hard drive filled with MP3s.
(I’m also spoiled as a Prince fan and have been using the incredible Sign O’ The Times deluxe reissue as a point of reference, too. That had 45 unreleased studio tracks in addition to singles, remixes and different concerts on two CDs and one DVD. It’s a sexy beast of a box set.)
The thing is, how do you compile a widely satisfactory version of the Get Back/Let It Be sessions?
Obviously, it’s impossible to market and widely release dozens of takes of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” or nine hours of “Get Back” (the song) sessions. I may like to hear George kvetch about having to be on a boat with Beatles fans or Paul tell John to sing louder or Ringo discuss his dog, but it’s hardly a selling point to a mainstream audience and it’s most certainly not re-listenable (unless you’re literally me or a few other dozen people doing this kind of thing). I’m not convinced what we’re getting is sufficient either, though.
So what would have been the right way to do this?
• At one point I posited that a “Beatles ’69” super-duper deluxe would have been a possible out-of-the-box box-set approach, combining Let It Be with Abbey Road, something that makes quite a bit of sense when you see how many songs from the latter were essentially demoed at the former’s sessions.
But one gigantic box was never going to happen, the Abbey Road and Let It Be “brands” would never be — and probably shouldn’t be — diminished. I get that. But we’re left with something a little halfway right now. Disc 3 of this set has five eventual Abbey Road numbers. Yet there are another seven that could have been included, but weren’t, and I’m not sure what the rationale was to select which made the cut.
• Further, if the original Let It Be film is to be dead and buried, this box should have been its final resting place. Mark it up another $20, that’s fine, lots of us will pay it.
And that would be another way to delineate Let It Be from the forthcoming Get Back, identical twins who finally grew up to lead separate lives. At some point, on one of my appearances on Something About the Beatles, I suggested perhaps the Get Back series should get an actual soundtrack. That would be another — albeit confusing way, to less dedicated fans — to get us to buy another box set with more of what’s missing here.
• We really could have used the originals and curios that they never did anywhere else: “Suzy Parker,” “Oh Julie, Julia,” “Because You Know I Love You So,” “Penina,” “Taking a Trip to Carolina,” “Watching Rainbows,” “There You Go, Eddie,” “Maureen” — that’s half a disc there, and I’m stopping myself from listing more.
• Likewise, there’s more than enough material to have stuffed a CD or two of oldies (beyond the medley on the Glyn Johns mix). These sessions are known for those oldies performances, and that’s something Mal Evans even broached in 1969, writing as much in Beatles Book 72, published that June.
• Given the consistent on-site song building, they could have easily taken the same approach used on the Sgt. Pepper deluxe with several songs, tracing the progression of “Get Back,” “I Me Mine,” “Don’t Let Me Down” and beyond. It’s very easy to sequence tracks to show these songs’ evolutions. This was so unique for this period, where we can literally hear in the studio, a song’s origin as a piano vamp or a guitar jam, and follow it to the end.
• If they insisted on having an EP, one of George playing Dylan songs throughout the sessions would have been lovely.
• It pains me there’s no recorded document of the “fast” version of “Two of Us.” But that is one of the drawbacks of many of the outtakes from throughout January 1969: Not everything recorded is a complete take of a song. In fact, quite the opposite.
• We need more Billy Preston, but we always need more Billy Preston. The Beatles certainly were better for it.
The addition of Billy Preston just improved this post.
• I don’t know if we need more Yoko Ono, but I was hoping — though not necessarily expecting — her jams with the group on January 10, 1969, after George walked out. It’s a piece of history, too, regardless of what you think of Yoko’s voice.
• A dozen songs already appeared on Anthology 3. Like the other recent box sets there are a few redundancies. I credit the new set for having something different the January 1970 Threetles session, but it would have been something to have more than just the single track.
• One of the great oddities of the Beatles catalogue, “You Know My Name, Look Up the Number” needed to have a home on this set. It’s timeline was split between Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road, but as the B-side to “Let It Be,” this is where it belongs (especially as it’s not packaged with either of those deluxes).
• The definitive musical moment of the sessions — the rooftop performance — is featured raw on only one track in the new set. This would have been the obvious spot to offer the whole collection for the completist and as a companion to the Get Back documentary, which includes the whole thing.
So to ask again, how do you compile a widely satisfactory version of the Get Back/Let It Be sessions? I don’t think you can. There’s really no suitable middle ground. I — and many others like me — crave everything, a horrible idea for a mainstream audience. I feel the new box goes partway in the right direction with the addition of the Glyn Johns mix and some of the outtake tracks, but it doesn’t go as far as it should as a historic resource.
That puts some pressure on the documentary, but six hours of unreleased Beatles is a long time. And like the original record, it’s only fair to treat the entire package — records, documentary, books — as a singular, albeit helter-skelter, multimedia unit.
And in true Beatles tradition, we don’t have to agree on it anyway.