|LET IT BE … NAKED|
|Home Theater Feature Articles Other|
|Written by Bill Biersach|
|Thursday, 13 December 2007|
When the Beatles met at Twickenham Film Studios on January 2nd, 1969 to begin work on a new project called Get Back, it was viewed by some as an act of desperation. Though their double-album blockbuster The Beatles, informally known as “The White Album,” was greeted with critical acclaim upon its release the previous November, the group found themselves in something of a quandary. They had ceased touring in the fall of 1966 and had devoted themselves exclusively to the technical intricacies of the recording studio environment, a self-indulgence that produced Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, as well as the songs that would appear in the animated feature Yellow Submarine.
After their manager Brian Epstein’s death in August of 1967, Paul McCartney had become the driving force behind the group. Tensions during the recording of the White Album had run high, so much so that not only did their engineer, Geoff Emerick bail temporarily, but even Ringo apparently quit the band for several days. The fact that they had done 101 takes of “Not Guilty,” a song by George Harrison which was not even included in the final release, indicates how caught-up they had become in the perfectionist allure of the multitrack studio environment. Paul McCartney’s solution was to “get back” to what they used to do best: playing live without overdubs or edits.
The other three Beatles were not enthused about going back on the road, so a live television show was planned. The rehearsals were filmed at Twickenham for broadcast at some future time. But what the cameras captured was a group in turmoil. At one point George Harrison quit, returning after a few days. So the television show was dropped. The cameras still rolled, however, with the idea that they would capture the group recording their next album.
Get Back was supposed to show the group, according to their own press release, “as nature intended … as live as can be in this electronic age … [with] no electronic ‘watchamacallit.’” In other words, every song would be recorded strictly live, without overdubs, without any technical effects whatsoever. In a sense this was more ambitious than the recording of their first album, Please Please Me, ten tracks of which were recorded in 585 minutes in a single day. I say more ambitious because even then they overdubbed vocals, handclaps, and a piano solo. Also, they basically recorded the stage act they performed nightly. When they started Get Back they hadn’t performed live for three years.
One of the songs that Paul wrote for the project was called “Let It Be.” As he later admitted, “I wrote it when all those business problems started to get me down. I really was passing through my ‘hour of darkness’ and writing the song was my way of exorcising the ghosts … I had a dream one night about my mother. She had died when I was fourteen, so I hadn’t heard from her in quite a while and it was very good. It gave me some strength. In my darkest hour, mother Mary had come to me." No one thought when they recorded it in January of 1969 that it would be released as a single more than a year later as the band’s final swan song. But let us not get ahead of ourselves.
Geoff Emerick, their engineer since Revolver, could not participate in Get Back because he wasn’t in the filmmakers union. His position was filled by Glyn Johns. Alan Parsons, a teenager who would became a world-famous producer a few years hence, was their tape operator. It is unclear from the studio records just how much George Martin was involved. Suffice it to say that the Twickenham sessions, combined with the subsequent recordings they made at the newly created Apple Studios in London, were so problematic that neither the Beatles nor George Martin wanted to face the task of assembling an album from all the tapes. The chore fell to Glyn Johns, who assembled three versions of the album, all of which included conversations and between-take chatter, and none of which received approval from the group.
Meanwhile, the Beatles fooled everyone by moving on to another project entirely, an album that many feel was their best effort ever: Abbey Road. In spite of all the creative, business, and interpersonal problems rampant in the band, they somehow managed to come together for one unbelievably blazing finale which was released in September of 1969.
Though it was clear that the Beatles could no longer work together, EMI insisted that the Get Back project be resurrected and released. On the 3rd of January 1970, Paul, George, and Ringo went into the studio to record Harrison’s “I Me Mine” for the album. The next day they returned with George Martin and Glyn Johns and recorded vocal and lead guitar overdubs, as well as Martin’s hastily scored brass and cellos, for the song “Let It Be” which they hadn’t touched since January of 1969. Though John Lennon was absent, this is considered the last Beatles recording session as a group.
Later that month, Phil Spector, famous for such “wall of sound” recordings as the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’,” produced a single called “Instant Karma!” by John Lennon’s new group, the Plastic Ono Band. George Harrison played lead guitar on the song, and together they suggested that Spector take over the wobbling Get Back project. He did so starting in March, when the official title became Let It Be.
According to George Martin, “It wasn’t until after Abbey Road had been out for some time that I heard John was working on Let It Be again, although we’d previously mastered it. I was surprised because it was John who originally wanted it honest, with no extra musicians, no voices overdubbed, just like a performance. Paul was also surprised because he didn’t know either. And I know he was particularly upset with ‘Let It Be’ and ‘The Long and Winding Road,’ with all the strings and choirs.”
Paul cited the Spectorized version of “The Long and Winding Road” in his High Court action to dissolve the Beatles’ partnership, using it as an example of how the other Beatles were trying to ruin his musical reputation. Spector had taken his simple piano ballad and turned it into an opera. This not only further split John Lennon and Paul McCartney, but has confused Beatles fans ever since. In fairness to Spector, he did precisely what he had been hired to do. He took a bunch of inferior recordings recorded live on borrowed equipment by a band that was falling apart at the seams and turned them into a sellable album. It was released on May 8th, 1970. The movie it accompanied, by the way, salvaged from all those hours of painful rehearsals, received an Oscar for Best Song Score. Go figure.
Now, all these years later, Sir Paul is getting his wish. According to a recent press release from Apple Records: “At last as nature intended: The Beatles’ Let It Be … Naked … is the no-frills, back-to-basics album that the Beatles first set out to make back in 1969, but which was never released as they intended … de-mixed and re-mixed, un-dubbed of orchestration, choirs, and effects … to reveal the Beatles simply as what they were very best at being—just a great band.”
“If we’d had today’s technology back then, it would sound like this because this is the noise we made in the studio,” says Sir Paul. “When I first heard it,” says Ringo, “it was really uplifting. It took you back again to the times when we were this band, the Beatle band.”
Beatles fans may be surprised in several ways at what they’re going to hear. For one thing, “Dig It” and “Maggie Mae” have been deleted from the album (one wonders why, since the compact disc format allows for longer album length), and “Don’t Let Me Down” has been added (very good choice). The new lineup is as follows:
Dig a Pony
For You Blue
The Long and Winding Road
Two of Us
I’ve Got a Feeling
One After 909
Don’t Let Me Down
I Me Mine
Across the Universe
Let It Be
Sonically, these refurbished tracks have a full texture that makes the Spectorized version sound thin and compressed. Gone are the lavish orchestrations in “Let It Be,” “Across the Universe,” and “The Long and Winding Road.” Gone, too, are the Lizzie Bravo and Gayleen Pease, the teenage girls who were fetched from the street to sing on “Across the Universe.” With the overproduction banished, the acoustic guitars in “Two of Us,” “For You Blue,” and “Across the Universe” blossom nicely, and the electric guitars on “Get Back” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” are crisp and clear. Without the choir et al we finally get to hear Paul’s subtle and tasteful piano work on “The Long and Winding Road.” My personal favorite is the clarified version of “Let It Be,” which literally brought a tear to my eye.
Scrutinizers will note “I Me Mine,” which was originally extended via tape editing from its original 1:34 to 2:26, is still thus extended. The guitar solo on “Let It Be” was already an overdub (one of two, in fact) when Spector got his hands on it. These things sound like “watchamacallits” to me.
Some Beatlemaniacs no doubt assumed, when Apple announced the release of this de-Spectorized version, that they would be treated to one of Glyn Johns’ compilations. Not so. Gone, too (some fans will add "however"), are the count-offs, the side comments, the background chatter, and the between-take banter, which gave the album a slightly informal feel. Instead, each song begins and ends as a polished production, much like the Beatles’ early works such as Please Please Me and Rubber Soul. The song “Get Back” has been stripped of the coda that had been edited onto the single version, and without applause and comments (it was one of the songs recorded on the roof at Apple) it does end rather abruptly.
The between-song chatter has been relegated to a second disc entitled Fly on the Wall. Some of it, like John’s “all the Angels come” is familiar, but most will be new to Beatles fans.
Now, to the bottom line. As John Lennon once said, “In spite of all things, the Beatles could really play music together.” It is remarkable that absolutely none of the stress and confusion that was rumbling around in the background pokes out between the notes. Love is certainly there, as is introspection, doubt, humor, musical horseplay, finesse, and perhaps most of all, camaraderie. These tracks truly represent the best of the Beatles, their considerable songwriting talents, their prowess on their instruments, and the expressiveness of their voices. Here is proof that they did not need gimmicks and special effects, and that whatever interpersonal problems were eating at them, they could put all that aside for the sake of creativity. Each and every song is different in some way from the original release, and this makes the whole experience new and exciting. I’d not want them to pare down Sgt. Pepper in the same way, but this album proves that the Beatles were first and foremost great musicians, and it’s incredibly good to hear them at it again.