Let It Be has been a source of frustration for legions of Beatles fans since its release back in 1970. Its critics, with Paul McCartney among them, blame Phil Spector’s post-production tinkering. Its supporters, with John Lennon among them, commend Phil Spector’s post-production. Should we consider Let It Be the last album by The Beatles because it was the last to see release, or is Abbey Road the true swan song of the lads from Liverpool?
Ultimately, Let It Be is a good, and sometimes great, album. Too often it throws the listener off with intrusive orchestrations and indecisiveness. However, during the stripped-down numbers, the remastering of Let It Be truly shines.
“‘I Dig a Pygmy’, by Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf Aids! Phase one, in which Doris gets her oats!” It is with this outtake that Let it Be begins, and you can actually see yourself sitting in Apple Studios, suppressing that grin on your face as the acoustic guitar lead-in to “Two of Us” begins. The acoustics throughout this remaster just sound roomier than they have before. Percussion doesn’t seem to be fighting for space with the rhythm guitar on a song like “Two of Us”, allowing for all of the instruments to breathe.
As for the song itself, “Two of Us” is the last time McCartney and Lennon seemed truly together as partners. They would share harmonies on other songs recorded after this to be sure, but something separates this song from those others. Maybe it’s the lyrics, or heck, maybe it’s just nostalgia. We want to hold on to the hope that these talented juggernauts of the music industry could practice what they preached to everyone else and actually love each other for what they were worth. Or, maybe it’s just a fantastic song.
“Dig a Pony” sounds great as per usual. This is Lennon at his bluesy best, with McCartney aiding and abetting on harmonies. “Dig a Pony”, along with George Harrison’s “For You Blue” and McCartney’s “Get Back”, are three examples of what the band was trying to achieve with Let It Be: an album even more stripped down from their self-titled release (a.k.a. The White Album) than that album was from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour. It succeeds most of the time, but then Mr. Spector enters the fray.
It is important to remember that Spector did not walk into the warehouse holding these sessions and steal the master tapes. He didn’t rub his hands together and plot how he would destroy the visions of Paul McCartney. Spector did what he did best and added his “Wall of Sound” production to a number of Let It Be songs. He would use this to tremendous effect on Harrison’s first solo album, All Things Must Pass. But on Let It Be, it defeats the purpose of the sessions. Full-blown effects with choirs and orchestras shouldn’t have found a place on this particular record (although the remaster sure does make them sound pretty).
“Across the Universe” suffers this the most. Later rediscovered by fans on The Beatles’ Anthology 3 compilation as a sparse acoustic ballad, there is too much happening to fully enjoy this song on Let It Be. The title track is lightly affected, but “The Long and Winding Road” gets out-and-out assaulted. “Winding Road” is reviled by many Beatles fans as too syrupy, and the choir doesn’t help matters. However, looking back decades later, it’s a love song that can take on about 99% of what radio offers today.
The studio outtakes, “Dig It” and “Maggie Mae”, seem out of place. Yes, outtakes are supposed to feel as such, but serving as bookends to the album’s title track, they simply break the momentum. “Let It Be” is one of the all-time greats, and McCartney’s finest hour at the piano. Harrison’s guitar solo takes it that much higher, and the lyrics marry the music perfectly (a shout-out to the late, great Billy Preston for providing the organ on this song as well as keyboards throughout the album). Ringo Starr’s playing during the song’s breakdown has never sounded as clear as it does on this remaster:
And when the broken hearted people
Living in the world agree,
There will be an answer, let it be.
For though they may be parted there is
Still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer, let it be.
Harrison’s two tracks, “I Me Mine” and “For You Blue”, are not bad, but pale in comparison to his offerings on The Beatles (White Album). McCartney’s “I’ve Got a Feeling” proves a sub-par attempt at the blues, something that Macca does far better with on Abbey Road with “Oh! Darling”. Lennon has better success in that field with “Dig a Pony” and “One After 909”, a song whose origins date back to a teenage Lennon in the fifties.
The country-tinged, rockabilly “Get Back” closes the album out in grand fashion. The song chugs along to Starr’s persistent percussion, some nice solo work courtesy of Lennon, and another assist by pianist Preston. It has a very rootsy quality to it, something the album was striving to achieve all along, and is a fitting closer to The Beatles’ kinda-sorta-swan song.
Let It Be is still a good album at the end of the day, just not the album it was supposed to be. The album’s remastering sounds great and does create a different experience for fans of the record, and maybe even some naysayers. Let It Be is a historical album anyway you look at it: because of its content or simply because it’s the last Beatles studio album to be released. It will still be discussed 40 years from now, just as it’s being discussed now, 40 years from its original release. And, of course, the “worst” album by The Fab Four is still much better than the “best” album by thousands of bands since. The Beatles remain the benchmark.
(There is still the heretofore unmentioned third option that is recommended above this and Let it Be’s original pressing. Let It Be…Naked features a more stripped-down production, rids itself of “Dig It” and “Maggie Mae”, adds the outstanding “Don’t Let Me Down”, has better sequencing, and is Macca approved)