The Beatles’ ‘Worst’ Album Is Actually Pretty Damned Great
It was 50 years ago today, on May 8, 1970, that the Beatles released their “last” album, “Let It Be.” Many consider it their worst. Here’s why they’re missing the point.
Fifty years ago, on May 8, 1970, the Beatles, creators of the rock and roll LP as art form, released their final record, one whose title served as reminder, admonishment, and plain good advice to let the past be the past.
In a catalogue with a solid half-dozen albums that can make a case for the best the medium has produced—with some fun dark horses to stump for—Let It Be is almost universally cited as the group’s worst long-player. Having said as much once, I received death threats from assorted baby boomers whose Facebook profiles were littered with peace signs, but so it goes, one supposes, when the Beatles are on the dissecting table.
The irony is that I have always loved Let It Be, from the first time a friend played it for me when I was 15. I had been digging the early stuff hard—“She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Please Please Me” and its winsome raucousness. He cued up the lo-fi urban folk of “Two of Us,” with that singular blend of Everly Brother harmonies and Nick Drake languor, prompting me to ask who this was. I wasn’t even sure at first. “Never mind who it is,” he said. “Just listen.”
That was a perfect way to get around the usual critical brickbats that dog Let It Be. Romanticists who prefer the Beatles’ run to end with a flourish of grandeur rather than the nuts-and-bolts realities of life—and artistic life—take comfort that Abbey Road, released in the autumn of 1969, was really the Beatles’ last album, given that Let It Be had been cut earlier that year and shelved. The band didn’t take a sanguine view of their potential product in Let It Be, with Lennon terming the results of the sessions “the shittiest piece of shit” his kickass beat combo had ever recorded.
Not that they were his band so much at that point. Paul McCartney had been funneled—though naysayers would say he usurped the position—into the unenviable role of musical director, chief cheerleader, leading energy source, old salt taskmaster.
It may well have been time for the Beatles to die—at least for a little while—and take up their second life as a band whose music would never really know past, present, and future again, matriculating to a place in the world’s storehouse of art that might as well have the word “timeless” carved into the door. I would argue, though, that Let It Be the record and Let It Be the film—as honest a rock ’n’ roll movie that has ever been made—were invaluable with that incising. One should sleep on neither, and spend time with both.
Let It Be is the lone Beatles album without a linear identity, which makes for freshness, if you can abide disjointedness in your art. Every other record, no matter how diversified, has an overarching theme. Beatles for Sale is autumnal, copper-sunned. Please Please Me is the studio version of a stage show. The White Album, which contains a solid two-dozen styles, is what we’d today call a flex, asserting, “Look at all that we can do.” Help! is the forced ebullience of the road. Revolver is Edwardian electro-futurism. Sgt. Pepper translates to Make Believe Day.
With Let It Be, we have the musical analogue of King Solomon deploying his blade, cleaving the Beatles-baby into two thematic halves—one would veer toward garage-rock primal, the other Wagnerian production thanks to producer Phil Spector, who was brought in, as Lennon said, to clean those shitty tapes. Regular producer George Martin hit the road for a spell, cheesed off by what George Harrison had previously called the rot that had set in. There was rot, yes—but attempts to freshen the house had not been entirely forsaken. They just hadn’t been worked out yet.
Spector, sophisticated as he may have been with his Wall of Sound, was also an early rock ’n’ roll guy. While the Stones and the Who were busy feasting on the blackest rhythm and blues they could find—which the Beatles also loved—the quartet from Liverpool had a major thing for pop and symphonic pop. Their tastes were as Catholic as tastes got for a rock ’n’ roll band in a time of overladen machismo, when you could be termed a sissy for adoring the Shirelles or the Ronettes, with whom Spector worked so memorably. Sometimes, Spector is straight up in your face, as with “The Long and Winding Road,” but that’s because he’s the post-production guru, not the man in the room. To be honest, most of the time I don’t really notice him. I notice the Beatles.
Opener “Two of Us” documents what for me is the finest sound there is, the one I wish to hear the most in this world, which I hope I will still be able to hear in the one after it: Lennon and McCartney singing in duet. They never did it as much as you’d think—you hear it on “If I Fell,” a portion of “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” the final verse of “Hey Jude.” Normally when they sang together it was with one doing the lead vocal, the other the harmony, but in a manner that it was hard to tell who handled the latter. That’s pretty damn rare, but that’s how well they interwove and how suited they were for each other as vocalists while working in completely different timbres.
I didn’t know they were singing about themselves when I first heard this song, with it’s lines of “You and me chasing paper / Getting nowhere”—a reference to their ongoing contractual and management squabbles—but what I heard while I listened with my friend was the sound of friendship. In one outtake, mid-verse, McCartney jokes, “Take it, Phil,” to his partner, referencing the two-part harmonies of the Everly Brothers, real-life brothers, as these men were Beatles’ brothers.
I’m not sure that is very different, especially if the tightness of the sound is any indication. The song is new, the song is old. It’s like what Dylan did on The Basement Tapes in that manner. Time laps time. Past, present, future pull up in a dead heat, three aside. No wonder, for a moment, I didn’t know exactly who this band was when I heard the first notes of the album, even if I’d been listening to them probably six hours a day at that point.
Even in their originals on Let It Be, there’s a lot of old-school rock.
The title cut, for instance, isn’t very far removed from something we could easily imagine Sam Cooke having written had he lived. The partial reason for the reach into the past is because of what was a lousy—or desperate, anyway—plan on McCartney’s part: setting up shop on a soundstage in Twickenham Studios and having a camera crew film the group early in the morning—despite the Beatles always being a late-night working band. Michael Lindsay-Hogg directs, but we might better say he allows us to witness. This is not what the Beatles did or were meant to do, so they turned to a musical palliative; meaning, going through scads and scads of covers, trying to “get it together,” in the parlance of the time.
In the unduly neglected Let It Be film of these proceedings, McCartney tries to rally Lennon by saying, starkly, that what they’re now dealing with is fear. This may be the most honest comment by a group member on film. The Beatles, he says, are terrified. To get his argument across, he references an early club residency circa 1961. On the first night, the band was awful, couldn’t overcome their nerves. On the second night, they were a little better, though there was still nobody there, which was almost irrelevant. But each evening they progressed, and soon enough, in Beatles Toppermost of the Poppermost fashion, they had the audience—a big one—by the balls, and the audience loved it. Lennon looks distant as McCartney does his memory lane bit, a man who has all but left already, save in bodily form.
The Beatles are indeed frightened, at a loss for next moves. Anyone who has ever been in a band, either at the level of downing some beers and blasting away in a basement on a Friday night or if you’ve conquered the world, understands band spats, band-based anxiety. Being in a band is a series of incongruities the collective works to pave over, to make congruous.
For the Beatles, that required a calming of nerves and a reacquisition of swagger. So they turned to 1950s rock. They went so far as to encode it in new songs they were writing (“I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Dig It”) and in the old songs they’d already written which they ripped from their dusty songwriting notebooks with volcanic intensity. To wit: the churning, scorching, rip-snortin’ guitar fest that is “One After 909.” If you go back to the March 5, 1963, session when the band tried again and again to cut a master take of the tune—which didn’t happen—with Lennon making fun of George Harrison for a guitar solo that sounded like it was played with an elastic band, then consider the Let It Be version. You’ll struggle to process the gulf. That was Gerry and the Pacemakers stuff—pleasing, but twee—in 1963; Cream in their full-bore guitar glory might be intimidated with the sonic pasting the 1969 Beatles give “One After 909.”
Let It Be the film, which joined its album counterpart with a release on May 13, 1970, has long been stashed behind a Kafkaesque veil of intrigue, as if state-suppressed by the official Beatles brand. If you read about it in reference books, it’s treated like the Star Club recordings of 1962—a curio at best, or maybe just crap. The upcoming Peter Jackson film is going to put the smiley face on these sessions, but I’d argue they were never about highs or lows, nor ennui or ambivalence; they were a search for direction, which is perhaps the common denominator of any band that has ever been, for however long it has existed.
Lennon ducked into a theater after the Beatles were no more to see Let It Be for the first time, weeping as he watched. This was not a sentimental man. If you cite “Imagine,” I will respond by saying that that was more a business move—and a trite one—than anything this person truly carried with them in life. Let It Be, though, is a wallop of honesty. It’s a great film, the purest film about making music with your mates.
There is flab at times on the musicianship. The band attempt to play themselves into shape, tighten the grooves. When they smoke, they could burn down a forest in mere seconds, as when we see them up on the Apple roof in late January. They hadn’t a clue how to end these sessions, so once more they went to what they knew, where they could discover something new: the gig. The Beatles were the ultimate giggers.
Malcolm Gladwell will try to tell you this is what made them, but it wasn’t. The songwriting gifts Lennon and McCartney entered this world with is what carries the Beatles’ day, then and now, and forever, I should think. You can try all you want, but you’re not going to be able to learn what they knew, what was even more a part of who they were than their DNA. You work to hone what you have—but if you’re not born with it, you’re not writing “Let It Be.”
Usually when we hear “Let It Be,” it’s the single version. McCartney could have sung in the Baptist Church, which may seem an odd quality for a white northern English lad, but he excelled at working up to a spiritual froth, one reason Cavern compere Bob Wooler heard “The Hippy Hippy Shake” and thought it’d be perfect for McCartney—it’s the Soul Stirrers with overt secularism. The guitar solo on the single version of “Let It Be” is downright anodyne, though. It’s not very far off from the clumsy soloing back in spring 1963 with the shelved “One After 909.” But listen to the album version—the solo will rip your head off.
This was a unit that was not going to be able to sustain itself because John Lennon, for a variety of reasons, was now a passenger. Part of that was his own diminished drive, so far as Beatles matters went. But this was not a person equipped to be a passenger in the band he started, any more than, say, Aaron Rodgers would be a willing backup in the NFL. There were always times when one of the two chief Beatles drove the bus and the other sat a few seats back. Lennon dominated A Hard Day’s Night and Rubber Soul; McCartney could claim Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. Lennon will have his moments in these sessions and on the Let It Be album—he plays some of the best lead guitar work of his life on “Get Back,” for instance. But he’s like that employee who’s given two weeks’ notice.
I think the people who vet these historical matters are lazy when they say that Let It Be isn’t much of a record, because what they want to do is maintain this narrative of: here is a band fizzling out, which will rally one last time—as if they were duty-bound to do so—with Abbey Road. I don’t hear fizzle, though. Nor do I see it in Let It Be the film. There’s not necessarily happiness so much as spiritedness; the solidarity to a shared love of rock and roll remains, but that doesn’t mean that one doesn’t see the door and feel a tug to walk through it.
I love the stories of the early days, the band trying to make it, cutting Please Please Me in 585 minutes, veins bursting out of necks in a mad hunt for fame and recognition, but I don’t think the Beatles were more alive then than they were when they were trying to quell their anxiety as film cameras rolled.
It’s really not that different from being on that concert stage, in that empty hall, back in 1961, when the directive was to make something be, rather than let it have its space. Both are central to life. Which is why Let It Be will always be central to the Beatles. You can dig it if you want, and you don’t even have to ask nicely.