As the world adjusts to its new normal, with some finding comfort in innumerable rolls of toilet paper (hey, that’s one for you, nineteen for me) or choosing to purchase cleaning supplies for the first time ever (apparently), I still find contentment, joy, and comfort in the same things, and near the top of that list has always been The Beatles.
I have spent the past several weeks immersing myself completely in their words and music (nothing else sounds good anymore), and I find myself still amazed by the craft and beauty found in so many of the songs. (I think I could use my fingers to count the truly abominable Beatles songs on a single hand.) These songs are undoubtedly part of my DNA at this point, but it is startling to hear a song as if it is the first time and be utterly blown away.
Let It Be has never been a favorite album. (Even with the release of Let It Be…Naked, I wasn’t sufficiently swayed, although the omission of the horrid “Maggie Mae” and “Dig It” is an obvious improvement, and it might contain the best version of “Across the Universe,” a beautiful Lennon composition that never got the production it deserved.) When an editor used Let It Be as an example of a classic record that would receive a full five-star rating, I was appalled and lost respect for that individual’s opinion (although in retrospect, I suppose the Beatles at their lowest ebb is better than 99% of any other musician’s output at any time). Despite the band’s disintegrating relationship, they still managed to produce some astounding songs, but I’ve never really wanted to listen it repeatedly — until now, with the impending end-of-the-world. (But I need the world to not end before Peter Jackson’s film is released. And the final two volumes of Mark Lewisohn’s biography. Is that too much to ask?)
The initial idea behind Let It Be was to show The Beatles rehearsing, recording, and ultimately performing an album of new material in front of a live audience. “Someone mentioned The Colosseum in Rome, and I think originally Paul might have even suggested a bloody boat in the middle of an ocean. As for me, I was rapidly warming up to the idea of an asylum!” John Lennon stated, reflecting on the number of “live” performance options that were discussed before The Beatles finally just went up to the rooftop of their Apple building.
The original intended title, Get Back, was an expression of the band’s desire to “get back” to the simplicity of their old recording days with no studio trickery or hours of overdubbing. The original cover even copied that of their first studio album, which had been recorded in just under twelve hours. The final result: approximately 96 hours of film and 30 hours of music that no one could agree on a suitable production sound (ever). The record was subsequently shelved, and the band returned to the studio to record the superior Abbey Road later that year.
John and George, however, approached Phil Spector to re-mix Let It Be for release. Although Spector did the opposite of the album’s original purpose, adding a female choir and orchestra to four of the album’s tracks, three of the Beatles liked the album’s sound, and it was slated for release, more than a year after its initial recording.
Paul McCartney was upset with the extensive overdubbing that was added to two of his hallmark compositions, and he attempted to have the “raw” (later re-christened “naked”) versions from the Glyn Johns mix placed on the album instead. His request was blocked by the ever-magnanimous Allen Klein (because he “waited too long to ask,” according to Lennon). This was the final straw for McCartney and what ultimately cemented the band’s demise–not to discredit Yoko (please, do not play nice and naive and claim she had no role, it’s delusional and irritating), diverging interests, and sheer boredom. Not only had McCartney lost control over his music–unforgivable in itself–but his voice and opinion were no longer respected. He released his debut solo album, titled simply McCartney, on April 17, 1970 (a controversial date, as it clashed with the releases of both Let It Be and Ringo’s Sentimental Journey) and announced to the world that The Beatles were no more.
Yet it is “The Long and Winding Road,” the song that broke up the Beatles, that I find myself listening to constantly during this time. (When Ringo recorded his drum part for “The Long and Winding Road” on April 1, 1970, he was the last Beatle to attend a recording session. This was, unfortunately, not an April Fool’s joke.) It has never been a favorite; I think I found it too saturated in syrup (maybe a by-product of Spector’s over-production), and it reminded me of Peter Frampton contemplating suicide. Now, though, I cannot decide which version I prefer.
The “naked” version is arresting in its simplicity and bare emotion, and it is clear why McCartney wanted to release this version. (Interesting to note, however, that McCartney has used Spector’s arrangement for many of his live performances. Again, it may have been less that Spector added orchestration and female voices to his song than the fact that he did it without McCartney’s consent and approval. The man likes to control things, understandably so.)
By comparison, Spector’s version does seem over-the-top. Yet, in an over-reaching way, it does augment the song’s emotional weight. And I absolutely love the slight break in Paul’s voice around the three-minute mark: “You left me standing here….” That just might give it a slight edge. Thankfully, in this age of copious takes of Beatles songs being available, one does not have to definitively decide which one is superior.
Paul wrote “The Long and Winding Road” with Ray Charles in mind; Charles cried the first time he heard it. “It’s a sad song because it’s all about the unattainable; the door you never quite reach. This is the road that you never get to the end of,” McCartney has said of the song’s melancholy. And that is perhaps what makes it the perfect soundtrack to these uncertain times–even if it is the song that broke up the world’s greatest rock and roll band.