Assessing The Beatles’ 2009 Studio Remasters (Part Thirteen)

It is the most unfairly maligned record in their entire catalogue, the swan song that detractors can’t stop complaining about.  The original idea was to film the band rehearsing new material at Twickenham Film Studios in England for a possible TV documentary.  All of this would lead to a stripped down studio record, not unlike Please Please Me or With The Beatles, and ultimately culminate in their return to the live stage.  For about a month in January 1969, The Beatles set about putting together the follow-up to their sprawling, magnificent self-titled 1968 double album in front of the ever intrusive movie cameras.  But there was a chilly atmosphere as the band members failed to find common ground about the film and the songs.  As a result, another album was made before the entire project was revisited.
After the massive artistic and commercial success of Abbey Road (which earned an Album Of The Year Grammy nomination), what was originally entitled The Beatles Get Back would soon be renamed Let It Be.  The new name perfectly exemplified in three words the collective resignation of the whole Beatles enterprise in 1970.  The TV documentary idea was scrapped and the footage was edited into a feature film released that spring.  (It later won an Oscar for its music.)
So, what is it about this record that has given some Beatle fans conniption fits for the last 40 years?  Two words:  Phil Spector.
The eccentric producer was brought in by Beatles manager Allen Klein to clean up the raw material that had been sitting on the shelf for a year, much to the consternation of Paul McCartney.  In truth, only three songs from the twelve-song collection are notably affected by Spector.  (Most of the changes involved the addition of orchestral sounds and a choir.)  McCartney was understandably upset, though, because the whole point of the project was to offer listeners a raw, ragged, return-to-basics repertoire, flaws and all.  Some of Spector’s contributions immediately put the kibosh on that.
Three of the best all-time Beatle songs appear on this terrific album.  Despite (or perhaps, because of) its slowed down tempo, the addition of an orchestra and that aforementioned choir, this second version of Across The Universe (the slightly different original is on Past Masters) is the full realization of John Lennon’s mystical lyricism.  While it’s true that the lifelong Lewis Carroll fan couldn’t resist passing nonsensical words for philosophical deepness in a number of his compositions (because he could get away with it), Universe is a potent exception.  As you listen along, it sounds like he’s describing the process of meditation, even throwing in a mantra at the start of every chorus (“jai guru deva, ohm”).  Filled with rich imagery this utterly beautiful arrangement showcases Lennon at his most vulnerable.  Most puzzling, though, is the repeated line “Nothing’s gonna change my world”.  Is he trying to say that despite all the flooding of positive emotion he’s experiencing, the sadness he’s long felt will never truly leave him?  Only he knew for sure.  If you listen closely to the ending, you can hear the famous ascending bassline from Hello Goodbye.
Let It Be is Paul McCartney’s incredibly moving tribute to his mother Mary who sadly died of breast cancer when he was just a teenager.  Bittersweet in so many ways, the track is as close to gospel as The Beatles ever came.  Curiously, this album version features a different guitar solo than the single.  All credit to the player, George Harrison, for his skilled playing on both.  The lyric says it all.  Although the final mix of The Long And Winding Road has long annoyed McCartney, Spector thoroughly rescued it.  Another Beatles song that just kills me every time I hear it, that sympathetic string section is a major reason for my strong emotional reaction.  Essentially a romantic melodrama about a guy unwilling to let go of a past love, through simple, utterly devastating words McCartney’s understated singing underscores the deep hurt captured in those strings and horns.  You can easily imagine this song popping up during a climactic moment in a movie.
The rest of the album, as good as it is, never quite matches the excellence of these three songs.  Two Of Us sounds like a folksy ode to juvenile deliquency with its references to bad behaviour and general tomfoolery.  The acoustic arrangement is light and breezy with Lennon and McCartney harmonizing like the old days.  Like much of this album, it feels bittersweet.  Lennon whistles the “hey la” vocal line from Hello Goodbye in the dying seconds.  I’ve Got A Feeling combines McCartney’s verses with Lennon’s two incomplete Everybody Had A Hard Year sections.  It’s neat when each sing their parts at the same time near the end.  Somehow, it all flows together quite naturally.  At times, McCartney lets loose like his idol, Little Richard, reminding us once again that there were two capable screamers in the band.  There’s even a reference to Oh! My Soul at the end.  The guitar work simply rocks.
Dig A Pony might not mean very much on the lyrical side of things, but it’s neat nonetheless to hear Lennon easily rhyme the fourth words of every second and third line of every verse.  Clearly inspired by Joe Cocker (who famously covered With A Little Help From My Friends), the offbeat time signatures suit the material.  The performance is good and McCartney whoops it up in a couple of places.  That’s always fun to listen to.
The Carl Perkins-inspired One After 909 is an oldie that never made the cut for any of the earlier albums.  (Check out how it originally sounded on Anthology 1.)  I never used to like this Let It Be version until I heard this reissue.  The arrangement’s slightly eccentric but it’s grown on me in the many years since I last had a listen.  Despite the growing tension between them, Lennon and McCartney sound like they’re having a blast reviving this one from the archives.  No idea why Lennon feels the need to sing a little of Danny Boy at the end, though.
George Harrison contributes For You Blue and I Me Mine to the proceedings, both good songs.  Blue is a sweet, staccato confection that features some nice slide work by John Lennon.  Mine alternates from a swing to a full-out rocker and back again as Harrison, using simple language, describes not only the tension within the band but the difficulty of shedding one’s ego.  Pretty thought provoking for a two-minute number.  Spector wisely added strings to increase the song’s emotional impact.
Sprinkled throughout Let It Be are little bits of dialogue (found either at the start or end of songs), some of which we could do without like the lame quips Lennon offers before the beginnings of both Two Of Us and Let It Be.  Also, two snippets of songs are thrown into the mix.  The best of these is Maggie Mae which you wish went on longer.  Dig It is a short improvisation featuring Lennon referencing government institutions and celebrities for some unknown reason as he’s egged on by an organ.  It ends at just the right time, long before you would ever start to get fed up with it.
Get Back, the song that inspired the entire project, ends the record on a rocking note with McCartney offering the occasional vocal quiver during some of the verses.  Guest organist Billy Preston adds the right amount of funk to the performance.  The rest of the band sound great and Lennon’s humourous quip at the end (not to mention the basic premise of the song) couldn’t be more ironic.  The gender-bending second verse sounds like a precursor to David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel.
Despite the long festering anti-Spector sentiment, there should be no grumbling about the sound on this reissue.  It’s not too loud nor is it too soft.  All in all, it’s a clear mix.  Early pressings are enhanced with a 3-minute mini documentary featuring banter and commentary by all four Beatles.  (The footage was taken from The Beatles On Record.)  You can only access it through the CD-ROM drive on your computer.  (The minimum requirements are Windows 2000 and QuickTime.)  You’ll see various clips from the Let It Be movie and hear snippets of the album’s contents.  Too bad the audio and video are never in sync.  Ringo Starr has the best soundbite when he notes that when the band was enthused about a particular song it was working on, you can hear that excitement in the recording.  (He’s right.)  Paul McCartney mentions how playing the previously unheard One After 909 was a nostalgia trip for him and John Lennon.  And George Harrison talks about how the idea of recording a live album is pretty much the premise of MTV’s Unplugged show.  Seeing the clips make you eager to see the film on DVD, if they ever release the damn thing.
You can hear the scorn in McCartney’s voice as he reminisces about how the original album was re-tooled by Phil Spector.  Meanwhile, the documentary deftly demonstrates how the producer’s alterations transformed The Long And Winding Road from a good song into a great one.  The difference is almost night and day.  One last observation:  Ringo looks sad much of the time, except for that humourous moment when he glides by the camera.  
The problem with these reissue mini documentaries is two-fold.  They’re too short and even if they were much longer, it’s not certain whether anything new would be revealed.  After all, we are talking about one of the most documented bands in history.  Still, this is one of the better ones in the series.
As for the liner notes, it’s disappointing that the original 160-page booklet that only appeared in the early vinyl British release was not reproduced for this reissue.  It would’ve been neat to have a look at the transcribed conversations all these decades later.  Instead, we get a barebones booklet featuring the standard Historical and Recording Notes and a whole slew of photos, far too many of McCartney in that awful beard of his.  He has too much of a babyface to pull it off.  Ultimately, there’s nothing really new to see or read here.
Despite what the critics have said for 40 years, this version of Let It Be is the one to get, unless you have the original CD, of course.  The complainers can pick up Let It Be…Naked instead.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, February 13, 2010
12:44 a.m. 
Published in: on February 13, 2010 at 12:45 am  Leave a Comment  

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