So, having skipped over all of this, come with me back to the beginning of 1969…
The original idea for the next album (technically following ‘Yellow Submarine’, but we’ve been over this) was to do something stripped-down and back to basics. There would be a documentary made covering the creative process, things would be worked on down in Twickenham, and in the newly finished Apple studios in the basement at 3 Savile Row. It wasn’t entirely clear who was producing it; Glyn Johns had been brought in to work alongside George Martin, and both of them seem to have been told that they were in charge at one point or another. While this was going on, Paul was trying to install Lee Eastman – his new girlfriend’s father – as the new manager, while John was discussing business affairs with Allen Klein, a New York lawyer who seldom appears in a sentence without the word ‘shark’ popping up somewhere. Somehow, both men were put in charge of things, although that went about as well as the ‘two producers’ thing. As January wore on, there was enough material to try performing some of it as a live band. Everyone and his dog takes credit for the decision just to go up on the roof and do it, but whoever it was was the midwife to one of the last great iconic Beatles moments.
The gig on the roof wasn’t really a concert, more a kind of extended rehearsal-cum-recording session. They only played the new songs, most of them more than once, and some of those recordings ended up on the eventual album. Things meander on for a while as winter turns to spring, but for all Paul’s talk of a fresh start, no-one really seems to have much enthusiasm for any of these songs, or for pulling together and making an album out of them, and it all kind of peters out. The project, still called ‘Get Back’ at this point, is quietly shelved while Paul gets married, Ringo makes a film, John and Yoko do all the things they sing about in ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’, and George has his tonsils out.
I posted the single version of ‘Get Back’ last time round; here’s the B side, Joh’s impassioned plea to Yoko, ‘Don’t Let Me Down:
At this point, we can switch back over to the ‘Abbey Road’ timeline, pausing only to appreciate George’s B side to ‘Ballad’, ‘Old Brown Shoe’:
After the release of ‘Abbey Road’, and with Lennon effectively already out of the band, and releasing solo singles (‘Cold Turkey’, the first song credited solely to Lennon, making the split official, if still unannounced), the remainder of the Beatles organisation had to decide what to do now. To stall for time, ‘Something’ was released as a single – the first time a track from an already released album had been issued as a single, and another clue for those who were watching closely that all was not well. The various bits and pieces of the ‘Get Back’ project were worked on for a time, mostly without any band input. Ringo was working on a solo album (eventually to become ‘Sentimental Journey’); John and Yoko released more ‘Unfinished Music’, and put up billboards all around the world proclaiming that war was over if we wanted it.
Lennon also went on the record at the turn of the year as ‘considering’ leaving the Beatles, although he was no longer recording with the other three, who had another shot at putting the ‘Get Back’ album together, this time as a soundtrack for the film which still hadn’t been completed, but no-one liked it and it was all shelved again.
And then nothing happened for a while. Everyone worked on their own solo projects, and it seemed that the Beatles might just cease to be by default. The US album ‘Hey Jude’ appeared in April, the band never quite having managed to convince Capitol that not putting singles on albums was the way to go. Capitol simply scooped up all the otherwise unreleased bits and pieces and made yet another compilation – technically, this is the 19th Beatles album put out by Capitol / Apple in the US.
Then, suddenly, there was a new single – ‘Let it Be’, whose B side was recorded a couple of years before, and is probably not worth your time.
No, seriously, if you’ve never heard this, don’t bother. It’s the very definition of ‘pratting about’ and no amount of retrospective muttering about the Bonzos and Monty Python will excuse it. Oh, alright then, but don’t say I didn’t warn you:
By the end of March 1970, all four Beatles were hard at work making solo albums, and the game was up to the extent that the surviving ‘Get Back’ tapes were given over (by Allen Klein) to Phil Spector to see if he could do anything with them. The resulting mix was somehow signed off by all four Beatles and was set to be released as ‘Let it Be’ when Paul stunned the world by announcing that he was leaving the Beatles. Just how stunned the world actually was is open to conjecture at this point, since there had been rumblings for some time, but there was no internet, no social media, and it was easier for a band to keep things under wraps if they wanted. In the end, it seems it was as much business disagreements as anything which forced McCartney’s hand; Apple was chaotic by this stage, and he disagreed with pretty much everything Allen Klein was doing. He had an album to promote, and he just wanted it all to be over.
The ‘Let it Be’ film and album came out at the beginning of May 1970, with the band in tatters, although not officially broken up. There were no illusions, however – this was the epitaph for a band who had stood the world on its head for seven years.
I’d love to say that ‘Let it Be’ is a magnificent way to go out; roaring into the sunset firing on all cylinders, but it just isn’t. To be fair, what Spector was left to work with was a bit threadbare and unfinished, so it’s something of a miracle that there’s an album at all. However, of its just over half an hour of music, both ‘Dig It’ and ‘Maggie Mae’ are just ‘mucking around’ outtakes; ‘Across the Universe’ has already been released on a WWF compilation, and ‘One After 909’ is a song from the Quarrymen days – had the ‘Get Back’ project not ground to a halt, it’s hard to make a case for any of them being on the finished album.
Which leaves eight tracks and some assorted chatter which Spector inserted, presumably either as padding or because he felt this was what the public wanted, a kind of rough and ready film soundtrack feel. Either way, it doesn’t sound like a Beatles album, and that’s mainly because it isn’t really a Beatles album. We know this because everyone – most vocally Paul McCartney – expressed their displeasure over the years – Lennon felt the material was ‘shit’; even George Martin famously wanted the production credit to read “produced by George Martin; overproduced by Phil Spector”.
McCartey was incandescent at what Spector did to ‘Long and Winding Road’, but the last ever Beatles single (you know what I mean) is so ingrained in popular culture that it’s hard to imagine it any other way. It’s fair to say, I think, that the lush Mantovani strings don’t really sit with the original concept of the ‘back to basics’ album which they tried to play on the rooftop all the way back in January 69. Those rooftop recordings – ‘Dig a Pony’, ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ and ‘One After 909’ do have a power and immediacy to them which hint at what the full thing might have sounded like, but the songs themselves don’t necessarily stand up to a lot of scrutiny, although I love the guitar licks in ‘Dig a Pony’.
Elsewhere, there are some gems which might have revealed themselves as Beatles classics with a bit more work – ‘Two of Us’ in particular is affecting, especially if you see it as McCartney’s plea to Lennon to give it all one more go; there’s a great song in ‘Across the Universe’ which struggles to make itself heard above the weird production – again, had all four of them worked on it some more, who knows how it might have turned out. ‘I Me Mine’ and ‘For You Blue’ show two different sides of Harrison’s songwriting, but neither of them seem to know exactly what they want to be.
All of which leaves three definitive Beatles songs – the two title tracks (‘Get Back’ perhaps the clearest vision of the sound Paul was originally driving at) and the overblown, overwrought ‘Long and Winding Road’, which as a plaintive piano song might have stood as the last despairing cry of a band as they dissolved, but as it is, stands as the Beatles contribution to lounge music. The Beatles had long been fascinated by the music of the US, but it was only when they put their uniquely British spin on things that they really took off. Trying to get to some kind of rootsy, authentic American sound here never really works, and then having someone who couldn’t really give a shit about that come and pour his ‘wall of sound’ stuff all over it just makes it worse.
It’s not awful; in fact, it’s fascinating, but it has always sounded unfinished and sloppy to me, and it’s probably the album I’m least familiar with. ‘Let it Be… Naked’ is worth your investigation, however – I’m not as bothered by the way McCartney wanted it to sound as I am intrigued by the ability to properly hear these songs, stripped of all the Spectory stuff. Listening to those versions this past week gave me a much clearer appreciation of the actual music.
Not great, not essential, not really a Beatles album. Fortunately, they’ll forever be judged by nearly a dozen better albums, and we’ll always have this picture of just how disjointed it all became right at the end.