Although Abbey Road was released first, Let it Be was recorded first (for the most part), so I’m treating it before Abbey Road. Actually, it’s a good thing Abbey Road came out first…following the somewhat half-assed Yellow Submarine (“half-assed” as a product, anyway), had Let it Be been the Beatles’ next release, speculation that they were drifting or losing it would have abounded. That said, it’s not a terrible album – and it has some considerable virtues as well. But the songs…the songs for the most part fall quite a bit short of Beatles standards.
After a couple albums’ worth of hot writing, John Lennon falls almost completely flat here. His best song on this album is “Across the Universe”…but that was written in 1967. “Dig a Pony” is interesting mostly for the band’s playing and, especially, the very fine dual vocals on the chorus…but it’s more a sketch than a song. And “One After 909” was nearly ten years old when it was finally recorded and released.
George’s recent hot streak has hit a rough patch, too. While “For You Blue” is a fun little number, and the recording has an appealing sound with John’s slide rhythm playing and Paul’s tack piano…it’s just a blues with rudimentary lyrics. And “I Me Mine” is a sketch, and an unappealingly whiny lyric…made into a whole song by the blunt expedient of mechanically repeating one of the verses (if I recall my Lewisohn, Spector merely dubbed the tape and spliced it in). Some points for the nice rhythmic shift between verse and chorus, though.
And the playing is one thing that redeems this album. Not that it’s particularly flashy, but the band’s back-to-basics approach (and wasn’t this one of the first instances of that often tired, now-clichéd philosophy?) results in a very spare record, quite nicely recorded, that reveals the band’s interplay. (“Spare?” some of you say, thinking of Phil Spector’s orchestrations…yeah, I know: I’ll get to that.) In particular, Paul’s in fine vocal form on this record (no surprise, since he was nearly the only Beatle to retain his enthusiasm for the band during this project). And it’s his songwriting that saves the album…even though Phil Spector’s production on those songs very nearly destroys them. McCartney contributes the fine, emotive “Two of Us,” the impassioned title track, “Get Back” (his only real rocker this time), and the beautiful “Long and Winding Road.” (“I’ve Got a Feeling” is a “collaboration” between Lennon and McCartney by way of cramming together two unfinished songs, neither of which is much to speak of…but again, Paul sings hell out of it, so there’s that. And some nice playing too.)
So: Phil Spector. He pretty much leaves a handful of tracks alone, the best of which are “Get Back” and “Two of Us”…but he pastes some needless glop onto “Let it Be” and “I Me Mine” (although, as noted, that was barely a song before he got to it)…and almost kills “Across the Universe” and “The Long and Winding Road.”[addendum: I’d forgotten: the orchestration on “Let it Be” was George Martin’s, under Paul’s direction…no wonder it gets in the way less…] “Across the Universe” just about survives: some of the countermelodies work well (although why he removed the perfectly good ones on the earlier versions, on the chorus, I don’t know), and I suppose the cosmic vocal choir vaguely fits some notion of the song’s sentiments. But “The Long and Winding Road” turns into the worst sort of overorchestrated plop: when George Martin piled a ton of strings, flutes, and a choir on top of the White Album’s “Good Night,” it was primarily satirical. Spector seems to think that heavenly choirs, a thousand strings, and churchy brass help McCartney’s quite sturdy melody – when in fact (as a listen to the “Naked” version demonstrates), the song doesn’t need it. The orchestration buries the vulnerability underlying the song’s sense of striving and hope – and while it would have been nice to have a recording without John half-assing the bass part a few times, I’d prefer human error over inhumane saccharine.
I know…it’s such a cliché to hate on the Spectorization of this record. I wanted to find some redeeming aspects (and I did: see the parentheticals re the countermelodies, which also applies to that building motif in the instrumental section of “Long and Winding Road”), but as Paul said once, “Please everybody – if we haven’t done what we could’ve done, we’ve tried.”
Addendum, too good not to add: At the Beatles Bible site, Paul McCartney’s letter to Allen Klein (copied to Phil Spector) is reproduced – he wrote it after hearing the acetate of the Spectorized version:
In future no one will be allowed to add to or subtract from a recording of one of my songs without my permission.
I had considered orchestrating The Long And Winding Road but I had decided against it. I therefore want it altered to these specifications:-
1. Strings, horns, voices and all added noises to be reduced in volume.
2. Vocal and Beatle instrumentation to be brought up in volume.
3. Harp to be removed completely at the end of the song and original piano notes to be substituted.
4. Don’t ever do it again.