Everybody had a hard year/Everybody had a good time...
The Beatles' twelfth and final studio LP may have been titled Let It Be, but that particular admonition has been all but ignored over the years. The album - recorded before, but released after, 1969's Abbey Road - was in some respects a step backward from the band's previous, experimental LPs as they sought a "back to basics" sound that didn't involve overdubs and studio wizardry. Ultimately, though, that approach was rejected. The album that began life mixed by engineer Glyn Johns as the raw Get Back ended up as the ornate Let It Be. It had been "reproduced for disc by Phil Spector," a figure not exactly known for his subtlety. Despite the rocky road to its release, the 1970 album nonetheless topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and around the world. Still, hovering over the finished Let It Be was the specter of what it could have been. It remained such an object of fascination that no fewer than 32 volumes, or 64 discs, of bootleg session tapes emerged in the early 2000s. In 2003, Apple Corps revisited it in a sanctioned fashion, offering a completely different vision of the album with Let It Be...Naked.
Now, with more than 50 years having passed since its initial release, Apple and Universal Music Group have reimagined Let It Be once more, this time in various formats including a 5CD/1BD box set (also available, sans Blu-ray, on 5 LPs). The new box dovetails with the upcoming Disney+ streaming release of the Peter Jackson documentary Get Back and its companion book of the same title, both of which chronicle the rehearsals, recording sessions, and infamous Rooftop Concert that led to Let It Be.
At the heart of the box set is a new stereo remix of Let It Be on CD and Blu-ray by Giles Martin and Sam Okell, of a piece with the duo's sublime past work on Sgt. Pepper's, The Beatles, and Abbey Road. They've increased the clarity of the vocals and detail of the individual instruments without sacrificing the feel of the original record. In this spirit, they've retained the overdubs and "reproduction" of Phil Spector while adjusting the mix levels to deliver a warmer, more organic sound in line with the Fabs' original conception of the album. (Giles' late father George, credited producer of every Beatles album except Let It Be, famously quipped that the album's credits should have read, "Produced by George Martin and overproduced by Phil Spector." The elder Martin rolled tape on, and nominally produced, the formal Apple Studios sessions for the album but the band largely helmed the dates themselves.)
The Martin/Okell team has also remixed Let It Be in 5.1 (and Dolby Atmos). The 360-sound environment of the 5.1 DTS-MA surround mix "opens up" the sound even further. Guitars wash over the listener conjuring a bucolic soundscape for Paul McCartney's intimate "Two of Us" and an aggressive one for John Lennon's torrid "Dig a Pony." The increased dimension heard on George Harrison's "I Me Mine" brings new force to Ringo Starr's drums and integrates Richard Hewson's orchestrations in the rear channels. Throughout, the remixers concentrate the Beatles' original contributions up front and Spector's subsequent overdubs usually behind them (but far from erased or diminished).
John's "Across the Universe" gets one of the most noticeable upgrades in surround. In Martin and Okell's remix, Hewson's orchestral and choral overdubs aren't quite as overwhelming as on the original LP. The strings provide a soft cushion in the rear channels, adding to the ethereal, dreamy mood of the moving ballad. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the raucous, rocking "I Got a Feeling." But it's equally enveloping, with Harrison and guest keyboardist Billy Preston in the rears - not relegated there, but making those channels an essential part of the experience. "Get Back" truly thrills in 5.1: Ringo's drums throbbing, the guitars crisply cascading, Preston's electric piano adding that touch of soul, and Paul's melodic bass anchoring his and John's cool yet imploring vocals.
Paul's twin anthems "Let It Be" and "The Long and Winding Road" are treated with subtlety in 5.1 but are no less beautiful, especially when the orchestral parts (by George Martin for the former and Richard Hewson for the latter) soar in majestic fashion. Other small details emerge too, though, including Preston's electric piano on the latter. Similarly, John's lap steel on George's "For You Blue" gains prominence in surround.
...to where you once belonged
The lush sound of Let It Be, in stereo or surround, is in sharp contrast to the originally proposed Get Back album. While this box presents the first official release of Get Back, it's been widely bootlegged over the years. In fact, the first leak of Get Back happened before Let It Be even existed when promotional copies were distributed to radio stations. Glyn Johns mixed Get Back at least twice from the sessions held at Twickenham Film Studios (January 2-16, 1969) and then at Apple Studios (January 21-31) including the Rooftop Concert of January 30. All of these sessions were recorded with film director Michael Lindsay-Hogg's omnipresent cameras rolling. The compilers here have chosen to include Johns' May 1969 master but some doubt has been cast from various sources as to whether this presentation is an accurate reflection of that mix. (The mystery stems from the fact that the Japanese SHM-CD release of the otherwise-identical box has a subtly different Get Back disc.)
Either way, it's a treat to hear Get Back in substantially upgraded sound from any previous unofficial releases, even if one listen more or less confirms John Lennon's once-stated belief that "[Spector] was given the shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever, and he made something out of it. He did a great job." Okay, so Lennon was a bit unduly harsh, but Get Back plays like nothing so much as a rough mix whereas the final Let It Be is, at the very least, a fitting, alternately uplifting and elegiac coda to The Beatles' decade of exhilarating musical activity.
Not that Glyn Johns is to blame; he delivered the Beatles the utterly unvarnished album they requested. His Get Back mix is raw and ramshackle. It would have been a shock to the system in the wake of the experimental yet sonically luxuriant Sgt. Pepper's and even the ambitious, eclectic White Album. Spector ultimately chose some different takes than Johns, and added overdubs both from band members and the orchestra and chorus. He dumped "Don't Let Me Down," added "Across the Universe," and resequenced everything. The Get Back medley of "I'm Ready (Rocker)/Save the Last Dance for Me/Don't Let Me Down" may make for enjoyable bonus material, but cooler heads prevailed when it didn't survive the transition from Get Back to Let It Be. "Don't Let Me Down" (part of the medley but also heard on Get Back in a full take) was collateral damage. Despite arguably being a stronger recording than, say, "Teddy Boy," "Maggie Mae," or "Dig It," it was relegated to B-side status.
Pools of Sorrow, Waves of Joy
Two discs in the box set, Apple Sessions and Rehearsals and Apple Jams, offer glimpses into the fraught (but maybe not as fraught as once thought) recording process of Get Back. The approach here is highly curated - as opposed to the warts-and-all unofficial releases - and both discs are relatively short. The Apple Sessions disc, of about 40 minutes, isn't quite revelatory, but should prove to be manna for fans who know every note of the final Let It Be and are looking to hear variations big and small. The disc plays rather like a radio program, peppered with dialogue for a true fly-on-the-wall experience.
Among the highlights are alternate versions of McCartney's two centerpiece ballads. Take 10 of "Let It Be," from January 26, 1969, is preceded by a smile-inducing snippet of Paul contentedly riffing on the Fabs' early hit "Please Please Me." The take finds the boys working out the arrangement with George Martin on organ. It features a very different guitar solo as well as an unfinished final verse. The final master ended up being Take 27, but the spirit and shape of the song were already in full flower for this performance. (The subsequent Take 28, with some different lyrics, is heard on the Rehearsals and Apple Jams disc and in the original Lindsay-Hogg documentary.) Take 19 of "The Long and Winding Road," from January 31, is also seen in the Let It Be film. Spector selected an earlier take from January 26 for the album but the feel and quality of the lead vocal here is very similar. Listening to Paul accompany himself on piano, it's not hard to hear why Spector opted for orchestral overdubs. The stately piano part seems as if it's filling in for the fuller instrumentation needed to bring the song the requisite splendor demanded by the music and lyrics.
Of the more raucous material, Take 10 of "I've Got a Feeling" is played at a faster tempo, while Take 3 of "One After 909" has Billy Preston pounding the acoustic piano instead of the Fender Rhodes he played on the rooftop performance. Take 19 of "Get Back" is a deliciously loose, extended version with Paul freely yelping, different guitar and organ licks, and additional ad libs. An earlier take (Take 8) is on Rehearsals and Apple Jams. "Don't Let Me Down" is heard in its first of two Rooftop performances from January 30, with John singing nonsense words in the second verse as he forgot the lyrics. (This version was seen in the Lindsay-Hogg film.) Even in this form, however, the song (like the earlier "Help!") displays Lennon's knack for expressing vulnerability and raw emotion in the framework of rock music.
Rehearsals and Apple Jams, though a brief 32 minutes in length, has quite a few treasures, too, including early stabs at songs destined for the Fabs' solo LPs (George's "All Things Must Pass," John's "Gimme Some Truth") and a number of tunes which would find their homes on Abbey Road ("She Came in Through the Bathroom Window," "Polythene Pam," "Octopus' Garden," "Oh! Darling," "Something"). Given the rehearsal nature, these are largely less finished than the tracks on Apple Sessions. Ringo's solo piano version of "Octopus" for the other Fabs is charming; a jam on "Oh! Darling" is disarmingly freewheeling. An incomplete rehearsal of "Something" is mainly notable for Harrison still not having the lyrics ("Attracts me like a pomegranate," he suggests? Or "attracts me like a cauliflower," per John?) while another treat is Billy Preston noodling on "Without a Song" alongside John and Ringo.
The final CD in the box is a short EP collecting a quartet of odds and ends. There are previously unreleased Glyn Johns mixes of "Across the Universe" and "I Me Mine" from the subsequent 1970 mix of Get Back: the former eliminates the Beatles' background vocals as well as the prominent electric guitar while the latter is notable for some studio chatter included to reinforce "documentary" conception of this version of the Get Back album. The "second side" of the EP has Martin and Okell's new mixes of the single versions of "Don't Let Me Down" and "Let It Be" with their distinct overdubs. George Martin, not Phil Spector, was credited producer of the latter. While the former single originally bore no credit, The Beatles' 1967-1970 "Blue Album" of greatest hits acknowledged Martin's role.
But still they lead me back...
Like the audio mastered by Miles Showell, the box's printed material is altogether splendid. The set takes the form of slipcase with die-cut boxes for the four Beatles' photos. The individual discs' own sleeves are housed in a folder, and all of the CDs are emblazoned with Apple Records designs. Get Back, of course, uses Angus McBean's original cover photo (recreating the Please Please Me cover) that was repurposed for the "Blue Album." An impressive 104-page hardcover book is not only beautifully designed, but offers a relatively concise chronicle of the album from the beginning of sessions through the final releases. Paul McCartney, Giles Martin, and Glyn Johns all offer essays. John Harris ponders The Myth and Reality of the 'Let It Be' Sessions, and Kevin Howlett offers both two essays and a helpful track-by-track guide which delves into not only the takes heard on the collection but also which version of each song was utilized for Get Back, Let It Be, and Let It Be...Naked. This text is an integral part of the release, and copiously illustrated with photos, memorabilia, handwritten lyrics, master tape boxes, and much more.
Yet, like Let It Be itself, this 50th anniversary edition produced by Jonathan Clyde and Guy Hayden leaves the listener with mixed emotions. Upon the initial announcement, the first question on most potential buyers' lips was "Where's the Rooftop Concert?" Alas, that's still a valid query. Without the complete Rooftop Concert - another oft-bootlegged item that fans have patiently waited for decades to own in superior sound - this package cannot help but be less than definitive. Rumors have swirled that its omission here is due to its appearance in full in the upcoming Peter Jackson film; if that's the case, one hopes that a physically-released soundtrack will fill in this most egregious of gaps. The absence of the Rooftop Concert, too, underscores the reality that the amount of bonus material here is leaner than on past Beatles boxes. Just compare the approximate 127 minutes here (including Get Back) to the 232 minutes on the White Album package (including the Esher Demos). In fairness, though, that was the most fulsome of the 50th anniversary sets, and the lack of material may be due to the strict "no overdubs" rule The Beatles initially set down in the studio. As a result, there was far less sonic experimentation and fewer takes may have been deemed sufficiently of interest by the compilers here.
Though the mysteries and confusion surrounding Let It Be may never be completely solved to everyone's satisfaction, the continued aura surrounding the album remains as bright as ever. "I'd like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves," John Lennon joked as he drew the impromptu Rooftop Concert to a close, "and I hope we've passed the audition." Even in the most chaotic of times, they certainly did.
Various editions of Let It Be are available now:
5CD/Blu-ray: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
5LP: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
2CD: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
1CD: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
1LP: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada