This year, on Feb. 3, music producer Phil Spector must have had a really bad afternoon. EMI announced that they would be re-releasing “Let It Be” without his infamously questionable additions (strings, choirs and the like). Then, as if that wasn’t enough to make his day, he was arrested for the murder of a B-movie actress at his California mansion. Zing! This November must have been just as harsh: “Let It Be– Naked” was released to good reviews and Spector was finally charged with the first-degree murder.
Indeed, the record is worlds better this time around. With songs from the sublimely mellow (“Across the Universe”) to roots rockabilly (“Get Back,” “One After 909”), “Let It Be” is a hands-down classic. And while the digital editing of the original tapes gives the band a rich fullness, the one obvious drawback is the markedly overpolished production. Still, this “new” version, which complicates one of the most famous stories of pop music history, is very much welcome.
Way back in 1967, the Beatles were at the top of their game: John Lennon and Paul McCartney had reached their crowning achievement of collaboration with “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The next year, however, the two were writing and recording their songs for what would be the White Album almost entirely by themselves, and things only got worse from there. By the January 1969 sessions for “Let It Be,” the band was falling apart. Ringo Starr had momentarily quit the band after learning that McCartney had re-recorded some of his drum parts for the White Album. The more talented George Harrison, who had been recording Indian music in California and spending time with Bob Dylan and the Band in Woodstock, also left the band 10 days into the tense 1969 sessions. According to the liner notes of “Let It Be– Naked,” one afternoon he put down his guitar, said “See you ’round the clubs!” and walked out.
John Lennon, who was using heroin — and, worse, dedicating himself to the vaguely attractive Yoko Ono instead of the most important band of the century — accepted Harrison’s resignation. He reportedly wanted to replace him with Eric Clapton, Harrison’s best friend, if he didn’t return within a week. But McCartney stepped in, and got George to return by promising that the rehearsal conditions would improve.
It was an empty promise: the “Let It Be” sessions were famously difficult. The Beatles decided to write and perform new songs for a concert, which they would play on the roof of Apple Records in London. The whole process would be filmed and made into a movie, and better yet recorded live without any overdubbing. This hadn’t been done since 1963, when the Beatles were making their first album, “Please Please Me.” Surrounded by microphones and cameras, recording early in the winter mornings, the bearded Beatles weren’t happy. The rooftop concert, which yielded four songs for “Let It Be,” would be the band’s last public performance ever.
Longtime Beatles producer George Martin, who was working on Abbey Road (which was recorded after “Let It Be” but released first), was unavailable for the difficult task of post-production. So engineer Glyn Johns was faced with turning miles of tape from the sessions into a soundtrack for the film. He presented a raw, live sounding record to EMI called “Get Back,” but it was rejected and the tapes subsequently shelved.
Months later, producer Phil Spector, known for his so-called Wall of Sound, was brought in to make an album from the sessions and concert. Not only did he go against the album’s constitution by bringing in the Beatles to overdub some of their tracks, but in the opinion of many, his additions jeopardized the quality of many of the tracks, especially McCartney’s “The Long and Winding Road.” In short, the marriage between Spector’s lush instrumentation and the band’s rock ‘n’ roll-heavy sound was a mismatch.
Not a hint of Spector’s production can be heard on “Let It Be– Naked,” which was put together directly from the original sessions and rooftop concerts. The tapes have been painstakingly digitally re-edited, yielding both incredibly good and markedly bad results. On the one hand, there is a pure richness to the music that is just absent from the 1970 release. Starr’s drumming sounds as good as it possibly could, Harrison’s electric guitar comes in with insane clarity, McCartney’s bass consistently sounds as good as it does on the White Album’s “Helter Skelter,” and the crispness of the piano in the title track is damn moving. But it is the sound of the album’s acoustic guitars — Lennon plays like Neil Young on “Across the Universe” and Harrison does great slide work on “For You Blue” — that makes the re-release most worthwhile.
On the other hand, that editing manages to rob “Let it Be” of much of its potential liveliness by turning it from a live recording into a meticulously treated record. The production team omits the between-track banter, which Spector wisely kept in, making “Let It Be” sound like it was recorded in a studio. Not like that’s all that bad: without Spector’s production, “Let It Be” becomes comparable with the Beatles standard fare. Though their professional and personal relationship was on its last legs, the record after all boasts a handful of Lennon-McCartney classics.
A little about the lesser-known tunes: “For You Blue” and “I Me Mine,” written by George Harrison, have a psychedelic flavor that had been missing since Sgt. Pepper’s. The jams on “Dig A Pony” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” have an intensity that the Beatles would recreate on Abbey Road, but wouldn’t be heard again until Jim Page and Led Zeppelin. For argument’s sake, the sappy “The Long and Winding Road,” even without Spector’s sweeping strings, is the record’s weakest song. “Across the Universe,” which has been brilliantly reduced to Lennon’s soft voice and guitar, backed by what sounds like a quiet sitar or elegantly distorted pump-organ, is the album’s best.
Without Phil Spector’s production, “Let It Be– Naked” is an entirely different, and much better album than its namesake. While the re-editing of the master tapes make for rich fullness, it’s hard not to find it too clean and polished for what should have been a live recording. But there is very little to say against this record, just as there is little to say about any Beatles album. After all, they were bigger than Jesus.
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