Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Beatles — Let It Be

OK, before you ask, I know that I'm writing this out of order. No, being without any computer for a week and a half did not mess with my agoraphobic brain so much that I can no longer read a timeline properly. I decided to review Let It Be before Abbey Road for two basic reasons: I'm actually keeping with the recording chronology of the band, and it's simply too depressing to end a retrospective of the band with this half-assed send-off. Let me back up: Let It Be is not a bad album, per se; in fact, it's damn fine, but it lacks much of the spark that readily identifies a Beatles album.

That, of course, can be attributed to the lack of the actual band in its construction. After United Artists decided that the largely Beatles-less Yellow Submarine did not count as the group's third and final contracted film, the Fab Four found themselves coerced into a new film project. Around the same time, Paul McCartney concluded that the Beatles needed to get back out and tour again, hoping perhaps that the act of standing on stages together might help to mend the fracturing clearly evident in the White Album sessions. And so, the band planned a televised documentary, entitled Get Back, to chronicle their return to the road. The eponymous single, "Get Back" certainly announced these intentions: a throwback to Buddy Holly/Chuck Berry rock 'n roll, its chorus broke free from McCartney's loopy story and telegraphed a readiness to "get back" to where they once belonged, that place of course being whatever club or stadium would have them.

Naturally, things did not go according to plan. Instead of filming a band going back to basics, the cameras captured the band as it circled the drain, crumbling under the weight of infighting and fatigue. Even George Martin threw his hands up by the end, put out at having to play second fiddle to another engineer and sick of the lads' pettiness. And so, a sound check/recording session on the roof of Abbey Road Studios became not the precursor to a successful tour but the final "show" the band ever played. They abandoned the project, and reconvened a few months later to craft a farewell in the form of Abbey Road. In an attempt to squeeze one final drop out of the band's lucrative well -- this was before compilations of demos and alternate takes were all the rage -- the company sent the tapes of the Get Back sessions to Phil Spector, who set about producing the songs for release as Let It Be without the band's approval.

Spector proves an apt surname, because his presence lingers over the recordings dragging them down considerably. Where George Martin could add layers of arrangements and sonic experimentation over the band's music without losing the fundamental core of the song, Spector bathes the tracks in waves of excess. He turns "The Long and Winding Road," a gentle, gorgeous piano ballad, into the sort of cheesy crossover number that earlier Beatles songs such as "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby" undermined. He applies his Wall of Sound technique to the bluesier numbers as well, but he only makes "One After 909" and "I Me Mine" sound like victims of the "Loudness Wars" decades before producers began shoving everything into the red without a care for balance.

With his input, "Get Back" still encapsulates the spirit of the album, albeit for all the wrong reasons. The song practically had "album opener" stenciled in the grooves of the vinyl upon which it was pressed, yet Spector throws it at the end. It was lean, mean and clever, and it broadcasted the band's "back to basics" ethos. Once a killer declaration of intent, it now stands as a sloppy farewell, an afterthought that still displays a genius despite its mishandling.

Indeed, a number of songs on the album are absolute dynamite. Even the bastardized version of "The Long and Winding Road" is a winner, with Paul's earnest delivery successfully combating the schmaltz of Spector's arrangements without even knowing it. "Across the Universe" is the only song to actually benefit from the producer's technique, its over-the-top orchestration and sonic effects enhancing the psychedelic, upbeat nature of the tune. The highlight, of course, is the lush title track, one of McCartney's greatest ballads and as apt a benediction for the group as "The End" even though it appears halfway through the album here (seriously, who would sequence an album like this?).

In fairness to Phil Spector, he didn't exactly get the Beatles at their prime. "Dig a Pony" and "For You Blue" are some of Lennon and Harrison's weakest compositions, respectively -- the latter is a simplistic blues number that would have stood out as filler on the band's first two albums, much less in the post-Rubber Soul era; that the band accepted this over Harrison's vastly superior numbers "All Things Must Pass" and "Hear Me Lord" is unbelievable. Furthermore, two of the album's tracks, "Dig It" and "Maggie Mae," are not even songs but brief fragments of aborted numbers. "Maggie Mae" actually closes side one after "Let It Be"; wasn't it bad enough that the ballad didn't close the album? They couldn't have at least let it end a side? Of course, Spector and whoever put the album together are responsible for adding such frivolous nonsense.

Though cameras were present to catalog the band's descent, we can glean insight into the band, as ever, from the album artwork. Originally, Get Back was to feature a replication of the band's cover for Please Please Me, a delicious visual representation of their new outlook. Let It Be puts all the lads' photos back on the cover again after being warped in Revolver, surrounded in Sgt. Pepper and completely absent in The Beatles, but the thick framing between the photographs separates each member from one another. Get Back/Let It Be was meant to start a new chapter in the band's history, to rededicate the band to each other and the audiences waiting to see them live. Instead, it saw them slowly pull apart.

1 comment:

  1. dig a pony and for you blue is not lennon's and Harrison weakest song. I totally disaggre sir.