November was not a good month for Phil Spector. First the legendary producer was charged with the murder of a B-movie actress. Then his legacy took a hit — his work was stripped from perhaps the most famous album he produced, The Beatles’ Let It Be.
Let It Be… Naked advertises itself as “Let It Be… as it was meant to be.” Well, not quite. Abbey Road was the Beatles’ last-recorded album, but Let It Be was released last, in May 1970. Originally titled Get Back, the project was meant to herald the return of the Beatles as a live act (they had given up touring in 1966) and a back-to-basics roll ‘n’ roll band. None of that Sgt. Pepper experimental stuff. The result? A famous rooftop concert, an overproduced album, and bickering that led to the end of the greatest band ever.
Engineer Glyn Johns offered multiple versions of Get Back, but the group rejected them all. John Lennon finally brought in Phil Spector, then producing Lennon solo projects. And despite the objections of Paul McCartney, Spector’s version is the one we’ve been listening to for over 30 years.
On the goal of the sessions, at least, the band was united. John Lennon frankly told longtime producer George Martin, “I don’t want any of your production rubbish on this one, I don’t want any overdubbing of voices, I don’t want any editing; everything has to be performed live like it used to be. It’s got to be real, man, it’s got to be honest.” George Harrison, heard on the “fly on the wall” bonus disc included with the re-release, also declared no overdubs — knowing you can “fix” things later lessens your work: “You never get the most out of that moment, really.”
So it seems odd that they brought in Spector, a man known chiefly for his Wall of Sound, who, rather pompously, called his songs “teenage symphonies.” George Martin (who received no credit for his work on the album) said the credits should have read, “Produced by George Martin. Over-produced by Phil Spector.” Glyn Johns was less charitable. Referring to “Let It Be,” he proclaimed, “Phil Spector puked all over it.”
Now engineers have assembled a new version from the original tapes. Columns and columns of print have accompanied the re-release. But in fact the album is almost universally considered the Beatles’ worst. So why does anyone care?
Because it’s a Beatles album. The Fab Four may have disbanded in 1970, but they’ve been releasing plenty of new product lately — the Anthology CDs and DVDs, A Hard Day’s Night and Ed Sullivan Presents the Beatles on DVD, yet another greatest hits package. Let It Be… Naked is clearly a nostalgia release. And that’s one reason why it can’t really replace the original. Everyone who loves the Beatles has fond memories of listening to each and every album. Let It Be… Naked is a different album.
One of the biggest — and most unfortunate — changes is the removal of studio chatter between the tracks. The music on this album is so special, tinged with sadness because of the backstory of the break-up. The cutesy comments, made mainly by John, gave the impression these guys were still having fun.
But there are impossible to deny improvements, too. The sound quality is better, warmer — but that’s to be expected with technological advancements. The album is by no means a live album. But some songs were drowned in Spector’s production and they sound crisp and new. The work of the fantastic keyboardist Billy Preston is finally allowed to shine, adding more groove to songs like “I, Me, Mine.” George’s dulcet voice on that surprisingly catchy song was also lost in the original. And John’s magical “Across the Universe” is even more so without all the orchestration. It is even more obvious that this really is a strangely sweet album.
The same nostalgia that has made the re-release so successful — it debuted at number five on the Billboard chart — is also why many don’t like it. Lots of people simple abhor change. And in this case, they blame Paul McCartney. Remember how everyone had his favorite Beatle? The reaction to Let It Be… Naked seems directly correlated with whether or not yours was Paul.
True, McCartney never liked Spector’s work on Let It Be, and was particularly incensed by the strings added to his “Long and Winding Road.” But those who insist this is a McCartney vanity project ignore the evidence. George Harrison approved the new version before his death two years ago. Ringo Starr told McCartney, “You’re bloody right again: It sounds great without Phil.” Three Abbey Road engineers created Let It Be… Naked, not McCartney.
Washington Post classical music critic Tim Page even claimed the new album had too many Paul songs. “If you’re a Paul McCartney fan, you’ll be happy, but for the rest of us, it’s a little like going to a Three Stooges festival and finding nothing but Shemp episodes,” he said. But Lennon has actually been done a favor here. Two of his not-even-half songs have been removed (“Dig It” and “Maggie Mae”) in favor of the gem, “Don’t Let Me Down.”
Perhaps the hubbub over the re-release will remind us that Let It Be is actually an underrated album. People seem to forget it contains a number of classic songs — “Get Back,” “The Long and Winding Road,” and the eponymous track. Certainly more than the second disc of The White Album. (“Revolution 9,” anyone?) The Beatles were the best and even at their worst, they were better than almost anyone else. They are impossible to escape. Which is why people will continue to be obsessed with the band.
In an interview discussing his latest book, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, Charles Murray pronounced, “I think that the number of novels, songs, and paintings done since 1950 that anyone will still care about 200 years from now is somewhere in the vicinity of zero.” Though he may disagree with the judgment of critics, fanatics, and plain old music lovers, it is clear that everything the Beatles did will be listened to for years to come.