Let it Be was one of the last Beatles albums I got hold of, in that intense period between my 14th and 16th birthdays, when I obtained all that was then available. I still have a vivid flashbulb memory of listening to the album for the first time, playing it in the old front room at home whilst also dealing with my mum’s demands that I do some vacuuming. I already knew five of the tracks, of course, because Let it Be was very well represented on the Blue album: Get Back, Don’t Let Me Down, Let it Be, Across the Universe, and The Long and Winding Road all featured.
So for me as a 16-year old, the “new” songs were Two of Us, Dig a Pony, I Me Mine, I’ve Got a Feeling, One After 909, and For You Blue. Those, and the inter-song chatter and the brief snatches of Maggie Mae and Dig It, which added an atmosphere of surprise and delight to the album — along the same lines as the “Ey op!” at the beginning of While My Guitar Gently Weeps on The Beatles.
Of the Let it Be songs that were new to me, the one that moved me the most was Two of Us, a song that asserts itself to be about Paul and Linda but of course it is so obviously also about Paul and John. For me, it evoked a feeling of two friends on their way home from school, getting up to mischief, killing time, wanting to be together and not wanting to be home. This hit me hard as a sixteen year old who would take his sweet time walking home from school, checking out the record shop, popping into Woolies, and generally dawdling. And the poignancy of “You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead” is an acknowledgement that their long and winding road is near its end. A feeling with the Beatles that they had done all that they could do together and that it was getting to be time to move on.
Other real revelations for me on the Let it Be album were that the versions of Let it Be and Get Back were completely different from the standalone single versions I was familiar with. And, to this day, I so much prefer the crunchier guitar on the album version, it hits me in a much more visceral way than the somewhat anaemic guitar played through a Leslie speaker on the single. This crunchier guitar was an imposter, added a whole year later, after the divorce, when it was just the Threatles. The problem in 1969 was that there was too much playing with effects, like tremolos and spinning speakers. I’m interested in that 1970 George, who plays that much punchier solo with none of the nonsense. It’s like he realised that he was being a bit too pernickety in 1969, trying to play something too intricate.
After the lush album packaging of Sgt Pepper and The Beatles, the skimpy sleeves and inners of both Abbey Road and Let it Be were a disappointment. Which doesn’t detract from the music, but gives you less to do when you’re listening (apart from the hoovering). I know there was a Let it Be box and book back in 1970, but they’re vanishingly rare, and – by the time I got my copy – nearly a decade in the past.
How strange it seems now, that long-ago Saturday hoovering session, with Let it Be on the stereo, and a strong feeling that I was dipping into the distant musical past. Those were the days when to be a Beatles fan was a slightly strange choice for a teenager to make, and it really did seem as if they belonged to a different age. You could go in a record shop and wouldn’t even find a copy of Abbey Road or Let it Be. And The Beatles, I seem to remember, was only stocked by the bigger retailers (Boots!) because it was so freaking expensive.
Every new purchase was filling in gaps for me, missing pieces of a puzzle I was working out with the help of The Beatles Monthly and the books available in the 70s.
One of my puzzles – because I didn’t know the circumstances and the history in much detail – was the way their facial hair seemed to be all over the place. If Let it Be was their last album, I wondered, why was John so much beardier on Abbey Road and Paul so much less? Paul had gone from being stubbly in his The Beatles colour portrait to being clean shaven on Abbey Road, and then very beardy on Let it Be. I didn’t know then what we all know now, I was a very confused boy.
Here we are then, and it’s an out of time re-release mixed up remix super deluxe set that should have appeared at some point in 2020 but didn’t (for some reason). And alongisde it, if you can afford it, a new book, Get Back, not the book that comes in the Super Deluxe boxed set, but a book that transcribes the audio tapes of the January 1969 sessions, with lots and lots and lots of lovely photographs. It’s lush.
And yet, and yet: such a book is really a pain. It’s too big to hold up, too hefty to hold comfortably on your lap, the sort of book you need a lectern to support. Also it has lots of glossy back pages, and boy, do they attract fingerprints. You don’t want it smaller because of the photos (everything looks better when it’s bigger), but you do want it smaller because it’s too much. And when the cat tries to climb in your lap as you read, the situation is impossible.
I like the book though. It’s part of the new narrative, that things were never that bad, that the arguments weren’t even particularly intense, and that mostly it was good humoured chat, talk about what was on TV the night before, with the only fly in the ointment Michael Bloody Lindsay Fucking Hogg, who will keep banging on about the show that George definitely doesn’t want to do.
I came up with a new theory: if Hogg had shut up about it, the others could have chivvied George along a bit and things might have turned out differently. They knew him best, after all. Anyway, there’s a sweet moment in the transcript of January 25 1969, when Paul is moaning–not moaning about the not-happening show, and one of the reasons he gives for wanting to do it is that he wants people to see Ringo playing. This is six months or so after Ringo walked out of the white album sessions feeling unloved, and it’s absolutely the case that he is fucking brilliant on these sessions. So good, lifting every song as soon as he hits his groove, and he hits his groove almost immediately, every time. On the rough version of All Things Must Pass, for example, when he comes in with his fill, it just sounds immediately better.
As for boxed sets, not for me. I don’t want a thing that just sits on a shelf and takes up space. I’m happy with the streaming version, especially now it’s lossless and better than CD quality sound — even though, in truth, I don’t have any equipment to play it on to make that worthwhile.
So to the music. Let’s not pretend my ears can really hear anything different about the new 2021 mixes of the main album. All I will say is that I heard what Paul was doing on the bass during John’s “Everybody had a hard year” section, and it is, of course, ace. Let it Be is still a marvel though. And I think people are only now able to appreciate what they achieved in such a small space of time. It wasn’t that they had no songs, because there were ideas knocking around, such as the title track. But they did indeed complete composition, learn, work out arrangements, and then record this whole collection of songs in such a short period. The evolution of Get Back is remarkable. And my key insight here is that because a lot of that evolution happened in the hiatus following George’s walkout, that’s why he’s not playing lead guitar on it.
Disc 2 is alternate takes of some of the album tracks, while Disc 3 has little hints of what might have been, and another reminder that this was an extraordinarily productive period. In fact, probably the reason they carried on in February and did Abbey Road was that they already had so much stuff. So you get a bit of The Beatles playing All Things Must Pass, a snippet of Gimme Some Truth, some embryonic Abbey Road tracks, including both John and Paul singing Oh Darling!
I’ve never been one for bootlegs, so I’m hearing a lot of this stuff for the first time. I’m sure for a lot of people none of this is new.
Disc 4 is the first of Glyn Johns’ 1969 mixes for the aborted Get Back album, including a lot more fly-on-the-wall chatter, and some rougher-sounding takes. Disc 5 has two of his 1970 mixes, and 2021 mixes of the Let it Be Single and the Don’t Let Me Down B-side which should have been on the album in the first place.
As with all such boxed sets, you might wonder just how many times you’re likely to listen to this. I love the song Let it Be, but there are five (!) versions of it here, and only one of them has the good guitar solo. I expect I’ll be steeped in this from now until the release of Peter Jackson’s film at least. And after seeing the trailer this week, I’m as excited as my 16-year-old hoovering self.