In times of trouble, there were probably worse things for Giles Martin to do than immerse himself in compiling The Beatles‘ Let It Be special edition releases and the soundtrack to Peter Jackson’s upcoming Get Back for Disney+.
“It was quite strange,” Martin, the son of the Beatles’ late producer George Martin and lead engineer on their archival projects since LOVE in 2006, tells Billboard via Zoom from England. “I was finishing the album when quarantine happened, and I moved all my gear to a cottage in the middle of nowhere next to my house and worked at a kitchen table and finished the record there. So it was a bit like Let It Be itself, when they moved the equipment. It was like Let It Be revisited.”
Fans will be getting back to Let It Be in a big way during the next month and a half, in fact. The campaign starts with a Get Back coffee table book, out Oct. 12, featuring photos from the January 1969 sessions by Ethan Russell and the late Linda McCartney, along with the words of the Beatles themselves. Three new Let It Be packages arrive on Oct. 15, ranging from a refreshed mix of the original 12-track album to a super deluxe special edition with 45 more tracks — including outtakes, rehearsals, loose jams, songs that would end up on the subsequent Abbey Road album and solo projects, and producer Glyn Johns’ original mix in 1969, when the album was known as Get Back.
Jackson’s three-part, six-hour film lands Nov. 25-27 on Disney+, and Let It Be director Michael Lindsay-Hogg reports that his original film will be re-released in its wake, though the date and platform is yet to be determined.
By the time it’s all out, Martin is confident the entire endeavor will shed new light and fresh perspective on an album and movie project that has gone down in history as breaking up the Beatles.
“I think the legend is warped — funnily enough, I think the Beatles told the wrong story themselves,” Martin says. It was conceived initially as a TV special before it became a feature film, depicting the quartet getting back to its “roots” with the intention of a live performance — the Beatles’ first since August of 1966 — as its hook. Let It Be was recorded during sessions with Johns at Twickenham Film Studios (where the group had made performance videos of “Hey Jude” and “Revolution”) and in the basement of the Beatles’ Apple Corps, where Alan Parsons was one of the engineers. It culminates with a famed rooftop concert atop the latter on Jan. 30, which would be the last time the Beatles performed together.
Nearly eight months later, John Lennon announced, privately, that he was leaving the band, which Paul McCartney made public the following April — three weeks before Let It Be‘s May 1970 release.
Nevertheless, Martin points out, “We have to remember that Let It Be came out when the Beatles were at their worst breakup scenario and they were suing each other. However, the album wasn’t made at that time. They were aware of their impending divorce, if you like, because they were all going their separate ways — and they talk about it in the film. Let It Be’s a bit like a marriage which is becoming tired, and they’re trying to go back to their date nights by playing live — and it doesn’t quite work. It’s too ambitious what they’re trying to, and the album’s taken by Phil Spector later and changed.”
Rather than view Let It Be as the document of a breakup, Martin suggests that “it’s an incredible document of how the Beatles work together — that’s what it is. It’s not a document of how the Beatles broke up, because they didn’t. They went off, they played the rooftop concert…and then did Abbey Road.”
The various Let It Be bonus tracks certainly illustrate a band at work — conversing, jamming, negotiating, supporting and challenging each other. Hearing the early takes of Abbey Road and future solo album tracks is fascinating, as is the change in tenor once the sessions relocated from the uncomfortable Twickenham to 3 Savile Row. There’s also an audible lack of the focus that can be heard in the extra tracks on deluxe packages for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles (aka The White Album) and Abbey Road, which Martin also helmed.
“It’s an album that lacks direction in a lot of ways,” says Martin, whose father was involved during the Johns sessions, but only peripherally. “It’s an album unlike any other Beatles album in the fact that it’s almost like a compilation of situations. You have ‘Across the Universe,’ which was recorded way before, and you have ‘I Me Mine’ which was recorded after Abbey Road. Between that you have the Savile Row sessions, and then you have the rooftop recordings, which are amazing considering it’s a rooftop recording in January with the equipment from that day. And you also have Phil Spector’s work.
“The Beatles weren’t completely sure whether they were doing a live album to be recorded later or rehearsing for an album or actually recording an album itself. So the discipline’s not quite there. But I think it’s a record that stands up. I think of any of us were in a band we would be happy with ‘Across the Universe’ and ‘Get Back’ and ‘Let It Be’ and ‘I Me Mine’ on an album.”
Also of particular interest on the super deluxe edition is the previously unreleased Glyn Johns mix that would have been the Get Back album back in 1969 (and different from the Let It Be…Naked release in 2003). Johns had worked with the Who and Led Zeppelin and was recruited by the Beatles to capture the raw sound of the band in a room together — a far cry from the glossier Spector creation that ultimately came out. “Glyn essentially was trying to do exactly what he was meant to be doing,” explains Martin, who made only modest changes to the Spector version, such as turning down the harp, at McCartney’s request, on “The Long and Winding Road.” “The Get Back album’s a really good representation of what they wanted, trying to capture the essence of them live. That’s what Glyn’s brilliant at. He’s a great, instinctive engineer, and that’s why the rooftop stuff is so good. That’s purely all down to Glyn Johns’ brilliance.”
The entire 42-minute rooftop concert, with nine takes that cover five Let It Be songs, will be included in Jackson’s film, but Martin says it’s not part of the new special editions to avoid redundancy. “Nothing makes audio sound better than picture,” he explains. “I can do all the work I want, but the fact is people will experience the entire rooftop concert in length, but they’ll be able to see the Beatles as well. So just doing an audio-only version didn’t really make sense.”
Working simultaneously on the film — which is still ongoing, according to Martin — only enhanced Martin’s experience in putting the audio packages together. “It’s fun having such a visual reference,” he says. “When you’re working on Sgt. Pepper you can’t really picture them in the studio. With this you have an idea where they are when they’re playing a track, so that’s fun. When I’m working on these projects I feel like I’m there anyway, because you’re so close to it. You get trapped in the time, in January 1969, and to be able to see it as well as hear it puts you even closer to it.”
The Beatles archival projects have been coming at a steady pace for years now, but Martin says that as Let It Be wraps up, he’s not quite sure what will be next on the docket. “There’s always lots of talk about things,” he acknowledges. “The main thing is whatever we do, we have to do it right. I think that’s the great thing about the Beatles is that we’re a very small team. They’ve given me the freedom to push boundaries and experiment with technology. That’s how we started with Pepper; ‘Why are we gonna make Sgt. Pepper? It’s a great sounding record. What’s the point?’ Then we did a few tracks and everyone was inspired and goes, ‘This actually sounds good…’ That’s always the best reason to do something — you want to hear it.”