Over the course of 16 months beginning in early 1969, an ambitious project that was titled Get Back and intended to document the back-to-basics rebirth of the Beatles devolved into Let It Be, a heavily fussed-over hodgepodge of live and studio cuts finally issued a month after the band had broken up. It’s a messy end to the Fab Four story, though in some ways, it’s not an ending at all.
Released 45 years ago today, on May 8, 1970, Let It Be isn’t really the final Beatles studio album. It was recorded almost entirely in January 1969, shortly before the lads regrouped, worked their magic one last time, and cut the vastly superior Abbey Road, which dropped in September ‘69.
Whereas Abbey Road came together somewhat naturally—in a proper studio, with longtime producer George Martin at the helm—Let It Be (and its accompanying film) was completely forced. Its uncharacteristic spottiness has much to do with the wrongheaded approach.
From the beginning, Let It Be was Paul McCartney’s baby. He’d been leading the band since manager Brian Epstein’s death in 1967, and as relationships grew strained, and the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band of all time started to splinter, Paul seemed the least willing to, you know, let it be.
Somehow, he convinced John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr that the best way forward was to hire a film crew and make a movie about the band’s efforts to rehearse for a live performance (or series of live performances) that would help wipe away the acrimony and make everything fab once again. As any reality-TV alum can attest, the presence of cameras rarely makes life easier, and it didn’t help that a completely checked-out John insisted on bringing then-girlfriend Yoko Ono to the sessions.
Not that she was the problem. Harrison was the first to snap, and he quit the band about a week into the sessions. He agreed to return, but only if they moved from the Twickenham soundstage where they’d been working to the basement studio at their own Apple Corps headquarters in London. It was there that the group hunkered down for the remainder of the month, amassing hours and hours of music Lennon described in a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone as “the shittiest load of badly recorded shit—and with a lousy feeling to it.”
That line is part of a longer quote wherein Lennon defends Phil Spector, who came on to mix the album after the group twice rejected versions put together by engineer Glyn Johns. Known for his bombastic “Wall of Sound” aesthetic, Spector tarted up several of the tracks with orchestral overdubs, and while Lennon was pleased with the results, Paul was incensed.
McCartney was particularly cheesed off about Spector’s cheesed-up “The Long and Winding Road,” a tune Paul would radically strip down for 2003’s Let It Be… Naked, a revisionist-history lesson that involved tearing down the Wall of Sound and presenting the songs as he felt they should be heard.
However fans feel about Spector’s contributions, he’s not the villain of this story. No one is. Let It Be is the sound of four grown men with shared histories and diverging futures trying to squeeze blood from stones. The album contains a few moments of brilliance (“Two of Us,” the title track, the freewheeling country-rock finale “Get Back”) amid silly jams and a trio of wonderfully ragged performances recorded on January 30, 1969, when the Beatles took to the roof of Apple HQ and gave their final live show.
To be certain, Abbey Road is the neater Beatle conclusion—it even ends with “The End.” But if the saga must wrap with Let It Be, the record is a reminder that no one is infallible, you can’t force inspiration, and nothing lasts forever. Also: The Beatles at their worst were still pretty great.
Read on for our track-by-track take of this endearing fiasco—a record that might be deemed a five-star classic were it made by anyone other than John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
“Two of Us”: Supposedly a love song from Paul to his soon-to-be-wife Linda, this jaunty acoustic tale of two crazy raincoat-clad drifters careening through life on someone else’s dime almost certainly references McCartney’s relationship with Lennon. Reality creeps in with that line about how they’re “chasing paper” and “getting nowhere,” but ever-plucky Paul puts on a brave face, singing with that trademark Macca warmth and ending with the spoken-word assertion, “We’re going home—you better believe it. Goodbye.”
“Dig a Pony”: Pulled from the rooftop show, “Dig a Pony” is Lennon in Bob Dylan mode, rattling off semi-sensical phrases over a soulful blues-rock backing anchored by his own scratchy rhythm guitar, some mournful lead work from Harrison, and a lowdown Paul-and-Ringo groove. It’s Lennon’s only genuine contribution to the project, and as a tossed-off trifle he’d later dismiss, it’s a reminder that he and the boys could still make something from nothing—even amid chilly atmospheric conditions and chillier interpersonal vibes.
“Across the Universe”: Lennon’s other key Let It Be track was born in 1968 and originally issued on a World Wildlife Foundation charity album. Here, it gets the full Spector treatment, and low and behold, the lush orchestration give John’s ponderous words the stateliness and sophistication you want from a song about tumbling through the cosmos in search of the meaning of life. It’s among the most beautiful things Lennon ever did.
“I Me Mine”: Tracked in April 1970 with everyone but Lennon present, “I Me Mine” famously stands as the last new Beatles song recorded before the group’s split. Funny that it’s a Harrison tune—and a corker at that, an attack on egotism that turns from doomy 6/8 orch-pop ballad to scorching ‘50s-style rocker. In keeping with the spirit of the lyrics, Harrison shares the spotlight with Paul, who’s an absolute demon on keyboards.
“Dig It”: Originally a much longer song, this 51-second studio vamp finds Lennon spitting Dylan wordplay in Mick Jagger fashion over a keyboard-heavy groove. It’s a nice bit of levity before Paul gets all serious on the subsequent title track.
“Let It Be”: As with “Yesterday,” Paul owes this, the final Beatles single released while the group was still together, to a dream. It featured his late mother, Mary, and it inspired him to write this enduring piano ballad about taking life as it comes. The album version is even better, as Spector amps up the orchestration and swaps in an alternate Harrison guitar solo—one that’s meaner, more assertive, and more in line with the assuredness of Paul’s vocal.
“Maggie Mae”: Even shorter than “Dig It,” this shaggy tear through an old Liverpool folk song about a prostitute and a sailor again lightens the mood. The Beatles got away being funny in ways other rock bands simply couldn’t, and it’s great to hear them clowning like schoolmates, even if those days were long gone.
“I’ve Got a Feeling”: The second of three tunes taken from the rooftop gig, “I’ve Got a Feeling” is a melding of two seemingly incongruous numbers: a sunny McCartney love song that gives the tune its title and “Everybody Had a Hard Year,” written by John after he’d divorced his first wife, discovered hard drugs, and been busted for weed possession alongside Yoko, who later suffered a miscarriage. As with the Sgt. Pepper’s tune “Getting Better,” the combo of their glass-half-full and glass-half-empty sensibilities makes for a richer song, and Paul’s exuberant blues-rock hollering contrasts nicely with John’s staid, cynical cataloging of what everybody’s been up to.
“One After 909”: Written by John as a teenager and first recorded by the Beatles in 1963, this old-school chugger proves a highlight of the rooftop concert, as John and Paul forget they’re bearded rivals at the close of the ‘60s and let loose like a couple of mop-tops or greasy ‘50s rocker cats. The performance shows up on the album, and even without the accompanying footage, the tune crackles like nothing else on the album. Props to Harrison for peeling off one of his coolest solos since “I Saw Her Standing There.”
“The Long and Winding Road”: Maybe Paul had a point. Spector’s orchestration gives this weepy ballad—Paul’s response to the band’s unraveling—a glitzy jumpsuit-Elvis feel. That said, Spector had a crummy rhythm track to work with, and with its super-earnest, almost schmaltzy lyrics, the song wears its strings like the King rocked sequins—which is to say pretty well. The public must have agreed: “The Long and Winding Road” reached No. 1 and gave the Beatles their 20th and final chart-topping American single.
“For You Blues”: “Same old 12-bar blues,” Harrison jokes, and sure enough, that’s what this song is: a standard-issue bluesy romp memorable mostly for John’s slide guitar, Paul’s creative piano playing (there’s paper stuck between the strings), and George’s own self-effacing commentary. “Elmore James got nothing on this, baby,” he says with a laugh, as if to admit that whatever he and the boys are up to, it ain’t authentic blues.
“Get Back”: Whether JoJo and Loretta are code for John and Yoko or just a couple of wayward characters Paul made up, the album’s would-be title track is a crisp, easy-does-‘er country-rock nugget featuring nimble picking from Harrison, some funky vamping from guest keyboardist (and all-around tension alleviator) Billy Preston, and nasally McCartney vocals not unlike those Dylan would use on his soon-to-be-recorded twang-out Nashville Skyline. “Get Back” was originally a send-up of England’s pervasive anti-immigration sentiments, and in its apolitical finished version, it retains enough humor to suggest Paul knows he and the gang can never truly go home.