Monday, 1 March 2010

The BEATLES: Let It Be

(#77: 23 May 1970, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Two Of Us/Dig A Pony/Across The Universe/I Me Mine/Dig It/Let It Be/Maggie Mae/I’ve Got A Feeling/One After 909/The Long And Winding Road/For You Blue/Get Back

What would have happened – and how different would this tale have been – if the internet had existed in 1969? Would there have been online forum petitions, flooded comments boxes at the Beatles blog, a tug of war of engagement between musicians and audience, demanding their split or reformation? Would the Beatles even have split?

One thing which is pretty certain is that records like Let It Be – or indeed the album which follows it in this tale – would probably not have had to have been released; these scraps of studio flummoxery would have been preserved as downloads, and contractual obligations to United Artists notwithstanding there wouldn’t have been a documentary; a permanent studio webcam would have been less obtrusive and perhaps allowed the fermenting of better relationships. As things were in 1969, the Beatles were obliged to sweat under intrusive camera lighting (to improve the cinematic “atmosphere”), everybody was getting in everybody else’s way and the tension was axe-cuttable.

The docufilm of Let It Be was for some years a regular presence on Saturday afternoon BBC2 and is largely unwatchable, since we are faced with four grumbling gents slowly approaching middle age, clearly fed up with each other but equally as clearly unable to cut their respective dummies loose. The preserved “arguments” are at best mild – the excised footage, allegedly including at least one marathon punch-up, would have been moderately more illuminating – but the group’s mutual boredom is contagious and the closing rooftop busking too late and too underpowered to change the film’s drearifying impact. Consider the four photographs portrayed on the album’s cover; a cover which uniquely shows each Beatle to be almost completely unconnected to the next (even the collages of Hard Day’s and Revolver, and the deceivingly placid blankness of the White Album cover, strongly imply an unbreakable bond). Three of them are gazing towards the West, in the open air; the fourth, resembling his not-so-improbable twin Brian Wilson in his beard, is inside (against a wall of bloodied red), gazing abstractedly towards the East. George looks a bit like Carlos Santana; all of them look as though they would rather be in The Band.

It is the least thought-through of all official Beatle album covers, but despite its initial deluxe presentation in a box set, complete with substantial booklet containing photographs, studio chat transcripts, etc., Let It Be is the least consciously thought-through of all official Beatles albums. At a shade over thirty-five minutes it is also the shortest Beatles album since Revolver. About its darkened margins there is more than a sense of “beat the bootleggers,” since the material for what was originally going to be titled Get Back had been circulating in various forms for the best part of a year prior to the album’s release. Typically it is the only album which I have considered for this tale in its recently-remastered CD format; the sound is clearer and punchier than the LP original but I am not too convinced that much of newness or worth is brought to the existing, disintegrating table.

All of this having been said, there are many moments on Let It Be when the group still have enough wit about them to convince us that they’re having fun; certainly much of the record sounds lighter, less forced or drained, than the two studio albums which chronologically bookend it. There is the definite sense of a façade methodically being dropped; just four lads mucking around in the studio in a way which in another, more subtly manufactured age would have been termed “Unplugged.” The dream of salvation is discarded; this, they appear to be saying, is all that we ever were. Yet the larks are balanced by the far more anxious cries of abandoned doves, two of its songs being among the most painful that the group ever conceived.

It starts agreeably enough with Lennon cheerfully announcing “Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf-Aids” before segueing into what still might be my favourite track on the album, “Two Of Us.” Like Paul and Art, John and Paul have temporarily made their peace, jointly looking back on those distant Liverpool breezes when they would swap Everlys B-sides and riffs. And yet again it’s the theme which dominates the albums of this time: “We’re on our way home” (even though the pair are “going nowhere” in a different sense), “We’re going home.” At this point the concept of “chasing papers” hasn’t hardened into the chastising hardness of “You Never Give Me Your Money”; the rhythm is that of a rolling canter. But the lazy dreams of past escapes are balanced by a moderately sinister middle-eight which swerves upwards from the song’s basic G major key to a B flat, in which they warn that their joint memories are “longer than the road that stretches out a-HEAAAD”; there is instilled the possibility that they might possibly not find “home,” that the road has proved too long, as implied by the casual whistling of the end melody of “Hello Goodbye” and the momentary but emphatic bass guitar comment at fadeout.

Lennon follows with “Dig A Pony” and again there is the feeling of something not quite developed, in this case the anything goes but DON’T FORGET WHAT MATTERS template of “Come Together.” Over a restless 3/4 shuffle Lennon rather angrily tries to reassure us (if that’s not a contradiction) that everything still doesn’t matter, that reason is still up in the air, that words are simply what we make of them and/or want them to mean (hello, Lewis Carroll), but his air of desperation is a bit like Derek Johnson’s sleevenote to On Stage With The George Mitchell Minstrels in that it virtually demands adherence to something whose time has now passed. Eventually he cuts straight to the howling point: “ALL! I WANT! IS YOU!!” followed by the requisite rhetorical pause. As a band performance it works quite superbly – hear Starr’s final snare and cymbals rush as they reach the song’s climax – but the song’s essence is, in a very literal sense, half-baked.

“Across The Universe” drifts in as from another universe, as well it might have done; dating from early 1968 at the time of the group’s Maharishi infatuation, the song finds Lennon dreaming of a better-imagined world – we’ll be coming back to that too in due course – and his chant of “Jai guru deva om” slightly belies his contented sigh that “nothing’s gonna change my world.” He appears to be breathing the song, each bar line coming in and out of his mouth like fugitive smoke clouds; his words coming out of a paper cup rimmed by cyanide. The song was never ideally recorded – the original was speeded up a semitone and bookended with library birdsong for Spike Milligan’s World Wildlife Fund benefit album Nothing’s Gonna Change Our World, and the more basic takes which appear on Let It Be – Naked and Anthology 3 don’t quite gel, emotionally or structurally – but the Spector-doctored version which appears here is undoubtedly the strangest; the strings and choir wobble in and out of phased distortion, as though a neighbouring radio station, perhaps Radio 3 playing the “Neptune” finale of Holst’s Planets Suite, is intruding into the song’s wavelength. The occasional “It’s All At The Co-Op Now” quacks of wah-wah guitar are incongruous but the song’s unfinished quality makes it a disturbing listen; I thought of early Animal Collective and at a stretch even My Bloody Valentine. It does anything but reassure.

George enters and goes straight to the heart of the shared pain; “I Me Mine” was almost the last thing the Beatles recorded together as a group (and even then without Lennon, who was away on holiday in Denmark) and one of the most violent things they ever recorded; Harrison’s aghastly agonised vocal virtually tears down the Peter Sarstedt Gallic waltz fabric, admitting even to himself that any grief was purely self-inflicted and directed (“Even these tears – I me mine, I me mine, I me mine”). Again, the overdubbed orchestra exists as a hesitant phantasm before the band rip the song apart by going into a foursquare hard rock stomp; McCartney’s closing organ and piano comments seem like ghosts already fled from the group’s flesh.

“Let It Be” itself remains a problematic song. At heart a simple act of self-reassurance on the part of McCartney – virtually sleepless at night over worries about the group at the time of the White Album until his mother appeared in a dream and told him just to allow stuff to happen and roll with it. But there is, about its somewhat stentorian and over-confident air, a coldness at the song’s centre, as though the singer cannot quite convince himself that it’s not all over, that fate is irreversible. There is also the unwelcome self-righteousness of the seminary as the song takes on the form of a reproachful lecture. The song is markedly more aggressive in its album form than it was on the 45 version; Harrison’s guitar is forthright, always ramming into the song’s cornices; Starr’s pattering tom-toms are more pronounced; and Billy Preston’s organised Fender Rhodes and organ more or less hold the song together. But its swipe of an attempt at a benign epitaph pales against “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – Lennon thought the song a “BOTW” ripoff but it had been written a year ahead – and, irony of ironies, as the final official Beatles single in the UK it was held off number one by, of all things, a show tune – Lee Marvin grunting his way through “Wand’rin’ Star” from Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon (and incidentally inventing Tom Waits) – as though the Beatles might as well not have happened. Since then it has been used and abused to mean anything and everything – thus the bitter consequence of “Dig A Pony” – most sordidly in the 1987 Ferry Aid version, where fatal corporate failure and laxity must be allowed to proceed and prosper. Lennon, who had the final say in the track sequencing on Let It Be, contemptuously placed it between “Dig It,” an excerpt from an extended freeform ramble which fades in with a variant on “Like A Rolling Stone,” taking in the BBC, BB King, Doris Day and Matt Busby before fading out again into Lennon’s pretend Just William choirboy announcing “Hark The Angels Come” (double entendre implied), then “Let It Be,” then straight out again into a drunken Scouse ramble through the ancient prostitution lament “Maggie Mae,” reeling like the Spinners on gin before stuttering to a premature halt. Lennon was never much for Catholic displays of fortitude.

“I’ve Got A Feeling” works as soundly as a group performance as “Dig A Pony” and as a song is better structured, being that rarest of 1969 phenomena, a genuine Lennon/McCartney collaboration; over a hard rock backdrop, McCartney arrives, via a howling vocal which threatens permanent hoarseness as he leaps out of his comfort range, at a similar conclusion to Harrison on “Long, Long, Long” (“All these years I’ve been wandering around/Wondering how come nobody told me/All that I was looking for was somebody/Who looked like you”) while Lennon counts off the trends of the year they have just lived (“Everybody pulled their socks up/Everybody put their foot down”), followed by a mechanical slow-motion guitar blues scale up-and-down unison. Eventually both voices and melody lines combine in an effective duality.

Then it’s back to where it all began at the 1957 church fete; “One After 909,” virtually the first thing either Lennon or McCartney wrote, taken here as a spirited skiffle flashback – “once” is answered by Ringo’s snare, “twice” by Preston’s downward piano swipe – with something of the vim of their early records, if not quite the essence; Harrison mixes Carl Perkins and Eric Clapton in his guitar comments and once more we are “down at the station” awaiting that train which never quite departs or arrives. The concluding “Welllllll”s are brilliantly choreographed in tandem with Starr’s climactic cymbal splashes, and even Lennon’s closing “Danny Boy” ad libs can’t dispel the track’s essential good and simple nature.

But it’s only a short step from the beginning to the end; “One After 909” reminds us of how it started, whereas “The Long And Winding Road” – originally written as a proposed 1968 single for Tom Jones; much to the latter’s regret, he was unable to go ahead with it as he was committed to releasing “Delilah” – finds the Beatles at the bitterest of all ends. McCartney sings the song like a man who is genuinely at the end of his tether – hoarse, not quite rhythmic, pleading even – or like the subject of “She’s Leaving Home” furtively attempting to recall what she escaped from in the first place. What if, like the Shangri-Las, there is no home still in existence? His “washed away” is the most regretful of throwaways. His inner tension (“Many times I’ve been alone” etc.) rises to meet the top of a Sisyphean mountain which he must climb again and again; he is trying to recognise or formulate a door at the end of this road, wants more than anyone or anything to get back in – to return home – but there is not much evidence of fulfillable hope in his vocal.

And there is the unavoidable question of Richard Hewson’s arrangement, about which nobody seems to have been able to find a good word, and with good reason. Mike Leander’s chart for “She’s Leaving Home” was more “expansive” than George Martin’s characteristic, vibratoless voicings but didn’t fall into the abyss of schlock; it matched the suburban cancer which its protagonist was doing her best to excise. But here the strings and choir, though superficially reminiscent of “Good Night,” are intrusive, even though their principal function is to distract the listener’s attention from what is essentially a guide vocal demo, with Lennon’s bass – ironically, significantly more prominent on the 2009 remaster - either unsure of the song’s progressions or actively conspiring to undermine them. Martin loathed it, McCartney more or less ended the group formally when he heard it, Lennon and Spector shrugged their shoulders and said, well, what else could we have done? And Richard Hewson went on to be responsible for the RAH Band’s extraordinary 1977 glam-punk-schaffel fusion “The Crunch,” not to mention that strange 1985 update of “The Long And Winding Road” to which I shall be returning in due course.

All that is left is for George to essay a basic 12-bar blues (“For You Blue”) in which he expresses simple and happy love for Patti – it was at around this time that Clapton began to compose “Layla” - together with some affectionate Elmore James takeoffs, Lennon as unsure on slide guitar as he was on bass (though he does acknowledge this in his mid-solo comment of “Elmore James got NUTHIN’ on THIS!”). McCartney again contributes some interestingly askew piano lines.

Finally we reach the rooftop, and “Get Back,” a considerably less polished mix and edit than the 45 version, but with still enough easy economy, space and punch to work as a last push towards home (“Go home”). Lennon and Preston’s solos are sparse sparks of benevolent electricity, and there is a real, snarling drive towards the rush of each chorus; the most basic thing they’d done since “Love Me Do.” Instead of the single’s benign extended fadeout, however, the song here finishes midway; Mrs Starr is thanked for her attendance and Lennon hopes that they passed the audition. It is clear, however, that the Beatles as a group had no real way of passing into the seventies; their time was unique and already in part fenced off, and already we were chasing the receding paper scraps of memory. The original Let It Be album was cleverly constructed to hide any real sense of dispute, and keen to promote the fun aspects of the endeavour, but when eventually stripped and recast as Let It Be - Naked the fun was found to have vacated the premises and a ghastly emptiness to be in situ. And in an internet-present world of 1970 there would have been other songs, other suggestions; but who would have monitored whose music, and was anyone still prepared to listen to all of it? This tale is certainly far from finished with the Beatles, but in terms of albums as proto-blogs is only reaching a beginning.