Friday, 20 January 2012
Just before Christmas Rolling Stone Magazine released their updated lists of the greatest guitarists as chosen by a panel of people in the know. Considering they only did their last list in 2004 there were one heck of a lot of changes (and some surprising additions of AAA members including two Byrds which shows how their stick has risen in the past seven years) and it’s caused it’s fair share of controversy in the past month. For the record here’s where the AAA stars came: 95) Roger McGuinn 93) Paul Simon 91) Dave Davies 55) John Lennon 52) Clarence White 47) Stephen Stills 46) Jerry Garcia 44) Mark Knopfler 37) Mick Taylor 17) Neil Young 14) David Gilmour 11) George Harrison 10) Pete Townshend 4) Keith Richards You can see the full list of entrants here (and no surprise that Jimi Hendrix is #1 two polls running, with Eric Clapton close behind): http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/100-greatest-guitarists-20111123 Actually I think it’s a pretty decent list even with a few too many heavy metallers and modern day guitarists in there (will we really be rating Jack White this highly in a few decades time? And did Angus Young slip the editors a few fivers?!) but as ever it can improved on so here’s my attempt at listing the top 20 guitarists ever (the rest of the top twenty were featured in our last issue!)
10) Justin Hayward (Moody Blues)
There are those who dismiss the Moodies’ work as ‘lightweight’ and ‘wordy’, something that’s so obviously wrong when you hear any of their records that the person sniping almost invariably hasn’t actually heard any of their records at all. The reason the band got away with such mystical thoughts for 40 years is nearly all down to Justin’s tough guitar sound. A wonderful hybrid of heavy metal and folk, it’s the power behind the throne of such tender love songs as ‘Nights In White Satin’ and such power-charges as ‘Question’. Most fans assume that, as a quintet, the Moodies are full of guitarists – actually Justin is the band’s only guitarist until John Lodge starts duetting on acoustic guitar sometime during the mid-70s (on the ‘Blue Jays’ album). All those dozens of styles – peaceful, noisy, angry, kind, sad, happy, determined, out-of-control – are all from the same guitarist using the same guitar. Few musicians have ever had the depth of Hayward or the ability to place just the right-sounding solo at just the right point of each song.
Guitar highlight: ‘The Story In Your Eyes’, an extraordinary snarling rocker about a forthcoming apocalypse which, thanks to Justin’s searing guitar-work, sounds all too believable (‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favour’, 1971)
9) Dave Davies (The Kinks)
I’m very pleased to see the younger Davies brother finally get his dues in the Rolling Stone list, although if anything his placement at 91 is a bit on the low side. After all, how many angry, erratic solos were there in the world before ‘You Really Got Me’ came along? None, that’s the answer. The fact that Dave could not only copy that style (created by slashing the cones of his amplifier speakers with a razorblade) but develop it for ‘All Day And All Of The Night’ and ‘Til The End Of The Day’ is incredible. Dave never stopped learning either, developing his style along with Ray’s songwriting when his brother got folkier, more ‘English’ and whimsical and yet his songs still often dripped with sarcasm and bitterness. I fully recommend Dave’s solo albums to anyone with an interest in Kinks-ness – ‘Chosen People’ in particular is the logical development of the band’s sound in the 1980s even more than the band albums – and they’re the only place you can hear all of Dave’s ‘styles’ in the same place, instead of progressing across successive albums. An inspiration to everyone from Pete Townshend through to today’s heavy metal wannabes (‘All Day’ is still a favourite as a warm-up piece, full of spiky energy and chords that are a joy to play), Dave Davies is a true one of a kind, with a highly original speaking style brother Ray once compared to his speaking style and overall energy (‘very fast and chatty and very...individual!’)
Guitar highlight: I know we’ve mentioned it already, but just cast your mind back to 1964 and hearing ‘You Really Got Me’ for the first time, before all the pale imitations that came since. There’s a whole world of possibilities opening up there in just one single solo.
8) David Gilmour (Pink Floyd)
Gilmour always rates highly in these polls – no surprise there, really, given that he virtually created the 1970s image of a tanned, long haired minstrel doing strange things to his guitar and floating off into a crowd of weirdness. It seems amazing that the Floyd could ever have come up with a guitarist as individual and mellifluous as their former leader, Syd Barrett, but Gilmour was the perfect choice: equally adept at thrilling psychedelia and going out on a limb as far as ever, but also more firmly rooted to rock and folk at the same time. Like many others on this list, Gilmour also has such a strong individual style that you can tell within seconds that it’s him playing and it’s a thrilling, wondrously moving sound even though – unlike many others on this list – Gilmour generally plays quietly, cleanly and precisely (unless he’s doing a Syd Barrett song). It speaks volumes that even when Roger Waters takes over the band almost completely in the early 80s he still asked Gilmour to play some solos on ‘The Wall’ and ‘The Final Cut’ in order to make them sound ‘like the Floyd’. Some fans are known to travel all over the world in order to see how Gilmour’s solos vary from night to night – and there’s a bucketloads of his performances on Youtube, stripped down to just how the solos in his songs altered from one performance to another. That kind of devotion is special indeed –m but then Gilmour is a special kind of guitarist, responsible for many of the best solos in music.
Guitar highlight: That moment in ‘Comfortably Numb’ when all hope seems extinguished and the character ‘Pink’ is doomed, only for that chorus and that solo to kick in and for one glorious moment we think everything’s going to be OK (That goes double for the stage performances, where Gilmour plays on top of the wall built right across the stage...)
7) Tony Hicks (The Hollies)
Alas even though 2011 was ‘The Hollies’ year’ (see news and views 127) their guitarist-in-residence still couldn’t make it onto the Rolling Stone list. That’s despite a string of well known singles (nearly all with wonderful solos – just think of the opening whine of ‘The Air That I Breathe’) and equally wonderful but lesser known album tracks and b-sides. Few guitarists were as respected on the 1960s music scene as Tony – there’s even a wonderful episode of Blue Peter on Youtube from the late 60s where the production team ‘borrow’ him to show off a new wireless guitar simply because he is so respected – and few experimented as readily. The Hollies influences are wide and eclectic and Tony (one of the band’s three songwriters) was a big part of that sound, veering from gritty rock to folk to country to psychedelia without a second thought. Tony even made the banjo popular again, after using it on a string of recordings between 1966 and 68! And oh that sound, rich and full and clean as you like – why the heck isn’t he on the Rolling Stones list?!
Guitar highlight: ‘Hard Hard Year’, a folky head-hanging ballad from ‘Would You Believe?’ (1965) that breaks away for one of the most emotional solos of all time, as Tony powers his way through a stunning solo drenched in feedback which is one of the noisiest solos ever put on record up to that time. Stunning.
6) Bert Jansch (Pentangle)
When the 2004 Rolling Stone magazine came out I remember visiting a few music forums and seeing what people thought of that last list and one comment in particular caught my eye. A fan, not unlike myself, had gone through the whole list, saying what he thought and adding comments to everybody as well as saying whether he thought they should be higher, lower or replaced with someone else entirely. Everyone else got a paragraph – Bert’s entry simply got ‘I don’t know the guy’s work’. That says it all, as does the fact that this second Rolling Stone list misses Jansch out entirely, despite the guitarist making the news just a few months ago with his death. But in the day there was no figure more respected than Jansch, a real musician’s musician who shied away from fame or any activity that got in the way of his playing, living only for the on-going love affair with his guitar. That devotion really showed, in both his solo and his Pentangle records, which are full of some of the richest and most varied sounds around. It’s no coincidence that Neil Young himself hired Bert as his ‘warm-up act’ on tour a few years back and refused to play with him too often because ‘I’d get blown out of the water’ – Bert’s ability to make an acoustic guitar sit up and speak all the hidden emotions of a song has never been bettered. It goes without saying that he’ll be sorely missed by whole legions of fans around the world who’ll miss Bert’s distinctive, mature sound.
Guitar highlight: We already mentioned it on our ‘tribute’ special (news and views 117) but ‘People On The Highway’ (‘Reflections’, 1971) is a stunning song, with a stunning guitar accompaniment to match.
5) Nils Lofgren
As we keep saying on this site, Nils Lofgren has such talent, charisma and ability, he should be a household name, not just a curio for collectors of Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen records who want to know what the rhythm guitarist sounded like on his own. Nils is a guitarist in the fast and fluid mould, one who like Dave Davies manages to combine pure theatre and performance (plying guitars while jumping up and down on a trampoline, playing his bother Tom’s guitar in the middle of a solo, etc) with solos that are nevertheless the perfect emotional foil for the songs. Nils’ songs are often about other people and the damage he sees in the world around him, with Lofgren never afraid to dilute the nastyness and violence around him, but more than most of the artists we cover Nils has a big big heart and his guitar solos somehow manage to show great empathy and sadness as well as brittleness and despair. Again like Dave, who uses this talent all too infrequently, Nils is just at home on an acoustic as an electric and Nils’ live acoustic, almost ‘unplugged’ record is one of his most popular with fans. Whether flying round some exotic chords at two hundred miles an hour (as he does on ‘Moontears’) or picking out a solo of just four or five notes (as he does on ‘Soft Fun’), Nils hits the emotional spot every single time.
Guitar highlight: ‘Moon Tears’ (from ‘1+1’ by Grin, Nils’ first band), a tight compact two minute rocker that spirals more and more out of control with each twist of fate and ends up in a sudden, sighing, disconsolate mess. The multi-dubbed solo in the middle is an outrageous mix of noise, mayhem and sadness.
4) Jorma Kaukanen (Jefferson Airplane)
We’re in danger of forgetting how brave and inventive the Airplane were, after several line-up shifts into Jefferson Starship and Starship, to the point where the band are now the butt of jokes about the 1960s. But back in the day there was nothing in music like it – soaring harmonies, killer angry brittle songs and an instrumental attack no one could match. Jorma’s guitar power was a key part of that driving sound, angular and odd sounding and yet hauntingly beautiful too, a perfect encapsulation of all the raw harmony and bitter-sweetness the Airplane represented at their best. Like the best guitarists, no one could match Jorma for intensity or for control and what he did with feedback was incredible, a skill and talent matched only by the next musician on our list. Despite ending up a talented blue player, Jorma really was our premier psychedelic guitarist, always looking to push music that extra mile and yet still very much a part of a ‘band’ and the perfect accompaniment to the three-pronged vocal attack of Marty Balin, Grace Slick and Paul Kantner.
Guitar highlight: There is no other song in my record collection quite like ‘The Ballad Of You and Me and Pooneil’ (from ‘After Bathing At Baxters’, 1967), a psychedelic masterpiece about companionship and trust, driven by a single shrill note of wobbly feedback that in true Airplane style is one of the most beautiful and scary things it will ever be your privilege to hear. The solo in the middle of this song is pretty extraordinary too!
3) Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead)
If you’ve ever heard a full Grateful Dead concert – and there’s about a million of them out there officially now, so there’s something wrong with you if you haven’t – you can’t help but marvel at Garcia’s ability to play just the right solo at just the right length across a full concert. Sure Jerry’s timing slips a bit in the 1980s when he falls ill with enough problems to fell the strongest of men but at any time throughout the 1960s and 70s he never lets the listener down once, simply living breathing and absorbing music. The Dead’s naysayers always dismiss them as lazy hippies, all too willing to suck the life of a song by stretching it too far, but I say in contrast that Jerry was the hardest-working musician that probably ever lived. Every Dead concert was long and every Dead concert was unique, not to mention the dozens of Dead studio albums, the dozens of solo or collaborative non-Dead projects and the literally hundreds of guest appearances on other people’s albums (including the Airplane and CSNY families). That’s a ridiculous body of work for someone who died in their early 50s, but then Jerry was special, everyone knew that and as articulate in his speech as his guitar abilities. No wonder he became the unofficial spokesperson for whole generation and the go-to voice every time the media wanted an intelligent voice to speak about peace and love (and David Crosby was unavailable). And what a player – not flashy, not bold, not quick but oh so tuned into what a song is all about and what it needs. All this from a player who was missing a finger on his right hand, after a childhood accident. Incredible. I still miss him dearly and I don’t think I’m the only one.
Guitar highlight: This was a tough one, but I’ve had to go with any of the live versions of ‘Morning Dew’ around (eg the ‘Europe 72’ version) – of all the cover songs the Dead played, none was better suited to drawing out Garcia’s deep compassion for human beings than this warning about nuclear war.
2) Neil Young (solo plus CSNY and Buffalo Springfield)
What a band the Springfield was – including guitarists #1 and #2 on our list. Undoubtedly both Stills and Young got the best out of each other, their very different personalities and guitar styles and their sense of competition getting the best out of most players, but even on their own these musicians are special. Neil is the tortoise out the two players, more likely to play long slow involved solos that have the unique ability to swirl together into a hypnotic whole that sounds unlike anything ever played (‘Like A Hurricane’ being the best example of this). And what a sound that is – a very human sound that somehow sounds like a wounded animal fighting for life and yet still so very very noble and beautiful. Neil’s guitar-work is also ridiculously varied and just as well because it’s needed to have been, sounding the part whatever genre Neil’s concoting songs in this time around (in rough order throughout his career Shadows-type shuffle, rock, psychedelia, country, folk, punk, heavy metal, electronica, rockabilly, blues, grunge, sea shanties and whatever the heck genre ‘Greendale’ was meant to be) and always with every note ringing true. Whether carefully planned or spontaneously wrought from nowhere in the middle of a song, the guitar solos are nearly always the most special bits of any Neil Young performance and, arguably, of our whole record collections.
Guitar highlight: For two extremes, see ‘Cinnamon Girl’ (‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’, 1970) for the greatest controlled solo, all played with fierce attack on a single note and the live version of ‘Dangerbird’ (‘Year Of The Horse’ 1997) for unhinged total madness and a harrowing haunting ghost of a guitar part that will stay in your dreams forever.
1) Stephen Stills (solo plus CSNY and Buffalo Springfield)
For me, though, the winner just has to be Stills. No one worked harder, no one pushed further and no one covered the ground that Stills did between the mid-60s and the mid-70s and even now his acoustic playing is still the best in the business. Whether howling blues with sincerity, picking out isolated notes of such sadness or rocking with the best riffs in the business, Stills never ever played a bad solo in all the years of collecting and listening I’ve dedicated to this man’s art (and there have been many of those, I can assure you). Rough and ready enough to spark the most disinterested of crowds or as intricate and subtle a backing as three-part soaring harmonies could wish to have, few musicians have such a natural talent as Stills and yet put in the hours of working and rer-working ideas to make good ideas sound great. The modern slant of CSNY is that Young is the one whose been propping up the talent in the band and the one who is the moist natural instinctive musician of the pack. Absolute nonsense. Stills’ guitar solos used to be legendary and, thanks to the many hundreds of bootleg tapes lovingly catalogued by still-awed fans, we can still hear how drop-dead amazingly Stills could be. That said, what better concerts were there than the ones that found Stills and Young at the top of their game, each one goading on the other’s genius? Absolutely first-class...
Guitar highlight: ‘Bluebird’ (from ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’ 1967), which veers from noisy rocker to wigged out psychedelic masterclass and ends with an Appalachian mountain acoustic coda, all played to perfection with Stills taking the lead. Stunning.
Think we missed out an obvious AAA candidate? Let us know on our forum! Till then, thanks for reading and see you next week!
The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Beatles Is Available To Buy By Clicking Here
The Beatles “Let It Be” (1969)
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 and as a special bonus Don’t Let Me Down (a b-side included on ‘Let It Be Naked’)
...Or ‘I Dig Let It Be’ by Alan’s Archives and the Deaf Aids. News Views and Music Issue 130, because the naysayes have had too many oats.
The general impression of The Beatles’ farwell LP (recorded before ‘Abbey Road’ in January 1969, but not released till January 1970 for various reasons as you’ll see below) is that it’s a disappointment, that it badly let the side down after a ridiculously impressive run of albums and that the fact that it came out as one of the very first LPs of the 1970s set up the ‘dream is over’ bittersweet feeling of the decade a bit too comfortably. It’s easy to see why that might be: we’ve all heard the Beatles moaning about this album the minute it was left unfinished and the film is an uncomfortably bumpy ride at best for those who want to remember the fab four as Gods and giants. There’s a famous quote from the NME about this album that calls it a ‘cardboard tombstone...and a sad and tatty epitaph for a group that gave us so much and defined a decade’. And that’s really the problem: ‘Let It Be’ is always seen as the runt of The Beatles’ litter because we all wanted that last album to be a much bigger, bolder and influential album than this.
But there’s an honesty and integrity about this album that makes even it’s rough-worn edges more palatable to me than the glossy but formless ‘Abbey Road’ and even though it’s far from being my favourite Beatles album, it’s also far from being my worst. The only real ‘problem’ with this album is that it’s a hodgepodge of sessions, some of them live in the studio, some of them live on the roof of the Apple building, some of them tinkered with after the event in an attempt to sound less rough than they really are (and ‘Across The Universe’ added to the line-up despite being 18 months old at the time). All of these songs are trying to serve different purposes, with very different results. Had the band stuck to their original plan – to record these ‘rehearsals’ for posterity before making a ‘proper’ record, hopefully the soundtrack of a live show recorded in London’s then-new Roundhouse venue – then it could have been a world-beater; as it is ‘Let It Be’s release was like asking a frenzied audience starved of Beatles product to expect a four-course dinner and then giving them left-overs.
Interestingly, it’s the recordings that are the closest to the original intention of a raw and ready band that sound the best here (‘Get Back’ ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ ‘Dig A Pony’) and there’s enough evidence of greatness here to suggest that Paul McCartney’s original idea for this album wasn’t the travesty so many people have since taken it to be. To readers of The Beatles Book (and other media) this new Beatles album was to have been a mirror of the musical industry’s return to rock after years of psychedelia had gone the other way; a chance to end the decade on the same note as it started: that of optimism and simple fun. To The Beatles themselves it was McCartney afraid that, without anything to occupy them, the band would just disintegrate anyway and an attempt to re-kindle the magic of the best parts of ‘The White Album’ when it was all four Beatles in the same room, eyeball to eyeball, without any of the complexities of the recent past (‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun, recorded in the Abbey Road boot cupboard (!) is seen as the main inspiration for this idea). On that basis, turning The Beatles back into the ‘band’ they had once been, rehearsing songs for a show intended some time in the near future in the Spring of 1969, sounds like a fine idea. It wasn’t just McCartney who was enthusiastic either: Lennon spends most of the first few days of the sessions telling anyone who’ll listen what fun he had playing live at the Rolling Stones’ ‘Rock and Roll Circus’ just a month before in December 1968; Harrison has spent his free time guesting unannounced at shows by good friends Delaney and Bonnie (now out on CD, though George’s presence is hard to hear) and Starr wants a return to the ‘good ‘ole days’, without the hours of waiting in the studio to play.
The problems came when someone somewhere suggested that seeing The Beatles working on this project would make an entertaining documentary of four men recapturing their past glories. Alas instead the cameras simply caught images of a band breaking up, thanks to the sessions taking place in the cold drafty studios of Twickenham (the only place available at short notice – The Who later bought the studio up to save it for posterity and use in their own films in 1978), at the ungodly hour of 9am (because the cameramen would only work a 9-5 shift), with the cameras capturing each and every moment. Had this project been suggested earlier in their careers, when The Beatles were still hungry for fame and loved being in the same room as each other it could have worked – five short months after the rifts of The White Album it just brought all those wounds to the surface.
You may be interested to note that for the one and only time there is no producer’s credit for this album. Effectively it’s the work of Glynn Johns, the band’s long-term tape engineer who had been doing a solid job for them ever since 1963, but alas he simply doesn’t have the gravitas of a George Martin to tell the band when they’re hot and when they’re, well, not. George Martin was intended to be available for the ‘finished’ product after The Beatles stopped rehearsing and began recording properly, by the way, and even attended these sessions briefly but hated what he’d heard (Lennon telling him on day one that they didn’t want any of his ‘jiggery-pokery’ can’t have helped matters either). Add in the fact that film director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (a good pal of Lennon’s after working with him on the equally ill-fated-yet-under-rated Rolling Stones Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus’ in Xmas 1968) was there breathing down the band’s necks looking for some good shots and interrupting band discussions for close-ups and clapperboards and you have a recipe for disaster. In short, there are too many people trying to be in charge of what should have been a light and fluffy bit of fun after all the band’s hard work of 1968 – instead ‘Let It Be’ became an album with everyone involved afraid of taking charge in case he loses the support of the others and something of a diplomatic nightmare when the band needed some time apart from each other.
Too many cooks then, but even if the end result isn’t a multi-layered, gloriously coated cake like ‘Revolver’, it’s not without its plus points. I really love the chance to hear The Beatles ‘without their trousers on’ as Lennon wittily put it, slowly putting the pieces of their jigsaw into place as they get to know material better (there’s a case to be made that without such a raw, incomplete album in their discography we might never have had such demand for the ‘Anthology’ sets). In fact I wish there were more of them but, with nobody wanting to go into the no-man’s land of tapes of hundreds of hours of tapes, The Beatles let it languish for about eight months until Lennon finally got his new friend Phil Spector in to work on his record. Critics are divided as to whether this was a good idea or not – frankly, it’s a terrible idea. Phil Spector was famous for making the simple sound massive (presumably the idea Lennon thought he’d be up to the job), but that only works with material intended to sound huge from the beginning – the best of these songs are humble and the two McCartney ballads on the album especially sound hammy and theatrical instead of the simple sighs they are. A far better idea would have been to release this record with the rooftop gig complete on one side of the record and the best of the rest, raw, on the other.
Whilst no one actually did that, there were two other attempts, one in 1969 and the other in 2003, to ‘do the job properly’ and to try to make a cohesive album out of the sprawling month-long sessions. Both of them are flawed, though both are better than the finished product.The first is ‘Get Back’ – the working title for the project and named after the album’s lead-off single (released a full nine months before the album as it happened) – as compiled by Glynn Johns twice over, only to be passed over by all four Beatles. It’s the rawest version around of the songs, with lots more talking before and after the album’s songs, the addition of ‘Get Back’ b-side ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, the odd mini-cover version jam of a rock and roll oldie and no later overdubs as per the finished album or throwback to outtakes as per ‘Across The Universe’ (a longer version of ‘Maggie Mae’, a surprisingly sombre cover of Buddy Holly’s ‘Mailman Bring Me No More Blues and a shambolic cover of The Drifters’ ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’. None of these cover jams are essential listening but they’re all preferable to ‘Universe’ quite frankly). There’s also a few ‘bonus’ versions of songs that break down in the middle, which is actually not as irritating as it sounds and adds a lot of character to the songs. This version, well known to bootleggers though still without an official release, would never have made ‘Let It Be’ the man in the street’s favourite album but it is much easier to listen to and makes a lot more sense, with the sum of the album much more than it’s parts. After all his hard work compiling it twice over (unpaid too), the loss of this album from our Beatles discographies is a complete and utter tragedy.
What many fans do have, though, is ‘Let It Be Naked’, which is almost the same record albeit made with the benefit of 30 years’ hindsight. Essentially Macca’s project, it seems to claim back the ghosts that have haunted him ever since hearing Spector get his way with ‘Let It Be’ and ‘The Long and Winding Road’, plus a few subtle variations elsewhere. Both of these songs sound vastly superior, but the Lennon witticisms around these songs are missing and so is much of the atmosphere. There’s also yet another appalling version of ‘Across The Universe’ substituting both ‘Dig It’ and ‘Maggie Mae’, which seems like a bit of pruning too far. It also throws the baby out with the bathwater, neglecting the few changes Spector made that everyone was happy with (the edit that made ‘I Me Mine’ a proper song rather than a sketch, for instance). In all, it’s better than the finished version of ‘Let It Be’ that came out in 1970, but it’s still not what this album could and should have been. (Plus, who ever came up with that awful title should have been shot, or at least been made to suffer both the unedited version of ‘Dig It’ and ‘What’s The New Mary Jane?’ back to back for a couple of hours...)
There is much to love about this record, though, in any form. Anyone who has seen the film will know the thrill when The Beatles finally put aside their differences and play in public, with their performance so noticeably sharper than it had been in rehearsal that it’s a shame they weren’t persuaded to do another performance to get the definitive version of the other songs here. That thrill is there on the record, too, not just in the film, and even Spector was wise enough to leave the atmospheric chat in before and after a particularly sprightly ‘Get Back’. Our last chance to hear The Beatles play live, just four men (and an enthusiastic Billy Preston) together is a special moment and makes a much more charming and enthusiastic end than their last previous performance at ‘Candlestick Park’ when the band were tired, bored and annoyed with the restrictions of their set-lists. Even if you didn’t know which songs were taken from that concert (and I’ll be telling you that later...), you could probably guess anyway because the gloom of the album is lifted and there’s a spring in everyone’s step.
Even before that, though, there are little trickles of joy throughout this record and these sessions that suggest it wasn’t all as bad as all that. Some of the chat finds the band on fabulous form, enough to suggest that whoever put the film rushes together either didn’t have a sense of humour or his camera missed all the best bits: John and Paul singing ‘Two Of Us’ in a variety of accents (broad Scouse, Cockney, Scots); John and Ringo doing a ventriloquist act (‘I didn’t know that...’); John busking what he can remember of The Who’s ‘A Quick One’ (as performed in the Stones’ Circus); Paul pretending he’s a spy for the Twickenham cameras; John and George discussing how ‘high’ the music is making them and how they can’t wait to come back the next day; an off-key version of ‘Let It Be’ that ends with John yelling ‘get off, you bum!’ Someone somewhere must still have all of this footage, probably still unlabelled and still after a decent historian to go through it piece by piece. We know the extra footage for ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Help!’ got lost (much to director Dick Lester’s anger); we think that ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ is lost too from the titbits we’ve heard over the years (no one seems that sure what happened to it but no one’s ever come forward to say they own it); which leaves a director’s cut extended version of ‘Let It Be’ the one last holy grail for The Beatles’ collector in 2012 (along with the avant garde ‘Carnival Of Light’ from 1966). Please, somebody, put the story right sometime soon...
That just leaves us the songs to discuss. Now, as we’ve mentioned, this album was started barely months after ‘The White Album’ and it’s clear that while McCartney is in a middle of a purple patch Lennon, still suffering the after-effects of drug addiction and coming to terms to his new life with Yoko, isn’t. There’s a famous Lennon quote that says that after about 1966 he only wrote songs on the spot when Paul wanted to go in and record an album – sadly this record shows that up too well and his hand is empty (he doesn’t do an awful lot better on ‘Abbey Road’ either, a few months down the line).It doesn’t help, either, that his best song of the period ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ only appears on the b-side of ‘Get Back’ (and the corresponding ‘Past Masters Volume 2’), but we’ve included it here because the makers of both ‘Get Back’ and ‘Let It Be Naked’ had the sense to include it. McCartney, by contrast, was rarely better, adding ‘Let It Be’ ‘The Long and Winding Road’ and ‘Get Back’ to the list of songs that everyone knows – and ‘Two Of Us’ and ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ that not many people know, but they should. After a dismal second half to 1968 when Paul had split up with long term girlfriend Jane Asher (all the best Macca songs on ‘The White Album’ comes from happier days in Rishikesh), Paul is inspired once more and ‘Let It Be’ contains his first love songs for wife-to-be Linda. It’s ironic, really, that a love story that’s going to dominate Paul’s writing for the next 30 years begins on an album that’s otherwise all about disillusionment and disarray, with Lennon having written most of his love songs to Yoko already during ‘The White Album’. As for George, this could have been his moment to shine, with several of the better songs from his first solo album ‘All Things Must Pass’ (see review no 42) and the forthcoming ‘Abbey Road’ unselfishly offered up as Beatles songs during these sessions, but no one seemed to be listening or interested. As a result he gets his two simplest songs of the period onto the album, ‘I Me Mine’ and ‘For You Blue’, both presumably chosen because they took the least amount of work to get right: not how Beatles albums used to be made even a couple of years before this. As for Ringo, even the Beatles Book was left to advertise this album as a ‘new phase album: for the first time ever Ringo doesn’t get to sing!’, with Ringo not yet fully into his writing and everyone else too busy and too fed-up to write anything for him.
This is McCartney’s album, then, from start to finish and its usually McCartney who gets the blame for it. That’s mainly because fans reading the newspapers in 1970 got the facts all wrong – McCartney announced the break-up of the band during the press for his first solo album not because he was the first to want to leave, but the last. Just as with the days of touring it was the other three who grumbled about it but the decision to stay studio-bound was only made when even McCartney’s enthusiasm had gone and he could no longer inspire the others to great heights. That’s not what the public saw, though, with ‘Paul quits Beatles’ banner headlines from reporters who didn’t know that the band had kept quiet Ringo’s decision to quit in 1968, George’s decision to quit in 69 and Kohn’s Apple business meeting where he declared ‘It’s all over – I want a divorce’. The fact that we see Macca at his worst in the film, badgering George Harrison very politely over a solo until he quits and leaves (in retrospect a quite amazing moment to include in the film given what else was missing) didn’t help matters much. But that’s patently unfair: Macca’s behaviour after George rejoined the band was exemplary and must have been very hard for him, leaving this album and film on the shelf unfinished for someone else to do after instigating it all, leaving some of his best songs for years in limbo (Paul really did seem to take his mother’s advice to ‘let things be’ in this period – although clearly the unfinished state of this album still bothered him in 2003 when he was the main instigator behind ‘Let It Be Naked’). It says more about the mischief of the others, Lennon in particular, that his intended no-frills project became a film of a band breaking up with a bossy leader on the one-hand and a record filled with mocking caustic Lennon comments before almost every single McCartney song on the other (little is known as to what Lennon said to his friend Spector about compiling this album, but it sounds to me awfully like a coup for control of the press, although in that case it’s doubly odd why ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ didn’t make the cut – even with the Beatles’ no singles on albums’ policy an alternate version of ‘Get Back’ still made the grade).Without Macca as the band’s guiding light there would have been no Beatles after 1968 at all and not even the half--delights of ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Abbey Road’ for us fans to enjoy. There’s a wonderful moment near the end of these album sessions, with the focus moved back to the Apple studios for a week at Harrison’s insistence on his return, when after a week of sniping from Lennon and a week of being subdued from McCartney George turns to Paul and says ‘go on then – produce us!’ It rather says it all.
One final point to make is how much better this album gets when the band are freed of the film cameras and start working together in Apple. You could argue that the pressure of getting near a performance date and the fact that the band could work later hours helps enormously, but the biggest reason for this change in fortune was the presence of Hamburg friend Billy Preston. Billy was in the middle of working on his first album for ‘Apple Records’ ‘That’s The Way God Planned It’ at the time when George Harrison asked him to attend, correctly guessing that as pretty much the only Apple musician not in the ‘camp’ of a particular Beatle that still had everyone’s respect, his presence would make the sessions less about the band’s relationships and more about the record. Billy’s work is excellent in its own right – his second Apple album ‘Encouraging Words’ is well worth looking out for in particular – and it injects just the right amount of enthusiasm, sparkle and lift that these recordings needed, especially the ‘rooftop’ performance of ‘Get Back’. The Beatles had occasionally worked with other people before this – George Martin, various classical musicians and Indian musicians – but its fitting that this record (and the ‘Get Back’ single) is the only time The Beatles ever credited another musician on their sleeve. For one album only, Billy Preston really is the fifth Beatle and should have gone on to be a huge influence in the 1970s, not just a bit-part player in The Rolling Stones and yet another of our AAA musicians to end up a jailbird and drug-addict (Billy recovered enough to play his heart out at George’s memorial concert in 2002, but died not long after himself).
In all, then, ‘Let It Be’ isn’t a first-class Beatles album to rank with ‘Revolver’ or even ‘The White Album’; only McCartney has songs that approach his best, the playing is often raw and shambolic and the mood is often too grey and spiky for the usual Beatles’ joi de vivre spirit to break through. But its dismissal all these years is more about this album’s place at the end of the band’s discography than a true reflection of it’s worth of an album – had The Beatles continued, had this album even been finished before they’d started on ‘Abbey Road’, then it would have been seen as a minor blip rather like ‘Beatles For Sale’, a breathing space that enabled the band to reach to greater heights next time whilst still being well ahead of the pack. Had this been a record by any other band then it would have been better received – it’s just as the final word from the greatest show on earth that ‘Let It Be’ palls.
The album kicks off with what is probably its sweetest moment, ‘Two Of Us’. Given the lack of interviews of the day and the usual Lennon-McCartney credits, no one at the time was quite sure whether this duet was by John or Paul and many assumed it was by both together. Despite being built on a guitar riff and being a close approximation of Buddy Holly though (two character traits more Lennonish than McCartneyist), its all by Paul. It’s not about his relationship with John either, as many assumed given the way the two men sing it on the same mike, but Paul’s first real song about Linda. In this period the business battles between the four Beatles were at their peak and this song was written late one night when Paul had stumbled out of a meeting to visit Linda and wanted to take her somewhere nice to forget his problems (hence the lines about ‘chasing paper, getting nowhere...’). Her reply ‘who cares as long as I’m with you, let’s just go somewhere and get lost’ – and her later response to his mumbled apology about looking so tired and scruffy (‘it’s allowed!’) were exactly what he wanted to hear, offering the Beatle a freedom and spontaneity he wasn’t getting in his professional, structured life at the time. Paul always kept an acoustic guitar handy in the back of the car and, with a few hours of freedom stretching before him, made this song up in a field in the middle of nowhere (a second song, ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’, with the refrain ‘nowhere to go!’ was also written in this way).Then again, the gorgeous yearning middle eight (‘You and I have memories longer than the roads that stretches out ahead...’) is clearly not about Linda and may well be at one with Paul’s ‘Beatles break-up’ song ‘The Long And Winding Road’, with a road ahead that he doesn’t want to travel. A hymn to freedom, its playing style is similar to Paul’s other great period song about freedom ‘Blackbird’, but the mood is not so serious, instead being light on its feet and full of that breezy optimism that marked Paul at his best. The band certainly seem to have fun with it having heard the session tapes, breaking out into spontaneous versions of it never to be heard again (Anthology Three features an electric version played really fast; bootlegs also feature versions of this song with an extended Lennon whistling session and John and Paul trading accents on each verse). So it’s a shame that such a great song is spoilt by what is quite possibly the weakest version of the song the band ever played – Paul’s angular bass is slightly out of sync (and overdubbed much later), John and Paul’s vocals are an unfortunate lesson in what two people going entirely different directions sound like singing together and there’s a lethargic air about this song, born from playing it too many times for comfort. Here a decent version of this song, though, and it shines – thankfully Paul’s recently started reviving it for his live act and giving ‘Two Of Us’ a whole new lease of life for fans to know it better.
‘Dig A Pony’ gets short shrift from most fans for some reason – and got more stick than ever when it was revived for the ‘rooftop’ version of ‘The Beatles Rockband’ game (along with ‘Get Back’ ‘I Me Mine’ ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and, erm, ‘I Want You (Shed’s So Heavy)’ for some reason, which wasn’t even written at the time of the concert). I love it, though, and always have done, what with this song’s marvellous shambolic riff that always seems at the point of destruction throughout and a burbling energy that just keeps coming, however many times the song seems to end. It’s pure Lennon, this song and the logical conclusion of a songwriting arc that had begun with such similar songs as ‘Not A Second Time’ and ‘I’ll Be Back’, angular songs that look horrible to play on paper (have you seen the sheet music for this song?!) and yet sound so right and natural (whereas Paul’s songs nearly always feel natural, however good or bad they are). The reason for this, and for the wonky lyrics, is clearly Yoko’s influence, with her idea that everything you write is revealing about your sub-conscious, no matter how much gibberish it sounds like. Like ‘I Am The Walrus’, though, the gibberish makes some sort of profound sense in Lennon’s hands, with the gist of this song meaning ‘it doesn’t matter what I write because nothing can match up to the one core truth of this song – that all I want is you’ (a similar thing happens with the ‘other’ Yoko song from these sessions ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and the later ‘I Want You’, both of which are similar to this song’s direct and desperate chorus). Lennon might also have been inspired by George’s ‘I Me Mine’, parodying Harrison’s take on people’s egos with a chorus that runs ‘I-I-I I-I-I’ and then ends up sounding like a song about nothing (as per Yoko’s influence, Lennon disputes here whether a writer can ever free himself of his own personality totally and whether any song is anything but a cry of ‘I-Me-Mine’). Listen out too for a nod to AAA artist Lulu with the line ‘you can syndicate any boat you row’ (‘The Boat That I Row’ had been a top five hit for Lulu in the middle of 1968). Alas the song is robbed of much of its majesty by Phil Spector taking out the Paul-and-George harmony ‘All I Want Is You’ at each verse, an integral part of the song that makes a mockery of this final version. That said, the performance here might well be the best on the record, with the band playing on the Apple roof and working as a true band, pushing each other to their limits and showing how well Paul’s vision for this album could have worked (well done to Spector for leaving the aborted count-in though, halted when Ringo has to blow his nose in the face of a howling gale). The result is a song that is deliberately not meant to mean much, and yet is highly revealing, with a performance that for once on this album makes the most of this song’s charm and tricky angular tempos.
‘Across The Universe, however, is Lennon trying to write with the same smooth melodic flow as McCartney, but without his partner’s capacity to add anything new or interesting to the mix. Oddly Lennon always rated this song as one of his best, feeling the lyrics were really poetic, but in doing so he seemed to ignore his own advice about writing from the heart and instead they sound unusually hollow and dull. This song, written as far back as 1967, may well have been intended for the ‘Our World’ international TV link-up that The Beatles had been invited to (in the end it was replaced by the similarly vacuous ‘All You Need Is Love’) and finds Lennon unusually far out of his depth, puzzled as to how to make the most of what he heard in his head. The song was later overdubbed with a choir of female fans, horns and strings and some bird sound effects and given away to one of the very first charity LPs, organised by friend and inspiration Spike Milligan and eventually named after a line from this song ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change Our World’ (it’s the same LP The Hollies gave ‘Wings’ away to). Along the way it was planned for the soundtrack of ‘Yellow Submarine’ along with other leftovers, and then discarded. This version is even worse, slowing the song down to a key it doesn’t suit and making it sound even more lethargic, with some extra strings added to swamp the song down. What The Beatles should have done with this song was keep it simple – the quiet acoustic-with-wah-wah echo as featured on Anthology Two is clearly the keeper, if only for Lennon’s blessed out drug-addled vocal – heard here, in a later 1968 recording when Lennon had re-found his caustic voice and was remembering rather than living this song, it simply falls flat. The chorus of ‘jai guru dev’, by the way, is a transcendental meditation phrase about what you’re supposed to feel if you study for long enough and means ‘I am at one with the universe and the universe is at one with me’. The Beach Boys do their own take on this phrase on the similarly blessed out ‘All This Is That’ (on ‘Carl and The Passions – So Tough’ in 1971) and do a rather better job at inspiring awe and tranquillity.
‘I Me Mine’ suddenly arrives, spinning away all those blessed out peaceful thoughts with one single angular guitar solo. The last official Beatles recording until 1993 (albeit with Lennon absent after suffering another of his periodical car crashes), this song doesn’t really belong in these sessions at all – it was added to the album at the last minute when a rush of the film appeared showing George playing a basic version to his clearly bored colleagues. Freed of the ‘;no overdubbing rules’ that governed the rest of this album, the ‘threetles’ really go for it here, with a mesmerising carnival-like arrangement that makes this song sound more substantial than it really is. Phil Spector’s one good decision was to loop the song after the second verse so that we get a straight repeat for the third verse – on paper this shouldn’t work but on record it makes more sense of the song’s build-up of tension made from the crushing sweep of the hand that knocks the middle eight away into the third verse. A treatise about man’s ego getting in the way of everything, ‘I Me Mine’ became something of a joke with George, appearing as the working title of every venture he felt was particularly egotistical (its the name of his autobiography-come song lyric s digest come photographic book in 1978, for instance). Once again this website has to correct every music teacher that’s ever lived by being a rock and roll waltz, rocking hard despite being written in ¾ time (it may be impossible in classical music but we’ve found at least half a dozen expels on this website, most of them by Brian Wilson). It rocks a plenty too, thanks to a marvellous dialogue between Paul and George on guitar (George getting his own back for is treatment on ‘Let It Be’ by having Paul play after nearly every line at the start – see below). Again, though, this is a song designed for punk-like attack and doesn’t need the superfluous arrangement given to it later by Phil Spector – as a result the more basic but less spiky version on ‘Anthology Three’ is preferable to this version (and comes complete with a fittingly self-mocking introduction from George about how ‘Dave Dee’ can’t be there but ‘Micky, Tich and I would just like to carry on the good work that’s always gone on at no 2 studios, Abbey Road...’; for the record check out the real Dave Dee, Dozy, etc’s ‘Wreck Of The Antoinette’ and ‘Hold Tight’, the best British 1960s singles The Beatles or The Hollies or The Kinks didn’t write).
‘Dig It’ comes next and to be honest here its a bit of an unwelcome intrusion, the sort of thing Glyn Johns had had his ear bitten off for including in his original ‘Get Back’ running order. This version here barely lasts a minute and seems to make no sense, although the full version of this studio jam (still unreleased, sadly) makes a whole lot more sense, with Lennon moving round the studio like some scatty MC, duetting with each of the other Beatles in turn. This extract comes from roughly the middle, after John’s duetted with Paul and before he’s moved on to George and is improvising words seemingly at random (the rest of this jam is more about digging everything at every time of the day, no matter how bad life is). This version here is just a list of names, from Man United manager Matt Busby to 1940s film icon Doris Day. There’s long been a conspiracy from the ‘Paul Is Dead’ crowd that this song is bringing our attention to ‘other’ people who are alleged to have been ‘replaced’ for fear of a scandal or public outcry (though strangely Elvis, the most obvious candidate allegedly replaced when he went into the army after Government pressure over his rebel image, is missing from this list), but that’s most likely complete utter rubbish (Lennon had been toying with some of these phrases for a while in the full version of the jam before he finally gets what he wants to say). Too ragged for easy listening, too planned to have the spirit of the best rock and roll jams, ‘Dig It’ is a curious addition to the album.
‘Let It Be’ may be an anthem now (it speaks volumes that its this song rather than, say, ‘Hey Jude’ that Macca was asked to sing at ‘Live Aid’) but back then it must have pained Macca that one of his best songs was prefaced with a snippet of Lennon in falsetto from a different session saying ‘That was ‘Can You Dig It?’ by Georgey Wood and now we’d like to do ‘Hark The Herald Angels Come’ (on the session he then improvises a rather scary version of the xmas carol for no apparent reason other than he doesn’t want to get on with any proper work that day), a bit of mischief from Phil Spector no doubt with Lennon egging him on. Lennon in fact hated this song, allegedly because he thought it sounded like Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ (albeit that song wasn’t yet released when this song was recorded), more likely because he was jealous at the way his partner had not only written another effortless melody that sounded like it had been round for generations, but because he managed to out-philosophise Lennon in the lyrics too. Amazingly for such a peace-offering song, it caused yet more rankling among the band when George tried to play along with every line and a huffy McCartney shut him out, causing the bust-up in the film (in fact George’s solo is the very last Beatles recording, added over a year later as the guitarist was never happy with his work – ironically it still sounds out of place, without the joy or awe the song cries out for). As all good Beatle fans know, this song was – like Yesterday – inspired by a dream where a tired and grumpy Macca, watching ‘his’ band fall apart, was visited by his mother (dead since 1956) who told him not to get so worked up over things and to ‘let them be’. The fact that Paul’s mother was called Mary gives this song a vaguely hymn-like religious feel, added to by Linda’s first vocal (a high soaring note, much more falsetto than her work with Wings) and Billy Preston’s ‘churchy’ organ. Whatever the inspiration for this song, Paul is clearly inspired, adding some of his best words that clearly hit a chord with everyone of a generation now facing the troubles of the early 70s and its fitting that this song should have overcome its obstacles as a thro\away song in the middle of a joke jam and a scouse singalong to become one of the defining songs of the period. Moving and honest and yet able to appeal to everyone without being patronising, it represents McCartney at his finest and is clearly more of an inspiration for ‘My Sweet Lord’ than any of the songs George was later accused of stealing.
‘Maggie Mae’ is kind of a scouse national anthem and it made sense for the band to jam on it between takes for this album. It makes less sense on record, however, not least because it was still a song left un-played in polite society, being a song about a whore who lives down Lime Street (the one with the whacking great train station) and charging too much for her wares. It was a favourite with the sailors of the Albert Dock area, so quite who taught it to The Beatles is anyone’s guess. By the way, the one scene the otherwise excellent Lennon biopic ‘Nowhere Boy’ got wrong was the scene of the Quarrymen singing this piece at the village fete – had a group of 15-16 year old’s really been singing this song at the biggest family event of the year in 1958 then they’d all still have been grounded now. This version is clearly just a warm-up before something better comes along and Lennon can’t quite remember all the words – a better, more complete version from later in the sessions remains in the vaults and would have made it to the ‘Get Back’ album had that been released.
When writing these reviews we always try to give you an ‘unsung gem’ you might not know – that’s always been hard to do with The Beatles when pretty much anything half-decent has been praised to the hills. But ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ is a gem all too often overlooked and its also the last great Lennon/McCartney collaboration, albeit written apart and sung as a medley by sticking two unfinished songs together rather than being a full 50/50 effort (then again, ‘SA day In The Life’ was written the same way). Macca’s raucous bluesy rocker finds him trying to be Lennon, writing in an angular, riff-fuelled burst of adrenalin – Lennon’s section by contrast finds him in McCartney territory, trying to write a wordy piece that would unite the audience in a rallying cry (he’ll work on the same technique and come up with ‘Give Peace A Chance’ not long after, another very Macca-ish song). Another refugee from the ‘Rooftop’ concert, you can even hear Lennon complain ‘ooh...so hard’ at the end, but the challenge of nailing one of the trickier songs of the sessions clearly inspires the band to new heights. Thanks to a tricky organ part and a burbling bass, the twin guitars of this recording (officially John and George, but I suspect George and Paul having seen the film footage) have a solid base to attack against and there’s a real delight on the band being able to let their hair down here. Paul’s section is ‘his’ version of ‘I Want You’, declaring his new love for Linda in just an enthusiastic infectious way he wants the whole world to know about this relationship. Things cool off for the rather more pedestrian second verse (‘oh please believe me I’d hate to miss the train and if you leave me, I won’t be late again’) but for the start, there, this was McCartney inspired again, as he is for another wonderful middle eight that sounds like an early precursor to his later ‘Ram’ work, spiky and wondering why ‘nobody told me’ life could be this good just by being this normal. He even adds a wry joke with the line ‘I think that everybody knows’ on the last verse of a song that, by Macca standards, is unusually repetitive. Lennon’s bit finds him writing a goodbye to 1968, summing up the year that changed his life more than pretty much any other (by meeting Yoko and going to India), but displacing it by looking at what the rest of the world experienced too. The decision to put the two songs together (probably McCartney’s) is a masterstroke, giving this song a range and depth the two parts separately couldn’t hope to achieve. It makes for a suitably bouncy farewell to the pair’s collaborative spirit and – by seeing each writer trying to sound like the other – shows how each man could inspire the other to great heights.
‘One After 909’, a third song played in the stiff breeze of the Apple rooftop, is little more than the other ‘oldies’ songs The Beatles jammed between songs, like ‘Maggie Mae’. However, the difference is that it’s an early Lennon /McCartney song from the band’s ‘pre-fame’ days (it was actually played by them at their second ever session at Abbey Road, the same day they recorded ‘Please Please Me’). To be honest, it’s an odd choice for both revivals, being unusually copycat in its tale of a lover getting the number of his beloved’s train wrong (the title refers to the train not being the 909 he has written down) and wasn’t up to other early Beatles songs that they might have played in 1963 (‘Hello Little Girl’ and ‘Love Of The Loved’ being obvious candidates). Certainly no one who’d heard the original version – now available on Anthology One – was talking about it being a ‘lost classic’ before ‘Let It Be’ came out, unlike the rumours even then for ‘Not Guilty’ ‘Leave My Kitten Alone’ and even ‘What’s The New Mary Jane?’ (ah, how wrong we were!) This song is a lot of fun, though, summing up this album’s back-to-the-beginning feel with a rough and ready performance that has no subtlety whatsoever but does have a certain spirit, with again another Rooftop performance rescuing another so-so composition. Even the band never seem to have studied the lyric too hard, with Paul saying to John at one point in the recordings, some seven years on from co-writing the piece, ‘ah, I’d never got the thing about missing the train before now, yes I see...wrong location!’ to wish a mirthless Lennon replies helpfully, ‘Yes..., you see it rhymes with station’.
‘The Long And Winding Road’ couldn’t be in more contrast. It’s a gorgeous song full of depth and sincerity and classic songwriting touches, botched by a tactless performance and a grotty schmaltzy string overdub by Phil Spector. Like ‘Let It Be’, this is another troubled song that’s clearly about The Beatles break-up and written in the middle of Macca’s ‘piano’ phase, which seems to inspire all his best songs around now (‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ being a third). The road of possibilities that once stretched ahead has now been turned into one single un-walkable ride, thanks to the spurning of a loved one who used to promise everything. Macca’s performance, both piano and vocal, is sublime considering that this is at least take 20 and he’s been sitting at the keyboard all day trying to get it right, whereas Lennon’s improvised bass-playing must rank as one of the funniest and ramshackle of any the band ever made (this take is clearly only meant as a dry rehearsal and should have been substituted; Ian Macdonald’s superb book ‘Revolution In The Head’ has a list of all the mistakes if you want to know them all!) The strings are also awful, without any of the simplicity of the version on ‘Let It Be Naked’ or even Macca’s first revival for his ‘Broad Street’ film in 1984 (interestingly that version also has a string arrangement but its a much snappier, beatier one, more like ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ than this version’s pure Mantovani). Even Ringo’s drumming, added by Spector in the penultimate-ever Beatles session, sounds bored and uninspired and close to sabotage. The fact that the other Beatles, Lennon especially, seemed to miss the beauty and wisdom of a song which was clearly inspired by their failure to take him seriously only underlines the feelings in the song, one of the best Beatle compositions of all – and one of the worst recordings.
‘For You, Blue’ is George suffering the same problem – to think that he’s tried introducing the others to such career-high songs as ‘All Things Must Pass’ and ‘Isn’t It A Pity?’, only to have them pass and ask instead to hear ‘For You Blue’, a one-note bluesy improvisation that sounds more fun to play than it does to listen to (many critics have made a point that this and George’s period b-side ‘Old Brown Shoe’ use less chords than any Beatles song since ‘Love Me Do’!) Lyrically, this is George’s attempt to do a Lennon, to declare his love for wife Patti in as few words possible, but without any urgency or attack in the music to go with it the end result becomes just another empty rock song with an odd title (George was notorious for never knowing what to call his songs, which makes the inclusion of so many song titles in his supposedly first-draft lyrics for his ‘I Me Mine’ book suspicious). Musically the song is based around a tricky little acoustic riff from George and some shambolic bottleneck guitar from John, clearly inspired by Elmore James, the guitarist George name-checks in the solo. Billy Preston sounds unusually out of place and the mix placing his chirpings high don’t help the song at all, although its the lacklustre rhythm section from Paul and Ringo on a bad day that really drag the song down to a pedestrian level. Along with ‘Across The Universe’, this is easily the worst song here.
The album then ends with ‘Get Back’, this project’s de facto title which seems far more suitable than ‘Let It Be’ given the amount of last-minute touches that went on with it. This version of the song, mainly a studio recording with bits of chatter from the rooftop version tacked on the beginning and end, isn’t up to the spirit and drive of that rooftop version (included on ‘Past Masters Volume 2’), but is still the best group performance on the record. Listen out for Lennon playing all the lead frills while George plays the stabbing rhythm guitar parts, perhaps his best solo on record (Lennon was a surprise new entry in the Rolling Stone Magazine list of guitarists last month, despite only playing about three solos his whole career), perhaps to keep his interest in yet another McCartney song Lennon claimed to hate. Again, this is McCartney writing in Lennon territory, as if to fill in the ‘gap’ his partner had left without many songs in this period and is an angular, riff-based song quite far removed from Macca’s usually sweeping melody. To boot, the whole song is played largely on one note, rather than the impressive multi-octave span of most of the bassist’s songs. The story is an odd one too, appearing to be a song about a drug-addled loner who ends up a transvestite. More likely is the hints throughout this song that again its about Paul’s relationship with Linda (who went to college in Tucson, Arizona, the city mentioned in the lyrics) and how she ‘earthed’ him with her talk of family life (her first daughter Heather was already a toddler that Paul liked to babysit for in this period), nature and lack of superstar manners. This feeling chimed with the aspect of Paul’s personality that wanted to be ‘just an ordinary bloke’ and like ‘Two Of us’ and ‘I’ve Got A feeling’, this is a song about how wonderful ordinary life can be. Basically, it’s a more pro-active version of ‘Let It Be’, with the narrator imploring the characters of the song to drop their pretences and go back to finding their ‘real’ selves, to get back to where they once belonged. There’s another avenue of thought that this is Macca’s much friendlier farewell to the other Beatles, something that would make the addition of Lennon’s rooftop chatter (‘...we hope we passed the audition!’ ) even cleverer. No one is quite sure why the character became Jojo (the name of Denny Laine’s wife – apparently Macca sung the lines about ‘get back Jojo’ straight in her direction during Wings’ last tour in 1979 when this song was briefly revived, though Laine didn’t meet his wife for another couple of years). There was some controversy when it was ‘revealed’ to the public that this song started out life as an anti-immigrants song; quite frankly that’s a lie – Paul was still busking the lyrics when he decided to spoof Enoch Powell’s recent ‘rivers of blood’ speech and that version, still in the vaults, speaks out against ignorant politicians more than it does race-relations. The best version of ‘Get Back’, however, is an angry, snarling version played the day after George left the band and sung in German of all things – Paul’s snarls into the mike mirror ‘I Am The Walrus’ for distortion and sound more like a cry for help than the call to freedom this version of the song is.
Finally, we come to ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, which was arguably the ‘heart’ of these album sessions just as much as ‘Get Back’, which might explain why they were the pair of songs chosen to promote the record way back in April 1969, long before the album’s release in May 1970. Fair enough, The Beatles had a ‘no singles on album policy’ in those days, but an alternate version of ‘Get Back’ made the album and there’s no reason why, say, the excellent Anthology Three version of this song didn’t make the record too (it might have spared us ‘Across The Universe’ and ‘For You, Blue’ too as an added bonus). Another of Lennon’s pained cry from the hearts for Yoko, this is Lennon’s most nakedly honest song up to his ‘Plastic Ono Band’ primal scream record, setting out all his doubts on the line because he’s been let down so many times he can’t bear it to happen again. Just as the huge riff at the heart if ‘I Want You’ makes the relationship between the two sound like a huge, cavernous unapproachable void, so this song sounds like a real stab in the heart, with eaqch cry of the chorus sung staccato, punched by Ringo’s drums on his best playing on the album (as ever, its Lennon’s most revealing songs that bring out the most in the drummer – see ‘Strawberry Fields’ ‘Rain’ ‘A Day In The Life’ and especially ‘She Said She Said’). The middle eight also sounds like an early Beatles song, the hope and naivety of songs like ‘Ask Me Why’ sung by a man much more experienced and less sure of himself when he sings ‘I’m in love for the first time...don’t you know its going to last’. Note, too, how Lennon sounds more Liverpudlian than he had for years in this song, possibly inspired to be ‘himself’ under Yoko’s ‘tutelage’. Macca’s harmony vocals is the right side of gritty too and his bass playing thrilling indeed, summing up the bubbling hope and humour that Lennon’s po-faced vocal is too afraid to accept, meaning that this is another of the band’s best performances in the period. Lennon’s most inspired song of the period, its interesting how different this sounds to Macca’s songs of love for Linda – this is a far less flippant song from a man who spent most of 1969 making wisecracks, compared to the seriousness of McCartney in this year whose laughter only came when he got home. ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ truly deserves its place on this record, the yin to ‘Two Of Us’ yang, about how deep and fulfilling relationships can be, even the ones that bring you love and happiness.
In the end, then, the comment on the back of ‘Let It Be’s sleeve that this is a ‘new phase Beatles album’ is wrong on every possible level. It’s an album about endings, about wrapping up loose ends and making sense of the incomprehensible. The fact that the sleeve goes on to commend ‘the warmthness and freshness of a live performance’ before adding the rejoinder ‘as reproduced for disc by Phil Spector’ sums up the problem with this record quite neatly too – when we hear The Beatles alone they sparkle, no matter how tricky the song or how many fluffs they make. Hearing the band play under strings, horns and choirs on songs designed from the first to be raw and ready is a huge mistake, but its a mistake that the later ‘Let It Be Naked’ doesn’t solve either, leaving out the informality and cosyness of that album in favour of cold, hard, dry performances. This album deserves better, frankly, containing many of the band’ s best songs (if not performances), along with two of the most questionable inclusions in their discography in ‘Across The Universe’ and ‘For You, Blue’. Even if its never going to be many people’s favourite Beatles album, though, there’s a strength and a depth to this record, especially in McCartney’s songs, that make it as fitting way to end the greatest run of albums in our lifetime. Even bored and out-of-their depth at times there’s something mesmerising about the band’s performances here when left on their own and at worst its intriguing to hear them going back to their earliest days at times that no layers of horns, strings and choirs can subdue. In short, they really should just have ‘let it be’. Overall rating: ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ (6/10).