For all of the ten years they existed, The Beatles are undisputedly the defining musical artist of all-time, universal in their appeal and their fame. Those ten years came to an end in 1970, as the biggest band the world had ever seen imploded for all to see. In the ashes, a month after the fact, Let It Be lay, all ready to become perhaps the most controversial album in their discography.
Initially unfavoured by critics and mired by the incendiary circumstances it was released in, Let It Be is all-the-while a landmark release in musical history; signalling the end of the ’60s and completely separating it, stylistically, from the decade that followed. As someone who didn’t live through it, to think that this was released after Black Sabbath’s debut is insane to me — it established the timeless bubble that the band existed in. 50 years on, it remains endlessly fascinating as a moment in rock and, to celebrate such a landmark anniversary, it seems only appropriate to revisit it.
The album opens with on some signature Beatles banter (surreal and old-sounding) that precedes Two of Us — a rousing, nostalgia acoustic number. With its light, kickdrum-led beat and layered acoustic guitars, you can practically hear Simon & Garfunkel here, especially considering John and Paul’s harmonic vocals in the verses. While not the punchiest of intros, particularly by the group’s standards, it definitely conjures a state of fragility in its melody and lyrics.
Dig A Pony follows that with one of the group’s best guitar intros, George’s bluesy, ascending lead injecting the album with a virility missing from the previous song. Being one of the tracks here recorded on the famed rooftop concert, the live feel of the song cannot be overstated, from Ringo’s false start to John’s rough and organic vocals. While the rhythmic structure of the song is at first jarring, especially considering the tempo change between chorus and verse, it remains one of the most vivid moments on the A side of the record.
We then get to the first standout on Let It Be, and one of my personal favourites, in Across the Universe. The overwhelming spirituality here is almost transcendent at points — especially with Phil Spector’s choral embellishments and George’s employment of the tambura. In his finest moment on the record, John’s vocal performance has a weariness to it that perfectly encompasses his pessimistic state-of-mind throughout recording. However, that takes away precisely none of the mysticism and beauty in his lyrics and their delivery. As foreshadowing a line like “Nothing’s gonna change my world” is, knowing the circumstances, there’s something so ambiguous about it that it’s endlessly interpretable. It’s a song as cosmically fascinating as its namesake.
The ensuing cut, I Me Mine, a George-led track that, much like Dig A Pony, shifts its tempo nigh-on whimsically, from the solemn, orchestral verses to the bluesy rock’n’roll chorus. Despite it being one of my least favourite compositions on the album, really lacking the inherent ingenuity that made Beatles melodies what they are, it is so incessantly catchy that you’ll still have stuck in your head, perhaps more than any other song on here.
On Let It Be, the turmoil surrounding the band finds itself seeping into numerous facets of the album, for better or for worse. Whether it be the conspicuousness of lyrics like “When I find myself in times of trouble” or the chemistry in the band as a whole, there is an aura of unrest that is more than noticeable. In fact, it is no more noticeable than in the pacing of the album — which is, for all intents and purposes, a ramshAckles.
Namely, the midpoint of the album, you know what I’m going to say — who in the meat-free-Monday-fuCK thought “Dig It/Let It Be/Maggie May — that’s how we should do this”. For one, it almost nulls the incredible emotional apex that the title track has, sandwiching it between two of the group’s most forgettable interludes. In fact, I’d argue that even the inclusion of the two tracks (or mistakes, as I call them) gravelly confuses the tone of the album in general. Not to say that The Beatles weren’t at all known for confusing tones, often to great success, but I really don’t see what the album has to gain from it, in conjunction from what it inarguably loses.
All of that said, however, it simply can’t take away from the inhuman strength of the album’s eponymous track. A song now synonymous with both the band and pop culture in general (as so many of their best are), Let It Be is easily one of Paul’s greatest musical achievements. Initially quite stripped back, with his vocals on peak form, it evolves into a lushly-produced affair, boasting one of my favourite Harrison guitar solos. It’s the track’s enviable melody, however, that levels with you as soon as it reaches your ears, distracting from McCartney’s less than compelling lyrics. As well as being indescribably influential to the soft rock and piano rock genres, it only adds to the list of Beatles songs that makes them the most important band to ever do it.
Omitting Maggie May for *said reasons*, we come to I Got A Feeling, one of my favourite deep cuts and another recorded on that goddamn rooftop. It’s this track, more than any other, that completely epitomises the dualling personalities of John and Paul at this point. Composed of two unfinished tracks (I Got A Feeling by Paul and John’s Everybody Had A Hard Year), both the lyrical and vocal aspects present Paul as the enthusiastic, if reckless, optimist, compared to the cynical, fatigued John. It is Paul, however, that does impress here, his yelled, charismatic vocals being instantaneously likeable, and one of my favourite vocal performances of his, period. Instrumentally, I’m loving the subtle hard rock influences that serve as a precursor to the 70s’ fuzzier progressions.
Ironically enough, this forward-thinking excursion into the future of rock is proceeded by a *full* throwback to its past, as the band go back to their roots on One After 909. One of the first songs written by the group, recordings of this go all the way back to the Cavern days in ’62. There’s a certain cyclical beauty to it, showing up on their last album. The song itself would be very comfortable on Please Please Me, the mop-top-ruffling skiffle rhythm being unshakeable, alongside the classic lyrical themes, rocking guitars and that unmistakable Ringo swing.
One of the album’s most controversial songs follows, in The Long and Winding Road. While I personally love it, everything from the composition, to the lyrics, to, most famously, the production has been scrutinised by fans, critics and even the band themselves — always splitting opinion, seemingly. Understandably, some (including Paul) find Phil Spector’s orchestral additions to be a bit too extravagant, especially considering Paul’s contrastingly subtle vocals. However, there is a rousing quality to the strings that elevates the humble lyrical motifs to something otherworldly.
In another bemusingly drab addition to the tracklist, however, we’ve got the clunky, I would even go as far to say, *wack* For You Blue, the second of two Harrison cuts; it really wasn’t his day on this one. A pleasant enough acoustic intro is quickly subsided for some weak steel guitar and grating keys, the latter of which is the aural equivalent of being pricked by a twatty needle. Harrison’s half-hearted vocals don’t do much to help to the track, which, sticking uninspiredly to the 12-bar structure, is inherently going to underwhelm.
Thankfully, closing out the album is the rollicking, enjoyable Get Back. The last of the tracks recorded on the rooftop, it’s often cited as The Beatles recapturing that early energy for the last time, which is undeniable considering the sheer instrumental chemistry they’re showing here. Paul’s vocals are, though not quite as colourful as they could be for a song like this, are lovely enough to the ear. However, there’s just a simple catchiness to the song, in the same way that the best early blues and R&B is universally charming. Furthermore, Spector’s inclusion of studio/live chatter before and after the song, I think, really grounds the group in their last moments, presenting them not as the pantheon of music immortals, but as four Scouse lads playing a bit of rock’n’roll.
Overall, even 50 years on, The Beatles’ Let It Be remains one of their most intriguing releases, both in lore and the music within. While there are a few beguiling duds that stain an already slim 35 minutes, there are songs here that rank among the best that the band ever produced, particularly the ballads in the pack, which are all astounding. For the most part, the performances feel as fresh as they did the day they were laid to tape and, although it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, Phil Spector’s final mix adds a level of grandiosity fitting of the final album from the biggest band ever.
best tracks: Across The Universe, I’ve Got A Feeling, Let It Be, The Long And Winding Road, Get Back