This piece, done for The Word, includes a lengthy interview with Paul McCartney on the vexed history of The Beatles’ disappointing Let It Be album. We met in late 2003 to discuss its new version, Let It Be… Naked. In the course of researching the article I also talked to Billy Preston, Yoko Ono and Neil Aspinall. At the end is a track by track description of the album, then a review written for the US magazine Blender.
Beatle records are the Elgin Marbles of Rock. They’re the Dead Sea Scrolls of Pop. You just don’t mess with them, do you?
Unless, of course, you’re The Beatles. They’ve been messing with their own records a lot lately.
Archives are trawled and rarities are released (Live At The BBC). Old tapes get a sonic facelift (the Anthology series). Long forgotten demo tracks are taken to the studio to have entirely new records constructed around them (Free As A Bird etc). Only the other year there was the Greatest Hits compilation, 1.
It was so successful that the record company now talk of selling The Beatles to “The 1 Generation” – to children who weren’t alive when John Lennon was shot, never mind when The Beatles were still around. Steps are being taken, you feel, to ensure that far from fading gracefully into history, The Beatles will become the biggest act of the 21st century. By a twist that historians of rock’n’roll will savour, the new age is being ushered in by a combination of Elvis Presley and The Beatles, whose sacred catalogues have both been sent back to the studios for reinvention. In Presley’s case, they’ve even let some dance DJs at it.
And The Beatles’ latest fab waxing? This looks like the most audacious project yet: a root-and-branch remix of their final LP, which will now to be renamed Let It Be… Naked. There will in due course be a super-improved DVD version of the movie too. You have to wonder if this is what the future will look like: all our yesterdays, digitally magicked into the soundtrack of all our tomorrows. Music will never grow old – not because it is timeless, but because it will get cosmetic surgery whenever the market is ready to buy it all over again. And a company like Apple Records, which I used to imagine as the custodian of a legacy, becomes instead an incubator for endlessly refined Beatle material, perhaps in media we haven’t even dreamed of.
That’s how I came to spend the past two months in Beatleville. In the course of this investigation I have been to the toilet with Paul McCartney, taken tea with Yoko Ono, visited Abbey Road, attended three Beatle film premieres, touched base with Billy Preston and exchanged pleasantries with the tight-lipped eminence gris of Apple Records. Years ago I’d never have expected to spend 2003 on stuff like this.
And yet I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
But firstly, and let’s keep it brief, here is the tale of how this particular record, the runt of The Beatles’ litter, came to exist at all.
As most people are now aware, Let It Be was the last LP The Beatles released, but it was not the last to be recorded. That distinction goes to Abbey Road, a much more polished affair. With its appearance of a group in one accord, especially in the marvellous second-side medley and uplifting finale, Abbey Road has always seemed a more fitting climax to The Beatles’ career. It’s true that Let It Be has two songs – namely the title track and The Long And Winding Road – which sound like epitaphs. They were released as final singles in Britain and the US respectively, and did acquire the air of formal farewells.
But the Let It Be album as a whole has always been a disappointment to most fans, who’ve found it messy and slight.
Before both records, at the start of 1969, the group reconvened to make their follow-up to “the White Album”. There were two ideas in simultaneous effect. One was a general desire to escape the tedium of long studio stints, re-creating instead the spontaneity of their early rock’n’roll days by recording “live” with no overdubs. The other plan was to film themselves in rehearsal, culminating in a concert performance of the finished set. The rehearsals and the show were at first intended to become two TV specials, until it was decided to make them a single feature film.
With the American director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, The Beatles spent the early weeks of January at Twickenham film studios. But the atmosphere was wretched. Coming straight after the great splurge of the White Album, the band were not re-stocked with great new songs. They were seriously rusty as a live act. Ringo was distracted by his new film career. George was finding more respect outside The Beatles, as a guest musician, than as a junior member of the group itself.
The Twickenham studio was cold and unfamiliar, while the presence of cameras was off-putting. In the background were the tensions of personality and business that were pulling The Beatles apart. The self-imposed regime of multiple takes, in place of the multi-tracking that The Beatles had themselves pioneered, was all right for their role model Elvis Presley (who clung doggedly to 1950s methods), but it became a bore for these boys. They bickered and sulked. At one point George walked out altogether.
Matters improved a little on 20 January, when the group left Twickenham for the cosiness of their own, newly-built studio in the basement of Apple’s HQ in Savile Row. George brought in their old friend Billy Preston, who as a teenage pianist in Little Richard’s band had known The Beatles when they shared bills in Liverpool and Hamburg. Not only did Preston’s sparkling keyboards enliven The Beatles’ austere new sound; his very presence as an outsider put people on their best behaviour.
The projected climax, a live public performance of the new songs, fell from favour. Early ideas had ranged from a Roman amphitheatre to Liverpool Cathedral, from the House of Commons to an ocean liner. By the end of January, with disenchantment growing daily, The Beatles opted for the simplest course of all. They simply went upstairs to the roof of Savile Row and plugged in their amps.
It must be said, however, that the rooftop show of 30 January, 1969, was a classic. Lindsay-Hogg’s cameras caught the band in storming form, performing for 40 minutes in the frosty London air as office workers milled about the streets below and marvelled at the noise. The Beatles would never play in public again. The next day saw them downstairs once more and marked the last day of the sessions.
The film crew, too, retired to study their canisters.
Paul’s chugging rocker Get Back was chosen as the next single and was to be the title of the LP. With its back-to-the-roots theme in mind, The Beatles even trooped along to EMI’s office to re-create the cover shot of their first LP, Please Please Me, taken six years before. Meanwhile the tapes were handed to engineer Glyn Johns. The view was that he could sift through their whole 29 hours and present something to George Martin and the band for final assembly.
Sadly, the tapes were never accepted by the group. Disillusioned by the entire affair they went back to EMI’s studios with George Martin to make a “proper” Beatle album, duly named after the studios’ Abbey Road location. Glyn Johns’ Get Back album was left to languish.
By early 1970, with Abbey Road released and Lindsay-Hogg’s film nearing release date, thoughts turned to a soundtrack album. There was no possibility by now of the squabbling Beatles making a new album, so the Glyn Johns tapes were dusted off and – at the behest of Apple’s new boss Allen Klein – handed to the famous producer Phil Spector. Three of The Beatles were all in favour. Paul McCartney was not.
Nevertheless, Spector took the tapes to Abbey Road and there he fashioned a finished LP. Its track listing was slightly different to the phantom Get Back album and, notoriously, he sought to embellish the bare-bones style of the sessions by overdubbing strings and choirs at certain points. Like the film, the new LP would be called Let It Be. By the time it was released, on 8 May, 1970, The Beatles no longer existed. And this ill-starred album was one of the reasons why.
September 11, 2003
To Abbey Road Studios, in St John’s Wood, where I’m the first journalist to hear a playback of the new Let It Be. Before me is a forest of mike stands and a gleaming black piano. It’s undeniably thrilling to sit at the mixing desk of Studio Three, in the very room where so much Beatle music was made. The irony is that Let It Be is the sole Beatle album that was not was not essentially recorded in this building. On the other hand, it was in Abbey Road that Spector re-shaped the record, and it’s here that his work has now been undone also.
(At the time of writing, Spector is on one million dollar bail as LA authorities investigate the murder, last February, of an actress called Lana Clarkson at the producer’s home. Not a great year, then.)
With me are the engineers Allan Rouse and Paul Hicks. Along with a third, Guy Massey, they were the team commissioned by Apple to comb through 30 original reels of half-hour tape and make a new version of Let It Be that would, in theory, be truer to the group’s intentions all those years ago and, just as importantly, sound persuasive to the ears of modern listeners. Nowadays, after all, we have much more advanced technology than was available to studios in 1969 or to consumers in 1970.
Playbacks are always artificial experiences. Sometimes you have the artist present, which can be a strain. The problem today is that Let It Be… Naked cannot fail to be an improvement. I’ve previously only heard it on second-hand vinyl though a modest domestic hi-fi. Suddenly it’s being blasted at me through a bank of 5.1 Surround Sound speakers the size of bus shelters. Of course it sounds clearer, more powerful and real.
Still, many changes will be obvious under any circumstances. With the bulk of Phil Spector’s string and choir additions reined in, and the raw tapes re-mixed to increase their clarity and impact, what comes through is a vivid document of The Beatles as a rock band. They are no longer the pop group of their perfunctory Beatlemania concerts, and they are something more than the tight little rock’n’roll combo of their fondly-remembered Hamburg and Cavern days.
Just as striking are the change in running order, the deletion of studio badinage, and the replacement of the two weakest tracks, Dig It and Maggie Mae, with the tremendous Don’t Let Me Down. There is nothing you can do to make Let It Be a great Beatle album, but Let It Be… Naked, awful title aside, is a huge improvement. When John Lennon brought the rooftop show to a close he made a larky quip about how he hoped they had passed the audition. As I leave Abbey Road I can’t help saying to Allan Rouse that he’s passed his as well.
October 1, 2003
The Charlotte Street Hotel
To a central London hotel so fashionable it has a private cinema in the basement. Tonight McCartney has invited a few dozen people to the first screening of his new film Paul McCartney In Red Square, a documentary about the Russian leg of his recent world tour. As I arrive, Sir David Frost emerges from a limousine and London’s fashion bunnies look on from the front bar as the great man strides across the lobby.
Frost had gone with McCartney to Moscow because it was a gig that crackled with historical significance. Despite the fame of his song Back In The USSR, the ex-Beatle had never before set foot in Russia. But during the years of communist rule his old band had been a cultural touchstone for the children of the 1960s and a tantalising glimpse of the forbidden West. Even in 2003 there were protests from supporters of the old Soviet system. They declared: “We find it absolutely senseless and blasphemous to hold rock concerts in a graveyard of a special kind where Stalin, Lenin, Brezhnev, Gagarin and other prominent personalities are buried.” They warned McCartney: “You may find yourself in the very centre of a serious political scandal.”
In the event, the Russian leader Vladimir Putin publicly endorsed the gig, not only meeting Paul and Heather beforehand but also slipping into the concert after it started, to the visible shock of Russians in the audience. Because pop culture is so triumphant in the West, to the point where politics now looks like its adjunct, we forget how different the narrative looked from the East. Interviewed in the film, former dissidents recollect how they would pore over a solitary photo of The Beatles and try with all their might to imagine a world that could create such a marvel.
Though I’ve met McCartney often I am always faintly conscious of dealing with someone who will go down in history. Paul McCartney In Red Square is a reminder of why that is so – not primarily because of the politics, but because of the music itself. Ultimately it’s not the sight of a former Mop Top taking tea with the ex KGB man and discussing the question of landmines that is haunting. It’s the complex intensity of expression on the faces of elderly Russian fans as they wipe away tears and sing along to Hey Jude.
That’s one reason why I bring my 11-year-old son along tonight. Perhaps he’ll meet Paul McCartney and one day, late in the 21st century, he will be telling it to some wide-eyed youngsters, who one day in the 22nd century will recall they once met an old man who had met one of The Beatles. But McCartney does not turn up at the pre-screening drinks party, and sits throughout the film with his heavily pregnant wife. So this evening we don’t actually meet.
On the way out, though, I do what Dads habitually do with their small boys and tell him to go for a wee before we leave. We negotiate a labyrinth of hotel corridors to locate the Gents. I push the door open and walk straight into Paul McCartney.
It’s classic Macca. He’s drying his hands on a paper napkin. I introduce the lad and Paul shakes his hand for a full two minutes, doing a comic number I guess he must have done a million times down the decades: “C’mon mate, let go! Let go, will yer?” (I remember reading about John Lennon looking wistfully at Paul playing happily with John’s son Julian, and asking him, forlornly, “How do you do that?”)
We shoot the breeze for a while as others squeeze past us to the urinals. Mostly, I’m concerned to get Paul pinned down on the subject of Let It Be. “I love it,” he says, “because it shows you what The Beatles were like underneath it all. We were a great little band.” We agree to reconvene very soon. Possibly not in a toilet next time.
October 8, 2003
Paul McCartney’s office in Soho
The HQ of Paul McCartney’s MPL company inhabits an imposing old townhouse, tall and narrow, overlooking a leafy square. A small staff tap away at their computers on each floor of the building, and the walls are hung with modern paintings and Linda McCartney photographs, including a shot of Paul and John together, in high spirits, at the Sgt. Pepper launch party where Linda first met her husband-to-be.
Paul likes to conduct interviews in an upstairs office, where tea and chocolate biscuits seem always on hand. “But have a cappuccino, if you like,” he says. “You’re in Soho now.” It’s striking how the old patterns persist. From The Beatles’ earliest days it was McCartney who played the PR role, and 40-odd years later he is still on duty. (Ringo, on the other hand, declines to be interviewed about Let It Be and offers instead a Q&A hand-out.)
The bass-player takes up the story: “When Let It Be came about, as many people know, The Beatles were feeling the strain for various reasons. We all agreed in the end that we’d come full circle, and we were aware of that, hence the re-staging around that time of our first album cover. That felt pretty spooky. It was, Ooh, this is a bit final. This is full circle. And there were the arguments, the business differences and all that.
“We made Let It Be but, because of all the fraught personal relationships, the final straw was Allen Klein coming in. It was his decision that Let It Be wasn’t good enough and that it needed strings, needed tarting up. So he brought in Phil Spector. Poor old Phil, it’s not really his fault. He had to tart it up – literally, put tarts on it. [He’s using “tarts” in the Scouse sense, meaning girls of any description.] And a few strings. So when the album came out, I liked it, but I’d had an early copy before all that happened, an acetate. And I was listening to this acetate one night and thinking, ‘Jeez this is *brave*’. It was The Beatles stripped back, nothing but four guys in a room with Billy Preston. It was almost scary, cos we’d always double tracked, harmonised and so on. I remember being in this empty white room and getting a thrill. It was very minimalist and I was impressed. And then it got re-organised, re-produced for disc.”
So was this the Glyn Johns version you were listening to? The album that was to be called Get Back?
“Yeah, it was the bootleg. I mean, I’m not very clear, we just got our records, like you do, and I don’t know what somebody was thinking of calling it. All these things get set in stone, but everything was always in flux when we were making an album. I don’t know what we were going to call it but you’re probably right, it probably was Get Back. And it probably was Glyn’s mixes. But the point for me was it was the band and it was bare.”
The story resumes around 2000, when Paul was on a flight to Los Angeles and bumped into Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the director of the Let It Be film. They agreed that a DVD release of the movie was overdue – properly restored, perhaps with added material – and Paul promised to take the matter up with Apple. There would of course be a soundtrack album to go with it, which revived Paul’s dormant dream of releasing those un-Spectorised sessions.
What had bothered Paul the most for these past 33 years? Was it the extraneous production or that he felt excluded from the original process?
“It was the two,” he says. The nature of The Beatles’ management deal with Allen Klein remains a source of annoyance to McCartney: “I kept saying, ‘Don’t give Allen Klein 20 per cent, give him 15, we’re a big act!’ And everyone’s going, ‘No, no, he wants 20 per cent’. I say, ‘Of course he does, he wants 30, really, but give him 15. It’s like buying a car. You don’t give the guy what he asks for.’ But it was impossible in the end, because it became three to one and I was like the idiot in the corner – trying, I thought, to save the situation.
“And to Klein it looked like I was trying to screw the situation. He used to call me the Reluctant Virgin. I said ‘Fuck off, I don’t want to fucking marry you, that’s all.’ He’s going, ‘Oh, you know, he may, maybe he will, will he, won’t he, that’s a definite maybe.’
“It was really difficult. So the only thing I ended up being able to do was to boycott Apple. I thought, ‘That’s what I’ll do, I won’t go in.’ Cos I was going in every day saying ‘Look, I think we ought to do this y’know…’ [To which the others replied] ‘Fuck off.’ So I boycotted Apple. I just didn’t go in. And that was very fraught. Therefore when Allen Klein brought Phil Spector in, I said ‘I don’t think we should do this, I vote against it,’ and they said ‘Well, we vote for it.’
“So in answer to your question, I wasn’t involved because of my boycott and I also wasn’t consulted. At least in the past if you were gonna put strings on it someone would run the arrangement past me. And I’d say great or not great or fix it. As you do. So it was both. It was not being consulted, then putting on what I thought was… crap.
“It was the worst time of my life, really, and the worst time of all our lives. I was just trying to save our fortune for us. I had to go and sue The Beatles. It was the only thing I could do to save it. I must say since then all the guys have come to me individually, and Yoko, and said ‘You saved it’. So even though I had to go through all of that shit, it was right to go through it and I have been thanked.”
I’ve always wondered whether part of Paul’s dislike of Let It Be might lie in its running order. It always seemed tactless the way his title track was treated. Here was a hymn to his dead mother, suddenly sandwiched in between Dig It (which ends in John’s satirical squeak: “And now we’d like to do Hark The Angels Come”) and the vulgar ditty of a Liverpool prostitute, Maggie Mae.
Not so, Paul protests. The track list never fazed him. “That was just the occupational hazard of being in The Beatles,” he shrugs. “We could all take the piss out of each other. I know what you mean, but we all did that. On the Royal Command Performance I had to sing Till There Was You or something, in front of all these people, and while it’s easy to do a rock’n’roll song it was never easy to do those Yesterdays or Till There Was Yous. And George goes, ‘Opportunity Knocks for…’ It was always a piss-take. But it was just part of The Beatles. Keeping each other’s feet on the ground. So that didn’t bother me.”
If the initiative behind Let It Be… Naked was Paul’s, its title was apparently Ringo’s. In this respect it’s in the lineage of Eight Days A Week and, depending which version of Beatle lore you believe, A Hard Day’s Night. Both Beatles went to Abbey Road to inspect the engineers’ finished work – “to get the big 5.1 experience” – and declared themselves well pleased. “It was fantastic,” says Paul. “I said at the time, Winston Churchill’s papers get browner and crinklier, while our recordings get more golden and shiny.”
How does such a project work politically, given that John and George cannot be involved? Do you consult Yoko and Olivia?
“Yeah. They are now John and George.”
So they approve it beforehand?
“Yeah. They are John and George, so it just works exactly the same way. It’s a four-way vote, the four of us have to agree, there’s no three to one or two to two. Which was always The Beatles’ thing and it still works well, actually.”
Did you ever talk with George or John about doing something like this?
“The truth is, The Beatles have done with our career. We’ve been and done it. So our attitude is, you don’t really find us getting too involved. Except for the Anthology which was, Well, everyone else has written so much about us we should try and get it as near as possible in our own words. Before our memories go on the blink, which is imminent. But that was the most involved we’ve been in years. A lot of it’s out of our hands. But the stuff that’s in our hands, somebody will do it, often based on an idea of ours.
“So that’s what happens, the germ of an idea from us and then the engineers, the archivists, and Neil [Aspinall] particularly do their thing, the Apple team swing into action. All the ideas go into a melting pot and the best ideas come out at the end and we all finally approve them, Yoko, Olivia, me and Ringo.”
Do you think you’ll revisit any more Beatle records in this way?
“I dunno. Just while we were talking I started thinking about Magical Mystery Tour, don’t know why. But like I say, we’ve done with it. And it’s often just something the record company wants, or an idea like Let It Be that came out of the film getting cleaned up. So I don’t think any of us sat around after The Beatles thinking, ‘Oh, the next project should be…’ It just comes up.
“We’re not that concerned, to tell you the truth. But I love that it happens. I love the idea that when you get a project like this then John is suddenly right there on that 5.1 and it’s exciting for me. Close your eyes and it’s exactly like being in Abbey Road making those records. Only there’s no hiss. And you can’t argue with that, cos there was no hiss in the room when we made it, so it’s taking it back to the reality in many ways. I haven’t particularly thought of revisiting anything else but an idea may come up.”
What would you say to the argument that The Beatles’ music ought to be left alone?
“To anyone who’s worried – well then, get the original record. Be a collector, get the vinyl copy. Cos it’s all still out there, it hasn’t gone away.”
You’ve already done a re-vamp of the Yellow Submarine soundtrack and of course there were new settings for old John tracks in Free As A Bird and Real Love. The last two years have even seen dance re-mixes of Elvis Presley. I suppose if you can alter The Beatles and Elvis you can do it to anyone. Do you think that’s what the future holds? An infinity of re-mixing?
“I know, this is the thing. I start off by digging my heels in and saying ‘Oh, you should never do that with Elvis or The Beatles or the Stones. They’re pure and should remain like that.’ But there is an argument about the young kids coming up. Sometimes that’s how they’ll hear an artist. They hear it down a club and go ‘Who’s that? Elvis? Who’s he?’ It seems incredible but there are young people who don’t know who Elvis is and who The Beatles are. They also don’t know who JFK is – they think it’s a chicken restaurant. The point being, you could argue it’s a good thing just to get people introduced.”
All right, but on a morbid note, how would you feel when you’re not around any more and somebody said ‘Let’s go back and …’
He flashes me a look of mock alarm: “You mean Yoko?”
No, I mean anyone at Apple. Whoever’s in charge in 50 years time.
“Well you know, I’ve become much less strict about that stuff. I certainly wouldn’t mind after I’m dead, cos I won’t be thinking about things like that.”
You won’t be turning in your grave going ‘Leave Yesterday alone’?
“I really don’t think I would be that fussed. When I heard that Elvis thing I thought it was cool. You could certainly do it with The Beatles and I know a lot of people have done it. A lot of the Sgt. Pepper drums get sampled, or Tomorrow Never Knows. So you’re kind of almost there.
“I don’t want to be the one to approve it, but I also don’t want to be the old fuddy duddy who says ‘Ooh, music was better in our day’. I don’t think that. They were always trying to get us to say Benny Goodman was terrible. And he was! Ha! Cos he started slagging us off, so we’d say ‘Well he’s not so good. What is he, a fucking clarinettist?’ People in the street are always doing this to me: ‘Oh I don’t like all this rap stuff, it’s not as good as you.’ But it’s a new generation, 21st century, you can’t expect people to live in the past.”
October 8, 2003
Odeon West End, Leicester Square
To the British Première of the Concert For George, a film of last year’s memorial show at the Albert Hall. At MPL today Paul told me that he would be coming and so would Ringo, and as we near the cinema it’s obvious that Beatleheads know it too. Across the Square we see the crowds, the steel barriers, the red carpet and the paparazzi. British bobbies clear a path for limousines. Squeals greet each suspected sighting and Instamatics flash like an electrical storm.
What is it about The Beatles? This could almost be the scene at Piccadilly Circus 39 years ago when they attended the première of A Hard Day’s Night. As one of the Word party remarks, you have to acknowledge that nobody is still doing this for The Rolling Stones or The Beach Boys.
Inside the Odeon we sit and try not to strain our necks looking around at Paul, Ringo and their glamorous Beatle wives, nor at the smartly dressed Dhani Harrison, whose resemblance to Revolver-period George is genuinely unsettling. His mother, George’s widow Olivia, takes to the stage to give a brief and touchingly hesitant speech. Also in the popcorn queue are Bill Wyman, Sam Brown and her father Joe, Jools Holland, Rowan Atkinson, Twiggy and the show’s musical director Eric Clapton.
The film turns out to be a revelation. We’re thrilled by the perfection of the big screen sound, the intimacy of the on-stage camera work and the cuts to rehearsal and back stage action. Even though I saw the show first time around at the Albert Hall, I’m still choked up by Joe Brown’s beautifully-judged finale, I’ll See You In My Dreams.
I’d arrived in Leicester Square feeling deeply struck by the continuity that The Beatles represent in many of our lives. But I leave, lump in throat, remembering that continuity is in the end an illusion. Towards the end of George’s concert, Paul sat at the piano to perform a song I sometimes think might be the finest ever written by a Beatle: All Things Must Pass.
October 14, 2003
Home House, Portman Square
To a private members’ club near Marble Arch, just a few blocks north of the Mayfair flat where all four Beatles were installed by Brian Epstein in 1963. This evening, in a voluptuously restored 18th century drawing room, Yoko Ono is hosting a tea party.
We, the guests, are an assortment of journalists and personnel from EMI Parlophone. The company is launching a DVD of Lennon Legend, the set of John’s biggest solo hits that appeared on CD a couple of years ago. Yoko is listed as Executive Director of the new film, which includes some rare footage in addition to the more familiar videos. Grazing among the scones we encounter the Beatle biographer Philip Norman and the head of Apple himself, Neil Aspinall.
But of course it is Yoko we are dying to meet. She emerges from a door in the corner and is gently steered around the room for handshakes and introductions. She is small and chic, with a white cap perched across her head and large dark glasses concealing much of her finely-boned features. She wears a low black top, with tight blue jeans.
I’ve never met her before and am not a fan of her art or music. But I hold no grudge against her.
She was kind enough to send me a postcard of good wishes at the launch of my book Liverpool: Wondrous Place, even though its Foreword is written by Paul. And when we spend some time talking this evening she delights me by praising a book I did about John’s songs We All Shine On. In conversation she is friendly, and chats enthusiastically about the City of Liverpool’s winning bid to be European Capital of Culture.
Again, though, I’m thinking of Let It Be and move the conversation around to that. I get the impression she is lukewarm on the subject. She mentions how dissatisfied she was by an early hearing of one remix of a John Lennon song. (“It was a sorry sight,” she says, adding that it’s now been fixed.) Pressed for more details, she declines. “We’re here to have tea,” she points out, reasonably enough.
For the record, Yoko’s official statement on Let It Be… Naked reads: “The new version is really beautiful.”
Before we leave the party for the Lennon Legend première in Mayfair, the Word delegation catches up with another figure who looms large in Apple’s history. A stocky, taciturn man with bushy eyebrows, Neil Aspinall has since 1961 been The Beatles’ most trusted servant. In his lapel he wears a “Liverpool Capital of Culture” badge. Tonight he surveys the room with a wary air – publicity, it’s fair to say, is not Neil’s thing.
Aspinall went to school with Paul and George and lodged with their old drummer Pete Best. He drove the band to its earliest gigs around Merseyside and to their first encounters with the London record business. Incredibly, through the pandemonium of Beatle tours – from the Empire Pool to Shea Stadium – the group’s entire road crew consisted of Aspinall and the former Cavern bouncer Mal Evans.
When The Beatles started Apple in 1968, they casually asked Neil to look after it until something was sorted out. With the exception of Allen Klein’s brief and turbulent reign, Aspinall has looked after Apple ever since. The company left its famous Savile Row abode many years ago, and is now to be found on a discreetly swanky Square near Harrods. From here Aspinall has overseen post-Beatle projects from the Anthology series to the legal feud with Apple Computers over the use of the Apple name.
Aspinall’s position is unparalleled in pop music. His nearest counterparts would be the master strategists of imperial royal courts, who survived the rivalries of faction, whose loyalty was undoubted, who stood the closest to the throne. To have kept in with all four Beatles is a supreme achievement. This evening we see him in cordial conference with Yoko, but he is just as trusted by McCartney. His contribution to the Beatle cause has been massive.
It’s largely thanks to Aspinall’s efforts that a long-gone group could chalk up four Number 1 albums in recent years, three of them (the Anthologies) double ones at that. In March 2001 the Beatles made the cover of Rolling Stone, under the heading “The World’s Hottest Band.” And just as he oversaw their spectacular transition from vinyl to CD in the 1980s, so he’s now supervising The Beatles’ colonisation of DVD. Whatever Neil Aspinall’s job description (and he insists he has never had one), he is not the curator of a museum.
It has not been easy for him, and he calls himself “the Heart Attack Kid”. He’ll chat about this and that. But when we ask him to talk about the Let It Be project, he shakes his head mournfully. Aspinall, you see, is the Keeper of the Secrets.
October 17, 2003
Los Angeles and Liverpool
Even when it’s not a secret, Beatle history is a slippery commodity. I remember a George Harrison quote, to the effect that there was so much misinformation about The Beatles – who were recent history – that he couldn’t trust stories of things that happened centuries ago.
Tonight I’ve put a call through to Los Angeles, to Billy Preston. He’s busy recording and I don’t want to keep him, but I’d like to hear from the only musician to get a co-credit on a Beatle record (for his keyboards on the Get Back single). The years since Apple have brought mixed fortunes for Preston, ranging from hits such as That’s The Way God Planned It and With You I’m Born Again to spells in prison on assorted charges. But his playing is a delight on several revamped Let It Be tracks, and his reputation will surely be boosted.
“Great!” says Billy when I tell him how much people such as Neil Aspinall are enjoying his contribution to the remix. He hasn’t heard it yet, but believes “it will be different and better. I liked the original, but I’m looking forward to this one. I’m excited about hearing it and I’m glad that they’re putting it out again. It was great for me, to be invited to play. And they treated me as a member of the band, which was fantastic.”
He recalls being closest to George, who after all had invited him along to the sessions. And did he think his being there stopped some Beatle arguments? “Yes, but I didn’t know that at the time. They told me later that I cheered them up and they acted more civilised. Ha!” And of the legendary rooftop show he says: “That was a lot of fun. Of course it was cold that day. But it was exciting to see people all suddenly appear on the roofs all around you. It was a definite buzz, with the four of them together. They just let me play what I felt.”
Which is fine. But when I ask him which other Beatle records he played on, he suggests the White Album and Abbey Road. So far as I can see from the archives, Billy was not around Apple in 1968 for the White Album. But who can say for sure? I’ve frequently found McCartney forgetful of Beatle facts, and unashamed of it. So far as Billy Preston recalls, he was on the White Album.
That’s what I mean about a slippery history. I was told once, though I can’t vouch for it, about a photo rejected for the Anthology book, of George and John sitting on either side of Jayne Mansfield in a nightclub. You can’t see Mansfield’s hands, because they’re behind the table. But George and John are smiling strangely…
However hazy their tale may get, what’s clear is that the Beatles phenomenon did not die away with the last piano chords of Let It Be. Though there are no definitive statistics, it’s certain that the band have sold many more albums since their split than they ever did while they were together. Factor in the videos, DVDs, Anthology books and all the rest, and the scale is staggering. Back in 1964 The Beatles’ press man Derek Taylor wrote, in his whimsically stylish sleevenote to Beatles For Sale, of “a radio-active, cigar-smoking child, picnicking on Saturn” in the year 2000, who will “draw from the music the same sense of well-being and warmth as we do today”.
In 2003, Taylor’s successor at Apple Records, Geoff Baker, will tell you proudly that sales figures are showing Beatle sales to the young are catching up with sales to the old. Our colonisation of Saturn might be behind schedule but when we get there you can bet that Taylor’s prophecy will still ring true. This really is music with a unique and enduring hold upon the human heart. Ringo Starr doesn’t talk in public much, but when he does he has a way of hitting nails on the head. “The music,” he says of Let It Be, “always surpassed any bullshit we were going through; once the count-in happened we turned back into those brothers and musicians.”
LET IT BE… NAKED
TRACK BY TRACK
1. Get Back
Formerly the last track, but now the first, making for a stronger opening than did Two Of Us. The new Get Back is punchier than its predecessor, losing the banter which was added to give the false impression it was a rooftop take. (It was actually recorded downstairs.) For added momentum it’s also shorn of the brief coda you get on the single version.
2. Dig A Pony
Still the second track, and an actual rooftop performance. Wind and film crew noise are among the blemishes removed, though it’s still a grungy old affair.
3. For You Blue
Increased clarity is the main benefit, with George in good voice and playful mood. In fact his breezy syncopations are really more George Formby than Elmore James.
4. The Long And Winding Road
Always the most contentious track in McCartney’s view and, unsurprisingly, the biggest transformation here. It’s a different and later take, delivered without the orchestral overload.
5. Two Of Us
A slight, if charming song, little altered from the original but tucked away mid-set. Often thought to be a nostalgic reconciliation of John and Paul (who do indeed sing in harmony), McCartney says he actually wrote it for Linda, in honour of a stolen day in the countryside.
6. I’ve Got A Feeling
Combines two rooftop takes of a song already in two halves – the McCartney theme that interweaves with Lennon’s Everybody Had A Hard Year. (There is a brief BBC clip of the latter on the Lennon Legend DVD.) Billy Preston’s keyboards add a new zest.
7. One After 909
Another rooftop take, this time of an ancient Lennon & McCartney throwaway. But it was new to Ringo, and he bashes away with gusto. The senior partners, meanwhile, audibly revel in the freedom to sing such innocent nonsense.
8. Don’t Let Me Down
The best innovation of Let It Be… Naked is the inclusion of this classic Lennon song, originally confined to the B-side of Get Back. Preston is again a revelation: over the grinding heaviness of John’s lament the lightness of his keyboard plays like sunlight on the water. McCartney has suggested this song sounds like John’s appeal to Yoko from the depths of his druggiest phase.
9. I Me Mine
It was neither possible nor desirable to strip away all of Phil Spector’s work and some overdubbing remains on this fine example of Harrison’s blossoming talent as a writer, made manifest on Abbey Road and his solo masterpiece All Things Must Pass.
10. Across The Universe
A triumph. The lavish addition of echo to the end of John’s song is ambitious, but wholly appropriate to the cosmic theme. (It was at one point planned to close the new album.) Elsewhere the strings and choirs of the original are held in check – but, with only two tracks to work from, it was apparently the hardest track to recast.
11. Let It Be
Paul found refuge from the troubles of ’69 in a dream of his deceased mother’s comforting presence. The new version features a Harrison guitar solo previously heard only on the movie soundtrack, while the Beatle backing vocals are made more prominent. Now positioned at the album’s end, without the studio badinage and clutter, Let It Be acquires the stature it should have had all along.
The Blender review:
LET IT BE… NAKED
The Beatles’ final album, issued in May 1970 as the group was splitting up, is the most notorious piece of unfinished business in their history, a map of their schismatic differences. So the question is, does Let It Be… Naked –a remixed version of the troubled album–amount to a long-overdue act of closure, or does it open up a whole new can of worms?
Here’s the background, in a nutshell. Let It Be was not really The Beatles’ last album at all. It only looked that way. The sessions took place in 1969, after the bored, squabbling foursome hit on the idea of filming themselves in rehearsal, jamming up a bunch of songs to be played in some spectacular live setting – an ocean liner and a Roman amphitheatre were mooted. The Beatles hoped the experience would reunite them as a tightly-knit gang of rockers. Three years after their psychedelic watershed Sgt. Pepper, they ruled out complex studio toil; Get Back (as Let It Be was originally titled) would be raw, spontaneous and funky.
But band antagonisms prevailed over hopefulness, and the sessions fizzled out. The Beatles walked away and told engineer Glyn Johns to make the tapes presentable. The planned “spectacular”, meanwhile, was scaled down to a couple of numbers knocked out on the roof of their Apple HQ. Chastened, the group went back to their regular producer George Martin and made the highly crafted album Abbey Road, their real finale as a recording act. In 1970, when it was evident they would not record again, and the forthcoming Let It Be movie needed a soundtrack album, John Lennon hired Phil Spector -without Paul McCartney’s co-operation -to cobble something together from the Get Back tapes Glyn Johns had struggled to salvage.
The album was in some ways a sorry affair. Although Spector had been a sonic visionary in the 1960s, he had little to offer these Beatles demos except an extra layer of strings. McCartney was furious at the treatment of his songs. He never forgave Spector and the episode deepened his estrangement from Lennon. The band that gave rock its first big bang ended with an uncharacteristic whimper.
So Let It Be… Naked is a McCartney-inspired attempt to give us the album that The Beatles might done, had they still been on speaking terms. The worry must be that Paul is taking control of The Beatles’ history, just as he tried to reverse some Lennon-McCartney songwriting credits. Though he took no direct part in the process, Paul appointed engineers at the group’s favored Abbey Road studios (led by the Anthology series veteran Allan Rouse) to effect a complete remix. Many would argue that McCartney ought to leave The Beatles’ work alone, but there has been no overplaying of his own role. Ringo, Yoko Ono and George’s widow Olivia have all approved the project.
Using the original tapes, selecting some alternate takes to those chosen first time around, and exploiting the sonic advances in technology, the Abbey Road team has produced a stripped-down version of the original that improves the sound and changes the running order. Those extraneous string arrangements have been excised, as have the whimsical squibs of Lennon’s Dig It and Maggie Mae.
Neither of those short tracks will be much mourned, Dig It was off-the-cuff doggerel and Maggie Mae was an old pub singalong. Worse, they were insensitively placed as bookends to McCartney’s haunting, hymnal title track. On the album, Lennon introduces Let It Be in a squeaky accent (“And now we’d like to do *Hark The Angels Come*”) and caps it with his ditty about a sailor’s tart. But now the song stands alone and becomes the album’s newly-dignified closer. And McCartney’s ballad The Long And Winding Road, shorn of the orchestral overdubs that so enraged its composer, emerges here with a tender new simplicity
If this smacks of anti-Lennonist revisionism under McCartney’s guidance, Let It Be… Naked replaces two of Lennon’s weakest songs with one of his greatest. Don’t Let Me Down was previously the B-side of Get Back and never deserved such obscurity. It’s a soulful, sensual blues, whose yearning earthiness is wonderfully offset by Billy Preston’s quasi-Asian keyboards. If the new album achieves nothing else, it’s at least promoted this outstanding and under-celebrated Beatle number to proper album status.
And the remixers’ boldest step of all, perhaps, is also in Lennon’s favor. Across The Universe receives an audaciously re-worked ending, full of a spacious echo that plays brilliantly on the song’s cosmic theme. The words sound like they’re resonating from another dimension. Hearing them now that Lennon is gone, the effect is doubly poignant.
Despite its cheesy title (how Lennon would sneer!), Let It Be… Naked offers an experience its predecessor never could. It’s obviously a shame that only half the band are still around to approve it. It would be hard to make a case for doing this to any other album in the Beatles’ catalogue. But Let It Be was never truly complete to start with. Lennon’s decision to hand the album to Spector without Paul’s agreement, was a shabby move. In that light, McCartney has some moral authority for what he’s done. And John himself spoke in later years of re-recording the Beatle tracks that dissatisfied him. Whatever your reservations, let’s celebrate the transformation of a second-rate Beatle album into one more worthy of their legend.