When The Beatles
released the Let It Be
album in 1970, as a 'new phase Beatles album' (the last to be released of new material), the album surprised many people. The tracks had been recorded as a project called Get Back
, a 'back-to-basics' style album, to be recorded live, with no overdubs and no session players
other than Billy Preston
filling out the sound on keyboards and vocals.
Unfortunately, this was while the band was disintegrating, and couldn't be bothered making good music, and while George Martin's assistant Glyn Johns, the de facto producer for the sessions, compiled two separate line-ups for a Get Back album, the tapes were deemed unreleasable as they were, and the project was left.
A year later, the film of those sessions, retitled Let It Be was about to be released, so the tapes were handed to Phil Spector, along with recordings of Across The Universe and I Me Mine, both of which were performed briefly in the film but not recorded during those sessions, and Spector was essentially told to do whatever was necessary to get a releasable album out of the tapes.
The band's reaction was telling. John Lennon (who had brought Spector in), went on to work with Spector for five solo albums, and claimed later 'he took the shittiest load of unreleasable badly-recorded shit and made a decent album out of it' (quote from memory). George Harrison also worked with Spector off and on over the next few years, and never expressed any dislike for the work Spector did on the album. Ringo Starr never hired Spector as a producer, but did work with him on John and George's albums.
And Paul McCartney, who had given approval for the album when he first heard it, developed such a hatred of Spector's work on the album (especially the song The Long And Winding Road) that he tried to block the release, and still held a personal grudge against Spector as late as 1995, walking out of an awards ceremony when he saw Spector enter (although as Spector has pointed out, he didn't refuse to accept the Grammy the album won, and nor did he refuse to use versions of Spector's arrangements when performing the song live).
In 1996, the original version of The Long And Winding Road, the main bone of contention, was released on Anthology 3, showing that the reason Spector had smothered the track in strings was that Lennon's bass playing on the track was diabolically poor. As the band were refusing to work on the album any more (except for Starr, who did a few drum overdubs), he had no choice but to hide the poor playing with orchestral overdubs. Everyone thought this would be the end of the matter - the original version was now out there, everyone should be happy.
But then, in 2003, McCartney announced that there was to be a release of a stripped-down version of the album, so people could hear how it was meant to sound. Most Beatles fans assumed this would be Glyn Johns' Get Back, which was much the same as Spector's tracklisting, but with a couple of different tracks and no overdubs. In fact, what came out was the horribly-titled Let It Be... Naked (all the 'new' Beatles albums are put together by committee, with non-title titles that no-one could object to).
The short jam songs Maggie May and Dig It were removed, along with the between-tracks chatter that gave the album its flavour (this material was put on a bonus disc, along with twenty minutes of session chatter and snippets of songs), and Don't Let Me Down (the B-side to Get Back) was added - as it should have been all along. The tracks were totally remixed, removing all orchestral and backing-vocal overdubs by either Spector or George Martin, but leaving anything played or sung by a Beatle or Billy Preston. Sometimes parts were flown in from other takes, in at least one case a different take of a song was used, and some of the vocal parts were run through a digital auto-tuner.
The extent of McCartney's historical revisionism on this album is shown by the credit 'original recording sessions produced by George Martin and the Beatles, engineered by Glyn Johns'. In fact Martin was largely not present for the sessions, delegating production duties to Johns, and Spector should still have a credit because he supervised Starr's overdubs, meaning the credit should read 'original sessions produced by Glyn Johns, additional production by George Martin and Phil Spector', but that would give Spector a credit of course...
The album itself sounds almost exactly the same, except more sterile because of the lack of between-song chatter, tuning and joking. What follows is a quick look through the differences in the tracks. This is not done as a 'Beatle historian' would - all the tracks have minor changes that would be noticed by obsessives - but rather pointing out those gross differences that would be noticed by anyone listening. As a result I'm going to listen through and point out what I notice without referring back to the original:
Get Back is faded at the false end, before the coda that appears on both released versions of the song. It also misses out John's line 'I'd like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we passed the audition' that closed the original album, although given that the track has been moved to opening position that is perhaps understandable.
Dig A Pony has no real noticeable differences except the loss of Starr's count-in, even keeping Spector's decision to remove the opening 'all I want is...' line.
For You Blue again has no real differences.
The Long And Winding Road is a different take from the original version, the take used in the film, where Lennon's bass playing is adequate rather than diabolical. Spector may not have had access to this take, so this is one case where this album is a definite improvement. The song is still dire though, only Billy Preston's organ solo saving it from sounding like Diane Warren.
Two Of Us has no obvious differences, and neither does I've Got A Feeling. One After 909 is essentially the same, but fades before Lennon's snippet of Danny Boy. And Don't Let Me Down sounds identical to the released version, but never appeared on the album before.
I Me Mine retains the edit Spector used, almost doubling the length of the song, but doesn't use his orchestral overdubs. I cheated here - I had to actually double check on the original that there were overdubs - the orchestral parts simply double the organ pad (the strings) and the bass (the horns) and are very low in the mix. The main effect of the overdubs was by having them sound slightly different later on it wasn't so noticeable that a whole section of recording was repeated. So in this case there is a significant difference in the recording, but not an especially noticeable one.
Across The Universe is horribly sabotaged. This is one case where the advertising claim that it is 'the band's mix' fails horribly. Lennon thought McCartney tried to sabotage the song in its original version (on the No-one's Gonna Change Our World charity album) and that Spector's mix saved the song. Spector's mix is Lennon's mix, no question. This mix on the other hand strips the song down to just vocal and acoustic guitar (with some other guitar-effect overdubs heard very low in the mix), an idea which could have worked on the Anthology albums as an alternative way of listening to the song, but should not be presented as how Lennon intended the song. To make matters worse the acoustic guitar was recorded as part of an arrangement and as such was intended as almost a percussion part, and recorded with no bottom end - something that would never be done if it was intended as accompaniment. The result is at least as bad as Spector's work on The Long And Winding Road, without any of Spector's excuses, and when Lennon is not alive to argue his case. This track leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
Let It Be is more or less identical to the single mix, without George Martin's string overdubs. Why on earth they chose to use the solo from the single mix, which is sloppy and disjointed, over the perfect solo on the album mix, I'll never know.
So why, given that there are almost no audible differences in the album, and those there are are almost all changes for the worse, and that the one true bone of contention was settled with the release of Anthology 3, has this been released?
One word has not been mentioned in any discussion of this album I've seen:
Because the Beatles albums were recorded in the UK, they fall under European copyright law. Unlike US law which states that copyright exists as long as the Disney company want to own Mickey Mouse (I may be misreading the letter of the law, but not, I believe, the spirit), EU law means that the Beatles' recordings start going out of copyright in 2012, 50 years after their first release (this applies to the US through copyright conventions as well). So in less than a decade, several Beatles albums will be out of copyright.
However, any 'new' versions, created by tweaking the mixes slightly, will remain in copyright, and so even when in 16 years Let It Be is public domain, Let It Be... Naked ('the band's own mix' remember?) will be in copyright until at least 2053. I'm willing to bet this was also a factor in the remixes for the yellow Submarine Songtrack album, and I think we can expect many, many more 'new' Beatles releases, all with the 'McCartney seal of approval', as we race toward 2012. RPGeek also says "You might also want to note that this album, being a new release, is inflicted with Cactus Data Shield in many parts of the world including where I live".
Please ReRelease Me? Devolver? The Whiter Album? We'll soon see.