In which I mark the last major moment in the ‘Beatles 50’ decade
The past ten years have been one long fiftieth-anniversary party for Beatles fans. Album after album, moment after famous (or infamous) moment, has celebrated its half-centennial.
On Friday, we celebrated the last one, or at least the last of the official releases.
Let It Be was the final studio album from the by-then-formidable business entity known as The Beatles–on their own label, Apple, and after some label-related ventures (e.g. the store) which ended in financial near-disaster. But, as many fans know, it did not correlate with the final material they recorded. Most of its tracks were laid down in January-February 1969, right around the time of the storied rooftop concert; “Across the Universe” was even done the year before, while they were putting the finishing touches on the White Album. But aside from that they were preoccupied with refining, recording, and releasing Abbey Road, which appeared in the UK on 26 September 1969. I’ve always considered that one their formal sign-off and Let It Be more of an afterthought. An epilogue. A coda.
Listening to it now, I would say it almost functions as a mini-White Album in its exploration of a wide range of styles and genres; the members’ distinct musical personalities have become even more entrenched. (Producer George Martin had famously encouraged the group to pare the White Album down to a single album; perhaps this one, in his book, was where they finally got it right.) It’s often described as a ‘back-to-the-roots’ project, and we certainly hear that element: “One After 909” was a very early Lennon-McCartney effort, at least seven years old by then, and “For You Blue” was Harrison’s blues contribution. “Maggie Mae” was also their take on a Liverpudlian folk song. But there’s more to it than that. McCartney’s “The Long and Winding Road” feels closer to the Great American Songbook than to British music-hall tradition (see “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” on Abbey Road for that). The title track, for reasons that are probably obvious, reflects discernible gospel influences. “I’ve Got a Feeling” taps into the burgeoning British progressive-rock scene (hi, Led Zeppelin). “Two of Us” is super country. “I Me Mine” is Harrison’s chronicle of the band’s toxic internal environment, the product of years of baleful accumulation. And it’s Lennon, rather than the expected Harrison, who channels tenets of Eastern mysticism on “Across the Universe.”
The album also contains a rare listed credit for a musician besides the four Beatles. Eric Clapton’s lead guitar on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” might have gone unlisted back in the day, but former child prodigy Billy Preston gets a shout-out for the keyboard on “Get Back” (among other tracks). He was twenty-three at the time; he had known the group since age sixteen, when they were Tony Sheridan’s backing group and he was part of Little Richard’s touring band.
(Moment of silence.)
This recording really made him pop off—he was a fixture throughout Harrison’s solo career; he later worked with Clapton, incidentally; and he contributed to the two pretty obscure projects Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. Not bad.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call Let It Be one of the albums that has best stood the test of time, because every Beatles album has demonstrated some sort of staying power. But it does contain a couple of their most enduring statements, and the lesser-known ones are great as well. I love me some “Dig a Pony.” Then there are the pieces that didn’t even make the final cut, like the beautifully raw “Don’t Let Me Down” or the silly “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)”—which was the B-side to the single “Let It Be,” and which always comforts me for its portrait of a band who still knew how to goof around even though they basically couldn’t stand one another anymore. Let It Be is a testament to hope.
If you need me, I’ll be giving the proverbial record another proverbial spin on the proverbial turntable. Or I might switch to Let It Be…Naked, a solid alternative. Nothing’s gonna change my world.