- 15 Oct 21
Everybody Let Their Hair Down
Is there such a thing as a runt in The Beatles’ litter? A ridiculous notion really when we’re talking about perhaps the most perfect discography in music but I do remember a journalist – a noble breed against whom I won’t countenance an ill word – saying something along the lines of how Let It Be was often the first Beatles record people bought – because of the cover – and it’s the worst one. Spitting out this class of rot – that it’s the “worst one” – is a bit like grumbling about a Himalayan peak that isn’t quite as tall as the others; it’s still pretty impressive, it’s still The Beatles.
A confession here; Let It Be is the only Beatles studio album I didn’t own – until last Wednesday. I replaced all the eighties vinyl – and the crappy first-round CDs – with The Beatles In Mono vinyl box/monolith when it was released. It is a thing of eternal joy and worth four times whatever ridiculous price I paid for, an initial investment that has been recouped a thousand times over. The thing is, it doesn’t include the last two Beatles albums. I, of course, as a reasonably sensible person, bought Abbey Road separately, for, as I’ve said before, if side two of that final recorded work was all they had done, we’d still be talking about them, but I never got around to putting money on a counter for Let It Be.
Why is that? Any record that has the title track, ‘Get Back’, ‘Across The Universe’ and the great ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ on it has got to be good. Maybe I read that comment from my colleague in the rockin’ fourth estate and thought he had a point. I’ll even admit that such was my unfamiliarity with it – compared to everything else that bore their name – that when I bought Anthology 3 upon its release, I heard the versions of tracks like ‘Dig A Pony’ or ‘Two Of Us’ and thought ‘that’s a good song, how come I don’t know it?’.
I suspect the problem is this. I, like even the more casual Beatles fan, have read more about The Beatles than I have about almost anyone else and I’ve seen a crappy bootleg of the Let It Be movie a few times - it’s not quite the disaster some have said it is, but it is short on laughs. I know the stories about the rushed recordings in an unsuitable space with cameras - and other people - over their shoulders. I know the story about them all telling Glyn Johns to fuck off up the yard when he initially handed them his version of the sessions, Get Back. It's included here and is, while interesting and worth having, hardly the revelation we might have expected. I’ve also heard McCartney giving out, repeatedly about what Phil Spector, at Lennon’s behest, did to the finished tapes. There’s no getting around it, he did over-egg a song as great as ‘The Long And Winding Road’ with layers of mush. I’m a fan of the Macca-sanctioned Let It Be… Naked where the Abbey Road boffins despectorised the tapes but, slightly surprisingly, there’s no sign of it here. Has it been written out of their history?
With all that weight on it, I gave it a swerve – or at least what you could class as a swerve in comparison to the amount of time I’ve spent with everything else they did - and surely I wasn’t that only one? This fiftieth anniversary box – the last Beatles re-release for the foreseeable? Probably not – allows foolish doubters like me, then, to go at it again. The good news first. There has been some grumbling in certain quarters about the very idea of Giles Martin, and Sam Okell, even thinking about remixing The Beatles (“I tend towards the ‘fuck all wrong with it to begin with’ camp,” one Mr P McLoone told me during the week, over a mug of ale). This is a load of old hooey. Okay, I might personally prefer the mono mixes of Sgt. Pepper’s and The White Album, but that doesn't mean I don’t enjoy what they’ve done and, if anything, they might even have improved Abbey Road, as unlikely as that sounds. And it's not like the other versions are going anywhere.
From what I remember, they’ve definitely achieved something similar with Let It Be. It, somehow, sounds less… tired. Ringo’s drum, and his bass drum, in particular are brighter, ‘Dig A Pony’ certainly sounds more robust and worthwhile, 'Across The Universe' is a gorgeous, underrated bit of Lennon, and ‘Let It Be’ is such a great song that it’s easy to take it for granted. This new mix elbows you a gentle reminder, and the hairs on the hairs on your arms still perk up when Harrison plays that solo with the horns behind him.
On side two, McCartney’s bass and soul hollering blast out of ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’, Lennon’s early ‘One After 909’ rollicks along like the greatest garage band in the world after a few sherries, and ‘Get Back’ hums like it was recorded last Tuesday, with a reinforced suspension. And what about ‘The Long And Winding Road’? Perhaps for the sake of historical accuracy, the tacked-on syrup of the strings and brass and backing vocals are still there but the men in the white coats have pulled down the fader ever so slightly. It’s a great song from a time when such things were falling out of McCartney, the best Beatle. There! I said it!
All that – as well as that - being said, Let It Be is still unlikely to be anyone’s choice as their greatest record. They might have been having the craic with ‘Dig It’ and ‘Maggie Mae’ but you probably won’t be, and, as much as I love George Harrison, I just don’t think ‘I Me Mine’ or ‘For You Blue’ count amongst his greatest songs, but the genius indeed far outweighs the less good, and Martin and Okell have made it sound better than it ever has before. In fact, I suspect this is going to be the definite version going forward. Let me paraphrase McCartney, although he was talking about The White Album; “It’s great, it’s the bloody Beatles, shut up!”
The big box is filled out with two records of outtakes as well as that Glynn Johns mix. As has been said elsewhere, the pickings are slimmer than on the boxes that came before, but it is The Beatles, working, so of course it’s worth hearing, and you have already decided for yourself whether you’re going to put your hand in your pocket or not. McCartney arsing around with a version of ‘Please Please Me’ that could have come from before the war before going into a take of ‘Let It Be’ that, yet again, has the listener marvelling at how gifted he is, ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ sounding splendid on the ‘value for money’ additional EP (I know it’s from another session, but it would have been nice to have ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ too), an early version of one of Harrison’s greatest song, ‘All Things Must Pass’ – why didn’t they work this up?, Lennon’s nascent ‘Gimme Some Truth’ where you can hear him writing it as it goes along, the thrill of hearing the band work on various snippets of the material that would blossom into Abbey Road, and Billy Preston, as fifth a Beatle as anyone, giving it some on ‘Without A Song’ – it really is like sitting on the side of Olympus, witnessing the Gods as they forged the world from clay.
All this, and we’ve yet to see what Peter Jackson comes up with. Jaysus, we’re spoilt. It’s the bloody Beatles. Shut up!
Special thanks to Chantal Hourihan from Universal Ireland who, as usual, went above and beyond the call of duty.