Long and winding road gets even more twisted

November 18, 2003


"I'd like to say 'thank you' on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition."

Those words (fractured grammar and all) were already fabulously ironic when John Lennon said them on Jan. 30, 1969, at the end of the fiery version of "Get Back" that the Beatles had just performed on the roof of Apple's headquarters at 3 Savile Row in London's West End.

Three and a half decades later, the statement is almost incomprehensible -- not only have the Beatles "passed the audition," they are firmly enshrined in the pop culture pantheon as the most influential rock band of all time, and not undeservedly so.

More troublesome is the industry that has emerged -- all the more aggressively in recent years thanks to the ever-efficient Capitol Records and Sir Paul McCartney -- to sell us product that we've already purchased countless times before.

Coming on the heels of the elaborate multimedia "Anthology" project and the chart-topping "1" collection, the latest marketing scheme is being hyped as the Beatles' most controversial album "as it was meant to be." But "Let It Be ... Naked" is really a misnomer; it would be more accurately titled, "Let It Be ... McCartney."

The turbulent history of this disc is well known to Beatles fans. After pulling apart during the recording of the so-called "white album" in 1968 and sensing that the band had run its course, the group (goaded by McCartney) determined to give it one last shot by attempting to craft an album as it had in its early days, recording live as a unit with minimal overdubs.

The project was going to be called "Get Back," and it would be evidence of the Beatles coming full circle. Studio banter would be left intact, the better to capture the band in its element -- exposed, unaltered, naked.

The sessions didn't quite work out as planned -- as captured in the film "Let It Be," the presence of Yoko Ono added to the tensions between Lennon and McCartney, and Harrison briefly quit the band in the midst of the recordings. By the time they were finished, neither the Beatles nor longtime producer George Martin could bear the thought of mixing the finished music.

The task fell to engineer Glynn Johns. He compiled three finished versions of the album, but none of them won final approval from the band.

Instead, Lennon and Harrison came up with the idea of submitting the tapes to legendary producer Phil Spector, the architect of the "Wall of Sound" on a string of pop hits in the early '60s, and he added his famous orchestrations to several tracks.

John and George were clearly pleased with the results -- Lennon went on to work with Spector on three of his subsequent solo albums, and Spector co-produced "All Things Must Pass" for Harrison -- but McCartney has been grousing about the producer's additions to the disc that was re-titled "Let It Be" ever since it was finally released in May 1970, after the Beatles had broken up.

Now, with Lennon long gone, Harrison dead for nearly a year and Spector facing trial on charges of murdering actress Lana Clarkson at his home last February, Sir Paul has his revenge.

Not surprisingly, Spector is nowhere to be found on "Let It Be ... Naked," and his presence is missed. His strings added mystery and depth to Lennon's "Across the Universe" (and we had already heard the tune sans orchestration on "Past Masters, Vol. 2"). And the title track and "The Long and Winding Road" sound unfinished and tedious without the studio flourishes. (Sorry, Paul, but your argument would seem to be moot.)

McCartney doesn't stop there, though. When Beatles fans first heard about "Let It Be ... Naked," they assumed that they'd finally be getting one of the original raw, unadorned Glynn Johns mixes of the album.

Instead, this is a whole new version of the disc, one that "cleans up" the mix and edits out all of the between-song banter. The new package does include a second disc of studio banter, dubbed "Fly on the Wall," but it misses the point: Comments captured during a take add insight to the musicians' state of mind; presenting them out of context gives us nothing but trivia.

We can debate the merits of a Spector-less version of the music. But to cut Lennon's "passed the audition" quip from the end of "Get Back" is nothing short of sacrilege.

Given the new digital treatment, the snare drum and the acoustic guitars jump out a bit more here and there (notably on tunes such as "I Me Mine"), and the addition of the poignant "Don't Let Me Down" (which wasn't on the original album) is a nice touch.

But in the end, "Let It Be" stands as the Beatles' least satisfying if not downright lousiest album (there is little good to be said about tunes such as "Dig a Pony" or "Two of Us"), and "Let It Be ... Naked" does nothing to redeem its reputation, or to warrant buying the disc again if you already own it.