This is my 150th column, signifying the end of year three.
No, no, no applause necessary. Just send money.
Anyway, the same boring old self-congratulation-and-thanks-to-everyone-reading-this gets tired after a while, I’m sure, but I still mean every word of the thank you part. This column has brought me in contact with some truly great people, especially recently, and without all of you, I’m just shouting into a vacuum. So thanks for letting me (hopefully) entertain you for three years. ‘Nuff said.
This is also the second column I wrote this week. The first is much more bloggy and emotional than this one, and I figured you’ve probably all had enough of that from me, so I immediately archived it. But it’s on the site, linked through the archive page, if you want to read it.
Anyway, when it comes to these anniversary columns, I always want to have something important or personally relevant, musically speaking, to discuss. It hardly ever works out that way, and usually I have to wrack my brain to come up with a fitting subject. Not so this time – my topic was handed to me by Sir Paul McCartney himself. What better way to cap the third year than by talking about the best band to ever walk the planet, the Beatles?
I can’t remember the first time I heard a Beatles song. Their work is such an integrated part of the cultural continuum that it feels, to me at least, like it’s always been in my life. I can remember the first Beatles album I bought, though: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, on cassette, when I was 15 years old. Talk about starting at the top – the album was a complete revelation for me, and it’s only deepened over time. I now own every Beatles album in at least two formats, and still rank them as the best band I’ve ever encountered, and Sgt. Pepper as the best album I’ve ever heard.
I give you this personal history of my experience with the band simply because there’s no point in rehashing the history of the group itself. The Fab Four have been discussed, dissected, lauded and deified for 40 years, and by many more eloquent and knowledgeable people than myself. It seems the consensus that the Beatles were the best band in the history of rock, the best songwriters in the history of pop, and the best record makers in the history of recorded sound. Their position as icons and deities, at least in the worlds of rock criticism and fandom, seems immutable.
As a f’rinstance, Rolling Stone has just published another of their asinine “500 Best Albums of All Time” list, featuring picks and contributions from all manner of literati. Sgt. Pepper came in at number one, of course, but Rubber Soul, Revolver and the White Album all cracked the top 10 as well. That means that according to Rolling Stone‘s experts (whatever that means), four guys are responsible for 40 percent of the 10 best albums ever made, and since those four records came out all in a row, that also means they accomplished this feat in less than four years.
Yeah, wow. And surely some of you are questioning this. Can it be possible that this band was that good? Is it even fathomable that with today’s technology and nearly 40 years of musical progress, we still haven’t managed to make a better album than one recorded analog on an 8-track and released in 1967? Should any band be raised up to such unattainable heights?
The question of the Beatles’ deification is at the center of Paul McCartney’s ongoing attempts to add to and “correct” the band’s legacy, begun with the expansive (and largely superfluous) Anthology project. But now he’s gone and messed with something sacred – one of the albums themselves. Just out is his “naked” version of Let It Be, the final Beatles record, and an album that landed at number 86 on the Rolling Stone list. And even though I try to temper my own tendency to idolize the Beatles, I can’t help feeling that this is like screwing with the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
The story of the Let It Be sessions certainly lends itself to historical revisionism. Mere weeks after the White Album hit stores, the Fab Four reconvened with the idea of getting back to basics – writing some simple rock and roll, performing it live (for the first time in two years) and filming the process for a television special. They were even going to call the project Get Back. Well, the sessions ended in frustration, and the hundreds of tapes were given to producer Glyn Johns to see if an album could be culled from them.
Meanwhile, the boys regrouped for their last studio project, the comparatively lush and staid Abbey Road, and then promptly broke up. The Let It Be sessions were transmuted into an album by Johns and “boosted” in the studio by Phil Spector, who added strings and choirs to four songs. And when McCartney heard it, he hated it. And he went on hating it for 33 years.
So now, 23 years after John Lennon’s death and one year after George Harrison’s, we have Let It Be… Naked, McCartney’s retooled, de-Spectorized version, complete with a sticker that hails it as “the album as it was originally intended.” Which, of course, is a load of crap – the Let It Be album itself was never “intended,” really, and much of what has survived from those sessions only has because of Glyn Johns and his associates. Make no mistake, Naked is a bald-faced attempt at rewriting history.
In and of itself, that doesn’t make the album unnecessary. But to suggest that this release is meant to take the place of the original Let It Be is practically sacrilege, mostly because McCartney (who suggested the idea of the album and approved its release) has changed a number of things that didn’t need to be changed. If Naked had been Let It Be without Spector’s strings and choirs, that might have been interesting. Instead, the new version mucks with enough details to qualify as just another draft, not a definitive statement.
For example, the track order is all askew. Now, I know, the songs were originally arranged by Johns and Spector, and there’s no sacred text that says the album can’t open with “Get Back” instead of closing with it, but after 33 years, messing with the order just feels wrong. Naked plays like the original album on shuffle, for no good reason – nothing is improved by putting “For You Blue” third instead of eleventh, for instance.
Worse than that, though, is the new version’s lack of atmosphere. The original Let It Be is unique in the Beatles catalog because it sounds like the original intention – a document of a fun and loose recording session. The tracks are preceded and followed by studio chatter, most famously John Lennon’s rampant wiseassery. (“Phase one, in which Doris gets her oats…”) Additionally, the 1970 version featured a pair of “throwaways” in “Dig It” and “Maggie May,” each less than a minute long, but undeniably fun. Put simply, the original Let It Be is a whimsical, rollicking record full of personality.
All that is absent from the new one. The chatter is gone, the throwaway tracks are gone, and even some of the extended endings of songs are gone. In their place is a collection of studio tracks, with a slick feel that’s no different from any other Beatles record. It starts and ends without telling you anything interesting about the process that birthed it, and with recordings this stripped-down, the revelatory sense of fun is sorely missed.
What’s curious about the lack of atmosphere is the new version’s stated intention to strip away the studio gloss. Spector’s contributions to four songs are indeed gone, leaving bare bones recordings. The genesis of this plot arose from McCartney’s adverse reaction to Spector’s treatment of his “The Long and Winding Road,” which on Let It Be is stuffed full with strings and choral voices. Similar embellishments have been removed from “Across the Universe,” “I Me Mine” and “Let It Be.”
But here’s the thing: “The Long and Winding Road” sounds awful in this new incarnation. It sounds like a cheap demo of a skeleton of a song. The glorious countermelodies the string sections provided are just plain gone, with nothing in their place. It’s almost a lounge version, and it comes across as mawkish instead of desperately sad. On the original version, McCartney’s longing voice battled with the strings, creating emotional tension. On the new one, there’s none of that.
The only take I agree with is “Across the Universe,” just for its naked beauty, but even that is barely equal with the original version’s reverbed psychedelia. “Let It Be” is here in a different take entirely, I believe, with a completely different guitar solo that just sounds… wrong. It may be 33 years of the original version talking here, but Harrison’s solo is as much a part of this song as the chorus. I’d bet anyone even passingly familiar with “Let It Be” could hum at least part of the solo. It’s been learned and imitated by generations of budding guitarists. Changing it adds nothing but a strange sense of disconnection.
The Naked version also adds “Don’t Let Me Down,” a song that probably should have made the original record. But the song has been as readily available (on Past Masters Vol. 2) as the rest of the catalog, so simply squeezing it in here adds little.
The only improvement the new version makes, in fact, is in the sound. The fidelity and clarity has been improved measurably, and it leads one to wonder why the rest of the Beatles catalog still languishes in the land of analog hiss and hum. If they all could sound like this, then remaster away, Sir Paul. I can always buy the entire freaking catalog again…
Of course, the unabated deification of the band’s records leads to an interesting question: if the Naked version of Let It Be had been released in 1970 and the original one in 2003, would critics be decrying the addition of studio chatter and the removal of “Don’t Let Me Down”? Is it the canonical nature of the original mix that lends it an air of sacrosanct authenticity, or is it actually superior to the new version? Since we can’t remove ourselves from history, we’ll never know.
All I can tell you in this case is that I like the original version better, though I don’t regret hearing the new takes of these familiar tunes. Still, Naked only succeeds in being a curiosity, not a necessary addition to the canon, and certainly not a fitting replacement for Let It Be. Rather, it will get filed off to the side, apart from the 15 “real” CDs, along with the Anthology sets and the solo material. If McCartney intended to make me reach for this disc whenever I feel like listening to Let It Be, then I must disappoint him. If, however, he merely intended to provide a still-rabid fanbase with another scrap and make himself some cash, then he’s done it. And he’s got my cash, the bastard.
In the end, it all comes down to what isn’t there, and perhaps the most gutting omission is Lennon’s final smartass line: “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we passed the audition.” What a perfect way to end both the album and the catalog, bringing it full circle and providing a neat laugh at the same time. Even if the sense of fun that glues together the original Let It Be is something of a revision of history itself, given the frustrating nature of the sessions, it’s exactly the way I’d want a band like the Beatles to go out. The original Let It Be is a bittersweet farewell, a last romp, a great rock and roll record that bubbles with life and joy. The new version? It’s just another bunch of songs, and that’s what separates the two.
See you in line Tuesday morning.