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Getting Back to Basics

Let It Be, Reconsidered

by JONATHAN REYNOSO

It was a dark time for the group. The Beatles lost their manager and good friend Brian Epstein to a barbiturate overdose in the fall of 1967. To forget their sorrows, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr along with their wives flew out of London to Rishikesh, India for a retreat with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for three months (Harrison and Lennon stayed the longest) starting in February 1968. In this period the four Beatles wrote the bulk of their final compositions for the White Album, Let It Beand Abbey Road

By late 1968, the group recorded their double album The White Album which had seen a number of arguments and a temporary walk out from Ringo. Paul McCartney felt that the group’s cohesiveness was lost in individual recording sessions, overdubs, and complex compositions. It was as if The White Album was a compilation of songs by solo acts rather than an ensemble band. McCartney believed the best way to improve relations was to get the band back in the studio to mark the return of their rock ‘n’ roll roots. On New Years Day, 1969 The Beatles returned to the studio to record Let It Be.

The theme of the album was the “back-to-basics” idea to capture the essence of the early days of the Beatles before their turn to innovated, psychedelic soundscapes. The sessions, known then as the Get Back sessions, saw the group covering an array of early rock ‘n’ roll hits such as “Stand By Me”, “Words of Love”, “Lonely Sea”, “Rip It Up”, “Shake, Rattle & Roll”, “Blue Suede Shoes” and more. Simultaneously, the Beatles played hundreds of originals for Get Back. Aside from the material on the album, the group performed songs that would later appear on Abbey Road and others that would eventually appear on solo albums. The sessions were filmed for a documentary titled Let It Be. 

The album feels like a live Beatle concert (thankfully, without the screaming fans) that McCartney intended to achieve. “Two of Us” opens the album with a gentle acoustic duet by McCartney and Lennon. The “back-to-basics” sound is introduced with this folky number featuring four instruments: two acoustic letitbeguitars, an electric guitar, and drums. Lennon’s “Dig A Pony” is the yin to McCartney’s yang. A soft song juxtaposed by a blues rock piece. “Dig A Pony” was disliked by Lennon and dedicated to his soon-to-be-wife Yoko Ono. You can hardly tell that this is a love piece except for the line “All I want is you” because the lyrics are nonsense images and phrases strung together like a Bob Dylan parody song. 

“Across the Universe” was conceived one night in 1967. Lennon’s ex-wife Cynthia was “going on and on about something” said Lennon later. The opening phrase “words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup” was stuck in his head like a mantra. Lennon wrote them down. The song was unearthed during The Beatles’ Transcendental Mediation trip where he added the song’s chorus “Jai guru deva om” (Sanskrit: जय गुरुदेव ). It is Lennon’s most poetic piece as it features imagery and abstract concepts of concretism. Words like “meandering”, “slithering” and undying love “shining” are a few of these ambiguous thoughts treated as a physical entities. 

Chronologically, “I Me Mine” is the last Beatle song the band recorded before their split in 1970. The title refers to a verse about the ego in from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita. For example: “They are forever free who renounced all selfish desires and break away from the ego cage of ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘mine’ to be united with the Lord. This is a supreme state. Attain to this, and pass from death and immortality.” Beatles biographer Jonathan Gould wrote that Harrison was upset that his “fellow Beatles could complain about the amount of time they had to spend learning the arrangement for ‘I Me Mine’ and then turn around and submit to a laborious rehearsal of a song like ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ which stuck George as a paragon of pop inanity”. 

Like the genesis of “Across the Universe”, McCartney’s piano-driven piece comes from a serendipitous event too. “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me”, it is not a biblical reference at all — McCartney’s mother Mary McCartney was the center of a dream during the rough period in the The White Album sessions. Mary died of cancer when Paul was fourteen. In an interview Paul stated that she told him everything was going to be all right and to “let it be”.

The song stands shoulder-to-shoulder with other Beatle masterpieces like “Hey Jude” and “A Day In the Life”. McCartney’s sweet voice guides us in this gospel tune. His right hand plays thorough a series of chords while his left is playing single notes. As the drums roll into a crash on the cymbals trumpets, trombones, and a tenor saxophone blast melancholy notes. This is Phil Spector’s version – a “naked”/stripped down version with just the four Beatles (as originally intended) is available on the remix album Let It Be…Naked. It’s a beautiful song that has become somewhat of a standard, as with many Beatle songs.

Rock ‘n’ roll songs echoing the Beatlemania era are “I’ve Got a Feeling”, “One After 909″, and “Get Back”. This time around, The Beatles borrow the blues rock/hard rock sounds of 1969 from it’s key players: Led Zeppelin, Creem, the Jimi Hendrix Experience to name a few. All three were played during the rooftop concert in January 1969, the final Beatles performance. 

At the time of its release, the album received mixed reviews. Rolling Stone magazine criticized Spector’s over-produced “wall of sound” as its been called. “Musically, boys, you passed the audition” wrote Rolling Stone in 1970, “In terms of having the judgement to avoid either over-producing yourselves or casting the fate of your get-back statement to the most notorious of all over-producers, you didn’t”.

The magazine was too quick to judge. Months after their break up the Let It Be tapes were given to Phil Spector who gave four tracks the make-over that Rolling Stone condemned the entire album for. These tracks were “Across the Universe”, “Let It Be”, “The Long and Winding Road” and “I Me Mine”. The rest were free of Spector’s angelic and often cheesy orchestral manipulations, and just rocked. 

Jonathan Reynoso can be reached at:  reynosojonathan@gmail.com.