By Bruce Spizer
Beatlefan Magazine, Nov-Dec 2003
Nearly 35 years after the Beatles’ tumultuous January 1969 back-to-basics recording sessions, Apple finally had released the album the group wanted all along. “Let It Be… Naked” is more than a stripped-down version of the officially released “Let It Be” album. It is a freshly remixed collection of the best takes of the best songs identified with the “Get Back”/”Let It Be” project. It comes with a 32-page booklet full of pictures taken during the sessions and extracts from the original “Let It Be” Book, plus a 22-minute bonus disc containing studio chatter and snippets of songs.
Since its release in 1970, the “Let It Be” album has evoked strong opinions from fans and critics, particularly among the those who have heard bootlegs containing the unreleased “Get Back” album compiled and mixed by engineer Glyn Johns. Although “Get Back” contains many ragged performances, it has humor and charm. It was designed to be “The Beatles with their socks off.” No overdubs. No edits. Warts and all. The “Let It Be” LP, which was reproduced for disc by Phil Spector, has better performances of some songs but deviates drastically from the project’s original no-overdubs policy. Those who enjoy the loose quality and simplicity of “Get Back” vilify Spector for the orchestral and choir embellishments added to a few of the tracks. Others believe Spector turned an amateurish-sounding collection of poorly performed songs into a highly-polished and respectable album. The Beatles were never really satisfied with either version.
Early in 2003, word began filtering through Beatles fandom that Apple was going to release a “de-Spectorized” version of “Let It Be”. Many people assumed that the “new” disc would be the “Get Back” album. Others speculated that “Let It Be… Naked” would have the same running order as the “Let It Be” album, but would use the pre-Spector versions of “Across the Universe”, “I Me Mine”, “The Long and Winding Road” and “Let It Be” that appeared on the “Anthology” album. Few gave any thought to the possibility that Apple would issue an entirely new version of the album. But that’s exactly what happened.
In early 2002, Apple Managing Director Neil Aspinall contacted Allan Rouse at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios about redoing the “Let It be” album. Rouse had served as project coordinator for the “Anthology” and “Yellow Submarine Songtrack”. He brought in Paul Hicks and Guy Massey to mix and engineer the album. The trio was given the freedom to select which versions of songs to include and to remix the songs as they saw fit. Because the objective was to produce an album of great songs that would fit in with the rest of the Beatles catalog, the trio decided to drop the throw-away tracks “Dig It” and “Maggie Mae” as well as all studio banter. For example, we no longer hear about “Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf-aids.” Although the trio listened to all 30 reels of tape recorded at Apple during January 1969, most of the tracks on the new album use the same master take as the previously released album.
The new disc opens with the same Jan. 27 performance of “Get Back” released on the single and all previous versions of the album. The clarity and depth of the track is astounding. George’s chopping rhythm guitar, Ringo’s galloping snare drum part, Paul’s bass and lead vocal, Billy Preston’s electric piano fills, and John’s lead guitar and backing vocal all leap through the speakers with a force not previously heard. The only drawback to the new mix of the song is that it is missing the Jan. 28 coda that was edited to the end of the single.
Rouse, Hicks and Massey selected the Jan. 31 rooftop concert version of “Dig a Pony” used by Spector rather than the Jan. 22 runthrough selected by Johns for his “Get Back” album or the different Jan. 22 take that appears on “Anthology 3”. Although parts of the song sound different than the “Let It Be” LP version, the mix and editing on the track are influenced by Spector’s work on the song.
“For You Blue” is the same basic Jan. 25 1969, take with George’s re-recorded vocal from Jan. 8, 1970, that appeared on the “Let It Be” album. The “Get Back” album has the same take, but with George’s original vocal, and “Anthology 3” contains the group’s first recorded take of the song. The new mix brings out the unique sounds of Paul’s plucking piano and John’s lap-steel slide guitar.
The “Get Back”, “Let It Be” and “Anthology 3” albums all feature the same Jan. 26, 1969, take of “The Long and Winding Road”; however, Spector augmented the sparse performance of Paul’s ballad with 18 violins, four violas, four cellos, a harp, three trumpets, three trombones, two guitars, and a choir of 14 singers and Ringo on drums. Although some people believe Spector made necessary improvements to a dull and plodding song, most feel he overproduced the track. Beatles producer George Martin and Johns were shocked and disgusted. Paul was particularly upset with the use of the choir.
Rather than use the familiar Jan. 26 version, the Abbey Road trio selected the final Jan. 31 take of the song that appears in the film. During the earlier recordings of the song, including the previously released version, Paul sings “Anyway you’ll never know the many ways I’ve tried.” By the end of the sessions, Paul had changed the lyrics to “Anyway you’ve always known the many ways I’ve tried.” (In concert, Paul has sung the words from the earlier version. It will be interesting to see if he switches to the Jan. 31 lyrics for future performances.) The decision to use the final take of the song is a wise one. Paul gives a stellar performance on both piano and vocal, John hits his bass notes and Preston provides a soulful organ solo.
While Johns selected a barely passable runthrough of “Two of Us” from Jan. 24, Spector went with the upbeat Jan. 31 take of the song used in the film. It is perhaps Spector’s best work on the “Let It Be” album. “Anthology 3” contains a charming Jan. 24 performance of the song in which Paul acknowledges the Everly Brothers (Phil and Don) by saying “Take It Phil” just after completion of the middle eight. Rouse and company used the upbeat Jan. 31 version and improved what was already a great sounding song. The acoustic guitars and harmonies of Paul and John are so crisp and clear that it sounds as if the two of them are in the room with you.
Both the “Get Back” album and “Anthology 3” contain the same spirited but incomplete runthrough of “I’ve Got a Feeling” from Jan. 22. Spector used the first of two performances of the song from the Jan. 31 rooftop concert. The “Naked” crew created a new edit using the best bits of the two rooftop performances of the song. Although this breaks the “no edits or overdubs” rule, the new version showcases the fun spirit of the concert and is superior to all previous mixes.
“Let It Be… Naked” has the same rooftop performances of “One After 909” selected by Johns and Spector. The new mix gives the song added punch, with Preston’s piano riffs and George’s guitar ripping through the speakers.
Although “Don’t Let Me Down” was not included on the “Let It Be” LP, a studio version of the song from Jan. 28 was released as the flip side to the “Get Back” single. Johns included a soulful but loose Jan. 22 runthrough of the song on his “Get Back” album. The Abbey Road trio decided against using either of the previously mixed versions, opting instead for the rooftop concert. Oddly enough, Lennon never turned in a performance of the song in which he didn’t flub the lyrics. The single solved this problem by dropping in vocals from one take onto the master take. During the two rooftop performances, John botched the lyrics to different verses, thus enabling the “Naked” producers to edit together a flawless Lennon vocal. The new version of the song showcases strong vocal harmonies by John and Paul not present on the single.
“I Me Mine” was rehearsed at Twickenham but was never properly recorded at Apple. Because the song was featured in the movie, the group was asked to record the song for “soundtrack” album. On Jan. 30, 1970, The Beatles (minus Lennon, who was out of the country) got together at Abbey Road with Martin for what would be their last recording session. With George on acoustic guitar, Paul on bass and Ringo on drums, the band ran through 16 takes of the song before obtaining a satisfactory backing track, which was then overdubbed with vocals, organ and additional guitar parts. The finished master, which runs a mere 1:34, was mixed by Johns and added to the proposed “Get Back” LP. Spector used a clever edit to extend the song to 2:25 and then gave the track his famous wall of sound by superimposing an orchestral score. The original 1:34 master was released on “Anthology 3.”
The Abbey Road trio started with the pre-orchestra Spector edit of the song rather than go back to the short and unembellished Take 16. Thus, the track isn’t really naked, as it contains several overdubs by George and Paul. The mix brings out the swirling organ as well as the acoustic guitar parts and the distorted electric guitars with stunning clarity.
“Across the Universe” was recorded on Feb. 4, 1968, during the session that yielded “Lady Madonna”. Take 7, which features John on acoustic guitar, George on tamboura and Ringo on tom-toms, served as the backing track and was given several embellishments, including backing vocals by two female fans invited into the studio by Paul. John was not satisfied with the way the song turned out, so The Beatles did not release the track as a single. Instead, the recording was used as the band’s contribution to a charity compilation album titled “No One’s Gonna Change Our World”. Martin speeded up the song and added sound effects of birds to the beginning and end. This version of the song made its debut on a Beatles album in 1988 when it was included on the compilation album “Past Masters Volume Two”.
John’s unhappiness with the recording prompted him to resurrect the song during the “Get Back” project. The group attempted several runthroughs of “Across the Universe” at Twickenham but never came close to improving on the earlier recording. By the time the sessions moved to Apple, Lennon had given up on the song. Because the song was featured in the film, Johns added “Across the Universe” to the “Get Back” album. His mix is at the proper speed and without the sound effects.
Spector performed major surgery on the embellished Take 7. By transferring the four track-track tape to an eight-track. He was able to mix out the backing vocals of the female fans and superimpose an orchestral backing and chorus. He also slowed the song down. “Anthology 3” contains Take 2 of the song.
Rouse, Hicks and Massey use the unembellished Take 7, with John’s vocal and acoustic guitar, George’s tamboura and Ringo’s drums. The song starts out with no reverb and minimal separation. As the song moves forward, the tamboura is spread across the mix. Progressive amounts of reverb are then added, with the song ending in a massive flood of reverb. Although it is the only track on the new CD that deviates from the dry mixes, this new version (the fourth to be released) fits in well and provides a suitable lead-in to the album’s final selection.
The disc appropriately closes with “Let It Be”, which has long been at the center of controversy among Beatles fans. Although Spector’s reproduced version of the song sounds like it is a totally different take than the Martin-produced single, both use the first Take 27 from Jan. 31, 1969. “Let It Be” became the first song from the sessions to receive enhancements. Because Harrison hit a few sour notes during his guitar solo, he overdubbed a fresh solo on April 30, 1969. Johns prepared a mix of this version of the song for unreleased “Get Back” album.
During a Jan. 4, 1970, Martin-produced session, the eight-track master was further enhanced with brass, cellos, maracas and additional backing vocals and drums. In addition, Harrison contributed a slightly raunchy lead guitar solo. When mixing the single, Martin tastefully placed the brass, cellos and maracas in the background. He also opted to go with George’s April 30, 1969, laid-back solo. Spector, on the other hand, brought the instrumental enhancements to the front of the mix and used the Jan. 4, 1970, raunchy-sounding solo. He also placed echo on Ringo’s hit-hat and edited in an additional chorus after the third verse. By the end of the song, Paul’s vocal fights for attention with the blaring brass and George’s lead guitar. Even Lennon, who championed Spector’s work on the album, admitted that Phil got “a little fruity” on the song.
The new CD also uses the first Take 27, but without any of the enhancements. Rather than choose between the two later recorded guitar solos, the Abbey Road trio edited in Harrison’s solo from the second Take 27, which appears in the film. The new mix also has the backing vocals, Lennon’s bass and Preston’s organ more towards the front.
Although the CD runs only 35 minutes, Apple wisely chose to put the 22 minutes of bonus material on a separate disc. The bonus disc is designed to be a “fly-on-the-wall” presentation of what went on during the sessions. It mixes conversation with brief snippets of songs. The disc is not indexed and plays as one continuous track. This makes it difficult to locate a particular song or bit of banter. Most listeners will initially be fascinated with the bonus disc but will not find themselves going back to it often.
The disc opens with the group arriving at Twickenham and then alternates between discussions and rehearsals of songs. To make up for the dropping of “Dig It” and “Maggie Mae” from the new album, the bonus disc includes bits of different versions of each song. Other songs include “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, “All Things Must Pass” and a country version of “Get Back”. The dialogue provides insight into what the different members of the group were thinking during the sessions. George observes that “The things that have worked out best for us haven’t really been planned anymore than this has.” Towards the end of the disc, Paul says “Goodnight and thank you very much for having us. It’s been wonderful working with you.” Wonderful indeed.
Some people will undoubtedly complain that Apple has blown an opportunity to deliver the ultimate “Get Back”/”Let It Be” album. After all, the main disc and bonus disc run only a combined 57 minutes. Others miss the studio banter. I miss the coda on “Get Back” and wonder why the disc wasn’t issued in the SACD (Supper Audio) hybrid format. But one shouldn’t judge the new album for what it isn’t. It should be judged for what it is.
First and foremost, “Let It Be… Naked” sounds spectacular. The Abbey Road team took full advantage of today’s technology to add clarity and depth to the recordings. They selected the best performances of the best songs, made appropriate edits and bought previously buried vocals and instruments to the front of the mix. And while the disc is not The Beatles with their socks off, it is an album that fits in comfortably with the White Album and “Abbey Road” as a well-produced collection of great songs played by a great rock ‘n’ roll band.