The Beatles Get Back/Let It Be sessions and the resulting unreleased and released albums and bootlegged recordings are among the most interesting and confusing aspects of the group’s recorded legacy. From these January 1969 sessions came the April 1969 “Get Back”/“Don’t Let Me Down” single, the March 1970 “Let It Be” single, the May 1970 Let It Be album reproduced for disc by Phil Spector, a dozen recordings on Anthology 3 (1996) and the no-strings-attached Let It Be…Naked LP (2003). Bootleg recordings first surfaced in the fall of 1969. Later releases featured songs recorded on mono tape recorders for the film soundtrack and the unreleased Get Back album. For the truly obsessive, there is an 83-disc collection of the sessions!
With so much available material, Apple and Universal Music Group faced quite a challenge in assembling their super deluxe set for Let It Be. How did they do? Well, first and foremost, the set is an entertaining and wonderful listening experience. It contains a remix by Giles Martin of the original 1970 album, two discs of rehearsals, jams and outtakes, the previously unissued Glyn Johns Get Back LP, a bonus EP with four tracks that Apple felt were worthy of release but didn’t belong on the other discs, and a Blu-ray disc with Giles’ remix in stereo, 5.1 Surround and Dolby Atmos.
The box set comes with a hardback book containing a forward by Paul McCartney, an introduction by Giles Martin and memories from balance engineer Glyn Johns, followed by histories of the sessions by John Harris and Kevin Howlett and Howlett’s track-by-track descriptions of the recording of the songs. The attractive book is in the form of a scrap-book, full of pictures of the band and some very cool images of lyrics, letters, memos, drawings and tape boxes.
The collection’s first disc is Giles Martin’s remix of the original Let It Be album, which was “reproduced for disc by Phil Spector.” While most of the songs on the 1970 LP feature only the Beatles and Billy Preston, Spector added strings, brass and a choir to a few of the tracks and drastically remixed Let It Be. Spector’s work on “The Long And Winding Road” was heavily criticized by the press, as well as George Martin and Paul McCartney.
Those hoping for a totally de-Spectorized mix will be disappointed with some of Giles’ work, which does not remove Spector’s embellishments. But bear in mind that Giles’ mission was not to totally rework the 1970 LP to create another Let It Be…Naked, but rather to remix the existing Let It Be album to give it a more contemporary sound. In the album’s notes, Giles acknowledged that “[Spector’s] approach, while lacking, perhaps, the sensitivity of the arrangements my dad provided for the other albums, did create a timeless sound of its own that had to be respected in the new mix.” To that extent, Giles has successfully cut back on some of Spector’s excesses, while leaving the album recognizable to those who have repeatedly listened to the five-decade-old LP.
The remixed album has all of the elements we’ve grown to expect from Giles’ respectful handling of the Beatles catalog. Overall, everything sounds cleaner, enabling the listener to hear separate instruments and vocals in a way not always present on Spector’s 1970 mix. The bass and the drums are given more prominence, but do not get in the way of the vocals, which are always up front and clearly heard.
The album’s opening track, “Two Of Us,” has crisp-sounding acoustic guitars that are heard throughout the song, but never dominate. Paul and John’s vocal harmonies surround the listener in a way not present on the original album, which has the vocals in the center of the mix. Ringo’s bass drum and George’s bass lines on his Fender Telecaster guitar are also pristine.
“Dig A Pony,” one of three rooftop performances, opens with a powerful guitar and bass intro leading into John’s wonderful vocal. As was the case with the Spector mix, Giles mixes out the opening and closing “All I Want Is You” refrains that were part of the song.
While Spector added strings and a choir to “Across The Universe” to build his trademark wall of sound (where individual instruments often get lost in a muddy-sounding mix), Giles treats the strings and voices as if they are separate instruments, giving them a clean and distinct sound. John’s vocal has more life to it and George’s wah-wah guitar parts cut through.
On “I Me Mine,” Giles keeps the Spector-added strings, but mixes them in a subtle manner that makes them more of an embellishment than a distraction. He uses the same Spector edit extending the track. “Dig It” also has the same edit as on the original album, but Paul’s piano is given more prominence.
Spector’s drastic remix of “Let It Be” was one of the most controversial on the album. Although it was made from the same take as the George Martin-produced single, it sounded so different that fans and reviewers alike thought it was a totally different performance. In addition to using a different, raunchier-sounding Harrison solo and lead guitar part, Spector added echo to Ringo’s high-hat, brought the brass and George’s guitar way up in the mix and edited in a repeat of the chorus to extend the song. Giles’ remix follows Spector’s blueprint, including the echo on the high-hat (although it is back in the mix) and more prominent brass and guitar than on the single, but has an overall cleaner sound with the backing vocals and organ more audible. The old skiffle standard “Maggie Mae” is just as fun on the remix as on the original album.
The next two tracks, “I’ve Got A Felling” and “One After 909,” are rooftop performances. The former is a great rocker with a powerful Paul vocal and great guitar work by John and George. Paul’s bass and Ringo’s drumming, particularly the bass drum early in the song, are given more prominence than in the original mix. On “One After 909,” Preston’s electric piano is brought up further in the mix and is heard throughout the song. This performance demonstrates more than any other that by the end of the sessions “The Beatles with Billy Preston” had become a tight rock ’n’ roll band of five gifted musicians.
On “The Long And Winding Road,” Giles is respectful of Spector “reproduction” by keeping his strings, brass and choir; however, he does cut back slightly on Phil’s excesses by pushing the choir more in the background and somehow making the harp at the end of the song seem less annoying. George’s “For You Blue” has his vocal in the center surrounded by John’s excellent slide work on the Horner Hawaiian lap-steel guitar on the left and Paul’s piano on the right.
The album’s final track, “Get Back,” is as powerful as ever, with Paul’s bass and Ringo’s drums more upfront than on the original mix. John’s excellent lead guitar is present throughout, while Billy Preston’s electric piano is heard on the breaks and during his solo, but otherwise remains in the background.
Giles’ remix provides a way to hear Spector’s version of the album with a more contemporary sound and with some of its over-the-top embellishments held back, although some will wish Giles had paid a little less respect to Spector’s work and further reduced the strings, brass and choir.
The second and third discs contain rehearsals, jams and outtakes along with some dialog tracks and studio banter. The selections are not in chronological order, but rather are programmed to create an enjoyable listening experience. The below comments do not follow the discs’ running order and are limited to the songs.
The deluxe set has a pair of Twickenham run-throughs of songs that would later appear on solo albums. Although the Beatles spent a lot of time working on George’s “All Thing’s Must Pass,” they never quite got it right. Nonetheless it’s interesting to hear what the song may have sounded like had it became a part of Let It Be or Abbey Road. John’s “Gimmie Some Truth” was not yet finished, but this brief, spirited performance shows the song’s potential that would be fully realized on his Imagine LP.
There are five songs included that would end up on Abbey Road. Paul leads the band through a rehearsal of “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” featuring his piano and George on wah-wah guitar. John, on acoustic guitar, plays a bit of “Polythene Pam,” surrounded by studio banter. Ringo charms his way through a verse of “Octopus’s Garden,” admitting that’s all he’s got. George then tries a few things on acoustic guitar, showing his desire to help his fellow mate. During a brief rehearsal for “Something,” George admits he’s having trouble completing the line “attracts me like….” John advises him to just say whatever comes into his head until he gets the words and suggests “cauliflower.” George selects “polygranite” for his filler word.
The group delivers a fun and spirited performance of “Oh! Darling,” which clocks in at over five minutes. Unlike the Abbey Road version, which features a solo Paul vocal, he is joined by John for much of the song, which even includes a spoken middle section. When the song breaks down, John says he’s just heard Yoko’s divorce has gone through and sings of new-found freedom before Paul takes over and brings the tune home. The performance has great keyboards and lead guitar.
The discs contain two performances of “Get Back.” Take 8 shows the song’s potential with John and Billy Preston providing excellent solos. But the real treat is the complete Take 19, which is almost as good as the master take used for the single. In fact, the first part of the coda of this performance was used in edited form for the coda of the “Get Back” single. The latter part of the coda was used to close Glyn Johns’ Get Back album and the Let It Be film. The set also has the unedited first rooftop performance of “Don’t Let Me Down,” complete with John’s usual flubbing of the lyrics.
Take 10 of “I’ve Got A Feeling” is faster and heavier-sounding than the rooftop performance. Paul effectively belts out his vocal while John’s voice sounds coarse.
Take 14 of “Dig A Pony” is a somewhat loose performance at a slower tempo than the rooftop version. This enjoyable take does not have Billy Preston on piano, so George’s lead guitar work really stands out. The “All I want is you” vocals at the start and end of the song are not mixed out as they were on the Let It Be album.
Take 3 of “One After 909” has a totally different feel than the rooftop performance included on the Let It Be LP. Highlights include Billy Preston’s banging of the keys, George’s guitar though a Leslie speaker and Paul and John having fun with the vocals.
There are two versions of “I Me Mine.” The Twickenham rehearsal features flamenco guitar during the middle eight, while Take 11, from January 3, 1970, is an instrumental backing with George, Paul and Ringo. The take is preceded by 12 seconds of George leading the trio through “Wake Up Little Suzie.”
Take 4 of “Two Of Us” is preceded by a false start. This upbeat take is not as good as the version on the Let It Be LP, but is one of the group’s better performances of the song. Paul and John provide nice harmonies over crisp-sounding acoustic guitars and John adds extra percussion by tapping his guitar on some of the breaks. Towards the end of the song John slides into a Bob Dylan impersonation and begins his end-bit whistling sooner than on the master take.
The box set’s version of “Maggie Mae” has more of a skiffle beat than the take included on Let It Be and leads into an impromptu performance of an early Lennon-McCartney tune, “Fancy Me Chances With You.”
“Can You Dig It” is a nifty jam featuring slide guitar and piano, with John singing variations of “Can You Dig It” and very little else, joined by Paul responding with an occasional “yeah.” It has a percolating, out-of-tune sound. It is followed by John’s “That was ‘Can You Dig It’ by Georgie Wood” dialog that precedes “Let It Be” on the Get Back and Let It Be albums.
Take 4 of “For You Blue” is a spirited performance highlighted by John’s slide work on the lap steel guitar. At the end George quite rightly adds, “That sounded lovely.”
Prior to Take 10 of “Let It Be,” the group discusses the song’s structure and is led by Paul on piano through a verse of “Please Please Me.” The actual performance of “Let It Be” is quite lovely though not as strong as the master take. The backing vocals and organ are more up front in the mix. George turns in a decent solo. Take 28 from January 31 is just as good as the single. Billy Preston’s organ is more up-front and George’s solo is spot-on.
Take 19 of “The Long And Winding Road” from January 31 is the best performance of the song in the box set. Paul’s singing and John’s bass playing are significantly better than on the January 26 version included on the Let It Be and Get Back albums. And, of course, Spector’s schmaltzy strings are nowhere to be heard. Preston provides a simple but effective organ solo during the second middle eight.
Those familiar with the early Get Back bootlegs will recognize the band’s take on Jimmy McCracklin’s “The Walk,” a fun little track that runs for less than a minute.
The set also includes a Ray Charles-sounding blues tune “Without A Song” featuring Billy Preston on lead vocal and piano. John adds some lead guitar and Ringo provides his usual steady beat.
The fourth disc contains the unissued Get Back LP compiled by Glyn Johns in 1969. Although many collectors already have this on a high-quality bootleg CD, its inclusion will be welcomed by all. It was Johns’ idea to present the Beatles “with a lot of chat and humor.” He thought it would “make the most incredible Beatles album ever, because it was so real.” It was described by Beatles road manager Mal Evans as “The Beatles with their socks off, human Beatles kicking out their jams, getting rid of their inhibitions, facing their problems and working them out with their music.”
To achieve this informal feeling, Johns often selected loose and fun-sounding performances from early in the sessions that were inferior to perfected takes recorded towards the end. This made the Get Back album sound amateurish and contributed to its release being delayed and eventually scrapped in favor the Let It Be album reproduced by Phil Spector. Writing in Rolling Stone, John Mendelsohn observed that Spector had “whipped out his orchestra and choir and proceeded to turn several of the rough gems on the best Beatles album in ages into costume jewelry.”
The Get Back LP opens with the rooftop performance of “One After 909” followed by the group jamming on Fats Domino’s “I’m Ready” before settling down into a fun bit of the Drifter’s “Save The Last Dance For Me,” which ends with John and Paul singing a few lines of “Don’t Let Me Down.” The group then turns in a bluesy full take of “Don’t Let Me Down,” complete with vocal ad-libs from John and great electric piano from Billy Preston. Next up are early ragged versions of “Dig A Pony” and “I’ve Got A Feeling” that are clearly inferior to the rooftop performances appearing on the Let It Be album. “Get Back” has the same stereo mix as on the U.S. single.
“For You Blue” is the same take as the released album, but has George’s original vocal instead of the rerecorded vocal laid down in January 1970, seven months after the Get Back LP was compiled. Paul’s “Teddy Boy” is a fun and ragged performance with square dance calls from John and a bit of feedback squeal. Johns selected a slow, plodding version of “Two Of Us” from January 24 that is inferior to the crisp upbeat January 31 take of the song chosen by Spector for the Let It Be album. “Maggie Mae” is the same short take appearing on the Let It Be LP, while “Dig It” runs for over four minutes (in contrast to the 58-second snippet on the official release). The takes of “Let It Be” and “The Long And Winding Road” are the same for both albums, but they sound light years apart. The Get Back mixes of these ballads are noted for their simplistic beauty, whereas Spector’s reproductions are dominated by orchestral embellishments.
The box set’s bonus EP adds four tracks. “Across The Universe” and “I Me Mine” were mixed by Johns for inclusion on the revised version of the Get Back album because the songs were featured in the Let It Be film. The other two tracks are Giles’ remixes of the “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Let It Be” singles. The former is preceded by 30 seconds of studio banter, while the latter has Billy Preston’s organ and the backing vocals more prominent in the mix.
The Blu-ray disc contains PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Dolby Atmos versions of Giles’ remix. The 5.1 surround mix is subtle. While it adds some depth, it does not sound drastically different than the stereo mix, at least not to my 66-year-old ears. As my home system is not set up for Dolby Atmos, I am unable to describe that mix. The label to the Blu-ray disc has a red apple in a nod to the record label on the U.S. release of the album. (The CD with Giles’ remix has a standard green apple label.) The animations for the Blu-ray disc menus add fun visuals.
Despite the high quality of the box set, there will undoubtedly be second-guessing and complaining about what is not included. That should come as no surprise since there was so much material to choose from. There will be the usual “How could they leave off that song?” and gripes that the set does not include the entire rooftop concert (although that was most likely a decision influenced by Disney, who will be broadcasting the full concert as part of Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary on Disney+ this Thanksgiving weekend).
Those expecting a comprehensive collection of Twickenham rehearsals will be disappointed as there are only a handful of such tracks. Giles preferred selections that were properly recorded on Apple’s eight-track over those taped on the mono Nagra machines for the film. Similarly, those hoping for a disc of rock ’n’ roll classics performed by the Beatles during the sessions will question why there are virtually no such chestnuts included. The answer is simple. Most of these performances were run-throughs that were often marred by sub-standard playing and the group having difficulty remembering the words.
In addition, this is an audio product. While the scene in Let It Be of the Beatles grinning their way through “You Really Got A Hold On Me” is a joy to behold, hearing the audio of the performance by itself is agonizing, particularly when one remembers how great the 1963 studio version sounds. Perhaps the Get Back film will contain several oldies.
One should not lose sight of what the super deluxe Let It Be box set is–another high-quality product from Apple that is a welcome addition to the Beatles recorded legacy. There is also a vinyl edition of the super deluxe box set, a 2-CD version, a single CD, a single vinyl disc of the remix, a picture disc and, of course, digital downloads.