To my mind, “Let It Be” is the best song on the Beatles’ last studio album—also called “Let It Be”. The album (1970) was a bit of a letdown, but I suppose its relative mediocrity was a way of preparing us for the Beatles’ demise, much like ill health prepares us for our extinction. It’s almost as if the album was stage 5 of Kübler-Ross’s famous sequence of life’s-end emotions: acceptance.
This song, however (written by McCartney), stands out among the others on the LP. I was pleased to see that Rolling Stone ranked it as #8 on its list of the 100 Greatest Beatles Songs.
Channeling the church-born soul of Aretha Franklin, Paul McCartney started writing “Let It Be” in 1968, during the White Album sessions. (Aretha’s cover of the song was released before the Beatles’ version.) McCartney’s opening lines — “When I find myself in times of trouble/Mother Mary comes to me” — were based on a dream in which his own late mother, Mary, offered solace, assuring him that everything would turn out fine. “I’m not sure if she used the words ‘Let it be,’” McCartney said, “but that was the gist of her advice.”
As everyone knew then, the Beatles were on the verge of breaking up. Lennon and McCartney were squabbling constantly, Yoko (whom the others didn’t like) was on the scene, and it just seemed a matter of time before they were gone. For this album Phil Spector, unaccountably, was brought onboard as co-producer, and George Martin marginalized. Rolling Stone recounts the mess around “Let It Be,” which was released on LP nearly a year after recording began:
. . . the band worked for days on the song, recording the basic track at Apple Studios on January 31st, 1969.
After wrapping up the filmed sessions that day, the Beatles turned a mountain of tapes over to engineer Glyn Johns to assemble into an album, tentatively titled Get Back. George Harrison didn’t like his solo on the version of “Let It Be” that Johns picked, so he replaced his part with a new take, in which his guitar was run through a rotating Leslie organ speaker. That solo, with its distinctive warbling tone, ended up on the single.
At the beginning of 1970 — almost a year after the initial recording — McCartney, Harrison and Starr convened to do touch-up work on a few songs from a year earlier, including “Let It Be.” (Lennon, who had effectively quit the Beatles after the recording of Abbey Road, was in Denmark with Yoko Ono.) McCartney replaced John’s bass part with his own, Harrison recorded another guitar solo (the one used on the album mix), a brass section scored by Martin was added, and Harrison and Paul and Linda McCartney sang backup vocals.
Spector, known for his lush arrangements—the famous “wall of sound”—seriously embellished the version that was released earlier as a single:
Lennon had been impressed with producer Phil Spector’s work on his “Instant Karma!” single, and in March 1970, he and Beatles manager Allen Klein called in Spector to work on the January 1969 tapes. “He was given the shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever, and he made something out of it,” said Lennon. Spector did the LP mix of the title track (after the single had already been released) and is credited with producing it, although it’s mixed from the same tape as the single. McCartney later declared that Spector’s version “sounded terrible.”
Johns said he preferred his spare mix of the song, the one done before “Spector puked all over it.” Spector called the atmosphere between band members a “war zone” and felt he’d done the best he could under the circumstances. “If it’s shitty, I’m going to get blamed for it,” he said. “If it’s a success, it’s the Beatles.”
“Let It Be” was released on March 11th, 1970. A month later, on April 10th, McCartney took the occasion of the release of his first solo album to announce that the Beatles had broken up.
Here’s the single version for comparison. Actually, I like the guitar solo on Spector’s version better.
For a fascinating listen to an early and unreleased version of the song, go here. This would be what the first recorded version would resemble, before the bells and whistles were added. Note the different words: “Brother Malcolm comes to me.” I wonder if that’s Malcolm X.
When we heard the Beatles had broken up, it was like getting punched in the stomach. Many of us knew instinctively that, on their own, they could never do what they had done together.