Sunday, November 29, 2009

Abbey Road and Let it Be: "And in the end, the music and the mysteries remain..."

Synopsis: Whether the Beatles' recording career ended triumphantly or reeking of unfinished business and controversy depends on whether the listener considers their last recorded album, Abbey Road, or their last released album, Let it Be, as the "Fab Four's" finale.

Abbey Road was the last album the Beatles recorded. Let it Be was the last album the Beatles released. What became compiled as the album Let it Be was recorded mostly during January, 1969 as part of an ill-conceived project which did yield a movie of the band’s efforts, but nothing went according to plan, the least of which was the inability to get a coherent album to show for the effort until well over a year later.

As the film, Let it Be, documents, songs from Abbey Road were already under construction as the work for the project commenced. Some snippets from this effort are included in the Beatles Anthology series.

With years of history and many Beatles fans not even having been born when John, Paul, George, and Ringo officially split in the spring of 1970, the irony of their final recordings becomes even clearer.

The way things actually played out with Let it Be being the Beatles final album, their stellar career ended on a note of uncertainty and incompleteness. Examining the finished product, the album released as Let it Be, how can one not feel certain emptiness?

The Beatles were to have created a film that showed the band in preparation recording an album leading to the grand finale, a concert. The project was largely Paul McCartney’s brain child with John and George reluctant participants from the get go. Instead, what became the movie, Let it Be, documented a band falling to pieces. Starting in Twickenham studios, the lads are shown working through a series of songs, many of which would wind up on either Abbey Road or Let it Be. Others would show up as solo material on Paul’s and George’s first albums. The tension was obvious especially between Paul and George while John seemed more interested in drifting off with Yoko and Ringo seemed largely indifferent. No material from Twickenham could be polished off to make it on the album. The Beatles then moved to the Apple Records studio setup in the basement of their Apple headquarters in London, not as sophisticated as EMI’s Abbey Road where they would normally record, but certainly an environment suitable for recording a rock album. They brought in keyboard player Billy Preston, whom they had known since performing with Ray Charles early in their career. Suddenly, the music started to percolate. Bits and pieces from these sessions did make it to the finished album, but the most noteworthy material from the Apple Headquarters recordings was a hastily arranged noon January 30th concert on the rooftop of the studio where the band performed “Don’t Let Me Down,” one of several versions of “Get Back,” “Dig a Pony,” “I Got a Feeling” and “The One After 909.”

Few would argue the rooftop set was absolutely brilliant. How wonderful it was to hear the Beatles plus Billy Preston play as a live band, no studio gimmicks, playing great rock n roll music, the kind of music they honed their skills playing before Beatlemania swept the planet.

The following day, the band retreated to the basement to record most of the rest of the album, “Let it Be,” “The Long and Winding Road,” and “Two of Us.” Two songs on the album have nothing to do with the sequence of the Get Back/Let it Be project. “Across the Universe” dates back to February, 1968 where a very different mix of the song was released on a special compilation of English artists performing for the benefit of wild life preservation. “I Me Mine” was the last song the Beatles minus John would ever record in January, 1970 as they were putting the final touches on what would become the single version of “Let it Be.”

Somehow, the goings on of all these efforts were flying below the radar of all the eyes cast upon the Beatles. In early 1969, the rock music scene was exploding on both sides of the Atlantic. Beatles’ fans attention was riveted to the The Beatles or the“White” album and Yellow Submarine. The meteoric career of Cream, Eric Clapton’s band, had been riding high, but almost simultaneous with the release of Yellow Submarine came their final release, Goodbye Cream, with just three studio tracks, one of which was co-written by George Harrison who played on the track as Mysterioso.

The Beatles were getting attention. John Lennon and Yoko Ono were staging bizarre stage events centered on an anti-war message. Plastic Ono Band became the vessel for Lennon’s solo recorded efforts first with “Give Peace a Chance” and then “Cold Turkey.” George Harrison had numerous projects in the works including finding talent for Apple Records for which he would serve as producer, Jackie Lomax, Billy Preston, and Doris Troy.

While clues were abundant in the “White” album and all kinds of things were pointing toward the world’s most famous act falling apart, none of that was apparent to the fans or the entertainment media who perhaps as a matter of faith simply could not comprehend the dissolution of the Beatles. Their individual exploits were more seen as their maturation, branching out, giving their faithful fans even more material to appreciate.

While the “White” album has plenty of great music as part of the Beatles’ legacy, what can be appreciated in hindsight is that each song clearly was the project of its composer, not an ensemble production. John, Paul, and George were acting more like solo artists using the rest of the band as mere studio performers. It also marked the first time high caliber artists were participating in the recording sessions with Eric Clapton contributing to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and Nicky Hopkins adding the piano for the single, “Revolution.” Billy Preston’s involvement with Let it Be seemed to be taking that progression one step forward.

After the completion of recording on January 31, 1969, the Beatles were cranky, tired, and at each others’ throats. Paul was at odds with the business direction of the band but also enjoying the joys of his romance and marriage to Linda Eastman. Even producer, George Martin, whose roll was much less defined through the Let it Be project and had delegated some of the production duties to Chris Thomas during the “White” album was growing impatient with the Beatles.

Despite the dueling egos and conflicting agendas, the Beatles weren’t done yet. The first tidbit from the Get Back/Let it Be project was released, the single: “Get Back” backed with “Don’t Let Me Down” in April of 1969. Paul McCartney contacted George Martin asking him if he were interested in working with them on their next album telling Martin they wanted to work the way they used to with Martin behind the controls at Abbey Road studios. Martin felt apprehension at first particularly concerned of John’s commitment, but Paul indicated the whole band was ready to go.

Limited activity took place in April, the same week as the single’s release, as “The Ballad of John and Yoko” and “Old Brown Shoe,” their next single was recorded. Work began on “Something” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” Some work was completed in April including remaking “Something” and some initial overdubs for “Let it Be.” At the end of the month, their last single before Abbey Road, hit the streets, “The Ballad of John and Yoko” actually just John and Paul recording and “Old Brown Shoe.”

From early July to mid-August, Abbey Road studios were busy as the band worked diligently to record what would turn out to be the final album they’d record together. While they worked to use the studio to its maximum benefit under George Martin’s careful watch, they weren’t attempting to explore any bold experiments but rather to harness their full creative power to record a magnificent cohesive album. George Harrison introduced the moog synthesizer into some of the songs. The album featured intricate arrangements and lush harmonies, creating at least the illusion of much more an ensemble approach to the repertoire.

All the A sides of Beatles’ singles were Lennon/McCartney compositions with John and/or Paul in the lead. Unlike coincident with most Beatles albums, no isolated single was recorded, so the single would come from the album itself. This time, the A side would be George Harrison’s, “Something,” with John Lennon’s lyrical adventure, “Come Together” as the B side.

On September 29, 1969, Abbey Road was released during a fall season some of the greatest albums in rock history were issued. The album was received with instant acclaim around the world perhaps exceeding the fanfare of any of their releases in the past. There would be no controversy as surrounded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was a more digestible single album unlike The Beatles (White Album), its predecessor. There was none of the confusion brought on by earlier albums with different American and British releases. The world-wide media was now in place allowing Abbey Road broader instantaneous exposure than any album before.

As if the album itself were not enough to blast its sales into orbit, an insane urban legend/conspiracy surface soon was sweeping the airwaves and campus buzz. Paul McCartney was dead and since their final tour in 1966, he had been replaced by a stand-in. Almost six years after the Beatles first crossed the Atlantic to appear in the United States in early 1964 conquering the music world, they remained high atop the world of pop music having grown so tremendously as artists and having such a profound influence on pop culture.
From its catchy beginning with “Come Together” followed up with one of their most touching love songs, George Harrison’s, “Something,” the first side of the album included Paul’s catchy pop for “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Oh Darling!,” then features what amounts to almost a children’s song, Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden,” before coming to a dramatic climax with the extended hard rocker, “I Want You (She’s so Heavy)” featuring awesome guitar duels between Lennon and Harrison.

Side two opens showing George Harrison surely attained peer status to John and Paul as a song writer with the uplifting, acoustic guitar driven, “Here Comes the Sun.” From that glorious introduction what follows is unlike anything ever attempted by a rock band before, a mixture of fully realized songs, little snippets, and what amounted to in parts, a series of medleys where almost every element of the bands’ immense talents could be showcased leading to a huge big production finish that winds up with Paul McCartney’s vocal line, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” That final line would almost seem to be the fitting message, a perfect coda for their collective work, but always being ones for a humorous or ironic touch, twenty seconds of silence follows, then a goofball little ditty, “Her Majesty,” a tongue in cheek love song for the Queen.

When the Beatles work is taken in its entirety and one realizes Abbey Road is actually their last album to be recorded, the last work all four participated in producing, everything about it seems like the just conclusion to their brilliant efforts. They did not go into Abbey Road studios with the intention of it being their last album nor did they feel they were finished as a unit when the album was completed. It just worked out that way.

By the time the album was released, John Lennon had pretty much lost all interest in the band engaged in his theater of the absurd avant-guard presentations with his Japanese bride, Yoko. Days before the album’s release, Lennon joined forces with Eric Clapton, drummer, Alan White and bass guitarist, Klaus Voorman performing six tunes for a Toronto audience. He was active with his own recordings, releasing the single, “Cold Turkey” and then “Instant Karma” produced by Phil Spector early in 1970.

Engineer Glyn Johns, whose work included the Rolling Stones, who worked with the band during the Get Back/Let it Be project labored over the tapes attempting to come up with a marketable album. Though a finished album was presented and widely bootlegged, it never got the go ahead. The tapes remained sidelined as Abbey Road flourished.

As the band was increasingly at odds finishing an album from the project continued to gather dust. Anticipating an album of largely new material, Apple and Capitol records threw fans a biscuit with the release of Hey Jude (The Beatles Again), a compilation of familiar Beatles tunes never released on a Capitol or Apple album going as far back as “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “I Should Have Known Better” but also bringing “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” out of orphan status before going to some recent singles not finding a place on an album, “Lady Madonna,” “Revolution,” “Hey Jude,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “Old Brown Shoe,” and “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” Missing in action was “Get Back” perhaps with the understanding it would anchor their album of unfinished material.

1970 opened with the Beatles final recording sessions on January 3rd and 4th, putting the finishing touches on “Let it Be” as it would be released as a single, and tracks were laid down for “I Me Mine.” Their final worldwide single was prepared for release finding a novelty number, largely John Lennon’s doing, “You Know My Name, Look up the Number” as the “B” side.

“Let it Be” was released as a single on March 6, 1970 complete with a video shown on Ed Sullivan’s show. Even though it was competing with John Lennon’s “Instant Karma,” fans still had no idea the Beatles were heading to a breakup though John Lennon’s behavior became more and more difficult to predict.

The battle for the band’s financial management was getting ugly with John and George seeking to work with Allen Klein who managed the Rolling Stones but was about to get the boot leading many to believe they would have been wise to have consulted with Mick Jagger for a little savvy business advice. Paul McCartney sought to have his father-in-law handle the business. Allen Klein, anxious to get the Beatles cash register ringing again got John and George to bless handing the tapes off to Phil Spector, whom John already had a working relationship to pull a marketable album from the Get Back/Let it Be stash. On April 1st, his work was completed. The album, Let it Be, was ready to coincide with the release to theaters of the movie of the same name, but Paul McCartney was furious. Incensed by Spector’s heavy handed approach to “Let it Be” and “Long and Winding Road,” Paul quickly put the finishing touches on his first solo album with a handful of familiar McCartney sounding tunes and some instrumental filler to have a preemptive release prior to Let It Be hitting the stores. April 20th was the day that rocked the world as McCartney went on sale along with a scathing announcement from Paul announcing the end of the Beatles.

Less than two weeks later, Let it Be was released as the Beatles’ final album. Though generally not their best, the album had plenty of brilliant material. Opening with a John Lennon wisecrack, then starting with a spirited acoustic duet, “Two of Us,” Let it Be appeared off to a great start. The live sound of the rooftop concert material was a welcome change from the carefully crafted studio sound that was the band’s signature from Revolver forward. “Dig a Pony,” a John Lennon lyrical workout, follows with just straight forward two guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards format from the rooftop concert. Phil Spector’s influence pervades the next two songs but most effectively. “Across the Universe” is reworked to become a dreamier less spaced-out composition with strings and female voices gently worked in to help create the atmosphere. George’s “I Me Mine” follows where Spector’s sense of drama is quite appropriate. Trying to recapture the original live intent of the project inserted a short little jam, “Dig It” follows. After that, perhaps the greatest shambles ever to wear the Beatles’ imprint follows. Starting off faithful to the single, all sounds in good order, as the title track, “Let it Be,” begins. If anything, the first Spector touches open the song up a little helping to enhance its gospel elements. The instruments stand out more vividly; however, at one and a half minutes into the song, things start to turn horribly wrong with some very loud blaring brass mixing in quickly followed by an absolute disaster. Gone is George Harrison’s beautiful soft telecaster solo enhanced by being played through a Leslie speaker system, burying it is a loud, raucous, out of tune guitar that completely destroys the whole spiritual tone of the song. That horrendous guitar continues to surface in bursts through the rest of the song, but after the solo then comes another dreadful miscalculation mixing the percussion up to an unnatural annoying level. Dramatic backing vocals and blaring brass continue to the song’s conclusion. Spector’s efforts would be the musical equivalent of trying to touch up the Mona Lisa with crayons.

The first side ends with a little John Lennon jam singing lines from an old Liverpool pub tune, “Maggie Mae.”

Side two begins with rooftop numbers and couldn’t sound better with their back to the basics approach. “I Got a Feeling” and “One After 909” are great live performances. The third track on side two of the original LP is one of the Beatles’ greatest controversies. Rather than using the take used in the movie, Spector found another recording of “Long and Winding Road” that was lean on instrumentation, mostly just Paul accompanying himself on piano. This beautifully simple arrangement presented unaltered on Anthology 3, is buried beneath one of the boldest employments of the massive Spector wall-of-sounds ever with sweeping Hollywood style strings and horns and a female choir. The results apparently infuriated McCartney who criticized passionately the results even citing usurping his creative control in legal briefs supporting his attempts to dissolve the band. Ironically, Paul’s arrangement for a live version of the song on Wings over America borrows substantially from the Spector approach.

The album wraps up with a happy-go-lucky, blues influenced George Harrison tune, “For You Blue” featuring some lively lap steel by John Lennon. “Get Back” concludes the album without the reprise at the end that was part of the single increasingly giving the album an indefinite finish.

For younger fans who did not live through the thrills of the Beatles when they were an active band, it’s easy to put things in chronological sequence and see a band’s career so beautifully balanced ending with the perfect swan song. Abbey Road can be seen as the wonderful final effort after signs of unraveling to the point of near chaos shown in the execution of Let it Be.

For those of us who were there, the Beatles seemed to be reaching for even higher heights when Abbey Road blessed our turntables in the fall of 1969. With so much great music from so many of the great icons of pop music its contemporary, perhaps we were distracted from seeing what was happening to the band that started so much of the great phenomenon.

The following spring, we had heard the news that Paul McCartney had announced the Beatles demise as many of us were seeking satisfaction from his first solo album, McCartney, but as we went to the record and discount stores just a few weeks later, we must have been in denial as we picked up Let it Be and if we had some extra coin the wallet the sprawling three record Woodstock album released the same week. Some of us would be lucky to get British or Canadian releases of Let it Be with the beautiful color book, dozens of fabulous photos of the band at work during the sessions.

The Beatles were just too good to leave us. Maybe they needed a break. Perhaps getting a couple solo albums out of their system would do the trick.

Soon the solo efforts started to pile up. By year’s end in addition to Paul McCartney’s effort, John Lennon and George Harrison would release landmark albums: John’s Plastic Ono Band and George’s All Things Must Pass. Even Ringo Starr got in the act releasing two albums, neither were rock albums but instead he explored old standards for his parents with Sentimental Journey and his passion for country music with Beaucoups of Blues.

In the early 1970’s, all four former Beatles maintained active recording careers, some albums well received while others were almost universally panned. No album elevated Beatles fans’ high hopes more than Ringo’s first pop effort in the fall of 1973. So far, Ringo had played on both George’s and John’s albums and George played on John Lennon’s album Imagine, but with the release of Ringo, all four Beatles performed, but never did all four perform on one song. George Harrison was quite active on the album, but the album’s opener, “I’m the Greatest,” John and George join Ringo with Billy Preston supplying keyboards for even more Beatles’ authenticity. Paul and Linda contributed a Beatles-sounding tune, “Six O’clock.” Richard Perry’s production helped pull the album together and give it often a distinctly Beatles’ sound.

High hopes and rumors would unite the Beatles’ in their fans’ imaginations, but what concluded with the recording of Abbey Road and the release of Let it Be marked the end of the most universally popular band in pop music history. Whether their legacy ended on a triumphant note or one of uncertainty and promises left unfulfilled depends on the listener’s perspective on how to put these two albums in their proper historic perspective. While Let it Be might seem to be getting a bum rap in this article, it would be a masterpiece by just about any other band’s standards with the horrible butchery of the title track standing out as painful insult to such an idyllic legacy.

Abbey Road is many listeners’ favorite album and the one producer George Martin is the most proud of. Along with Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, and The Beatles, it is an essential recording for all music lovers who enjoy classic rock, post World War II pop music, or any serious collection of the best recorded music ever released. Let it Be is far more than a curio; it is a welcomed addition in many music collections as well.

No comments: