15 Years Ago: The Beatles Reclaim Their ‘Get Back’ Sessions on ‘Let It Be … Naked’
In 1969, everybody had a hard year, and everybody had a good time. It was a year in which history seemed to be tripping over itself -- the moon landing, Woodstock and Altamont and the disintegration of the Beatles.
In January 1969, the group gathered to record what would eventually see release in 1970 as the film and soundtrack album Let It Be. In 2003, Paul McCartney would spearhead a return to that era for Let It Be ... Naked, a more organic version of the LP released on Nov. 17, 2003. Returning to the original master tapes, producers Paul Hicks, Guy Massey and Allan Rouse stripped away the original production by pop auteur Phil Spector and instead focused on the core instrumentation by the Beatles and keyboardist Billy Preston.
The original Let It Be began life as rehearsals for a never-performed live concert that would feature all-new material. Dominated by infighting and tension, those sessions would mark the beginning of the end for the band. John Lennon and George Harrison eventually turned the tapes over to Spector to lather on his patented wall of sound for the band's final official release as a pop group; while Abbey Road was actually recorded after Let It Be, it saw release in September 1969, with Let It Be hitting shelves in May 1970.
"It’s been treated as a perpetual work in progress, an album that was never originally meant to be," explains Dan Rivkin, whose They May Be Parted blog is devoted exclusively to the Let It Be sessions. "The parts were always greater than the sum. From that standpoint, Let It Be ... Naked is just another part of that process. A new version of Revolver or Sgt. Pepper would be heretical. A new Let It Be, while perhaps unnecessary, isn’t shocking."
McCartney's motivation for Let It Be ... Naked seemed to stem largely from Spector's contributions on songs like "The Long and Winding Road," a McCartney composition that received some of the most extreme "Spector-izing" on the original album. A low-key ballad of yearning became a grand pop production featuring a lush string section and brass. On Let It Be ... Naked, the songs are returned to their roots, drawing from many of the same takes used on the original album. Other changes included the removal of tracks ("Maggie Mae," "Dig It") in favor of "Don't Let Me Down," a Lennon composition that saw release as a single but never made a full Beatles album; returning "Across the Universe" to its original speed; and a complete re-sequencing of the tracks. The results met with mixed reaction from Beatle fans.
"It sounded more raw and authentic, plus it sounded very clean -- this was released before the 2009 remasters, so side-by-side with the muddier 1987 CDs, it did sound fresher," recalls Rivkin. "But at the same time it was tough to understand why it was necessary, since it was largely the same takes, just remixed. While Let It Be ... Naked may be a more accurate portrayal of the January 1969 sessions than the original Let It Be LP, it stands on the shelf with something like the Love LP of remixes or the Anthologies. It’s complementary stuff."
Perhaps this brief moment in Beatles history continues to resonate due to the endless bootlegs resulting from it. More than 80 hours of tapes have leaked from the Let It Be sessions full of aborted takes of the officially released songs, partial and complete cover tunes and early attempts at later solo Beatles cuts like Harrison's "All Things Must Pass" and "Let It Down" and McCartney's "Another Day" and "Teddy Boy." There's also endless hours of studio chatter that provides a glimpse into the inner workings of the world's greatest group at its moment of self-destruction.
"You can hear every aspect of Beatles history unfolding before our ears, and from the source," says Rivkin. "There’s nothing else really like it, with the chance to hear relationships between songs and band members play out in real time. Listening to the songs evolve over the course of hours and days -- we’re talking only 20 days of tapes -- and the breadth of material they spanned all the while trying to figure out what kind of concert they wanted to stage, it’s just a fascinating listen with surprises at every corner. For a band that you think you know everything about, that had so much coverage of every move they made, it’s a wonder to listen to them unedited."