Written by: Paul Gleason
Steve Matteo’s book on Let It Be changes the album’s narrative, challenging readers to see The Beatles’ so-called “swan song” in a new light.
Matteo takes what many Beatles’ fans know about the band’s final release – that the group actually recorded Let It Be (which came out in 1970) before their official penultimate release, Abbey Road (which came out in 1969); that the recording sessions were fraught with arguments; that George Harrison temporarily left the band during the sessions; that Harrison and John Lennon asked Phil Spector to produce the record without Paul McCartney’s approval; that the sessions included the famous “Rooftop Concert”; and that the director Michael Lindsey-Hogg filmed some of the sessions for a movie – and gets at the heart of what really happened at Twickenham and Apple Studios.
It can’t be forgotten, Matteo argues, that two key words defined the sessions, at least in their initial stages: “Get Back.” Of course, “Get Back” is the title of one of McCartney’s greatest songs. But it was also the working title of the project – album, film, and culminating concert – that The Beatles, perhaps inspired by The Band and Bob Dylan, imparted on to get back to their roots as a functioning rock ‘n’ roll band. “Get Back” was a statement of philosophy and intent: The Beatles wanted to abandon the working methods of The Beatles (aka “The White Album” of 1968), which led to them functioning as “guest” musicians on their bandmates’ “solo” songs, as well as the studio effects with which they experimented to great effect on Revolver (1966), Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), and Magical Mystery Tour (1967).
In fact, as Matteo points out, The Beatles hadn’t rehearsed together for about three years, for the simple reason that once they stopped touring in 1966, they didn’t have to. This means that the “Get Back” sessions were really rehearsals – rehearsals that took place under the lens of Lindsey-Hogg’s camera.
And what do bands do when they rehearse? They jam, feel each other out, and decide what works and what doesn’t. They also argue with and love each other. The Beatles are like any other band in this respect.
The Beatles saw themselves as rehearsing for a concert, and Matteo does an excellent job of discussing the old tunes that the group dusted off for possible inclusion in a set list. These tunes dated back to Lennon and McCartney’s first efforts as a songwriting team, covers that they performed on their sweaty, beer-soaked Hamburg nights, and renditions of more recent songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Across the Universe,” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”
The Beatles also introduced new songs, some of which appeared on Let It Be and Abbey Road and others of which appeared on Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison solo records. Indeed, Matteo’s account is so meticulous that he describes how in one rehearsal at Apple, The Beatles segued from versions of “Isn’t It a Pity” (which would end up on Harrison’s All Things Must Pass) to “Octopus’s Garden” (which would end up on Abbey Road) to a cover of “Great Balls of Fire.” The next day, The Beatles rehearsed “Strawberry Fields,” “Oh! Darling” (another song that would find its way onto Abbey Road), and “Get Back” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” (which would find a home on Let It Be).
Matteo’s point – which the film supports – is that the rehearsals weren’t as acrimonious as they’ve been previously portrayed. Indeed, as the two paragraphs above attest, The Beatles, even though they did scuffle during the sessions, could still make music together – and have a lot of fun doing it.
In addition, as Matteo suggests, Let It Be has been wrongly treated as a “swan song.” In fact, it was the exact opposite. Not only did it contain some of The Beatles’ most memorable songs (“Two of Us,” “Across the Universe,” “Let It Be,” “The Long and Winding Road,” and “Get Back”), but it also was a catalyst for the making of Abbey Road.
No matter Harrison’s love for The Band and the stripped-down approach that Lennon and McCartney took on their first solo albums (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and McCartney), The Beatles must have realized that by 1969-1970, they were best at making studio albums in which they allowed producer George Martin to use the studio as an instrument. Let It Be, therefore, led to a realization that resulted in Abbey Road.
Ultimately, Matteo’s book argues that Let It Be was an experimental record, especially for a band that hand’t really played together as a stripped-down band in years. And sometimes experiments work very well, and sometimes they don’t. “Let It Be,” “Get Back,” and the period single “Don’t Let Me Down” are thrilling. Spector’s production of “Across the Universe” and “The Long and Winding Road,” on the other hand, bogs down the songs with choirs and strings.
Let It Be as experimental as Pepper? You bet. Matteo gets it right.