He was given the shittiest load of badly recorded shit – and with a lousy feeling to it – ever. And he made something out of it … When I heard it, I didn’t puke.
Now there’s a ringing endorsement for you. Rock stars, eh? always bigging up their latest LP for the paying public. In this case it was one of the band’s singers defending the slightly controversial work of the producer in Rolling Stone just 6 months after its’ release.
Paul McCartney didn’t agree with John Lennon’s assessment of Phil Spector’s work on Let It Be* and had long wanted to strip and remix it back to essentials, he obtained George Harrison’s permission for the project before his death and after extensive work by Let It Be … Naked emerged blinking into the light in 2003. McCartney tasked Abbey Road alumni Paul Hicks, Guy Massey and Allan Rouse with the task of stripping back and restoring the album to something approaching fidelity to his original artistic vision of a return to basics. Let us get one thing straight here before we start, Let It Be … Naked is the worst named project since Richard Nixon’s CREEP**, but there’s nothing we can do about that now.
I really like the way that the running order is totally changed on Let It Be … Naked, it serves immediate notice that this is a different thing. ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ is upgraded from the B-side substitutes’ bench to a starting place in the first XI and minor inserts ‘Dig It’ and ‘Maggie Mae’ get relegated; I can see why, but I do love the daft stuff on Let It Be, all the studio chat and nonsense^. Rest easy nonsense lovers, the LP comes with a 7″ called Fly On The Wall^^ with all this chat, rehearsal excerpts and more. Phew.
Opening with ‘Get Back’, the album’s original title track, is a great move. I love the way the LP just rides in on that beat, unadorned and real sounding, it serves notice of just how the album is going to be. That and the miniscule gap between tracks that sees us knee-deep in ‘Dig A Pony’ before you can react as a listener. It’s a great piece of work too, the sound is noticeably different from the original version – sparser, a lot warmer and clearer. It is a remix from the rooftop concert version of the track, rather than the studio version and it is also where the gang in charge show their true hands as remixers, not restorers – they digitally corrected a mistake of Lennon’s on the vocal, a sign that this was not just an exercise in faithful rock archaeology, but a project with its’ own agenda to present.
We rattle on downtown through ‘For You Blue’ with added Harrison acoustic guitar, to great effect and a different take on the lead vocals. What hits me is the sense of the Beatles, not as a distant cultural colossi but as a real band playing together in a room, it’s a warming thing to experience. As expected ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ certainly earns a place here, the sound is warm and sharp, some real feeling shining through, remixed from two takes of the rooftop concert the late lamented Billy Preston’s keys add so much to the tune, as do all his contributions to the sessions^*. It doesn’t all work though, Phil Spector did a great job on ‘The Long and Winding Road’, clearly; stripped back to basics, it just isn’t a good enough song to merit a place in this company.
The rockers on Let It Be … Naked really benefit from their reframing here, ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ emerges as a real contender in this new context (spliced together from two live takes), energised and pleasingly raw and ‘One After 909’ was the one I found myself humming while creosoting the fences this afternoon. I have always been a sucker for ‘I Me Mine’ when it rocks out and this version is possibly the most mucked-about-with track on the LP, with all manner of remixology going on and it works too.
Let It Be … Naked also fails its’ second acid test too, hearing a mostly solo Lennon version of ‘Across The Universe’ is interesting, after timing issues were sorted and echo added, but again it makes me appreciate what Phil Spector brought to the original track, enough distractions to stop me noticing that if it was by anyone else I’d have marked it down as a pretty ropey old pup a good while ago. It does allay one fear about the intent of the album though, that it wasn’t a McCartneyisation of the Beatles.
It has to be said that Let It Be … Naked is a beautifully put together item, justifying the expense. It is a substantial, glossy heavyweight thing, the booklet with excellent sleevenotes by Kevin Howlett and excerpts from the original Let It Be book is a satisfying thing, as is the Fly On The Wall 7″. If you are any sort of Beatles fan you should want this just to caress it against your (Let It Be) naked skin from time to time.
Justifying the project as an artistic whole is the version of ‘Let It Be’, strategically placed at the end of the album. Shorn of all the extraneous flourishes, and they were damnably extraneous, the song acquires an even greater sense of its own majesty, even more emotional potency. It is a song that has always moved me, given even more room to breathe Paul’s vocals are almost too much, man; it is a towering performance. This isn’t just another version, an alternate vision of a song, it is the only version now. My only criticism is that I loved the pomposity pricking studio chattering that preceded it on the original, ‘and now we’d like to do ‘Hark The Angels Come’?’
I have a lot of sympathy for Phil Spector in relation to the legend of Let It Be*^ he was handed a twice rejected album called Get Back by a fractious baggage-laden band and asked to mount a rescue mission, which he did admirably – it doesn’t make me puke either. Equally so Let It Be … Naked doesn’t inspire me to blow chunks, it is a vital, interesting retelling and retooling of one of those pillars of popular music that are just too big to write about. I don’t buy that it is a more truthful, or faithful version of the band’s vision, to do so would be to overlook the artful jiggery-pokery going on under the hood, but it is a great ‘new’ Beatles album, one that gives you a real sense of them as a band and for that it is worth treasuring.
Rubbish name though.
PS: They weren’t a bad band you know:
*specifically the orchestrification and choirationism of ‘The Long and Winding Road’, ‘Across The Universe’ and an obscure ditty of his own he held in high regard, ‘Let It Be’.
**not to be confused with Radiohead’s ‘Creep’. And yes I know CREEP was a nickname, but just lighten up willya?
^so much so that my mum and I are always shocked by how badly the sessions for the LP were, they just sound like they were having so much fun. The benefits of a good producer, eh Paul?
^^possibly covered by AC/DC 18 years earlier. NB: Note to self, possibly needs checking for truthiness.
^*his involvement was in part due to his garrulous open nature, his pleasant presence defused the Beatles’ own tensions, to an extent.
*^AND ONLY THAT, I hasten to add!