The Beatles: The Final Cut
Originally published in Guitar World, June 2010
The Beatles were trying to get back to their roots with Let It Be. But instead, the album captured the world's most famous group in the process of splitting up. Guitar World celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Fab Four's final release.
As 1968 came to a close, the Beatles were for the first time in a state of creative limbo. In late November of that year, they’d released The Beatles, their sprawling double-disc effort popularly known as the White Album. The record showed an impressive creative breadth, yet it revealed the band’s lack of focus with its assortment of disparate songs, many of which were recorded without the participation of the full band. While the White Album was an unqualified success at retail, critics were sharply divided in their estimation of it. Nowhere was this more evident than in the New York Times, where it was deemed a “major success” by one reviewer and “boring beyond belief” by another.
The start of a new year is a traditional opportunity to take stock of one’s circumstances and begin anew. Certainly, that’s what the Beatles had in mind when, on January 2, 1969, they convened for the first time since the White Album sessions to begin work on a new project titled “Get Back.” Dreamed up and orchestrated by Paul McCartney, the effort was designed to get the foursome back on track, working together as a single entity and recording live in the studio, with no (or minimal) overdubs, as when they’d made their first recordings for EMI in 1962. The project would entail an album, a film and, somewhere along the way, a live performance, the first since the Beatles quit performing publicly in 1966. Altogether, the sessions might have resulted in something great. Instead, they gave the world Let It Be, an album (and now out-of-print companion film) that showed the Beatles coming apart rather than coming together.
Let It Be has always been an anticlimax to the Beatles’ stellar career. John Lennon himself famously pronounced the album “the shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever.” George Harrison called the sessions simply “hell”—quite a statement coming from a spiritual seeker. The disc stuck in McCartney’s craw for decades, to the point where, in 2003, he oversaw the remixing and remastering of the project, which resulted in the album Let It Be...Naked.
Indeed, Let it Be documents a great band—arguably the greatest rock band ever—in the process of disintegration. For that reason it is both fascinating and frustrating. “We didn’t realize we were breaking up as it was happening,” McCartney later said of the recording process.
Chronologically speaking, Let It Be isn’t the Beatles’ final set of recordings. That would be Abbey Road, which was recorded the following summer and is widely considered to be one of the finest works in the group’s catalog. But the difficulty of compiling an album from the tense and troubled sessions delayed the release of Let It Be again and again. In the meantime, Abbey Road was released, in September 1969, leaving Let It Be to serve as the Beatles swan song, a somewhat sorry ending to an otherwise glorious career. There is an immense amount to be learned from half-finished or failed songs by great songwriters. And while Let It Be felt disappointing to Beatles fans when the album was first released in May 1970, we now live in an era of bonus tracks and revisionist compilations of previously unreleased studio outtakes and in-concert meanderings by classic rock artists. These days, we’re better equipped to deal with CD releases of uneven or dubious quality than audiences were in 1970.
By today’s standards, Let It Be is actually quite a package. It’s got three bona fide McCartney-penned hits: “Get Back,” “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road,” plus the minor Lennon classic “Across the Universe” (actually recorded in early 1968, rather than during the Let It Be sessions). That’s more than enough for the digital download age, now that the idea of the rock album as art form has all but passed into history. But the rock album was just coming into its own back in 1969, thanks to masterworks like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet and the Who’s Tommy—albums where every song was a winner and/or contributed to a cohesive overall musical vision. Then again, 1969 was a funny year. For every triumph like Woodstock, there was a tragedy like Altamont. It was the year the Jimi Hendrix Experience broke up and Brian Jones died. The hippie dream was unraveling.