10 Years Ago: The Beatles Release ‘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 slow 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.’ Decades later, Paul McCartney would spearhead a return to that era for ‘Let It Be…Naked,’ a more organic version of the LP released ten years ago today. 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, a web content manager by day who moonlights as a Beatle-ologist and author of They May Be Parted, a blog 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 Beatle history continues to resonate due to the endless bootleg releases 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 Beatle cuts such as 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 an unprecedented glimpse into the inner workings of the world’s greatest rock band at their 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.”