I made it home with seconds to spare this afternoon, as the skies opened up with buckets of water tossed from low-hanging clouds just after I stepped inside our domicile. Five minutes after that, the rain let up to a steady drizzle. Thirty minutes later, the wet stuff went away, though dark clouds remain. In some respects, aside from describing North Carolina rainstorms, it sums up the Let It Be (Super Deluxe) box set.
Fresh off the success of their eponymous 1968 album, aka the White Album, the Beatles entered the less-than-cozy confines of Twickenham Film Studios on January 2nd, 1969. The plan was for filmmaker Michael Lindsay-Hogg to document them while they rehearsed for a live show of all-new material, though the location had yet to be chosen. The concert, too, was meant to be filmed, with the rehearsal and show slated to appear on TV as a special and the audio released as a new album.
Due to said plan, the songs themselves would need to be straightforward rock and pop tunes that John, Paul, George and Ringo could perform together on stage. Overdubs and studio trickery were out.
But nothing went as intended. First, filming began at 9am each day, which meant rock stars accustomed to waking late in the day and staying up much of the night had to reset their body clocks. Second, the studio was cold. Third, John and George were beginning to tire of the Fab life and, especially, Paul’s attempt to shepherd them into fulfilling his vision for the band; this project, like Magical Mystery Tour, was his idea. John’s dabbling in heroin added a layer of distance, too. The resulting performances were raw and ragged, scuffed up like a pair of old (brown) shoes. Disharmony abounded. George even quit the band for five days.
Yet, despite all that, it’s my favorite era of the Beatles. As anyone who has waded through the myriad bootlegs that the sessions produced can attest, the tension generally lasts only as long as the between-song moments. When the music starts, they slip away like a river rollin’ down—or not. There are a lot of false starts. They were disheveled sessions, in other words, but with a bevy of Easter eggs hidden throughout.
Years long ago, I wrote about my first tentative steps into music fandom over the course of late 1977 and early 1978, when I was 12. As a kid on a budget, and no sibling or parental LP library to borrow/steal from, it took me years to catch up with the back catalogs of my new-old favorites and, by the time I finished doing just that with the Beatles, I learned that many unreleased treasures remained in the Abbey Road vaults. Finding bootlegs in my neck of suburbia, however, wasn’t an easy task—I sometimes found them at my favorite used-record store, but never one that was Fab. It wasn’t until I left for college in 1985, in fact, that I came across my first Beatles bootleg: the Strawberry Fields Forever LP. Although I was perennially short on cash, I couldn’t help myself and bought it.
In 1988, by then out of college and working, working, working, I purchased my first Beatles bootleg on CD—Ultra Rare Trax Vol. 1—at a record convention and began devouring such fanzines as The 910 for information about illicit releases; I also discovered a store in Delaware that stocked pretty much any and all bootlegs and began undertaking hours-long sojourns to it. I should mention here, I guess, that the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were a golden age for CD bootlegs, with labels springing up in countries where copyright laws were lax and, for the most part, doing the material justice. Pretty much anything released by Swingin’ Pig, Yellow Dog and Great Dane were guaranteed to have solid sound.
My favorite of the Beatles boots was (and remains) the Yellow Dog release of Get Back and 22 Other Songs, which presents the Glyn Johns mix of what became the Let It Be album along with eight bonus tracks. During those years, I also acquired quite a few discs that gathered additional Get Back-era outtakes, such as the fly-on-the-wall Songs From the Past series. I never went whole hog and bought any of the super-expensive sets that gathered the entire sessions, however, preferring instead to read about them in Doug Sulpy’s Get Back: The Unauthorized Chronicle of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” Disaster. (I recommend that tome to anyone who wants an unvarnished account of what transpired during the sessions.)
In the years since its 1970 release, the Let It Be album has become synonymous with the Beatles’ break-up. In retrospect, John already had one foot out the door, while George just couldn’t take being a third wheel anymore. Paul, on the other hand, couldn’t imagine life without being in the band and, as such, tried to force the others into staying put by keeping everyone busy. (And Ringo being Ringo, he just wanted to play the drums instead of sitting around.) They bickered amongst themselves, bullied each other and sulked—as only young men can.
When the time came to review what they’d done, Glyn Johns sorted through the tapes and created what came to be known as the Get Back album, which does a good job of presenting the ragged nature of the sessions. The once-vaunted Beatles sound was frayed at the edges, to be sure, but when on—such as on “Don’t Let Me Down,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Get Back,” “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road”—they jell as they always have. It’s a warts-and-all account, essentially a distilled version of the Songs From the Past bootlegs that I mentioned above—but with even better sound.
Of course, the four principals weren’t happy with what they heard and shelved the project altogether until, following Abbey Road, John brought Phil Spector in to have a go at the same material. The running order was different, a few songs swapped out, and the same recording of the “Get Back” single (Take 11) given a cool edit to include John’s remarks from the final stab at “Get Back” during their famed rooftop concert, “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we passed the audition.” Spector also dolloped orchestral syrup onto a handful of songs, including “The Long and Winding Road,” which didn’t sit well with McCartney. (Understatement, that.)
Here, the Let It Be album has been tweaked by Giles Martin. The sound throughout is exquisite and, really, the new mix shouldn’t offend anyone who loved the Phil Spector version; he’s sopped up some of the syrup, that’s all. As a whole, as I intimated above, It’s not the Beatles at their best, yet it’s still miles above most of their peers—the title tune, alone, makes it that, but throw in the other highlights (“Across the Universe,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Get Back” and George’s commentary on the proceedings, “I Me Mine”) and…what needs to be said? It’s a simultaneously flawed yet great set. It sums up the 1960s, in a way.
The biggest issue I have with the “super deluxe” package has to do with the gathered outtakes, which aren’t as numerous as I hoped. There’s no “Rainy Day Woman” or “Too Bad About Sorrows,” for instance, and the entire rooftop concert is curiously absent. What’s here is intriguing and cool, mind you, but it leaves me wanting more.
As a result, I have mixed emotions about it. For younger fans and/or folks intrigued by the forthcoming Get Back documentary on Disney+, which should be a rollicking good time, the “super deluxe” set is actually a no brainer. But for those of us who’ve whiled away years listening to the illicit recordings of yore, owning it just doesn’t seem a necessity—especially in the age of lossless streaming. Take the $118, which is the price on Amazon, and put it into the pockets of younger artists over on Bandcamp.