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EMI It could have been another McCartney vanity project. But, says John Harris, stripping away Spector’s production and ditching a couple of tracks has let the final album shine at last
Sunday 19 October 2003
At this point, I think I nodded vigorously, keen to make it clear that I too thought The Beatles were quite a tidy act. ‘Paul was always totally opposed to Phil,’ he went on, ‘and I told him on the phone, “You’re bloody right again: it sounds great without Phil.” Which it does. Now we’ll have to put up with him telling us over and over again, “I told you.”‘
It was at this point that I decided to bring up Spector’s syrupy treatment of ‘The Long and Winding Road’ – which caused McCartney no end of annoyance – and remind Ringo that one of the alleged reasons he had so smothered the song was to cover up the fact that John Lennon’s bass part was a plunky, out-of-tune disgrace. Ringo put his cheery bonhomie on temporary hold and looked rather irritated. ‘Well, people say a lot of things,’ he said. ‘And even playing out of tune, he played better than most.’
This is not strictly true. If you go back to Spector’s arrangement, which grafts strings, horns and a choir on to what sounds like a demo, you hear Lennon indulging in something close to musical sabotage. How could stripping it all back do anything other than blow the gaff? Moreover, wasn’t this the ultimate Paul McCartney vanity project – thumbs-aloft’s belated attempt to pull off what his colleagues had long denied him? That lunchtime, however, was not the best setting for such harumphing.
The other week, I went to Abbey Road to hear what had been done to Let it Be . The idea that McCartney had neurotically piloted the new version from start to finish was rather scotched by my introduction to Allan Rouse, one of three studio employees who had been handed 32 reels of tape, told to come up with a new album and then left to get on with it. Much to their amazement, when he heard the final version, McCartney requested no changes whatsoever.
The running order is completely different: among other changes, this album begins with the original Let it Be’s closing track, ‘Get Back’, and ends with the title song, which used to be track six. There is none of the dialogue that peppered the original, and a version of Lennon’s sexed-up Yoko tribute ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ has been included, thus righting the wrong whereby it was relegated to the B-side of ‘Get Back’. Two songs have been placed in the wastebasket: there is no ‘Maggie Mae’, nor Lennon’s pretty rubbishy ‘Dig It’. What remains is a 35-minute, 11-track album that a) sounds like a coherent work rather than a patched-up postscript, and b) stays true to McCartney’s original idea of abandoning the studio alchemy that had so defined the psychedelic Beatles and re-emphasising the fact that they were a four-piece rock group (often augmented here by Billy Preston on keyboards). By way of hammering the point home, everything has been remixed and remastered, so that the music is wrapped in both a new brightness and an added sense of intimacy. You find yourself charmed by songs that hitherto had sounded like mere makeweights. ‘One after 909′, written soon after John met Paul in 1957 and revived as something of a band in-joke, does not exactly represent The Beatles’ greatest work, but it manages to ooze the sense of the band tapping back into the rambunctious teenage spirit of The Quarrymen. Similarly, Harrison’s ‘For You Blue’ might be a flimsy 12-bar, but here you hear it anew, as an endearingly cute stab at the bucolic simplicity that Harrison’s idol Bob Dylan had minted during the time he spent secluded in Woodstock.
Most striking of all is a new mix of ‘Across the Universe’, put to tape in early 1968 and included on Let it Be on account of a brief rendition in the accompanying film. The new treatment features only Lennon’s voice and guitar, a smattering of tamboura from Harrison, and Starr gingerly keeping time on a bass drum. This minimalism suddenly places it in rarefied territory indeed; here, it sounds like a stargazing companion to ‘Julia’, Lennon’s heart-stopping acoustic piece from The Beatles . As for the chief source of McCartney’s three-decade heartache, Rouse and co. went for the hitherto unreleased version of ‘The Long and Winding Road’ used in the Let it Be movie. On the whole, Lennon’s dreaded bass-playing is eerily on-the-money. Better still, the jettisoning of the schmaltz results in the squashing of the song’s old air of piety; instead, it sounds like McCartney trying to soothe the anxiety that came from the keen sense that his group’s bond was becoming irrevocably frayed.
The upshot of all this is clear enough. Even with George Harrison rapidly turning into a seething ball of anti-McCartney resentment, John Lennon momentarily lost to heroin, Yoko Ono sitting threateningly next to him and a film crew recording their every argument and belch, The Beatles were brilliant. Oh, and one other thought: this is the last thing Phil Spector needs, eh?