Beatles fans will have two questions about the new version of the album "Let It Be" that comes out next week: Is it really, as hyped, the work the Fab Four intended to present to the world when they went to work on it in 1969? And does it justify tampering with pop-music history, even if it is a slice of history as steeped in strife as this one?
The answers: No and no.
That doesn't mean that the revamping of the Beatles' final release, titled "Let It Be ... Naked" and due in stores Nov. 18 from Capitol Records, is not a fascinating attempt at cultural archeology. Indeed, strictly in musical terms it's a shade better than the original -- thanks chiefly to the addition of "Don't Let Me Down" and to the cleaned-up sonics.
But someone with a longer view of things should have simply said, "Let it be."
The Beatles' unity had splintered when they decided to record a follow-up to their sprawling 1968 double album "The Beatles," a.k.a. "the White Album." The idea was to try a back-to-basics approach, just the band playing live in the studio. They filmed the proceedings for a proposed TV special that turned into the "Let It Be" theatrical film.
As rancor grew among the four, they turned the raw tapes over to engineer Glyn Johns and asked him to assemble an album from them, originally to be called "Get Back." Then the quartet and producer George Martin moved on to create the album they viewed as their final musical statement, "Abbey Road."
None of Johns' attempts satisfied all four Beatles, so John Lennon and George Harrison invited famed record producer Phil Spector to take a crack at it. The version by the Los Angeles-based "wall of sound" producer is the one that was released as "Let It Be" in May 1970, a month after McCartney announced that he had quit and the Beatles were officially kaput.
Early last year, McCartney bumped into "Let It Be" film director Michael Lindsay-Hogg on an airplane and they started reminiscing about the experience. That led to a decision to ring up the folks at Abbey Road Studios and ask them to assemble a team to have another go at it.
Remixing and re-editing
"Let It Be ... Naked" does far more than simply remove all trace of Spector's production, which lavished strings and choirs on several tracks. For the new release, present-day Abbey Road producers Paul Hicks, Guy Massey and Allan Rouse sorted through the original tapes and used what they felt were definitive performances of each "Let It Be" track, not just remastering but also remixing and in some cases re-editing various takes into finished versions.
"Let It Be ... Naked" makes intriguing listening for Beatles fans, including those unfamiliar with the bootlegged versions of the raw material that began surfacing even before the original album came out 33 years ago.
Much-improved sound adds lots of punch and presence, and alternate takes of several songs allow them to be heard anew. Harrison's lilting "For You Blue" swings a bit harder in a mix that gives Ringo Starr's drumming more snap. And there are those who will argue that the album's highlight remains the gleeful rocker "One After 909." "Naked" uses the same take as the original, remastered to add luster to what still sounds like four lads in love with the magic of making music together.
By itself, the addition of "Don't Let Me Down," recorded during these sessions but originally relegated to the B-side of the "Get Back" single, makes "Let It Be ... Naked" a more musically satisfying collection. It's a much stronger Lennon song than "Dig a Pony." Heaven knows why it was left off the album before.
Still, the big reason this whole experiment hasn't caused a firestorm in Beatle land is that "Let It Be" was a subpar Beatles album to begin with. "Naked's" fresher vocal take here and different guitar solo there don't fundamentally change that view. Despite such high-water marks as "Let It Be," "Across the Universe," "909" and "Get Back," several other tracks sounded thin and still come off like works in progress.
So what about "Let It Be" and "The Long and Winding Road," whose Spector treatments had been long criticized by McCartney? With its structural simplicity, the former retains its hymn-like power, even with a different guitar solo and none of Spector's added instrumental forces.
The bare-bones "Long and Winding Road" is another story, disproving the adage that less is more. Sometimes it's just less. Spector may have gone overboard with his wailing choirs, but his surging strings pushed McCartney's melody and lyrics along, and without them the recording languishes in spots -- especially in the instrumental break, which now features some cheesy keyboard noodling in place of the dramatic string section Spector supplied.
It's a coin toss on "Naked's" sparser, restored-tempo version of "Across the Universe"; Lennon's song is disarmingly beautiful either way.
All that makes "Let It Be ... Naked" marginally better than "Let It Be ... Fully Clothed." But is it necessary?
What may sound "right" to ears of 2003 is very different from what would have sounded right to those same ears more than three decades ago. Beatles fans have argued for decades over what "Let It Be" might have been. Now that we have one answer, they'll continue to debate which version is better and which version is the one the Beatles intended (But which Beatle? And at which time?).
What's to prevent George Martin someday from saying, quite rightly, that he knew their intentions as well as anyone and he'd like to set the record straight with his own version: "Let It Be ... Casual Business Attire," maybe?
Speaking of business, a final note: Because each album runs about 35 minutes, both could easily have fit onto a single CD. But when it comes to the prospect of selling two CDs instead of one, it's the rare record executive who's going to let that be.