“Across the Universe” – stripped bare on this new version of the Beatles’ penultimate record, Let It Be – finds John Lennon alone in his ringing chorus: “Nothing’s gonna change my world.”
The world of Let It Be, it’s clear, has been drastically changed. There are no chicks in the background, anymore:
THE BEATLES — LET IT BE … NAKED (APPLE)
For years, these stripped-down tapes from 1969 –- sessions recorded before producer Phil Spector was called in to rescue the project — were a coveted treasure for any Beatles fan.
Sadly, Spector’s reclamation work had included smothering some of the group’s most honest work — earthy and emotional, flawed but yet (despite itself, at times) kinda fun — with a gauzy cloak of strings and chorus-choir schlock. It was an unfortunate end to a noble concept: Getting back to playing as a band.
Now, that may have been all that was left for a group still smarting from the thudding failure of 1967’s Magical Mystery Tour — this trippy project put out months after such a thing was hip.
In the same way they had grown distracted by easy pop success in the mid-1960s, the Beatles would then discard psychedelia. Still, there was a curiosity in hearing the Beatles reach with some uncertainty for something beyond their grasp. The band was, by then, usually comprised of one, two or three members.
The first results, perhaps idealistically, were issued in 1968 as a creative temper tantrum called The Beatles. They were powerful enough to put out anything they wanted. But the rich tapestry of the Beatles’ previous work couldn’t be recreated in pieces.
They reconvened early the next year as a foursome. But, forced to deal with a very grown-up situation for the first time in years — no faking it with effects, alone in a room making music -– the Beatles found that they couldn’t at first. The album was eventually aborted.
Still, the blessing is that Let It Be, whatever the anguish it caused the Beatles themselves, was tirelessly, relentlessly documented. The recording of this album was filmed to finish a picture deal they’d signed in the heady days of Hard Day’s Night.
And so, first only in baby steps, we came to appreciate how hard it was for these talented people — so public, yet so clearly sheltered — to make honest music again.
After the tapes sat dormant for some time, Lennon handed the whole mess to Phil Spector — if only because Spector had had one of his by-then-rare moments of lucidity in producing a stark and echoing single of John’s “Instant Karma!”
The results, once called Get Back, were retitled Let It Be when the album wasn’t released until the Beatles were disintegrating in 1970.
It’s always been a touchstone album for me, if only because I believe that great groups are better understood by exploring failures, rather than listening once more to obvious successes.
No, Let It Be still isn’t the Beatles’ best record. I get Spector’s impulse to Vegas up a wispy weeper like “The Long and Winding Road.” But, more particularly, the chugging joys of “Don’t Let Me Down” and the simple guile of “Two of Us” fed directly to the only great album the Beatles managed after 1967, Abbey Road. That final flourish combines all of their reborn desires to make music as they once had, and to do it with audacious grandeur.
In this way, Let It Be works as a kind of artistic bridge from their tousled innocence to later individual personas. We hear some of the hard-eyed brilliance found on Lennon’s first solo album, the hopeful bliss of George Harrison’s future musings and the overly pretty pop perfection of Paul McCartney’s 1970s projects.
Minus Spector’s added-on artifice, and with a correspondingly heightened presence for organist Billy Preston, Let It Be now feels more like what it once was: A transitional album, but an album that might one day lead to Abbey Road.
And, boy, did that change my world.