“It’s a love that lasts forever,
It’s a love that had no past.”
When John Lennon sang these words in “Don’t Let Me Down,” he was also living them. He had found new love with Yoko Ono, and his life and art were rapidly changing. Recorded during the Get Back sessions and released as the B-side to the “Get Back” single, “Don’t Let Me Down” provides a snapshot of Lennon’s private side; in addition, his passionate performance demonstrates how he possessed one of the best voices in rock.
“Don’t Let Me Down” can be seen as a companion piece to “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” another song about his love for Ono. In “She’s So Heavy,” the narrator takes on an almost desperate tone: He needs his lover to save him, not just seduce him. “When you’re drowning, you don’t say ‘I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me,’ you just scream,” Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1971. In Barry Miles’ Many Years from Now, Paul McCartney explained that the lyrics accurately described the emotionally turbulent period in Lennon’s life. “‘Don’t Let Me Down’ was a genuine plea. … It was saying to Yoko, ‘I’m really stepping out of line on this one. I’m really letting my vulnerability be seen, so you must not let me down.’ I think it was a genuine cry for help. It was a good song,” he said.
The first inklings of “Don’t Let Me Down” surfaced in the final weeks of 1968; according to Walter Everett’s The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were giving a press conference when a reporter asked about any projects they were working on. Strumming an acoustic guitar, Lennon played the chorus and hummed, stating it was all he could remember. He would record a demo during that year, although the lyrics were still a work in progress as were the chord changes, particularly the “I’m in love for the first time” section.
When the Beatles first began work on the Get Back project, they had their sessions filmed at Twickenham Studios for a future documentary. On January 3, 1969, the group rehearsed the track, with Lennon and McCartney refining their harmonies. As McCartney recalled in Many Years from Now, “We went through it quite a lot for this one. I sang harmony on it, which makes me wonder if I helped with a couple of the words, but I don’t think so. It was John’s song.”
The Beatles continued recording “Don’t Let Me Down” during the first day of the Apple Studios Get Back sessions on January 22, 1969. Lennon instructed Ringo Starr to start the song with a crash of cymbals in order to “give me the courage to come screaming in” (as cited in Mark Lewisohn’s Complete Beatles Recording Sessions). During this session, Lennon repeats the chorus so George Harrison and Ringo Starr could devise their parts; at one point, McCartney considered playing piano, with Harrison taking over on bass. Lennon dismissed the idea, instead wanting additional guitarists.
This time joined by Billy Preston, the group resumed recording the track on January 28, laying down solid renditions of both “Don’t Let Me Down” as well as “Get Back.” This version would be selected for the “Get Back” single. Interestingly, a print ad promoting the single labeled it as “the Beatles as nature intended,” bragging that “there’s no electronic whatchamacallit. ‘Get Back’ is a pure spring-time rock number,” paired with an “equally live” song entitled “Don’t Let Me Down.”
Their next performance of the song occurred as part of the rooftop concert on January 30, and they played it twice; only the first version made it into the Let It Be film. Meanwhile, Glyn Johns tried to assemble the troubled sessions into a coherent album; on March 10, Johns began work on Get Back at Trident Studios. At this point, EMI began pestering the Beatles for a new single; thus, Johns and McCartney worked on stereo and mono mixes of both “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Get Back” at Abbey Road and Olympic Sound Studios on March 26 and April 7, respectively. The single finally saw release on April 11, with Preston receiving the distinct honor of being credited alongside the Beatles on the label. No producer was listed, since Johns and George Martin’s roles were convoluted.
As of May 28, the album — at this point titled Get Back — was set for eventual release, and included “Don’t Let Me Down.” However, Johns failed to salvage the contentious sessions; Lewisohn states that “despite a sterling effort by Johns to capture the ‘live’ feel, [Get Back] fails to come across as anything more than a tired rock group going through the motions.” Johns tried once again to revive the project by creating more stereo remixes of “Down” and other tracks, but the Beatles failed to reach agreement on whether to release the album. Ultimately, the project was shelved until March, when (at George Harrison’s suggestion) Phil Spector took over as producer and remixed the Get Back tapes. The finished product, titled Let It Be, finally debuted on May 8, 1970, inexplicably minus “Don’t Let Me Down.”
“Don’t Let Me Down” was finally restored to Let It Be through 2003’s Let It Be … Naked as an edit of the two rooftop performances. Yet another version of the track appears on the “Fly on the Wall” disc included with Let It Be … Naked.
The Lennon-penned track works on several levels, demonstrating how even during difficult times the Beatles could still function as a unit.
John Lennon’s lead vocal: “Don’t Let Me Down” can be seen as the precursor to Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band album in terms of emotional intensity. When Lennon belts out the title phrase, the performance draws comparisons to the “primal scream” vocals present in “Mother,” or the October 1969 single “Cold Turkey.” He would continue exploring his vocal style throughout his solo career, even on less-intense tracks such as 1974’s “What You Got.”
Lennon’s lyrics: The candid words provide a vivid snapshot of Lennon’s life during that period, sharing his newfound love with Yoko Ono. He reveals both excitement and idealism, alternating his tone to emphasis certain key phrases. “Nobody ever loved me like she does,” he declares, exploring the lower range of his voice. His voice gradually rises in pitch and volume during the bridge, proclaiming that “I’m in love for the first time” and that “it’s gonna last.” However, when he repeatedly cries “don’t let me down,” he expresses some insecurity about the relationship. Will Ono ultimately leave him? Will their intense romance endure? The song indirectly explores those questions.
Billy Preston’s keyboards: As has been repeatedly stated, Preston’s presence encouraged band members to set aside personal grievances and produce quality music. Preston’s gospel-tinged solo and skillful fills added an R&B dimension to the track, even more so on the Let It Be version.
Lennon and McCartney’s close harmonies: While their songwriting partnership is well chronicled, their ability to harmonize does not always receive as much attention. Let It Be may have received mixed reviews, but tracks such as “Two of Us,” “Dig A Pony,” “One After 909,” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” rightfully placed Lennon and McCartney’s vocal dynamic at the forefront. “Don’t Let Me Down” further showcases this relationship, with the live version particularly featuring their tight vocal blend. Interestingly, musicologist Alan Pollack notes that the blend is actually not as tight as expected. “The vocal arrangement here is a bit less neat than usual. The refrains are done with some consistency, but not so for the verses,” Pollack writes. “In the first verse, John starts off solo with Paul joining him for the second phrase; in the final verse John sings solo all the way through. I wonder if this is a matter of them taking less care here than usual, or if, in a kind of reverse backlash, they went out of there way to make sure this would be less neat.” Perhaps this imperfection further underscores the unbridled passion Lennon expresses in the lyrics.
Ringo Starr’s drums: Starr is a master of the tasteful fills and intuitive drumming, and nowhere is this more evident than on “Don’t Let Me Down.” Listen to how he punctuates every word in the title with drumbeats and cymbals, or how he easily transitions in patterns from the lyrics to the chorus. In between repetitions of “don’t let me down,” listen for the fills that effectively bracket Lennon’s anguished vocals.
Bass and guitar: Harrison, Lennon, and McCartney provide the backbone of the track, letting Preston handle the solo. Yet, as Pollack states, “the counterpoint melody played in octaves during the alternate verse by the bass and lead guitars is one of the more novel, unusual instrumental touches you’ll find anywhere in the Beatles catalogue.” The bass and guitar sections are particularly effective in the bridge; a close listen through headphones reveals just how much is occurring in the background.
The Beatles may have been in their final stages, but “Don’t Let Me Down” exemplifies how the band could ultimately work together to create powerful songs. In addition, the track contains one of Lennon’s most powerful vocal performances, dramatizing his rapidly growing relationship with Ono. While fans were unaware at the time, “Don’t Let Me Down” previewed Lennon’s creative direction as a solo artist. The candid, raw, and emotional qualities of the track would become staples of his later work, particularly the Plastic Ono Band album (released just one year after the “Get Back” single). His solo career may be notable for these honest qualities, but he first developed these songwriting and singing skills during his Beatles years.
Since this is the final Deep Beatles of 2016, I want to take this opportunity to thank you for your continuing support of this column. I’ve enjoyed reading your feedback and insights, and I look forward to digging through more deep Beatles tracks (and perhaps occasional solo material) in 2017. I wish you all a happy holiday season and all the best for 2017.
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