Saturday, September 26, 2009
GET BACK? LET IT END
Following the tension filled months that produced the White Album, the usual enthusiasm for group related business all but disappeared. Apple Corporation, originally conceived by Brian Epstein as a structure to help shelter Beatle revenue from Britain’s excessive 96 percent tax on top earners had been expanded to encompass a record label (with EMI still handling distribution), film division and an extremely wasteful electronics component headed by self-proclaimed inventor, Alexis Madras aka “Magic Alex”.
Only the record label saw any profit, while the rest of the operation pissed away money at an alarming rate. What John and Paul had initially touted as a form of Western Communism ended up as a vehicle for every type of lunatic idea that you could possibly imagine. According to Lennon, those in the inner sanctum were, “living off of them, eating and drinking like it was fucking Rome."
Utopia was nowhere in sight.
Amidst all of this, McCartney thought that he would make a last ditch effort at rallying the band around a new project to kick off 1969. The plan seemed simple enough. Rehearse and record new songs, then take the stage to perform the material live in concert at London ’s Roundhouse theatre and broadcast the result.
This was not to be.
Returning to the two guitars/bass and drums format and performing tracks live was one thing. Allowing a film crew to document the entire episode was a miscalculation. Even in the best of circumstances, arguments will ensue amongst groups involved in a creative endeavor. Had they considered the matter more closely, they could have compromised and just did a concert movie when they were ready to go.
Hindsight is that special place from which the view is always crystal clear
Still battle weary from the previous year, they trooped into Twickenham Film Studios on January 2, 1969. Hours of footage reveal a group of people whose relations are in shambles. There are some genuinely spontaneous moments involving jams on old rock and R & B standards and the usual silliness that people who have been close for a long time are wont to indulge in. The banter seems quite forced though, no doubt mustered for the benefit of the camera. Harrison is sullen throughout, quite disinterested in anything on the agenda. Lennon seems glassy eyed and semi-stoned, with his soon-to-be wife ever present. Ringo sits patiently while the discussions ramble on around him, weary but hitting his mark when the music starts. Paul plays the role of musical director, cheerleader and seems to be the lone interested party in the whole undertaking. His bossiness ignited George’s temper early on, though it was a violent argument with Lennon, during which punches were thrown, that caused Harrison to pack up his guitar and quit the scene for a few days.
What began as a promising idea to ease the band back into live performance, quickly dissolved into bitter acrimony.
Despite the tension, there was still excellent material on the table. It’s a pity that they weren’t treating the work with the same degree of care as they had previously. Paul had two outstanding contributions in “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” that were seriously compromised by the “play it live and capture the take” philosophy. His move to piano for these performances meant that bass duties fell into John’s lap and his playing was sloppy and careless, at best. Further to this, he openly disliked these selections, mocking the quasi religious style of "Let It Be". Lennon came up with some bizarre parody lyrics (squeaking turds of whiskey over me) and at one point was noisily barking "Boof! Boof! Boof!" instead of the harmony part that he should have been singing.
They still managed to record a lot of good music.
“Get Back” went through several changes in arrangement and lyrical content before it was deemed finished. Inspired by busking Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country” and the vocal mannerisms used in that tune, Paul turns in one of their late period gems, featuring great, nimble fingered electric piano solos from Billy Preston. Ringo drives the band with a snappy, snare driven gallop, while both Harrison and McCartney employ very economic lines to support the rhythm. Lennon takes up the lead and creates very tasteful coloring along with his signature solo.
Before settling on the brief sketch involving Jo Jo and Sweet Loretta, “Get Back” had “joke” lyrics that amounted to a parody of the anti-immigration rants of British politician Enoch Powell. Bootleg releases pegged the early takes of the song with the politically incorrect title of “No Pakistanis”. Another version was sung entirely in Reeperbahn German, while the most entertaining of these is one that has Paul laughing throughout. One composing trick that they often used was to employ nonsense words over a new melody line, with an eye toward replacing them when inspiration struck. This would keep the arrangement intact until the final draft was in place.
Regardless of how it took shape, the end result topped singles charts worldwide and sold by the truckload.
Billy Preston's presence made a huge difference.
John brought in “Don’t Let Me Down”, which benefited greatly from the band’s input. Straightforward and impassioned, it is among the first of many songs that would be addressed directly to Ms. Ono. Lennon’s raw vocal is balanced by some nice three part harmony on the chorus, while the musical structure of the bridge has McCartney’s fingerprints all over it. His busy bass fretwork is, complete with octave leaps, a great complement to Starr’s subtle cymbal work. Preston weighs in with tasteful keys to lift the piece even higher. The rooftop performance of this is one of the high points of the Let It Be film, even if John forgets a line and quickly ad-libs some gibberish to fill the gap. George Harrison was heavily influenced by Robbie Robertson’s style of playing at this time, having spent the latter part of ’68 in Woodstock , hanging out with Dylan and the Band. Robertson himself was, in turn, emulating Curtis Mayfield’s instrumental touches. Have a listen to the opening riff and much of the guitar coloring in “Don’t Let Me Down” and you’ll hear very definite evidence of this.
Remarkably, this was relegated to the B-side of the “Get Back” single.
If you really delve into the reams of film and tape that comprise the Get Back Saga, there are some very interesting curios to be found. You do have to wade through interminable reels of discussion and endless takes of “Dig a Pony” to find them though. Should you happen to get your hands on the multi-disc bootleg set (The Get Back Journals) and start cursing Paul out for take 67 of any particular song, you’re blaming the wrong Beatle for your indisposition.
It was John Lennon who pushed the band to strictly adhere to the “live with no overdubs” routine and therefore he was responsible for adding hours of frustration to an already gloomy atmosphere.
Dredging up “Across the Universe” was symptomatic of Lennon’s resistance to present new material. It is a truly decent song, though a definitive treatment was not achieved in the first attempts to record it the previous year. They fared no better during these sessions. Ultimately, what you hear on “Let It Be” is the same version that landed on the “Our World” compilation back in ’68. When Phil Spector was brought in to do reconstructive surgery on the Get Back tapes, he took the original recording, slowed it down, removed the bird sound effects, high backing vocals, added strings and choral voices and made it slightly more tolerable.
Arguably, a much better arrangement could have been hit upon if they had employed the same tough-minded approach to crafting the songs as in the early days. Getting back to the roots would have worked much better if everyone was willing to put in the effort.
Harrison offered up a number of great songs for inclusion, only to be denied due to the already full slate of John and Paul’s compositions. “For You Blue” is a forgettable 12 bar blues, with some wonky slide playing from Lennon and “I Me Mine” is interesting, although neither were of the standard of the majestic songs with which he would fill All Things Must Pass in 1970.
Things weren’t all bad during this time. “I’ve Got a Feeling” was a true collaborative effort, taking John’s “Everybody Had a Hard Year” fragment and welding it together with the main body of Paul’s idea. This “Frankensong” turned out pretty well and is one of the better rock tunes in the set. “One After 909” dated back to a very early chapter of the Lennon/McCartney songbook and its 1969 revival is light years ahead of the clumsy recording that they made in 1963, which was wisely taken no further. That discarded take was made available (officially) with the first installment of their six disc Anthology series.
Speaking of 1963, “Two of Us” started out as a musical ringer of the style that they made famous as Beatlemania first made its way across the UK and into Europe . John and Paul share a mic and some laughs as Paul sings the bridge in an exaggerated Elvis impersonation. Ringo slides back into Merseybeat mode with those famous drum stutters on snare and high hats that punctuated earlier tunes like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Twist and Shout”. This arrangement was soon abandoned in favor of a slower, more folk/acoustic approach, with bittersweet lyrics that almost sound like Paul is making one last attempt to reach out to his soon to be estranged musical partner.
You and I have memories, longer than the road that stretches out ahead.
McCartney has said that much of the subject matter was inspired by his (then) new relationship with Linda Eastman. Lines like the one above don’t seem to fit that scenario. Whatever the intent, it is a very underrated song with excellent Everly Brothers harmonies. They even saw fit to launch into “Bye Bye Love” following one of the many rehearsals devoted to this one and you can hear Paul throw in a “Take it, Phil”, jokingly referring to Phil Everly in one rendition.
When editing the “Let It Be” film, it seems that many light hearted moments were removed by director Michael Lindsay Hogg.
Pure emotion seems to ooze from every part of Paul’s “The Long and Winding Road ”. Featuring poignant lines, it could almost be construed as another message to John regarding the crossroads that they had reached in their creative partnership. This is not established nor has the author offered any insight as to what inspired him to write this heartfelt piece. Demoed in late 1968 (with the only copy given to Alastair Taylor as gift for his wife), the full band treatment given to the song during the sessions in ’69 is excellent with the exception of John’s bass part, which sounds as if he’s wandering around in an attempt to find the notes. He really should have listened a bit more closely to what McCartney was offering, though it’s probably fair to say that coming up with an inventive bass figure for a tune that he wasn’t particularly excited about was quite low on his list of priorities. More than likely, with Billy Preston on hand, they may have planned to have him play piano and thus, move Paul back to bass for the filmed performance. (This didn’t pan out, though)
When Phil Spector was working with the track, his solution to the weak bass performance was to simply bury it in an avalanche of syrupy strings and choral voices. Interestingly enough, at the same time that Phil was doing orchestral overdubs, McCartney was in a studio down the hall putting the finishing touches on his self titled debut solo album. Had anyone cared to ask, McCartney could have re-recorded the bass part. Ringo came in around that time to do some tracking of percussion with Phil, though relations in the Beatles camp were poisonous at that point with Paul very close to making the announcement that he was leaving the group. He would also unsuccessfully try to block this version of the song for release. Despite Spector’s augmentation, the song would be the last Beatle single and another number one.
This was all about a year and change away from the original sessions.
Glyn Johns was first tasked with assembling a listenable album out of the hours of tape that were produced by the group. John and Paul reportedly pointed to the endless reels that had piled up and pretty much said, “There they are, go to it.” Working with instructions to maintain the “live with no overdubs” edict, he assembled the first mix of Get Back and submitted it for the band’s approval.
Lennon: "The tape ended up like the bootleg version. We didn’t want to know about it anymore, so we just left it to Glyn Johns
and said, “Here, mix it.” That was the first time since the first album that we didn’t want to have anything to do with it. None of us could be bothered going in. Nobody called anybody about it, and the tapes were left there. Glyn Johns did it. We got an acetate in the mail and we called each other and said, “What do you think?” We were going to let it out in really shitty condition. I didn’t care. I thought it was good to let it out and show people what had happened to us, we can’t get it together; we don’t play together any more; you know, leave us alone. The bootleg version is what it was like, and everyone
was probably thinking they’re not going to fucking work on it. There were 29 hours of tape, so much that it was like a movie. Twenty takes of everything, because we were rehearsing and taking everything. Nobody could face looking at it."
It’s not hard to see why they balked at releasing it in this form. I have a vinyl bootleg copy of that version and “flat” is the best description of the performances contained therein. Embarrassing, considering the high standard that they had maintained throughout their recording history. Johns did what he could with the material, though what it really needed was editing and re-tracking of parts, which was strictly ruled out, if only for the time being. He prepared a second mix, which again was not deemed fit for public consumption.
In the meantime, months rolled by and the Beatles decided to scrap work on the project in favor of making a new record, titled after the very street on which stood the iconic building where they had spent much of the decade producing music that the entire world would embrace. This would present a dilemma for the quartet as they now had two full length discs in the can. Get Back stayed on the shelf while the accompanying film was being edited.
One point that had fascinated me when I was a kid was the sheer volume of songs that were attempted and recorded during this period. Determined to hear 1969 updates of Love Me Do and covers of Dylan tunes plus future Beatle solo songs worked up by the group, I sought out as much bootlegged material as I could find. One of the first half decent ones that I scored was a fair sounding record called Watching Rainbows. It had lo-fi jams of “ All Things Must Pass ”, “Mean Mr. Mustard” and some undeveloped Lennon tunes (“Madman”, “Watching Rainbows”) though it was pretty entertaining overall.
Warning: Some of the selections from these sessions may look great on paper but a lot add up to nothing more than jokey snippets, half assed attempts at things that trail off and a lot of “I don’t know the words, but fuck it, let’s do this anyway”.
You could assemble a pretty decent compilation of complete and listenable takes without too much effort as the material is much more readily available, thanks to the internet revolution. If you are extremely tenacious and enjoy all of the extended discussion and silliness that comes with working out musical ideas, it’s at your fingertips.
LET IT BE
Decisions were made to upgrade the finished product from television documentary to the big screen and call it “Let It Be”. Having worked with Lennon on his “Instant Karma” single in early 1970, Phil Spector was then asked to take the year old tapes and try to spin straw into gold.
Handing a stripped down, back to basics group of tapes to one of the most notorious over-producers in the business may have seemed like quite a contradictory move, though Spector’s work was pretty decent overall. Only his treatment of “The Long and Winding Road ” and “Across the Universe” come across as bloated missteps. He used the best rooftop takes, did a nice job on “Two of Us” and chopped out the useless ”all I want is you” passages that prefaced the verses in “Dig A Pony”. Phil’s handling of “I Me Mine” was clever as well, extending the song by adding a repeat of the chorus.
In short, he put the best face on the material that he was given. His burying technique on “ Winding Road ”, while overly syrupy, did cover the horrendous bass mistakes, though McCartney was right in his assertion that his work was being tampered with. The Disney choir and kitchen sink augmentation really robbed the song of personality.
Let It Be (the album) was released in May of 1970 in conjunction with the movie. Initially, it hit the stores as a box set with a fantastic 160 page book containing great photos, courtesy of Ethan Russell, and dialogue from the film. It was then slimmed down to a gatefold sleeve (no book) and later issues eliminated the fold out jacket.
The group was officially pronounced dead a month prior to this, though they had really been cold since the completion of Abbey Road.
You want my opinion? They should have cleaned up the rooftop concert and put that out in it's entirety.
Hey, where was the goddamned film crew when Revolver was being recorded?
Let It Be captures very little of the original spark that pushed this musical aggregation to unprecedented heights.
Epilogue: Hey, it's 2003. Pack a flashlight, a couple of shovels and follow me.
McCartney’s desire to deal with unfinished business (and settle scores) was one of the main drivers of the Let It Be…Naked project, which frankly happened because George had by this time joined Lennon in the “great beyond”. Paul was now free to have Phil Spector’s work undone, assembling a team to remove the layers of orchestration from the masters and cleverly restore some of the original takes through the magic of Pro Tools editing software. This mainly involved fixing bass parts and cleaning up some of the rough edges ( i.e. welding an exceptional portion of take 23 on to take 54.)
Quite listenable, though they should have ditched the useless “fly on the wall” disc and included one that was packed with jams, the complete rooftop concert or any number of gems that currently sit in the EMI vaults. Arguably, this is the most documented period of their storied career, so there is much to draw on.
Perhaps now that the box sets have hit the stores, the good people at Apple could get serious about assembling a more palatable version of the Let it Be movie for DVD release, include all of the fun footage and give collectors something of value to spend their hard earned dollars on.
Just a thought.
There's a great bootleg of a radio broadcast of the Get back album, complete with commercials from that time. What was it called and which radio station originally aired the LP?