"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Friday, November 21, 2014

The specter of Phil Spector surrounds "Let It Be"

Maybe it's time for a fresh look at the Beatles' "Let It Be" album. We can strip aside all the background drama. The Fab 4 had conflicts of the type satirized in the movie "This is Spinal Tap."
We know the timeline of production was long, indicating indecision. The four guys recorded most of the material in January of 1969. I was turning 14 years old during that month. The Beatles were this mesmerizing backdrop for my growing-up years.
January of '69 pre-dated the recording and release of the "Abbey Road" album. "Let It Be" and "Abbey Rod" were the end of the road for the mega-famous group. "Let It Be" came out in May of 1970. The news had already passed that the Beatles' era was over.
The creative people went through contortions with "Let It Be." It was supposed to come out in mid-1969 under the name "Get Back." The Fab 4 thought some more tweaking was needed. Thus, postponement.
On comes Phil Spector with his creative input. Discussions about "Let It Be" inevitably revolve around Spector as much as John, Paul, George and Ringo. Hearing his name, you are no doubt prompted to think of criminal notoriety. You're right. He was convicted of second degree murder in 2003. He was sentenced to 19 years to life in prison. He was found guilty in the shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson in California.
Putting that notoriety aside - we'll have to do the same thing with Bill Cosby, it seems - Spector was quite the cog in the music business. He knew what he was doing. He knew the kind of treatment the Beatles' music needed in 1970. That's my opinion.
I didn't get around to listening to this album until 1973. I thought "The Long and Winding Road" was absolutely beautiful. This was a song where Spector had added quite a bit of embroidery. The simple beauty of the song remained. Paul McCartney took exception, to the extent this conflict is cited as a reason the Beatles broke up.
Man, if everyone was getting so uptight and caffeinated over musical quibbles, I guess the time really had come for the Beatles to go their separate ways. They had a wonderful collection of songs for "Let It Be." The guys should have been relaxed and prideful and moved on. Males of that age can get restless. They see greener pastures.
John Lennon was in a withdrawn frame of mind. George Harrison had conflicts with both McCartney (the perfectionist) and Lennon, and with Lennon it got so bad, there were reportedly punches thrown. Beatles historian Mark Hertsgaard suggested that one doesn't bother having such intense conflicts with someone you don't care about. Hence the emotional bond was doubtless still there.
My theory is that "fishbowl fatigue" had taken over. Lennon had been right: The Beatles were bigger than Jesus - certainly more popular, which was his whole point. That quote indicated that Lennon was shocked at the sheer immensity of the group's fame. It made him uncomfortable. The Beatles could have had one-third of their popularity and been rich, popular and successful for the rest of their lives. They could be playing casinos today.
The Beatles were more than just popular in the '60s. They were a phenomenon. Who wants to be a phenomenon?
I have written before that Lennon had a hard time handling fame - he disintegrated in some ways - while McCartney seemed to hold together better. Harrison should never have tried to become a solo artist. Ringo? He was lovable Ringo all along, and still today.
What was the Beatles' last album, "Abbey Road" or "Let It Be?" An asterisk or some explanation would have to be attached to each answer. I suggest "Let It Be" because it was the last album released.
Lennon actually suggested Eric Clapton as a permanent replacement for the disgruntled Harrison. McCartney and Starr said no. Harrison wandered back into the fold.
McCartney wanted "The Long and Winding Road" to be a simple piano ballad. Like a mere demo recording? A songwriter may always prefer the simplest treatment of his/her song. Professionals must collaborate. Ah, they can be very passionate. Music is an intensely personal or emotional thing. Professionals in the music business can be at each other's throats.
The perceptive Mr. Spector, with his fine track record, dubbed in orchestral and choral accompaniment with McCartney's "Long and Winding Road." McCartney tried to get the embellishments removed, to no avail.
Was McCartney serious or was he just having a hissy fit to try to show his importance? Man, if someone felt one of my compositions would be enhanced by orchestra and chorus, I'd be flattered beyond words! Lennon, for what it's worth supported Spector. The "Winding Road" song and "Let It Be" both shot to No. 1 in the U.S.
Spector's embellishments did not disrupt the basic structure, lyrics or messages of the songs. He applied all this stuff to three songs on the "Let It Be" album: "The Long and Winding Road," "Across the Universe" and "I Me Mine."
"Across the Universe" is one of my favorite Beatles songs. I think Spector's work enhanced it. The embellishments create a sort of surreal quality, coaxing your mind to a place of solitude. It's therapeutic. Spector was the consummate professional. He would later say that McCartney had no problem accepting the Academy Award for the "Let It Be" soundtrack.
The song "Let It Be" has lyrics that are a classic. "Get Back" is a pleasing, hard-charging rocker.
A "raw" (organic?) version of "The Long and Winding Road" came out on "Anthology Vol. 3." I have mixed feelings about this sort of thing: alternative versions of a song. I feel a firm decision must be made at some point about the intended version. A performer has the latitude to change the interpretation in live performances - that's fine. But alternative recorded versions create ambiguity. Which are we supposed to embrace more?
George Martin agreed with McCartney on his objections. So did engineer Geoff Emerick. John Lennon must have held all the cards because he's the one who called in Spector who then employed the harps, chorus, orchestra and women's choir. Again, I'd be speechless and euphoric if someone felt my compositions could be enhanced this way!
McCartney could be an assertive bastard. I guess he gets his way today. His "Wings" albums included a lot of "filler."
After all the emotional and personal sniping, the Beatles watched the "Long and Winding Road" single top the chart. It had a ten-week-long chart run. It sold 1.2 million copies in the first two days. I guess McCartney should have just taken the attitude of "Let It Be" (LOL).
It's sad how my generation invested so much, got so emotionally devoted, to four guys who were simply gifted at creating the three-minute song. Those times were quite pre-digital. We defined ourselves not by what we ourselves created, but by what artistic material we consumed. We can forget how unsatisfying that was.
The Beatles were in a fishbowl. I suggest Lennon had problems with this. Consider how Lennon looked in 1970 compared to how he looked in "A Hard Day's Night." He was ragged and depleted.
"Let It Be" is a terrific album, getting through the turmoil just fine. Let's strip away the extracurricular concerns and appreciate it. It is an underrated album.
I haven't even mentioned (yet) the "rooftop performance" in this post. No matter what the Beatles did, it would bring fawning attention far and wide. They could have strolled over to a coffee shop and sung some a cappella, and the result would be the same: an iconic image! What unbelievable power. Beyond reasonable bounds, I would say, but in pure musical terms, there were volumes of great stuff to appreciate.
The breakup seemed like a Shakespearean tragedy. We weren't ready. Really, though, the four guys bequeathed tremendous musical enjoyment for us to sift through.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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