For The Last Time: “Let it Be” was NOT The Beatles’ Break-up Album
With the world premiere of Peter Jackson’s documentary Get Back upon us, feature stories in print, online, and on TV have almost invariably described the original Beatles Let it Be album and film as the group’s “break-up” album — or, even worse, their “final” album. Such lazy, ignorant, and incorrect reportage might finally come to an end upon the release of Get Back, after fifty years of such mis-characterization.
The simple fact is that after the Beatles shelved the recorded material from the Let it Be sessions, they forged ahead, with their longtime producer George Martin at the helm, to create Abbey Road, an album that can rightfully be called their masterpiece (or, in their case, one among many masterpieces), and even the greatest rock album of all time. It presents the group at the height of their powers, showcasing their songwriting, playing, and singing abilities like no other work they had produced before. From “Come Together” to “Her Majesty,” and all that falls in between — hard rockers like “Oh, Darling” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” two of George’s finest songs (“Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”), the legendary medley on side 2 (for those of you who remember LPs), and even a song for the kiddies (Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden”), Abbey Road has it all. And, with Martin’s brilliant production, the result is a rock album that comes as close to sheer perfection as any ever recorded.
Despite this, Abbey Road has often been treated as little more than a footnote in many respected historical accounts of the group’s music. An exaggeration? Let’s take a more focused look.
Abbey Road has always suffered from bad timing. Had it been recorded and released as the Beatles’ final creative effort it was, history would clearly acknowledge it as the stunning climax to the band’s unparalleled musical history. But, as most of us know, things didn’t follow such a neat and simple order. Let it Be was recorded first, throughout January of 1969, originally meant to be rehearsals for a Beatles TV concert that never took place. The material was shelved to be dealt with at a later date. Sessions for what was to become Abbey Road began a few months later — in late April — and that album was released on September 26 in Britain, October 1 in America.
Finally, eight months later — on May 8, 1970, Let it Be was released in Britain (May 18 in America). This reverse order has left the more casual Beatles fans of the world — and those who should have known better, like a slew of music journalists, past and present — to assume that the often melancholy atmosphere of the Let it Be sessions (concluding with the triumphant rooftop concert) reveals the final breakup of the group. Of course, with the Get Back film, we will see a good deal from over fifty hours of never-before-seen footage providing ample evidence that those sessions were definitely not all gloom & doom for the Beatles (keep in mind that even their lowest points during the project only lasted a few weeks. True, their problems with each other began earlier, as their work on the White Album got under way, and continued through the recording of Abbey Road. But when you look at some of the more highly regarded historical accounts of Beatles history, it is unfortunately easy to see how Abbey Road has gotten short shrift, due mostly to that delayed release of Let it Be.
A few examples:
The first truly excellent Beatles documentary film, The Compleat Beatles, was released in 1982, and was for many years the definitive filmed account of their career together. While much is crammed into its two-hour running time, just about every aspect of their music is covered, with well-written narration read by actor Malcolm McDowell. However, the Let it Be phase of their work is discussed in the film for 3 1/2 minutes, while the next segment, discussing the Abbey Road album, takes up a mere 1 minute, 37 seconds — not a lot of attention to an album the film’s own narration describes as “their most polished production to date.” A short while later, the documentary returns to the subject of Let it Be, and even provides us with a full-length alternate filmed take of the group performing the title song in the studio. The voice-over then concludes, “The album sounded like what it was destined to become: The Beatles’ swan song.”
Ah, but it was not the Beatles’ swan song, and the story was not yet over. Still, upon hearing such a poignant description uttered with convincing authority, the average viewer would have little reason to question it — unless he or she knows about Abbey Road’s very existence.
With the sprawling Anthology documentary aired on TV in 1995 — accompanied by a book, 3-volume CD set, and video box set — we are treated to far greater detail and insight into the group’s history, as the Beatles themselves tell their own story on camera and via voiceovers. Here, the segment on the Let it Be sessions — again, covering a mere one month of their career — takes up a full 30 minutes of running time. A short while later, however, the entire segment covering Abbey Road runs a paltry 7 minutes, and even that includes the full-length version of the “Something” promotional film. George Martin offers on camera that Abbey Road was “a very, very happy album, and everybody worked frightfully well.” That somehow sounds like faint praise for such a major achievement by both the group, and by Martin himself.
It can be argued that one reason Let it Be is given so much attention in historical accounts is due to the abundance of both film and audio tape preserving those sessions, so naturally we would see more of that than we would of the Abbey Road recordings. But does this excuse the almost offhand manner that has so often accompanied the mention of Abbey Road?
Another example came with Rolling Stone magazine’s issue of April 21, 2005, listing the “Greatest Rock Immortals of All Time.” Naturally, the Beatles took the Number 1 spot, but even Elvis Costello’s glowing tribute to the group refers to Let it Be as “their breakup album,” while he fails to make any reference to Abbey Road at all.
The cumulative effect of such well-respected sources paying little more than fleeting attention to Abbey Road, while delving deeper into the juicier goings-on of the Let it Be sessions, has hindered Abbey Road from getting the appreciation it has always deserved. This album was the Beatles break-up album, and the group pretty much knew it as they were recording it. Seeing such a masterpiece glossed over in major accounts of their career, especially now, with the publicity surrounding Get Back, only perpetuates the inexcusable reference to Abbey Road (when it’s mentioned at all) as just another good Beatles album.
So, the next time you read or hear an earnest but misguided fan, reviewer, or journalist describe Let it Be as the Beatles’ “final” or “last” album, remind yourself of the preposterous nature of such an utterance. Or better still, find a way to correct the mistake of the perpetrator, thus reminding one and all that there was a little album the Beatles cobbled together after Let it Be — and it’s a magnificent, and their true, swan song. What a way to go.
Until next time…