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The Beatles - Let It Be: What Is The Best Version?

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After the release of THE BEATLES, or the so called "White Album" in late '68, The Beatles decided to do something a bit different in January 1969, even if, at first, they didn't really know what they were doing. They went at the Twickenham studios with the idea to be filmed playing together, working on new songs, maybe rehearsing for some kind of concert, with the assistance of George Martin, Glyn Johns, and a camera crew directed by Michael Lidsay-Hogg. The focus had to be on them playing together live in a room, so no big production of any kind, as a contrast to their most recent albums. What happened is no mystery by now, thanks the the Let It Be movie from 1970 and, especially, Peter Jackson's Get Back series from 2021, however, long story short: they rehearsed at Twickenham for a while, George Harrison left out of frustration after a few days, they reconvened at Savile Row, George got back, they got Billy Preston in as a keyboard player, they then decided to do a concert on the roof, recorded a few more song the day after, and then pretty much closed the project. After that they very quickly moved on and started working on ABBEY ROAD, while Glyn Johns worked on a couple of possible versions of an album then called GET BACK from those January sessions, both scrapped by the band. They decided to realease a couple of songs from those sessions, "Get Back" and "Don't Let Me Down", as a single in April, ABBEY ROAD comes out in September, Lennon then asks Phil Spector to assemble another version of the possible album from those recordings, the album changes its title to LET IT BE and comes out in May 1970, along with the movie and a book. It's no mystery that McCartney didn't like Spector's version of the album, and that didn't really help in what was a very difficult period for The Beatles, that eventually led to a definitive end a month before the album came out.

Through the years we've had four official versions of LET IT BE, not counting bootlegs, so it might be a bit confusing for the casual fan to choose one to listen to (although the original version will always be the historical one), especially given the nature of the project and the now extensive documentation of the sessions, along with countless different takes of individual songs to chose from. Let's try to see what we got in detail.

Let It Be (1970)

what-is-the-best-version-of-the-beatles-let-it-be

The original version of the album is produced by Phil Spector, and is a strange combination of a very big production (his famous "wall of sound") on certain tracks, and a very stripped down approach on others, also including little snippets of studio chat in between the songs. So, on one hand, there's "The Long And Winding Road" with strings and choir, and on the other, you get the improvised "Maggie Mae", or a fragment of "Dig It", a studio jam. The result is a bit disjointed, but it somehow works. For some reason, "Don't Let Me Down" was not included in this version of the album, even if it was actually released as a single in 1969.

In the end, some like the big production that Spector brought on some of the songs, while others hate it (including McCartney), stating that it's in total contrast with the idea of the "back to basics" approach that was the base of the whole project. On the other hand, Spector was called to work on the tracks without being told what to do precisely, and he just did his job in his own style; so, even if the result might sound disjointed, not coherent with the initial idea of the project, and maybe even different from the usual "sound" of The Beatles (due to not being produced by George Martin), what he did is historically important and cannot be understated.

Tracklist in detail:

  1. Two Of Us: apparently what we hear is "take 12", recorded on the 31st of January.
  2. Dig A Pony: this is from the rooftop concert on the 30th of January: Spector decided to lower Preston's piano in the mix and cut the "all I want is.." at the beginning and end of the song.
  3. Across The Universe: the basic take was recorded on February 4th 1968, with a sitar, a tamboura and a girl choir, and that version came out as a single in October 1969. However, since the Beatles are seen rehearsing the song in the movie, someone thought it made sense to have it on the album too, so, because they never got to a final version of the song in those sessions, Spector took the basic track from 1968, added strings and choir, and slowed it down from D to D Flat on April 1st 1970.
  4. I Me Mine: This song is, again, seen as a rehearsal in the movie, but the actual recording took place on January 3rd 1970, without John Lennon. The main take used is n. 15, from which Spector copied and pasted a verse at the end to make it longer, and added some strings on April 1st 1970.
  5. Dig It: a brief fragment of a studio jam originated on the 24th of January, although this specific version is from the 26th.
  6. Let It Be: the main take is n. 27A from the 31st of January 1969. When they decided to release it as a single in 1970, George Martin wrote and recorded a brass arrangement, and new overdubs of a choir (by McCarney, his wife Linda, and Harrison), electric piano and percussions were added. For the album, Spector used another guitar solo recorded by Harrison in April 1969 (noticeable for not being played thorugh a Leslie speaker, like previous ones), and brought up Martin's brass arrangement in the mix.
  7. Maggie Mae: an improvised old traditional song recorded very quickly on the 24th of January, this one is the third overall attempt.
  8. I've Got A Feeling: what we hear is the full first performance of this song on the rooftop on the 30th of January 1969 (they played it twice that day).
  9. One After 909: this version is, again, from the rooftop concert, the only take they played there.
  10. The Long And Winding Road: the basic track was recorded on the 26th of January 1969, on which Spector added strings (arranged by Richard Hewison), a choir, and an additional drum part by Ringo on April 1st 1970.
  11. For You Blue: the basic track is from take 6 from January 26th 1969, Spector then decided to include a new main vocal track that Harrison recorded in January 8th, 1970, and omitted his acoustic guitar track from the entire song, and kept it only for the introduction.
  12. Get Back: what we hear is take 11 from the 27th of January 1969. The coda they recorded the next day was used only in the single version.

Leit It Be... Naked (2003)

what-is-the-best-version-of-the-beatles-let-it-be

In 2003 the first remix of LET IT BE came out, in an attempt to restore the "back to basics" sound of the songs. Paul McCartney is the main man behind this project, seeing as he hated Spector's work on the original one, and the remix is done by Paul Hicks. The result has its high and low points: on one hand, we get the album without the orchestral overdubs done by Spector (and Martin, in the case of "Let It Be"), and we also finally get "Don't Let Me Down" as part of the tracklist; on the other hand, all the little snippets of studio jams ("Dig It" and "Maggie Mae") and dialogues are gone, and the songs are presented as clean studio takes, like in a normal album. This, along with the heavy use of the "de-noise" technology to make everything sound even cleaner, creates a sort of strange hybrid of an album that should sound more "live", but in places sounds purely like a studio creation, even more than the original mix.

So, if you just want to hear the songs as they were played by the Beatles, in a re-arranged order (that, in my opinion, works better than the original), plus "Don't Let Me Down", as a studio album with nothing else added, it's a great experience; if, instead, you want a good representation of the atmosphere of the session, you might be disappointed (even if, to be fair, you get a 20 minute bonus "Fly On The Wall" disc with bits of dialogues and studio jams, it's just not the same having these bits taken out of the main album).

Let's see the tracks in detail:

  1. Get Back: a simple remix of the same take used both for the single and the original LET IT BE album, again without the coda, but also without dialogues.
  2. Dig A Pony: just a remix of the same take from the rooftop used on the original album (again with the "all I want is..." part edited out), without the dialogues and the false start.
  3. For You Blue: again, same take as on the original album, with the newer vocal track from January 1970 still in place, but this time with George's acoustic guitar present in the mix for the whole song, as it was originally intended.
  4. The Long And Winding Road: this is probably the track that sounds the most different, as they didn't just take away the overdubs, but they also decided to use a totally different take. What we hear is actually take 19 from the 31st of January 1969, the very last time they played the song, and also the same version we see in the movie LET IT BE.
  5. Two Of Us: just a remixed version of the one heard on the original album, without dialogues.
  6. I've Got A Feeling: for this song they decided to edit together the two takes from the rooftop concert, instead of using just the first one like on the original album, probably to get a more "perfect" sounding version.
  7. One After 909: a remixed version of the only take done on the rooftop, the same one used on the original album.
  8. Don't Let Me Down: this song wasn't included on the original LET IT BE, but it was released as a single in May 1969, using a version recorded on January 28th with added vocal takes done sometime in February of that same year. This specific version, instead, is a combination of two different takes from the rooftop concert of the 30th of January 1969.
  9. I Me Mine: a remixed version of the same, longer "Spector edit" from January 1970, without the orchestra.
  10. Across The Universe: the same 1968 take is used, but in this case the song is presented at its original speed and pitch, without the orchestra, with just voice, guitar, light percussion and George's tamboura, with a touch of reverb growing as the song progresses.
  11. Let It Be: a remix of take 27A from January 31st is used here (same take as on the original album), without any kind of overdubs from 1970, originally present in both the original single and album, and with yet another guitar solo from take 27B of that same day.
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Let It Be (Giles Martin 2021 Remix)

what-is-the-best-version-of-the-beatles-let-it-be

After SGT PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND in 2017, the WHITE ALBUM in 2018 and ABBEY ROAD in 2019, in 2021 LET IT BE gets the Super Deluxe treatment. So, basically, we usually get a new remix by Giles Martin and a lot of outtakes from the sessions; in this specific case, along with the new mix and the outtakes, we also got a 1969 Glyn Johns mix of the album, which we'll see in a moment.

The 2021 remix uses the same versions of the individual songs present on the original album (so no detailed tracklist is needed here), keeping in also every bit of dialogue and jam, and it just tries to make averything sound "updated" in some way. Overall, the bass is noticeably higher everywhere in the mix, everything sounds a lot clearer and brighter, less "muddy", and you can also hear some bits that were inaudible before. Spector's additions are still all there, but they obviously sound a bit different, most times a bit less intrusive.

In the end, while the new mix does a wonderful job in trying to make the album sound less dated, whether to listen to the original mix or this new one, it all comes down to personal preferences, as both are valid.

Get Back (Glyn Johns 1969 mix)

what-is-the-best-version-of-the-beatles-let-it-be

Along with two CDs of outtakes from the sessions and the new remix, the 2021 edition of LET IT BE finally included a version by Glyn Johns of the album from 1969, when it was still called GET BACK. Johns did multiple versions of the album, all discarded by the band, and the version here included is the one from May 1969 (we don't get the full version from 1970, but instead we get his mixes of "Across The Universe" and "I Me Mine" in a bonus EP, which were part of that version along with the majority of the tracks from the 1969 one).

His version is probably the most realistic representation of those sessions in an album form, with a lot of dialogue snippets, false starts and quite e few studio jams; and although some choices of individual song takes are debatable (there were better ones, that in fact got later chosen for the official LET IT BE and ...NAKED), the overall feel is one of being in the studio with the Beatles fooling around, simply playing new songs and jamming.

Let's see a detailed tracklist (bear in mind that in between every track there are a lot of dialogues and false starts that I won't mention in detail):

  1. One After 909: this is the same take used in every version of the album, the one from the rooftop concert, and here is mixed differently, in a wider stereo.
  2. I'm Ready (Rocker) / Save the Last Dance for Me / Don't Let Me Down: a medley of some studio jam with a fragment of an improvised "Don't Let Me Down" at the end, a short track that gives the first taste of those sessions, recorded on the 22nd of January 1969.
  3. Don't Let Me Down: a slightly relaxed version of the song, one of the first takes with Billy Preston on electric piano, recorded on the 22nd of January 1969.
  4. Dig a Pony: again recorded on the 22nd of January like the previous tracks, this time it retains the "all I want is..." section at the beginning and end.
  5. I've Got a Feeling: another one coming from the 22nd of January, actually played right after "Dig A Pony", a very energetic version that sadly falls apart before the last verse, and it just ends there. This is probably one of the most obvious example of some debatable choices of takes done by Jones: while he chose a very good performance, the missing ending is a very noticeable flaw.
  6. Get Back: this is actually the same take and mix as the single version from 1969 (so the same used also on every version of the album), recorded the 27th of January, minus the coda from the next day.
  7. For You Blue: the same version used for all the other releases, only with the original vocal track from that same take (not the one re-recorded in January 1970), again with the acoustic guitar kept in the mix.
  8. Teddy Boy: a Paul McCartney song that the Beatles attempted in these sessions, but he eventually finished it on his own for his first solo album in 1970. This version, far from being finished, is from the 28th of January 1969.
  9. Two of Us: this is the final version recorded on the 24th of January 1969, the first day in which they decided to try an acoustic arrangement of the song, and it's slightly slower and more imprecise in the singing parts compared to the version we all know.
  10. Maggie Mae: the same version as on LET IT BE, only with a fade out at the end.
  11. Dig It: this is the same jam that's presented on LET IT BE with the same name, but on here we have the complete 4 minutes long take instead of just 40 seconds.
  12. Let It Be: the same take used on the single and all different versions of the album (27A from the 26th of January), with the same solo as the single and no overdubs whatsoever.
  13. The Long And Winding Road: again from the 26th of January, just like on every version of the album apart from ...NAKED, with no overdubs, just a touch of reverb added.
  14. Get Back (Reprise): the coda from the 28th of January.

Conclusions

In the end, there is no definitive version of this album, and, predictably, it all comes down to personal preferences. The original mix is historically important and, with all its flaws, it perfectly represents a band in the middle of a crysis; ...NAKED is a nice stripped down listening experience, although, because of its very clean sound, it doesn't give the impression of a live recording, and instead sounds like a clean studio album; the 2021 remix tries to make the classic mix sound more modern, less muddy, and you can hear details better, but it doesn't lose its original identity; and, finally, the Glyn Johns mix is flawed but the closest representation of those sessions in an album form.

So, in the end, it all comes down to what you look for, and, also, you can make up your own version by choosing individual tracks from one version or the other. If that's not enough, you can easily find more outtakes on ANTHOLOGY 3 and the LET IT BE SUPER DELUXE EDITION boxset, along with a plethora of bootlegs.

Also, if you want to hear the full, legendary, rooftop concert from the 30th of January 1969, there's a link right below.

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