LET IT BE (1970) – And in the end…

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Let It Be – Released May 8, 1970

It’s one of rock music’s greatest ironies that the movie Let It Be was intended to showcase The Beatles’ creative process but ended up depicting their turmoil and eventual breakup instead. This schizophrenic process extended to the movie’s soundtrack album. After hundreds of hours of musical sessions lay untouched for months, the entire debacle was handed over to legendary music producer Phil Spector to process.

Paul was the most vocal about Spector having overdone his assignment (see our entry about The Long and Winding Road below). But, as Beatles biographer Nicholas Schaffner pointed out, the real problem with the soundtrack is that Spector only goes halfway with it; he should either have gone all-out with his famed Wall of Sound on every song, or he should have left each song unadorned (which was The Beatles’ original intention anyway). All of that said, the album is most listenable as a symbol for what it could have been.

(Postscript: Three decades later, Paul used his legendary clout at Capitol Records to put out Let It Be…Naked, an alternate version of the soundtrack that left all of the songs as is, with no fancy strings or heightened production. However, Paul didn’t have enough clout to have the original Let It Be album removed from The Beatles’ catalog; both are available for a side-by-side comparison.)

Two of Us: With this song and One After 909, Paul was definitely trying to light the fire of nostalgia under the hindquarters of his ever-estranged partner John. It obviously didn’t work, but it made for some nicely wistful music. Let It Be (the album) is a very in-and-out affair musically, but this number works wonderfully.

Dig a Pony: You can celebrate anything you want, but this song isn’t quite an occasion for dancing in the streets. Another of John Lennon’s free-associational lyrics a la Come Together, but here the musicianship doesn’t cover the cracks in the writing as well as the other did. Nice guitar work, sloppy verbalization.

Across the Universe: Everyone knocks Phil Spector’s over-production of this album, but he deserves a bouquet for his perfect complementing of John Lennon’s dreamy lyrics in this song. The alternate version of the song (found on Past Masters and Anthology 2) is far less oblique, with fluttery wings at the start and falsetto accompaniment on the chorus that nearly makes one gag.

I Me Mine: George in a Taxman-like mood. Amazing how the same guy who preached love like a tub-thumping evangelist could indulge his more hostile modes with equal fervor. Still, this song is far more successful in conveying a sense of blues than For You Blue was. (Freudian note: George named his 1978 autobiography after this song, not Give Me Love [Give Me Peace on Earth].)

Dig It: Talk about filling a hole where the rain got in! Beatles jamming at its worst, with a lot of supposedly funny wordplay thrown in (though Doris Day was no doubt thrilled to be mentioned in a Beatles song). The bootleg version of this song is even worse, going on forever and sounding like the ramblings of a mud-drenched stoner at Woodstock. When John Lennon said he wanted to release Let It Be with no frills in order for Beatles fans to see them “with their pants down,” this song is just the kind of mooning he was referring to.

I’ve Got a Feeling: A not-bad Paul rocker, though one could live without more of John’s free-associating in the middle. (The movie is surely the only G-rated film to make a reference [John’s] to a “wet dream.”)

One After 909: An early Lennon/McCartney chestnut that Paul brought out of storage in order to spark some nostalgia in John for the old L/Mc partnership. It obviously didn’t work, but it sure added some spark to the movie’s rooftop-concert sequence. The really early version of the song appears on Anthology 1, but stick with the version that John ends with a snatch of “Danny Boy.”

The Long and Winding Road: When you play with fire, you’re gonna get burned, and if you’re Paul McCartney handing over one of his most bathetic recordings to Phil Spector, you’re gonna get a cathedral’s worth of production on the final product (see below). Paul complained for years about Spector going overboard on this one, but with that song, what did Paul expect? Actually, the unadorned version on Anthology 3, obviously closer to Paul’s vision of the song, plays far less schmaltzy than this album version, but neither version is exactly modest in its sense of sentimentality.

Paul’s letter to Apple’s then-manager Allen Klein about Phil Spector’s (over-)production of “The Long and Winding Road.”

For You Blue: The song’s working title (“George’s Blues”) says it all. The bluesy musical approach doesn’t gibe well with the sunny Something/Here Comes the Sun-type lyrics, but at least it sounds interesting.

Get Back: Another of those Beatles numbers where the performance saves all. Get Back, of course, was the intended title of what became Let It Be (the movie, album, and break-up), but the lyrics don’t support that thought very well. (What is it with that Sweet Loretta Martin, anyway? She doesn’t sound like she’s ready to get back to anything.) But The Beatles’ pounding guitars, helped along by Billy Preston’s keyboard, get the idea across quite effectively. (Footnote: Preston later performed the song himself in 1978’s abominable Sgt. Pepper movie and was suitably embarrassing, as was most of the movie.)

What do you think of Let It Be and/or any of its songs (or the movie, for that matter)? Share your opinion with us in the “Comments” section below. Tomorrow: We wrap up our Beatles tribute by digging deep into the Fab Four’s singles catalog with the two-CD compilation set Past Masters.)

HELP! (1965) – Mid-level Beatles

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Help! – Released Aug. 6, 1965

Another movie, another soundtrack album. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why The Beatles felt they had hit a rut at this point. A certain type of song was expected of them, and they delivered (and delivered well), but it was indeed a formula — no surprises, for them or for the listener. However, as escapist fare to accompany an escapist movie, the songs work well enough. Happily, the Fabs were not to stay in this familiar mode much longer.

Help!: Hardly anyone — John Lennon included — has ever noticed that he wrote one of his most emotional, heartfelt songs for one of his most frivolous movies. At the time, it was just more Beatle fodder (it even became filler for their Hollywood Bowl song selection), but it shows a songwriter growing beyond simple rhymes and romances. A nice harbinger of future treasures.

The Night Before: More filler for the movie’s soundtrack. A gorgeous melody is wasted on trite how-could-you-string-me-along lyrics. It’s typical of the crossroads at which The Beatles found themselves at this point — the conflict between extending themselves musically and the constant demand to feed the Beatle machine.

You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away: At this point in Beatlemania, love probably wasn’t the only thing they wanted to hide away. Nevertheless, John Lennon’s homage to Bob Dylan pays off musically, meshing with his own rapidly developing sense of xenophobia. The Anthology 2 version isn’t hugely different from the final product, though the final flute really seals the deal.

I Need You: Another overlooked George Harrison number, nicely understated and with an early use of the slide guitar that was to become a Harrison favorite.

Another Girl: Another example of an early-Beatles device wearing thin. The junior-high smugness of having another girl on line is parodied in the film in which it’s performed, wherein Paul “strums” a svelte blonde in place of his bass guitar.

You’re Going to Lose That Girl: John explores the same junior-high-romance cliches that Paul did on the previous number. But this one at least has more meat musically, goosed along by John’s vocals (and dig that crazy bongo!).

Ticket to Ride: It’s a minor point, but still, funny how nobody ever noticed this song’s subtle reference to cohabitation. It might be the most daring thing on the entire soundtrack. Otherwise, it’s another middle-period song with more bite melodically than lyrically.

Act Naturally: Definitely the only time that The Beatles’ and Buck Owens’ galaxies crossed paths. Still, with Ringo winning unexpected acclaim for his acting in A Hard Day’s Night, this country tune is only a perfect fit for him. Not-bad guitar-twanging, either.

It’s Only Love: In typical botched fashion, this was released on the Help! album in Britain but held aside by Capitol Records for the American version of Rubber Soul. Yet musically, it sounds more like a Rubber Soul outtake than does any of the other middle-of-the-road stuff from Help!. Here we finally get a taste of John Lennon, the ever-flowering songwriter who can no longer sit still for moon/June lyricism. The twangy background guitar is far removed from any musical esoterica on Help!, too.

You Like Me Too Much: One of George’s early efforts, this one starts out in a Lennon pseudo-posturing mode but has him caving in to humanism at the end. Worth listening to just for the nifty beginning, middle, and end piano riffs.

Tell Me What You See: I see a Beatles for Sale holdover, full of forced cheerfulness. The musical background is far too good for these I-yam-what-I-yam lyrics.

I’ve Just Seen a Face: Like John’s It’s Only Love, this Paul number was recorded for the British version of Help! but held back by those stingy Capitol Records execs for the American version of Rubber Soul. And again, it fits, as these two are two sides of the same coin and are both the musical stand-outs from the middle period. Paul’s jaunty vocals and guitar-playing suggest new musical ground, soon to be beautifully developed.

Yesterday: “For Paul McCartney of Liverpool, England, opportunity knocks!” jeers George mockingly in the Anthology 2 intro to a live version of this song. It’s been noted that this is the first Beatles recording to use strings and to not use the other Beatles in performance, as though that’s a virtue. As with most of Paul’s bathos, it’s unassuming when served in small doses, but strange that the man who complained about strings gone haywire on the final version of The Long and Winding Road was so string-quartet-happy here. Of course, to millions of orgiastic females and a few old-time singers who finally “got” The Beatles, all of this mattered little.

Dizzy Miss Lizzie: The final “cover” version on The Beatles’ official recordings, and it certainly goes out with a bang. Forget the live versions; when John sings this on Help!, he really does seem to be in a fever.

(One final note: It’s well-known that Capitol Records milked their Beatles product for all it was worth, and their version of the Help! soundtrack is a perfect example. Capitol’s Help! used only the Beatles songs that actually appeared in the film, and then they filled up the rest of the record with instrumentals from the movie. But as cynical as that move appears at first glance, I actually like the non-Beatles compositions [by Ken Thorne]. Thorne does some sly variations on old Beatles tunes such as A Hard Day’s Night. The soundtrack also features generous use of the sitar, an instrument that was little-known or -used in pop music at that time and which certainly got George Harrison’s attention.)

What do you think of Help! or any of its individual songs (or the movie, for that matter)? Feel free to share your thoughts in the “Comments” section below. Next up: The turning-point album Rubber Soul.

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964) – The soundtrack of an era

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A Hard Day’s Night – Released July 10, 1964

Once again, The Beatles defy expectations and conquer another medium when A Hard Day’s Night — expected by critics to be another brainless jukebox musical — turns out to be one of the most charming movie comedies ever made, overflowing with great wit and memorable melodies. The soundtrack album (at least in Britain) featured the movie’s songs, followed by six more tunes of equally high quality.

A Hard Day’s Night: That opening guitar rush is irresistible. As in the glorious movie for which this served as theme song, it’s Beatlemania captured in a nutshell: frenzied, rapturous rock-‘n’-roll. Just try to ignore its sway.

I Should Have Known Better: Musically, it’s not much different from the movie theme song that inspired its existence. But then, it shares all of that movie’s and theme’s virtues as well.

(Two trivia notes: If you’re lucky enough to find the old Apple “hits” album Hey Jude [The Beatles Again], it has a version that is practically identical, save for a guitar fluff in the opening four bars. Nobody ever did explain where they got that take.)

(Also, the American version of the Help! movie soundtrack has a charming, sitar-flavored version of their previous movie theme; it’s titled Another Hard Day’s Night and is an Indian-sounding pastiche of both songs. If only The Inner Light was as tuneful.)

If I Fell: John and Paul go for the oldest trick in the book: Playing the naive, sensitive lover who needs for his new girlfriend to help him to understand what real love really is. Oh, well, it obviously worked, didn’t it?

I’m Happy Just to Dance with You: Another lead-vocal bone thrown to George by John and Paul. He does a nice job, but heck, on A Hard Day’s Night they could have given a vocal to George Martin and pulled it off. A great dance number, just the same.

And I Love Her: The boundless optimism of A Hard Day’s Night happily overshadows the fact that, save for the title song, every single song written for and used in the film contains the word “I” or “me” in its title. This love song is a prime example, extremely appealing musically but stopping just this side of a classic Freudian case of narcissism.

Tell Me Why: Surely one of the cheeriest love-gone-wrong songs ever recorded. As with most early-Beatles works, the superb musicianship and unflagging rhythm sweep along the unquestioning listener, but how is such a harrowing lyric carried off with such smiling faces in the movie, anyway?

Can’t Buy Me Love: “I don’t care too much for money,” sings the man whose publishing royalties eventually made him one of the richest men on Earth. Still, as sops to love-stricken fans go, this is one of Paul’s jauntiest. The early version of the song, captured on Anthology 1, is even more fascinating, with Paul in even higher octaves than in the final version.

Any Time at All: Another joyous work. Some seemingly unintended elements — the skeletal piano work, Paul’s chiming in on the refrain — drive the song along nicely, too.

I’ll Cry Instead: The beginning of John Lennon’s more introspective lyrics, for anyone who cares to look. Behind the usual driving beat and bouncing guitar work hides the man with “a chip on my shoulder that’s bigger than my feet.” Happily(?), John didn’t remain in this submerge-the-sad-lyrics-in-happy-music phase forever.

Things We Said Today: One of Paul McCartney’s most nicely understated songs, about romantic memories recalled in less romantic times. Only the Hard Day’s Night version carries the full beauty of this song; the two “live” versions (on The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl and Live at the BBC) cut the song short and derive it of its haunting power.

When I Get Home: Judging from the orgiastic vocal delivery on the refrain, this will not be a typical “How was your day, dear?”-type conversation.

You Can’t Do That: Far more unfortunate than the Beatles songs laced with drug references and incomprehensible lyrics are the tunes that are mainlined with early Lennon misogyny, of which this song is a prime example. The lyrics indicate that the singer’s girl is to talk to no other male except him–perhaps not the most enlightened message to be sending to your screaming female fans. Stranger still is the way these lyrics are delivered with a cheery, smiling face (as seen in the Hard Day’s Night outtake shown in the “making of” documentary of this movie), as though nothing untoward was being sung. It’s a chilling precursor to The Police’s Every Breath You Take two decades later.

I’ll Be Back: The Anthology 1 early takes on this song showed that the jauntiness of the Hard Day’s Night soundtrack just wouldn’t cut it for a more thoughtful approach. The final version nailed it beautifully.

What do you think of A Hard Day’s Night and/or any of its songs (or the movie, for that matter)? Let us know in the “Comments” section below. Coming tomorrow: Beatles for Sale.