Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Phil Spector and Let It Be

Let's leave aside, for the duration of this post, the sorry end to the Phil Spector story, and the even sorrier end of the actress Lana Clarkson, who was unfortunate enough to run across the self-styled greatest record producer of all time.

Until that incident, Spector was probably most notorious for his role in the making (or unmaking, in Paul McCartney's eyes) of the Beatles' Let It Be album. Before he became involved, engineer Glyn Johns had prepared three different running orders and mixes for what was then proposed to be the Get Back album. The Beatles unanimously rejected all three.

Meanwhile, work on the Get Back film continued through the final months of 1969 and into 1970. It was Allen Klein, ironically enough, who encouraged Messrs. McCartney, Harrison and Starkey to regroup one last time in January 1970, to tart up 'Let It Be' as a potential single (and soon enough, album/film title as well), and to record 'I Me Mine', which was heard in the film but hadn't been properly recorded during the tortuous January 1969 sessions.

And it was Klein who suggested that Phil Spector, who had just produced John Lennon's 'Instant Karma' single in magnificent style, should be asked to go back through the January 1969 tapes, and assemble a suitable soundtrack album for the movie. Despite what you've read elsewhere, all four Beatles authorised that decision.

Spector set to work, mixing here, snipping tape there, and ultimately recruiting both Ringo Starr and an orchestra to work on several tracks - including McCartney's song, 'The Long And Winding Road'. Why wasn't Paul there at the session? Because both he and John were so sick of the project that they had agreed to let George and Ringo supervise what Spector was doing. So it's true that Paul McCartney didn't know what Phil Spector was planning to do to 'The Long And Winding Road' (i.e. add an orchestra and choir); but only because he had chosen not to get involved.

When Spector's work was done, he rapidly assembled his mix of the Let It Be album, cut four acetate copies of the LP, and sent one apiece to each of the Beatles for their approval. The four musicians liaised with each other, and approved Spector's work. Only two weeks later, when the presses were already rolling, did Paul suddenly wake up and think, "Hang on a minute, I want to make some changes". But by then it was too late.

During the research for my book, I came across the original letter that Spector sent to the four Beatles. Rather than the authoritarian rant I was expecting, his note turned out to be extremely friendly. "If there is anything you'd like done to the album, let me know and I'll be glad to help", he wrote. "Naturally little things are easy to change, big things might be a problem. If you wish, please call me about anything regarding the album tonight." That's definitely the voice of compromise, rather than a control freak.

The schedule was tight because the film was imminent - and at that point we enter another saga, about the scheduling of Let It Be and the McCartney solo album, which aroused an argument that in turn provoked Paul to send out his famous 'interview' to the press suggesting that he was leaving the Beatles. But that's another issue. My point here is that far from acting like a tyrant, and refusing to communicate with Paul McCartney, Phil Spector did everything he could to ensure that all four Beatles approved of his work.

Spector made one more suggestion: the album shouldn't be titled Let It Be, but The Long And Winding Road, which is a clear indication that he realised the significance of McCartney's song. But by then the film was virtually complete, and everything was geared towards the project being titled Let It Be, so Spector's advice was ignored.

For what it's worth, I've always thought that Spector's version of Let It Be was artistically superior to the Glyn Johns mixes, and the Let It Be . . . Naked album issued a few years back. What it wasn't, of course, was a spontaneous, off-the-cuff representation of those January 1969 sessions - which is what Glyn Johns had delivered, and the Beatles didn't like. In later years, three of the Beatles went on record as saying that they preferred Spector's work, too. No prizes for guessing the identity of The Beatle Who Didn't Agree.


  1. My "ideal" Get Back/Let It Be LP would most likely consist of a combination of Glyn Johns mixes, Spector mixes, and unadulterated rooftop recordings (like "Don't Let Me Down" with John 'bleep-blootchi-goo' flub). The Naked album gave another view on the same material, but it wasn't definitive in the least. I haven't listened to the original LIB in a while, preferring to go to the 'As Nature Intended' CD for a change of pace. These days, I put on Naked, again, just for a change of pace.

  2. Very interesting Peter. I was reading Ian Macdonalds's Revolution In The Head and was taken aback at the characterization of this conflict as deliberate sabotage by John, which I didn't find believable. These details confirm my suspicion.

  3. I've been trying to figure out why the version of Let it Be which appears on the album would have been selected over the version with more electric guitar, since the guitar-at-the-bridge version always (to me anyway) blows the plain old keyboard version out of the water. Was it just because that was the style at the time? I have been curious about this for some time. If anyone knows or could reference an explanation I would be thrilled to find an answer.