Author’s Note: In the Oscar nominated film Boyhood, Mason Senior, played by Ethan Hawke, gives his son a mix CD entitled The Black Album. On it, he explains, is a mix of all the best songs recorded by Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr in the decades that followed the band’s break-up. Hearing this explanation frustrated me because for over a year I’ve been planning to create a similar list (although much more specific), and I realized that my idea wasn’t quite as original as I had once thought. I decided I’d better write this post before Boyhood takes the “Best Film” award this weekend and everyone and their mother goes and sees the film.
Let’s make something clear form the outset – Let It Be is not a classic album. Heck, it’s not even a great album. Songs like “Across the Universe,” “Get Back,” “The Long and Winding Road,” and “Let It Be” are certainly excellent songs that belong in the pantheon of the band’s biggest hits, but once you get beyond these classics, you’re left with an album of filler. The members of the band would probably have agreed with this assertion. Lennon himself described the recordings as “the shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever.”
Despite their reservations, the band, which happened to be on the verge of breaking up, were forced to gather leftover material from their botched documentary, Get Back, and piece together an album in order to relieve contractual obligations. As a result, you get two tracks that clock in under a minute and a handful of sloppy blues songs. Even the songs that live on in infamy are swathed in unnecessary orchestral swells as a result of Lennon asking Phil Spector to come in and try to rescue the shambolic tapes that remained.
The Get Back Sessions, or as Lennon called them, “The shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever.”
What bothers me more than the lackluster songs on Let It Be is the fact that John, Paul, George and Ringo all released solo albums that same year – 42 original songs that could have been used on Let It Be instead of their own projects (at this time, the members of the band had become very territorial with their songwriting, and the one-time collaborative spirit was all but dead).
I’ve always tried to imagine what Let It Be would have sounded like if the fab four had been more willing to offer up their best work for what would be the final Beatles album. With this concept in mind, I came up with a track listing that I think would have been more suitable as the band’s farewell. Instead of simply picking willy-nilly from their solo albums, I gave myself a few parameters:
- Starting with Rubber Soul, I figured out the average amount of songs per album and tried to limit myself to that number: 17 (The White Album obviously bumped this average up a bit). Abbey Road was 17 songs, so I don’t see this as an unreasonable number.
- No cover songs allowed –Ringo’s Beaucoups of Blues was comprised entirely of cover songs (so, no Ringo) and despite how great it is, you will not find George Harrison’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “If Not For You.”
- I tried to steer clear of tracks that didn’t have that definitive Beatle’s sound or feel. For example, Lennon’s revelatory “Mother” just doesn’t seem like something that would ever be released on a Beatles album. I also omitted classics like McCartney’s “Baby I’m Amazed” and Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” because I thought they were more fitting for their respective solo projects (also, they may have featured too positive of a tone for the somber Let It Be: Redux that I’ve envisioned).
I also decided to come up with a logical progression of songs for my imaginary version of Let It Be. My first thought was to have each side of the album feature one member’s unique take on the break-up, much in the same way Kiss released four separate albums in 1978, but I decided this wouldn’t work with such little Ringo material to draw from. After much thought, I decided the four sides would be broken into the stages of mourning (Denial/Isolation, Anger/Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance), since Let It Be should have been just that – an album that helps the loyal listeners deal with the loss of one of the greatest bands of all-time.
SIDE 1 – Denial/Isolation
1. “Teddy Boy”
- Paul McCartney
This is probably the weakest track in my mix, but I thought Paul McCartney’s “Teddy Boy” would be a great introduction to the album because it hearkens back to the band’s meager beginnings as part of the Teddy Boy youth movement. Paul has since revealed in interviews that this song was intended to be on Let It Be, but he opted to keep it for his self-titled album when he realized what a shoddy mess the final Beatles album was turning into.
The song tells of an innocent young Teddy Boy who through the course of the song realizes that life is not as grand as he once believed. He finds out that his father died in the war, and his mother has moved on to another man. By the end, he returns to his mom and begs her to take him back. Much like Paul near the end of The Beatle’s run, Teddy is trying to ignore the writing on the wall and holding on to the remains of what he once valued.
2. “Working Class Hero”
- John Lennon
This song picks up from where “Teddy Boy” left off, continuing with a look back at the band’s middle class beginnings and the disillusionment that came along the way with fame and fortune. Much like McCartney on “Teddy Boy,” John is looking at the past from the other side, seeing that the middle class dream is just that. The song criticizes this social divide, a precipice that stands between him and his fledgling days as a “Working Class Hero.”
Like much of Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, this song is gritty and harsh, even containing several curse words. While I’m not sure this type of salty language would be allowed on a Beatles album, I’d like to believe that the band would have included it considering they were the biggest band on Earth and at that point had nothing to lose.
3. “Across the Universe”
- John Lennon
At this point in the album we’ve seen a group of Teddy Boys from Liverpool ascend to “Working Class Hero” status, leading to the moment their music broke and was heard “Across the Universe” (I know, it’s a stretch, but stick with me here). The song, which was originally written in 1967 when the band was fully entrenched in transcendental meditation, has a message of hope when surrounded by despair.
John has told in interviews how the song derived from his irritation with his then wife Cynthia nagging him. Instead of focusing on their doomed marriage, the song takes on a more peaceful approach with its chorus of “Nothing’s gonna change my world.” This is, in a sense, the ultimate song of denial, considering the couple would divorce in 1968. It’s fitting that the song wouldn’t be released until 1970 when the Beatles were going through their own “divorce,” despite the band’s attempts to make it still work.
- John Lennon
By 1967, the Beatle’s one time communal approach to songwriting had evaporated due to jealousy and frustration. The result of this chaotic time was The White Album, a 30-song tour de force that chronicles the band at its most creative. During the recording of what McCartney referred to as “The Turmoil Album,” the band members recorded their own songs in three different studios, protecting their own work by isolating themselves. While the results were remarkable (it’s my favorite Beatles album), the band would never be the same.
Lennon’s “Isolation” conveys that feeling all the members of the band probably felt during this time, hanging on to the idea of The Beatles while distancing themselves more with each successive album. In the opening lines, Lennon bemoans that feeling of being on top of the world while still feeling completely disconnected and alone: “People say we got it made,/ don’t they know we’re so afraid?/ Isolation.”
5. “Get Back”
- Paul McCartney
I’ve never understood why “Get Back” is the final track on Let It Be. With the memorable chorus of “Get back to where you once belonged,” the song expresses a message of returning to your past when the band was on the verge of doing the complete opposite. Maybe the song was meant to give hope to listeners that the band might reconcile, or more likely, little thought was put into the song order of Let It Be (certainly not as much thought as I’ve put into this list).
Whatever the case, I think the song works well as a closer to side one’s focus on denial with Paul possibly still holding out hope that the band may be able to “Get back” to what they once were (side note: John later revealed that during recording, Paul would stare at Yoko when the chorus arrived and sing, “Get back to where you once belonged.” Ouch).
During their last performance on the roof of Apple Studios, The Beatles performed “Get Back.”
Side 2 – Anger/Bargaining
6. “I, Me Mine”
- George Harrison
Paul and John weren’t the only ones at odds, and Harrison made his frustrations clear on “I, Me, Mine,” a song that focuses upon the selfishness of Lennon and McCartney. Throughout The Beatle’s tenure, Harrison felt his songs were often passed over or completely ignored. For example, George’s masterpiece “All Things Must Pass” was originally offered up for the Let It Be album but was met with complete indifference from Lennon and McCartney. “I, Me, Mine” is the cool-headed George at his angriest, using the Hindu representation of the ego (I, Me, Mine) to denounce John and Paul’s ego-maniacal ways.
7. “I Found Out”
- John Lennon
George’s finger-pointing on “I, Me, Mine” seems tame in comparison to Lennon’s scathing assault on his band mates, the media, and organized religion on “I Found Out.” What Lennon “Found out,” is not quite clear, but it’s obvious from the onset that it was something that pushed him over the edge. In the third stanza he takes aim at Harrison and his devotion to Hinduism. Lennon snarkily sings, “Old hare krishna got nothing on you/Just keep you crazy with nothing to do/ Keep you occupied with pie in the sky/ There ain’t no guru who can see through your eyes.” This verse probably stems from a heated argument that happened during the Get Back sessions. On January 10th, 1969, Harrison voiced his concern that Yoko had too powerful a voice in the band. John did not take lightly to the claim and the argument led to blows. The foursome would meet two days later to convince Harrison to stay in the band.
But don’t worry, Sir McCartney doesn’t get off clean in “I Found Out.” Near the end of the song while discussing his experiences with dope and cocaine, Lennon sneaks in a jab at McCartney’s ego: “I’ve seen religion from Jesus to Paul.”
8. “Every Night”
- Paul McCartney
“Every Night” is another track written during the Get Back sessions, and once again, McCartney opted to keep it for his solo album. He possibility did this due to the song’s intimidate, illuminating lyrics that reveal his frustrations during that time period. Of all the members, McCartney was the one always trying to keep the boat afloat. All the other members at one point “quit” the band, and each time, McCartney would have to try to help alleviate the situation. In September of 1969, McCartney had a meeting with Lennon in hopes of saving the band. He told John, “Let’s get back to square one and remember what we’re all about.”
In response, Lennon dropped the legendary bombshell: “I think you’re daft. I wasn’t going to tell you, but I’m breaking the group up. It feels good. It feels like a divorce.” Paul was devastated. Linda McCartney would later reveal that Paul became irritable and depressed in the following months, drinking from sun up to sun down, trying to cope with the end of an era. The lyrics of “Every Night” reveal these harrowing, wearisome times: “Every night I just want to go out,/ Get out of my head, /Everyday I don’t want to get up,/ get out of my bed.”
- John Lennon
The idea of an incendiary song like “God” being on a Beatles album might be a stretch, but I think it would function perfectly as a turning point to my version of Let It Be. Not only does it once again take on organized religion with a fiery zeal, it also contains the shocking lyric, “I don’t believe in Beatles. I just believe in me.” Wow. Just think about the panic that would have resulted from such a denouncement being made in the middle of Let It Be.
And then I imagine, just as the listener is attempting to pick their jaw up from off the ground, Lennon softly sings the closing death knell to the first half of the album: “I was the Walrus/ But now I’m John/ and so my dear friends/ you’ll have to carry on/ The Dream is over.”
SIDE 3: Depression
10. “Isn’t It a Pity”
- George Harrison
After such a profound moment with the song “God,” I decided the second half of the album needed to start with something just as powerful, and I can’t think of a better song than Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity.” The song, which was originally written in 1966, had been presented to McCartney and Lennon for consideration on three different albums and had been turned down on each occasion. Why the duo never appreciated this beautiful song is beyond me, but considering the song’s message, it almost seems like the track was meant to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the Beatles.
Despite the song being written four years earlier, the lyrics eerily fit the emotions felt during the termination of the band: “Isn’t it a pity, isn’t it a shame/ How we break each other’s hearts, and cause each other pain.” In his 1980 autobiography, Harrison describes the song as, “a song about whenever a relationship hits a down point. It was a chance to realize that if I felt somebody let me down, then there’s a good chance I was letting someone else down.” The seven minute song opens with a piano part reminiscent of Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus” (fitting since the first half of Let It Be: Redux ends with a Walrus reference) and ends with a three-minute outro that features a faint choir of voices singing the memorable melody heard at the end of “Hey Jude.” “Isn’t It a Pity” also clocks in at 7:10, just one second under the “Hey Jude” run time of 7:11. It’s a song of remorse, looking back with sadness and regret upon the end of an era.
11. “The Long and Winding Road”
- Paul McCartney
If you’re going to have a side of Let It Be focus on depression, look no further than McCartney’s “The Long and Winding Road.” The song, which was originally constructed in 1968, was inspired by the growing tension within the group. When asked about the song, McCartney said, “I was a bit flipped out and tripped out at the time. It’s a sad song because it’s all about the unattainable; the door you never quite reach. This is the road you never get to the end of.”
In the song, McCartney mirrors his real life pleas for cooperation from his band mates, singing, “Why leave me standing here?/ Let me know the way.” Lennon would later admit that the song was a result of the band’s internal struggles, saying, “I think the shock… of what was happening gave Paul a creative spurt including ‘Long and Winding Road,’ cause that was the last gasp for him.”
I would also opt to use the stripped down Let It Be…Naked version of the song that was released in 2003. McCartney was never happy with Phil Spector’s embellishments to his tracks, although Lennon and Harrison have complimented his work in interviews.
12. “Look at Me”
I thought it was important to include a track that represents Lennon’s own dejection, and “Look at Me” encapsulates the disorientation and soul-searching that he felt following the break-up. It asks a question that all The Beatles probably struggled with: without the band, “Who am I?” In fact, the entire song is composed of questions, conveying the confusion one feels after a messy break-up. The song was originally written during the White Album sessions, but is still just as poignant as an epilogue to the band’s career.
13. “Beware of Darkness”
- George Harrison
Only George could write a song about depression and somehow make it uplifting. In “Beware of Darkness,” Harrison warns the listener of con men, politicians, and even pop idols because they distract you from the real meaning of life. It’s a musical meditation on how to deal with hardships and overcome them. In terms of my version of Let It Be: Redux, I see this song as both a means of speaking to fans on how to cope with the loss, but also as Harrison’s own attempt at dealing with this complicated time period in his life.
You can cut the tension with a knife.
Side 4: Acceptance
14. “Hold On”
- John Lennon
I like the idea of going from Harrison’s “Darkness” into Lennon’s “Hold On,” a song about surviving through a period of anguish. In the song, Lennon name checks both himself and Yoko, signifying that together, they can survive through anything. The song is about living in the moment, not in the past.
15. “All Things Must Pass”
- George Harrison
“All Things Must Pass” signifies Harrison’s acceptance that everything comes to an end. The song has the uplifting mantra “All things must pass/ All things must pass away” throughout, and Phil Spector’s production heightens this revelatory message, majestic horns and soothing orchestration backing Harrison’s pastoral lyrics. The opening line “Sunrise doesn’t last all morning” is a slyly placed metaphor coming from the same man whose biggest hit with The Beatles happened to be “Here Comes the Sun.”
The fact that “All Things Must Pass” was denied by McCartney and Lennon might be one of the biggest atrocities ever committed by the oppressive duo, but thanks to this list, I’m able to imagine a world where Harrison’s brilliance wasn’t stifled.
16. “Let It Be”
- Paul McCartney
“Let It Be” was originally written during the White Album sessions, the result of a dream McCartney had after a particularly aggravating day of recording. In the dream, McCartney saw himself visiting his mother in the hospital. When he sings the now famous line “When I find myself in times of trouble/ Mother Mary comes to me,” he’s not singing about the Virgin Mary (a common misconception); he’s singing about his mother, who died when he was only 14. In the dream that inspired one of the most famous songs ever written, his mother reassured him, “It will be all right, just let it be.”
The song would hammer home the 4th side’s message of acceptance. Paul had always been The Beatle’s lightning rod, but this song and album both show him realizing it’s time to move on. Once again, I would use the Let It Be…Naked version (because it’s the way Paul wanted it).
17. “What is Life”
- George Harrison
I contemplated ending Let It Be: Redux with Paul’s legendary title track, but I felt like the album needed a more upbeat closer. Yes, it was the end of an era, but as we all know now, all of the members went on to have successful solo careers. I wanted the album to have a celebratory finish, and I couldn’t have picked a more exuberant song than Harrison’s “What is Life.”
“What is Life” can be interpreted as either a love song or another devotional to God, but whatever the case, it’s a song about valuing those who are by your side through thick and thin. I also like to imagine it as a love letter to the listeners who have stuck with the band through all the tumult. I like the idea of the band finishing Let It Be with a thank you to the fans that helped to create the Beatlemania craze that would spark the band’s illustrious career.
Maybe my list is a bit too long; maybe it’s a bit too audacious. I’m sure there are tracks you would take off and songs you think should have been included, but I hope we can all agree that Let It Be could have and should have been a much more satisfying book-end to The Beatle’s legendary catalog of music.