This has been a bad week for Phil Spector. Last Thursday, he was charged with the murder of actress Lana Clarkson. Two days earlier, a remixed version of the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” titled “Let It Be … Naked,” was released, stripped of the orchestration that Spector had added to “Across the Universe,” “Let It Be” and “The Long And Winding Road.”
“Let It Be,” the last album released by the Beatles (“Abbey Road” was recorded later but released earlier than “Let it Be”) has always been something of a battleground, both for fans and for the Beatles themselves. I’m not enough of a Beatles expert to have kept track of the album’s many vetoed versions, the bitter arguments between band members, and the generally twisted chronology. But suffice it to say that exactly what “Let It Be” was meant to sound like remains a contentious issue. The repeated claims in “Naked’s” packaging that this is “‘Let It Be’ as it was meant to be” are dubious at best.
“Let It Be” has been a consistently underrated album, always undermined by a sense of illegitimacy. It’s as if one of Shakespeare’s plays was only available to us in a manuscript heavily revised by Ben Jonson, without Shakespeare’s full approval. But the version of “Let It Be” that was released in 1970, the only one available to the general public until now, is an oddly satisfying album that holds together far better than it should. After the baroque studio wizardry of “Sgt. Pepper’s” and “The White Album,” we get to hear the band playing together again, live and with no overdubs. As a unit they have a loose, relaxed sound, and as both composers and performers they seem content to let things be simple, to sink into a well-worn groove, scaling back the eclecticism that had dominated their recent work.
For the release of “Let It Be … Naked,” the Abbey Road engineers have remixed and remastered the old tracks, and the sound is impressively clean. It’s a pleasure to hear all the instruments so clearly, and to catch details that were previously obscured. But the new mixes are overly bright, and some of the guitars sound a bit thrashy. I find myself missing the muffled, soft-edged quality of the original.
The change that has been most publicized and anticipated, of course, is the excising of Phil Spector’s production work. Critical opinion is against his added orchestration, and Paul McCartney didn’t want him brought in to work on the album in the first place. I’ve always been a fan of Spector’s additions, and while I was excited to hear the tracks on their own, the results of stripping the songs bare are mixed. “Across The Universe” is a weak, uninteresting song without the treatment that Spector gave it, which included slowing down the original recording, as well as adding an almost psychedelic orchestra and chorus. “The Long And Winding Road” is an overwhelmingly sappy song, and while the band sounds impressively full on the remixed version, I think that Spector’s decision to turn it into a fully orchestrated pop-ballad schmaltz fest was the right one. Only “Let It Be” comes out sounding better, with a simple grandeur that the Spectorized, AAA radio-ready version never achieves.
While most attention has been focused on the Spector tracks, a number of other equally fundamental changes have been made on “Naked.” “Don’t Let Me Down,” a brilliant track recorded at the rooftop concert, has been added. “Dig It” and “Maggie Mae,” two goofy song snippets, have been taken off. And the in-studio talking, most of it by John, that peppered the original album has all been removed. What both the talking and the song snippets added to “Let It Be,” and what is sorely lacking on “Naked,” is the quality of playfulness that was such a constant in the Beatles’ work. On the original, just before “Let It Be” starts, you hear John, in a totally absurd voice, say “That was ‘Can You Dig It’ by Georgie Wood, and now we’d like to do ‘Hark The Angels Come.’” John’s goofiness helps to diffuse the pompousness of the song.
Of course, it’s unlikely that Sir Paul has ever felt that his pompousness needs diffusing. It’s not hard to figure out that “Let It Be … Naked” was his pet project. He’s stripped the original album of both John’s sense of humor and Phil Spector’s wacky, and at least slightly tongue-in-cheek, grandiosity. What’s left is a great batch of songs, in higher fidelity than you’ve ever heard them before, but still oddly unsatisfying in comparison to the original. It’s clear that, much as Paul might like to think otherwise, this is not the “definitive” version. Anyone performing “Hamlet” needs to choose between folios. Now, anyone listening to “Let It Be” needs to choose between naked and clothed — and most people would agree that the four boys from Liverpool were sexier with their leather pants on than off.