"Let It Be" shows the dark side of the Beatles. It doesn't need an upbeat revision

The Beatles have emerged in the 21st century as the commercial embodiment of remix culture, for better and worse

By Kenneth Womack

Contributing Writer

Published March 1, 2019 5:00PM (EST)

The Beatles (AP Photo)
The Beatles (AP Photo)

We live in a cultural moment in which a large swathe of mass-market consumers, largely comprised of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, regularly flock to purchase new releases of reconfigured, remixed music from days gone by. I should know: I'm one of them.

When it comes to the 21st century, the Beatles are leading the way. The twentieth century's most lucrative act has never really ebbed — which is saying something, given that two of the bandmates are deceased. From Ron Howard's recent touring documentary through remixes of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1967) and "The Beatles" (The White Album, 1968) the Fab Four have successfully repackaged yesteryear's gems to net fresh sales and satisfy what seems to be a nearly unquenchable appetite for "new" content.

While the Beatles once carried the banner for 1960s-era counterculture, they have emerged in our new and very different century as the commercial embodiment of remix culture. The express result of rampant and converging digital technologies, remix culture approaches its full potency when what's old is made new again. And again. And again. And again.

In "Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy" (2008), Lawrence Lessig observes that remix culture's power reaches its zenith when new artists function in collaboration with their precursors. As for the resulting hybrid artworks, the artifacts' vitality exists in direct proportion to the quality of the original texts. As Lessig writes, "Their meaning comes not from the content of what they say; it comes from the reference, which is expressible only if it is the original that gets used."

When it comes to referencing originals, the Beatles simply can't go wrong. Their pioneering music continues to resonate, unimpeded, into the present day. And when it comes to sales, they're the toppermost of the poppermost — then and now. The band has proven themselves to be masters of both the physical and digital domains. According to data provided by ChartMasters, the Beatles have sold more than one billion discs worldwide, while easily notching more than one billion plays among the world's streaming music services.

It could be argued that the Beatles had been remixing themselves even prior to their disbandment. Thanks to Capitol Records' Dave E. Dexter, Jr., their pre-"Sgt. Pepper" album releases were repackaged and, in many cases, heavily treated with reverb in order to afford them with a more "American" sound. And then there were pre-breakup compilations such as the UK's "A Collection of Beatles Oldies (But Goldies!)" (1966) and the Stateside release of "Hey Jude" (1970). Since the early 1970s, the Beatles have enjoyed regular incursions into the music marketplace with one compilation after another, climaxing with the bravura release of the Beatles on compact disc in 1987 and the Anthology project in the mid-1990s.

When it comes to remixing practices, the Beatles' 21st century releases mark a very different chapter in their vaunted history. Early highlights include the mega-bestselling compilation "1" (2000) and "Let It Be . . . Naked" (2003). With Giles Martin's deft mashups for "Love" (2006), the band achieved new sonic heights and textures — transforming their original sounds with glorious and innovative feats of the musical imagination.

But in recent years, the group's releases have been accompanied by a troublesome and recurring element, a growing effort to engage in historical reconstruction of sorts. Take Howards' "The Beatles: Eight Days a Week" documentary (2016), for example. Seeing the Beatles performing live during their heyday was a joyful experience. Things began to run afoul when Paul McCartney errantly recalled the band deciding to quit touring, right then and there, during their clamorous armored-car ride into Candlestick Park. Not surprisingly, the bandmates remembered things very differently back in the day — more than five decades earlier, when their memories were still fresh.

With the release of last year's expansive remixes for The White Album, the Beatles' camp seemed to suggest, at times, that things weren't all bad during what Harrison once described as the Beatles' "winter of discontent" — a period in which drummer Ringo Starr briefly quit the band, producer George Martin went on a lengthy hiatus of his own, and engineer Geoff Emerick threw up his hands and walked away from working the band's sessions.

In January of this year, we learned that famed director Peter Jackson will be at the helm for a thoroughgoing remix and rerelease of the "Let It Be" documentary (1970). Easily the most contested text among the Beatles' canon, "Let It Be" emerged from the ashes of the January 1969 "Get Back" project. By nearly every eyewitness account — including the band members' memories — the group was on the verge of breaking up. And the facts bear this out: John Lennon and wife Yoko Ono were struggling with a raging heroin addiction, producer George Martin was working largely from the sidelines, and, to make matters even worse, George Harrison quit the band, only to be coaxed back into the fold to bring the project to completion in the nick of time.

It is difficult to imagine a more appropriate documentarian for revisiting "Let It Be" than Jackson. His recent World War I documentary "They Shall Not Grow Old" (2018) is a masterpiece of restoration and reconstruction. In the Beatles' case, similar attention to the mass of existing film footage (some 55 hours) and audio (a whopping 140 hours) offers the opportunity for a variety of new revelations, indeed.

But in spite of everything, a Pollyannaish remix of "Let It Be" already seems to be in the offing. As Jackson recently remarked, "I was relieved to discover the reality is very different to the myth. After reviewing all the footage and audio that Michael Lindsay-Hogg shot 18 months before they broke up, it's simply an amazing historical treasure-trove. Sure, there's moments of drama — but none of the discord this project has long been associated with. Watching John, Paul, George, and Ringo work together, creating now-classic songs from scratch, is not only fascinating — it's funny, uplifting and surprisingly intimate. I'm thrilled and honored to have been entrusted with this remarkable footage — making the movie will be a sheer joy."

There's an uplifting story to be told about the Beatles' "Get Back"/"Let It Be" period all right, but it has nothing to do with whitewashing the dark days of January 1969. No, the amazing aspect of that story is the Beatles' Herculean capacity for rising to the occasion — no matter how fearsome the odds. In the handful of days after Harrison's return to the ranks, the band recorded three future number-one singles in "Get Back," "Let It Be," and "The Long and Winding Road," and performed the legendary Rooftop Concert to cap off Lindsay-Hogg's documentary. Talk about snatching victory out of the jaws of defeat.

If the Beatles had a superpower, being able to strike gold amidst their own interpersonal chaos was surely it. They would surpass "Let It Be" only a few months later, when they reassembled one last time to will Abbey Road (1969) into existence. And as history shows, even that project was fraught with derision. The surviving evidence demonstrates that the bandmates were simply more polite with each other as they recorded their swan song and took their bows.

Beatles insider Neil Aspinall once observed that, in spite of everything, "the Beatles never debauched their art in the studio." Jackson and the band's management would be wise to remember Aspinall's words as they contemplate a new "Let It Be" for the ages. After all, the Beatles' story, warts and all, is far more powerful and interesting in its own right. Whether it was borne out of their moments of sheer joy or their darkest days of interpersonal conflict, their music is, for good reason, still popular music's most valuable corpus.

Unchecked revisionism has no place in the Beatles' story. When it comes to upending historical truth as established by eyewitness testimony during the moment of creation, I'm simply not buying it. But as for the music itself and whatever new remixes come my way, I'll be buying every last one of them. You can take that to the bank.

By Kenneth Womack

Kenneth Womack is the author of a two-volume biography of the life and work of Beatles producer George Martin and the host of "Everything Fab Four," a podcast about the Beatles distributed by Salon. He is also the author of "Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles," published in 2019 in celebration of the album’s 50th anniversary, "John Lennon, 1980: The Last Days in the Life" and the authorized biography "Living the Beatles Legend: The Untold Story of Mal Evans" (November 2023).  Womack is Professor of English and Popular Music at Monmouth University.

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