Friday, 3 September 2010

Let It Be vs Abbey Road

I guess the general consensus is that Abbey Road is a classic, though possibly underrated, album – a return to form even. Whereas Let It Be is a scrappy mess, a badly developed snapshot of a band drowning in dysfunction.

How you view them is further coloured by which one you think came first.

Did they end on a profound, but meaningless, high - their final message to their loyal fans “And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make" or did they end on the roof of the Apple building, the song petering out and Lennon fatuously joking “I hope we passed the audition”?

My view (which I’d like to think is what you’re here for) is that they’re two sides of the same coin.

Both albums present a songwriting partnership that could no longer work together and a band running out of ideas. Old songs and incomplete fragments abound. This is partly why Harrison shines so brightly on Abbey Road. He’d never really been able to get anyone to work with him, so the lack of collaboration was nothing new.

The Difference

The reason they were such different albums can be answered in two words.

George Martin.

Let It Be was Lennon & McCartney’s vision. Macca to 'get back' to what the Beatles did best - being a live band. Lennon to do an 'honest' album 'with none of [George Martin's] trickery'.

The problem was that The Beatles hadn’t been a good live band for about 5 years. But undeterred they headed off to their jerry built '72 track studio' (!) while Martin (understandably) made himself scarce as the slow motion train wreck ran it’s course. Glyn Johns and then Phil Spector were left to sift through the wreckage.

Spector finally produced a workable album by abandoning Lennon’s original vision (which is something that often happened). But by then The Beatles themselves had admitted defeat, doing extensive overdubs on Let It Be & I, Me, Mine before Spector arrived.

Humbled by the miles of unreleaseable audio tape and a documentary film so embarrassing that the Beatles haven’t dared reissue it to this day McCartney went cap in hand back to Martin with the request to do an album 'like the old days'.

In The End

So then the difference between Let It Be & Abbey Road is what a great producer can achieve with a dysfunctional band and patchy unfinished material. Abbey Road is a triumph of the producers art and Let It Be...isn't.

Though there are some classic songs there, both albums are slim pickings for songwriters.

The long and winding medley.

Martin wanted to stretch the Beatles by pushing them into more classical style thematic development & recapitulation. Lennon wasn’t convinced, either ideologically ("that’s not rock and roll to me, George") or temperamentally (too much like hard work). The album was called Abbey Road because  the band were too lazy to go any further than the street outside to shoot the cover!

McCartney was a willing pupil, but all he had were unrelated fragments. Even some of the songs in the medley (e.g. You Never Give Me Your Money) were themselves collections of musical fragments. Maybe they could have done something on this kind of scale on ‘The Beatles’ or Sgt Pepper. But not now.

I’ll look at ‘the long one’ as a piece in it’s own right and a collection of individual songs but to be honest my conviction is that the medley isn’t really a unified piece of music at all and judging each part in it’s own right most of the songs don’t stand up.

Am I wrong? If you think I am, leave me a comment! I'm open to correction....

Watch the Fab Faux play The Long One here


  1. I'm not very familiar with LET IT BE, but I have listened to ABBEY ROAD dozens of times. I agree with your charactorization of "the long one" on the album. Thanks for providing the historical background to the recording of ABBEY ROAD. The resultant album now makes more sense. I still enjoy listening to it! Watch out, Mean Mister Mustard! Here comes the Sun King!

  2. Thanks Gary!

    I still think both of them are worth listening to, and Abbey Road is the better of the two by far. It's just that the reason Abbey Road is a better album, due to production, performances, sequencing etc rather than the strength of songwriting. (which obviously is the focus of this blog!)

  3. I think Get Back was a great idea. They should have stuck to the original plan to release a semi-live album, with the original Please Please Me like cover. Some good music was not used, for instance a rendition of Across The Universe, with beautiful harmonies by John and Paul. I don’t like the Phil Spector alterations, but I also don’t like what Paul did with Across The Universe at the Let It Be Naked album.

    I consider Abbey Road to be their last album, worthy closed by the medley and their individual drum and guitar solo’s (although the effect is a bit ruined by the Her Majesty afterburner). The original plan was to place the medley at side A, then the album (and the Beatles era) would have ended with the abrupt end of I Want You (She's So Heavy), maybe that would have been more fitting…

    From a songwriting prospective: A lot of the Abbey Road songs were rehearsed during the Get Back sessions, they only sound much better since George Martin was involved. Both are not among my favorite albums. My favorite Let It Be songs are I’ve Got A Feeling (indeed fragments pasted together) and The One After 9’0’9 (written before 1962). So I agree with you.

  4. Great comments Rob thanks.

    Across The Universe - What is it you don't like about the Naked version?

    What's your view on the Past Masters version (which is the one they released on the World Wildlife Fund Album)?

    I like I Got A Feeling too - it's one of the few songs on that album where you can hear Lennon & McCartney singing together just like the old days.

  5. I don't like the strange mix with the curious sounding sitar which gets louder and louder. I do like the Past Master version with the schoolgirls backing vocals in the chorus. But hearing John ànd Paul singing the song in harmony together during the (never officially released) Get Back sessions is great. These sessions showed Paul and John working together again, instead of the White Album sessions when they were working separately, so that’s a plus.

  6. I tried to upload two examples from the GB sessions: 2 examples. Especially the 'Jai guru deva om' part sounds nice. I always try to sing Paul’s vocal when I hear the official version of the song but it is hard to do (for me).

  7. I think you have a point when you're talking about the production of Abbey Road. It's strange in a way really considering Spector's background. However, the wall of sound isn't right for Beatles music in my opinion.

    I actually like Let It Be...Naked to be honest, but maybe that's just me. I've heard a lot of outtakes from the Get Back sessions, and there are some interesting things there. I find it strange that Macca had songs like Back Seat Of My Car and even Teddy Boy, but they were just ignored. They all had great songs, Lennon had the bare bones of what would become Jealous Guy for pete's sake, and there was the incredible All Things Must Pass by George. I also like the version of George's Not Guilty that features on the Anthology discs.

    Sorry, going on there.

  8. @Marv - I agree about Naked (I may to a comparison with the original release when I get to it)

    They also had some great songs in the wings (no pun intended) but that was always the case. They were so dysfunctional during the making of Let It Be that they probably got fed up with the songs and wanted to do something fresh on Abbey Road...