Photo by Ethan Russell ©Apple Corps Ltd.
It was January 1969, a few months after the release of the Beatles’ eponymous “white album.” John Lennon was Beatled-out, and Paul McCartney was trying to elicit enthusiasm for a new project: Get Back, a no-studio-frills album, and a film documenting the making of it. (Both were later retitled Let It Be.) The “white-album” sessions had been factionalized — with Ringo quitting at one point — and only a handful of tracks featured the group working together. So McCartney wanted to re-inspire his mates — reunite them, really — and as a live band, too. Ringo was up for it, but George was lukewarm, more interested in his sudden burst of songwriting (and disdainful of live performance, having remarked after their last show in 1966, “Well, that’s it. I’m not a Beatle anymore”). And John, as he later explained in interviews, was more interested in Yoko.
“I think that doing something creatively with me was something he found much more interesting, if only for the reason that it was something new,” remembers Ono. “And the Beatles sessions [at that time] were like ‘Oh, not another’ sort of thing. He was used to it, so obviously it was more interesting [for him] to do things with me, probably.”
Ono, who was present at every moment of what became the infamously troubled Get Back/Let It Be sessions, is refusing other interviews but agreed to give exclusive comments to this writer about her late husband’s state of mind during the sessions, and how he might have felt about the new version of the album, Let It Be . . . Naked.
The Get Back/Let It Be project coincided with the beginning of Johnandyoko, and the two were deeply involved with various “avant-garde” recordings that were to be the basis of their Zapple LPs, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With the Lions and The Wedding Album. Lennon’s fancy was not only captured by his new love, whom he would marry in a matter of weeks; his creative fancy was, too. Still, there were those old Beatles he’d known all his life, and the other half of Lennonandmccartney, and a stupendously idealistic and unstable company, Apple, to support. Duty called.
“John is the kind of person who is not really on top of it and in control,” says Ono. “He just kind of gives up and resigns, that kind of thing. He was kind of letting Paul take care of it, and taking an ‘If you want to do it, that’s fine’ kind of attitude. John and George both, in that sense, had a kind of peacenik mind about it.”
Lennon certainly approved of the original Phil Spector–produced Let It Be disc, having enlisted Spector (along with Harrison and then–Apple head Allen Klein) to do as he pleased with the raw recordings in March 1970. Neither McCartney nor Beatles producer George Martin was consulted about giving the tapes to Spector, who took what was supposed to be a stripped-down Beatle sound and dressed up “Let It Be,” “The Long and Winding Road,” “I Me Mine” and “Across the Universe” in an evening gown of orchestra and strings (with Harrison present at all mixing sessions).
Why did Lennon essentially dump the project on Mr. Wall of Sound, who had never produced the band before? The Beatles were breaking up at the time, so was it spite aimed at McCartney, as has been rumored? It had been Paul’s project, after all, and the tapes had been shelved a year earlier with no plan for reviving them. Surprisingly, Ono says, Lennon made the decision out of simple concern for the music. The sessions had left him exasperated, but not uncaring.
“John has a purer side,” she says. “A gimme some truth kind of feeling. We don’t want a tape that is not perfect, with overdubbing this and that. It has to be perfect. So they had kept on recording so many takes. And then how are you going to listen to all of them and find the right one? It was like a nightmare, I think — okay, don’t use that word, nightmare — it was a very complex situation which had to be figured out.” Thus, Spector.
Engineer Glyn Johns had first been tabbed to turn the Get Back/Let It Be tapes into an album, and his three passes at the job were rejected by the group (and have only recently surfaced as bootlegs), so Lennon’s move was perhaps a last-ditch attempt to tie up a loose end before leaving the band. As Ono suggests, there had been almost endless takes during the sessions, and there was the additional pressure of director Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s cameras (for what became the Academy Award–winning Let It Be documentary). One moment not captured on film found McCartney, clearly affecting the role of bandleader, saying, “Okay, lads, back to the drudgery,” prompting what seems an only half tongue-in-cheek response from Lennon: “It’s you who’s bloody making it like that!”
Then there was Ono’s presence, which contributed to the strain despite her dogged attempt to be unobtrusive. McCartney said in a recent interview that while everyone “tried to make it work,” it was just awkward. “You can’t just say, ‘Hey, don’t sit on my amp.’” (Ono laughs: “I don’t think I sat on his amp!”)
Not exactly helping John’s interest level, perhaps, was his (and Ono’s) experimentation with heroin. “I think the interest level came first,” she says. “It’s not taking the enhancement, shall we say, that made him lose interest. I really think that because it was hard for him to put his effort into another Beatles album, he was eager for ‘enhancement.’ Stress relief.”
The stress was so apparently relieved that Lennon contributed only two new songs: “Don’t Let Me Down” and the peculiar “Dig a Pony.” (Three, if you count the “Dig It” jam, which was not without its daffy charm, but relegated to a snippet on the Spector Let It Be album. “Across the Universe” was left over from February 1968.) “Don’t Let Me Down,” a paean to Yoko, was omitted from Let It Be for reasons that remain cloudy. Rumors abound: The other Beatles resented Lennon’s attentions being diverted by his new love; the Lennons resented the other Beatles for resenting her; Spector thought the song too personal for the album. Ono would not comment. As for “Universe,” which on the new album is denuded of everything except Lennon’s voice and guitar, Harrison’s tamboura and Ringo’s kick drum, Ono says, “It is a very major song, but never had a home, so to speak, until now.”
Lennon’s singing and playing at the sessions was committed, inventive and soulful. His guitar work on “Get Back” almost makes the song, and his slide-guitar playing on Harrison’s “For You Blue” is lyrical. And both McCartney and Starr have lately said that this sad period of Beatles history was actually more upbeat than acrimonious. Ono agrees.
“One of the things that happened was the filmmaker had to put in all the bits that would be sensational as well. The sensational angle is always interesting. And people thought it was just a terrible session or something, but it wasn’t really that terrible.”
As with the original sessions, McCartney is the driving force behind the new “ex-Spectorated” version, Let It Be . . . Naked (a Ringo-ism) — which not only lacks “wall of sound” orchestra and chorus, but includes many new takes. McCartney, Starr, Ono and Olivia Harrison all signed off on the record, which was produced by Abbey Road engineers Allan Rouse, Guy Massey and Paul Hicks. None of the principals sought major changes, although some of Lennon’s vocals were given greater presence than in the original album. What might John have to say about the project being redone after (gasp) 34 years?
“I think because he had an experimental nature, he would have liked the idea of bringing out something different,” says Ono. “The original is there, it didn’t disappear. This is not an improvement, it’s a different version. Paul did not get to do this version the first time around, and it is karmically good for all of us that we are bringing this one out now.”