Patrick Ryan USA TODAY
Published 8:18 AM EDT May 9, 2020
You might say "Let It Be" is the ugly duckling of Beatles albums.
Released 50 years ago on Friday on May 8, 1970, the Fab Four's 12th and final studio effort is best remembered for its soulful title track and classic songs "Get Back," "Across the Universe" and "The Long and Winding Road."
But the album itself got a bad rap from critics when it first hit shelves less than a month after Paul McCartney announced the band's split on April 10, 1970. Rolling Stone compared the project to "costume jewelry," lobbing criticism at the Beatles' quasi-collaborator Phil Spector for his overcooked, "absurdly inappropriate" production. Music magazine NME went even further, calling it a "a cheapskate epitaph, a cardboard tombstone, a sad and tatty end" to a group that changed pop music.
The consensus was "there were highlights on the album, but it felt kind of smushed together," says Scott Freiman, creator of the "Deconstructing the Beatles" lecture series. "There were bits of studio chatter. There were some fragments of songs. And then you have these masterpieces like 'Let It Be' and 'The Long and Winding Road' and 'Across the Universe.' So critics thought it didn't feel like it jelled together like previous Beatles albums, and it certainly didn't have the band working as a unit like they had on previous albums."
The Beatles started recording "Let It Be" as a series of jam sessions in early 1969 at Twickenham Film Studios in London, coming off a fruitful creative period of more experimental fare like "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1967) and the critically acclaimed "The White Album" (1968). They were originally going to call it "Get Back."
"The Beatles decided they wanted to get back to their roots and just be a band again," says Denny Somach, a rock historian and author of "A Walk Down Abbey Road."
So, they got back into the studio and recorded live, with the idea of making a documentary about the process. The project sparked the idea for their now-legendary rooftop concert in January 1969, recording and filming album cuts "Get Back," "One after 909" and "Dig a Pony" before the show was shut down by police.
But the good times didn't last.
"They started having personal problems," Somach says. "Some people attributed it to the fact there were cameras on and they just weren't getting along, so they scrapped the idea for a bit."
After taking a couple months off, the Beatles reunited at EMI studios to record the seminal "Abbey Road," released in September 1969. "Let It Be," meanwhile, sat in limbo.
"The album was a mess," Somach says.
The Beatles' manager Allen Klein stepped in, turning the tapes over to Phil Spector to work on.
"The Beatles had no input whatsoever," Somach says. "Spector changed a lot of the album around – he added horns – and basically, that's the album that was released."
But "Let It Be" is not without its high points. The majority of the album's 12 songs were written by either John Lennon or Paul McCartney, who were "rivals in songwriting and spurred each other on," Freiman says.
While we can thank Lennon for the stirring, psychedelic "Across the Universe," it was McCartney who wrote the emotional title track, inspired by his late mom. It's since been covered by Joan Baez and Ray Charles, and ranks No. 20 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" list.
"It's a very moving, inspirational song and very gospel in the way it's constructed – that's why it's been covered by people like Aretha Franklin," Freiman says. "You can interpret it as religious if you want to, but you can also interpret it as just a general (message of) 'Let your problems go,' which is a very nice thing. It's such an optimistic, powerful song and those gospel chords come right out of the church. Paul did sing in the church choir when he was very young and I think he brought some of that into 'Let It Be.' "
"Let It Be" has been reworked and reevaluated in the five decades since its release. Paul McCartney spearheaded the 2003 release "Let It Be ... Naked," which features new, stripped-down mixes of the album's songs without Spector's embellishments. The making of the album is also the source of a coming documentary by Peter Jackson ("The Lord of the Rings" trilogy), titled "The Beatles: Get Back," expected out this fall.
While "Let It Be" wouldn't rank in most people's top three Beatles albums, Somach says, it may ultimately be responsible for inspiring an even better album.
"Would they ever have come up with 'Abbey Road' if they didn't have so much problems with 'Let It Be'?" Somach says. "I'm one of the believers that they were just so frustrated with 'Let It Be' that they said, 'You know what? Let's just go into the studio, and write and record an album the way we used to.' And that really spawned 'Abbey Road.' I think that's the greatest legacy of it: not so much that it was a Beatles album that didn't work at the time, but it got them in the mindset of 'Let's do another album.' We got 'Abbey Road,' which is obviously one of their greatest albums."