In the annals of troubled albums, the Beatles’ ”Let It Be” makes recent problem children like Radiohead’s ”Kid A” seem like kid stuff. For those who either aren’t familiar with the details or haven’t pondered them in three decades, a recounting of the record’s turbulent history is in order. In early 1969, the increasingly fragmented Fab Four sought to reconnect by recording ”Get Back,” a new, intentionally spontaneous and underproduced LP; the sessions were also filmed for a documentary. The plan, however, backfired. Unhappy with the recordings and each other, the Beatles shelved the project and, instead, roused themselves one last time to make the lusher ”Abbey Road.”
In May 1970, over a year after it was recorded and a month after the Beatles announced their breakup, the black-sheep ”Get Back” was finally dragged out, with a new title – ”Let It Be” – and orchestral overdubs from a pre-murder-mystery Phil Spector. Although it contained a number of sublime performances – John Lennon’s cosmically serene ”Across the Universe,” Paul McCartney’s title hymnal – the alternately rough-hewn and lyrical collection was widely viewed as an anticlimax. Specifically, McCartney denounced Spector’s additional production, almost single-handedly creating the cloud that came to hang over the album.
The story should have ended there, but the surviving Beatles apparently couldn’t let the album be. A rejiggered alternate version of the original disc, Let It Be…Naked attempts to right the supposed wrongs of 33 years ago. ”Naked” may be too strong an adjective for it, though, since roughly half the songs are unchanged, albeit remixed with an ear toward clearer and louder sound. The remaining half have been subjected to semisuccessful tinkering. ”The Long and Winding Road” and ”I’ve Got a Feeling” have been replaced with, respectively, a nonorchestrated take and a more hoarsely sung version cobbled together from two different performances. Spector’s strings are gone; ”Don’t Let Me Down,” recorded at the sessions but omitted from the original ”Let It Be,” has been added. The off-the-cuff ”Dig It” and ”Maggie Mae,” and Lennon’s between-song quips, have been cut too, detracting from the making-of-an-album ambiance. (The studio banter has been relegated to a bonus disc.) The song sequence has been altered as well – for example, the album now opens with ”Get Back” rather than ”Two of Us.”
Some of these changes are for the better. The sonic clarity is welcome and the revamped album concludes, as the original should have, with the title track, one of the most moving songs McCartney ever wrote. Despite the tension that existed at the time, the recordings now sound like the work of four men trying hard to loosen up and revel in their musical camaraderie, even if some of the tunes (particularly the slight ”One After 909,” an early Lennon and McCartney collaboration) weren’t top-drawer. What once felt like desperation – the Beatles scrambling not to fall apart – now feels like release.
But ”Naked,” which is both eye-opening and questionable, makes one wonder who (besides McCartney and hardcore Beatlemaniacs) was crying out for such an overhaul. Time has revealed that Spector’s garnishes are more subtle and far less damaging to the songs than we recall. Stripped of the forlorn-angel choir and elegiac strings that enhanced its lyric and emotion, ”The Long and Winding Road” feels naked all right, but not in a satisfying way. Perhaps a clever marketing executive was crying out for the reconfigured album too, thinking the music’s garage-band quality would be an easy sell to Strokes or White Stripes fans.
That executive must also have been aware that while reissues have been easy moneymakers since the dawn of the CD, they’ve taken on an even greater importance to hemorrhaging record companies in the file-sharing era: Boomer-geared repackages (and new recordings by classic-rock acts) seem to be the only albums guaranteed to be bought rather than downloaded. Of course, such cynicism doesn’t detract from Lennon’s unruffled vocal emerging from the clatter of ”I’ve Got a Feeling,” the warm but bittersweet duet between him and McCartney in the semiconciliatory ”Two of Us,” Starr’s drums tumbling into ”Let It Be,” or the rare sound of Harrison sounding happy on ”For You Blue.” But in the way it attempts to drum up sales during a dire time, ”Let It Be…Naked” feels like a requiem not just for the Beatles but for the music business, too.