Of all the Beatles’ classic albums, Let It Be is the one with the most daunting reputation. We’re all used to hearing it as their break-up album. The one where the Fabs fall apart. The one they began as a back-to-basics rebirth, until it became their tombstone. The messy film soundtrack that arrived in May 1970, just as the band was breaking up. The one Phil Spector took over. Their darkest, most divisive music. But that’s never been the whole story. This is also the album with classics like “Let It Be,” “Across the Universe,” “Get Back,” and “Two of Us.” Let It Be always raises the question: How did John, Paul, George, and Ringo make such uplifting music in their hour of darkness?
That’s the fascinating mystery behind Let It Be — and it’s about to get more fascinating. Rolling Stone took a one-on-one exclusive tour of the new Special Edition of Let It Be, which drops on October 15th. It’s a crucial box set that finally places this wildly misunderstood music in the Beatles’ story.
“It’s an album of conflict,” says producer Giles Martin, son of the late George Martin. “Not, funnily enough, conflict within the band, despite what people think, but creative conflict. It’s the most creatively conflicted album the Beatles made, because they aren’t quite sure what they’re making.”
Let It Be follows the stunning sets for Sgt. Pepper, the White Album, and Abbey Road, opening up the vaults to shed new light on music you thought you already knew. There’s pain in the music, yet there are also undeniable moments of warmth, laughter, brotherhood. It’s rooted in friendship, whether it’s George helping Ringo write “Octopus’ Garden” or Paul and John writing “I’ve Got a Feeling.” There’s something so beautifully daft about the whole Get Back/Let It Be project, something that only could have occurred to the Beatles.
“I see Let It Be as a married couple whose relationship has become stale,” Martin says. “They say, what we need to do is go back to the old place and go on those dates we used to go on. But doing that, they realize that the place was just old, and they didn’t have anything to talk about anyway. ‘We need to get our sex life back, let’s go to that club again,’ but then realizing the music’s too loud. And what they need to do is move on to something like Abbey Road.”
Martin and engineer Sam Okell have remixed the album in stereo, 5.1 surround DTS, and Dolby Atmos. The Special Deluxe Edition comes with a four-disc treasure trove of outtakes, demos, and previously unheard gems, including Glyn Johns’ original version of the never-released Get Back. Three of the new tracks are available for the first time today: the new stereo mix of “Let It Be,” the first rooftop performance of “Don’t Let Me Down,” and the original Get Back version of “For You Blue.”
But the real surprise is the way the music is suffused with warmth and humor. When all four Beatles jam on “Oh Darling,” reveling in the doo-wop beauty of it, they make it sound like they’re telling the whole story of their friendship. When John is about to sing “Don’t Let Me Down” on the rooftop, he touchingly asks Ringo for moral support on the drum intro: “Do a nice big kssssh for me, you know. To give me the courage to come screaming in.”
Let It Be has always been haunted by the movie that went with it, even though hardly anyone has actually seen it. Most fans only know the Anthology scene of George and Paul bickering over a guitar part, with George sneering, “Whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it.” It was scandalous because in 1970, the world was shocked, shocked to find out that musicians argue. But viewed today, this fight is absurdly tame by rock-star standards. For a band like Aerosmith, this would be the friendliest conversation they had all day. Martin laughs at that notion. “I was working with Aerosmith producing their Vegas show, God bless them,” he says. “Even arguing about their flights to Boston was worse than that.”
The new Let It Be accompanies a very different movie: Get Back, the documentary series directed by Peter Jackson. It’s six hours over three nights on Disney+, starting on November 25th. Both projects are part of a jubilant wave of recent Beatles activity: Paul’s hit albums McCartney III and III Imagined, Ringo’s Change the World EP, the astounding box set of George’s All Things Must Pass. Not to mention Paul’s documentary with Rick Rubin, McCartney 3,2,1.
Peter Jackson wasn’t sure about the Get Back idea at first. “As a longtime Beatle fan, I really wasn’t looking forward to it,” he told Rolling Stone last year. “I thought, if what we’ve seen is the stuff they allowed people to see, what are the other 55 hours going to be? When I went to Apple, my feet were heavy. I thought, ‘I should be excited, but I just dread what I’m about to see.’” But as he saw the footage, as he said, “Everything I thought I knew changed.”
The same applies to the album. The mythology is definitely out of whack with the music. As Martin says, “Get Back, the original concept, was the Beatles saying, okay, we’re going to do a live album. We’re going to play a gig, which we haven’t planned yet. We’ve got to have songs, which we actually haven’t written yet, and we’re going to do it in three weeks’ time, and we’re going to film it. That was that concept. And even for the Beatles, that’s brave.”
On the Super Deluxe edition, you can hear the band laugh about how much they hate the cameras, or how much they hate getting up in the morning. (George cracks, “We’re on the day shift now.”) You can hear Ringo walk in and say, “Morning, everybody — another bright day. Morning, camera.” They complain about the food, with George requesting cheese sauce for his cauliflower. They work on songs that ended up on Abbey Road, like “Polythene Pam” and “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window.” Paul helps John write “Gimme Some Truth.” There’s a lead-vocal showcase for guest keyboardist Billy Preston, doing the 1920s standard “Without a Song.”
But you can also hear the anger that spilled over when George walked out and quit the band for a week. “You can see why he’s pissed off,” Martin says. “He’s mates with Eric Clapton, he’s hanging around with the Band and Ravi Shankar, he’s married to a supermodel. There’s a much happier world outside of the Beatles for him. But here he is stuck in Twickenham, where his songs aren’t being listened to, really.”
One of the most beautiful moments comes when George coaxes the band to play “All Things Must Pass.” Yet he’s still dismissed as a pesky kid brother. “You see George and Ringo sitting together a lot,” Martin says. “George still wasn’t being taken seriously. He wrote songs, but he wasn’t the main meal provider. His songs were dessert, not the main course. John refers to George as ‘Harrisongs’ — ‘Where is Harrisongs?’ George has his own publishing company. They’re Lennon-McCartney and he’s not. He’s Harrisongs… That’s the dynamic on Let It Be. He’s definitely still an outlier.”
Phil Spector’s production on this album has always been infamous. Martin says, “My father wanted the production credit to be ‘Produced by George Martin, Overproduced by Phil Spector.’” Most notoriously, Mr. Wall of Sound overdubbed cheesy strings and harp and a choir on to “The Long and Winding Road.” Paul tried to right these wrongs when he oversaw the de-Spectorized Let It Be…Naked in 2003. “I said to Paul at Abbey Road, ‘I know you were never happy with the overdubs. But it doesn’t make sense not to mix the album as people know it. We can’t really change history,’” Martin says. “He said, ‘Yeah — but can you take the harp down on ‘The Long and Winding Road?’ So yeah, there’s a little nudge, we did take the harp down a little bit, but there’s only so much you can do.”
Glyn Johns assembled the original Get Back LP, unveiled here for the first time. He gave the Beatles what they asked for: a raw fly-on-the-wall document of those sessions. But to their horror, it sounded dull and shabby. That’s one of the weird achievements of this edition — some fans might be shocked to find themselves noticing all the things Phil Spector actually got right. But still, the decision to leave “Don’t Let Me Down” off a 35-minute album, instead of “I Me Mine” or “Dig It,” remains a “Silver Springs”-level crime against history.
The late Brian Epstein, who died less than two years before sessions began at Twickenham, is an unseen presence in the music, as he is in the film, where Paul says, “Daddy’s gone,” adding, “We’ve been very negative since Mr. Epstein passed away.” It’s part of the album’s downbeat tone. “There was a lot of loss going on,” Martin says. “I mean, they lost Brian and they lost each other.”
There’s pathos in the way the Beatles strive to recapture their early days. “Let It Be is the only time they Beatles ever tried to go back to where they were before — that’s why they got frustrated,” Martin says. “In the old days of Rubber Soul and Revolver, John and Paul didn’t go home. They were locked up together all the time, writing songs. In Let It Be, you see them go home, then they come back in the morning and they haven’t got any songs. They were watching television. The whole idea of ‘Let’s write a concert and then perform it’ is a really flawed idea to begin with.” They rebounded later that year with George Martin on Abbey Road. “What makes Abbey Road successful is it’s not going back to anything,” Giles Martin says.
The Super Deluxe Let It Be comes with a hardcover book featuring an intro from Paul McCartney, as well as words from Giles Martin, Glyn Johns, and Beatle historians Kevin Howlett and John Harris, plus photos from Ethan Russell and Linda McCartney. There’s also a separate (but essential) book called The Beatles: Get Back, which comes out October 12th from Apple/Callaway. The book has Russell and McCartney photos, text from Peter Jackson and Hanif Kureishi, but best of all, verbatim transcripts from the sessions, which read on the page almost like Samuel Beckett dialogue.
Like the Get Back film, Let It Be is full of disarming warmth. Everyone trades “Happy New Year” wishes in the first week of January 1969, as George Harrison asks after Mr. Martin’s wife Judy. “It’s funny for me,” Giles Martin says. “I was born on October 9th, 1969. So one of these days, I was conceived. I realized, “Oh my God — what day was it? Is that why my dad’s got a smile on his face?”
Listening to Martin and Okell’s Atmos mix is a revelation in itself: “Two of Us” becomes the sound of Paul singing in one ear, John in the other, and Ringo thumping your chest, proving as always he’s the heartbeat driving the music.
Paul McCartney, for one, totally gets why people still crave more Beatles details. “That’s what’s nice about this upcoming Get Back film by Peter Jackson,” Paul told Rolling Stone last month. “He’s very carefully left in a lot of that. And so you see the thing in its entirety. You see the little quiet moments. It did mean that he ended up with an 80-hour edit, because he’s just very respectfully kept all these little moments. But I’m sure there’ll be some fans who will want the 80-hour.” The truth is, he enjoys it as much as any other Beatles fan: “I mean, it’s great to hear who we were.”
All these years later, he’s not alone in that. Let it be.
Here are 10 of the most revelatory moments from the new Special Edition of Let It Be.
1. “All Things Must Pass”
“The emotion of it is very, you know, Band-y,” George Harrison explains, referring to his recent time in Woodstock hanging with the Band and Bob Dylan. He’s humble with his mates, saying, “If there’s people joining in, I’d appreciate it.” This version is astoundingly beautiful, with everyone singing together over Ringo’s dramatic drum fills, as John adds lines about macrobiotic pills. But John’s derision got so insulting, George quit. The song got saved for his 1971 solo epic. As Giles Martin says, “‘All Things Must Pass’ — it’s just bizarre that it’s not on either Abbey Road or Let It Be.”
2. “Two of Us” (Take 4)
A country-style version, with John and Paul adding bluesy bent notes for the “we’re going hoooome” hook. John milks the Dylan-style inflections of lines like “in the sun.” You can hear why they realized the song was even more powerful with a drier, more stoic vocal touch, yet it’s a beauty. Although “Two of Us” was a love song to Linda, Paul wrote on his lyric sheet, “A Quarrymen Original.”
3. “Oh Darling”
This jam on “Oh Darling” is a knockout — the box’s emotional highlight. John and Paul sing it together, doing call and response. (Paul: “Believe me when I tell you!” John: “Oh, I do!”) John starts freestyling: “Just heard that Yoko’s divorce has just gone through! Free at last!” A brief snippet was on Anthology 3, but that version barely hinted at this one. It’s a running theme with John and Paul — they kept going back to these old-school rock & roll ballads to have the conversations they couldn’t have any other way.
4. “Gimme Some Truth”
John made it a solo classic on Imagine, but at this stage, it’s a song he and Paul are working on together. (“Should we do ‘Hypocrites’ and write that bit?’) But they quit too soon, spooked by the cameras. “That’s why they didn’t have the songwriting discipline they used to have,” Giles Martin says. “They start it, but there’s a film crew there and it’s an uncomfortable situation for them to be writing a song. Now, had that been 1965, they’d have been locked in a hotel room, and they’d have finished the song. That’s the difference.”
5. “Octopus’ Garden”
Ringo asks the others, “Have you heard the octopus one?” He plays a two-finger piano part (George quips, “Oh, he’s learned A minor”), sings the first few lines, then says, “That’s all I’ve got.” Everyone laughs merrily. If the moment ended here, it would still be a lovely tribute to the Beatles’ bond. But George grabs his guitar and helps him turn it into a classic, just out of generosity and friendship. So who will play drums? John says, “I think Paul will want to do drums, won’t he? With his strong left arm. I’m not getting on that kit without a ciggie in me hand!”
6. “Something” (Rehearsal)
George comes to the others with an idea he’s been working on for six months, beginning, “Something in the way she moves.” But he’s stuck on the second line. John suggests, “Just say whatever comes into your mind. ‘Attracts me like a cauliflower.’” He gives George a pep talk on songcraft. “You just go on and on and on and then you go back over it. Or don’t.”
7. “Don’t Let Me Down/Dig A Pony/I’ve Got a Feeling” (Glyn Johns Mix)
The highlight of the long-lost Glyn Johns Get Back: the 11-minute suite of “Don’t Let Me Down,” “Dig a Pony,” and “I’ve Got a Feeling,” stitched together as one long song.
8. “Maggie Mae/Fancy Me Chances With You”
One of the unlikeliest highlights: a high-spirited romp through the Celtic-style Liverpool folk tune about a Lime Street cut-purse, “Maggie May.” (The Let It Be cover spelled it as “Maggie Mae.”) Paul yells, “Take it, Maggie!” He and John segue into an early skiffle ditty they wrote in their teens, “Fancy Me Chances With You.” It’s only a minute, but you can hear why it hit them like a breath of fresh air.
9. “Let It Be”/“Please Please Me”
Paul gives the stately piano-hymn treatment to “Please Please Me,” one of the Fabs’ earliest hits. But it isn’t an ironic joke — he shows how the two songs come from the same sense of emotional urgency, even six years apart. John cracks, “Come on, I only get two notes in this song.”
10. “For You Blue” (Take 4)
George showed up for the sessions with complex, introspective songs like “Isn’t It A Pity” and “Hear Me Lord” — but they didn’t fit the back-to-basics roughness. “For You Blue” became a highlight thanks to George’s spontaneous blues swing on acoustic guitar, while John follows on lap-steel slide guitar, Paul on piano, Ringo on drums. The whole band is in sync. “That sounded lovely!” George raves at the end. “Does this guitar sound in tune, Glyn?”