A few weeks ago you might remember that I previewed a new boxed set celebrating the 50th Anniversary of The Beatles’ legendary “last” album that wasn’t really their last, Let It Be. If you missed that feature, please click here so you can catch up on important background for appreciating this current review.
Crafted during a difficult period for the band, the album was actually recorded before 1969’s Abbey Road but not completed and released until 1970. This new 50th Anniversary edition of Let It Be features not only new Stereo and 5.1 Surround Sound remixes of the Phil Spector-produced album but it also includes the much anticipated (and long bootlegged) earlier version of the album by engineer Glyn Johns. Plus, we also get a wealth of session outtakes and a beautiful hardcover full color book that is chockfull of important insights and some incredible photography from the period.
I suspect that the first question some of you may have is: do I need this boxed set?
The answer to that will depend on how deep of a Beatle fan— and how “into” the Get Back sessions (as they are often called) — you are. Deep Beatle fans will want this set. I personally welcome a set like this which curates and focuses our attention on the “best bits” from the sessions.
In this part of my listening report, I’ll explore the new Stereo and Surround Sound mixes of the original album as heard on the high resolution Blu-ray Disc included with the 50th Anniversary edition of Let It Be.
I have to preface this review with an admitted bias: I genuinely like the original Let It Be album a lot! I bought it with my own saved-up money when it first came out; dating myself, I was maybe nine years old!
Yet, like many of you out there in the Beatle universe, I too have mixed feelings about it. It wasn’t until many years later — when I started to hear grumbles from some Beatle fans who disliked Spector’s dense orchestrations — that I learned that Paul McCartney himself didn’t like Spector’s treatment of his classic “The Long And Winding Road.” All this gave me pause to consider whether Spector’s work was off the mark.
On the one hand I can see the nay-sayer’s point of view, especially on “The Long And Winding Road,” where the choirs, harps and strings do jump the shark (if you will) into that sort of schmaltzy easy listening vibe which was popular in some 1950s and early ‘60s mainstream pop productions. On the flip side, that Muzak-esque vibe is not all that far removed from the closing track of The Beatles’ White Album, “Goodnight.”
Listening with fresh ears in preparation for this review — and with additional perspective as a songwriter producer myself — I think that in certain instances Spector’s additions do help elevate and escalate the songs as compared to their stripped down counterparts. They certainly made the songs viable for commercial radio play in 1970.
As cool as it is, I wonder how engineer/producer Glyn John’s stripped down version of the album (which we’ll explore tomorrow) might have fared on AM radio back in the day — to my ear, his album’s sound is ultimately more of an FM oriented vibe. Again, we’ll explore that more tomorrow.
At the end of the day, Spector’s mix is what it is. And at that moment in time it worked as a sort of bittersweet farewell to the band, delivering an end-of-an-era vibe which still can draw a tear from this lifetime Beatle fan. Giles Martin refers to it as a “timeless sound” in the book included with the new boxed set.
So it is with that perspective that I applaud The Beatles and Giles Martin’s team for deciding to try to make the most of the Spector production for posterity.
In fact, Sir Paul McCartney himself — again, he the understandably most upset by Spector’s mix — has gone on record in the book accompanying the 50th Anniversary edition of Let It Be saying “The album we made was given to Phil Spector to put the finishing touches to and even though, I must admit, I was not keen on some of his additions it turned out to be a fine Beatles album in the end.”
So, there we have it. Paulie likes it! Kidding aside, this reminds me of XTC’s Andy Partridge who has acknowledged in retrospect that despite all the challenges they went through creating their masterpiece Skylarking, Todd Rundgren’s production helped shape the album into the beloved recording it is today.
So, rather than strip away the production aesthetics, Giles Martin and his team have preserved Spector’s work and tried to make it sound as good as possible in the context of The Beatles’ original music. To that, I think Martin has found a nice equilibrium on the 50th Anniversary edition of Let It Be. More on that in a moment.…
As with Martin’s work on Sergeant Pepper, The White Album and Abbey Road he has made the vocals clearer and the instruments more defined in this new remix.
In general, the acoustic guitars are lush, woody and resonant sounding throughout in these new Stereo mixes, especially noticeable on tracks like “Across The Universe,” “Two Of Us” and “For You Blue.” Ringo’s drums sound beautiful and natural throughout. They are much more distinct now so you can really feel his incredible fills on the rocking bridge section of “I Me Mine.”
“I’ve Got A Feeling” brings up Lennon’s backing vocals more so the “oh yeah’s” he and McCartney sing feel a bit more raucous and exciting together. McCartney’s bass on “One After 909” felt a wee bit hot in the mix on my Stereos but that is a minor point and ultimately it does propel the song on better in an appropriately bouncy manner.
Back to the Spector portions of the mix, his arrangements seem just a tad lower on “Across The Universe.” There is now incredible clarity on “Let It Be” allowing you to hear each of The Beatles’ instruments vividly while the strings and choirs are just a smidge lower in the mix — it is not as much of an assault (if you will) as it is on the original mix, putting the band at the song’s center.
As I mentioned earlier, arguably the biggest offender in the original mix — which you will read in the book in boxed set just how much it offended Paul McCartney — happened on “The Long & Winding Road.” On Giles Martin’s new mix, Paul and his piano are more up front (so it feels more like Beatles with strings vs. strings with Beatles, if you will). The bass is more audible and the choirs are pulled back a bit at times as are the harps. Notably, now you can hear Paul’s closing piano flourishes which are no longer buried by the strings — everything is blended together quite splendidly. You can also more clearly hear the subtle emotions in Paul’s voice which at times were overshadowed by the strings (for example, listen how he holds the note singing “let me know the way…” around the 1:20 mark)
In general, I was impressed how warm the 96 kHz, 24-bit Blu-ray treats the music. I’ll put it this way: it feels like Let It Be should feel, not an overly bright effort to make it sound modern or whatever. It is clear and crisp but it also sounds remarkably rich.
THE SURROUND SOUND MIX
As nice as the Stereo mix is, I think I like the Surround Sound mix just that much more because it opens up the music. It reveals even more of the original live band feel yet retains that lush and distinctive studio vibe.
In general, the orchestral strings lean toward the rear channels leaving you to more fully hear the core of the band in the front channels. It is a logical approach that works very well, creating an immersive effect and a new listening experience that is not gimmicky. For those of you still on the fence, this new perspective might help re-define your appreciation of this version of the album.
Keeping the band to the front channels mostly makes for a gently immersive mix with some tasteful touches, periodically using the surrounds for acoustic guitars and lead lines.
“I Dig a Pony” rocks madly in 5.1 surround (be sure to listen for Ringo’s final cymbal crash).
“Across The Universe” is even more haunting in surround sound, if that is possible. The choirs and harps are somewhat lower in the mix but you can at times almost feel them around you. The only casualty I noticed is that the Sitar sounds much more blended into the mix (this is true on the new Stereo version as well, by the way). As much as I like that detail popping out on the old mix, this new incarnation sounds tighter and more focused, yet no less dreamy. And again, it keeps the listener’s attention on Lennon’s vocals.
Ringo’s kick drum and tom toms on “I Me Mine” are huge and his awesome rolling fills sound massive here. Again, the orchestral parts being a bit lower in the mix feels more natural, less invasive and beneficial to the song. I can hear more overdriven guitar amplifier tone coming through on the signature boogie in the rocking section.
“I’ve Got A Feeling” puts the core band and driving rhythm guitars up front and center with Billy Preston’s keyboards emanating from the rear with the lead guitar. “The Long And Winding Road” finds the strings and choirs mostly in the back and I even noticed a nice Fender Rhodes-sounding electric piano part there which was not super audible on the original mix.
Paul’s honky tonk tack-style piano percolates towards the rear, coming up more in the mix for the solo on “For You Blue,” while John’s slide parts fill up the room.
And so it goes on the 5.1 mix for the 50th Anniversary edition of Let It Be — there is much surround sound richness to enjoy here!
Tune in tomorrow when we’ll explore the very important first official release of Glyn Johns’ 1969 vision for what the Let It Be album might have been in its original guise as Get Back.