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The #1 Albums: The Beatles’ “Let It Be”

The back cover of Let It Be fittingly shows the darker side of its sun-drenched front cover photos.

The back cover of “Let It Be” fittingly shows the darker side of its sun-drenched front cover photos.

“I’ll finish you all now! You’ll pay!” So said Paul McCartney to Ringo Starr when Ringo tried to convince Paul to hold his solo album release so it wouldn’t conflict with the release of Let It Be. In a court affidavit describing the incident, Ringo said Paul “told me to put my coat on and get out” of his house. At Ringo’s urging, John and George relented, and Let It Be was shelved for a couple of weeks. And with a head start, McCartney reached #1 on the Billboard 200 before Let It Be dethroned it, on June 13, 1970. Let It Be held the top spot for four weeks, the shortest run of any Beatles album to hit #1 except for Anthology 2 in 1996.

Although Let It Be was recorded before Abbey Road, it has the feeling of an album patched together out of bits and pieces, the sort of thing bands release as a stopgap or a last gasp. In early 1969, when the band’s squabbles were at their hottest, it looked as if it might be both. “One After 909” is one of the first songs John and Paul ever wrote together, and the Beatles had tried to record it as early as 1963. “Maggie Mae” was in the repertoire of the Quarrymen, John’s first group. “Dig It” scrapes the bottom of the barrel for less than a minute. This dross helps explain why Let It Be, conceived as the soundtrack of an eventually shelved documentary, was not universally beloved by critics in 1970.

Another reason involves the Phil Spector-ization of it. The legendary producer applied studio gloss to several tracks, most notably “The Long and Winding Road” and “Across the Universe.” Paul hated what Spector did, although his complaints about Spector’s sweetening are ironic when you consider how sugary Paul’s own music would get within just a few years. And in fact, the string-laden “Long and Winding Road,” with its theatrical finish, is a reasonably appropriate coda for the Beatle years.

But this is the Beatles we’re talking about: even when they’re not at their best, it’s impossible for them to fail completely. The title song will be popular 100 years from now; “Get Back” rocks with tightly controlled menace; “Two of Us” is the great Beatles single that never was but should have been.

Coming in the next installment: three vinyl discs of peace, love, and music.