There’s always a sense of desperation to the back-to-our-roots album. Usually, the band’s initial blast of excitement has faded, their subsequent sonic experiments haven’t caught on, the guitarist is struggling to focus post-rehab, the deal’s looking shaky. And so the last chance they have to grab some old fans back and keep the whole charade on the road is to grasp at some long-lost glimmer of ‘the original magic’.
Not so The Beatles. Despite all the drugs, resentments, internal ructions and power struggles, John, Paul, George and Ringo remained an immensely popular creative powerhouse throughout their latter years as a band, creating ever-more inventive masterpieces in 1967’s ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ and 1968’s ‘The Beatles’. The final album they recorded together, 1969’s spectacular ‘Abbey Road’ with its pièce de résistance side-two medley, would have made a fitting swansong for such a superlative, culture-defining act.
Instead they bowed out with 1970’s ‘Let It Be’, which turns 50 today (May 8). It’s a rather knocked-together record left over from pre-‘Abbey Road’ sessions the previous year and, as great a back-to-our-roots record as it is, offers a warning of the dangers of stopping to look over your shoulder.
The Beatles set about making ‘Let It Be’ not as an attempt to revive fading fortunes, but to remind themselves why they were The Beatles in the first place. George was increasingly frustrated at his songs not being given the credit and exposure they deserved. John was wrapped up in drugs, spiritual searching, the breakdown of his marriage and Yoko. Ringo felt unappreciated and all three resented Paul increasingly becoming the self-appointed band boss. Their creative bond was disintegrating, so McCartney tried to re-forge it with a project intended to hark back to the thrill and unity of their Hamburg days.
With the gritty blues of ‘Get Back’ as a touchstone, the band gathered at a studio in Twickenham in January 1969 to reconnect with their rock’n’roll origins, with the intention of filming the songwriting process with a one-off live gig as the film’s climax.
Now, obviously, ‘Let It Be’ is among the gold standard of back-to-our-roots records, from the tender campfire vibe of ‘Two Of Us’, so intimate you can practically feel Lennon and McCartney’s bonding over a shared microphone once more, to the ballsy bellows of ‘Dig A Pony’ and ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ and even Phil Spector’s sweeping orchestral enhancement/destruction (delete according to preference) of ‘The Long And Winding Road’.
But even here you sense a lack of interest. Only McCartney’s putting his all in, billowing his dominance over the record with the title track. Lennon phones in a skiffle rocker in ‘One After 909’ and leads a couple of throwaway fripperies in ‘Dig It’ and ‘Maggie Mae’. His key contribution is the sublime ‘Across The Universe’, which seemed to cock a post-psychedelic snook at the whole idea of the record. George, who proved himself the songwriting equal of his more celebrated band-mates on ‘The Beatles’ (‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’) and ‘Abbey Road’ (‘Here Comes The Sun’), barely seems arsed about ‘Let It Be’ at all, hobbling the promising ‘I Me Mine’ with one of The Beatles’ most dreadful choruses.
Yet this is the record which, by the misfortune of timing alone (the album needed to come out at the same time as the film), is most associated with the break-up of the greatest band that ever played. As such it rather tarnishes their brilliance, underplays their legend and puts a dampener on their incredible achievements.
It’s arguably the greatest testament to the follies of retreading old ground: a band on a golden streak of limitless invention that couldn’t be curtailed by all manner of personal issues spent just a few months rehashing sounds and styles they’d long since outgrown, and it ends up plastered across the world’s billboards as their final farewell statement. The band who had explored far distant sonic universes had wound up right back where they started.
There’s a lesson to be learned in ‘Let It Be’. Today, most backward-looking records are the work of once vital acts reaching middle-age and deciding to indulge themselves on an acoustic album of evergreen songbook classics or records from their childhood, the sound of sonic stagnation – let’s call it the ‘Rattle And Hum’ effect. When bands try to make mid-career reboots of their zeitgeisty debuts, the stench of cynicism and the blatant vacuum of ideas always overwhelms any nostalgic kick.
If even The Beatles couldn’t make a back-to-our-roots record that rivalled the best of their output, surely its best to let the past be, and keep your focus firmly on the destination.