Is ‘Get Back’ Really Better Than ‘Let It Be?': Beatles Roundtable
The journey to the completion of 1970's Let It Be was best described by the title of one of its songs: a long and winding road.
After the Beatles released the single "Get Back" in April 1969, engineer Glyn Johns prepared a mix of the album then titled Get Back, but it was rejected by the band, which decided to shelve the record. Phil Spector, Wall of Sound in tow, stepped in months later and assembled the album under a new title: Let It Be. John Lennon approved of Spector's mix, but Paul McCartney was never quite satisfied with the result. In 2003, he initiated Let It Be ... Naked, an alternative mix of Let It Be that removed much of Spector's heavy production work, creating a stripped-down version of the album that McCartney always envisioned.
Now that Glyn Johns' Get Back, as well as a newly remixed version of Let It Be from Giles Martin, is available as part of a box set celebrating the anniversary of the original album, how do all the different versions of the sessions, including the Naked tracks, stack up? Five UCR writers discuss the merits of each.
Now that Get Back is available, which of the three albums is your “go-to”?
Michael Gallucci: Get Back is probably my favorite of the bunch, though I'll still go back to Let It Be, too. It's been the go-to album for years, and that familiarity will always be worth revisiting.
Nick DeRiso: These sessions forced the Beatles to deal with a very grown-up situation for the first time in years: They were together in a room making music instead of setting up like solo artists for the White Album, and there was no faking it with studio effects. After a period of struggle, the proposed album was aborted. Still, the blessing is that Let It Be, whatever the anguish it caused the Beatles themselves, was tirelessly, relentlessly documented. We’ve now gotten four official passes at the record from Spector, McCartney’s handpicked producers, Giles Martin and (finally!) Glyn Johns. Each boasts its fans, I’d imagine, but ultimately I’m most comfortable with the new remix of the original album. The flaws are familiar, the successes always highly anticipated – and it’s never sounded better.
Ryan Reed: Even though my brain struggles to accept a somewhat drastic, decades-after-the-fact remix as the version, Naked is still the one I reach for. Then again, I shouldn’t feel guilty — Let It Be was always a mess, and that unfinished quality is forever baked into its DNA. I always skipped the jokey tracks, and I still appreciate the decluttering job they did here.
Allison Rapp: I think it has to be Glyn Johns' Get Back mix. The rawer, semi-unpolished quality to it makes feel almost as though you're standing in the control booth yourself, listening in on the band jamming in the studio. For some, that might be a bit tedious to hear straight through, but there's a real magic to the imperfection. There's something new to notice with every play.
Rob Smith: Let It Be is one of my very favorite Beatles records, so I am loath to let it go, even though I’ve listened to Get Back as a whole more than anything else in the new “Super Deluxe” set. The exception is “The Long and Winding Road” — I prefer versions with Phil Spector’s bloat removed, and the dry “Take 19” of the song on Disc 2 of the box set may wind up my favorite.
Listen to the 2021 Mix of 'Two of Us'
Is Let It Be … Naked obsolete now?
Gallucci: I think so. It never really mattered all that much in the first place — it was basically a remix album that added the great "Don't Let Me Down" to the track listing, which should have been there in the first place. Get Back is almost a new album and presents the Beatles' original intentions with the project. There's really no point to Naked now that both embellished and stripped-down versions are officially available.
DeRiso: I don’t think so. The battles over Let It Be were really just an extension of the issues that dominated the White Album; the Beatles were building an artistic bridge toward their later individual personas. Finding a way to blend these impulses again would be messy work, something ill-suited to Spector’s added-on artifice. He ends up papering over the thing that makes this LP so interesting: The tension when they couldn't quite get there. That’s Let It Be’s reason for being. Still, we’ve gotten used to hearing the songs that McCartney’s team stripped down here, and he made a smart move by including “Don’t Let Me Down,” which rebalanced the recording. It’s certainly a more conventional way to revisit Let It Be than Glyn Johns’ mix, but one that still does a better job than Spector’s in revealing its essential transitional nature.
Reed: No. All three albums are really their own thing: The original is raw but also too flowery in spots; Naked is stripped-down but more modern-sounding; and the Glyn Johns version is warts-and-all with extra warts. They each serve their own function.
Rapp: I wouldn't call it obsolete. Particularly when speaking about an album that holds the kind of weight that Let It Be does, every version of a project holds at least some kind of merit simply for being an alternative listening experience in and of itself. Let It Be ... Naked might not hold up quite as well now, but it still marked the first time McCartney firmly insisted that the album be given the opportunity to exist in the form he had originally conceived it as in his head — there's something to be said for that.
Smith: It’s no more obsolete than the other curios that appear from time to time — I’m thinking of the Anthology records, Live at the Hollywood Bowl, the BBC albums and so forth. The resequencing was interesting, and the inclusion of “Don’t Let Me Down” could make one think it was a mistake to omit it the first time around. Also, the mix of “Across the Universe” is gorgeous. It’s not an essential record, but I don’t consider it obsolete.
Now that Glyn Johns’ unvarnished original Get Back is available, do you agree with the decision to scrap it?
Gallucci: Not at all. This was the album the Beatles wanted, and needed, to make after the dividing White Album. Its immediacy and looseness would have been the perfect cap to their career. Too bad they lost interest in it along the way.
DeRiso: Even after Let It Be … Naked, the stripped-down version I always treasured – the one I purchased under the counter and carefully protected across decades of moves – was a bootleg of Glyn Johns’ first pass. It’s always held a vast intrigue but never felt so present before getting an official release. The originally issued versions of Let It Be, both the album and film, showed us how hard it was for these talented people – so public yet so clearly sheltered – to make honest music again. Johns' verite version honors their original goal of getting back to where they once belonged. And it's also is way more fun.
Reed: Yes. It’s interesting from a historical perspective, and I’m glad to have it, but Let It Be definitely didn’t need to be more rough around the edges.
Rapp: This is an interesting question to answer in today's age, one where digital music capabilities have allowed multiple versions of albums and box sets - there's really no need to scrap anything. The reality is that in 1969, a hard and fast decision of some kind needed to be made. In 2021, it's great fun to look back retrospectively, and hear the band work out the kinks, chatter with one another in the studio and have this window into their creative process, which by that point looked a lot different from their earlier days. But back then I'm not sure that running with Johns' version would have been the most reasonable or efficient choice for a final-album release, so I do understand the decision to scrap it.
Smith: I do. It’s fun to listen to, but I think the sequencing is messy (“Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” back-to-back? Yeah, I don’t think so), which might have been troublesome at the time, though we can all reprogram it to our hearts’ content nowadays.
Listen to the Original Version of 'Let It Be'
What’s your favorite version of "The Long and Winding Road"?
Gallucci: The original 1970 version will always be the definitive version, even if it's the most egregious example of Phil Spector's tampering with the original tapes. I like the stripped-down essence of the Get Back mix, but those overcooked strings are, for better or worse, an integral part of the Beatles' last No. 1 single.
DeRiso: I’m endlessly fascinated by this song, even though I don’t really like it, mostly because I’ve always subscribed to the idea that great groups are better understood by exploring failures – rather than listening once more to their celebrated hits. If I’m being honest, I get Spector’s impulse to Vegas up McCartney’s morose "The Long and Winding Road.” For me, the stripped-down version heard on Glyn John’s mix is best, but it’s still a wispy weeper. So, in its own way, it's a perfect vehicle for Spector at his schmaltziest.
Reed: The original was the most overproduced — the choir and strings always felt tacked-on to me, and for years I always found that song kinda cheesy. When I first heard the Naked version, it was a mild revelation — “Wow, this beautiful ballad is hiding underneath all these unnecessary overdubs!”
Rapp: I love a stripped-down ballad just as much as the next person, but this might be the one of the few examples in this period of the Beatles' career where I can semi-rationalize all the production Spector loaded onto it. It almost feels like there is no other way to do it. Giles Martin's new mix of the song is really lovely. (I can't really quite get behind the Glyn Johns' version, at least as it pertains to this question. It's nice to hear a simplified version of it, but it feels a bit too drawn-out when it's that plain.) The layers of strings in Martin's mix and the overall clarity of the track is really pleasant to listen to.
Smith: Again, that "Take 19" on Disc 2 is sublime. It might be the same take as the one on Let It Be … Naked — I’ve listened to them back-to-back, and there are a couple subtle differences, which could have been a result of mixing - but you can’t go wrong with either. They both remove the syrup Phil Spector slathered on the original, leaving the song in its pristine form.
If you could assemble a fourth album, using tracks from all three available albums, which versions would you use? Don't go over 45 minutes.
Gallucci: It would be a mix of the original Let It Be and the new Get Back, with most songs coming from the latter. I'd use that album's lineup and track listing, omitting the final version of "Get Back" and replacing the version on Side One with the single mix. I'd also substitute the single and Let It Be versions of "Don't Let Me Down," "Let It Be" and "The Long and Winding Road." I've always preferred those original mixes.
DeRiso: All of these are from the Glyn Johns version, but in a new order:
"Dig a Pony"
"I've Got a Feeling"
"Let It Be"
"For You Blue"
"Across the Universe"
"The One After 909"
"I Me Mine"
"The Long and Winding Road"
"Don't Let Me Down"
"Two of Us"
"Get Back (Reprise)"
Reed: Let It Be … Naked from start to finish.
Rapp: Is it cheating to say the Glyn Johns mix is already the version I would create? (Though I might move "Two of Us" up a bit further in the track listing, and I'd cut "Teddy Boy" and the "I'm Ready (aka Rocker) / Save the Last Dance for Me / Don't Let Me Down" medley bit.) The only thing that might be better would be just a straight 45-minute recording of the Get Back album performed start to finish live in studio.
Smith: I like the new Giles Martin mix, which to my ears is brighter, with more sonic detail in the guitars, so much of my record uses that source. I totally mess with the sequence — to me, there’s something poetic about starting and ending with “Get Back,” the latter reprise being the perfect come-down after building to the majesty of “Let It Be.”
"Get Back" (2021 Mix) 3:08
“Don’t Let Me Down” (from Get Back) 4:05
"I Me Mine" (2021 Mix) 2:26
"Dig a Pony" (2021 Mix) 3:54
"One After 909" (from Get Back) 2:54
"The Long and Winding Road" (Take 19, from “Super Deluxe” box) 3:47Side 2:
"I've Got a Feeling" (2021 Mix) 3:37
"Two of Us" (2021 Mix) 3:36
"Across the Universe" (from Let It Be … Naked) 3:38
"For You Blue" (2021 Mix) 2:32
"Dig It" (from Get Back) 4:09
"Let It Be" (2021 Mix) 4:03
“Get Back (Reprise)” (from Get Back) :40