Rethinking Let It Be : A Detailed Guide to the Expanded Version of the Beatles' Controversial Swan Song

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·37 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
The Beatles at Apple Studios. 24 January 1969
The Beatles at Apple Studios. 24 January 1969

Ethan A. Russell / © Apple Corps Ltd.

Ahh, Let It Be. No band would ever attempt to make a record under similar circumstances today. Imagine: You've just spent nearly five months toiling away on a gargantuan double album of 30 songs. The tense experience has wiped out your stockpile of new material and your collective goodwill. What's your next move? If your answer is, "Go immediately back into the studio and give yourself three weeks to write a whole new album from scratch to perform during your first live concert in over two years — all while a camera crew documents your every move," well...congratulations. You have the same streak of bravery, optimism and creative verve that the Beatles possessed at the dawn of 1969.

The plan was daunting, to put it mildly. That they succeeded in completing anything is an immense achievement. More shocking is the fact that those hectic days yielded some of their finest songs. Who could fault an album that boasts "Get Back," "Two Of Us," and "I've Got a Feeling," not to mention the title track? But amid the band's typically sunny canon, Let It Be is often distinguished by the dark cloud that hangs over it.

Those with even the sketchiest knowledge of Beatle history are aware of the project's difficult birth, chiefly because the problems were so public. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg's 1970 documentary film allowed audiences to bear witness to the unhappy initial sessions in a drab and drafty soundstage at Twickenham Studios, site of the infamous squabbles that drove George Harrison to temporarily resign the group in frustration. Paul McCartney's fury over producer Phil Spector's unchecked maximalism on "The Long and Winding Road" made headlines, and was later cited in the court proceedings that officially dissolved the greatest group of all time. Reports of the Beatles' split reverberated across the world in the month before Let It Be was released on May 8, 1970. The album's cover appeared to confirm the news with stark clarity. A funereal black border divides photographer Ethan Russell's four very separate headshots of the once inseparable foursome.

The record was received as the Beatles' final epitaph. Tantamount to a tombstone, it became a focal point onto which fans projected their grief and even anger. "Let It Be is a project that was scarred by the huge shadow of resentment the Beatles had for each other when it finally came out," Giles Martin, son of late Beatles producer Sir George Martin and steward of the band's recorded legacy, tells PEOPLE. "That's what we remember about it." But memory can be faulty.

Martin has spent the last two years overseeing the massive excavation of footage from the January 1969 sessions for what was initially conceived as a television special and live album provisionally called "Get Back." Soon to be unveiled as a five-disc box set (out Oct. 15), lavish 240-page book (out now), and a three-part documentary helmed by Peter Jackson (premiering Nov. 25), it's the biggest treasure trove of Beatles material since 1995's The Beatles Anthology project.

Let It Be album cover
Let It Be album cover

© Apple Corps Ltd

The constant presence of cameras and Nagra synchronized sound recorders ensured that Let It Be's development was documented almost from start to finish, a rare phenomenon for an album in progress. By culling through the 140 hours of audio, Martin found himself in the unique position of observing the Beatles' creative process and internal dynamics better than anyone without the aid of a time machine.

"The whole project was fascinating because you got a glimpse of their creativity," he says. "You hear the interplay between them. You hear the relationships." The immersive experience led him to question the traditional narrative which presents Let It Be as a miserable slog that finished off the band. "I think there's a balance of joy and frustration that goes on. I don't think it's a bed of roses, but I think it's a bed of roses compared to what people thought it was going to be. I'm sure they had arguments while making [prior albums like] Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, etc. They're just not recorded like they are in Let It Be."

The myth that Let It Be was the Beatles' coup de grâce has persisted despite a major flaw in logic. Though production delays made it the final album they released, the band stayed together long enough to record another album, Abbey Road, released in September of 1969. "The fact of the matter is that everyone sees Let It Be as the Beatles' breakup album," says Martin, "but they were back in the studio [three] weeks later doing 'I Want You/She's So Heavy' for Abbey Road." Instead of a breakup, he compares the Let It Be sessions to a date night. True to its working title of "Get Back," the production was intended as a return to their rock 'n' roll roots in a last-ditch attempt to restore a sense of unity amid the business and personal turmoil. "They're trying to find the spark they once had," Martin explains. "I think they'd just grown tired of being the Beatles. So they said, 'Let's go back to being four guys in the Cavern Club. That's what makes us happy.' And that's what they planned to do."

RELATED: Ringo Starr Says Beatles' Film Get Back Gives a True Portrayal of the Band: 'You Will See the Joy'

It's tempting to dub the entire endeavor doomed from the start. "It's just crazy," admits Martin. "The idea is, 'Okay, in two-and-a-half weeks we'll do our first live show in years. We haven't got any songs yet and we haven't got a place to play it in, but this is the plan, guys! Oh, and we're going to film it as well.' But the Beatles had complete confidence in their own abilities. That's the thing that strikes me about them: no one believes in the Beatles' ability more than the Beatles do." In their defense, they had previously banged out stone-cold classics like Rubber Soul during brief breaks in their tour schedule. "I think they thought they could do that again," says Martin. "It's a bit like Usain Bolt going, 'Okay, I'm going to run the 100 meters in under 10 seconds now.' They weren't match fit. Plus, they've got so many other things going on. Outside forces are at play. They've got wives and girlfriends. They're not locked in a hotel room together on tour anymore. You can't recreate that intimacy and magic."

The Beatles' desire for an "honest" live production, without the studio wizardry on which they'd become increasingly reliant, lead them to eschew even basic practices like overdubs and tape edits. The results captured by engineer/de facto interim producer Glyn Johns were a little too rough and raw for their ears — Lennon compared it to the Beatles "with our trousers off" — and they rejected his initial warts-and-all version. (The Johns mix, believed superior by many Beatle aficionados, receives its long-delayed debut as part of the new box set.)

The session tapes gathered dust until early 1970, when they were turned over to Phil Spector, who promptly threw the whole "live album" premise out the window. The notoriously autocratic studio auteur employed his so-called "Wall of Sound" production technique, loading the tracks with string overdubs, choirs, and thick lashings of reverb and echo. Spector's heavy-handed approach has divided fans ever since, with those in the opposing camp arguing that his work undermined the stripped-down ethos of the original project. McCartney, who says the orchestral adornments to his twin piano ballads "Let It Be" and "The Long and Winding Road" were done without his involvement or permission, has always been outspoken about his dissatisfaction. In 2003 he spearheaded the release of Let It Be...Naked, a remix album shorn of Spector's bombast.

This all put Martin in a tricky spot while assembling the 2021 Let It Be remix. How do you strike a balance between the artist's creative vision and the record fans have known for half a century? "You have this album that comes out that Paul McCartney's not happy with, and that's unusual," he explains. "The Beatles had been happy with all of their other albums when they [originally] came out. For this, I had to go to Paul and say, 'Listen, do you actually want me to do this?' And he said, 'Yeah, but you know I wasn't pleased with "The Long and Winding Road" arrangement.' I said, 'Well, I still got to mix it. It's the album that's there.' And he goes, 'Yeah, but can you just take the harp down a bit?' So that was a challenge with this. You don't want to change history."

But inadvertently, that's just what this box set does. Listening to the outtakes and studio chatter, you're left with a much brighter impression of the proceedings. Perhaps they're no longer the Fab Four, but they're still very much four friends. For Martin, Let It Be is a play in three acts. First, the emotionally fraught dates at the Twickenham soundstage, culminating in Harrison's angry departure. Then the happy reunion at the newly constructed studio in the basement of the Beatles' Apple Records headquarters. And finally, the grand finale on the Apple rooftop, where they played their last ever concert to a crowd of (mostly) delighted Central London office workers. Despite all odds, they got back to where they once belonged. For 42 minutes they were just four guys playing a lunchtime set, as they did only a handful of years earlier in Liverpool.

"Let It Be has this scar on it because it was the last Beatles album to come out," says Martin. "Therefore, people paint it as this climax of acrimony the Beatles had, because they want an equal and opposing force to the biggest band in the world suddenly stopping. And the fact of the matter is, the Beatles kind of petered out. The reality is less dramatic. But at the same time it's much more heartwarming because it's real."

Let It Be has no heroes, no villains, no blowups or juicy feuds. Instead, it's a tale of growing pains and four men drifting apart. We all know how the story ends. As Martin observes, "Let It Be was the Beatles trying to rekindle their youth and not quite making it." But hearing them joke and play on these outtakes, you hold out hope that they might.

Read on for some of the most significant moments heard on this remarkable new collection.

The Beatles-Twickenham Film Studios-Jan 7 1969
The Beatles-Twickenham Film Studios-Jan 7 1969

Ethan A. Russell / © Apple Corps Ltd.

1. The First Known Recording of "Something" as a Collaborative Work-in-Progress

Harrison took his time when crafting this future standard, which became his first — and only — A-side single for the Beatles in October 1969. He debuted the initial musical fragments for "Something" over a year earlier, during sessions for the White Album on Sept. 19, 1968. Though these tentative musical sketches weren't recorded, studio staff recall Harrison tinkering with the melody on a harpsichord in between takes for another of his compositions, "Piggies." At this early stage, he toyed with giving the song to singer Jackie Lomax, a friend from the Liverpool clubs who had recently been signed to the Beatles' record label, Apple. Harrison would produce Lomax's debut LP that fall, but he ultimately held onto "Something," which was still far from complete. He was helped along by another Apple signee, 19-year-old James Taylor, who had just recorded a track for his own debut album called "Something in the Way She Moves." Harrison, who played on the record, used the title as lyrical inspiration for his own work in progress. (Taylor bore him no ill will, later telling PEOPLE: "I like to joke about it. I like to say, 'I liked your song so much I went home and wrote it myself!'")

The song was still only partially complete when Harrison offered it up for consideration during the Get Back sessions on Jan. 28, 1969. Though never attempted as a formal take, this earliest known recording of "Something" is an intimate insight into the creation of a classic. In a touching display of camaraderie, the band rallies around Harrison as he struggles to fill the gaps in the lyrics. "What could it be, Paul?" he wonders while trying to finish the opening line. "Attracts me like a…?" Lennon suggests a stream of consciousness approach. "Just say whatever comes into your head each time...until you get the word." He demonstrates with the less-than-romantic "attracts me like a cauliflower." Harrison counters with "attracts me like a pomegranate," which mercifully doesn't make the final cut either. "I've been through this one for about six months!" he moans. "Just that line. I couldn't think of anything." They set it aside and move onto the bridge, which Harrison fills in with ad-libbed dummy lines ("What do you know, Mr. Show? I don't know, I don't know.") while his bandmates experiment with backing harmonies.

With just three days left before the sessions were due to conclude, it was clear that "Something" required too much work to be completed by the deadline. The song was briefly tackled the following day before being permanently shelved for the remainder of the Get Back/Let It Be project. But according to Glyn Johns, Harrison continued to fine-tune the song during his off hours. "One evening when we were at Apple [Studios], George Harrison came to me and asked if I would mind staying behind after everyone else had gone home because he wanted to record something," Johns tells PEOPLE. "We waited for everyone to leave, and he got an acoustic guitar. I put a vocal mic up and he sang 'Something.' My jaw was on the floor, I just thought it was extraordinary. He said, 'Well, what do you think?' He hadn't quite got the confidence about that song that he should have had. And I thought that was quite telling really."

By the time Harrison demoed the song a month later on Feb. 25 — his 26th birthday — the now-famous lines were more or less in place.

2. A Full Band Rendition of "All Things Must Pass"

The familiar narrative of the Get Back/Let It Be sessions is that George Harrison was subjected to daily disrespect from the Lennon-McCartney braintrust and his songs were given next to no attention. And that's true — to an extent. "John and Paul saw themselves as the songwriting partnership for the Beatles," says Giles Martin. "[On the tapes] they talk about how they need to write songs and how they have to deliver and all that kind of stuff. But George, on the other hand, has grown as a songwriter. He's writing amazing work at that stage." In addition to the aforementioned "Something," Harrison presented future solo standouts like "All Things Must Pass," "Isn't It a Pity," "Hear Me Lord" and "Let It Down" for consideration. None made the final tracklist for Let It Be.

On the session tapes, Lennon can frequently be heard referring to Harrison as "Harrisongs," a playful (though no doubt painful) dig at his song publishing company. The implication was clear: Harrison's songs were all well and good, but they were very much his own thing. "John and Paul isolated him to a certain degree," says Martin. "I find it remarkable that you never get a Lennon-Harrison or a McCartney-Harrison song. Most other bands have that if they have more than one songwriter. But there isn't that in the Beatles."

George Harrison at Apple Studios. 25 January 1969
George Harrison at Apple Studios. 25 January 1969

Ethan A. Russell / © Apple Corps Ltd.

While the chief composers certainly struggled to view the youngest Beatle as an equal, even a cursory look at the session tapes reveals that they put significant effort into a number of Harrison's musical offerings. Case in point: "All Things Must Pass," which Harrison debuted the first day of sessions on Jan. 2. The Beatles attempted the tune 37 times the following day, and 11 more times on the 8th.

Destined to become the title track to Harrison's first post-Beatles solo statement, the song drew inspiration from "All Things Pass," a poem published in LSD guru Timothy Leary's 1966 book Psychedelic Prayers — itself a psychedelic reinterpretation of the Tao Te Ching. George admits as much on the session tapes from Jan. 3. "It's Timothy Leary, I suppose. That gave me the idea…Apart from life giving me the idea!" Having spent the past autumn in the Catskills with Bob Dylan and his musical brethren in the Band, Harrison drew on these memories when working out an arrangement for the new song. "The motion of it is very, you know, Band-y" he tells the others. To facilitate this request, Lennon adds washes from a Lowery organ, a favorite of the Band's keyboard player Garth Hudson (who, Harrison points out, McCartney closely resembles with his new beard).

Lennon, McCartney and Harrison work out a charming three-part blend for the choruses, with McCartney's high harmony providing a fascinating glimpse of what Harrison's solo favorite could have been as a full-fledged Beatles track. Rather than treat "All Things Must Pass" like a chore — as has often been claimed — the whole band appears happily engaged in the task of shaping Harrison's song. McCartney suggests an instrumental break, and Lennon offers a lyrical adjustment, tweaking "a wind can blow those clouds away" to "a mind can blow those clouds away" after misreading Harrison's lyric sheet. "Get a little bit of psychedelia in it, y'know," he jokes.

The new line remained in place when Harrison recorded the song for his solo disc in late May 1970, weeks after news of the Beatles' split made headlines around the world.

3. The Belated Debut of "Fancy Me Chances," an Early "Lennon-McCartney Original"

Even at the apex of their fame in the mid '60s, the Beatles occasionally resurrected early songwriting attempts that had lain dormant for close to a decade. Among the most distinguished are "I'll Follow the Sun," "Michelle" and "When I'm Sixty-Four," all of which date back to the '50s pre-Fab era. The back-to-basics mentality of the Get Back project provided the Beatles with a perfect opportunity to air out a lengthy list of their primitive tunes. In the original Let It Be film, McCartney can be heard name-checking long-forgotten titles like "Too Bad About Sorrows'' and "Just Fun." Bootleg session tapes reveal versions of "Because I Know You Love Me So," "Won't You Please Say Goodbye," "Thinking Of Linking," and "I'll Wait Till Tomorrow," most stretching back to Lennon and McCartney's time in their pre-Beatles band, the Quarrymen.

Rehearsals for "Two of Us" on Jan. 24 triggered a particularly acute burst of nostalgia as McCartney and Lennon worked out Everly Brothers harmonies over two acoustic guitars. It reminded them of their teenage writing sessions camped out in McCartney's father's living room, scrawling words and chord changes in a school exercise book. Each completed composition was topped off with the lofty heading: "Another Lennon-McCartney original." Now, years later, McCartney couldn't resist writing "Another Quarrymen Original" on the lyric sheet to "Two Of Us." Though McCartney had written the song about aimless drives with new girlfriend Linda Eastman, it may as well have been about his friendship with Lennon, and the choice of arrangement underscored the sentimentality of the song.

Clutching their acoustics, the pair frequently paused work on "Two of Us" to launch into impromptu versions of staples from their Quarrymen-era set: Everly Brothers covers and rootsy acoustic tunes that swept Britain during the late '50s skiffle craze. One of these was "Maggie May" (also spelled "Mae"), a 19th century Liverpool folk song about a ne'er-do-well Lime Street hooker that had gained popularity thanks to a 1957 recording by the Vipers Skiffle Group, coincidently produced by "Fifth Beatle" George Martin.

The Beatles busked through two takes of the song, both delivered with comically thick Scouse accents. The abbreviated second version surfaced on the official Let It Be album, while the first segued into another early Lennon-McCartney original, "Fancy Me Chances." (Later heard in part on the Let It Be…Naked "Fly on the Wall" bonus disc.) Though slight, it's a sweet tune and the moment is oddly thrilling. The chance to hear a lost Lennon-McCartney song is always cause for celebration, and their voices brim with exuberance. But it also fulfilled the poignant promise of "Two Of Us" — their memories stretching back longer than the road ahead.

4. The Barrel House Piano Version of "One After 909"

"'One After 909'…is one that I wrote separately from Paul when [I was] 17 or 18 in Liverpool," Lennon said of this early composition, which takes its cue from locomotive-centric skiffle mainstays like "Rock Island Line" and "Freight Train." The song's journey from Lennon's teenage bedroom to the tracklist of Let It Be is certainly a long and winding road. The earliest known recording of the song dates from April 1960, when Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and early Beatles bassist Stu Sutcliffe borrowed a Grundig reel-to-reel tape machine to record themselves performing (supposedly) in the McCartney family bathroom, where the tile provided a Sun Records-like echo.

An additional bootleg has surfaced of the band performing the song during an afternoon rehearsal at Liverpool's Cavern Club in October 1962. This tape is believed to have served as a reference for their (relatively) new drummer Ringo Starr, who had joined their ranks weeks earlier in mid-August.

The first formal attempt the band made to record "One After 909" occurred on March 5, 1963, during the first flush of Beatlemania. Earlier in the day they'd knocked out a new single, "From Me to You," and its B-side, "Thank You Girl," but Lennon's train song proved harder to nail and all but one of their takes broke down. (Lennon can be heard on the tapes chastising McCartney for losing his guitar pick, calling him a "soft arse.") Ultimately this studio version was shelved until 1995, when it was released as part of The Beatles Anthology collection.

"One After 909" languished until the start of the Get Back sessions in January 1969. The project began less than six weeks after the release of the White Album, the 30-song epic that the band had worked on for much of the second half of 1968. The sprawling collection had more or less cleaned out Lennon's reserve of new compositions, and he arrived at Twickenham short of songs — at least compared to the prolific McCartney and Harrison. "John was obviously in the midst of a writing block during Let It Be," Giles Martin says. "He's really relaxed in most of the sessions. That's the funny thing. Paul's going, 'Come on, guys!' And John's just going, 'Ehh, I'll do whatever...'"

Lennon would later cite his own "lack of material" as his reason for suggesting they dust off "One After 909." The band fondly embraced the song, and it was quickly earmarked as a serious contender for inclusion in the climactic concert and subsequent album.

The addition of keyboardist Billy Preston's Fender Rhodes went a long way in filling out the sound, adding a dose of genuine Southern soul to the slightly naff counterfeit rocker written by a devoted British teen. On Jan. 29 — the day before the famous rooftop gig — producer George Martin suggested that Preston try playing a regular piano. His barrel-house licks transformed the song into a barnstorming Jerry Lee Lewis stomp that just might surpass the version from the roof that won a place on Let It Be. If only they could have lugged a piano up there…

The Beatles & film crew-Apple rooftop-Jan 30 1969
The Beatles & film crew-Apple rooftop-Jan 30 1969

Ethan A. Russell / © Apple Corps Ltd.

5. An Extended Version of Lennon's Stream-of-Consciousness Jam "Dig It"

For over 50 years, Let It Be listeners have only known "Dig It" as a bizarre 50-second snippet that ushered in the album's title track with Billy Preston's swirling, furiously-pumped organ and John Lennon's free-associative nonsense lyrics. In reality, this is just a fraction of the song's unwieldy 12-minute length. Michael Lindsay-Hogg's (difficult to find) Let It Be documentary featured a clip just over three minutes in length, showing the Beatles having a ball as they improvise the song with a little help from George Martin on percussion while McCartney's soon-to-be stepdaughter Heather twirls. Though unabashedly silly, the loose jam packs an undeniable groove. Now, for the first time ever, an extended excerpt of "Dig It" is available as part of Glyn Johns' mix of the album.

The title is a catch phrase from the American satirical sketch-comedy program Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, which had become a favorite of the Beatles in early 1969. Lennon began riffing on the phrase during sessions on Jan. 24, making up a song that consisted solely of the words "Can you dig it?" while going wild on a lap steel slide guitar. The demented result (which is also available on the Let It Be reissue) sounds like a warped 78 RPM blues record made by Monty Python.

Two days later, after spending much of the morning on McCartney's elegantly restrained piano ballad "Let It Be," Lennon needed to let his hair down. He starts by beating out a latin-style rhythm on his six-string bass and yelping verses from Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" and the Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout." Then 6-year-old Heather chimes in, howling wordless vocals while Lennon sings "Come on, Heather!" by way of encouragement. The effect is cute, but can be hard on the ears. Glyn Johns' four-minute version, an edited composite of the most interesting moments in the jam, begins when Lennon takes over once again, swapping lines with McCartney about the many ways in which one can "dig it" before pin-balling from the FBI, the CIA and the BBC to B.B. King, Doris Day and the newly retired Manchester United football club manager Matt Busby. The song lurches forward for a few more minutes like a proto-rap-reggae fusion number before petering out, thus concluding one of only two tracks credited to all four band members. (The instrumental "Flying" from Magical Mystery Tour was the first.) Make no mistake, "Dig It" is not a work of creative genius, but it's rare to hear the band having quite so much fun on record.

John Lennon at Apple Studios. Januaray 1969
John Lennon at Apple Studios. Januaray 1969

Ethan A. Russell / © Apple Corps Ltd.

6. George Harrison and Ringo Starr's "Octopus's Garden" Writing Session

One of the most touching moments on the Let It Be box set occurred on the morning of Jan. 26, 1969. George Harrison can be heard helping Ringo Starr flesh out a new song that would ultimately become the stickman's second solo compositional contribution to the Beatles' canon. Starr had begun writing the piece while on vacation the previous August, after having temporarily left the Beatles during the increasingly tense sessions for the White Album. "That time was pretty stressful," Starr told PEOPLE in 2019. "I couldn't take it anymore. I said, 'I'm going with [wife] Maureen and the kids.' We went off to Sardinia on Peter Sellers' yacht...Later on, thanks to some 'Bob Marley products,' I was hanging out with the captain. He was telling me about how octopuses make these gardens. They go around the ocean finding shiny things and putting them in front of their cave. It was like, 'Whoa, that sounds good.' That's how I wrote 'Octopus's Garden.' I wanted to be under the sea then. It was just a down time."

The mood was only marginally better in January, as Harrison and Starr huddled around a piano in the Beatles' Apple Studios at 3 Savile Row. Harrison himself had only recently returned to the fold after walking out on the rehearsals at Twickenham Studios two weeks before. The fraught backstory lends a complex subtext to an otherwise simple tune, a collaboration between two men who had already quit the Beatles. As Starr pounds out the unfinished song, Harrison goes out of his way to praise his rudimentary piano playing ("You've learnt A-minor, eh?") before suggesting some new chord changes of his own. He's patient and kind, strumming along on an acoustic guitar as they iron out lyrics that, at this early stage, include the slightly clunky couplet, "It would be nice / a paradise."

The moment is a tender insight into a relationship that often goes unexplored in the Beatles' story, eclipsed by the breathless speculation on the Lennon-McCartney power dynamic and the occasional Harrison-McCartney fracas. Tellingly, this exchange occurs chiefly before the other Beatles arrive at the studio. (George would similarly debut his new song "I Me Mine" for Starr early one session before the others entered.) It's hard not to read Harrison's attentiveness to Starr, whose songwriting ambitions were never especially grandiose, as a response to the dismissive attitudes he perceived from Lennon and McCartney concerning his own work.

"As Paul and John had grown [as writers], I think the other two became more isolated," Giles Martin suggests. "Everyone thinks a rift between Lennon and McCartney ended the Beatles. I don't think it was, actually. I think that Lennon and McCartney take up a lot of space — and rightfully, so! But the energy of them needing to work together in the studio probably isolated the other two."

Starr had also unveiled two song fragments on Jan. 3, the second day of the Get Back/Let It Be sessions. One, a rollicking country-tinged ditty called "Picasso," extolled the joys of purchasing a painting by the great master. "It's too fast for me," he laughed as he struggled to beat out the chords. The other, "Taking a Trip to Carolina," is similarly Western in flavor — and similarly unfinished. Neither would be revisited during sessions or surface on any of his solo work.

"Octopus's Garden," which Starr debuted on Jan. 6, would enjoy a more illustrious fate. After a brief run-through on the 23rd and a writing workshop with Harrison three days later, the song was shelved until that spring, when it was resurrected for what would become the Beatles' studio swan song, Abbey Road. Despite his creative input, Harrison declined to take a writer's credit.

Ringo Starr at Apple Studios. 24 January 1969
Ringo Starr at Apple Studios. 24 January 1969

Ethan A. Russell / © Apple Corps Ltd.

7. The "Save The Last Dance for Me" Medley from Glyn Johns' Get Back Mix

The Beatles performed some 229 covers (give or take) over the course of the 20-day Get Back/Let It Be odyssey. Some were full performances and others just a tossed-off line or two. Regardless, the breadth of these songs is staggering, spanning everything from gritty R&B deep cuts to hilariously square contemporary pop hits, classical instrumental pieces, archaic folk songs and even pre-war Easy Listening standards. The speed with which they could conjure up an arrangement of just about anything recalls their years as human jukeboxes on the punishing club circuit in Hamburg, Germany. It's also a reminder that all four of the Fabs were major music fans and serious record nerds. The list of covers reads like a cross section of their influences and heroes. Chuck Berry makes the strongest showing with a whopping 15 songs. Bob Dylan racks up 13, Elvis Presley 12, and Buddy Holly has nine — plus healthy amounts of Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Smokey Robinson and Ray Charles.

These impromptu covers pop up at random, usually to lighten the mood between run-throughs for original material. Aside from the truncated "Maggie Mae" (and Lennon moaning the title of Little Richard's "Oh! My Soul" after "I've Got a Feeling," and a warbled "Danny Boy" after "One After 909," if you want to count them) none of these lighthearted covers appeared on the original release of Let It Be, but the new box set unearths a few small gems. The brief snatch of "Wake Up Little Susie" just before a take of "I Me Mine" is guaranteed to raise a smile. More substantial (and definitely more funky) is a soulful strut by Jimmy McCracklin called "The Walk." The take is sadly incomplete — the Beatles started playing as the engineers were changing tape reels — but the 50 seconds that exist feature McCartney giving his best bluesy growl over the relentlessly solid beat.

A highlight of the set is a Jan. 22 medley from Glyn Johns' Get Back that combines a loose rocky jam (which uses Fats Domino's "I'm Ready" as a starting point) with a tongue-in-cheek version of the Drifters' perennial prom closer "Save the Last Dance for Me." From there, the Beatles seamlessly segue into a chaotic chorus from Lennon's new song, "Don't Let Me Down." In addition to the sheer novelty of a new cover song from the Beatles, the piece showcases the musical telepathy they shared as they bounced from song to song and idea to idea.

8. The Long Fadeout of "Get Back" (Take 8)

Nearly all of the original songs submitted for the Get Back/Let It Be sessions were begun by an individual Beatle at home before being workshopped together with the group. The exception to this process is "Get Back" itself. "We were sitting in the studio and we made it up out of thin air," McCartney said in the press release for the song. It materialized over the course of several jams beginning on Jan. 7, when McCartney first began thumping out the distinctive rhythm on his bass. Earlier that morning, the band had played a version of "Lady Madonna," their 1968 single that served as a loving nod to the stride piano of pioneering R&B hero Fats Domino. With that tune still ringing in his ears, McCartney began crafting a similar pastiche of '50s rock.

After filling out the melody with dummy words and syllables, he stumbled on "Get back to where you once belonged." It's a variation of a lyric from "Sour Milk Sea," a song Harrison had written for Apple Records artist Jackie Lomax. (McCartney can even be heard exclaiming "C'mon Jackie!" on one early take.) The evocative phrase initially led McCartney to improvise a satirical anti-immigration tirade — "Don't dig no Pakistanis taking all the people's jobs" — in parody of conservative politician Enoch Powell and the racist attitudes of his supporters. Fearing that fans would miss the reference and take his words at face value, McCartney wisely shifted the lyrics into a vague chronicle of two characters named Loretta Martin and Jo Jo. (It's unsurprising that the so-called "No Pakistanis" number is not featured on the expanded box set.)

Paul McCartney Apple rooftop Jan 30 1969
Paul McCartney Apple rooftop Jan 30 1969

Ethan A. Russell / © Apple Corps Ltd.

The words were largely meaningless, but both the title and sound of the song perfectly distilled the spirit of the project in progress, and it was quickly seized upon as a potential theme for the documentary and album. Unfortunately, it also emphasized the hazards of their willfully regressive recording methods, which shunned overdubs, edits and other studio tools in favor of capturing a single live performance. As George Martin would later moan in The Beatles Anthology, "We would start a track and it wasn't quite right, and we would do it again and again…and then I'd get to take 19: 'Well John, the bass wasn't as good as it was on take 17, but the voice was pretty good, so let's go on again.' Take 43: 'Well yes…' So you go on forever because it was never perfect — and it got very tedious." By most accounts, the endless versions of "Get Back" pushed all involved to the brink of sanity, but the many recordings reveal fascinating variations in the arrangement. One early version features a crashing opening chord, à la "A Hard Day's Night." The most interesting rendition included on the Let It Be box set, Take 8, features an extended coda with Lennon's punk-ish lead guitar stings and McCartney's enthusiastic ad libs in an over-the-top Northern English accent: "It's five o'clock. Your mother's got your tea on. Take your cap off…" They sound as though they're enjoying themselves on this take, but then Martin's weary voice comes over the studio talkback. "Paul, I think it's a shade too slow now. I think it's lost a bit…"

​​9. A Bach-like "Let It Be" with a Cheeky Snippet of "Please Please Me"

One of the biggest surprises of 2018's (equally expansive) White Album box set was the earliest known fragments of McCartney's modern hymnal, recorded in between takes for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" on Sept. 5, 1968. Drawing inspiration from a dream of his late mother Mary, McCartney would revisit the song in earnest in the new year as work began on the potential live album project. It stuck out as a meditative moment amongst the rockers, and George Harrison likened it to the rustic roots music played by his friends in the Band. "It's very country and western in a way," he observed before Lennon jumped in with a correction. "Country and gospel, it is."

In keeping to their strict "no overdubs" policy, George Martin initially handled organ duties to thicken up McCartney's piano part. But the arrival of keyboardist Billy Preston midway through the sessions elevated the track a little closer to heaven with his soulful church-like organ. For one rehearsal on Jan. 26, McCartney suggested that Preston play the descending melody like a stately Bach figure. The results, labeled Take 10, earn a favorable yelp of "That'll do!" from McCartney. This decidedly Catholic edge was ultimately toned down by the time they recorded the master on Jan. 31, the final day of the Get Back/Let It Be sessions.

Michael Lindsay-Hogg with The Beatles & Billy Preston-Apple Studio-Jan 26 1969
Michael Lindsay-Hogg with The Beatles & Billy Preston-Apple Studio-Jan 26 1969

Ethan A. Russell / © Apple Corps Ltd.

In addition to a slightly different arrangement than the finished song, Take 10 of "Let It Be" is also notable for a moment at the start of the performance when McCartney ad libs a version of the Beatles' 1963 breakthrough "Please Please Me," reimagined as a dramatic piano ballad. In doing so, he bookended the Beatles' first hit in their home country with their last, released just seven years — and a lifetime — apart. "It wasn't actually that long ago," marvels Giles Martin. "That's the weird thing for us as mere mortals. You see the change in the whole way they worked. They sort of lived their lives in fast forward. "

10. A Flamenco-Style Rehearsal of "I Me Mine" and Audio from the Last True Beatles' Session

Harrison's bluesy meditation on the ego was a last minute edition to the final Let It Be tracklist. The band rehearsed it for only one day during the Get Back sessions before it was abandoned, seemingly for good. Harrison debuted the song on Jan. 8, playing it to Starr and documentary director Michael Lindsay-Hogg before the other Beatles arrived. His choice of audience is telling, as if he wants their read before submitting his work to the band's chief composers. "I don't care if you don't want it in your show," he humbly tells Starr before strumming the chord changes he'd written the previous night, inspired by a fragment of Johann Strauss' "Kaiser Walzer" that he'd heard on a BBC television special.

Suitably encouraged, he presents "I Me Mine" to the others later that day. There's a hint of nerves in his voice as he tentatively asks Lennon, "Would you like to learn a new one? Very simple." Lennon obliges, but he's initially turned off by the "heavy waltz" time signature and flamenco-style guitar breaks. "We're a rock and roll band, you know!" he semi-playfully scolds Harrison. To illustrate his point, Lennon sets down his guitar and starts waltzing across the soundstage with his ever-present partner Yoko Ono, leaving it to the others to work out Harrison's song.

The dance break could be interpreted either as spontaneous goofiness or a mocking dismissal of his bandmate's efforts. Thankfully, Harrison apparently opts for the former. (Though it's worth noting that he would storm out of the sessions two days later and threaten to quit the band.) With good humor, he suggests they incorporate Lennon and Ono's dance routine into the song's performance at the climactic concert. This triggers a round of laughs as McCartney assumes the role of a circus MC, announcing "John and Yoko would like to waltz in their white bag!" Amazingly, this idea is seriously considered, and the couple rehearse the dance while McCartney and Harrison offer suggestions. Taking advantage of the lightened mood, the band logged some 41 run-throughs of the song (though not all complete) before breaking for the day.

The Beatles at Twickenham Film Studios. 7 January 1969
The Beatles at Twickenham Film Studios. 7 January 1969

Ethan A. Russell / © Apple Corps Ltd.

Tragically, Lennon and Yoko's waltz would not get its big premiere on the concert stage. Though it's mentioned on several occasions, "I Me Mine" is never performed again as part of the Get Back sessions. For much of 1969, it appeared destined to remain part of Harrison's ever-growing cache of unused songs, the bulk of which would form his first post-Beatles solo release, the majestic triple-disc All Things Must Pass. But when Lindsay-Hogg decided to incorporate footage of the "I Me Mine" dance into his Let It Be documentary, it's deemed necessary to add the song to the soundtrack album. The only problem is that the song wasn't complete. Those few sketchy rehearsals, recorded on subpar cinema audio, were all that existed.

So on Jan. 3, 1970, the Beatles entered EMI Studios to record a new version from scratch. More precisely, it was the Beatles minus Lennon, who was on vacation in Denmark at the time. Harrison alludes to his absence with a joke about the pop group Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, who had coped with the departure of frontman Dee Dave in September 1969.

That very same month, Lennon told his bandmates that he wanted "a divorce." Though the foursome kept the news amongst themselves — partially to protect business deals, and partially in hopes that Lennon would reconsider — it was obvious during the "I Me Mine" session that the Beatles' future was in question. Indeed, it would be the last new song the Beatles ever recorded before their split was announced publicly that April. Audio from this date, effectively the last true Beatles session, is included in the Let It Be box set. In addition to George's Dave Dee joke, the trio are heard performing a quick rendition of the Everly Brothers' chestnut "Wake Up Little Susie" between takes. Lennon's absence is keenly felt. With McCartney's longtime harmonic partner nowhere to be found, he sings it solo.

An early rehearsal take from the Get Back session is also included on the box set, complete with flamenco flourishes left off the final version. McCartney makes a joke about "Don't Bother Me," the first Harrison song ever recorded by the band way back in 1963. In doing so, McCartney unknowingly links Harrison's first Beatles composition with his last.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting