Recording of February 2004: Let It Be...Naked

THE BEATLES: Let It Be...Naked
Apple/Capitol CDP 5 95227 2 (2 CDs). 2003. George Martin, orig. prod.; Glyn Johns, orig. eng.; Paul Hicks, Guy Massey, Allen Rouse, reissue prods., mix; Steve Rooke, reissue mastering. AAD. TT: 57:00
Performance *****
Sonics *****

No doubt it's the key audiophile question: Which way will the Beatles catalog go, SACD, DVD-Audio, or both?

As it turns out, neither, at least for now—instead we get a CD rethink, remix, and remastering that cleans up the sloppiest slice of Beatle audio history.

Here's the quick recap: In early 1969, The fabs spent a couple of weeks at Twickenham film studios rehearsing for an aborted live film-and-concert project, then retreated to their informal Apple basement studio in London's Savile Row, where they were joined by keyboardist Billy Preston, and finally ended up performing on the Apple building's roof. All along the way, they were continually recorded and often filmed.

The result was 33 reels of EMI 8-track tape (the multitrack professional format!), with various versions—most abandoned mid-verse—of a handful of new and reborn tunes. Original sessions engineer Glyn Johns produced a collage-like mix, titled Get Back, that was heavy on Lennonisms and rehearsals but light on finished songs and mixing intervention. This, and a second Johns mix with a different song order, fell short of expectations, so eventually the tapes ended up with Phil Spector, who tightened them even more, shuffled the song order again, and added some orchestral and choral sweetening. That's the version we've had ever since its release in May 1970.

Since then, Paul McCartney in particular has noted that he was never satisfied with what Spector had done, yet all agreed that the Johns mix was too rough for an official release (bootlegs have been around for years). Brought to the surface again last year, the original tapes were found to be in good shape, and this time around the mixing engineers could use Pro Tools on a digital workstation to splice and dice to the nanobeat while correcting fluffed notes and combining parts from different takes. The result is Let It Be...Naked.

Compared to previous versions, the sound of Naked is in all ways better. We get closer to what the microphones recorded than with any other mix so far, and they've done a great job of removing the hard edge and electronic sound that plagued the original Let It Be. The dynamics and weight of the bottom end are revealed, and the instruments are well-defined throughout. Finally, we can appreciate how George's and John's distinct guitar parts interlock on songs like "I Me Mine." The big revelation is the finesse in Ringo's drumming and Preston's great keyboard parts, largely buried in the Spectorized version.

The voices are now pushed farther forward in most songs, and all extraneous tape and mechanical noise has been eliminated because, as Paul has noted, when John sang, he didn't have hiss coming out of his mouth. Spector's sound is thin and recessed by comparison, and muddy in many places (he slaughtered the sound of "Across the Universe," although it could be argued that his is a more musically interesting version), and the Glyn Johns mix put Ringo's cymbals and hi-hat too far forward, and often stumbled over awkward balances between the various raw instruments and vocals.

However, the romantic notion that we now get to hear the Beatles playing together "as it happened" is largely misplaced. These are idealized versions of many of the songs, not honest live renditions. As songs, I think they're the better for it. If you want to hear Beatles verité, find a copy of the Glyn Johns bootleg.

When John, Paul, George, Ringo (and Billy) recorded these tapes, they were at their fuzzy peak, with long hair and beards sprouted all around. They had also shed their paisley and bright-colored Pepperland clothing for a more understated and loose, back-to-basics look. This music and the rehearsals reflect all that.

But as performances go, these new edits are anything but loose and fuzzy. My only criticism is that Naked often reflects Holt's audiophile inverse law, Beatles style: the better the recording sounds, the more anemic the final performance. When compared to the various originals, many of the new tracks sound as if carefully assembled by a bunch of scientists in lab coats and thick glasses using robot arms behind a glass wall.

The three mixing engineers responsible for Naked (Paul was not involved in creating the new versions until he signed off on the finished work) clearly know their Pro Tools plug-ins, and have made a remarkably modern-sounding disc out of a haphazard collection of 34-year-old tapes. But I can't help feeling they've stripped the final cuts of some of their swagger, and those little bits and pieces that add up to a more memorable rendition. Often, the performances are not merely "naked"—it seems as if they've shaved the entire body and plucked out the eyelashes.

No, I don't miss Phil Spector's strings and MOR treatment on "The Long and Winding Road," or the flagrantly wrong notes and start/stop takes on the Johns bootleg. But take, for example, Lennon's vocal performance on the Johns mix of "Don't Let Me Down." It's a looser take—much more fun to listen to—and on the single version Lennon shouted "Can you dig it" as the song faded. Here they've gone the safe route, combining the cleaner, straighter parts from two takes at the expense of the lively, pleading quality of Lennon's voice on others.

On "Let It Be" itself they've strengthened the sound of the opening vocal at the expense of the loneliness Spector captured in the original. When the hi-hat comes in on the second verse, the repeat echo on the album version (or the delayed reverb on the single) have been removed, replaced with a dry and less interesting cymbal tap. The drum and shaker part on the third verse, where Ringo changed the pattern and added rolls around the kit, are gone, and we're back to the same straight beat from the rest of the song. Sure, the new one is cleaner, but I find it less inspiring.

I've heard six different mixes/versions of "Get Back": two raw ones from the rooftop, the Johns mix, the Spector mix, the original single mix, and now the Naked mix. The newest one easily sounds the best, but only places somewhere in the middle for rocking out. That last drum break on the outro, where Paul shouts "Oooh" and the song starts back up—that's the kick in the pants we always loved on the Glyn Johns and single versions, and it was sorely missed on Let It Be. It's still missing on Naked, replaced with an abrupt mechanical fade.

Other MIAs: both "Dig A Pony" and "Maggie May" from LIB are banished, and all of the Lennon quips that lightened the transitions have been axed. Thus, the original LIB is still mandatory for the Beatles completist. A bonus disc with LIB...N called Fly On the Wall provides 22 minutes of song snippets and dialogue from the sessions, and is worth a listen or two.

Enough grumbling and second-guessing. Though it's a bit more "square" than I would have liked, the material on Lit It Be...Naked is still, musically and sonically, one of the best "new" rock'n'roll releases of the past year. The sad songs are indeed made better, and one has to wonder what's next.—Jon Iverson