Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. In the post below he looks at March 1970. Check out Thompson’s other posts here.
The year 2010 holds a number of Beatle decade anniversaries. In August of 1960, they headed off to Hamburg where they would endure a trial-by-fire, first in the Indra Club and then, the Kaiserkeller. Playing for four hours on weeknights and for six hours on weekend nights, they built both repertoire and stamina, if not musical skills. When they returned to Liverpool that winter, some of those who had known them before the journey barely recognized these rockers from Germany. Ten years later, in April 1970, Paul McCartney would announce his departure from the band and the dissolution of his songwriting relationship with John Lennon. Ten years after that in 1980, Lennon, born in 1940, would die at the hands of an assassin.
On 6 March 1970, a month before McCartney’s departure declaration, the Beatles released a fittingly titled final single: “Let It Be.” They had created the core of the recording over a year before in January 1969 during their ill-fated attempts at filming preparations for a spectacular performance. Now, as the band drifted into disintegration, an anthem materialized around their disconsolation.
“Let It Be,” with its references to his late mother and to the new reefs in McCartney’s professional and personal lives, evokes a religious resolution to his problems with organ fills by Billy Preston reminiscent of an American gospel service, a George Harrison guitar solo played through an organ’s Leslie speaker, and wordless backing vocals that fill the room like a church choir. It also references the instrumental line-up of the Band, Bob Dylan’s former backing group that had influenced other British groups such as Procol Harum and that had come to articulate a rural return-to-roots philosophy that appealed to McCartney.
When this Apple Records single appeared, McCartney could not have foreseen the version that would emerge on the album Let It Be, released after his departure. American Phil Spector, who had found favor with John Lennon and whom manager Allen Klein had hired to polish the production, superimposed an orchestration that converted McCartney’s county gospel service into a Hollywood spectacular.
“Let It Be” falls into a subcategory of McCartney’s catalogue that includes songs like 1968’s “Hey Jude.” In both songs, McCartney seeks to sooth troubled minds. “Hey Jude” addresses the disruption associated with John Lennon’s separation from his wife Cynthia and son, Julian. “Let It Be” seeks solace, perhaps from the rancor evident in the film Let It Be; but McCartney also saw a world filling with anger and violence. In the coming months, with growing protests against the expanding war in Southeast Asia and the deaths of protesters at Ohio State University that May, the song seemed to articulate a search for a simpler, more predictable life, and safer life. This time, the acceptance of change meant an end to the Beatles while fans mourned the passing of one of popular music’s most successful experiments. The song would serve as a requiem for the band and for the innocence of the sixties.