Let It Be was released fifty years ago on this day (8 May), but the anniversary of the Beatles’ final studio album just serves as another reminder of the generational transcendence and influence of their music.
It also recalls the fractious nature of their demise and the emotionally-charged recording sessions — but regardless, the band has remained so steeped in the world of music that it is practically impossible to understand modern music without them.
“If you turn on any rock/indie radio station and listen for five minutes, in the songs I listen to the harmony, recording techniques, lyrical content, musical style and much else is very evocative of The Beatles era,” said London-based pianist and producer James Beckwith.
Since 1966, the band became increasingly insular and tensions mounted over creative direction, exacerbating conditions as George Harrison had felt under-appreciated when compared to the iconic duo of Lennon and McCartney. After the 1968 release of the White Album — described as “four solo albums under one roof” by Rolling Stone — the band retreated to Twickenham Film Studios to record Get Back. It was meant to reunite them, but the egos and conflict that ensued only damaged the band. This is epitomised in may not be the ‘I Me Mine’ lyrics: “All through the day / I me mine, I me mine, I me mine / All through the night / I me mine, I me mine, I me mine”
Strained by pre-existing business pressure, partially from the death of then-manager Brian Epstein in 1967, the relationships between the four members further disintegrated during these recording sessions, at one point driving Harrison to announce he was quitting the band and telling his bandmates he would “see [them] round the clubs.”
Then, a month before the release of Let It Be, in a press release for McCartney, Paul McCartney told the press he couldn’t see a time when the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership would be active again — and eight years of the Beatles creating music to shake music around the world halted.
McCartney has said he didn’t mean it as by way of an announcement of the band splitting, but there had been evidence to suggest as much since 1966. After the recording sessions finished for Let It Be, Phil Spector was handed the recordings and tapes, giving him the job of editing it to something that the band would be content with releasing.
McCartney had spent time away from the rest of the Beatles to record his debut solo album, and Ringo Starr told him the band wanted Let It Be to be released sooner and for McCartney to postpone from his release from April till June. Eventually, Let It Be was moved to May 8 – but it had seemed the band had come to an end a month beforehand.
Fifty years later, and it seems impossible to begin to imagine a world where The Beatles aren’t a feature in a conversation about legacy, cultural dominance, and icons.
“When all is said and done with every element of The Beatles success dissected and analysed, it is the quality and quantity of the music that will guarantee their legacy,” said David Bedford, a Liverpool author and Beatles Story ambassador.
“It was ground-breaking, innovative and original, planting the seeds of inspiration for all the bands that have followed in their wake.”
Although Let It Be was released after Abbey Road, it was recorded — for the most part — before. Yet work was still being done on Let It Be in 1970. As much as Abbey Road lends itself to the romantic vision of their last album, Let It Be marks the true end of the Beatles. Granted, Abbey Road’s final track listing is ‘The End’, but it doesn’t carry the same weight as the pervasive theme of melancholy that seems etched into all the song of Let It Be — possibly a symptom of the recording conditions, but likewise indicative of the band knowing time was drawing to a close.The ending of Let It Be suits the mythos of the Beatles more than Abbey Road, exemplified with the last lyrics of ‘Get Back’: “Get back ooh / Thanks, Moe / I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves / And I hope we passed the audition”.
The chorus of ‘Two of Us’ — “You and I have memories / Longer than the road that stretches out ahead” — seems to reveal that the band were aware the end was imminent for them as a collective, but there was recognition of their solo careers, which were already beginning.
“When they started work on Abbey Road, they wanted to make an album the way they used to make them, creating one of the best Beatles albums ever. What a way to go out,” said Bedford.
And still, fifty years on from their last release, the Beatles are still as crucial and triumphant as they have been since their break-up — even Beatlemania has managed to survive, to some degree, passed lovingly between generations.
Figures released by Spotify showed the band had been streamed 1.7 billion times by October last year — nearly 10 percent of the streaming service’s users during that period.
“They were certainly unique for their time, and I think it was a combination of a strong writing partnership between Lennon & McCartney, and that they were the first truly world famous musical celebrities,” said Beckwith.
“They also defined the 1960s, forming at the beginning and breaking up at the end. Martyred perhaps because of their short time together.”
The cultural influence still exerted by the Fab Four permeates into so many veins of society still. Yesterday, a film about their fictionalised disappearance from history was released just last year, while their music returned to the charts when their back catalogue when released digitally, notes Bedford.
So many artists since have been touted, or desperately desired by fans, to be the next Beatles: a group that could emulate the Liverpudlians, just as they had done, with Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. But nobody has truly come close to doing it.
Oasis had their raw authenticity, One Direction had their own invasion of the US, while the Monkees, with rounded trim and quirky foursome, never amounted to much in comparison. The list of bands supposed to inherit the thrones of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr is continuous and its repeated shortcomings feeds into the mysticism and legacy of the Beatles.
Timeless, eternally effervescent and powerful, a time without mention of band is impossible, so much were they the zeitgeist of a musical generation. Yes, they can be overdone — as my mother said when driving one day: “Try listening to these songs for another 40 years, maybe you’ll get tired.” But, I still catch her listening to them, and I don’t think that’ll ever stop, for any of us.
Words by Billy Brake