Gimme a Reason takes classic albums celebrating major anniversaries and breaks down song by song the reasons we still love them so many years later. This week, we celebrate 50 years of The Beatles’ Let It Be.
It’s become an iconic scene: The Beatles carrying out their last-ever live performance on the roof of Apple Corps, joined by keyboardist and general legend Billy Preston, their long hair flipping around in the London wind while they recorded live takes of songs like “Dig a Pony” and “Don’t Let Me Down” before eventually being shut down by the Metropolitan Police.
The event was unannounced. Onlookers gathered on their lunch breaks, looking up at the midday sensation. This was the concert from which the final version of the Let It Be album would in part manifest, preserving takes of three of its songs.
The Beatles offered the world a wide range of emotional experiences, both in their music and in the surrounding stories of their lives, which is why, when thinking about their dissolution, it can be easy to have a selective memory. There were many reasons for The Beatles breaking up. Most of these fed into the division and animosity the group was facing while recording Let It Be — animosity immortalized in the documentary of the same name, which shows only some of the friction that characterized their sessions at Twickenham.
It’s a disheartening thing to witness in a band known so markedly in their early days for their camaraderie and sense of collaboration. For all their differences, they were a band who experienced a level of popularity that at that point in time was unprecedented, and only each of them knew what that was like for the others — and this kind of friendship, marketed and romanticized in the eyes of the public, is the kind that same public hates to see come up against obstacles. Especially when some of those obstacles are the same interpersonal dynamics that worked well before, exacerbated now by personal tragedies, disagreements, business disputes, and good old-fashioned frustration.
But in spite of all of this — or maybe not in spite of it, maybe through it — they managed to put together a solid album that still creates a memorable effect today. Let It Be was recorded mostly prior to Abbey Road, albeit just barely, but it was released afterward, which means much of the world views it as their last official album.
Let It Be captures the essence of a specific Beatles dynamic that was not sustainable for much longer — a precipice in time that they knew they were about to step off of. A band whose legacy is built on their enthusiasm for change and evolution, The Beatles explored a new style and progression in every album they put out, from the old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll of Please Please Me to the folk-inspired Rubber Soul to the pop-rock experimentation and burgeoning psychedelia in Revolver to the colorful conceptualism of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
In Let It Be — the “stripped-back” one, the “return-to-their-roots” one — all of the members knew the band wasn’t long for the world. Ringo Starr had already walked out and later returned during the White Album sessions (welcomed back by George Harrison with a drum set covered in flowers); Harrison would do the same during the sessions for Let It Be. Later, they would pull things together one last time for the smoother Abbey Road sessions, but the bitterness and understated production style of Let It Be — they knew these weren’t things they were coming back to, at least not as a group.
But for this one album, they came together in a way that was fun, mournful, and even healing to a certain degree for the listener. Let’s take a look at some of the ways it happened.
“Two of Us”
01. The lyricism of this song is tender and adventurous: “Burning matches, lifting latches” paints a whole scene in four words.
02. The song has an appealing homemade feel to it — the talking, the whistling, the easy upbeat simplicity of the guitar riff backed by a steady, unchanging drumbeat.
03. The pause between “writing letters” and “on my wall” — the way The Beatles could play with double-meanings in language, turning lyrics around like that using timing.
04. The image of “wearing raincoats, standing solo in the sun” — The Beatles often returned to this way of rendering romance, as something experienced simultaneously alone and together.
05. The delight in the phrase “chasing paper, getting nowhere.” For a band known for their prolific industriousness, it’s nice to find music of theirs that celebrates the joys of moments like this: getting nowhere, being idle, enjoying easy and lazy days with loved ones.
“Dig a Pony”
07. The hammering guitar intro.
08. No one gets a jab in quite like John Lennon, and in this song it feels like he’s nudging people left and right, from the gesture toward The Rolling Stones (“I roll a stoney/ You can imitate everyone you know”) to lines like, “You can indicate everything you see.”
09. The scope of tone that this song reaches, from the gravelly, low-sweeping verses to the eventual build into…
10. The break from “I told you so” into “All/ I want/ Is you!” One of the great things about John Lennon’s lyrics is that sometimes they can be really obscure, almost to the point of nonsense (think “I Am the Walrus”), but then when it matters most, he’ll go completely straight-faced and just howl what he’s trying to say. (He does something similar in the chorus of “Don’t Let Me Down”, too.)
11. The strain in Lennon’s voice when he sings, “I told you so.” It’s a shared quality between Lennon and McCartney as singers, that their voices reach many of their most impactful moments when they rail at top volume.
“Across the Universe”
12. The lyrics in “Across the Universe” are fantastically, for lack of a more fitting word, lyrical. Outer images blend seamlessly here with inner intellectual movement and emotional honesty with spirituality. Lennon said in a Rolling Stone interview in 1970 that he appreciated “Across the Universe” because he thought it could “stand as words, without melody.”
13. The simple proclamation the song always reels back to — “nothing’s gonna change my world” — and the unstated sadness of the fact that that line can’t be true for anyone.
14. It feels worth mentioning that the Fiona Apple cover here — it might not be a specific thing about the making of the album, but one of the cool things about The Beatles in general is how often their music is brought new life by later artists with their own styles. Plus, it’s Fiona Apple!
“I Me Mine”
15. The dark, ballroom-waltz opening.
16. The verses of the song have a somewhat meandering, lamenting feel to them, but the full frustration of the song comes into its best focus with the abrupt drumbeat that slips the rhythm further, into the shouts of the chorus.
17. George was known as the nice Beatle, the quiet Beatle. The pitfalls of easy labels like this might be a whole other conversation, but he was known in general for having a composed, thoughtful, and levelheaded temperament, which is why when he did let his acerbic side show, it tended to hit in a unique way. Harrison’s sardonic side had already shown its face previously on songs like “Think for Yourself” and “Taxman”, but on “I Me Mine”, he let his annoyance loose with full force.
18. Between the acridity of “I Me Mine” and the sorrowfulness and love of “Let It Be”, this track injects a quick (and much needed) dose of humor.
19. The segment on the album is indeed cut out of a much longer jam, which includes John Lennon singing bits from Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”. As a result, the way the song fades into itself and then back out again at the end makes it feel like just the snatched-out middle section of a much longer, unending list. A list of people and things worth digging that might continue on even to this day!
“Let It Be”
20. The solemn piano intro, and how it feels like it’s working around to find the right way into the song.
21. The reference to Paul McCartney’s late mother, Mary McCartney, with the lines “I wake up to the sound of music/ Mother Mary calls to me.”
22. The simple reassurance at the heart of the song, despite it not discounting the situation — what’s happening is really happening, and there are times when all we can do is return to words of wisdom. The composition of “Let It Be” feels like one of those places where you see Paul McCartney at his truest, both in his songwriting and in his vocal performance.
23. George Harrison’s electric guitar solo that crackles through the middle of the track, and later returns to close out the song toward the end, cushioned by a lush background of instrumentation. The melody McCartney puts to his lyrics is beautiful, but the song would be much diminished without Harrison’s bristling guitar hiding at the heart of it.
Click ahead for more reasons we still love Let It Be…
24. For an album initially conceived as being all about a return to The Beatles’ roots, “Maggie Mae”, despite only coming in at a brief 40 seconds, might be the track that best captures this feeling (aside from maybe “One After 909”). The collective skiffle sound is so complete, and everyone sounds like they’re having so much fun — from the joined vocals of McCartney and Lennon to the persistent drumbeat and the meandering “Oh” that emerges in the background — it’s actually a somewhat frustrating effect to only have this verse and a half rather than a complete song.
25. It’s a very Liverpool track — literally, a cover of a traditional folk song. “Maggie Mae” was a staple of the band in their earliest days as The Quarrymen. They make the most of the Liverpool reference in typical dramatic form, stretching their accents accordingly to near-comical levels.
“I’ve Got a Feeling”
26. This was one of the tracks preserved for the final album from the rooftop concert; at the concert, they performed the song twice, but it was this very first take that wound up appearing on the album.
27. At the very beginning of the song, Harrison’s guitar riff takes a curvy downward spiral, and Starr’s drumbeat catches it just before the bottom and breaks into the beginning of the song with a decisive strike. The opening riff is beautifully soft and singular for a song that grows into something so multilayered, a real and concerted effort from all of the band members at once. “I’ve Got a Feeling” feels this way when you listen to it and even more so when you watch the rooftop footage of McCartney, Lennon, and Harrison all playing their guitars alongside each other while Starr drums just behind them and surprised Londoners watch from adjacent balconies and roofs and gather in the street below.
28. The sheer yelling in this song — Paul McCartney can pull off a yell, and he makes it known here in the roars of “I think that everybody knows,” and the practically frenetic bridge, “All these years I’ve been wandering around/ Wondering how come nobody told me/ All I was looking for was somebody who looked like you!”
29. The line, “I’ve got a feeling that keeps me on my toes,” feels like a kind of reassurance coming from The Beatles. McCartney wrote it, but it could have applied to any of them — they’re all always on their toes!
30. The plucking guitar that finds its way around the very edges of the notes, in the background while McCartney is singing.
31. Toward the end, Lennon comes in with his own take on the chord progression, pulling everything into manageable and just-a-tiny-bit-nonsensical terms: “Everybody had a hard year/ Everybody had a good time/ Everybody had a wet dream/ Everybody saw the sunshine.”
32. Hearing Paul McCartney and John Lennon trade off at the end before their voices eventually join atop together has a beautiful effect — they both sound like they’re looking forward, bouncing off of each other’s melodies in a way that feels refreshingly synchronous. The song itself is a combination of two of their unfinished ideas, McCartney’s “I’ve Got a Feeling” and Lennon’s “Everybody Had a Hard Year”, and they match up with each other here seamlessly.
33. In their most solid takes, The Beatles sing like they believe what they’re saying. This is one of those.
“One After 909”
34. The swift cascade of the piano keys!
35. The old-fashioned, roots-rock feeling that propels this song, clattering and jangly and jagged, and…
36. The sharp, fun silence that breaks that sound apart, punctuating the pauses between “Move over once/ Move over twice/ C’mon, baby, don’t be cold as ice.”
37. The nines! Lennon said in a 1980 interview that nine was a number that “followed him around” (see: “Revolution 9”, among other things).
38. Lennon wrote “One After 909” as a teenager, and earlier versions of it can be heard on Anthology 1; after so many years of him having the song in mind and the band attempting it from time to time, it feels like a fortunate choice that it made the cut on Let It Be.
39. And thrown in just at the end, Lennon singing: “Oh Danny boy…”
“The Long and Winding Road”
40. McCartney has said that he was inspired by Ray Charles while writing it and that the song was about trying to capture a kind of yearning for the unattainable.
41. This song is a strange case on Let It Be — it sounds more heavily produced than a lot of the other tracks. This was another pocket of animosity on the album, between primarily Paul McCartney and Phil Spector, whom McCartney thought had overproduced it using his Wall of Sound technique. McCartney’s dissatisfaction with this song in particular was one of the factors that spurred him toward wanting to undertake the Let It Be… Naked project in 2003, and his preferred version was the one that appeared on Naked.
“For You Blue”
42. It’s just a pure song — it takes the sweet side of George Harrison and gives it a country-inspired twist (partially influenced by Harrison’s recent stay with Bob Dylan and The Band in late 1968).
43. The sweet straightforwardness of it actually seems to recall some of the love songs from The White Album, like McCartney’s “Honey Pie”, but with a more rounded-out-sounding approach from the full band and a traditional twelve-bar blues approach to style.
44. Lennon’s lap steel guitar!
45. The opening guitar, the feeling of swiftly building toward something.
46. It’s a story song! But in a strange, wacky, unexpected way — in this sense and this sense only, it bears some similarity to a song like “Eleanor Rigby” with its quick dips into a couple of different small characters’ lives. But instead of Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie, we get Jojo and Loretta Martin, and instead of universal loneliness, we get the persistent urge of needing to get back.
47. “Get Back” was the last song performed at the rooftop concert, which makes it the last song that The Beatles ever recorded as a group for a live audience.
48. Lennon calling out, “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves. I hope we passed the audition,” at the very end, giving the album a feeling of ending on a note of good humor.
49. The assorted talking and random phrases that fill the edges and corners of this whole album — particularly John’s nonsensical falsetto. (It almost feels reminiscent of “You’ll Be Mine”, an extremely early track recorded in McCartney’s bathroom in 1960, which features Lennon and McCartney trading off theatrical falsettos and baritones.) And then there are just the random moments where band members speak or call out to one another — like in the false start at the very beginning of “Dig a Pony”, recorded on the rooftop, when Ringo Starr yells out, “Hold it!” so that he can put out a cigarette.
50. When do we love The Beatles the most? When we listen to Please Please Me, their first album, and dance around our kitchens and houses, singing along at top volume to the early covers and hits informed by ’50s rock ‘n’ roll? When we listen to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and laud the band for the technical milestones they set in music production as an art form? Or when we listen to Let It Be, laugh at its strange moments, and mourn over its solemn ones?
The answer is of course different for everyone. But as their “final” album (if you fall on that side of the debate), Let It Be feels like it occupies a unique proximity to the world’s love for The Beatles — after the band had already come apart, it gave the world, and their millions of fans, something to mourn over. Some songs to listen to in the wake of a loss, some music to recognize.
Sometimes when we listen to The Beatles, we listen to The Beatles. We think about them hard. But sometimes we just let them be there for us, for better or worse, in times of conflict and sorrow. While it could also ring of unbridled joy, their music in the end shied away from neither of these. Although this feels like an odd thing to write in an article, the effects of music in times of mourning can’t always be verbalized; sometimes the sound just has to wash over you. In Let It Be, from beginning to end, in its weak moments and in its strong ones, it does.