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The Beatles

Let It Be...Naked

(Apple/Capitol)

Spin the latest entry in the Beatles' catalog and you'll be transported, as they say, to a simpler time.

That simpler time isn't the halcyon 60s, though--it's the late 80s, when we all thought the worst that could happen to the Fab Four's memory would be Michael Jackson's buying out Northern Songs, or maybe Nike's commandeering "Revolution" for a shoe commercial.

But as the new Let It Be...Naked project shows, things can always get uglier.

The new set--which includes a remixed Let It Be and a bonus disc, Fly on the Wall, that strings together dialogue from the sessions--has touched off yet another wave of Beatles nostalgia, but even critics of the retooling have largely ignored the proprietary controversy in the middle of the musical one. On paper, the stripping away of Phil Spector's 11th-hour production on the 1970 original was supposed to result in a purer, more faithful document of the Beatles' acrimonious and ill-fated sessions for "Get Back" (the album's working title). But this notion, reinforced by the new record's title, is a dodge, as anyone who's heard bootleg tapes from those sessions--or seen the movie Let It Be--will immediately recognize. What it dodges, and what's obscured by this ballyhooed peeling back of the layers, is a sticky question whose answer has less to do with authenticity or artistic integrity than it does with the knotty business of ownership and entitlement as well as ego--one man's in particular.

To be a Paul McCartney fan is to be a Paul McCartney apologist. Even for those of us who find his bubbly enthusiasm and thumbs-aloft image charming rather than grating, McCartney can be trying at times. As the late Beatles scholar Ian MacDonald observed: "The price of his endless energy was a lack of instinct for when to leave well alone."

While the official Apple line is that McCartney was hands-off in the so-called demixing of Let It Be, he's been talking up the idea for years, and his shadow looms large over the finished product. In addition to the new mix the track list has been reordered, with McCartney cuts ("Get Back" and "Let It Be") now opening and closing the disc. Two John Lennon songs, admittedly makeweight, have been excised altogether, along with all of his between-songs patter. And even though Lennon's dirgey "Don't Let Me Down" is rescued from B-side ignominy, it's hard to imagine how the balance of the record could be tipped any further in McCartney's favor.

McCartney's main problem with Let It Be has always been Spector's heavy-handed efforts, especially the mawkish strings and chorals grafted onto "The Long and Winding Road." It was an effrontery so severe, goes the familiar gripe, that it not only cemented the band's split and initiated a flurry of lawsuits but also unleashed a tide of ill will that has never ebbed. It's a wonder McCartney hasn't worn his teeth to dust, gritting them as he has for the past 33 years every time some oldies DJ plays the song.

Yet McCartney himself released an equally schmaltzy version of the tune on the sound track to his 1984 vanity flick, Give My Regards to Broad Street. (And if McCartney's intent on fixing old albums, there are far worthier candidates. I humbly suggest he start with his solo catalog, beginning with 1986's Press to Play--his godawful response to punk, delivered a decade late.) One thing Macca's never noted--at least within earshot--is that Spector's efforts, on "Road" in particular, were largely a cover for Lennon, whose maladroit bass playing on the original was nothing less than musical sabotage.

Lennon's copiously documented attitude toward the sessions careened between overstated boredom and outright loathing. He peppered the band's run-throughs with snotty asides and silly embellishments, frequently ripping into the nasal screech he'd previously reserved for when he felt a performance was beyond salvaging. On recordings of the sessions it pops up whenever Lennon seems to feel the music getting too sincere for its own good. Even harmless old chestnuts like "Yakety Yak"--a song nobody should have cared about one way or the other, even in 1969--were treated to the old Walrus's extemporaneous honks, yelps, wheezes, and blats.

Lennon's and McCartney's feelings about the project are neatly contrasted by the original album's hilarious side-one sequencing trick, which sandwiched Paul's affectingly personal title track--about his late mother--between Lennon's flip intro ("And now we'd like to do 'Hark the Angels Come'") and "Maggie Mae," a dirty rhyme about a Liverpool prostitute.

Musically Naked is a predictable bit of revisionism, but Fly on the Wall is an altogether more blatant effort at whitewashing history. Arguments, walkouts, and tension dominated the recording of Let It Be, but from this audio montage you'd think it was a light, friendly affair rather than the fractious, soul-crushing drudgery that Lennon once described as "the most miserable sessions on earth."

Those truly itching to hear the Beatles au naturel will have to pick up Vigotone's 17-disc set Thirty Days, an exhaustive bootleg documenting the entire Let It Be fiasco--the rapid and ugly demise of the world's biggest band. Thirty Days includes an array of less than genial exchanges between band members--like Paul's proposing a run-through of "One After 909" and getting a terse "fuck you" from a moody, heroin-addled Lennon. And then there's Lennon's obvious distaste for the Catholic orthodoxy of Macca's paean to his sainted ma. At one point he openly mocks the song, asking: "Are we supposed to giggle during the chorus?"

All this reworking of the past--coming three decades after the fact--smacks of the schoolyard. More than anything, it's proof of McCartney's pathological need to trumpet his own achievements and influence. It's a habit nearly as unbecoming as his continually telling people how Michael Jackson hoodwinked him out of the Beatles song catalog and his bragging that Yoko Ono actually hit on him first.

McCartney's always been his own worst enemy in his clumsy campaign to court public opinion. Take, for example, the flap that erupted last year with Ono over his desire to reorder the Lennon-McCartney credit on a handful of Beatles songs. Though he had a legitimate argument, and while Ono herself is guilty of the worst sort of hypocrisy in the matter (for more, see Gilbert Garcia's "The Ballad of Paul and Yoko" at Salon.com), McCartney was perceived as the villain, trying to screw the dearly departed in the pettiest manner possible.

Here's his "official" statement on the matter: "An incident that happened recently made me wonder whether it wouldn't be such a bad idea to have each song labelled accurately so that people would know which of the two composers had the bigger input in which song. Late one night I was in an empty bar flicking through the bar pianist's music book when I came across 'Hey Jude written by John Lennon'. If there is an argument for 'correct labelling' I think this is probably the best one. Computers these days often allow certain space for labelling of any item and as we all know the end of the label often gets cut off. For instance, I recently went to see a film which the tickets described as 'Miss Congenia'."

Let It Be...Naked is certainly a fine trick of misdirection. Beatles fanatics salivate over any kind of improvement over the outdated and poorly transferred original discs--witness the ecstatic response to 1999's remastered Yellow Submarine, an inconsequential album if ever there was one. But Naked isn't the organic effort it's being advertised as (the cover sticker claims it's the album "as nature intended")--it's more like Stalinist censorship, a strategically mapped makeover that evinces all the polish and tidy professionalism of pop's premier tactician. The only thing naked about it is McCartney's ambition.

The album's critical and commercial success will likely only embolden Macca, who probably has a lot more ideas in store for the Beatles' back catalog. Immediate on the agenda is the DVD release of the film version of Let It Be, long out of print in any home-theater format. Given the advancements in CGI and digital editing, it's not unthinkable that Macca might want to tweak one or two of the movie's more unflattering scenes, "remastering" Lennon's undisguised sneers, for example, or "enhancing" Harrison's impolite reactions to McCartney's many detailed suggestions regarding what, when, and how the Quiet One should play.

Working his way backward, perhaps Macca will reconfigure "The White Album" along the lines of Outkast's latest, splitting the songs so that one CD features all of his tunes and the other all of Lennon's. After all, what were Lennon and McCartney if not the Big Boi and Andre 3000 of their generation? (George and Ringo can each have a flexi-disc.)

The saddest thing about all this is that we've already forgiven McCartney his trespasses, real and imagined--hell, we've forgiven Yoko--and he still can't leave it alone, intent upon micro-managing old work even as his new material suffers (a phenomenon formerly known as the Townshend Effect). It seems a lifetime of glory, money, and adulation hasn't convinced McCartney he's passed the audition.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ethan Russel, Apple Corps. Ltd..

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