How Phil Spector Turned the Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ Into ‘Let It Be’
As Paul McCartney was preparing to reveal to the world that the Beatles had broken up, the band turned to one of its idols, producer Phil Spector, to bring the material recorded during the Get Back sessions to fruition.
"[Spector had] always wanted to work with the Beatles," John Lennon told Jann Wenner in a 1970 Rolling Stone interview, "and he was given the shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever, and he made something out of it. He did a great job."
The famed producer was brought into the project by Allen Klein, whose appointment as Beatles manager over McCartney's objections would prove to be a factor in their split. By the time Spector arrived on the scene, the bulk of the tapes were more than a year old, having been recorded in January 1969. The original intent of Get Back, which was McCartney's idea, was to eschew the studio trickery of the previous few years and record a new album with no overdubs. A documentary film crew observed everything, including the group's first live performance in more than two years on the rooftop of Apple's London headquarters.
Engineer Glyn Johns was given the opportunity to create an album out of the piles of session tapes. By the end of May 1969, a sequence was compiled and a cover photo was taken. But the group wasn't happy with the results, and by July were into sessions for a new LP, Abbey Road, which came out in September. Johns made another attempt at Get Back in December, with instructions to include only music that was to be featured in the movie. This required additional recording on "I Me Mine" and some overdubs applied to "Let It Be," as well as another round of mixes. The Beatles again rejected Johns' work; Spector was hired a few months later.
According to Mark Lewisohn's The Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Abbey Road Studio Session Notes, 1962-1970, Spector started at Abbey Road Studio's Room 4 on March 23, 1970. That first day resulted in getting final mixes of three of the songs from the rooftop performance - "I've Got a Feeling," "One After 909" and "Dig a Pony." He also started work on "I Me Mine" and "Across the Universe," getting them ready for the orchestral overdubs he was planning to use.
Listen to the Beatles' 'Let It Be'
The producer returned two days later to work on "Two of Us," "For You Blue" and "Teddy Boy," a curious choice since Johns had been told to remove the song from his initial sequence because it wasn't going to be in the movie. Plus, McCartney had slated his own version for his upcoming first solo album. On March 26, "The Long and Winding Road" was prepped for the orchestra, and "Let It Be" was reworked to create a version that was slightly different from the single that came out a few weeks earlier. The next two days involved inserting dialogue from the movie into the master recording and preparing the final mixes of "Dig It" and "For You Blue."
April 1 turned out to be the session that would polarize both the Beatles and their fans. Spector moved from Room 4 into the bigger Studio 1, where a 33-piece orchestra and 14 vocalists overdubbed parts onto "Across the Universe," "The Long and Winding Road," and "I Me Mine." Richard Hewson wrote the scores and conducted the musicians.
Engineer Brian Gibson told Lewisohn that Spector worked differently from anybody else he'd ever worked with; he reportedly wanted all the effects added as they were being recorded instead of afterward. He recalled Spector losing his temper with the studio's less-than-state-of-the-art equipment until Ringo Starr, who was brought in to play drums along with the orchestra, "took him quietly aside and said, 'Look, they can't do that, they're doing the best they can. Just cool it.'"
Another engineer, Peter Bown, recalled that the musicians were contracted to play only two songs but were given scores for three, without the promise of extra payment. "I warned Phil that he'd never get away with it," Bown said. "And of course the orchestra got up and walked out." The stoppage lasted beyond midnight - Bown even went home - until Spector caved.
The next day, Spector mixed the results and duplicated 51 seconds of "I Me Mine" to extend the song to 2:25. Those seven sessions, held across 10 days, were the extent of the producer's contribution. A little more than a month later, on May 8, the album was finally released as Let It Be.
McCartney was the unhappiest with the results, and was still dissatisfied more than 30 years later. In 2003, he took the lead on Let It Be ... Naked, which removed much of Spector's work, including the orchestra and various studio chatter. McCartney also cut "Dig It" and "Maggie Mae," and added the B-side "Don't Let Me Down," from the revised LP's track listing.