Of the seven years that the Beatles made records, 1968 was among the most productive. In the earliest days of their career, they customarily turned out two albums and a pair of singles per year, but in 1968 they outdid themselves. Over a 10-month period, the Beatles recorded the singles “Lady Madonna”/“The Inner Light” and “Hey Jude”/“Revolution,” more than 30 new compositions intended for The Beatles (a.k.a. the White Album), and a pair of John Lennon's songs: “Hey Bulldog,” which would appear on the soundtrack for the animated film Yellow Submarine, and his transcendental ballad “Across the Universe.” During this same period, George Harrison and Paul McCartney were actively nurturing talent for their new label, Apple, providing them with songs and production assistance.
Most bands would have taken some well-earned time off, but on January 2 of the new year, the Beatles gathered to begin work on yet another album. The idea for it had begun with Paul McCartney. The sessions for the White Album had been long, tedious and fractious, and several of its songs had been recorded by Lennon and McCartney as, essentially, solo efforts, with some—and sometimes none—of the Beatles assisting. McCartney's bossy nature had damaged his relationships with George Harrison and, especially, Lennon, who was exploring avant-garde musical concepts with his new girlfriend, Yoko Ono, and had little interest in continuing with the Beatles.
Hoping to mend things, McCartney proposed a project to help them “get back” to their roots as live performers by recording as a four-piece, using no studio effects and few if any overdubs. The idea appealed to McCartney not only as a way to re-energize his band mates but also as a means to coax them back onstage for a show or two, “so people can see the boys rocking out again,” he said. The Beatles had not performed publicly since August 1966, when they retired from touring to focus on making albums.
Lennon, for his part, was drawn to the concept because it spoke to his emerging minimalist leanings, as well as to his desire to return to his rock and roll influences. “We got a bit pretentious,” Lennon told an interview in September 1968, in reference to their 1967 masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “We had our phase, and now it’s a little change over to trying to be more natural… Really, I just like rock and roll.”
Though Lennon, Harrison and Ringo Starr agreed to McCartney’s concept, they vetoed his request for the Beatles to perform live. Instead, they conceded to make a TV documentary that would show the group rehearsing songs for a forthcoming album. To that end, on January 2, they convened in the unlikely setting of Twickenham Film Studios in London to begin work on the new record, tentatively titled Get Back. Documenting nearly every minute of the proceedings was a small film crew under the direction of director Michael Lindsay-Hogg.
Over the next 14 days, they worked a number of new songs that would eventually be released on Let It Be, as well as some that showed up on Abbey Road (“Sun King,” “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”) and solo Beatles albums (including McCartney’s “Teddy Boy,” Lennon’s “Give Me Some Truth” and Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass”). But the large soundstage and constant presence of the film crew was unnerving, and the old tensions soon resurfaced. On January 10, Harrison walked out after feuding with McCartney over how to play a lead break on “I’ve Got a Feeling.” When he returned a few days later, plans for the television show were scuttled.
With no further need to stay at Twickenham, the Beatles—with film crew still in tow—moved the sessions to their own Apple Studios on January 20. Joining them was keyboardist Billy Preston, a new Apple Records artist whom the group knew from their days in Hamburg, when he’d played in Little Richard’s backing group.
There was just one problem: Apple’s recording studio was inoperable. Its design had been entrusted to “Magic Alex” Mardas, a pal of Lennon’s who headed up Apple Corps’ consumer electronics division. Mardas had no electronics background, but he had somehow charmed Lennon into believing he could manufacture a 72-track tape recorder and devise sonic force fields that would create an invisible audio barrier around Ringo Starr’s drum kit. Arriving at Apple, the Beatles discovered that Mardas had built only a mixing console, and even that didn’t work. George Martin made an urgent call to Abbey Road Studios and requested that a proper mixing console and tape recorder be sent over immediately.
The gear arrived, along with Alan Parsons, who at the time was an Abbey Road tape operator. “Abbey Road's technical engineers brought two old tube consoles in,” he recalls, “one from the mobile units and one from a room at Abbey Road that wasn’t booked that week.” An eight-track tape deck was procured as well, though Parsons isn’t sure if it came from Abbey Road or belonged to George Harrison.
Parsons stuck around to assist on the sessions, working with both George Martin and Glyn Johns, whom McCartney had invited to serve in an unofficial capacity as coproducer. Johns, who would go on to work with Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and many other rock and roll greats, was uncertain of his role, though in the months after the Get Back sessions he would be asked to plow through the hours of recordings to create an album’s worth of releasable material. His mixes were ultimately rejected for being a too revealing of the group's dispirited state.
A wealth of photos and footage from the Let It Be sessions leave no question as to the band’s gear choices. Harrison is often seen playing his custom-made rosewood Fender Telecaster and 1957 Gibson Les Paul Standard, dubbed “Lucy,” that he received from Eric Clapton. Lennon is rarely seen without his stripped-down Epiphone Casino. McCartney uses his 1963 Hofner 500/1 exclusively, although he can be seen playing his 1961 500/1 at Twickenham Film Studios. Harrison and Lennon often shared Harrison’s Gibson J-200, and McCartney plays his Martin D-28 on “Two of Us.” Harrison and Lennon also took turns laying down the bottom end with the six-string Fender Bass VI: Harrison uses it on “Two of Us,” and Lennon can be seen playing it on “Dig It.” In addition, Lennon plays the slide solo on Harrison’s “For You Blue” using a Hofner Hawaiian Standard lap steel.
The Beatles were strictly Fender amp devotees at this point, with Harrison and Lennon playing through 85-watt “silverface” Twin amps with vibrato and reverb, while McCartney used a 50-watt silverface Bassman head and tall Bassman cabinet. Harrison also played through a Leslie 147RV rotary speaker cabinet, which would become a staple part of his rig.
The highlight of the sessions came on January 30, when the Beatles took to the roof of Apple Corps for an afternoon performance, their last public showing as a group. Their set included versions of “Get Back,” “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I’ve Got A Feeling,” plus “The One After 909,” “Dig A Pony” and a half-hearted attempt at “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” a song eventually recorded for Abbey Road.
“I think the reason for the rooftop session was to generate a little excitement,” Parsons says. “They were sick of just playing the same tunes over and over again. They just wanted to get a solid performance recorded, and I think that, until they did go on the roof, they hadn’t really achieved that. Or at least they didn’t think that they had.” The rooftop show resulted in three of the album tracks: “I’ve Got a Feeling,” One After 909” and “Dig a Pony.” (Although the album version of “Get Back” ends with applause from the rooftop performance, it was simply edited onto the end of the “best” take of that song, from the January 27 studio session.)
Despite being mostly recorded before Abbey Road, Let It Be was the last Beatles album released. The project languished throughout 1969 while the Beatles slowly broke up. Late that year, a decision was made to create an album and film from the sessions, requiring additional work from the band. On January 3, 1970, McCartney, Harrison and Starr convened in Abbey Road's Studio Two to record Harrison’s “I Me Mine.” Footage in the Let It Be film shows the three rehearsing the song at Twickenham; this day’s session was held in order to create a releasable version of the song for the album. The following day, the three participated in overdubs for the song “Let It Be.” (Lennon was in Denmark and did not participate in these two sessions.)
On March 23, producer Phil Spector was brought in to put a polish on the tapes. By this point, the Beatles’ original plan to release the recordings in their original rough form had long been abandoned, and Spector freely added lavish orchestral and choir overdubs to several tracks, including “I Me Mine,” McCartney’s “The Long and Winding Road” and Lennon’s “Across the Universe” (which, like “I Me Mine,” was featured briefly in the Let It Be film).
Though McCartney has criticized Spector’s heavy-handed production, Lennon praised his work. “He was given the shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever, and he made something of it,” Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1971. The 2003 release of Let It Be…Naked served up a selection of the sessions’ tracks in a form closer to what McCartney had originally envisioned, demonstrating finally that the project wasn’t perhaps quite as bad as Lennon had claimed. Ironically, the Beatles would follow up this, their rawest recording ever, with the most sophisticated studio recording in their catalog: Abbey Road. Most would agree that it was an entirely more appropriate swan song for one of the greatest and most influential groups.