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Did John Lennon really sabotage 'The Long and Winding Road' by The Beatles?

The making of Let It Be will always be seen as having been notoriously difficult. Although the recent docuseries The Beatles: Get Back has done a pretty fantastic job at disproving the myth that The Beatles were at each other’s throats during their final year as a band, there were still plenty of difficulties accounted for during the recordings.

Most notable were the intentions of the band, specifically Paul McCartney, to record a new set of songs that dispensed with the studio wizardry and dense overdubs that had taken over their work since Revolver. McCartney wished for the band to return to their stripped-down rock and roll origins, but the truth was that The Beatles were woefully unprepared to once again become a functioning rock unit.

The best example is in the haphazard switching of instruments that occurred during the recording sessions. Whereas McCartney would usually save a bass part for overdubbing, that didn’t gel with the live concept he was after. As such, when McCartney was on either guitar or keyboards, someone else had to step in to play the bass parts. The responsibility usually fell to John Lennon, who picked up a Fender Bass VI to record the low end for McCartney’s ballad ‘The Long and Winding Road’.

The only problem? Lennon wasn’t a bass player. The Fender Bass VI allowed a more comfortable set-up for guitar players to play bass, but Lennon’s intuition for bass is clearly not up to snuff. A number of notes he plays throughout the chosen take of the song are strangely picked, if not flat out wrong. The lazy and meandering bassline serves the themes of the song well, but the second you start to pay attention to it, it becomes obvious just how little it gels with the rest of the song.

In his book Revolution in the Head, writer Ian MacDonald doesn’t mince words when it comes to the song’s bass. “It features some atrocious bass-playing by Lennon, prodding clumsily around as if uncertain of the harmonies and making many comical mistakes.” He then puts forth a wild theory: “Lennon’s crude bass playing on ‘The Long and Winding Road’, though largely accidental, amounts to sabotage when presented as finished work.”

Soon after, the notion that Lennon either subconsciously or intentionally had sabotaged ‘The Long and Winding Road’ began to take hold. As evidence, most would point to Lennon’s detached ambivalence towards much of the band’s recording at this time, his clear lack of interest in bass playing, and his later accusations that McCartney had sabotaged some of Lennon’s tracks, including ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. Even Phil Spector claimed that the extensive orchestral overdubs present on the final mix were largely to cover up Lennon’s poor playing.

While Lennon’s ambivalence is certainly well documented and on full display here, what’s more likely is that Lennon was simply uncomfortable on the instrument. He didn’t have a large amount of say (although he did get asked his approval) over which take got used, and there’s even a chance that no one, including McCartney himself, was too bothered by the performance. While it remains baffling years later, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that no one really noticed or gave much thought to the bass line being out of tune in parts of ‘The Long and Winding Road’.

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