No album in The Beatles’ discography is more controversial than Let It Be. Although records like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The White Album were subjected to bewilderment and criticism upon their initial releases, they quickly became landmarks in the evolution of popular music. Let It Be, in contrast, was surrounded by conflict, publically lambasted by some of the band members upon release, and primarily overshadowed by the break up of the group. For many listeners, Let It Be became representative of the sad end of The Beatles, mired by infighting and unhappiness.
The recent docu-series The Beatles: Get Back did quite a bit to redeem Let It Be and its less-than savoury reputation among Beatlemaniacs. The series showed that the band weren’t constantly at each other’s throats and most of the sessions seemed productive, jaunty, and enthusiastic, especially once the group moved to their Apple headquarters and brought in keyboardist Billy Preston. Although the tensions and disagreements were still there, The Beatles were not the spent entity that they thought to have been.
That doesn’t save Let It Be from being a bit of a mess, however. There was a reason why the band opted to shelve the project and record a completely new album Abbey Road, following the sessions for Get Back. At the time, there was no expectation that the project would see completion, and the band rejected producer Glyn Johns’ initial mix of the material. Only when director Michael Lindsay-Hogg completed his documentary on the album’s recording that a soundtrack album become necessary. Thus, producer Phil Spector was brought in to assemble the album.
Although all four members initially signed off on Spector’s involvement, Paul McCartney became dissatisfied with his production flourishes, including the use of choirs and lush orchestrations, on songs like ‘The Long and Winding Road’. In addition, new Beatles manager Allen Klein arranged to have McCartney’s solo debut postponed in order to bump up the release of Let It Be. McCartney was incensed and refused to delay his album. Just to drive the point home, during a press release for McCartney, McCartney indicated that he had no plans to record any new material with The Beatles, effectively announcing their break up to the rest of the world.
When Let It Be was released on May 8th, 1970, it was during the immediate mourning period that many fans were feeling over The Beatles’ breakup. The album itself was shrouded in negative feelings, and initial critical reviews were either mixed or negative. The studio snippets, the use of live material, and the overdubs initiated by Spector were immediately contentious, and the subsequent squabbling between band members led to Let It Be accruing a dismal reputation, especially when compared to the group’s other albums.
Today, thanks to 50 years of hindsight and reappraisal, Let It Be is largely celebrated as The Beatles’ final hurrah. Just like The White Album, its flaws have now largely become part of its charm, even if Spector’s additions can be distracting. McCartney attempted to rectify what he saw as the album’s flaws on 2003’s Let It Be… Naked, but the original version of the album has become the official document that brought the world’s most legendary band to an end.
To celebrate the album’s birthday, we’re looking back at the original LP and ranking all of its tracks from worst to best. From the fleeting nature of ‘Dig It’ to the emotional power of ‘Two of Us’, these are all the songs from Let It Be, ranked in order of greatness.
The Beatles’ Let It Be, ranked in order of greatness:
12. ‘Dig It’
It feels almost unfair to even rank ‘Dig It’ on this list, considering how the song is just a 50-second snippet that Spector opted to include on the final album. That being said, had any amount of the 15-minute jam session been included on the final cut, it would have still landed at the bottom of this list.
‘Dig It’ is a formless and pointless exercise. In that way, it’s a great representation of what the atmosphere was like for much of the Get Back sessions: confused, unproductive, and unfocused. Had George Martin been in charge like normal instead of just being a passive bystander in the sessions, ‘Dig It’ would never have seen the light of day. 50 seconds is the perfect amount of time to listen to ‘Dig It’, but even that is too much for this non-song.
11. ‘Maggie Mae’
‘Maggie May’ ranks above ‘Dig It’ for one simple reason: at least it’s an actual song. In fact, ‘Maggie Mae’ is a traditional English folk song with strong ties to the band’s hometown of Liverpool. That alone makes it a historical reference point, showing the band recalling the songs of their youth that align with McCartney’s original Get Back concept.
Unfortunately, this is little more than another tossed off jam that somehow wound up on the final cut of the album. ‘Maggie Mae’ shows that Let It Be was conceived just as much as a soundtrack album as it was a studio LP, and had footage of the band playing it not appeared in Lindsay-Hogg’s documentary, there would have been no reason to include it on the final version.
10. ‘Dig a Pony’
John Lennon had a problem during the Get Back sessions: he couldn’t finish any of his songs. In the midst of serious heroin addiction and largely disconnected from the sessions that were taking place, Lennon retreated into Yoko Ono’s embrace and wrote very little material during the trying time. When he did have the basis for a song, filler lyrics were often written down to be changed at a later date.
‘Dig a Pony’ is a song that never got its filler lyrics replaced, and it brings down what is otherwise a strong track with its flurry of gibberish and nonsense. A strong central riff, steady rock groove, and explosive chorus are all betrayed by Lennon’s inability to focus on songwriting. Even worse, the band never got a great take of the song down, forcing them to use a rough version that was recorded during the band’s January 30th rooftop concert.
9. ‘One After 909’
Because of the lack of songs from Lennon, The Beatles were facing a crisis – they weren’t going to have enough pieces to fill out an album. Of course, they would have had enough if Lennon and McCartney bothered to pay attention to the now-prolific George Harrison. Instead, the two went to their vault to look for old songs from the beginning of their songwriting partnership to see if any were worth dusting off.
‘One After 909’ is a solid rocker played with loose energy, and it has its merits: it aligns with the Get Back concept and is the perhaps the only song on the album that benefits from its live concert sound. It’s a bit slight and nowhere near the peaks that the band are capable of, but it’s a fun listen that doesn’t feel out of place on the album as a whole.
8. ‘For You Blue’
George Harrison was the most vexed member of The Beatles during the Get Back sessions. Having just returned from a highly collaborative trip to the United States where he jammed with Bob Dylan and The Band, Harrison returned with a large array of new songs and a determination to have his voice be more prominently featured alongside his bandmates.
Instead, Harrison was largely ignored and shot down throughout the sessions, with classic songs like ‘All Things Must Pass’ and ‘Isn’t It a Pity’ getting little attention from his bandmates. Harrison began throwing in lesser material in order to save his best songs for himself, and ‘For You Blue’ is little more than a standard 12-bar blues. It’s a wonderfully performed 12-bar blues, but it mainly serves as a sad reminder of how little attention was being paid to Harrison and his progression as a master songwriter.
7. ‘The Long and Winding Road’
Here we come to a logical question with regards to this list: are we ranking the songs themselves, or the versions that appear on Let It Be? ‘The Long and Winding Road’ is one of McCartney’s most stirring and emotionally resonant ballads, and just based on the composition of the song itself, it is easily one of the highlights of Let It Be. At least it would have been had Phil Spector not stepped in.
The over-production of ‘The Long and Winding Road’, illustrated by the schlocky choir and overdramatic string arrangement, was a major point of contention with McCartney and remained the most obvious reminder that Let It Be was created in the midst of divisions and disillusionment within The Beatles. It’s sad that such a beautiful song has to have such a nasty history around it, but if you listen to ‘The Long and Winding Road’ without any prior context, it can still be that stirring ballad that it always was at its core, with or (preferably) without Spector’s involvement.
6. ‘I Me Mine’
There’s a terrifically sad moment during The Beatles: Get Back where George Harrison arrives at the icy confines of Twickenham Studios with a new song. Inspired by a programme on the BBC the previous night covering traditional ballroom waltzes, Harrison decided to create his own while sneaking in some critiques on the way The Beatles were operating at the time, ‘I Me Mine’.
The heartbreaking moment comes when he shows the song to his bandmates, with Lennon, in particular, being critical and uninterested. Harrison states that he doesn’t care whether the band want to record it or not, and it’s another song that wouldn’t have been included had Lindsay-Hogg not shown footage of it in his documentary. ‘I Me Mine’ is a lovely tune that eventually got its proper attention, but only after Lennon had already left the band in September of 1969.
5. ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’
By 1969, Lennon and McCartney were hardly ever writing songs together anymore. They would consistently throw suggestions out for the others’ songs, but the days of writing eyeball-to-eyeball were most assuredly over. ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ is representative of the only way that a true Lennon-McCartney composition could come together in the later years: with the two writing separately and then joining together their unfinished material.
‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ is largely a McCartney that remains strong on its own but gets bolstered by Lennon’s contribution, the melancholy ‘Everybody Had a Hard Year’. When combined, the two tracks become a transcendent rocker, allowing McCartney to reach ecstatic vocal highs and Lennon to illustrate his own struggles. ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ came at a time when their connections were becoming tenuous, but it also shows that Lennon and McCartney still had that same magic that brought them together in the first place.
4. ‘Across the Universe’
Without any new material coming to him, Lennon opted to fish through his previous songs to see if anything was worth using again. He and The Beatles had recorded his song ‘Across the Universe’ for a Spike Milligan World Wildlife Fund charity album, but that project had been delayed, leading Lennon to try and repurpose the song by rehearsing it during the Get Back sessions.
Thank god he did because ‘Across the Universe’ is one of the most achingly beautiful tracks on Let It Be. Unlike the rest of the album, ‘Across the Universe’ actually benefits from Spector’s additions, showing why he became Lennon’s producer of choice for his first three solo albums. Completely engrossing and strangely bittersweet, ‘Across the Universe’ still resonates and remains Lennon’s signature track on Let It Be.
3. ‘Two of Us’
If ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ was a sign that Lennon and McCartney were still connected, ‘Two of Us’ is the song that proves that their bond will last forever. Ostensibly written by McCartney for his wife Linda, ‘Two of Us’ sounds more like two old friends reminiscing about their previous years, something that McCartney originally envisioned Get Back to be all about.
In perfect harmony, Lennon and McCartney recount the days of “riding nowhere” and “chasing papers, getting nowhere” with a blissful sincerity. When McCartney sings, “you and I have memories, longer than the road that stretches out ahead”, it becomes almost impossible not to picture Lennon, despite McCartney’s intentions. ‘Two of Us’ is the epitome of what Get Back and Let It Be could have been, had a number of factors not gotten in the way, and it remains one of the most sublime moments in late-period Beatles history.
2. ‘Get Back’
John Lennon was late. No surprise, but there was work to be done. McCartney started jamming on an A chord while Harrison and Ringo Starr watched, and in little more than five minutes, McCartney had the basis for what would eventually become the lynchpin song for the sessions, ‘Get Back’. By the time Lennon arrived, all the song needed were some new lyrics and a proper arrangement.
The Get Back sessions were supposed to show The Beatles reconnecting with their roots as rock musicians, unencumbered by experimentation or studio wizardry. ‘Get Back’ represents the height of that concept, showing each band member contributing to the song and giving their all in the final cut. Let It Be wound up being a bit of a charming and ragged mess, but ‘Get Back’ was a tight rocker that caught The Beatles tapping into that musical connection that made them legends in the first place.
1. ‘Let It Be’
It’s been bludgeoned to death over the years thanks to massive overexposure and McCartney’s inability to stop talking about the dream that inspired its writing, but make no mistake: ‘Let It Be’ very well could be the height of The Beatles on record. A simple piano ballad that gets elevated to much more once the rest of the band jump into the song, ‘Let It Be’ soars in a way that few other songs in The Beatles’ catalogue can match.
Everything about ‘Let It Be’ is perfect: from Harrison’s guitar solo to Preston’s organ breakdown to Starr’s transcendent rhythms to Lennon’s understated bass. Even Spector’s horn arrangement feels triumphant and appropriate. At the centre of it all is McCartney, at his most impassioned and least cheesy, singing a song of hope and resistance that continues to resonate over 50 years later. If fans were gutted by such a young band deciding to call it quits, it was only because they were still releasing songs as iconic and universal as ‘Let It Be’.