In Beatles circles, the difference between “re-mix” and “re-write” has clearly been confused.
The announcement this week, on the 50th anniversary of the band’s famous rooftop concert, that Peter Jackson would be making a new documentary out of the copious visual and audio footage from the Let It Be sessions was initially very exciting. Until Jackson was quoted in the press release saying “Sure, there’s moments of drama—but none of the discord this project has long been associated with.”
This is just the latest chapter in an aggravating trend of revisionist history being written by The Beatles and people hired by them at Apple Corps.
It started two years ago when Giles Martin opted to re-mix Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for its 50th anniversary. While there have been several re-masters of The Beatles catalogue over the years this was to be the first time original source material was being altered. Martin’s justification was that the stereo mixes everyone has grown accustomed to listening to were mere afterthoughts in the eyes of the band and production team. His thought was to bring the spirit of the mono mixes, which were much more delicately crafted, to a new stereo mix.
This seemed like a good enough idea and Martin’s work on other Beatles projects had certainly earned him credibility. But at what point was the line being crossed from expanding on history to re-writing it? Wasn’t re-mixing The Beatles akin to adding rouge to the Mona Lisa? The results were undeniably fantastic, hailed by fans and critics alike. The new Sgt. Pepper went on to be the best selling vinyl of 2017.
In advance of the Pepper reissue, it was reported that Paul McCartney had seriously considered putting “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” onto the new Pepper‘s track listing. Despite being recorded at the same time as the rest of the album, these two songs were plucked for a single instead (it had been six months since the band had released anything, an unheard of drought in those times). Since The Beatles had the incredibly honorable policy of singles not being used on albums, those two songs were removed from consideration for Pepper. Many, including George Martin, have bemoaned this decision and felt like it robbed an incredible album from being even better. In the end McCartney and company opted against righting the 50 year old wrong.
When Giles rolled out a new re-mixed version of The White Album last year (also brilliant) it became apparent that The Beatles story was in the midst of also being “re-mixed.” Paul McCartney later called The White Album “the tension album,” John Lennon claimed it was when the band truly broke up, Ringo Starr up and quit the group for two weeks, and George Martin thought so little of what was happening that he took a spontaneous vacation. Yet Giles Martin spent every press opportunity for the re-mixed edition claiming that all the stories of tension were a myth and they were still very much together as a band.
This assertion was eyeroll worthy but tough to get upset about given that there are enough exceptional, truly collaborative efforts on the album (“Happiness Is A Warm Gun” and “Yer Blues” come to mind) that it’s not too much of a stretch to twist the narrative in that direction.
Let It Be, however, is entirely different story. Not only is there well-publicized circumstantial evidence : George Harrison quit, the band abandoned Twickenham Studios because the atmosphere was so bad, Billy Preston had to be brought in as an alleviator, and later the cataclysmic drama with Phil Spector’s re-working of the album – there is the Let It Be documentary itself, which clearly shows a band coming apart at the seams. Ringo looks bored, John is totally disinterested, and of course there’s the infamous “I’ll play what you want me to play” spat between Paul and George.
Yet now we have Peter Jackson saying “there was drama but no discord.”
If this was really the case, why has there not been a proper release of the documentary in nearly 40 years? Why has all that extra footage that shows, as Jackson called it, “four great friends making music together” been sitting in a warehouse since 1969? It’s not hard to guess who has been the most ardent gatekeeper of the source material given that McCartney does not come off particularly well at all. Jackson’s quotes in the press release have already tipped his hand towards the documentary he wants to make and Sir Paul stands to gain a lot. Hardly a coincidence. Neither is it a coincidence that this airbrushed re-telling of Beatles history is coming at a time when there’s an ever dwindling number of credible, first-hand opinions. What would George Martin, John Lennon, George Harrison, Billy Preston, Mal Evans, Neil Aspinall, Geoff Emerick or Derek Taylor think about this version of Let It Be?
The Let It Be footage remains the last treasure trove of Beatles material, the only chapter in their story that has not been re-packaged to death. Beatles fans should not be out for blood. There is no joy to be found in watching the greatest band of all time break up on camera. What they should want is truth. Tell it like it was, not how you wish it could’ve been.
FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER -> @PatrickGoesPop