The Infinite Jukebox: The Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’

There’s a certain elegiac quality about The Beatles’ ‘Let it Be’ that only becomes more apparent as the years go by and its status becomes all the more established in my own experience of them. Even with parents who hated pop music, who wouldn’t have Top of the Pops on, whose radio was permanently tuned to the Light Programme when my mother was doing the housekeeping, and who would have had Radio 2 on if they’d continued to listen to the radio in the last couple of years of the Sixties, even with this lack of access to the music, I still heard many of the singles often enough to recognise them. Not all. Not ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’, certainly, possibly a couple of the other late singles.
But I heard ‘Let It Be’. It was the last single, the first and only one issued in the Seventies, when I had begun to listen to Radio 1 for myself, the only one I heard go through its natural radio cycle, from its entry directly at no. 2 and the unprecedented – to me – slow slide ever downward.
It wasn’t the last thing that The Beatles recorded as The Beatles. But it was the last, and it has been such in my mind ever since.
I don’t think I liked it very much then. It didn’t sound anything like the vigour and jangle of Merseybeat, and my nascent tastes did not go much beyond the very simplistic then. It lacked the energy, the freshness, the popular tune. By that time The Beatles were far beyond that stage, but I had heard so little of that music, so I didn’t comprehend its merits.
Now I understand The Beatles’ career as a whole, I can listen to ‘Let It Be’ solely as the song it is. Those slow, preparatory piano chords, the almost gospel feel, McCartney’s opening lines. When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me… The religious aspect was more obvious to me then: the only Mother Mary of whom I was aware was Mary, Mother of Christ. McCartney has never denied anyone the ability to make that interpretation, but the song’s origin lies in a calming dream of his mother, who had died of cancer in 1959. A dream in which she calms his fears and concerns by telling him to let it be.
We know now that things were bad amongst the Beatles, and had been since before McCartney had his dream. The band were splintering. McCartney had tried to substitute for their late manager Brian Epstein by striving to drive the band and his mates to action, to do things, fearing that if they drifted as they were wont to do, that the band would fall apart through inertia.
A manager, standing outside the band, might have been able to do that, but not one of The Beatles themselves. Looking at the evidence, its arguable that McCartney kept them together for a year, eighteen months, maybe even as long as two years more than they might otherwise have done. But it couldn’t be for ever.
And so, inevitably, came ‘Let it Be’. It’s a slow song, stately and resigned. It’s about giving up, about accepting that the energy needed to continue to fight was no longer worth the outcome. That the time was to just let time take its course, let what was going to happen happen in the way it would. It was a statement of resignation, in both senses of the word: after the single was released, but before the album named for it, Paul McCartney left The Beatles, with this song as his statement.
There will be an answer. Let it Be.
His band-mates, his friends, made this an exceptionally solid and sure performance. George Harrison recorded two guitar overdubs, one each featuring on the single and the slightly more aggressive album version. The single entered the UK charts at no. 2. It did not add to The Beatles’ already impressive store of number 1 singles, falling the following week to no 3., and then further. In America, it entered the Billboard Chart at no. 6, higher than any first week entry before it, and it did go to no. 1, as did McCartney’s ‘The Long and Winding Road’, which was never released as a single in Britain.
So, for the likes of me, just beginning a lifelong association with the music, ‘Let it Be’ was the end. The Sixties, of which I had had no part, were gone and so too, after this swansong, were The Beatles, the band who more than any, in my ignorance of 1970 and my insight of 2022, were that decade.
Paul McCartney said goodbye to us all in the best way he knew how, by throwing his arms open to whatever future there was to be. No doubt, if he knew what music he would go on to make in the years that followed, he would still have done the same, if only because some things are intolerable. But I am not the only one who thinks that nothing he has written since ‘Let it Be’ is worthy of sharing house-space with it, and that far far too much of that music does not even deserve to share the same planet.
So it goes.

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