Geek The Beatles: Let It Be’s Recombined Reality Programming

Forty years ago, Let It Be closed out a decade of The Beatles’ artistic and technological influence. It’s a period that has yet to be matched in popular culture. To celebrate that legacy, I will explore the band’s lasting impact in a new occasional series called Geek The Beatles, anchored to the band’s momentous anniversaries in 2010.

Let It Be, released May 8, 1970, shortly after the band members called it quits, transformed The Beatles from a functioning band into a dysfunctional multimedia brand. The songs on what became the group’s last official full-length album were vault-raided and controversially remixed by mad producer Phil Spector from a heap of discarded and bitterly divided sessions, and featured little to no input from band members John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.

A Beatles documentary, released a week after the album, was similarly retconned, conceived as a “bioscopic experience” that would help sequence the genes for the intrusive reality television we take for granted in the 21st century. In the last gasp of the optimistic but lethal ’60s, however, reality film killed the pop radio stars.

“By the time we got to Let It Be, we couldn’t play the game anymore,” Lennon said in the exhaustive biographical series The Beatles Anthology. “We’d come to a point where it was no longer creating magic, and the camera being in the room with us made us aware of that. It was a phony situation.”

The original concept for the Let It Be film would sell instantly today: Inconspicuous but ever-present cameras document the greatest pop band of all time as it composes, rehearses and then performs and records its next album in front of a live audience. “You can glide in with your cameras,” an earnest but frustrated McCartney said in the film. “Go places that TV cameras don’t go.”

But the film bowed to the Beatles’ momentous reality: The band, like the decade that it so thoroughly informed, was finished.

What remained after The Beatles’ recombined Let It Be killed on the charts but flopped in theaters was not a band, but a brand. That evolution heralded a coming, contentious age of creator-owned businesses, increasing copyfight litigation, remix culture, band-brand revolutions, crappy tech and more.

Here are nine — number nine, number nine — ways the breakup of The Beatles, as well as the twin iterations of Let It Be, hallmarked tectonic shifts in media culture, using the album’s song titles as points of departure. You know, just to twist the anniversary knife a little.

Dig It

For all its uneven moments, Let It Be is a pioneering example of remix culture at work. Producer Phil Spector went crate-digging through The Beatles’ sonic back pages, with the permission of Lennon, who called the turbulent recording sessions the “shittiest load of badly recorded shit” the band ever dropped.

Spector recombined what he found and heard, and produced a hit album. But Let It Be‘s overwrought orchestration, spliced in by Spector, so angered McCartney that the bass player eventually remixed his own version of the sessions, resulting in the stripped-down 2003 release, Let It Be… Naked.

The Long and Winding Road

Spector’s orchestration on the piano ballad “The Long and Winding Road” particularly pissed off McCartney. The swollen strings and choral accompaniments marred The Beatles’ musical style so egregiously, McCartney argued, that he cited Spector’s “intolerable interference” as one of six reasons he gave Apple Corps. for dissolving the band shortly after the album and film’s release. Nevertheless, the single sold more than a million copies in a few days, and eventually topped the charts in May.

Let It Be

Like the rest of The Beatles’ immeasurably influential catalog, the songs from Let It Be have been covered by more bands than you would probably want to count, unless you were a serious Beatles geek.

Bands like The Replacements and Green Jello released their own albums called Let It Be, while Laibach covered The Beatles’ final album in its entirety. Julie Taymor anchored her periodic musical drama of the same name to Lennon’s philosophical chant “Across the Universe,” one of Let It Be‘s finest songs. Let It Be‘s title track alone has been revised by a score of artists as different as Nick Cave and Chevy Chase. And what looks like a chorus of Russian sailors simply murder the tune in what YouTube user Attmay calls the “worst cover of a Beatles song ever” (embedded right).

The song — a woeful tale of anxiety over the Beatles’ breakup — has also become a convenient regular on reality-programming phenomenon American Idol. Kris Allen performed “Let It Be” on the show’s ninth inexplicable season, and the song was later ported to iTunes, with proceeds going to the disaster-relief effort following Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake. Oscar-winning singer Jennifer Hudson did the same thing with the same song. Instant karma is going to get somebody.

I’ve Got a Feeling

Speaking of reality television, Michael Lindsay-Hogg‘s documentary film pioneered the pop art of the panopticon. Unlike The Beatles’ carefully managed, and very successful, image films like A Hard Day’s Night, Help! and Yellow Submarine, Let It Be pulled off the pop emperors’ clothes and showed the disturbed, discontented skins beneath. From a detached John and Yoko to a fed-up George and a very bored-looking Ringo, the film is barely held together by Paul’s annoying energy, springing from a desire to keep his legendary band from falling apart.

“It was just dreadful, being filmed all the time,” Lennon explained in The Beatles Anthology. “I just wanted them to go away.”

It’s a sentiment the iGeneration probably can’t understand in an age of reality shows like Big Brother and Survivor. But after living through a variety of upbeat and offbeat cinematic doppelgangers, The Beatles weren’t ready for media to peek behind the curtain.

As bad as Let It Be was, it was better than the grisly fate that awaits the Fab Four in A Hard Day’s Night of the Living Dead above. Like Let It Be, it’s about pop that eats itself.

Two of Us

Let It Be is a multimedia reproduction that is still too painful to fully compress. After a stint on VHS, videodisc and laserdisc, the film dropped out of print for most of the ’80s. Its still-controversial source material might never get an upgrade, because it hasn’t been seen since, except on the bootleg circuit and torrent sites.

According to a 2008 Daily Express report citing unnamed sources within Apple, the two surviving Beatles aren’t comfortable jeopardizing the band’s global brand by releasing Let It Be‘s darkest hour in high definition. Until they are, or sadly pass from this Earth like their Liverpool mates, Let It Be‘s documentary half survives only for the geeks. Breaking up is (still) hard to do.

The real band may be gone, but the Beatles brand lives on in Rock Band and other user-friendly simulations.

I Me Mine

Without the context of a real band existing in space and time, 21st-century fans of The Beatles’ influential artistry exist in a universe of simulations like The Beatles: Rock Band (above) and other biz-oriented productions. More than ever before, The Beatles’ actual music is just one strand of that web of reproductions.

Ironically enough, by the time Let It Be was released, most of Apple Corps’ peripheral business had been downsized or disappeared, including its experimental music imprint Zapple Records and Earth’s first Apple store.

But the name stuck on another technocultural legend: Six years after the Beatles broke apart, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne created Apple Computer in Cupertino, California. Two years after that, Jobs’ Apple and The Beatles’ Apple would share two decades of rotten copyfight litigation over everything from trademark infringement to iTunes downloads.

Things are finally looking up for The Beatles and Jobs’ tortured relationship. In 2008, Paul McCartney hinted that the band’s songs might finally appear on iTunes, and in 2009 the band’s entire original catalog was reissued on digitally remastered CD. The digital beat goes on. But when does it go to iTunes?

Dig a Pony

The Beatles introduced many technological revolutions into the entertainment matrix (which we’ll get to in the next episode of Geek The Beatles in August). But relying on a self-styled tech wizard nicknamed Magic Alex to run The Beatles’ Apple Electronics division was not one of them.

“John thought he was the bee’s knees, because he used to give John little presents of electronic toys,” famed Beatles producer George Martin said in The Beatles Anthology. When the filming of Let It Be fell apart in the dreary Twickenham Studios, Apple tasked Lennon’s pal Yanni Alexis Mardas, in the video at right, with building what he boasted would be a superior recording studio in Apple headquarters’ basement.

“But he didn’t do anything,” Harrison said in The Beatles Anthology. “We had to rip it all out and start again. He had 16 little speakers all around the room. There wasn’t anything he ever did, except he had a toilet with a radio in it or something.”

Instead of providing the promised 72-track tape deck, Magic Alex instead reportedly delivered a studio with no soundproofing, intercom system or patch bays. What he did provide was a 16-track mixing console with an oscilloscope, and an image of competence thanks to his white lab coat.

In the ’70s, Mardas gained further notoriety by bankrolling businesses building failed bulletproof vehicles. In 2006, he forced The Independent to issue a retraction stating that Mardas “did not claim to have invented electric paint, a flying saucer or a recording studio with a ‘sonic force field.’” You can’t make stuff like this up. Unless you’re The Independent, evidently

Get Back

The roof may have been falling on The Beatles, but that didn’t stop them from popularizing the obscure rooftop performance in the Let It Be‘s film finale. French New Wave cinema auteur Jean-Luc Godard filmed San Francisco’s Jefferson Airplane performing “House at Pooneil Corners” on a Manhattan rooftop in 1968, but The Beatles one-upped their American counterparts by inserting songs from what ended up being their last live performance on the Let It Be album.

It was a fitting kiss-off to the United Kingdom from The Beatles, who had finally found a purposeful ending for their doomed film, and a repurposed one for the musical career. “I wanted the cops to drag me off the drums,” Starr said in The Beatles Anthology.

Across the Universe

Both anticlimactic iterations of Let It Be reside in a temporal paradox. Their concurrently disastrous recording and filming sessions occurred well before either product’s commercial and theatrical release, and both were shelved in frustration.

Let It Be isn’t even the last album the band made together. That honor belongs to the more properly climactic 1969 effort Abbey Road. Knowing it was probably the last time they would work together made Abbey Road‘s sessions much more cordial and loving.

But as the ’70s and ’80s convincingly illustrated, the public has the last word when it comes to public images (most notably in the tragic assassination of Lennon by stalker Mark David Chapman). In the final chapter of Geek the Beatles, we’ll explore Lennon’s 70th birthday in October, as well as the 30th anniversary of his December assassination, which formally marked the official end of The Beatles.

And then, as the immortal song advises, we’ll let it be.

This article appeared at WIRED