Monday, September 22, 2003

Beatles/Spector: I hope you all did your homework over the weekend: a couple of trips through Let It Be. I sure did, and I’m prepared to respond to Razor. (I would have done so over the weekend, but the in-laws were visiting. More on that later. Maybe.)

Phil Spector was indeed a brilliant producer. I’m still in awe of the Crystals' "And Then He Kissed Me" to this day. Listen to that tune and remember that this was the early 60s – Spector is already putting together a sound that will still be influential when Bill Graham is miking the Fillmore for the "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" show. The "Wall of Sound" on that song is so strong, you’d swear that fully half the sound in the recording is the studio vibrating sympathetically.

But one thing Spector has never been accused of, as far as I know, is good taste. You like girl groups? Good, here are 700 of them, all a touch different vocally, all recorded with the the same combination of gloss and rattling glassware. Sure, the guy made a mint off it all, and the sound was a startling innovation, but subtle he was not. And there is the crux of the biscuit: There are some things you can do with anonymous chick bands where the production technique is the star of the show that you don’t do with the Beatles.

The Beatles were always tasteful – a unless they were being camp, of course. With George Martin, who was everything Spector wasn’t, the Beatles pulled orchestral instruments and arrangements into rock music with great taste and great results. Mainly, this came from two things. First, they used the instrumentation sparingly (with exceptions, such as "A Day in the Life," in which "over the top" was the goal). Second, the arrangements are perfectly integrated. Think of the French horn in "For No One," for example. It’s possible to listen to that song without thinking that you’re hearing an unusual arrangement, without thinking, "Hey, that’s not a typical rock instrument."

Then, there is Let It Be. Where to begin? How about "Across the Universe," a beautiful, spare guitar-and-voice Lennon number to which has been added . . . what? A bit of harmony? Some sympathetic instrumentation? No, how about a f*cking choir! And "I Me Mine" may be a tricky Harrison tune that jumps, not altogether successfully, from waltz to swing-march and back. The full choir-and-orchestra treatment, though, serves only to highlight the imperfections in the song. An otherwise average song is suddenly a glaring failure. The fun and funky improv "Dig It" is a nice addition to the spirit of the album, which was meant to be live and casual. But whose idea was it to put "Dig It," which ends with Lennon mockingly calling for a hymn, in front of the hymn-like "Let It Be"? And why overinflate "Let It Be" with an organ, then add horns and strings? This would be a gorgeous song with just drum, bass, piano, Billy Preston’s nifty Fender-Rhodes fills, and with George’s overdriven guitar breaks. The ultimate travesty, of course, is the syrupy orchestration in "The Long and Winding Road," which gives the song all the subtlety of a cudgel. McCartney had intended it to be a plain voice-and-piano piece. It became, instead, the nadir of string arrangements, with "Dr. Zhivago" blaring over a very lovely and simple song. No doubt Spector heard any unfilled silences as wasted space and slapped the treacly orchestra on top like musical spackle.

As a said, you can do some of this stuff to manufactured teen-pop. Spector even called his prefab hits "little symphonies." And the fine parts of Spector’s sound were refined by Brian Wilson into songs as subtle as "Pet Sounds" (which uses lots of orchestration) and as heavy as "Good Vibrations" (which was likely intended as the second coming of the wall of sound). But you can’t just slap these techniques on the Beatles, particularly since the Beatles were never a genre band that needed tarting up. And finally, contrary to some critics who have said the songwriting on Let It Be was too thin to stand alone, I think the songwriting is, with exceptions, quite excellent. "Two of Us" could be a hit record today, and is one of the best Lennon-McCartney duets, with a nifty interval to the harmony. "I’ve Got a Feeling" and "Get Back," both nitty-gritty rock songs, show the Beatles playing rock and roll again, apparently enjoying it, and certainly doing it well. Even the filler has its charms: "One After 909" shows the group in full retro mode, jamming on a song that might have been on the radio when the lads were listening to Carl Perkins and combing DAs. Both Lennon (Rock and Roll) and McCartney (Run Devil Run) would go back and cut whole albums of this greasy kid's stuff later in their careers, so you know the joy in it is natural.

Strip it all away, and Let It Be is the Beatles' final rock album, a throwback. Taking off the Spector production, I think, can only give us more of what the intention of the album was, the reason they recorded it live, instead of tracking it like Abbey Road. Spector’s polish and schmaltz are antithetical to Let It Be. Scrub it off.

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