Considering The Beatles‘ universal acclaim, zeitgeist-shifting influence, and staggering musical productivity, it’s easy to understand why they are considered by many to be the greatest band of all time. But those same reasons make it easy to forget that The Fab Four’s run as a unit was extremely short-lived.
The band began to coalesce in Liverpool, England in 1960, drummer Ringo Starr wasn’t added until 1962, and they didn’t record their first album, Please Please Me, until 1963. By the time they called it quits amid intra-band tension in 1970, the Beatles had released 12 studio albums (each of them critical and commercial successes; each one successively evolving and expanding in scope and style), thrown the youth of the world into a literal frenzy, and established themselves not only as iconic musicians, but as highly influential cultural figures during an unprecedented period of turmoil and rebellion in America. And they did all of that in just over seven years.
That seven-year chapter in the music history books came to a close, officially, with Let It Be, released on May 8th, 1970—52 years ago today. While recorded prior to their penultimate LP Abbey Road (1969), the album widely regarded as the band’s magnum opus; the release of Let It Be was delayed until just after the Beatles split, effectively making the 12-track album the band’s official farewell.
The album was originally conceived by Paul McCartney as a project called Get Back including an album and a documentary about The Beatles’ road back to performing live, which they had formally given up to focus on honing their studio craft prior to the 1967 release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. However, the sessions for the project were mired in creative miscommunication and mounting animosity between the band members, and rather than highlighting a new chapter in the band’s saga, they laid bare the reality that the Beatles were beyond repair.
George Harrison, who was the most averse to the grind of touring during the “Beatlemania” era, was against the idea of returning to the stage to begin with. John Lennon, previously a creative partner with McCartney, slipped into a more detached role, withdrawing into his soon-to-be marriage with Yoko Ono, whose attendance in the studio during sessions amplified the resentment among the band members. The presence of the documentary cameras also magnified the deepening rifts. At one point, fed up with the constant arguing between Lennon and McCartney, Harrison “quit the band” and stormed out of the studio. He was eventually convinced to return a few days later.
All of the bad blood is painfully apparent in the documentary footage, and the eventual Let It Be documentary is now known as a film that was intended to document the making of an album but instead became a front-row seat to the break-up of a band. Even the now-iconic Let It Be cover art underscores the state of the band when it was recorded: The cover features four separate photos of the four Beatles set on a black background, all still forming a cohesive unit yet not quite connecting.
The project was sidelined throughout 1969 as the band worked on Abbey Road and the band cycled through different visions as well as different producers for the album, which was worked on by George Martin and Glyn Johns before being completed in its final form by Phil Spector. This only added to the controversy among the band—McCartney publicly disagreed, for example, with the lavish orchestration Spector used on “The Long And Winding Road”, which was intended to be a simple, sweet ballad. (Note: In 2003, a re-mastered version of the album using some different takes and scrapping Spector’s complex production was released as Let It Be: Naked).
While the feelings of acrimony that permeated the making of the album are well-known, they did not detract from the characteristically incredible quality of the music on Let It Be. If anything, the encroaching notion that things were unraveling gave the set a conscious sense of finality. Songs like “Across The Universe”, “The Long And Winding Road”, “I’ve Got A Feeling”, and, of course, the eventual title track “Let It Be” all carry the sentiments of a band contemplating their past, present, and future as they approach the end of the line.
Over a brief, dazzling seven-year span, the Beatles had taken the world by storm and changed the face of popular music forever. Let It Be was the note the Beatles left behind as they rode off into the sunset, an emotional celebration of a brief but unparalleled period in history, a life raft for all the millions of adoring fans still reeling from the messy fracture of the world’s greatest band: “There will be an answer. Let it be.”