The Beatles’ last album to be released, Let It Be was mostly recorded in early 1969, prior to Abbey Road. The music was produced by George Martin, and was then prepared for release in 1970 by Phil Spector.
Following the often fractious sessions for the White Album in the summer of 1968, Paul McCartney realised The Beatles were in danger of fragmenting further if they continued to work independently of each other. Since the death of Brian Epstein on 27 August 1967 he had worked hard to keep the group motivated, and towards the end of 1968 he hit upon the idea of filming a television special in front of an audience.
We started Let It Be in January 1969 at Twickenham Studios, under the working title Get Back. Michael Lindsay-Hogg was the director. The idea was that you’d see The Beatles rehearsing, jamming, getting their act together and then finally performing somewhere in a big end-of-show concert. We would show how the whole process worked. I remember I had an idea for the final scene which would be a massive tracking shot, forever and ever, and then we’d be in the concert.
The original idea was to go on an ocean liner and get away from the world; you would see us rehearsing and then you’d finally see the pay-off. But we ended up in Twickenham. I think it was a safer situation for the director and everybody. Nobody was that keen on going on an ocean liner anyway. It was getting a bit fraught between us at that point, because we’d been together a long time and cracks were beginning to appear.
The effort was to be a continuation of the back-to-basics ethos the group had adopted since ‘Lady Madonna’ in February 1968. That single had marked a move away from The Beatles’ elaborate studio experimentation of 1966 and 1967, with a return to more straightforward rock and roll, and much of the White Album and the Yellow Submarine soundtrack had followed in a similar vein.
Reconvening in January 1969 at Twickenham Film Studios, The Beatles began work on what was initially known as the Get Back project: the concept was a chance for the group to get back to their roots, with perhaps a return to live performance for the first time since 29 August 1966.
In a nutshell, Paul wanted to make – it was time for another Beatle movie or something, and Paul wanted us to go on the road or do something. As usual, George and I were going, ‘Oh, we don’t want to do it, fuck,’ and all that. He set it up and there was all discussions about where to go and all that. I would just tag along and I had Yoko by then, I didn’t even give a shit about anything. I was stoned all the time, too, on H etc. And I just didn’t give a shit. And nobody did, you know. Anyway, it’s like in the movie where I go to do ‘Across The Universe’, Paul yawns and plays boogie, and I merely say, ‘Oh, anybody want to do a fast one?’
The plan, vague as it was in the early stages, was to perform one or more live shows, but with an added dimensions of a television show and record release. The January 1969 sessions began as rehearsals for a concert which was to be filmed, which they hoped would yield enough suitable material for an album.
The rehearsals were filmed at Twickenham by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who had previously directed promotional films for ‘Paperback Writer’/‘Rain’ and ‘Hey Jude’/‘Revolution’. Although none of it was intended to be released on record, on snippet of dialogue was included on Let It Be: John Lennon’s announcement that “Queen says no to pot-smoking FBI members” prior to For You Blue.
Nonetheless, many hours of rehearsal and performance were filmed at Twickenham from 2–14 January 1969. The audio was captured by the camera crew on mono Nagra reel-to-reel machines, as it was expected to be used on the film soundtrack. It is due to these Nagra reels, which were also rolling at the Apple Studios sessions from 21–31 January, that so much of The Beatles’ works in progress from the Let It Be sessions survives.
Paul had this idea that we were going to rehearse or… see it all was more like Simon and Garfunkel, like looking for perfection all the time. And so he has these ideas that we’ll rehearse and then make the album. And of course we’re lazy fuckers and we’ve been playing for twenty years, for fuck’s sake, we’re grown men, we’re not going to sit around rehearsing. I’m not, anyway. And we couldn’t get into it. And we put down a few tracks and nobody was in it at all. It was a dreadful, dreadful feeling in Twickenham Studio, and being filmed all the time. I just wanted them to go away, and we’d be there, eight in the morning. You couldn’t make music at eight in the morning or ten or whenever it was, in a strange place with people filming you and coloured lights.
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner
Once they started work on the Get Back project, it became clear to The Beatles that their collective enthusiasm was low. John Lennon was addicted to heroin and rarely enthused by the sessions, and arguments among the group eventually led to George Harrison temporarily leaving the band.
At the time The Beatles were exhausted after spending five months recording the White Album, and had also worked on Apple projects by James Taylor, Mary Hopkin, Jackie Lomax, and solo works. At Twickenham they were forced to keep to film industry schedules, which involved starting work at 8.30am each day.
The cameras were kept rolling at all times, and captured the strains and tensions of this fragile period. However, there were many moments of true inspiration, and The Beatles’ humour and warmth for one another was often evident.
There was some amazing stuff – their humour got to me as much as the music, and I didn’t stop laughing for six weeks. John Lennon only had to walk in a room, and I’d just crack up. Their whole mood was wonderful, and that was the thing, and there was all this nonsense going on at the time about the problems surrounding the group, and the press being at them, and in fact, there they were, just doing it, having a wonderful time and being incredibly funny, and none of that’s in the film.
The Record Producers