The release

In the US, Let It Be was preceded by a single, ‘The Long And Winding Road’/‘For You Blue’.

By the time the single was issued on 11 May 1970, news of The Beatles’ split had broken. The release was one result of Allen Klein’s plan to rapidly increase The Beatles’ income: 1.2m copies were sold in its first two days on sale, and it became The Beatles’ 20th and final number one single in the US.

Let It Be had its US release on 18 May 1970. More than 3,700,000 advance orders had been placed, which at the time was the highest for any album in the history of the US recording industry.

In the UK, Let It Be was initially released on 8 May 1970 as a box set, with a 168-page book, titled Get Back, containing stills and dialogue from the Let It Be film. The package retailed at £2 19s 11d, one pound more than the normal selling price of an album, and on 6 November 1970 it was withdrawn and replaced by a conventional album release.

The Let It Be film had its world première in New York City on 13 May 1970. On 20 May UK premieres were held at Liverpool’s Gaumont Cinema and the London Pavilion. Tellingly, none of The Beatles attended any of the events.

The film was taken over by Allen Klein, who actually got The Beatles much later, after Let It Be was all recorded, and that was when the rot set in. Klein saw a rough-cut of it and said he didn’t want anyone else in the film but The Beatles, so everyone else who was in any shot at any time was taken out, the net result being that it got a bit difficult to watch after a while. Also, some of the stuff that I know was in there originally, and was extremely interesting, was conversations with other people, members of the film crew, people who were just around, people visiting, like Billy Preston – but Klein said that only The Beatles could be in the film and that was it.
Glyn Johns
The Record Producers

Cover artwork

The Beatles’ albums had been treated to a wealth of iconic images during the 1960s, from Robert Freeman’s photography on With The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles For Sale, Help!, and Rubber Soul, to the artworks by Klaus Voormann, Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton on their 1966-68 releases.

Let It Be, when it eventually emerged, featured portraits of each of The Beatles, taken during the recording sessions, separated by thick black bars. The meaning was clear: the group was no longer together. They were not named on the cover, and the words “Let It Be” starkly underlined that it was the group’s epitaph. On the cover of the UK box set, the album title did not even appear.

On the back cover there were four more black and white portraits, along with a few words attempting to preserve the myth that Let It Be showed The Beatles warts and all:

This is a new phase BEATLES album…
Essential to the content of the film, LET IT BE was that they performed live for many of the tracks; in comes the warmth and the freshness of a live performance; as reproduced for disc by Phil Spector.

In a November 1971 interview with Melody Maker, Paul McCartney spoke of his disapproval of the words, which he felt masked a greater truth.

There was a bit of hype on the back of the sleeve for the first time ever on a Beatles album. At the time, the Beatles were very strained with each other and it wasn’t a happy time. It said it was a ‘new-phase Beatles album’ and there was nothing further from the truth. That was the last Beatles album and everybody knew it.
Paul McCartney
Melody Maker, November 1971

His comments prompted a letter of reply from John Lennon, who requested that his version of events be given equal prominence to McCartney’s. The result was an unseemly public row between the two, which, although mostly focused on wider issues, effectively trampled the reputation of Let It Be further into the ground.

One other little lie in your “It’s only Paulie” MM bit: Let It Be was not the first bit of hype on a Beatle album. Remember Tony Barrow? And his wonderful writing on “Please Please Me” etc. etc. The early Beatle Xmas records!

And you gotta admit it was a ‘new-phase’ Beatle album, incidentally written in the style of the great Barrow himself! By the way, what happened to my idea of putting the parody of our first album cover on the Let It Be cover?

Also, we were intending to parody Barrow originally, so it was hype. But what is your LIFE article? Tony Barrow couldn’t have done it better. (And your writing inside of the Wings album [Wild Life] isn’t exactly the realist is it?) Anyway, enough of this petty bourgeois fun.

John Lennon
Melody Maker, November 1971

Critical reception

Let It Be won an Oscar for Best Original Song Score at the 43rd Annual Academy Awards in 1971. The statuette was accepted on their behalf by Quincy Jones. The soundtrack was also awarded a Grammy for Best Original Score.

Music critics were generally positive in their appraisals of Let It Be, though responses were mixed. In the Times newspaper, William Mann wrote: “Let us attend the funeral when life is pronounced extinct; at the moment the corporate vitality of The Beatles, to judge from Let It Be, is pulsating as strongly as ever.” Similarly, Robert Christgau in the Village Voice said: “Though this is a little lightweight, it makes up in charm what it lacks in dramatic brilliance.”

Conversely, New Musical Express critic Alan Smith wrote: “If the new Beatles soundtrack is to be their last then it will stand as a cheapskate epitaph, a cardboard tombstone, a sad and tatty end to a musical fusion which wiped clean and drew again the face of pop.” Rolling Stone magazine identified Phil Spector’s production as the album’s weakness: “Musically, boys, you passed the audition. In terms of having the judgment to avoid either over-producing yourselves or casting the fate of your get-back statement to the most notorious of all over-producers, you didn’t.”

Although most Beatles fans were aware that the group was no more by the time of Let It Be’s release, it was still hoped that their final musical word would be a suitable epitaph, one as creative as Abbey Road had been, and with the drama and gravitas that might be expected of a final word. Instead, many listeners considered the songs lightweight, half-hearted, and several steps down from The Beatles’ earlier heady heights.

In the years since then, the album has been embraced by newer generations of fans, many of whom remain unaware of the difficulties surrounding its gestation. Although few would claim that ‘For You Blue’, ‘Dig It’, or ‘Maggie Mae’ are among The Beatles’ best, the likes of ‘Across The Universe’, ‘Let It Be’, and ‘One After 909’ show the range of styles to which they could turn their hands to. And, let us not forget, even if the collection wasn’t The Beatles’ best, for many lesser bands these songs would have constituted a career peak.

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