If ever there was a song which summed up the fraught nature of The Beatles’ final months, it was ‘The Long And Winding Road’.
‘The Long And Winding Road’ started out as a simple McCartney ballad, written in Scotland in 1968 at a time in which the cracks in The Beatles’ relationships were become ever deeper. A demo was recorded during the White Album sessions, but taken no further.
I was a bit flipped out and tripped out at that time. It’s a sad song because it’s all about the unattainable; the door you never quite reach. This is the road that you never get to the end of.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
The song was written with Ray Charles in mind, although McCartney acknowledged that the similarities were well hidden.
It doesn’t sound like him at all, because it’s me singing and I don’t sound anything like Ray, but sometimes you get a person in your mind, just for an attitude, just for a place to be, so that your mind is somewhere rather than nowhere, and you place it by thinking, Oh, I love that Ray Charles, and think, Well, what might he do then? So that was in my mind, and would have probably had some bearing on the chord structure of it, which is slightly jazzy. I think I could attribute that to having Ray in my mind when I wrote that one.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
In the studio
The Beatles rehearsed ‘The Long And Winding Road’ on a number of occasions during the Let It Be filming sessions at Twickenham in early January 1969. By the time they entered Apple Studios later in the month they were familiar with the song.
The song was recorded on 26 January, and again during the ‘Apple studio performance’ on the 31st, an indoor counterpart to the previous day’s rooftop concert. Seven takes were recorded on that second date, but it was a recording from 26 January was also chosen by producer Glyn Johns to appear on the unreleased Get Back album, and which formed the basis for the Let It Be version.
The unadorned song can be heard on Anthology 3, complete with a multitude of bass guitar errors by John Lennon. In truth, the song was little more than a run-through, with little care given to making it perfect.
When Phil Spector worked on the Let It Be tracks in March and April 1970, he overdubbed strings and a choir, arranged and conducted by Richard Hewson. Ringo Starr also played drums at the 1 April session. The overdubs were intended to mask the original version’s shortcomings. This wasn’t without its hazards, however.
On ‘The Long And Winding Road’ he wanted to overdub orchestra and choir but there weren’t the available tracks on the tape, so he wiped one of Paul McCartney’s two vocal tracks in order to put the orchestra on.
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
When McCartney was sent a pre-release acetate of the song he was furious, and demanded that changes be made. His thoughts were captured in an interview given to the London Evening Standard newspaper.
The album was finished a year ago, but a few months ago American record producer Phil Spector was called in by John Lennon to tidy up some of the tracks. But a few weeks ago, I was send a re-mixed version of my song ‘The Long And Winding Road’, with harps, horns, an orchestra and women’s choir added. No one had asked me what I thought. I couldn’t believe it. I would never have female voices on a Beatles record. The record came with a note from Allen Klein saying he thought the changes were necessary. I don’t blame Phil Spector for doing it but it just goes to show that it’s no good me sitting here thinking I’m in control because obviously I’m not. Anyway I’ve sent Klein a letter asking for some of the things to be altered, but I haven’t received an answer yet.
Evening Standard, April 1970
The letter was reproduced in the Anthology book. It was addressed to Allen Klein at Apple Corps Limited, and dated 14 April 1970.
In future no one will be allowed to add to or subtract from a recording of one of my songs without my permission.
I had considered orchestrating ‘The Long And Winding Road’ but I had decided against it. I therefore want it altered to these specifications:-
1. Strings, horns, voices and all added noises to be reduced in volume.
2. Vocal and Beatle instrumentation to be brought up in volume.
3. Harp to be removed completely at the end of the song and original piano notes to be substituted.
4. Don’t ever do it again.
c.c. Phil Spector
Despite Paul McCartney’s protestations, Let It Be was released a month later with Spector’s augmentations still in place. George Martin supported McCartney’s objections, claiming that the work had been done without his knowledge or involvement, and saying they were “so uncharacteristic” of The Beatles’ reputation.
That made me angry – and it made Paul even angrier, because neither he nor I knew about it till it had been done. It happened behind our backs because it was done when Allen Klein was running John. He’d organised Phil Spector and I think George and Ringo had gone along with it. They’d actually made an arrangement with EMI and said, ‘This is going to be our record.’
EMI came to me and said, ‘You made this record originally but we can’t have your name on it.’ I asked them why not and they said: ‘Well, you didn’t produce the final thing.’ I said, ‘I produced the original and what you should do is have a credit saying: “Produced by George Martin, over-produced by Phil Spector”.’ They didn’t think that was a good idea.
The dissolution hearing for the break-up of The Beatles’ partnership took place in February 1971 at the High Court of London. One of the reasons given by McCartney for wishing to leave The Beatles was that Allen Klein’s company ABKCO had arranged for ‘The Long And Winding Road’ to be altered without McCartney being consulted.
Spector, for his part, was unrepentant, adopting a typically combative approach.
Paul had no problem picking up the Academy Award for the Let It Be movie soundtrack, nor did he have any problem in using my arrangement of the string and horn and choir parts when he performed it during 25 years of touring on his own. If Paul wants to get into a pissing contest about it, he’s got me mixed up with someone who gives a shit.
‘The Long And Winding Road’ was released as a US single on 11 May 1970, with ‘For You Blue’ as the b-side. 1.2m copies were sold in the first two days, and it was The Beatles’ 20th and final number one single in America.
McCartney eventually got his way with the 2003 release of Let It Be… Naked. The album featured the final take from the 31 January 1969 session, originally meant to be included on the unreleased Get Back album, and without any of Spector’s overdubs. This was also the version that featured in the Let It Be film.