In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Mary Patricia McCartney, a Liverpool midwife, died of an embolism in October 1956, when her son Paul was 14. More than a decade later, Paul, who was going through a rough period and trying to keep his band going, had a dream where his mother came and spoke to him. To hear McCartney tell it, his mother told him to “let it be” — to rest easy, knowing that everything would be OK. McCartney took that to heart, and he wrote a song about it.
McCartney wrote “Let It Be” when the Beatles were working on their White Album, and it took a while to get the song out into the world. The album that became Let It Be was originally supposed to be Get Back, an LP of songs that the band had rehearsed in-studio and then performed, for the first time, in front of a live audience. But the rehearsals were hard on the band, and they ended up giving up the idea. The band recorded those songs, but then they went off and made Abbey Road. And then they broke up. And then they finished putting the album, retitled Let It Be, together.
The turbulent history of “Let It Be” is written right into the song. We can hear its evidence in the recording. On the face of it, “Let It Be” is just a shatteringly gorgeous song, an extended contented sigh about getting through a shitty life period and finding the acceptance that certain things are out of your hands. McCartney’s vocal is plaintive and simple, and his central melody is an all-timer. McCartney knew, of course, that most of the people hearing the song wouldn’t know it was about his mother. They’d hear the name “Mother Mary” as a religious reference, and McCartney steered into that. Billy Preston played churchy organ on the song, and there’s a gospel lilt to the way it flows. At its simplest form, “Let It Be” is a secular hymn that lets its religious overtones pull it upward. It’s lovely.
But the simplest version of the song is not the one that we got. You’re never going to believe this, but John Lennon didn’t like “Let It Be.” He thought the hymnlike aspects of the song were stupid. On the album, Lennon introduced it thus: “Now, we’d like to do ‘Hark, The Angels Come.'” Years later, Lennon said that “Let It Be” was all McCartney, that it was “nothing to do with the Beatles … I don’t know what he’s thinking when he writes ‘Let It Be.'”
The Beatles recorded the “Let It Be” master in January 1969, and it didn’t come out for more than a year. George Harrison was adding guitar-solo overdubs after the band had already broken up. Lennon had the idea to bring in Phil Spector — who’d come out of temporary retirement to produce Lennon’s “Instant Karma!” — to remix the album version of “Let It Be.” (“Instant Karma!” peaked at #3 behind “Let It Be.” It’s a 7.)
Spector piled on orchestral arrangements and studio effects. McCartney hated what Spector did to the song. But manager Allen Klein, who had his own little mini-feud with McCartney, set the contracts up with Spector without telling McCartney. And in any case, all this took so long that the Beatles’ “Let It Be” wasn’t even the first version of the song to come out. McCartney had sent a “Let It Be” demo to Atlantic, and Aretha Franklin’s version of the song came out before the Beatles’ did.
Now: Phil Spector obviously knew how to put a song together, and it’s hard to fault Lennon for recruiting one of the all-time greatest pop producers to work on one of his band’s songs, even if that recruitment was in bad faith. But in this case, McCartney was right. Spector added layers of bombast to the song, and those layers ultimately distracted from the fragility at its core. Decades later, McCartney released something closer to the version he wanted on the album Let It Be… Naked. That version is probably better than the Spector-remixed album version, but the one that first came out is now so deeply embedded in my brain that the stripped-down take sounds somehow wrong.
“Let It Be” replaced another secular hymn at #1. Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was explicitly inspired by Phil Spector, and it’s got the same sort of slow-building orchestral heft, the same sort of unadorned and unshowy lead vocal, and the same sort of lyrical message about helping each other through shitty times. It says something about the national mood in the first half of 1970 that these two songs captured the national imagination. Maybe that marks some sort of collective exhale — a people coming through a traumatizing time and needing peace and reassurance.
“Let It Be,” even in its Spectorized form, remains an utterly gorgeous song. It suffers in comparison to “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which hit those same notes even more majestically and which didn’t compromise itself in its production. But if “Let It Be” finds you in the right moment, it can still fuck you up completely.
BONUS BEATS: Bill Withers covered “Let It Be” on Just As I Am, his 1971 debut album, and his version is my absolute all-time favorite cover of a Beatles song. Here it is:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the classic 1979 Sesame Street “Let It Be” parody “Letter B”: