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.
“Intolerable interference.” That’s how Paul McCartney described what Phil Spector did to his song “The Long And Winding Road.” McCartney used the phrase when he filed a lawsuit against the other three Beatles in 1971. McCartney was looking to dissolve the Beatles’ partnership. He gave six reasons for his case, and one of those reasons was the final version of “The Long And Winding Road” — a song inspired by the Beatles’ breakup that also happened to be the Beatles’ last American #1.
McCartney had written “The Long And Winding Road” in 1968, sitting at his piano at his farm in the Scottish countryside. He’s said that, when he wrote it, he was feeling “flipped out and tripped out,” a better turn of phrase than anything he’d write into the song. On paper, it’s a song about a romantic relationship dissolving. And maybe that’s partly what caused McCartney to write the song; he was, after all, ending one relationship and beginning another. But the meta-text — the story that everyone must’ve understood when they heard the song — is that the Beatles were moving away from one another and that the song was McCartney’s reaction to what was happening.
McCartney initially offered the song to Tom Jones, saying that Jones could have it as long as he made it his next single. But Jones already had a potential hit in the chamber, so he regretfully declined, and McCartney took it to the Beatles. They recorded a ramshackle version of the song in January of 1969, with John Lennon playing bass. (Lennon made mistakes on the song, which has led some people to wonder whether he was intentionally sabotaging McCartney’s song.) Then, when Phil Spector remixed the tracks on what would become the Let It Be album, he completely overhauled “The Long And Winding Road,” piling strings and choral singers all over it. And McCartney hated it.
McCartney reportedly originally signed off on Spector’s version of the album. But he quickly came to detest Spector’s reimagining. Spector had fucked around with plenty of McCartney’s songs, including “Let It Be.” But in the case of “The Long And Winding Road,” Spector turned it into something completely different. Spector’s take on the song is basically a whitebread orchestral soul song. The strings surge and swell, drowning out most of the Beatles’ music and even, to some extent, McCartney’s vocal. McCartney wrote to manager Allen Klein, demanding that he make huge changes to Spector’s version of the song. But Lennon and George Harrison stood by Spector’s version, and Klein ended up releasing it the way it was.
After the Beatles broke up, Spector produced the first solo albums from both Lennon and Harrison, and Lennon defended what Spector had done with Let It Be: “Phil was given the shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it, and he made something of it.” And Spector himself said, “If Paul wants to get into a pissing contest about it, he’s got me mixed up with someone who gives a shit.”
There’s something so perfectly symmetrical about the idea of McCartney trying to write a heartfelt hymn about trying to keep his band together while his bandmates conspire in turning the song into self-consciously gloopy dreck. And just listening to “The Long And Winding Road,” you can hear all those cross-purposes at work. Nobody is doing their best work, and nobody seems especially excited about it. McCartney’s vocal is clean and competent, but there’s precious little passion or urgency in it. His vocal melody is pretty enough, but it’s also a maudlin meander. (Among the 20 Beatles songs that made it to #1, “The Long And Winding Road” is probably the hardest to hum.) The other Beatles contributions are negligible. Harrison isn’t even on the final version of the song, and neither is Ringo Starr’s original drum track, though Starr did come back in to play drums for Spector’s overdubs. And Spector himself is practically doing a parody of his own trademark orchestral pomp.
Years later on the re-remixed Let It Be… Naked album, McCartney finally got to release a version of the song that didn’t include any of Spector’s frippery. And it’s nice, though it’s also perfectly forgettable. It’s probably slightly better than the version that hit #1. But on that official version, Spector’s orchestrations are probably the most impressive thing happening. Those orchestral flourishes are overbearing, but they’re majestically overbearing, and they almost fool you into thinking that maybe, in some universe, that last Beatles #1 is something greater than what it is.
(Technically, “The Long And Winding Road” hit #1 as a double-A-side with the George Harrison-written acoustic country-blues lark “For You Blue,” another absolutely forgettable and inconsequential song. That one would’ve been a 4.)
BONUS BEATS: Here’s George Michael singing “The Long And Winding Road” at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2002: