The common wisdom regarding the Beatles' final record, Let It Be -- which was released in 1970 to a dispirited public and critical response -- is that it was tarted up and defiled by the evil pop producer Phil Spector, who was called in to remix the album after the band had disintegrated into drug-laden acrimony. In the revisionist myth, Spector is the bogeyman who took a great, raw rock album and turned it into sugary Muzak, a wrong that has been righted by the release of this new, un-remixed version.
The truth, as it often does, lies somewhere outside the spin. The new so-called Naked version of Let It Be does give a glimpse of a different Beatles sound than the one long since etched into our collective memory. On some tracks, particularly the more stripped-down numbers that open the newly sequenced album ("Get Back," "Dig a Pony"), the changes are negligible: You may notice a slightly different ambiance, but the songs remain virtually unaltered. On others, the contrasts are impressive. The band's grungy side emerges on bluesy jams like "Don't Let Me Down" and "I've Got a Feeling," revealing rough edges that were smoothed out in the final mix (Paul's soulful yelps are as charming as they are distracting; John's laid-back sneer becomes slightly more pronounced).
In the "new" mix, two lost heroes emerge: The first is keyboardist Billy Preston, whose lithe, funky accompaniment was largely buried under the sleek layers that Spector crafted, while the second is Spector himself, who gathered the shards of the Beatles' bitter final sessions and polished them into enduring pop gems. The swelling orchestral arrangements that many consider the hallmark of Spector's "interference" may have been imitative of the Beatles' studio mentor, George Martin, but they were also entirely appropriate and immensely helpful. Spector took Paul's grandiloquent ballads "The Long and Winding Road" and "Let It Be" -- sweet but faltering piano demos in the "naked" versions -- and elevated the songs toward the timeless feel that McCartney sought. Likewise, Spector's mix of "Don't Let Me Down" is striking, taking Lennon's knockoff of a Bobby Bland-style blues jam and transforming it into a gorgeous and sincere love song.
The Naked album is a tantalizing glimpse into the Fab Four's creative process. Yet it also shows how much they had come to rely on a little help from the studio booth. Although the Beatles were zonked out on speed, smack and cynicism, Spector approached their music with fresh ears. The world was the winner.