- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

Poor Phil Spector. First, the murder charge. Now, this. Wherever the Wall of Sound-meister is spending his time as a free-man-on-bail, he surely must have heard of “Let It Be … Naked,” a rejiggering of the Beatles valedictory album that hard-core fans have long maintained he oversweetened.

Not to belabor the history of the “Let It Be” sessions — the liner notes are fairly extensive — but here’s a quick-and-dirty summary: The band rejected engineer Glyn Johns’ first stab at the album, and Mr. Spector was then brought in to knit together the 1970 release.

For an album that had been conceived originally as a live-in-the-studio document, the “Let It Be” that reached the market turned out to be highly produced. Mr. Spector added windy orchestration to such songs as “The Long and Winding Road,” “Let It Be” and “Across the Universe.”

“Naked,” mixed and produced by Paul Hicks, Guy Massey and Allan Rouse, is an attempt to redress the Spector injustice by Agent Orange-ing his epic flourishes. “Road,” the title track, “Universe” — they’re in their sonic birthday suits here.

What’s more, the song sequence was shuffled, and a couple John Lennon one-offs — “Maggie Mae” and “Dig It” — were dumped altogether (no great loss), making room for his “Don’t Let Me Down,” originally released as a B-side to “Get Back.”

Eliminated, too, was all the chatter included in the 1970 set — “Phase one, in which Doris gets her oats” … “I hope we passed the audition,” etc. The decision to cut the patter has riled some, but there’s a simple solution to that: Just pop in the original disc if you miss it so much. (Perhaps as recompense, “Naked” does include a bonus disc called “Fly on the Wall,” a recording of stray conversations between the band and various musical doodlings.)

In the coverage of this reissue — two years in the making — not many have had a good word to say for Mr. Spector. The surviving Beatles themselves are in agreement.

“Paul was always totally opposed to Phil,” Ringo Starr has said. “I told him on the phone, ‘You’re bloody right again: It sounds great without Phil.’ Which it does. Now we’ll have to put up with him telling us over and over again, ‘I told you.’”

Mr. Starr also told Rolling Stone magazine that the late George Harrison had concurred in greenlighting the de-Spectorization.

This is unfair. “Naked,” in reality, is a backhanded compliment to the producer: Most of his knob-twiddling remains intact.

Truth is, he’s a bystander in a bigger fight.

“Naked” has all the fingerprints of Paul McCartney’s quiet campaign to reclaim his rightful place in the Beatles’ legacy as a full and co-equal partner with John Lennon, who, owing in part to the mystique that assassinations can impart, is seen as the edgier, more poetic creator.

The denuding of “Let It Be” is another chapter in a saga that burst into public view almost exactly a year ago, with the dust-up over the reversal of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting credit on the latter’s live album — a move that provoked Mr. Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, into a spasm of legal jousting.

Less generous observers might say Mr. McCartney is trying to remake the Beatles in his own image. The critic Anthony DeCurtis writes in Rolling Stone magazine, for example, that “‘Naked’ is McCartney getting his own back.”

It’d be closer to the truth to say that Mr. McCartney is insecure, and not unjustifiably.

He’s the one who pushed the Beatles into the experimental directions for which they’re universally celebrated; he’s the superior musician by a mile; and he’s decidedly not the guy who married Yoko Ono, the divisive figure whom many Beatles fans blame for the band’s implosion.

However, whatever the substantive merits of Mr. McCartney’s campaign to retroactively write himself an even larger role in the Beatles story, sometimes he does himself no favors. Sometimes, indeed, he sounds more like a highly opinionated Beatles fan than like a Beatle. A Beatle should leave the public kvetching about his legacy to surrogates. A Beatle should ration himself in public.

Miss Ono, meanwhile, is busy shoring up her husband’s legacy and curating the family archives with such projects as the “Lennon Legend” DVD, which came out Tuesday, the same day as “Naked.”

A jealous, almost spiteful guardian of anything and everything having to do with John Lennon, Miss Ono hasn’t publicly commented on what “Naked” has made of her husband’s work. She may prove unhappy.

To these ears, “Don’t Let Me Down” has been violated here. Considerably faster than in the tempo we’re used to hearing, it reeks of a rush job.

On the other hand, an unembroidered “Across the Universe,” one of Mr. Lennon’s most sublime tunes, sounds starkly pretty in its pristine state, but it would be a stretch to say it’s an improvement.

Therein lies the letdown of “Naked”: There’s nothing fundamentally better about it; it’s just different.

“The Long and Winding Road” and “Let It Be” will still be exquisite ballads no matter what fiddling is done to them. And there was nothing inherently wrong with what Mr. Spector added. In fact, I rather prefer the old versions.

Without strings and brass, they sound like unfinished or alternative takes worthy of, say, the band’s “Anthology” collection. To say these “naked” renditions are “definitive” is nothing more than an arbitrary bias — even if Mr. McCartney himself tells us differently.

It’s the same with “director’s cuts” and alternative endings of movies that are now routine in the DVD market: Just because technology makes such emendations feasible doesn’t mean they’re desirable.

Technology has, however, vastly improved the sound quality and balance over the original “Let It Be.” Bass-drum kicks and rim shots, harmony vocals and guitar licks — are all given a sharper and clearer footing in this new mix.

One small gripe: the cover art. The X-ray-like negative exposures of each Beatle bear an unfortunate resemblance to the worst-ever Rolling Stones album cover, “Emotional Rescue.”

As for evaluating the album itself, this is probably not the place to do so. Beatles fans have their own opinions about “Let It Be” and whether it belongs in the band’s top drawer. “Naked” will do little to change them.

On balance, this much is clear: When Phil Spector finally goes to trial, “Let It Be” should have no place in his history of prior bad acts.


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