There is still a light that shines on me

When Apple Records released The Beatles’ “Let It Be” album in May 1970, the world was still reeling from Paul McCartney’s public announcement the previous month that the band had broken up. (John Lennon had told the group privately six months earlier that he “wanted a divorce,” and George Harrison had already begun sessions for his solo debut, but the public had only just learned that the end had come.)

As a loyal fan, I bought the LP right away, but not with the excitement and eager anticipation I’d had with “The White Album” in late 1968 or “Abbey Road” in autumn 1969. “Let It Be,” apparently, would be The Beatles’ last album, which forever tainted it in the minds of many.

It was a strange record. Two of the songs (“Get Back” and “Let It Be”) had already been released as singles; four others seemed to have been recorded in some sort of live setting; two tracks (“Dig It” and “Maggie Mae”) were pretty much inconsequential filler; one tune (“One After 909”) was a Lennon-McCartney chestnut resurrected from their teen years; and sprinkled throughout were weird tidbits of verbal outbursts (mostly from John Lennon). The album’s ragged nature seemed a letdown after the astonishing, polished work on “Abbey Road.”

There was mention of a “Let It Be” film that documented the making of the album, but it saw only limited release and was soon pulled from distribution, evidently because it was roundly panned and The Beatles themselves didn’t much care for it either. So I never saw it until years later. In fact, I went with my friend Barney one day in 1978 to a small Cleveland theater that was showing “Let It Be” in a double feature with “Magical Mystery Tour,” another neglected Beatle film project. (We never saw either film that day because theater personnel threw us out after I mischievously fired up a joint as the movie was just beginning!)

When I finally saw “Let It Be” a couple days later, I agreed with the critics who found it to be a dreary, uncomfortable, ultimately depressing look at my favorite band on the verge of dissolution. They all looked so glum and serious, with no sense of fun or even shared creativity. They sat in silence or bickered, and there was a clear sense that things were collapsing, and no one seemed to care. Sure there were a few entertaining moments, mostly the rooftop concert sequences, but I concluded they were right to bury the film in the archives.

What I never knew until about a year ago is that the film’s director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, had shot nearly 60 hours of film, and sound crews had captured 150 hours of music and conversational recordings. Peter Jackson, the award-winning filmmaker behind “Lord of the Rings” and a huge Beatles fan himself, had always wished for the opportunity to review those source materials to see what was there, and four years ago, Apple Records gave him the green light to delve into them.

Beatles fans worldwide should thank their lucky stars that a talent like Jackson was selected for the task. In “Get Back,” his triumphant, seven-hour documentary released on Thanksgiving on Disney+, his efforts paid off handsomely, with grainy film images digitally restored and enhanced, and the sometimes unintelligible audio cleaned up to such a degree that what we see and hear is a thrilling revelation. True, it may be a bit long and sometimes tedious for the casual fan, but for rabid Beatles fans and professional musicians, it’s Shangri-La.

Most notably, we learn that the prevailing myth advanced by the “Let It Be” movie — that the sessions were nothing but ugliness and toxicity — is simply untrue. Granted, things started off shakily when they first convened in the cavernous Twickenham film studio, a cold environment hardly conducive to conviviality or productivity. The guys seemed understandably self-conscious about the cameras and microphones recording their every move, and they often showed up late, or not at all. However, once they moved the proceedings to the new studio set-up in the basement of the Apple Records office, the mood improved significantly, thanks in large part to the arrival of their old friend Billy Preston, who had only stopped by to say hello while in London but ended up staying for a week and contributing enormously to the vibe and the musical recordings.

It was mesmerizing to me to be a fly on the wall, witnessing the resilience and raw talent of John, Paul, George and Ringo, these four men I had idolized my whole life, as they coped with the absurd circumstances: They had reluctantly agreed to be filmed writing, rehearsing and recording an album’s worth of new songs in preparation for a live performance three weeks ahead, location still undecided. Talk about pressure.

We get to see several of The Beatles’ classic tunes transformed from rudimentary sketches to finished product, particularly “Get Back” and “Don’t Let Me Down.” It’s the arduous process of songwriting and track recording, and while it may go on all the time for rock bands everywhere, it rarely happens with cameras rolling, and here it’s the bloody Beatles, for crying out loud!

As one young songwriter put it in a Washington Post article the other day: “You never get to see someone in that moment of making something up, especially a song like ‘Get Back’ that you know so well. That was totally incredible… Watching Paul do it that way, where he’s just plugging and plugging and plugging until he gets it, that’s how it actually happens.”

Said another musician: “This whole endeavor — writing songs — is filled with failure. Most people think, ‘Oh, the Beatles, everything they did turned to gold.’ Wrong. You’re always trying and discarding things and searching for the right thing. There’s a lot of sitting around, a lot of screwing around, a lot of playing nonsense music. Then there’s also a lot of slogging away, trying to get what you’re actually working on to be great. The reality is it often has to sound bad before it sounds good. These eight hours reaffirm that.”

“Get Back” offered many other discoveries, most of them pleasant, even exhilarating. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that McCartney, Harrison and Lennon seemed to have new songs just pouring out of them at this stage. (Even Ringo Starr debuted the beginning of his song “Octopus’s Garden” during these sessions.) In addition to the amazing McCartney songs that would end up on the “Let It Be” album, including “Two of Us” and “The Long and Winding Road,” we also hear him toying with early drafts of tunes that would end up on “Abbey Road” (“She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” “Oh Darling,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Carry That Weight”) or his first solo albums (“Teddy Boy,” “The Back Seat of My Car”).

Lennon’s output included “Dig a Pony” (then known as “All I Want is You”) and “Across the Universe”; early previews of “Mean Mr. Mustard,” “Polythene Pam,” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” destined for “Abbey Road”; and “Gimme Some Truth” and a tune known as “Child of Nature,” which would later be recast as “Jealous Guy” on his “Imagine” album.

Harrison, meanwhile, brought “All Things Must Pass,” which The Beatles seriously considered but ultimately set aside, and it ended up the title track of his solo LP nearly two years later. In addition to his songs “I Me Mine” and “For You Blue,” which made the cut for the “Let It Be” album, Harrison also presented the rollicking “Old Brown Shoe” and perhaps his finest ever composition, “Something,” which Lennon later called “the best song on ‘Abbey Road.'”

How fabulous it is that we’re given the opportunity to watch and listen to all these eventual masterpieces played in their earliest forms. It makes me appreciate the finished recordings all the more.

The best part of the original film was, without question, The Beatles performing live on the rooftop. The same holds true in Jackson’s documentary, where we get to watch, for the first time, the entire 43-minute performance uncut, during which they play “Get Back,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “One After 909,” “Dig a Pony” and “I’ve Got a Feeling,” some more than once. Running parallel to this excellent footage is the hilarious storyline of the ineffectual London bobbies trying to shut it all down and being stymied by clever Apple staff who hold them at bay as long as they can.

I mustn’t forget to mention how much I really enjoyed the moments in the studio when, as a way of cutting through the lethargy, the band broke into vintage rock oldies like “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Kansas City,” reminding us that, down deep, The Beatles were just a great little rock ‘n’ roll band who became larger-than-life icons — icons that we’re still interested in watching and learning more about, 50-plus years later.

A few other observations:

Paul still comes across as the true workaholic of the group, continually pushing the others to get to work in order to meet deadlines. He acknowledges that he could be overly controlling, but without the late Brian Epstein around to be “the Daddy figure,” someone had to step up. It seems likely the project would’ve fallen apart without his “C’mon, boys” approach, and he deserves credit for that.

John was a listless, unenthusiastic, even disruptive presence at first, clearly showing the effects of his recent dabbling with heroin in the off hours. In the later sections of the documentary, he seems far more engaged, performing the material with renewed purpose, and even joking around with the others.

Yoko Ono, whose influence on John has been widely accused of breaking up the band, rarely left his side, but in her defense, she barely said a word in the sessions, at least in the film sequences we see. (Well, there’s one bit where the band is jamming chaotically, and she pitches in with her signature caterwauling, but that’s an isolated instance.) Paul, George and Ringo may have been less than welcoming to her, overall, but Paul is on record here at one point saying basically, hey guys, they’re in love, give them a break. “If we force him to pick between Yoko and us, he’ll pick Yoko,” he warned. And he was probably right.

George, let’s face it, was tired of being disrespected by Paul and John, and was tired of being a Beatle in general at this point, which led to his five-day departure that caused no small amount of concern among the others. But they coaxed him back, and he showed a more professional, congenial attitude and some fine musical chops on the ensuing recordings, both in the studio and on the rooftop.

Ringo? Well, frankly, he looked bored, tired and unhappy through most of the documentary. I imagine he was thinking, “This used to be so much fun. What the hell happened?” But he still offered occasional moments of levity as well, and was always ready to play when the time came. He had a well-deserved reputation for being a drummer who played to the song, contributing exactly what the arrangement called for. The chugging train beat he came up with for “Get Back” is a perfect case in point, as is the understated work on “The Long and Winding Road.”

The other important characters who show up in the documentary show their true nature, good or bad:

Billy Preston, as mentioned earlier, was a godsend, bringing a calming amiability precisely when it was needed, especially in the studio.

Producer George Martin, so pivotal to The Beatles’ recorded legacy since their beginning in 1962, is reduced almost to a bit player here, but he handles it with aplomb as the cool professional we’ve known him to be.

Engineer/producer Glyn Johns, who would build his own legacy working with The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Eagles and many others, seemed to be grateful just to be asked to participate, sitting amongst the band during playbacks and even during tense conversations. It was Johns, evidently, who solved the problem of where the band should perform the new songs to conclude the film by suggesting the rooftop of the Apple building.

Mal Evans — personal assistant, roadie, friend, all-around good guy — was all of those things for the band before, during and after these sessions. What a hoot to see him procure and then bang on an anvil for a run-through of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”

My impression of Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg is that he was a rather annoying presence throughout. He chastised the band when they needed nurturing instead, and he kept pushing to stage the performance in Egypt or Libya when it was clear they weren’t interested. Perhaps he was just trying to do his job in a very trying situation, but I’m guessing The Beatles wondered if they’d made the right decision in bringing him in to direct the project.

Lastly, a heartfelt thanks to Peter Jackson for the time and tender-loving care he put into this extravagant undertaking. Beatles fans around the globe are eternally grateful.

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Here’s a Spotify playlist of the songs that comprise The Beatles’ “Let It Be” 1970 album, and a few of the early drafts heard in Jackson’s documentary.

It’s time for us to take a second look

Times change. Tastes change. Social mores change. What was once taboo is now OK. What was once considered harmless is now objectionable.

Have you watched TV lately? Have you heard some of today’s Top Ten hits? Wow. Dialog and lyrics, and the subjects they explore now, go places nobody dreamed of 40, 50 years ago. From “The Handmaid’s Tale” to Cardi B’s “WAP,” we’re clearly in radically new territory here.

These days, too, everyone seems so damn touchy, so quick to find offense. There’s also this phenomenon that some call “cancel culture,” where something that’s been around a long time is now seen in a new light, and someone wants something physically removed or digitally deleted. Is it justified? Is it overkill? Well, one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.

It’s my view that pop/rock song lyrics that condone or even celebrate violence, racism and misogyny should be held up to a bright light and exposed for what they are. You can make a case that today’s lyrics, especially in the hip-hop genre, are WAY beyond what most people find acceptable, but if you go back to tunes from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, there are some pretty glaring examples from that time of songs that cry out for re-examination.

I’ve selected 15 songs — hit singles and album tracks — from decades ago that, on second look, leave me speechless as to how they were ever given the green light. You might not agree with me, but for what it’s worth, I’m suggesting a reassessment is in order.

There’s a Spotify playlist at the end so you can give these tracks a fresh listen.

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“He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss),” The Crystals, 1962

The sad irony behind this apparent endorsement of violent relationships is that it was co-written by Carole King, who later endured repeated physical abuse by her third husband, Rick Evers, during their marriage in the late 1970s. King wrote it back in 1962 with her first husband and songwriting collaborator Gerry Goffin after their babysitter, “Little” Eva Boyd, told them she’d been beaten by her boyfriend for seeing another guy. The song was recorded and released by The Crystals as their third single, but it never charted because of a backlash from listeners and radio stations. King has often said she wished she had never had anything to do with the song.

“This Girl is a Woman Now,” Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, 1969

Puckett teamed up with a songwriter/producer named Jerry Fuller, who seemed to write only about girls he couldn’t have. Fuller’s songs ended up as hit singles for Puckett — “Young Girl,” “Woman, Woman,” “Lady Willpower,” “Over You,” “Don’t Give In to Him” — but they had an undeniable creepiness factor that bordered on obsession. Perhaps most egregious was “This Girl is a Woman Now,” in which the narrator boasts about deflowering a young virgin. Songwriters Victor Millrose and Alan Bernstein were responsible for this overreach: “Our hearts told us we were right, and on that sweet and velvet night, a child had died, a woman had been born, /This girl is a woman now, and she’s learning how to give…”

“Cruisin’ and Boozin’,” Sammy Hagar, 1977

Let’s talk about drunk driving, shall we? Innocent people die every day at the hands of people who get behind the wheel while hammered, or even drink while they’re driving. (I confess I used to be one of them.) Do we need songs that condone this destructive behavior? Classic rock artists didn’t make it a dominant theme, but still, there are examples like Hagar, never one of my favorites, who wrote a drunk driving anthem called “Cruisin’ and Boozin.'” It wasn’t a hit, but the lyrics clearly celebrate what is both illegal and stupidly dangerous: “We got JD in the back seat, we drink nothin’ but the best, /Pump a buck in the gas tank, oh, we’ll drink up the rest, yeah, we’ll drink up the rest, /Cruisin’ and boozin’, trying to have a good time…”

“All in the Name Of,” Motley Crüe, 1988

The dudes in glam heavy metal band Motley Crüe — Nikki Sixx, Tommy Lee, Vince Neil and Mick Mars — were known for, and brazenly promoted, their image as druggy sex fiends, so perhaps it’s silly to call them on the carpet for over-the-line lyrics. The thing is, most of their material was arguably within most people’s idea of acceptable, but there’s at least one track that goes too far: “All In the Name Of” from their 1987 LP “Girls, Girls, Girls.” Sorry, but there’s no way Sixx and Neil can justify lyrics like these: “Says to me, ‘Daddy,
can I have some candy? /Wanna be your nasty anytime you want, /You know you can have me’… /She’s only fifteen, she’s the reason, the reason that I can’t sleep, /You say illegal, I say legal’s never been my scene, /I try like hell, but I’m out of control, all in the name of rock and roll…”

“A Man Needs a Maid,” Neil Young, 1972

It’s hard not to interpret the lyrics to this tune from Young’s #1 album “Harvest” as pretty chauvinistic. He has tried to defend it over the years by saying he has always struggled with personal relationships and that maybe he’d be better off living alone and just hiring someone to cook and clean. Well, if she remains an employee, I suppose that’s acceptable, but he ends the song by asking “When will I see you again?” which can be interpreted as carrying on a romantic relationship with her as well. It all sounds a bit too misogynistic for my tastes: “I was thinking that maybe I’d get a maid, find a place nearby for her to stay, /Just someone to keep my house clean, fix my meals and go away, /A maid, a man needs a maid…”

“Sweet Little Sixteen,” Chuck Berry, 1958

When rock ‘n’ roll was in its infancy, most song lyrics were geared toward the intended audience — teenagers, and their school woes, their first loves, their cars, their dreams. Berry, one of the chief architects of the new genre, wrote some beauties (“Maybellene,” “School Day,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Johnny B. Goode”). One of his biggest, “Sweet Little Sixteen,” appears sketchy now for a couple of reasons. He was already 32 when he wrote it, and not long afterwards, he was arrested and convicted for sex with an underage girl, which makes lines like these seem disturbing: “Sweet little sixteen, she’s got the grown-up blues, /Tight dresses and lipstick, she’s sportin’ high-heeled shoes, /Oh, but tomorrow morning, she’ll have to change her trend and be sweet sixteen, and back in class again…”

“Illegal Alien,” Genesis, 1983

The members of Genesis have protested that “Illegal Alien” is a sympathetic satire of the plight of the undocumented immigrant’s challenges, but under closer examination, that just doesn’t wash. The speedy Gonzales-type accent Phil Collins uses as he sings, the litany of disrespectful Mexican stereotypes found in the lyrics (even a line about “I’ve got a sister who’d be willing to oblige“), and the cheesy costumes worn by the band in the accompanying music video all combine to create a racist portrayal of the immigrants in question. Critics called the lyrics “misguided” and “confusing and confused” and described the video as “seemingly well-intentioned” but ultimately “a train wreck.”

“Run For Your Life,” The Beatles, 1965

To their fans, John, Paul, George and Ringo could do no wrong. We wouldn’t learn until much later about Lennon’s traumatic childhood and emotional issues regarding anger management and abandonment. He apparently hit his first wife Cynthia more than once, and his second wife Yoko as well, before coming to terms with it through intensive therapy. In his song “Run For Your Life” from the group’s 1965 “Rubber Soul” LP, Lennon’s narrator warned his woman not to make eyes at anyone else or she might meet a violent end: “Let this be a sermon, I mean everything I’ve said, /Baby, I’m determined and I’d rather see you dead, /You better run for your life if you can, little girl, hide your head in the sand, little girl, /Catch you with another man, that’s the end of little girl…”

“Every Breath You Take,” The Police, 1983

Interestingly, Sting fully acknowledges that the lyrics to this massively popular song (#1 in a dozen countries in 1983) are sinister and passively intimidating. “It’s clearly about an obsessed former lover who is jealously stalking his ex,” he said, adding that he was disconcerted by how many people regard it as a love song. “One couple told me, ‘Oh, we love that song! Its was the main song played at our wedding.’ I said, ‘Really? Well, good luck.’ It’s not a love song, it’s quite the opposite.” The dark theme is undeniable: “Oh can’t you see you belong to me? How my poor heart aches with every step you take, /Every move you make, every vow you break, every smile you fake, every claim you stake, I’ll be watching you…”

“Ahab the Arab,” Ray Stevens, 1962

I can hear some people scoffing at this choice, saying, “Oh come on, it’s a novelty song, a parody done for laughs, and it was friggin’ 1962!” That’s all true, and overall, it didn’t present a derogatory image of Arabs (although all the stereotypes are present). Still, the way Stevens imitated Arabic speech was pretty condescending, and even the title pronounced Arab as “Ay-Rab,” which is the way ignorant Americans pronounce it when they don’t think much of people from that part of the world. It’s interesting to note that Stevens took this track to #5 in 1962, one of his most successful singles in a decades-long career. I don’t know if he still performs it in concert, but perhaps he ought to consider retiring it now.

“Everyone’s Gone to the Movies,” Steely Dan, 1975

The captivating, compelling music that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker created for the Steely Dan catalog is often accessible, sunny pop, but if you delve into the lyrics, you’ll find serial killers, outlaws, drug dealers and even pedophiles. In this track from their 1975 LP “Katy Lied,” they sing of a creepy dude named Mr. LaPage, who evidently invites neighborhood teens into his house to…watch porn movies? Expose himself? It’s not crystal clear, but there’s no question there’s some creepy shit going on. Did they go over the line with this one? Maybe: “Kids if you want some fun, Mr. LaPage is your man, /He’s always laughing, having fun, showing his films in the den, /Come on, come on, soon you will be eighteen, I think you know what I mean, /Don’t tell your mama, your daddy or mama, they’ll never know where you been…”

“Johnny Are You Queer,” Josie Cotton, 1981

This notorious tune, written by Bobby and Larson Paine, was intended for two audiences: young women who had dated guys who turned out to be gay, and interestingly, the gay community, who appreciated the punk-rock attempt to win back the ironic use of the word “queer” from the bigots and homophobes. The Go-Go’s sang it live, but it was a new talent named Josie Cotton, managed by the Laine brothers, who made a record of it in 1981. The song never did much on the US charts because the radio stations were afraid of it or disapproved, but the gay clubs loved it and it went Top Ten in Canada. The evangelicals went ballistic, and the haters laughed and held it up to derision, posing the question menacingly to gays: “Oh, why are you so weird, boy? Johnny, are you queer, boy?…”

“Hot Child in the City,” Nick Gilder, 1978

Gilder, a native of Vancouver, Canada, had been in the glam rock band Sweeney Todd but went solo in 1977 and scored a Juno Award (like a Canadian Grammy) for “Hot Child in the City,” which also reached #1 in the US. Said Gilder, “I’d seen a lot of young girls, 15 and 16, walking down Hollywood Boulevard with their pimps. Their horrible home environment drove them to run away, only to be trapped by something even worse. It hurt to see that, so I tried writing a pop song from the perspective of a customer.” Gee, thanks, Nick — not sure we needed this: “So young to be loose and on her own, /Young boys, they all want to take her home, /She goes downtown, the boys all stop and stare, /When she goes downtown, she walks like she just don’t care, /Hot child in the city, hot child in the city, runnin’ wild and lookin’ pretty…”

“Used to Love Her,” Guns ‘n Roses, 1988

A hard rock band like Guns ‘n’ Roses, aiming to follow in the footsteps of The Stones and Zeppelin, offered lyrics that painted themselves as bad boys, capable of anything. Well, fine, I guess, but yikes, surely there are limits. I thought I’d found their most offensive lyrics in “One in a Million,” when they railed against “immigrants and faggots…starting some mini-Iran or spreading some fucking disease…” But then I found another one called “Used to Love Her” that’s totally beyond the pale: “I used to love her, but I had to kill her, /I knew I’d miss her, so I had to keep her, /She’s buried right in my back yard… She bitched so much, she drove me nuts, and now I am happier this way…” Both tracks appear on their “G N’ R Lies” LP, which reached #2 and sold five million US copies.

“Brown Sugar,” The Rolling Stones, 1971

It’s one thing for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to push the envelope of what a pop song might be about by focusing on interracial sex, S&M, oral sex and hard drug use. We can at least assume (or pretend) that everything is between consenting adults. But I submit that slavery and rape never were and never will be appropriate subject matter for the Top 40, let alone the #1 song in the country for multiple weeks. How did this one get by? Simple — Jagger blurred his pronunciation so most listeners really didn’t know the words. Bet you never actually read the lyrics before: “Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields, sold in a market down in New Orleans, /Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing alright, hear him whip the women just around midnight…”

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