We had a debate in the record library at KEXP. It was mostly me and Ryan, the Programming Intern, but others weighed in. Best band of all time? The Beatles, in my opinion, no contest. Ryan was leaning hard on Led Zeppelin, but although they morphed themselves a transcendent rock sound, they basically took blues songs and “wrote” lyrics that had been written by blues artists years before. And they never credited the blues writers.
But the Beatles, their progression WAS the progression of rock music. From recordings in the beginning (mostly love songs) that sounded like their live shows (“I Wanna Hold Your Hand”), to their increasingly good chops and hunger for a different sound. This hunger and maturity led to sophisticated, layered studio albums (in my opinion the best of the Beatles) like The White Album, Abbey Road, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and their final record, Let It Be.
According to my fave Beatles book, The Love You Make, and also the deep saga as recorded by Rolling Stone magazine, the album Let it Be was a tough time for the Beatles. They were all finding themselves in different ways, and the band was separating beyond repair.
Yoko had entered the picture and given John Lennon a new take on himself. And his songs leaned more on personal rawness and flawed honesty. McCartney wanted to write majestic pop songs. Harrison was into Eastern philosophies and music.
As a listener to this final record from the best band of all time, I like to think I can tell which of the main songwriters wrote each song. Both “The Long and Winding Road” and “Get Back” are listed as Lennon/McCartney collaborations. But “Get Back” leans heavy on Lennon’s twisted poetics and pulsing rhythm guitar, while “The Long and Winding Song” is almost torturous (but ultimately beautiful) in a Hallmark card sorta way. Harrison chips in with “I, Me, Mine”, seemingly attempting to comment on the state of his band in their last days. Oh, why didn’t they listen to George?
And as someone who is listening to this record 38 years after it was released. I have to say that, ironically, this is one of the best feelgood records of all time. The opening track, “Two of Us,” is one of the most romantic songs ever. This song is about two young lovers who are about to take on the world. And there is something in the rhythm and acoustic warmth and the lyrics about leaving together that makes it feel like a road trip. One of those good ones where you’ve got hot chocolate and the right music and a full tank of gas.
“Across The Universe” is so much older and more centered (in a songwriter way). The starry sky feel of the song, and the chorus “Nothing’s gonna change my world” is the cry of someone who has found love and wants to keep it, but knows that the world always changes things. It is tragic and beautiful and reminds you that every moment with someone you love is precious. (Who’s Hallmark card now?)
Let It Be (the song) is almost churchy, but it is also wise and honest. “Maggie Mae” is a romp through tall grass while carrying moonshine whiskey. “Get Back” (to me) is about the past, and how you gotta own it so you can make a future. “I’ve Got a Feeling” is about remembering to ask yourself what YOU actually want, so you can add to the world for real.
The acoustic sound of this record is so homey and playful and smart. And in a world where a whole record you can enjoy from start to end is so rare, it stands tall. Taller than the differences that made it.
Here is the last performance (a surprise set on the Apple Records rooftop) of the Beatles. The best band of all time.
Michele Myers hosts Nite Life Fridays at 9pm on KEXP. You can hear this feature (and 3 songs from the album) this Friday night at the witching hour.