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Demystifying ‘Let it Be’: Lessons I learned from the Beatles

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FEBRUARY 27, 2022

I love the Beatles. I just do. I love their pensive tunes, their harmonies, George Harrison’s spare-but-brilliant guitar licks and Ringo’s haphazard drumming. As a kid, I frequently belted “Eleanor Rigby” in the bathroom (where the acoustics were good), mimicking Paul McCartney’s voice. The Beatles and John Denver induced me to ask my mom for a guitar and thus ignited my lifelong pursuit of songwriting and music. 

All my life, I’m not sure how exactly I pictured the Beatles’ creative process, but I can definitively say it was romantic and profound. Perhaps Paul wrote the hits sitting at the piano in a clean, well-furnished London flat — his bare feet settled into a Turkish rug.  Perhaps “Let it Be” magically came as he, eyes closed with a cigarette dangling between his lips, listened to the patter of the rain on the rooftops. Oh, the romance, the genius, the generation-defining anthem born out of intense rumination! 

For some reason, in my daydreams about writing these songs, there was always a sort of deliberateness: Each word was weighed carefully, John and Paul debating about whether to use “the” or “a.” After all, in my mind, how could a work of such perfection be produced any other way?

But recently I had the chance to see the reality of the Beatles’ process through the Peter Jackson documentary Get Back, which chronicles the last phase of the Beatles as they prepared for their famous concert on the rooftop of the Apple Inc. offices. To be honest, most of the footage — 8 hours of footage, no less — is pretty mundane, filled with a lot of smoking, a lot of spontaneous jamming and some logistical meetings about the future of the band. 

But what struck me overall was the sense of play in the studio. A couple of times in the documentary the band will be talking about something serious, such as when George decided to quit in the middle of rehearsals, and then John cuts through the heaviness in the air by starting an Elvis tune, and then the band kicks in, and they all smile. In those moments I forget that these are THE BEATLES at the utter apogee of fame. Rather, I see a band of twenty-something-year-old mates from Liverpool having fun together and showing their mutual love through the language of music; I am reminded that I, along with every other musician, also speak that language. 

But there is a distinct instant: when the camera focuses on Paul sitting at the piano and kind of playing with some chords, the omnipresent cigarette between his lips. He starts mumbling some lyrics; he’s just riffing over a chord structure. And you start to hear it — the unmistakable melody of “Let it Be.” And, as Paul riffs, one of the producers quietly approaches the piano. They have a brief exchange about one of the licks Paul just played. The producer (using terminology like “bum bum bum” and “you know?” and waving a cigarette) suggests that there should be a descending chord lick before the bridge. Paul does it. And they both agree: “Ooh that’s nice.” Upon finding out how that ordinary interaction produced one of the most iconic parts of the song, I nearly jumped off the couch. (We all know it, and I cannot articulate it sufficiently to the reader, so I will stick with the producer’s language and refer to it as the “Bum, bum bum” part — or if you are so inclined, check out 1:49 on the 2009 remastered version.) Days later I still thought about the mundanity with which the producer suggested the “Bum bum bum part”, Paul’s lighthearted acceptance and the fact that, as Paul was working on it, the band jokingly referred to “Let it Be” as “the Mother Mary song.” 

All of my heady preconceptions of The Beatles’ process slowly dissolved. It occurred to me that the process was, in fact, not really a deliberate process at all, but an organic product of fun (and genius, and work and, perhaps, luck). 

As a songwriter, I think I’ve been most inhibited by the sanctity of the process — by my perception that, to write a great song, all of the right forces have to converge at the right time.  Several times over the past couple of years, I’ve reflexively thrown out some lyrics because I felt that they hadn’t been true or profound enough, that they hadn’t come from a deep emotional well. While some famous songwriters surely write deeply and emotionally, it was freeing to see Paul messing around and joking, noodling and riffing off of his bandmates and producers. This reality — the sense of play, the buoyancy — was something I could immediately identify with. The stoic, solitary artist I’d created didn’t really exist; the only thing I got right (of course) was the abundance of cigarettes.

All of my heady preconceptions of The Beatles’ process slowly dissolved.

So, to all the aspiring artists out there, if you find yourself inhibited by romantic perceptions of how to create a masterpiece, remember two things:

 1) Even geniuses get lucky.

 2) Take a page out of Paul McCartney’s book. Get together with some old friends, have a cup of tea (perhaps avoid the cigarettes) and play around.

 In other words, let it be. 

Contact John Doe at [email protected].

FEBRUARY 28, 2022