June 13 – The Great Road Reached Its Dead End

A dead end sign. That was perhaps what The Beatles found at the end of their journey. The end of “The Long and Winding Road” as it were… which was their final #1 hit, getting to the top of Billboard this day 52 years ago. The 1970 hit was their 20th, and final chart-topper in the States and came months after the band had actually disbanded. The next time the public would see a Beatle at #1 would be the end of that year when George Harrison got there with “My Sweet Lord.”

The Long and Winding Road” also got to #1 in Canada, but didn’t do nearly as well in most other markets, perhaps fittingly since it is one of the most controversial of Beatles songs.

Like so many of the other songs they put out at the tail-end of the ’60s (or in this case, the sunrise of the ’70s), while credited to the Beatles, it was very close to a solo work of one of them. In this case, Paul McCartney. He wrote it (although, true to Beatles form it is listed on records as “Lennon-McCartney”) while on a break at a farm he owned in Scotland. “I just sat down at my piano in Scotland, started playing and came up with that song, imagining it to be done by someone like Ray Charles. I have always found inspiration in the calm beauty of Scotland.” He would add, “it’s rather a sad song. I like writing sad songs… it saves having to go to a psychiatrist.”

He played a demo of it for Tom Jones, of all people, but Jones turned it down. So he took it to his bandmates, and they recorded two takes of it in early-’69, for what was going to be the “Get Back” project. The band wanted to get back to their roots and have simpler music, so for this one both Paul and Billy Preston, who was sitting in, playing electric piano, were at keyboards leaving John to play bass, oddly enough. George and Ringo played their usual instruments in a rather toned down fashion.

Get Back” the album got delayed and of course became Let It Be. The controversy came about when they decided to bring in Phil Spector – the “Wall of Sound” guy – to do a final mix and take at producing it after George Martin had left the room. Spector wanted anything but a simpler sound, and brought in a full orchestra – two dozen musicians plus a choir of 14 – to fill out the sparse song. Of the “Fab Four”, only Ringo was present in the studio that day in April ’70. He recalled that “Spector wanted tape echo on everything” and that he was throwing such tantrums that the orchestra refused to go on at one point. Anyway, he mixed in the orchestra and then asked all four if they were ok with the new mix. All four said they were.

We all said ‘yes’. Even at the beginning, Paul,” Ringo says. “He said, ‘yeah, it’s OK’. Then suddenly he didn’t want it to go out.” Indeed McCartney was furious and hated the new version which was rushed to the stores only days later. He later cited it as one of the main reasons he broke up the Beatles.

Critics weren’t all that much fonder of it than Paul was. Melody Maker said “Spector’s orchestrations add to the Bacharach atmosphere” which no one wanted on a Beatles record while Rolling Stone called it “virtually unlistenable with hideously cloying strings and a ridiculous choir.” Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys dissented mind you, calling it his “all-time favorite Beatles track.”

McCartney eventually got his way. The Beatles released the original, un-Spectorized version of “The Long and Winding Road” on Let It Be Naked in 2003… and eventually Ray Charles recorded a version of it too.

Although it was their last #1 hit and technically came out after the band ceased to exist, it’s hard to keep a band that good down. They’d still score two more top 10 singles later, “Got To Get You Into My Life” in 1976, released as a single from a compilation album and “Free As A Bird”, an old demo of theirs finished off by the three living members and Jeff Lynne of ELO, in 1995.

7 thoughts on “June 13 – The Great Road Reached Its Dead End

  1. Badfinger (Max)

    I agree with Paul on this one… I like the no-Spector version on…Let It Be naked… Spector was great on those early sixties records…but it didn’t translate to me for all records. Give me a little less… I read where he would get 10 or more people to play the same thing on acoustic…and then double it. For some things it’s fine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. he did have a way of overdoing it, though I don’t dislike his version of this one. One wonders why Paul agreed to it, initially at least, when he was so passionate about it not being doctored.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Badfinger (Max)

        Well it’s the one we grew up with….but after hearing Paul’s version…I do understand.
        I don’t get why he agreed to it… so yes…it’s his fault.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the information on why it wasn’t on the original but was on Let it Be Naked. I like the song no more or less than any other Beatles tune. I’m sure Nick Hornby was nodding to this in his book, “Juliet, Naked.” (which is a good book by a good author, btw!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure he had that in mind when he came up with the title . A book I need to read, I have read quite a bit of Hornby’s stuff and I’ve seen the movie to ‘Juliet Naked’, thought it was pretty good as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It seems odd that one of the most successful writers in history accepted Mad Phil’s version/vision over his own. Maybe he was just getting tired of all the drama. (Or did Phil have his persuader in his shoulder holster?)

    Liked by 1 person

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