Friday, February 13, 2009

The Long and Winding Road

Since Friday the 13th is supposedly such an unlucky day, I feel I may as well tackle one of the most unlucky songs in the Beatles canon-- and one that I have to confess to not really loving. So, um, here we are. "The Long and Winding Road."

This track is famous-- infamous, more like-- for its craptacular production at the hands of Phil Spector. The entire story is long. And also winding. In a nutshell, by early 1970 the Get Back sessions, which were miserable all around, had been shelved, but John, who thought Phil Spector had done a good job on his "Instant Karma!" single (recorded in January of 1970), threw all the tapes from those sessions at Spector and told him to basically do what he could with them. John did this without consulting anyone else in the band, and without, apparently, any thought to what the musical result would be. Well, the result was Let It Be, the Beatles' anticlimactic swan song, the loudest, saddest fizzle of what's otherwise an almost perfect career.

Now, to be clear: what John did was crappy. (I particularly love Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head on this subject-- that book, though a great and informative read, is also a gigantic French kiss to Paul from a clear McCartneyite, and MacDonald seems to want to leap through the page and rip John's head off for his sabotage of Paul's genius here.)

Ahem. What John did was crappy. And what Spector did to Paul's "The Long and Winding Road" was even crappier. He added on layers and layers of strings and trumpets and harp and a treble choir of ahhhhs and basically everything but the kitchen sink. It was a terrible idea, antithetical to the whole Beatles ethos that had been developed over the years under the clean, dry, dare-I-say-witty production of George Martin. Spector's "Long and Winding Road" debacle is, perhaps, one of the worst production jobs that's ever been done to any song, EVER. No doubt.

BUT-- all that said, all that blame assigned, there is still a gigantic BUT-- the song is not that great to begin with. I'm sorry, fans of weepy Paul songs out there, but, no. I love a weepy Paul song ("For No One"? "Here, There, and Everywhere"? Even bloody "I Will"? Nothing but LOVE) but this isn't his strongest work. And see, I'm convinced that if we weren't bound to discuss the production, which indeed is godawful and should be roundly criticized as often as we can do so, we'd notice that the song itself is only OK. I think the song gets too much credit as this genius McCartney ballad that was unfairly ruined. That is partly true-- the song WAS ruined, and it was done without Paul's consent, without even his input, and that is all very bad. But the song is simply not in any way genius.

There are now other versions available to listen to, so we can check out the Anthology 3 track to see how it sounds sans Spector. Or we can listen to this version from Let It Be (the film), which also appears on Let It Be... Naked (the album). Sit back and allow Paul to make sweet, sweet love to you with ONLY HIS EYES.

See, maybe you disagree. But you know what I hear? I hear a freaking easy listening song. And apparently, so did Phil Spector, because he produced it like an easy listening song (a particularly crappy one, yes, but still). I mean, God, look how bored the other Beatles look! Billy Preston seems to be having a pretty good time, but, well, he's playing with the Beatles-- I'd be pleased as punch to play "Three Blind Mice" with the Beatles. So we cannot take Billy Preston seriously in this case. The adult contemporary sound comes through in the piano part: those ponderous syncopated chords that proceed the chorus, and those little treble fills that sound, I swear to God, like something Jim Brickman would improvise. There's no heart, there's no edge, there's none of that meat that the best McCartney ballads have in spades.

The melody is nice. The melody is BEAUTIFUL. We all know that Paul can write gorgeous melodies. And this song is by no means actually bad-- it can definitely get it me when I'm in the right mood. But.... hmm. He should have either done this one with completely different instrumentation-- just getting off the piano already-- or given it to someone else (and my understanding is that he did try to give it Tom Jones and other balladeers, which I guess never went anywhere). Or he should have saved it for his solo career, as he did with other songs, including the exponentially more awesome "Maybe I'm Amazed."

So, in the end, it's easy for us to blame Phil Spector for single-handedly ruining this song, and about ten thousand commentators have done so already. I just want to throw in my opinion, which I don't think I've seen elsewhere, that the song wasn't awesome anyway. Now if Spector had ruined a TRULY genius song, like "Hey Jude" or something, that'd be another matter. The whole story of "The Long and Winding Road" is just depressing, especially considering it was the Beatles' last single in the U.S. It's just a sad way to end a career as auspicious as theirs.

I don't think Paul agrees with me, though, because he still likes to perform it live. But that's OK. I mean, his solo career is filled with easy listening moments anyway-- I would still rather listen to "The Long and Winding Road" than the likes of "My Love." Anyway, here he is performing it live in Liverpool a little over a year ago.

"The Long and Winding Road," released in the U.K. side B track 3 of Let It Be, May 8, 1970; in the U.S. as a single c/w "For You Blue," May 11, 1970, and on side B track 3 of Let It Be, May 18, 1970.

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree with your analysis of this song. I always thought it was rather "meh". I did, however, gain a new appreciation for it by seeing Paul live. I love what he does after the instrumental break: the harmony he busts out on "but still they lead me back..." Apparently he's been doing that live since the "Tripping the Live Fantastic" days, but I only discovered it recently. I feel that his Fenway performance of this song was amazing (well, that's not fair, because everything was amazing that night), and it's given me a new appreciation for it. Except for Spector. That I do not like.