Is art ever really finished?
When the Beatles recorded "Let It Be," their intention was to get back to being "a pretty good rock 'n' roll band" - to playing live and recording together the way they did when they started out.
"Get Back" was the original title of that album, released one month after their breakup. Now, 33 years later, they really are getting back. On Tuesday, America will hear that album as the band originally intended, without any of the schmaltzy strings, choral fills, or other special effects added later by famed "Wall of Sound" producer Phil Spector. They're calling the stripped-down version "Let It Be ... Naked."
For some, the album's rerelease raises the question as to whether it may set a precedent of some sort. Will other artists, dissatisfied with earlier music, be encouraged to tinker with original albums, fundamentally altering them?
"More artists may go back and revise their work," says Dave Marsh, an editor at Rolling Stone. "This will not reflect the incompleteness of the work. It will reflect either new resources ... or new information processed in the artist's mind and spirit."
Unlike most reissues, "Naked" contains no bonus tracks, newly recorded material, or other embellishments. It can't even be compared to a director's cuts of a film, in which previously excised scenes are sandwiched back in. With "Let It Be ... Naked," it's what's subtracted that counts. There really is no other entertainment-medium equivalent to a scenario in which the remaining members of a band - whose body of work is regarded as iconic, if not downright holy - decide decades later to fix an album that none of them was thrilled with.
"This won't be 'Let It Be' unadorned; it will be 'Let It Be' in a different suit of clothes, is all," says Mr. Marsh.
Along with Spector's overdubbing, the songs "Dig It" and "Maggie Mae" have been tossed and replaced with "Don't Let Me Down." Also gone is the between-song patter originally included to sync the disc to the "Let It Be" film documentary.
The track order has also been juggled, and the cuts have been digitally remixed to bring them up to today's standards. Engineers spliced two takes together for "I've Got a Feeling," and the improvement is undeniable.
In general, Beatles fans are pleased with the changes. "It's the Beatles unplugged," says radio programmer Rosemary Welsch after listening to it on her home stereo.
Every listener polled for this story immediately remarked about the album's instrumental and vocal clarity. Paul McCartney's rougher vocal on "I've Got a Feeling" vastly elevates the song's excitement level. "The Long and Winding Road" and "Let It Be" mixes expose piano lines that were once buried. On "One After 909," their joy at playing live together - for what would be the last time - can be heard in each note.
"You can hear the band is rocking more," says Beatles authority Carl Grefenstette upon hearing "Don't Let Me Down" in his vintage guitar shop. He later comments that "The Long and Winding Road" is much more listenable. "It's not sappy," he opines.
There are a few gripes, however.
As "Get Back" abruptly fades out, Grefenstette employee John Bechtold wails, "Where's the dialogue on the end? The dialogue has to be on there!"
Fan Gary Noftz, who played it on his surround-sound system, is also disappointed. "It's not as naked as I hoped it would be," he says. "Some variations are nice, but it's not mind-blowing."
Few have a problem with the idea of revising musical history, however. And the band's publicist, Geoff Baker, notes that is because the Beatles themselves chose to redo it. Besides, the Spector original is still available.
"It's not like anyone's hating Phil's stuff," he adds. "It just wasn't 'Let It Be' as it was meant to be."
But Alan Light, editor-in-chief of Tracks magazine, contends that John Lennon and George Harrison continued to work with Spector, and therefore didn't hate the album as much as McCartney would have us believe. He also worries that the Rolling Stones might tamper with "Sticky Fingers," which Mick Jagger has criticized, and wonders what might come next.
Noting how the success of The Beatles "1" compilation album prompted Elvis Presley and Stones versions, Light says, "What works for the Beatles, everyone follows...."