ON THIS DATE (42 YEARS AGO)
May 10, 1970 – The Beatles: “The Long and Winding Road” b/w “For You Blue” (Apple 2832) 45 single is released in the US.
“The Long and Winding Road” is a ballad written by Paul McCartney (credited to Lennon–McCartney) that originally appeared on The Beatles’ album Let It Be. It became The Beatles’ 20th and last number-one song in the United States on 23 May 1970, and was the last single released by the quartet. “The Long and Winding Road” was listed with “For You Blue” as a double-sided hit when the single hit #1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1970.
While the released version of the song was very successful, the post-production modifications to the song by producer Phil Spector angered McCartney to the point that when he made his case in court for breaking up The Beatles as a legal entity, McCartney cited the treatment of “The Long and Winding Road” as one of six reasons for doing so. New versions of the song with simpler instrumentation were subsequently released by both The Beatles and McCartney.
McCartney originally wrote the song at his farm in Scotland, and was inspired by the growing tension among the Beatles. McCartney said later “I just sat down at my piano in Scotland, started playing and came up with that song, imagining it was going to be done by someone like Ray Charles. I have always found inspiration in the calm beauty of Scotland and again it proved the place where I found inspiration.”
The Beatles recorded “The Long and Winding Road” on 26 and 31 January 1969, the day after the group’s legendary final performance on the roof of their Apple headquarters, with McCartney on piano, John Lennon on bass guitar, George Harrison on guitar, Ringo Starr on drums, and Billy Preston on Hammond organ. This was during a series of sessions for an album project then known as Get Back. Lennon, who played bass only occasionally, made several mistakes on the recording. Some writers, such as Ian MacDonald, have postulated that the disenchanted Lennon’s ragged bass playing was purposeful.
In May 1969, Glyn Johns, who had been asked to mix the Get Back album by the Beatles, selected the 26 January recording as the best version of the song. The Beatles had recorded a master version as part of the ‘Apple studio performance’ on 31 January, which contained a different lyrical and musical structure, but this version was not chosen for release. Bootlegs of the recording sessions of that day, and the film, show the band recording numerous takes of the song in a concerted effort to create a master. For both the 1969 and 1970 versions of the Get Back album, Glyn Johns used the 26 January mix as released on the Anthology 3 album in 1996. When the project was handed over to Phil Spector he also chose the 26 January recording. In the spring of 1970, Lennon and the Beatles’ manager, Allen Klein, turned over the recordings to Phil Spector with the hope of salvaging an album, which was then titled Let It Be.
Spector made various changes to the songs, but his most dramatic embellishments would occur on 1 April 1970, when he turned his attention to “The Long and Winding Road”. At Abbey Road Studios, he recorded the orchestral and choir accompaniment for the song. The only member of The Beatles present was Starr, who was busy recording drum overdubs for “Across the Universe” and “I Me Mine” before being called back in later by Spector once he’d got his arrangement down. Already known for his eccentric behaviour in the studio, Spector was in a peculiar mood that day, as balance engineer Pete Bown recalled: “He wanted tape echo on everything, he had to take a different pill every half hour and had his bodyguard with him constantly. He was on the point of throwing a wobbly, saying ‘I want to hear this, I want to hear that. I must have this, I must have that.'” Bown and the orchestra eventually became so annoyed by Spector’s behaviour that the orchestra refused to play any further, and at one point, Bown left for home, forcing Spector to telephone him and persuade him into coming back after Starr had told Spector to calm down.
Finally, Spector succeeded in remixing “The Long and Winding Road”, using 18 violins, four violas, four cellos, three trumpets, three trombones, two guitars, and a choir of 14 women. The orchestra was scored and conducted by Richard Hewson, who would later work with McCartney on his album, Thrillington. This lush orchestral treatment was in direct contrast to the Beatles’ stated intentions for a “real” recording when they began work on Get Back.
When McCartney first heard the Spector version of the song, he was outraged. Nine days after Spector had overdubbed “The Long and Winding Road”, McCartney announced The Beatles’ break-up. On 14 April, he sent a sharply worded letter to Apple Records business manager Allen Klein, demanding that the inclusion of the harp be eliminated and that the other added instrumentation be reduced. McCartney concluded the letter with the words: “Don’t ever do it again.” These requests went unheeded, and the Spector version was included on the album.
In an interview published by the Evening Standard in two parts on 22 and 23 April 1970, McCartney said: “The album was finished a year ago, but a few months ago American record producer Phil Spector was called in by Lennon to tidy up some of the tracks. But a few weeks ago, I was sent a re-mixed version of my song ‘The Long and Winding Road’ with harps, horns, an orchestra, and a women’s choir added. No one had asked me what I thought. I couldn’t believe it.” The Beatles’ usual producer, George Martin, agreed, calling the remixes “so uncharacteristic” of the Beatles. McCartney asked Klein to dissolve The Beatles’ partnership, but was refused. Exasperated, he took the case to court, naming Klein and the other Beatles as defendants. Among the six reasons McCartney gave for dissolving The Beatles was that Klein’s company, ABKCO, had caused “intolerable interference” by overdubbing “The Long and Winding Road” without consulting McCartney.
Spector claimed that he was forced into remixing “The Long and Winding Road”, because of the poor quality of Lennon’s bass playing. While the poor quality of the bass playing has been noted by other sources (in his book Revolution in the Head, a track-by-track analysis of the Beatles’ records, Ian MacDonald described it as “atrocious” to the point of sabotage), its basis as the full-scale re-working of the track by Spector has been questioned. McCartney has argued that Spector could have merely edited out the relevant mistakes and rerecorded them, a technique Spector used elsewhere on the album. Specifically, it would have been a simple matter of having McCartney overdub a more appropriate bass part to replace the Lennon bass line that was judged to be inadequate, or even using the more polished version initially rejected by Glyn Johns.
The controversy surrounding the song did not prevent a chart-topping single from being released in the United States on 11 May 1970, joined by “For You Blue” on the B-side. 1.2 million copies were sold in the first two days, and the song began its ten-week long chart run on 23 May. On 13 June, it became the Beatles’ twentieth and final number one single in America, according to Billboard magazine. “The Long and Winding Road” brought the curtain down on the Beatles’ six years of domination in America that began with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in 1964. The Beatles achieved twenty number one singles in a mere space of 74 months, achieving an average of one number one single per 3.7 months.