By the time the public heard “The Long and Winding Road,” The Beatles were broken up.
The song first showed up on the Let It Be album, which came out on May 8, 1970, in the U.K.; ten days later, it was released in the U.S. Between those dates, a 45 of “The Long and Winding Road” arrived on May 11. It marked the final single released by the band, which had split up on April 10.
To distraught fans the song sounded like a requiem, a last gasp and a summation of the past seven years. Five decades later, it still sounds like a fitting close of the Beatles’ career, a mournful and meditative song about looking back while looking forward. And, true to its title, “The Long and Winding Road” had a complicated history before finally making it on record.
Paul McCartney wrote the song in 1968 while visiting his farm in Scotland. He found inspiration in the view of rolling hills disappearing into the green distance. It was a counterbalance to everything going on within the Beatles – who were famously not getting along as they struggled to record the White Album – at the time. Paul found a sense of peace wistfully looking back at the group’s past decade together in the serene, open-air setting.
He cut a demo, pitched it as a Ray Charles-type R&B number to singer Tom Jones, who had to turn it down, and eventually brought it to his bandmates in late January 1969, when the Beatles began work on the Get Back project. The return-to-basics LP was supposed to do away with all of the gadgetry and gimmicks that marked their recent recordings, and instead focus on what made them great in the first place: Four guys just playing songs.
But things didn’t turn out that way.
With cameras watching their every move for a proposed TV special documenting the recording of their new LP, everyone was on edge at Twickenham Film Studios, where the initial rehearsals began. Paul and John annoyed George so much, he quit the band for five days. When George eventually returned, he talked the rest of the band into abandoning the film crew and relocating to Apple Studio to focus on the album. He also brought along keyboardist Billy Preston for a handful of the sessions. The footage that was shot would now be part of a movie, along with a new concert by the Beatles, their first since August 1966, when they played one last show at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park before they retired from live performances.
But they couldn’t decide on a location for the concert, so they went to Apple Corps’ roof in London, played for 42 minutes and got shut down by the cops. And that, for the most part, was the end of the Beatles’ involvement with Get Back. Engineer Glyn Johns tried to assemble the mess of recordings into an album; a year later, producer Phil Spector took over the project, added strings, edited some songs and presented a finished version of Let It Be, which ended up as the last album released by the band. (Abbey Road, which came out in September 1969, was recorded in the months following the Get Back disaster.)
“The Long and Winding Road,” Let It Be’s penultimate track, was recorded on Jan. 26, 1969, in several takes. Paul sang and played piano on his song; Lennon played six-string bass, with guitarist Harrison and drummer Starr in their usual roles, along with Preston on Fender Rhodes piano. They also recorded the song on Jan. 31 – that version ended up in the Let It Be movie.
The Beatles rejected Johns’ mix of the album, so the tapes were handed over to studio legend Spector, who proceeded to stamp his identity on several of the songs. The raw recordings were given new mixes and, in some cases, adornments that rankled the Beatles, who were now separated into warring factions.
The orchestral arrangements the producer added to some of the songs occasionally assist the songs, sometimes they’re barely noticed. But on “The Long and Winding Road” they collide in a cluttered mix of cellos, trombones, trumpets, violas, violins and a choir. In his book Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald states there are 38 musicians on the final track, a far cry from the stripped-down intentions of the original Get Back sessions.
In early April, Spector sent his work to all four Beatles, asking them for suggestions and objections. They all approved his version of the Let It Be album; according to the book You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup, Paul said he felt forced to go along with his bandmates’ collective decision. They broke up a little more than a week later. “The Long and Winding Road” debuted on the singles chart on May 23; on June 13, it reached No. 1, the last of the group’s 20 chart toppers in the U.S., and stayed there for two weeks.
When Paul went to court to officially disband the group, he named Spector’s version of “The Long and Winding Road” as one of the reasons for the breakup. “I was sent a remixed version of [the song] with harps, horns, an orchestra and a women’s choir added,” he told The Evening Standard before the album’s release. “No one had asked me what I thought. I couldn’t believe it.” Spector later countered that his embellishments were needed to cover Lennon’s subpar bass playing.
Bare-bones takes of the song were finally released on 1996’s Anthology 3 (featuring a spoken-word bridge) and in 2003 on Let It Be … Naked, a revised take on the 1970 LP that was spiritually closer to the abandoned Get Back project. Within this context, the song’s underlining sentimentality seems earned, not forced – a nostalgic look back as The Beatles neared the end of their road.