Hey, It's Friday. Wanna Argue About the Beatles' Last Album?

'Abbey Road' vs. 'Let It Be': Settling an age-old debate

The Beatles Abbey Road Let It Be
Courtesy of Apple Records
The Beatles, 'Abbey Road' and 'Let It Be'
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So what's the final Beatles album? Abbey Road or Let It Be? If you're a Beatles fan, you've had at least one chemically-assisted late-night argument about this (because that's what we do). Abbey Road was the last they recorded, but Let It Be was the last they released. So did the greatest band ever bid farewell with "Her Majesty" or "Get Back"? Does the story end with Paul saying, "Someday I'm gonna make her mine," or John saying, "I hope we passed the audition"? It's always been a hot-button philosophical question for fans, the kind that defines what kind of Beatlemaniac you are. Though it may seem like an arcane debate, damn right it matters. Because it's the Beatles. And what the hell, it's Friday. So let's argue: Which album truly counts as the grand finale?

The case for Let It Be: It came out in 1970, which was after 1969. The case for Abbey Road: (1) virtually all of Let It Be was in the can before the Abbey Road sessions even began; (2) Abbey Road feels more like a classic Beatles record; (3) "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" was the last time all four played in the studio together; (4) the last song on Abbey Road is called "The End"; (5) except for "Her Majesty"; (6) rebounding from the Let It Be debacle was the main reason the lads summoned up that team spirit for Abbey Road; (7) "Her Majesty" is awesome; (8) in the end the love you take is equal to the love; (9) you make.

Sentimentally, Abbey Road has the edge, but in cold chronological terms it's debatable. Sure, they recorded most of Let It Be in January 1969. But all four Beatles kept working on Let It Be after Abbey Road came out. As RS contributing editor David Browne notes in his excellent book Fire and Rain, Paul, George and Ringo went into the studio on January 3, 1970 to cut "I Me Mine" – at that point, Abbey Road had been out for months. Ringo was still recording drum tracks as late as April 1970.  But on some level, Let It Be isn't so much an album as a movie soundtrack project. It only became an official Beatles studio album because it happened to come out when they broke up. If they'd released Let It Be on schedule, before Abbey Road, it would be precisely as famous as the Yellow Submarine soundtrack. Both have a few genuine Beatles songs, plus a load of lesser epiphenomena that belongs in a movie. "Two of Us" is as great as "It's All Too Much," "Dig A Pony" rates with "Hey Bulldog," and so on. The studio banter on Let It Be is even more peripheral than "Pepperland Laid Waste."

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It's a grey area what counts as a Beatles album and what's merely a Beatles project. (In the 1970s, fans argued over whether Hey Jude and Hollywood Bowl were official Beatles albums. Nobody argues about that anymore.) Capitol, for obvious reasons, would probably like to err on the side of counting projects as albums, although they still show heroic restraint and taste when it comes to respecting the core canon. (Like, they count Magical Mystery Tour as an official album, but they know better than to make claims for The Beatles' Reel Music.)

Anyone would have to agree Let It Be is in the grey area, but from my fan perspective, it's on the Hey Jude side of the line, along with Yellow Submarine. If you want to claim the Beatles made 11 studio albums, I can see that, and if you want to claim the Beatles made 13 studio albums, counting Let It Be and Yellow Submarine, I can see that too. I can even see stretching it to 14 with Hey Jude. (That one was a Capitol hodgepodge from early 1970.)

Magical Mystery Tour is in the grey area – the Beatles released it as a 6-song U.K. EP, but it got padded into a U.S.-only 1967 album, so it's about as legit as Hey Jude. But it's been a long time since I've heard anyone try to read it out of the canon, and it's a case where sheer quality makes a difference. (Not even a strict-constructionist hardliner would claim the EP is better because it leaves out "Strawberry Fields Forever.") If someone tried to argue the Beatles only made 10 albums, because Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine and Let It Be are mere footnotes, I would basically assume they were an idiot, regardless of whether or not it's a valid point. (All idiots have a valid point, right? Not having a valid point doesn't make you an "idiot," just a "rock critic.")

So let's put it this way. Let It Be is the final Beatles album, not Abbey Road. . . but only if it's a Beatles album. Can you argue that Let It Be is a Beatles album, yet not the Beatles' final album? No, not really, because it includes a tiny amount of music they made in 1970. So here's my reluctant conclusion, at least as of today. I like Abbey Road better. Sentimentally, for me, it's the one I think of as the end. However, unfortunately, Let It Be is the last Beatles album. I would love it if you could change my mind about that.

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