It was 50 years ago this month that Paul McCartney told the world that the Beatles had broken up. “Personal differences, business differences, musical differences, but most of all because I have a better time with my family,” he wrote in a “self-interview” that accompanied the release of his debut solo LP, McCartney. “Temporary or permanent? I don’t really know.”
Just one month later, the Beatles released the documentary Let It Be and an album of the same name. It came out after Abbey Road, but was largely recorded prior to it. This has caused decades of debate about which one is actually their final album. That argument will likely flare up later this year with the release of The Beatles: Get Back, a new documentary about this time period, directed by Peter Jackson. It utilizes unreleased footage from the Let It Be sessions that fans have been waiting to see for the past half-century.
The Beatles never got the chance to play any of the Let It Be songs in concert, at least if you discount their legendary January 20th, 1969, rooftop performance, since that was really just an outdoor, public recording session and not an actual gig. But McCartney has made up for it by playing the title track 681 times, more than any other song in his catalog. (“Hey Jude” comes in second, at 672.) It’s just the perfect singalong song for any occasion, and it’s hard for him to leave any stage without playing it.
McCartney first played “Let It Be” during his final Wings tour in November and December 1979. That tour ended with a drug bust in Japan that put him in prison for nine days. The experience soured McCartney on touring and played a large role in his decision to end the band a little more than a year later.
McCartney stayed busy in the studio throughout the early Eighties and even landed a couple of hits with Michael Jackson, but he largely avoided concerts until Bob Geldof talked him into taking the stage at the end of Live Aid at Wembley Stadium, right before the grand finale of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
Earlier in the night, the satellite broadcast went dead right when the Who kicked off their reunion set with “My Generation,” and didn’t return until midway through their second song, “Pinball Wizard.” And when McCartney launched into “Let It Be,” his microphone went dead and the vast majority of the Wembley crowd couldn’t hear a thing. As you can see in this video, they let out a roar of joy about two minutes in when the sound finally kicks in.
Near the end, Bob Geldof walks out with David Bowie, Pete Townshend, and Yaz’s Alison Moyet to sing a reprise of the song for the fans who missed the beginning. Bowie starts singing the wrong verse at the 3:51 mark, but he quickly corrects himself.
Despite the mic problem, Live Aid was a positive experience for McCartney, and he slowly began returning to live performances, beginning in January 1986, when he did three songs at the the Prince’s Trust Rock Gala at Wembley Arena. He wouldn’t return to the road until the summer of 1989, when he hit stadiums all over the world to promote Flowers in the Dirt.
He’s basically been on the road ever since, but his plans to gig around Europe this summer will probably run up against the coronavirus. No matter what happens, fans will finally be able to see more footage from the Let It Be sessions later in the year. Let’s all hope it will be worth the long wait.