|B-side "For You Blue"|
Format 7" single
|Released 11 May 1970|
|Recorded 26 January 1969, Apple Studio|
"The Long and Winding Road" is a ballad written by Paul McCartney (credited to Lennon–McCartney) from the Beatles' album Let It Be. It became the group's 20th and last number-one song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the United States in June 1970, and was the last single released by the quartet.
While the released version of the song was very successful, the post-production modifications 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, he 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.
In 2011, Rolling Stone ranked "The Long and Winding Road" number 90 on their list of 100 greatest Beatles songs of all time.
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."
McCartney offered the song to Tom Jones as long at it was his next single. As Jones was already close to releasing "Without Love" it was not to be. Jones recounted this version of events again on The Voice (UK) in February 2017.
McCartney recorded a demo version of the song, with Beatles' engineer Alan Brown assisting, in September 1968, during the recording sessions for The Beatles.
The song takes the form of a piano-based ballad, with conventional chord changes. The song's home key is E-flat major but it also uses the relative C minor. Lyrically, it is a sad and melancholic song, with an evocation of an as-yet unrequited, though apparently inevitable, love.
In an interview in 1994, McCartney described the lyric more obliquely: "It's rather a sad song. I like writing sad songs, it's a good bag to get into because you can actually acknowledge some deeper feelings of your own and put them in it. It's a good vehicle, it saves having to go to a psychiatrist."
The opening theme is repeated throughout. The song lacks a traditional chorus, and the melody and lyrics are ambiguous about the opening stanza's position in the song; it is unclear whether the song has just begun, is in the verse, or is in the bridge.
The Beatles recorded several takes of "The Long and Winding Road" on 26 January 1969 and again on 31 January with McCartney on lead vocals and piano, John Lennon on bass guitar, George Harrison on guitar, Ringo Starr on drums, and Billy Preston on Rhodes piano. This was during a series of sessions for an album project then known as Get Back. Lennon, usually the band's rhythm guitarist, played bass only occasionally and made several mistakes on the recording, prompting some writers, such as Ian MacDonald, to postulate that the disenchanted Lennon's ragged bass playing was intentional.
In May 1969, Glyn Johns, who had been asked to compile and mix the Get Back album by the Beatles, selected the 26 January recording as the best version of the song. The Beatles also 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 occurred on 1 April 1970, the last ever Beatles recording session, when he added orchestral overdubs to "The Long and Winding Road", "Across the Universe" and "I Me Mine" at Abbey Road Studios. The only member of the Beatles present was Starr, who played drums with the session musicians to create Spector's characteristic "Wall of Sound". Already known for his eccentric behaviour in the studio, Spector was in a peculiar mood that day, as balance engineer Peter 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 overdubbing "The Long and Winding Road", using 8 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.
Controversy around Spector's overdubs
When McCartney first heard the Spector version of the song, he was outraged and nine days after Spector had overdubbed "The Long and Winding Road", McCartney formally announced the Beatles' breakup. 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 and voices 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 with his overdubbed orchestration still in place.
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. "It was an insult to Paul," engineer Geoff Emerick recalled. "It was his record. And someone takes it out of the can and starts to overdub things without his permission." 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 the overdubs were necessary due to the poor quality of the recording, particularly Lennon's bass playing, but whilst 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 used elsewhere on the album, and specifically, it would have been a simple matter of having McCartney overdub a more appropriate bass part to replace the Lennon bassline 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 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in America. This is the all-time record for number of number one singles on the Billboard Hot 100. They achieved these twenty number one singles in a mere space of 74 months; an average of one number one single per 3.7 months, another all-time record. "The Long and Winding Road" brought the curtain down on the Beatles' seven consecutive years of domination in America that began with "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in 1964.
Ringo Starr was impressed with the Let It Be... Naked version of the song: "There's nothing wrong with Phil's strings, this is just a different attitude to listening. But it's been 30-odd years since I've heard it without all that and it just blew me away." Spector himself argued that McCartney was being hypocritical in his criticism: "Paul had no problem picking up the Academy Award for the Let It Be movie soundtrack, nor did he have any problem in using my arrangement of the string and horn and choir parts when he performed it during 25 years of touring on his own. If Paul wants to get into a pissing contest about it, he's got me mixed up with someone who gives a shit."
Since release in 1970, there have been six additional recordings released by McCartney. The original 26 January take, without the orchestration and Spector overdubs, was included on Anthology 3 released in 1996. This version included a bridge section spoken, rather than sung, by McCartney. In 2003, the remaining Beatles and Yoko Ono released Let It Be... Naked, touted as the band's version of Let It Be remixed by independent producers. McCartney claimed that his long-standing dissatisfaction with the released version of "The Long and Winding Road" (and the entire Let It Be album) was in part the impetus for the new version. The new album included a later take of "The Long and Winding Road", recorded on 31 January. With no strings or other added instrumentation beyond that which was played in the studio at the time, it was closer to the Beatles's original intention than the 1970 version. This take is also the one seen in the film Let It Be and on the Beatles' 2015 video compilation 1. McCartney and producer George Martin re-recorded "The Long and Winding Road" with instrumentation incorporating a lead saxophone, for the soundtrack to McCartney’s 1984 film, Give My Regards to Broad Street A second new studio recording of the song was made by McCartney during the 1989 Flowers in the Dirt album sessions and released that year as a B-side to the single "This One".
"The Long and Winding Road" became a staple of McCartney's post-Beatles concert repertoire. On the 1976 Wings Over the World Tour, where it was one of the few Beatles songs played, it was performed on piano in a sparse arrangement using a horn section. On McCartney's 1989 solo tour and since, it has generally been performed on piano with an arrangement using a synthesiser mimicking strings, but this string sound is more restrained than on the Spector recorded version. The live performance recording of the Rio de Janeiro concert in April 1990 is on the album Tripping the Live Fantastic. McCartney also played the song to close the Live 8 concert in London.
Several other artists have performed or recorded the song, including a 1999 Royal Albert Hall performance by George Michael, a 1977 single release by Melba Moore, a 1978 recording by Peter Frampton, and a 2010 performance at the White House by Faith Hill when Barack Obama gave McCartney the Gershwin Prize.
According to Walter Everett: