When was it recorded? Jan. 26 & 31 and Apr. 1, 1970
When was it first released, and on which album? May 8, 1970 on “Let It Be”
Who wrote it? McCartney
Have I heard this song before? One version of it anyway
What my research dug up:
According to the Beatles Bible, “If ever there was a song which [sic] summed up the fraught nature of The Beatles’ final months, it was ‘The Long and Winding Road.’”
Paul wrote the song at his Scotland farm in 1968, inspired by the rising tension among the band.
“I was a bit flipped out and tripped out at that time. It’s a sad song because it’s all about the unattainable; the door you never quite reach. This is the road that you never get to the end of.” — Paul McCartney (Barry Miles, Many Years From Now)
Paul also said in a 1994 interview that “The Long and Winding Road” saved him from “having to go to a psychiatrist.” He recorded a demo during the White Album sessions in Sept. 18, 1968, but it was obviously not cleaned up for that record.
The Beatles performed “The Long and Winding Road” while filming the “Let It Be” documentary in January 1969. They recorded versions of the song Jan. 26 and Jan. 31. Seven takes were done on the second day as part of their Apple studio performance (basically an indoor follow-up to the rooftop concert), with one of those takes even dubbed the master version. However, a take from Jan. 26 became the basis for the final song. Glyn Johns, the producer originally slated to mix the “Get Back” album, produced this early version of “The Long and Winding Road,” which finally appeared on “Anthology 3” in 1996.
In 1970, John and the Beatles’ new manager, Allen Klein, handed the reins to Phil Spector “with the hope of salvaging an album” (Wikipedia). According to the Beatles Bible, “When Phil Spector came to work on the ‘Let It Be’ tracks in April 1970, he overdubbed strings and a choir, arranged and conducted by Richard Hewson. Ringo Starr also played drums at the session. The overdubs were intended to mask the original version’s shortcomings.” (If you have the time and inclination, go read what balance engineer Peter Brown had to say about this session – basically Phil went bonkers and scared the orchestra and Ringo had to calm him down.) Technical engineer Brian Gibson noted, “[Phil] wanted to overdub orchestra and choir but there weren’t the available tracks on the tape, so he wiped one of Paul’s two vocal tracks in order to put the orchestra on.”
You can imagine how happy all this rejiggering made Paul. He even cited the treatment of this song as one of the reasons he wanted to leave the Beatles at the band’s dissolution hearing in 1971. Quoth the Beatles Bible, “George Martin supported his objections, claiming that the work had been done without his knowledge or involvement.”
From Alan Pollack’s point of view, “ Spector also does it again… unilaterally cutting some trailing seconds off end of the original recording, thereby robbing the official release of one genuinely poetic final gesture. The source tape from 1/31/69 has a tiny piano coda played in a stage whisper just after the last of the big E-flat chord has faded away. This coda is derived from the piano part for the first two measures of the song, but played an octave higher than usual. Coming on the heels of what would otherwise seem to be a conclusively positive ending, the effect and implication of this open ended fragment, with its parting nod to the relative minor key, is understatedly ominous.”
However, Pollack also noted, “Spector’s overdub of a mini-orchestra and chorus may be overdone, but the unvarnished original recording sounds a bit under dressed in comparison. This is possibly the one and only case in which the application of Spector’s heavy handed production values was not entirely inappropriate. The song is a schmaltzy one at heart, indeed, so let’s call a spade a spade.” Here’s his version.
“The Long and Winding Road” was released as a single in the US on Jun. 13, 1970. Quoth Wikipedia, “It became the group’s 20th and last number-one song in the United States… and was the last single released by the quartet while all four remained alive.” The RIAA eventually certified the single Platinum.
2003’s “Let It Be… Naked” features an alternate version of “The Long and Winding Road” from a Jan. 31 take also seen in the “Let It Be” film.
Since its release, Paul has performed his arrangement of “The Long and Winding Road” during most of his tours (both solo and with Wings). With George Martin’s help, he even re-recorded a studio version of the song for 1984’s “Give My Regards to Broad Street” and 1989’s single “This One.”
Honestly, this song has never been a favorite of mine. Like Pollack said, it’s pretty schmaltzy. For the record, I had heard the Spector-produced, “Let It Be” version; now the “Let It Be… Naked” version is easily my favorite. Arrangement aside, the lyrics is highly appropriate for the Beatles’ final single though.