With a penchant for cover versions, Laibach have subverted the likes of Queen, ‘The Sound Of Music’ and Bach, but their take on The Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’ scaled new heights. Co-producer Bertrand Burgalat recalls the fun and games…
It’s summer 1987 and the French musician and arranger Bertrand Burgalat is on a mission. Firstly, he drives from his home in Paris to Mute HQ on Harrow Road, London, to pick up a large amount of recording equipment to take on a road trip to the then Yugoslavia. Burgalat’s destination is Laibach’s Tivoli Studios in Ljubljana, where they will record a new version of The Beatles’ final record, ‘Let It Be’.
Laibach had previously brought totalitarian sonic renewal to Queen’s ‘One Vision’ and Opus’ schlocky ‘Live Is Life’ on ‘Opus Dei’, released that March. Now they were aiming to repurpose the biggest band of all-time in a Duchamp-ian art prank. ‘Let It Be’ would join their growing list of “new originals”, although intriguingly they leave the title track off the album.
Burgalat had met members of Laibach at a party in Paris the year before, and they’d invited him to visit them in Ljubljana, which has been the capital of Slovenia since the nation gained independence in 1991.
“People always say, ‘You must visit us’, and most people don’t go, but I went! I stayed for months and I liked it,” says Burgalat, on the phone from his holiday bolthole in the Pyrenees. Approaching his mid-20s at the time, Burgalat became a part of the Slovenian industrial band’s inner circle, and he was hired to help produce a version of the Fab Four’s denouement, but not before hauling equipment thousands of miles across Europe in his Mazda.
“At that time, borders were really complicated,” he says. “I had this huge 19-inch rack full of gear: processors, compressors and preamps for the studio. When you wanted to take anything anywhere at that time you had to apply for a carnet and you had to pay taxes everywhere when you went through borders.”
The meagre budget for the album could have easily been eaten up by border taxes alone, so Burgalat decided upon a strategy of Jedi mind trickery. Instead of hiding equipment in the hope customs officials wouldn’t open the boot, he put the rack up front in the most obvious place he could think of. The passenger seat.
“I was quite good at that because I have quite an innocent face,” he says, laughing. “I passed the French border without any problems, and then I went via Mont Blanc to cross the Italian border. They caught me in Italy, so I had to go back. I drove through Switzerland and Austria, and when I got to the Slovenian border really early in the morning I just blurted out, ‘I’m going to Greece’. It must’ve sounded alright, they didn’t make me open up the car or pay for anything.”
Burgalat arrived at Laibach’s studio a hero, having managed to retain most of the budget for the record. The studio, which has since burned down (a story for another time), was situated in a modern complex in the old city next door to an ice rink and and in the same block as a pizzeria. Employees from the restaurant could be clearly seen, taking off coats or putting on chef’s hats, as the recording was in progress.
Work on Laibach’s fourth studio album would commence with two producers, Burgalat and Iztok Turk from the Ljubljana-based band Videosex, with tracks divvied up arbitrarily between the two. In the studio were opera singers, moonlighting from the Vienna State Opera, and piles of records, from Kraftwerk to Sly & Robbie, that the engineer Janez Križaj would steal snare sounds from.
“He had this genius for collage,” says Burgalat. “Afterwards it became very common, but technically it was more difficult at that time.”
Local musicians who were hired as session players were mostly nonplussed by Laibach’s popularity.
“There were a lot of very good bands in Ljubljana, but they were much more conventional, jazz rock players or whatever. A lot of the time they didn’t understand. ‘Why are these idiots so famous? We play like Van Halen, why is nobody noticing us?’”
So why exactly did the group want to remake The Beatles’ final album?
“I liked the mystery with them,” says Burgalat, shrugging his shoulders. “I always felt the less they explained, the more interesting it would be.”
Alexei Monroe, the author of ‘Interrogation Machine’, a book about the radical art collective NSK, of which Laibach were the musical arm, says the band’s impudent intention was to improve on ‘Let It Be’, which the NME once called “a cheapskate epitaph”.
“They deliberately chose the weakest link and then sought to inflate it out of all proportion,” he says via Zoom. “There’s also the fact that McCartney disowned it, he resented the fact it was orchestrated. And Laibach came along and quadrupled the orchestration! And yet there’s the story that McCartney played it before some of his gigs in 1991. Laibach claim that, but I don’t know for sure.”
As for the album itself, it’s broadly split into two parts: side one is ostentatious and operatic, with a martial industrial version of ‘Get Back’ thrust to the beginning, accentuating its dubious themes of repatriation.
“If you’ve got something that’s already politically ambivalent then it’s perfect for Laibach,” says Monroe. “That was already a suspect song.”
Meanwhile, ‘Dig A Pony’ bears no resemblance to the original.
“I’d never listened to the album before,” reveals Burgalat. “I composed the music for ‘Dig A Pony’ entirely from the lyrics without having listened to the original. Even today I’m not sure if I know the original. When I started listening to rock music back when I was 10, The Beatles were too obvious.”
The second side is influenced by hip hop in the main, with Burgalat’s brief on songs like ‘One After 909’ to emulate ‘No Sleep Till Brooklyn’ by the Beastie Boys. And then, right at the end, there’s German volksmusik, with its traditional songs about running through heather, replacing ‘Maggie Mae’ but retaining the title.
“The whole album is like a soundtrack for their imaginary homeland,” says Monroe. “It’s got these Balkan elements, these German elements, bits of Prokofiev, all gathered together in this imaginary place. When they played it in New York the next year for the first time, someone in the audience said, ‘I felt like I was being made a part of a nation that’s not mine’.”
Come next year, British musicians can look forward to applying for carnets and paying up for border fees. They may too feel like they’re being made a part of a nation that’s no longer theirs.