Archive for Music

Music as Language

We learn to speak through mimicry – and perhaps with an inherent template for language learning (passed on through ancestral DNA).  Our brains and physique are ‘born to speak’. We acquire a means of speaking which is backed by what we term ‘grammar’ – though this is learnt naturally (at least initially). Grammar gives continuity, logic and a technical bedrock to each language. What we hear (our fellow humans, the radio, the computer etc.), what we see (television and films in particular here), what we read (everything from ‘tweets’ to works of great literature) and their expression through our culture, forms our learnt language; the language we live within. Our ‘mother tongue’.

There are no doubt gaping holes in this brief summary but the result of us ‘being’ is for the most part (unless dumb) the ability to express ourselves through the sound of language. Further – this language can be written down using symbols – which, when ‘read’, produce corresponding sounds (language) in our head – more precisely in our MIND. A child will often love repetitive sounds – and play with words. A child’s language usually becomes more sophisticated as it grows and as it reads and reasons. We integrate language through reading and/or hearing it spoken and this integration becomes fluid and constantly aids our fluency. When we learn to speak a foreign language, say as an adult, we are thrown back into a kind of child-like state. We become the age of the language level we can speak. Becoming fluent takes time. It is a process. We want to say something; we search for the words in our head (and/or we translate the words in our head as we search); we speak these words and hope we are understood. Like learning anything – to begin with it’s ‘clunky’.

When we learn to play a musical instrument we are not fluent. That takes time. Take learning the drums. This is both physical and mental. Physically we need to know the technique of holding the sticks (to facilitate ‘ease’ and control of playing); we need to efficiently use our feet on the bass drum (kick drum) pedal and the hi-hat pedal; we need a certain amount of energy – but some female (and male) drummers though very slightly built produce tremendous energy! Different music requires different drumming skills – and in this it’s not so much a different language but maybe a dialect and certainly a different ‘accent’. As we learn the drums we are eventually able to have independence of our limbs. Meaning we can play an independent rhythm on each limb which will create a composite rhythm. In order to do this there is a certain approach: Play the right hand pattern – add the left hand. Add the right foot. Add the left foot. Thus the hand patterns becomes integrated. We don’t think about what each hand is doing – their rhythm has become one. The right foot is added and that too is integrated – then finally the left foot. Like learning to drive a car – it seems impossible to change gear before we learn to do it – eventually we simply don’t think about it. It becomes ‘natural’. In fact changing gear on a car uses all four limbs (as with the drums) – we don’t expect to be able to drive straight away, neither do we expect to be able to play an instrument straight away!

There are ‘talking drums’ (played with one hand and a crooked stick by the other) – the drum is squeezed underneath an arm as it is played, thus the pitch of the drum rises or lowers – and ‘talks’. Drums have been used to communicate over long distances across the ages. But I’m now going to talk about the relationship between playing the drums and the thoughts supporting that (or not!). Let’s take a drum solo. My ability to play the solo is limited by my technique: the grammar being the rudiments and the rudiments being that technique. These rudiments – like the ‘paradiddle’ (which is onomatopoeic) are combinations of single and double stroke strikes, sometimes with added grace notes. Therefore the core of all the rudiments is the single-stroke roll and the double-stroke roll. We could say our vocabulary is each hit on a drum or cymbal in whichever fashion – shouting (CRASHING a cymbal) or whispering (the flutter of a wire brush).

The ‘paradiddle’ is played by the hands (or sometimes feet or between the two):

 R L R R  and L R L L. They are played evenly spaced. And they sound like Pa Ra Did Dle. As you can see they are a combination of two single notes followed by a double. These rudiments can get quite complicated – but the main thing to say is that once you have learnt them they can be introduced fluently, easily and whenever requited – WITHOUT thinking about how they sound. Both the sound and the length/duration of the phrase is already known.

Okay on the drum-kit we have both drums and cymbals – all of which give different sounds and we have our rudiments underlying much of what we play. We learn how to play rhythms on the kit – which is a combined way of breaking bars and/or phrases into certain components. We can hit the hi-hat cymbal four times and play the bass drum along with the first hit and the snare drum along with the third hit. We can count to four as we play this. And thus we have a ‘bar’ of four/four time – 4/4. This beat is satisfying and fits well with lots of modern, popular music. We can also FILL around the kit. This means we can stop the rhythm – hit the toms (say four beats divided around the toms) and end with a crash cymbal at the beginning of the next bar. Each fill is like a concentrated phrase. As a beginner you think a lot before laying down the FILL – thus as you think the rhythm might either speed up or slow down beforehand. As you play the fill it might speed up (usually) or slow down. Once you don’t have to think – it should remain in exact time. Once you don’t have to think about what you’re going to play in a concentrated manner – ideas flow. Like changing gear in a car – you do so without thinking and at the appropriate time.

How conscious are we when we play the drums? This is the crux. Are we thinking? Are we consciously thinking hard about what we are going to play – or even AS we play? Are we NOT thinking? Or is it a combination of the two!? Speaking for myself, I immediately think it’s ‘directed thought’. As if I stand back from the drums and become the conductor. As I play I allow myself to channel spontaneous rhythms and phrases but a part of me is able to look and listen on and give ‘me’ ideas that – theoretically – I should be able to transition to with ease. Effectively a two-way thought-conversation with myself! My brain is not overloaded – my technique is precise(ish) and I have done many solos, so I have an overall idea of what might/will sound good. BUT. I am not conscious of a road map writ in stone! I might choose a different route from the start to the finish. The finish will be dependent on many things – my general feeling/ascertaining the audience’s response/whether I’ve boxed myself into a ‘natural’ ending. And the rather conservative nature of not going on too long! Gone are the days of 10 minute drum solos. Alas!

When I play I’m not constantly thinking of what I’m playing (that’s a disaster in fact) and not ruining what might happen with thinking about what I might do (too much). And this is where it’s exactly like language. You direct thought but if you try and speak and think exactly of what you’re saying simultaneously – it won’t happen. It’s like talking and hearing a very pronounced echo. It puts you off – in fact with such an echo it’s very difficult to keep speaking or speak ‘in time’/rhythmically. All of the practice skills, all of one’s technique, the ambiance and how you feel (very creative?) and – I would add – a sprinkling of ‘magic’ (if you’re lucky) means that you play naturally, almost effortlessly and with joy. Joy is communicated with the audience and that resonates back. You have enough storage in the brain to stand back and direct yourself to where you’re going next – it might even surprise you! You might try something new. You might drop a stick (which could take you out of the narrative you’re creating – like a ‘typo’ in a piece of writing). Our job is to allow the spirit of music to pass through us – and that means we can’t be too tense or allow too much thinking. We have to express the music and give ourselves over to it.

When we learn a new rhythm or melody – we are VERY concentrated. It seems at times as if we won’t be able to play it. We break the piece down, practice it and then re-assemble it! Often when we are nearly there (the rhythm/melody feeling so close) we play and try and listen to what we are playing at the same time. This usually means that we mess up and stop! At this point it is best to leave the rhythm or melody for a time and then when coming back to it we often find we CAN play it – our mind having sorted things out for us subconsciously. This is quite magical. Yes it all takes time. But then when we read something complicated (say about Quantum Physics) and have to explain that to someone it takes time to read, understand, integrate and be able to express that competently to another – or like this essay, be able to type squiggles and trust the brain of the reader will comprehend what I am trying to say!

The more technique we have (the grammar) the easier we can make the drums talk for us and communicate. The spirit of the music is unlimited but when it passes through us we can indeed limit it – that is dependent on us, our level of skills and, to an extent, the quality of our instrument. Fortunately this spirit understands that we are doing our best to serve it and it is generous-hearted. Beginners through to experts have need of this spirit. When it flows perfectly we can glide along with it and simply will its movement through us. This might sound fanciful – but something definitely goes on; something deep – unconscious or sub-conscious. It’s like when you speak about something you love or begin to write a story or paint a picture – magic can happen. And each time you do it you’re learning and extending the vocabulary of technique and experience. At that moment – everything you have done previously becomes the focus for your creativity. You can reach a creative pinnacle.

I’m thinking about this and even typing as I think and the ideas and meaning of what I’m doing musically or am trying to explain arrive or arrives spontaneously. And yet – sometimes I need to have a break because it’s exhausting too (especially so with the practising example mentioned above). And after a break new ideas will often flow. If I am IN the flow then I cannot break from it or that flow (and its ideas) will be lost. That is when the spirit is passing through us. You can’t abandon that moment. And this applies to any creative act – and even talking/speaking creatively! (The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was disturbed by ‘the visitor from Porlock’ while he was writing his famous poem Kubla Khan (1707). Such an intrusion can cut or kill creativity!)

I took a break and an idea came to me – thus I’m pulled back here.
Just as with speaking (especially in public) performing suffers from certain things. And these things are also an insight into how we think/don’t think/play. Over-concentration/nerves/tiredness/lack of preparation/an uninterested audience/fear of failure/unwillingness to take risks/not knowing the subject properly (or the genre of the music) – all of these things will take away fluency and creativity.

What am I trying to do when I perform a drum solo? Demonstrate skills/entertain/excel/communicate/become absorbed/create an atmosphere/make folk dance (perhaps). It’s a mental/physical/spiritual approach. I’m ‘showing off’ too! That’s the hardest part for me. That’s when I can step back and criticise myself (my ego) and then the solo is in danger of collapsing! Like a climber scaling a cliff – whatever the reason to be there he/she/we need to get to the top. We can’t freeze. If we freeze we’re stuck on a ledge and might fall.

Finally – we are at our best speaking/talking when we don’t overthink – when we speak fluently and naturally – when all of our ideas and reading experience are at hand to draw from – our memory in tip-top form. When we are both talking and listening – and truly communicating. Maybe everything that we do or say is pre-determined and we just mouth our lines like an actor. Maybe we have a little leeway regarding controlling our present and what we say and do in it. In this sense playing a drum solo (or any solo or rhythm on any instrument) we just have to stay in control of the reins and allow the spirit to move us. Perhaps our essential character comes out in a solo. Wouldn’t the best solo also be the most authentic?

Music can also be written down, where its meaning like a closed book, lies dormant until we – the reader – bring it to life. When we read and play an instrument the sound of that instrument is the words, the phrases, the chapters, the story. It is understood in a very primordial way by the listener as well as in any intellectual fashion. Music appeals to the senses and emotions. Maybe playing music is a refined form of spoken and written language – or maybe even their antecedent. Speaking and playing are both mysteries in their own ways. Notes and words drift into our minds like snow. Settling or not. We receive far more than we will. Language can snow us under. ‘Too many notes Mr. Mozart’ – an infamous quote supposedly from none other than Emperor Joseph II!  Mozart was quick to retort: ‘Just as many as necessary, Your Majesty.’  

Has this answered the question of thinking and playing (an instrument) or thinking and talking or writing or singing?  Maybe partly. And when all’s said and all’s done – we are simply making sounds using our vocal cords and tongue etc. And I am just banging some plastic stretched tightly across the head of a drum or striking some plates of metal! The consequences of these sounds can, of course, be highly profound and/or deeply moving.

Language and music are our essence. And when music as language truly speaks to us – it is SUBLIME!

Now where did I leave my sticks? 😉

Tim Bragg is the authour of many books including Lyrics To Live By and Lyrics To Live By 2

Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay


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Baz Luhmnan’s Elvis reviewed

  • 2022
  • 12A
  • 2h 39m
  • Stars: Tom Hanks, Austin Butler, Olivia DeJonge
  • Writers: Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner

In the build up to the release of this year’s Elvis movie, and in the various reviews I’ve read, seen and listened to since first seeing it on the big screen in late June, much has been made of the movie being ‘Baz Luhman’s Elvis’. I wouldn’t know. Scanning through Mr. Luhman’s Filmography shortly after my first viewing, I realised that I had never actually seen a Baz Luhman film. Since then, I’ve rectified this by seeing his Australia; and based on this admittedly small sample of his work, I have recognised certain stylistic tricks in his Elvis that would appear to be typical of his modus operandi

The life of Elvis Presley, from his childhood to becoming a rock and movie star in the 1950s.

It is certainly a very much a stylized reading of the Elvis story, with much fast cutting from scene to scene, and much use of music as a means of illustrating the story, so that the film takes the form of a semi-musical, rather than a movie with music as might be expected in a film about a major musical icon. All in all, what we get with Luhman’s Elvis is an impressionistic rather than a literal telling of Presley’s life.

Elvis focuses heavily on the relationship between Presley and his legendary manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played by another legendary Tom, Tom Hanks. Indeed, the film begins with Parker, at the end of his life, seeking to absolve himself of all blame for the sad decline of his protégé through addiction to prescription drug and junk food, problems which led to his tragically early death, aged forty-two, on August 16th, 1977.

Parker’s words are used as a means of giving narrative structure to the film, and this is perhaps the most important of Luhman’s stylistic tricks, the way that Parker’s narration, which seeks to dispel any notion of himself as the villain in the Elvis Presley story, are in sharp contrast to the action we see unfolding on the screen. We thus have at the core of the movie the cinematic version of the literary device of the Unreliable Narrator, and this works very well.

The same can’t be said, however, for Tom Hank’s accent. Anyone with a decent grounding in the Elvis Presley story will know that Parker was a native of Holland, was an illegal immigrant to the United States, and that his alien status played a huge, perhaps a defining part in preventing Presley from touring the world outside of America. For those who don’t know, the issue is dealt with in some detail in the movie in any case. It is therefore rather overdoing it to give Parker a vaguely Dutch, or perhaps generically European accent, especially as there is ample evidence to the fact that Parker didn’t speak anything at all like this. Why didn’t Hanks, skilled craftsman that he is, attempt to speak as Parker spoke, that is as the typical carnival huckster that he was? Apart from the issue of his voice, Hanks’ performance is very good, more or less capturing the charlatan essence of Parker, which was summed up by the assessment of one wag that he ‘was not a Colonel, not Parker, and not even a Tom.’ Hanks looks great too, largely due to the efforts of the film’s prosthetics department, who did a great job of aging the character as the film processed, and of adding considerable bulk to Hank’s frame.

If Hanks’ performance is very good with reservations, then that of Austin Butler as the leading man is simply superb without any such qualifications. It’s actually relatively easy to do an Elvis impersonation, of both the man’s speaking and singing voice, which is no doubt is why so many people do it. But it’s not easy to do it without lapsing into parody. Kurt Russell made a fair fist of it in 1979’s Elvis the Movie. But he didn’t do his own singing, and his 1969 Elvis, the year at which this film concludes, looked and sounded more like mid-seventies Elvis to me. Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the 2005 CBS Miniseries Elvis the Early Years wasn’t bad either, but again he didn’t do his own singing, and as with Russel, the script didn’t call on him to go beyond the late sixties. Butler, by contrast, portrays the man all the way from 1953 to close to his bloated, drug addled death in Memphis twenty-three years later. And, Butler did do his own singing throughout the film. His vocal performance is spot on, so good in fact that when the voice of the real Elvis was intercut with his at some points on the later numbers, the change was so seamless that only keen students of Presley’s singing style would be able to tell the difference. If anything, Butler nails Presley’s spoken voice and mannerisms with even greater precision. At times, his ability to capture the essence of Presley in a word or look is simply breath-taking.

For me, the ‘very Baz’ fast cutting of the movie worked much better on the big screen than it did the small. In the cinema, the visual pyrotechnics have a mesmerizing, hallucinogenic quality. By contrast, re-watching the film more recently on television, the style became at times a little wearying. The problem with this style of editing is that the mind has no opportunity to properly settle on and take in individual scenes before it is scattered elsewhere, and major events pass by at such a rate that it is easy to miss them. As an example, it is generally accepted that Elvis’ mother Gladys was the real love of his life, a major influence on how he lived it, and that her death was a tragedy from which he never really recovered. But Luhman never really takes the time to develop her character into someone we really care about independent of our knowledge of her real-world importance. Though we do see the devastating emotional impact of Gladys’ death on Elvis, it is rather fleeting and to the extent that it is explored at all, it is done so more in relation to how Parker uses the event as a means of supplanting her as the central guiding influence in Presley’s life than for its long-lasting psychological impact on Elvis himself.

The frenetic pace is however fitting for the section of the movie that deals with Elvis meteoric rise to national and international stardom in 1956. There has been no better depiction of what it must have been like to be young, particularly a young woman, experiencing Elvis’ raw sexual power live on stage in this period, before Parker succeeded in taming him in order to win the acceptance of the mainstream Show Biz’ establishment.

The pace does slow when we reach the last decade of Presley’s life, a period that encompasses roughly one half of the two-hour, forty-minute movie. This was perhaps a conscious decision to reflect changes in Presley’s life, and it is a good one as characters, including the lead, are at last given the space to change and develop, and for the viewer to become emotionally invested in them.

I should say here say a few words about Priscilla, the girl Elvis married in 1967, an event that neatly signifies the end of part one and the beginning of part two of the film. The fact that she was a mere fourteen years’ old when they first met, whilst he was serving in the armed forces in Germany in 1959, is never explicitly stated. The age difference between the two is only revealed to us through the words of Elvis as he says, rather desperately in response to her ending of their relationship five years after their marriage, ‘you’ll see Cilla, when I’m fifty and you’re forty, we’ll be together.’ Her youth may not have been made explicit, but in that very first meeting she is depicted as a bubbly, chattering, and frankly adorable presence, in a way that was perhaps typical of well-bred, mid-teens all-American girls of the period. Taken through the whole movie, the role of Priscilla is relatively small, but important, the character revealed through perhaps four short two-hander scenes opposite Butler, and which are very, very well played by Olivia DeJonge.

The musical component of Elvis has been criticised, mostly by the type of Elvis fan who prefers even the dodgiest Elvis sixties movie soundtrack track to anything none-Elvis. Luhman must have known that he was on a hiding to nothing with this stratum when he decided to include in the movie not only Elvis’ songs, but also songs that blended Elvis into a ‘mash-up’ with modern artists, and illustrative music that didn’t include Elvis at all, such as the hit single Vegas by Doja Cat, and The King and I by Eminem and CeeLo Green. This eclectic use of music new and old is apparently an oft used device in the Luhman playbook, an example being his use of Hip Hop in his version of The Great Gatsby, as well as the Jazz which is more often associated with this story. Personally, although we could perhaps have done with a tad more Elvis, I think the musical choices in the movie were brave, and very, very effective, and could perhaps widen the appeal of the movie beyond the Presley fan-base towards a younger audience.  

As mentioned, the script opts for a much more impressionistic than factual interpretation of the Elvis story. As with Luhman’s choice of music, this deployment of poetic license in the depiction of real-life events is fraught with danger, opening him up to the criticism of often knowledgeable hard-core fans. But, again with some qualifications, think the approach generally worked well.

As an example, Elvis’ relationship with blues guitarist/singer BB King is presented as being much closer than it was in real life. But the deception works as an excellent shorthand for Presley’s relationship with black culture as a whole, particularly with the blues scene centered around Beale St in Memphis at the time of Presley’s rise to stardom. It also helps to dispel the oft’ repeated myth that Elvis was a racist.

All attempts at telling the Elvis Presley story, be they dramatisation, documentary, or even literary, tend to deal with the rightly derided Hollywood years, roughly 1961 – ’68, almost em passant, usually through the use of quickly moving and quickly gone montage. Luhman’s effort is no exception, except for the way he rather brilliant combines a cursory run through of this period with an introduction to Presley’s fabled Memphis Mafia gang.

The treatment of the iconic 1968 Comeback Special is even more outlandish. Elvis fans all know that Parker’s vision for the special, which was to air at Christmas 1968 in America, was for Elvis to come out into the lights of an empty studio wearing a Tuxedo, say ‘Good Evening Ladies and Gentleman,’ sing twenty or so Christmas songs and spirituals, say ‘Goodnight and Merry Christmas everybody,’ and fade the lights. Fortunately, the show’s producer Steve Binder, and even more thankfully Elvis himself, realised that such an approach would have spelled the final death knell to his already dying career, and chose instead to put Elvis together with members of his 1950’s band, dress him in black leather with an electric guitar strapped round his neck, and put him in a boxing ring style stage surrounded by adoring fans. What Luhman does is to use this real-life disconnect between the visions of Parker and Binder as the starting point for an onscreen farce which bore little relationship to actual events, during which Binder and Elvis attempt to convince Parker that they are indeed producing a Christmas-themed show, complete with Elvis wearing a horrendously cheesy Christmas jumper curtesy of Singer sowing-machines, the special’s sponsor, for the closing number, whilst in reality they are putting together a show much heavier on rock ‘n’ roll than on Christmas cliches. It’s funny and enjoyable, and I think works well as a means of revealing the existential choice that faced Elvis as he returned to public performance after more than seven year’s burial beneath layers of Hollywood schmaltz. My only criticism of this part of the movie is that we see none of the sit-down sections of the special, the heart of the show, when Elvis, for once, really played guitar and bantered informally with members of his band and crew. This will perhaps be addressed when we eventually get the four-hour cut that Luhman promises us is coming, and at least we do get a sizable chunk of If I Can Dream, the actual show closer, when Elvis donned the white suit that was so much cooler than the white jump suit that was soon to come, and produced perhaps his finest ever vocal performance.

 It was a brave but brilliant decision by Luhman to have Butler’s turn as Elvis effectively close with Presley’s incredibly poignant rendition of Unchained Melody, seated at the piano, only weeks before his death. The moment when Butler’s Elvis finally gives way to the real Elvis, bloated and defeated but still pouring his whole self into this operatic last-gasp performance will, I think, have left few dry eyes amongst cinema goers. From 1977, we then cut back, to the early years, to Elvis, the real Elvis, at his peak, ripping through the social fabric of America, and of much of the world, leaving it forever altered. Finally, his phenomenal achievements and lasting legacy as the most successful solo recording artist in history, are reminded to the audience by bare, simple, but revelatory screen-text. As brilliant as Austin Butler is in this movie, it is only right and proper that it is the real Elvis who closes it.

So, there we have it.  Baz Luhman’s Elvis, far from perfect, but a genuine cinematic experience that is way in advance of any other dramatisation of the life of the man they called The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. It could even be a contender for the greatest ever rock biopic.

By Anthony C Green

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A Month in the Life: Peter Jackson’s The Beatles Get Back reviewed

From Let It Be…

Peter Jackson’s Get Back is based around the near sixty hours of footage and hundred and fifty hours of audio that the Beatles recorded between January 2nd and January 31st 1969, first at Twickenham film studios, and then at their own new Apple premises in Saville Row close to Central London. The same material was used as the basis for the earlier Let It Be film, directed by Michael Lyndsey Hogg (MLH) and released in May 1970. The full audio, though not the footage, the so called ‘Nagra Tapes’ has long been available in unfiltered form on bootlegs, and periodically in full online.

If you’re a fan of the Beatles, then you’ll love this documentary by Peter Jackson. It’s a must-see for any music lover.

The timing of the release of the Let It Be movie, a mere month after Paul effectively made the Beatles’ break-up official, has led to it being seen in a largely negative light, not least by the Beatles themselves, a negativity that retrospectively extended to the January 1969 sessions upon which it was based. The received wisdom has long been that these sessions were, to use John’s phrase, ‘miserable,’ and that the movie that MLH put together from these sessions was effectively a documentary on the dissolution of the band.

So badly did the Beatles perceive Let It Be that not only has it never had any kind of physical release, be it VHS or DVD, but the band effectively blocked any further showings of it on British television from the early 1980’s until the present day, though digital copies are not hard to find online, and a whole series of cottage industries seem to exist producing bootlegged DVD’s of the film for sale on eBay and at Beatles conventions and such like.

Every now and again we have had news of a forthcoming Let It Be release; and a fully restored version was actually completed by 2003, supposedly to tie-in with the release of the Let It Be Naked album. With this album, McCartney sought to right the wrongs he perceived with the (mainly) Phil Spector produced Let It Be album which was released to coincide with the release of the original movie, in particular by expunging the strings and female choir from The Long and Winding Road. These were last minute additions that Paul never authorised and hated so much that he never forgave Spector, to the point of walking out of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame event in 1989 rather than have to sit and watch the legendary producer be inducted. At any rate, without explanation, plans for the re-release of Let It Be were indefinitely shelved in 2004.

I have seen Let It be several times, the most recent viewing being shortly before the eventual release of Get Back. Through these viewings, I have long formed the opinion that the movie is not as black as it’s been painted, that there are plenty of lighter moments to balance out the famous ‘I’ll play whatever it is you want me to play, whatever it is pleases you I’ll do’ George and Paul argument which has become its most iconic moment. Plus, there is of course the brilliantly climatic rooftop performance, the last live performance the band would ever give. Essentially, even in Let It Be, we see a still functioning band whose demise was by no means a certainty.

But there are also major problems with the film. First of all, it all looks so dark, the poor lighting choices by MLH hugely enhancing the perceived bleakness of the sessions. It also lacks any kind of coherent narrative. Songs are rehearsed then never heard of again, with no explanation as to why. There are nice scenes, as I’ve indicated, George helping Ringo write Octopus’s Garden, Paul doing a ridiculously over-the-top operatic version of Besame Mucho, an old favourite from their Cavern and Hamburg days, John and Yoko waltzing to George’s latest song I Me Mine (though some have seen this as something of a slight on George and his new song, an idea that is not quite debunked in Get Back), and although we do get at least some of the climatic rooftop gig, there is no real sense in Let It Be of how they got there, or why.

Having now seen Get Back in its entirety four times, I can add to the above a sense of mystification as to what MLH left out of his movie. Yes, we see the Paul versus George argument, or some of it, but there is no real context, nor any mention at all of the fact that George quit the band entirely for five days during the sessions (though that was two days after the argument with Paul, not immediately after as both Paul and Ringo misremembered it to Jackson, their recollections apparently formed by their experience of watching the film rather than their actual lived sequence of events). And why on Earth would any filmmaker leave out the very moment when the song Get Back began to emerge from the ether, almost certainly the only time that we will ever see the actual moment of conception of a Beatles classic?

To be fair to MLH, his original cut of Let It Be was either two and a half or three and a half hours long (I’ve seen both figures reliably quoted). One suspects that the process by which it was cut to eighty minutes was one of acrimonious committee, as the band began to dissolve, largely through disagreement as to whether or not Mr. Allen Klein should be trusted with the future management of the Beatles, with Paul essentially left in a minority one in his (correct, as it turned out) insistence that he shouldn’t. The increasingly fraught, fragmented atmosphere cannot have been conducive to rational decision making as to the final form of Let It Be, and no doubt turned MLH’s stewardship of the movie from a dream job to an ongoing nightmare.

…to Get Back

I can at least report that the major weaknesses of Let It Be have been more than corrected by Peter Jackson’s Get Back. Jackson, as one might expect from the master storyteller of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, has provided a strong narrative flow, and the film also looks and sounds fantastic through the full use he made of the film restoration techniques he utilised to such brilliant effect in the First World War Centenary documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, as well as the latest in audio separation technology, technology which enables us to hear everything the Beatles said during the sessions, including some things they didn’t want us to hear. As far as magic Beatle moments such as the conception of the Get Back track goes, well Jackson has plenty more where that came from…

That doesn’t mean however that I have no issues at all with Jackson’s Get Back, as we shall see.

When it was first announced, in late 2018, that instead of the long awaited restored and perhaps extended Let It Be movie reissue (which we are still promised will happen, though Beatles fans have learnt not to hold their collective breath on such matters), a whole new film would be made by Peter Jackson from the same material, the idea was that we would get a two to two and a half movie for cinematic release some-time around the autumn of 2020. Covid, or least the world-wide response to covid, put back these plans. This was initially disappointing, but on a positive level it gave Jackson more time to work on his source material. Finally, in the spring of 2021, it was announced that rather than a single, feature length film to be shown firstly in theatres before presumably having some kind of physical release, Jackson had produced a whopping six-hour film to be streamed in three two-hour parts, firstly over three consecutive days on Disney+ in November of that year.

Like many, I had mixed feelings about this change. I would have liked my first experience of Get Back to have been on a big screen, with pristine 5:1 surround sound, with as many Extras as possible then crammed into a later Blu Ray/DVD release. That it was to be Disney who first presented the material also fed into another worry that fans had expressed, that we were to be presented with a complete ‘happy clappy’ revision of January 1969, with most of the rough edges and arguments eliminated. The two beautiful looking and sounding but rather anodyne and overly smiley trailers released onto You Tube prior to release did little to allay these fears (neither of which actually appeared in the finished product, incidentally).

In the end, at the last minute and without first asking permission, thus giving then no time to object, Jackson presented Disney with not a six, but a seven hour and forty-eight-minute final cut of Get Back. This pre-emptive elongation was apparently in response to Disney’s reluctance to consider an extended cut version for the later physical release, on the grounds that ‘people were no longer interested in such things.’ This comment shows a startling lack of understanding of the world of Beatles fandom. As uber-Beatles scholar Mark Lewisohn once put it, ‘there is no such thing as too much Beatles.’

But it is no secret that Disney as a corporate entity are not fans of physical releases at all. They only agreed to the release of The Star Wars Spin-off the Mandalorian on disc after a concerted campaign by Star Wars fans, a fan-base which is perhaps one of the few who rival that of the Beatles in terms of obsessive tenacity. So, for a time, it seemed touch and go whether we would see any kind of Get Back physical release at all. We did, but when it came, belatedly in July of this year, it predictably, though still disappointingly, contained no extra material at all. Disney’s rationale seems to be that by delivering nearly eight hours of footage rather than the agreed six, Jackson has effectively incorporated his Extras into the main feature. Jackson has however made it clear that has a fourteen-hour version of the film ready to go, should he get the go ahead from Disney/Apple/the Beatles (it’s never been made entirely clear who has the final decision on such matters), and has called upon fans to keep up the pressure for its eventual release.

Even without extra material, at close to eight hours, Get Back is a long film, not easily digested in one sitting. The question that now needs to be addressed, as is the remit of a review, is how good is it, and will I, as in you the reader, assuming you have not already seen it, enjoy it?

In answer to the first question, then yes, it is very good indeed. Jackson has provided a fantastic piece of work which both looks and sounds great, as I have said, that has a pronounced narrative story arc that is cleverly worked for a documentary, as well as interesting secondary narratives, both overt and implied. It’s not perfect, but then Jackson, great filmmaker that he is, is not God. The answer to the second question largely depends upon who you are. If you are a genuine, full-on Beatles’ buff, as I am, and as Jackson also clearly is, then you will lap up every one of the 28,080 seconds, at least once, though you may also share some of the criticisms I will mention, and perhaps have a few of your own. If you’re merely a decent level Beatles fan, somebody who has he ‘1’ singles collection and some, maybe even all, of the canonical albums, but who, although generally familiar with the Beatles story, doesn’t really read Beatles books, and certainly doesn’t listen to podcasts or buy bootlegs, then you may get through the whole thing once, and then occasionally play through the climatic rooftop gig footage and maybe a few other highlights when and if the mood strikes. Anything less than that, a Red/Blue collections and/or ‘1’ only man/woman, then I think you will be struggling, and skipping forward through the stream or disc fairly early on, and often quite rapidly at that. Even I found myself occasionally groaning inwardly at times as yet another ragged take of Don’t Let Me Down broke down.

Put simply, if you aren’t at least a fairly big Beatles fan already, then Get Back isn’t really for you, although I’d still recommend you try to gey through it at least once. January 1969 is a niche area of the Beatles career, and Peter Jackson is clearly one of us. He has consequently produced a film to please himself and others like him. If you’re not already a member of our elite little band of brothers and sisters, then you have a lot of catching up to do before you can get the full benefit of Get Back. If you really want to put in that work, then I’d suggest you start with the Anthology series, though that too is long overdue a 21st Century upgrade.

The Prelude

To understand how Jackson established the main narrative theme of Get Back, we must first backtrack a little to see what the Beatles themselves were hoping to achieve with the January 1969 sessions. The band had of course quit touring in the summer of 1966, sick of playing the same old songs in half -hour sets delivered to screaming teenage girls with damp pants. They had been frightened and dismayed by the record burning and death threats that accompanied their American tour of that year, particularly in the Deep South Bible Belt, in response to John’s misunderstood ‘Bigger than Jesus’ comments. The fact that he had made these comments, to journalist Maureen Cleave, in a magazine interview in Britain month’s earlier, to virtually no response in our then comparably sane and United Kingdom, and that Paul’s criticism of America to the same author, in which he said ‘over there if you have dark skin you’re nothing but a dirty nigger’ was ignored completely, and perhaps says more about the difference between our two countries, then and now, than anything else. As if this pseudo-religious-inspired madness wasn’t enough, they were also soundly beaten at Manila airport by Filipino security personnel after apparently snubbing a reception at the Presidential palace held by shoe-loving First Lady Imelda Marcos, an event they had never said they would attend in the first place. ‘Manila’ is still a word to be uttered with a sense of hatred and bewilderment years later, as evidenced during in Get Back.

So, an element of danger had been added to the sheer boredom of the road. Also at this time, really from 1965’s Rubber Soul onwards, but increasingly so through Revolver, Sgt. Pepper and the Magical Mystery Tour E.P/television movie, their music had become more and more complex, making full use of the weird and wonderful sonic possibilities of the modern recording studio, as well as the off the wall genius of their Producer George Martin. To these factors we can add the influences of Indian music, the Classical Avant Garde, olde worlde English Music Hall and Lewis Carrol-type Nursery Rhyme nonsense poetry to the rock ‘n’ roll, Tamla Motown and Doo Wop girl’ group musical palette that had been the main ingredients of the early Beatles magic. What this meant was that they were by now often producing music that was impossible to reproduce live anyway, though this point is often overstated: Yes, there was no way that Tomorrow Never Knows, the closing track on Revolver, their current album as they embarked on their final tour, could be reproduced live, not with 1966 levels of technology. But there were plenty of songs on that album that could have been brilliant live additions to their set, if the effort of diligent rehearsal had been applied. Songs such as Taxman, Doctor Robert, I’m Only Sleeping, even Yellow Submarine for Ringo, spring immediately to mind. But the truth was that, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned and more, the Beatles had grown so sick of live performance by then that it was far easier to knock out yet another perfunctory version of Rock ‘n’ Roll Music or She’s a Woman than to put in the time and effort required to perform songs as a live unit that had been largely recorded piecemeal, painstakingly overdubbing separate instrumentation, track by track.

The mostly more simple, by the standards of their more recent albums, music of 1968’s The Beatles (though for evermore to be known as the White) album, an album mostly composed whilst studying Transcendental Meditation under the Maharishi Yogi in Rishikesh, India earlier that year, plus a rather enjoyable, though carefully staged live performance of their Hey Jude/Revolution single on a special edition of the David Frost Show, led the Beatles to begin to reconsider their negative attitude to live performance. The idea now being floated was that they could perhaps play a few small-scale shows in order to promote material from their latest album.

This was an eminently doable idea, and one of the many great ‘might-have-beens’ of the Beatles’ story. A set including such tracks as Yer Blues, Helter Skelter, Back in the USSR, George’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps (perhaps again with Eric Clapton guesting, as he did on the album), Birthday, Happiness is a Warm Gun and Everyone’s Got Something to Hide Except For Me and My Monkey, plus Revolution and Hey Jude, is indeed a fascinating component of an alternative Beatles universe.

But somehow, presumably in late ’68, this achievable notion morphed into something much, much more difficult. The idea was now that they would write and rehearse fourteen brand new songs, the Beatles seeing fourteen as the optimum number of tracks for an album, and a number they return to frequently during discussions in Get Back. Not only that, but they would then perform these songs in front of a live audience, with two shows being decided upon, with the whole thing being recorded for a live album, and the best of the performances from the live shows also to be shown later as a television special. It’s possible that Elvis’ triumphant ‘comeback’ special which was shown on British television in late ’68 and which the Beatles certainly discussed and enjoyed, may have been an influence here.

There was a natural limit as to how long the band had to spend on this project in that Ringo was due to begin filming the surrealistic comedy movie The Magic Christian in the final week of January, actually at the same Twickenham film studios where the Beatles assembled for their new project on January 2nd 1969. Consequently, they pencilled in January 16th and 17th for the live performances, with the Roundhouse in London originally mooted as a possible venue.

Fourteen new songs in fourteen days, honed to a sufficient level of expertise for them to form the basis of a live album and a television special might seem like an impossible task. But they were after all the Beatles, and so confident of success were they, outwardly at least, that tickets for the shows were even offered as prizes to fans in the December edition of Beatles’ Monthly magazine.

What’s it all About?

It’s the idea of the live performances that gives Jackson his primary narrative focus. To present this, he makes clever use of the visual device of a calendar that pops regularly onto the screen, with January 2nd identified as Day One, and so on in chronological order as the days pass, with the 16th and 17th initially circled, as the dates when the performances are due to take place. Much of the between rehearsal/jam chatter between the band and their coterie concerns exactly what form the shows, later to become singular, will take and where they/it will take place. Jackson very skilfully manages to create a ’will they won’t they’ and ‘if so when and where’ narrative, with various twists and turns and stories within stories along the way, that works despite the fact that we all know (given at least a modicum of prior knowledge) that it will end on top of the roof of their own new Apple studios in Saville Row on January 30th (The Magic Christian having thankfully been put back a week or so).

So, we see the days pass, Day Three, Day Four, etc etc, and we see them marked with a clear ‘X’ on Jackson’s calendar as they do so. I’m not going to attempt a day-by-day analysis, otherwise the review will take longer to read than Get Back takes to watch. Suffice to say, that the scale of the task the Beatles have set themselves quickly becomes apparent, as do tensions within the band. Too often they revert to their comfort zone of jamming their way through rockers and standards ingrained in their memories from hundreds of hours of performances in Hamburg, the Cavern and elsewhere during their early days, as well as half-remembered, never recorded, early ‘Lennon and McCartney originals’, as they’d been grandiosely labelled in scribbled teenage handwriting in cheap notebooks. Some of these performances are ragged, some are great, and it’s particularly interesting to hear snatches of these early John and Paul songs that most of us had previously known only as titles, titles like Just For Fun, Because I Know You Love Me So and Fancy My Chances With You. We even hear, though sadly don’t see, John singing the song that Paul has always cited as being the first song he ever wrote, before he even met John, I’ve Lost My Little Girl.

One After 909 is one of those early songs they plucked from the air, a song recorded and then rejected for inclusion on Please Please Me, their debut album back in 1963. Clearly surprising themselves with how great it sounded and how great it was to play together as a band, this one stuck, and made it to the rooftop, complete with the words they admitted during discussion between performances that they’d always hated and John had always intended to, but never did, ‘fix.’  

As they had been a purely recording outfit for so long, and had never really been the sort of band who endlessly rehearsed, still less ‘jammed’ in any case, the Beatles clearly needed this time together. But, in terms of the impossible task they had set themselves, it was time that they simply did not have. Quickly, the days on Jackson’s calendar disappear, as does the idea of live performances on the 16th and 17th. At one point, Paul, after again stressing the magic number of fourteen, asks simply ‘so, as it stands, how many do we think we have, good enough to perform?’ (I’m paraphrasing a little throughout). John says simply, with a resigned smile, ‘none’. He’s exaggerating, actually. By this point they do have at least two or three songs of performance standard. But they are clearly way off their target, and will in reality never come close to achieving it, although what they did achieve that month was still remarkable by anyone else’s standards, as we shall see.

Jackson has arranged the Get Back footage in such a fashion that it is allowed to speak for itself. There are no after the event talking heads, no interviews, no explanations (untold numbers of hours of interviews with all of the surviving key players were however conducted, for research purposes, and hopefully we will one day get to experience these too). Everything is in the moment, and it can at times almost feel as if you are right there in the studio with the Beatles. You really do get to feel both the joy and the tension in the room as it arises, whilst being left to form your own opinion as to its source.

Somehow, the mantra that had apparently sustained them throughout the struggle of their musical apprenticeship, that ‘something will happen’, seems still to have sustained them here. Despite all of the problems they encounter, it hardly seems to have occurred to the band at all that they would leave the project without having given a live performance of some description. Thus, the discussion of ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘how?’ continues almost to the point where they finally climb the steps to the Apple roof.

There is a pleasing meta-aspect to Jackson’s filmmaking. As well as everything else that it is, Get Back is also in large respect also an extended ‘Making of…’ of the original Let It Be Movie, in which the man behind the lens for that film, the man we have to thank for all the footage that Jackson had to play with, MLH, himself becomes a character in this new film, one of the extended group of individuals that comprise the Beatles inner-sanctum. Jackson has been keen to heap praise on MLH for making Get Back possible, and it must be a strange experience for Hogg, now in his eighties, to see himself now, in all of his youthful, idealistic, sartorial elegance, as well as to see, five decades on, how Jackson has been able, through the miracle of modern technology, to transform and improve his raw footage to levels of pristine elegance that would have seemed the stuff of celluloid/sonic Science Fiction back in 1969.

The Beatles treat MLH with an irreverence which sometimes borders on contempt; and he does come across as a rather obsessive, unconsciously comedic character at times. He has his own clear idea of where the Beatles should perform, and his refusal to let the idea of the show taking place in a disused Roman Amphitheatre in Libya drop becomes almost a running gag, at first indulged, and eventually mocked by the band.

 ‘Imagine 10,000 torch-lit Arabs at dawn!’

‘Yes, Michael.’

It was actually a terrible idea, even if the logistics of it had been possible in such a short space of time. Such grandiosity was simply not the Beatles. Ideas like that would have to wait a few years, for the dawn of Prog’ Rock, for Rick Wakeman and his Six Wives of Henry V111 on Ice, and Pink Floyd Live at Pompei, the latter being perhaps the closest we ever got to MLH’s vision for the Beatles.

 The Trouble with George

What is clear, from Day One onwards, is that the Beatle who least wishes to give a live performance of any sort is George Harrison. He is of course totally dismissive of MLH ‘torch-lit Arabs’, and greets the additional suggestion that they take their fans with them on a cruise-ship with something approaching horror. Not only would they have to perform to people, but they would have to be cooped up with their fans on a boat for God knows how long it took to reach Libya too. This was not George’s, already struggling with his relationship with John and Paul in particular and his place in the Beatles in general, idea of how he wished his life to precede.

It’s perhaps here that we need to turn our attention to Jackson’s main secondary narrative, which is of course closely allied to that of the first, that of George’s walk out and eventual return to the band.

The walk out happened on January 10th, or Day Nine, and is effectively the climax of the first of the three parts of Jackson’s film. The famous exchange: George: ‘I think I’ll leave the band now.’ John: ‘When?’ George: ’Now’, is one of the few occasions where Jackson had the audio but not the accompanying footage, so had to make do with a ‘near match.’ He has been criticised for this trick, and indeed it is a little strange to see the band member’s mouths moving with the wrong words coming out of them, as though we are watching a badly dubbed foreign film. But it doesn’t happen often, and what choice did Jackson have anyway? This piece of audio in particular demanded inclusion, and it was better to have at least some full colour action going on at the same time rather than a blank screen, or a simple transcript of the words spoken, though he did have one clever visual trick up his sleeve for a similar occasion later, as will be seen.

George’s actual final parting shot, which has gone down in Beatles folklore, was delivered as he exited via the Twickenham canteen at lunch time: ‘See you around the clubs.’ Sadly, not even audio exists of this and so we have only the testimony of those present, including George, that he said it.

So, why did he leave?

Clearly there were tensions. ‘The whatever it is that pleases you…’exchange with Paul had happened two days earlier, during rehearsal of ‘I Got a Feeling’ with its tricky microtonal guitar riff. On the 10th, problems arose again as they worked on the newly minted ‘Get Back’ which, as has been mentioned, is one of film’s clear highlights, as we see the song literally emerge from scratch as Paul strums his bass like a guitar, something he often seemed to do in this period. Really, the primary issue was about preferred methods of working. George, as was also generally true of John, liked to jam through the basics of a new song first, the band members learning the chords, and Ringo finding the appropriate beat, whilst the lyrics were refined before the nitty gritty of working out finalised individual parts, riffs, solos, bass lines, fills, backing vocals etc would properly begin.

Paul had a markedly different approach to rehearsal. Basically, when Paul wrote a song, he more often than not, especially during this purple patch of his career, had a clear idea of how the final arrangement would sound, leaving less room for individual input. As John once put it: ‘Paul can hear the flutes, I can’t hear the flutes.’ John would more likely turn up, especially during this period, when he seems to have had a bit of dearth of new material (hardly a crime after contributing a dozen or so to a double album that had been released only a few months’ earlier), with a sketch of a song. At the start of the Get Back project, Don’t Let Me Down, which features heavily throughout the film, was merely a single verse and a chorus. He literally used the band as his instrument for turning his material into a finished work, with particular respect to the input of his writing partner Paul. For a musician, it’s easy to see how this approach would be much more fun than to be essentially given pre written parts to learn by Paul.

In addition, George had been much impressed by the collegiate method of working of Bob Dylan and the Band whilst hanging out with them in Woodstock a short time earlier. He had also seemingly had his head turned a little by the way that these great musicians, and also his great friend Clapton, treated him as an equal. To now be back with the Beatles was very much to be back in a junior position to John and Paul, a position he clearly felt he’d been stuck, almost frozen in aspic, since first joining them in the Quarrymen as a ridiculously young looking fourteen-year-old back in 1958.

Anyway, after Paul criticises his vamping for covering up John’s vamping during work on Get Back, George walks.

Of course, this wasn’t the first time a Beatle had left a session. Paul had walked out during the recording of She Said, She Said for Revolver, over an undisclosed argument concerning the arrangement, leaving John, George and Ringo to finish the track without him. More well-known is Ringo’s walk out during disagreements that took place during early sessions for the White Album, apparently after Paul criticised his conga playing. Both of the opening tracks on that album, Back in the USSR and Dear Prudence are Ringo-free, with Paul taking on the main role of drummer, (with some fills from John and George on the former).

Previous walk-outs’ notwithstanding, there does seem to be a clear understanding, at least as it is portrayed in Get Back, that George’s exit is more serious, and perhaps even permanent. In response, John confirms to MLH that he is still prepared to play the show without George, to ‘get Clapton in’ if necessary. Paul and Ringo are seemingly keener to attempt to resolve the situation.

At any rate, Day Nine is definitely one of the most exciting days of all in Get Back. A fair amount of alcohol is consumed in the studio on a daily basis (and Paul smoked cigars at this time, who knew?), with a glass of wine or a beer never far from reach, but on this day, it seems to have been ratcheted up a few notches, especially after George’s lunch time departure. After lunch, we are treated to an insane jam, with John and Paul enticing screeching feedback from their amplifiers, whilst Ringo uncharacteristically flails wildly all around his kit as Yoko does her screeching thing into the microphone, vaguely in tune with the feedback. Incidentally, this is one of two Yoko jams included in Get Back, out of three in total, and her omni-presence in the studio undoubtedly contributed to the problems in the band, especially for George, as we shall see. But on this day at least you can see from the manic glee on their boozy faces that Paul and Ringo were as much willing participants in this Avant-Sonic madness as John and Yoko.

There was of course more to George’s leaving than a simple argument or two, about what to play and when. The official line, pushed by Harrison until his death in 2001, and maintained by his estate executors, widow Olivia and son Dhani to this day, is that George was simply tired of perpetually playing second fiddle, or perhaps more accurately third guitar, to John and Paul. That he had simply outgrown the junior role assigned to him as a schoolboy at the very beginning of the band. When they had first made it big, in Britain in 1963 and globally the following year, John and Paul had been not only the principle, but generally the sole writers of the band’s original material. It was they who could literally sit down together of an afternoon and, in John’s words, literally ‘write a swimming pool’ or a ‘write Rolls Royce’. George’s role had been to provide decent, memorable guitar solos and riffs, be the essential third part of the band’s remarkable three-part harmonies, and to take occasional lead vocals on either covers, songs written for him by Lennon and McCartney, and more rarely by himself.

But, the argument goes, by 1969 Gorge had grown up, matured as a man, as a musician, and as a writer. He now had a surfeit of excellent self-written material he was keen to record, but was stymied by the reality that they’d have to work on ten John and Paul songs before they’d even consider working on one of his. This was the main source of his growing resentment.

Personally, as much as I love George, I don’t think the ‘Harrison-party-line’ quite stands up to scrutiny.

During Get Back, George is still working on what would perhaps become his masterpiece, the song Something, which no less a figure than the great Frank Sinatra called ‘the greatest love song of the twentieth century’ before performing it live, though gallingly for George, he announced it as being written by ‘Lennon and McCartney.’ George had begun writing this during the White album sessions, but six months on, in January 969 was still hitting a brick wall as far as the lyrics were concerned. He is seen and heard in Get Back requesting assistance from John and Paul: ‘…loves me like a..?’ he asks. ‘Just put anything in there until you get it,’ suggests John. ‘like a pomegranate.’ The casual ease with which he both asks for and receives suggestions does not at all suggest a relationship where, in George’s later words, ‘they never helped me.’

The truth is that, as George grew as a writer, then so did his role in the band. On Revolver, which many consider to be their best album, George had no fewer than three of his own songs, including the excellent opener Taxman (which demonstrated his pre occupation with money. As well as being the ‘spiritual Beatle’ George was also the ‘money Beatle’, whilst apparently seeing no contradiction between the two). What happened then however, is that George temporarily all but abandoned his day job as a rock/pop musician and writer in order to immerse himself in all things Indian, learning sitar at the feet of the maestro Ravi Shankar, and leading the other Beatles to a Transcendental Meditation retreat in Bangor, North Wales in December of 1967, an event at which they learnt of the death from a, probably, accidental drug overdose of manager Brian Epstein.

 (It’s interesting that whilst in life they’d always called their manager Brian or Eppy, after death, in Get Back, they call him respectfully Mr. Epstein).  

The whole band would also follow him on his journey with the Maharishi to Rishikesh the following year too, which shows that, rather than being regarded by the rest of the band with a lack of seriousness, George became almost the de-facto cultural leader of the Beatles at this time.

But musically, he was most notable by his absence during extended sessions, their first after quitting touring, for their ground-breaking Sgt. Pepper’ album, only fully engaging, it seems, for his self-penned side two opener Within You, Without You, where he led a sizable troupe of Indian musicians, with no other Beatles appearing on the track. The most memorable guitar solo on the album, on Good Morning, Good Morning, came from Paul.

Finally getting back into the swing of conventional writing, George had four of his songs on the White Album, one on each side of the double. Arguably, this was a regression from the days of Revolver, but the songs he presented for consideration which didn’t make the final cut don’t really suggest a large cache of unrecorded classics being hidden from the public through the arrogance of John and Paul. His song Not Guilty also dispels the myth that the band weren’t prepared to put in the effort on his material. It was attempted no fewer than 101 times before being omitted from the album at the last minute. He would finally release this, in much simpler form, over a decade later on his eponymous album of 1979, with a released Beatles’ version having to wait until the Anthology project of the mid-90’s.

Those who have listened to the whole of the Nagra tapes, in their raw, hissy, noisy form, before Jackson and his team got to work their technological magic on them, will know that George presented several tracks to the Beatles early in January 1969 which would finally appear on his solo debut triple album All Things Must Pass in December 1970. However, the fact that none of them were played on the roof, nor made it on to the Let It Be album, is again not an indication of a lack of interest in George’s songs. Songs like Let It Down, Isn’t It a Pity (which had actually been around from the time of Revolver), Beware of Darkness, and Hear Me, Lord where in far from finished form at this stage, and it’s arguable if any of them were of a standard that would have significantly improved any Beatles album.

Plus, of course, John and Paul too worked on songs during January 1969 which would not find their finished form until the Beatles’ days were over. On Day One, John is shown working on Child of Nature, first written in India, which makes several appearances in Get Back before John dropped the lyric entirely, later making use of the beautiful melody for the classic Jealous Guy on his second solo album, Imagine in November 1971. Intriguingly, he is also seen, on Day Two, working on Gimme Some Truth with Paul, though Paul would later concede to Jackson that he had no memory of ever having worked on this song, which again wouldn’t appear until the Imagine album. In Get Back, Paul too presented material which wouldn’t be finished until his solo career was up and running, for instance Another Day, his first solo single in 1971, and the opening few bars of Back Seat of My Car, a McCartney classic which would be recorded for his second solo album Ram, and was initially played by him at the piano the day it first came to him before setting off for the studio that day. The point here is that George was not unique in having material that was not yet considered either ready or suitable for the Get Back project.

The idea that George was being held back by the Beatles at this time, rests mainly with the fate of the song All Things Must Pass, an absolute classic which would become the title track of that ambitious triple album debut. A whole mythology has built up, perpetuated by George, his estate, and various Beatles authors, that the Beatles ‘rejected’ All Things Must Pass. This has been thoroughly debunked by the excellent Matt Williamson on his You Tube Channel Pop Goes the 60’s. In reality, the Beatles attempted 71 takes of the song, including several complete takes, some of which sound, to my ears at least, to be almost complete, with excellent backing vocals from John and Paul. All it would have taken would have been for the various parts to have been refined, and tracked. It’s a major disappointment to me of Jackson’s film, given how much effort was put into ATMP, that we see only a few seconds of it in Get Back, though I suspect that, given that we get what is essentially a George solo demo on Anthology 3, despite the existence of complete Beatles’ versions, there was/is a determination by Harrison and his executers that this song be solely associated with his solo career and not regarded as the lost Beatles’ classic that it also is.

ultimately it is George who decides to pull all of his own material from consideration for the live performance that eventually manifested itself as the rooftop, because they would ‘end up sounding shitty anyway.’  This is a shame, as For You Blue, which was written during the sessions, with John contributing excellent Hawaiian slide guitar on this classic if straight forward twelve-bar blues, would actually have been a perfect addition to their set.

This may have seemed like an unnecessarily long and negative detour concerning George. But the walk out is crucial to both Jackson’s film, and to an understanding of how the events of that month panned out. Whatever the basis in reality for the way George was feeling towards John and Paul, there was no doubt that huge feelings of resentment had been building for a long time. The I Got a Feeling argument with Paul was actually a continuation of a difference of opinion that had taken place as the band worked on Hey Jude a few months’ earlier. George had wished to play call and response guitar lines between McCartney’s vocals. Paul wanted a much simpler, piano plus rhythm guitars and drums arrangement. The brilliance of Hey Jude shows that Paul was right, but the argument festered and Paul was foolish enough, as captured in Get Back, to refer back to it during renewed tensions in the January 1969 sessions.

It may of course be narrative manipulation, of which Jackson is not innocent, as we shall see shortly, but we definitely see the resentment building up within George during the closing stages of the opening part of Get Back.

There seems, in particular to be very real feelings of jealousy at the continuing, or perhaps renewed, strength of musical bond between Lennon and McCartney. Watch George’s face and body language as the two work together once again, to use the phrase both John and Paul would continually use to describe their method of working together in the early days, ‘eyeball to eyeball’, literally gazing into one another’s eyes as they trade lines and ideas on the song Two of Us.

The very title, Two of Us, although written about himself and Linda according to Paul, a claim not really supported by the lyric, could well have seemed exclusionary to George. That’s how it comes across in Get Back anyway. Two of Us – in a bubble of creativity which no outsider, even from within the band, can ever penetrate…

In his infamous Lennon Remembers interview with Rolling Stone magazine 1n December 1970, an interview which did much to cement a certain idea of the reasons for the Beatles break-up in people’s minds, John was adamant that he and Paul rarely wrote together after 1963, certainly after they gave up touring in 1966, though they he did concede that they sometimes helped one another to finish off this or that song during their later period. But in Get Back, the discussion around John’s eventual solo track Gimme Some Truth, which I’ve mentioned, clearly indicates that the two had already worked on this together, presumably in late ’68. Also, in discussions, Paul admits that the presence of Yoko has clearly been an inhibiting factor during writing sessions with John. He particularly mentions enlisting John to help finish off the White Album’s I Will, and how having arty Yoko in the room made him feel that he should be writing about ‘white walls or something.’ Who knew he tried to involve John in writing ‘I Will’, which is about as purer Paul ballad as you can get? Who knew that the two were still having scheduled ‘writing sessions’ this late in the Beatles story?

In Get Back, despite all that was said later, it is very clear that John and Paul still respected each other musically as they respected, and never would respect anyone else. It’s also clear that there is also still a strong personal bond between them, a bond that I believe, despite the break-up, despite many harsh words, some of them coded in song, especially from John, endured until Lennon’s death, and beyond.

And it’s clear that this continuing relationship is a huge factor in escalating George’s feelings of insecurity in the band, to the point that he felt the need to walk.

The Manipulation Question

Jackson has performed a great service in re-establishing Lennon and McCartney as an ongoing partnership into 1969, finally (one would hope) laying the Lennon Remembers mythos to rest. It is however in his treatment of George’s absence from the Beatles between January 10th and January 15th that Jackson can, to use the phrase I’ve already used, be most plausibly accused of narrative manipulation.

The most glaring example is the day after George’s walk out. Paul and Ringo have arrived at Twickenham and are sat talking with the extended group that comprise the Get Back cast, of which more below. There has been no word from George, and no indication either as to whether John will make an appearance that day. Paul says sadly ‘And then there were two.’ This is followed by a long, lingering twenty-five second close up of his tearfully expressive face. It’s one of the most powerful, it is near-universally agreed, moments in the entire film, the clear implication being that his expression is an outward manifestation of the inner turmoil he is feeling as he contemplates the possible, even probable, end of the band to which he has devoted his life since that fateful first meeting with John at the Woolton Village Fete. The shot is only broken by Linda (Eastman, soon to be McCartney) taking his hand as he softly sings the chorus of ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ a recent hit for the Foundations. This is followed quickly by one of the Beatles’ aids announcing ‘John is in the phone,’ to which Paul replies ‘I’ll talk to him.’ We then see Paul rise to leave the room, and cut immediately to him returning to announce ‘He’s coming in.’ We then further cut to the band, still obviously sans George, back at work.

It is indeed powerful filmmaking. But, as those who have combed through the unfiltered Nagra tapes (of which I am not one, perhaps surprisingly) have testified, it isn’t really how it happened. Paul’s sorrowful expression may or may not be linked to George’s walk out and John’s none-appearance that day, but it didn’t immediately follow the ‘then there was two’ remark, and it is unlikely that he regarded John’s failure to arrive at the studio as being linked either to George’s seemingly definitive resignation, or as being potentially terminal for the band. John hated being expected to be ‘on set’ at ten in the morning, and usually was the last to arrive. Laziness was of course an ongoing feature of his character, and wasn’t exactly helped by his heroin usage in this period. Nor did John’s phone call occur when Jackson implies it does. In addition, part one ends with Paul, John and Ringo engaged in a group hug and unheard conversation. Again, the implication is that this is linked to the ongoing situation with George. In reality, this did not occur when Jackson’s film suggests it did, and in fact may simply have been the band mugging for the cameras. Plus, in previous interviews John had talked about how when greeting or taking leave of each other, being Northern men of more or less working class stock, they’d hide their macho feelings of embarrassment behind elaborate, jokey, over-the-top handshakes and the like ‘though recently we’ve got into the Buddhist hug thing.’ Thus, it may not have been as unique an occurrence as it was made to seem, and may not have been linked to George walk-out.

Is this a case of dishonesty on Jackson’s part? I would suggest not, at least not quite. He was employed to craft a narrative from the large amount of available footage and audio, and in this he has succeeded magnificently. On the other hand, I think it’s worth asking if such an overt use of dramatic license was really necessary. Surely, it would have been possible to tell the story of January 1969 with due respect to the precise order of events? There was enough real drama around George’s temporary exit, without needing to quite so blatantly play with our emotions. Plus, as a Beatles buff himself, he must have known that his work would have every last detail combed through by other Beatles buffs, he would have known that he was opening himself up to unnecessary levels of criticism.

There are other points of contention concerning Jackson’s narrative which need to be addressed.

Yoko and the Flowerpot

Of course, the idea that ‘Yoko broke up the Beatles is and always has been a reductive over simplification. But there can be no doubt that she was a contributing factor. Get Back plays down this factor considerably. Apart from the two occasions where she is seen ‘jamming’ with John, Paul, and Ringo (and Billy Preston, of whom more later, during Yoko jam 2) the impression is given of a quiet, almost to the point of being mute, inscrutable (excuse the racial stereotyping) presence, of a woman who is there to support her man, John, whose side she rarely leaves, and nothing more. One of the rare occasions when we hear her speak is in part three when she asks George Martin where she can buy classical sheet music. But, again through those who have been through the whole of the Nagra tapes, we know that she was much more vocal during the sessions, not being in the least bit shy about offering musical advice to the Beatles, and playing an active part in the discussions as to where the band’s proposed live performance should take place, and in what form. One of her suitably cryptic, Yoko-esque suggestions was ‘in front of a row of empty chairs.’

The very fact of Yoko being in the studio beside John being a problem is alluded to in Get Back, but not made explicit. For instance, in discussion, Paul mentions that ‘it would be a shame if in fifty-years-time people would say the Beatles broke up because Yoko sat on an amp,’ which shows that McCartney already knew we would still be talking about the Beatles in fifty years-time, and that Yoko would be seen as a major factor in that break-up. He goes on to say that ‘of course at the moment John is going overboard, but that’s John’, before concluding ‘so, let the young lovers’ be together.’ We can draw from this that he felt Yoko was simply John’s latest fad, which would soon be replaced by something else, and that he realised that if Lennon was asked at this moment to choose between her and the Beatles, then he would clearly choose Yoko, so best put up with her for the time being. The idea, put forward in some reviews, that Get Back ‘proves’ that Yoko did not break up the Beatles is fallacious. No, she didn’t, singularly, but we don’t see or hear nearly enough to be able to form our own conclusion as to the part she did play.

We are informed through a text-caption that a (unrecorded) meeting of the Beatles at Ringo’s house to try to resolve the situation regarding George ‘ended badly.’ But we are not told that in addition to the four Beatles Linda and Yoko were also present, and that this, particularly the presence of Yoko, was a big problem for George. This fact is only alluded to in discussion at Twickenham by Linda, who mentions that the problem is that ‘Yoko spoke for John.’

Jackson has always maintained that all editorial decisions as to what was and what wasn’t included in Get Back were his and his alone, with no interference from Paul, Ringo, Olivia/Dhani Harrison and Yoko/Sean Ono Lennon. Taking him at his word, we can only conclude that he took a conscious decision to downplay the role of Yoko during this period, presumably to further weaken the whole ‘Yoko broke up the Beatles’ oversimplification?

I also need to mention here the now legendary ‘flowerpot discussion.’ We only have this discussion thanks to MLH secretly placing a microphone inside a flowerpot in the Twickenham canteen, unethical of course, but few Beatles’ fans will criticise him for that. This discussion has been very much sold to us as being likely the only opportunity we shall ever have to hear how Lennon and McCartney spoke to each other when they did not know they were being recorded. The audio-only discussion is presented to us accompanied by a single, still image of the said flowerpot, and again it is a powerful, fascinating example of Jackson’s filmmaking skills. The few minutes of discussion we hear naturally centre on the leaving of George, and the two display an impressive degree of what we would now call ‘Emotional Intelligence,’ with John opining that George was ‘wounded’ and that they, he and Paul, had ‘failed to provide him with a band-aid.’ We also hear John criticise Paul for making the band go through numerous takes of Ob-La-Di Ob-la-Da, which the rest of the band apparently hated (though John’s barrel-house piano part ended up making the song at least bearable to listen to). This would still be a sore point during John’s last interviews in 1980, as would the amount of work put into another Paul song, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, a song which would eventually appear on Abbey Road and was first introduced during the Get Back sessions, a song loathed by all of the band but its composer. McCartney also, obviously highly conscious of the precarious nature of John’s relationship with the band since the beginning of Yoko’s omnipresence beside him, reiterates that John has always been the ‘boss’ in the band he had first formed, a state of affairs that he believes must always continue.

It’s gripping stuff for first level Beatles fanatics. However, the bootleg of this conversation has been available for a long time via the Nagra Tapes. The problem was that the clanking of cutlery, plates, cups etc, as befits a conversation in a canteen, made much of the conversation virtually inaudible. Using the cutting-edge audio separation technology that he makes such brilliant use of throughout Get Back, Jackson has solved this problem in such a way as to allow us to hear every word spoken. At least, that is, every word Jackson wishes us to hear spoken. Because, as poor as the sound quality of the canteen discussion was before Jackson set to work on it, one thing we do know for certain; and that is, that this was not a conversation between John and Paul alone: Ringo was also present, as was Linda, as was Yoko, present and fully involved in the conversation. I can’t help but feel a little bit disappointed that Jackson didn’t make this clear.

Maybe, and let us hope, the fourteen-hour cut will eventually see the light of day and some of these problematic issues will be resolved…

One thing worth mentioning in Jackson’s defence is that there is at least one occasion, and possibly more, where he corrects a misleading impression given by MLH’s Let It Be. This is in a scene where Paul is talking to John at Twickenham about future projects. He says that ‘George says no films…’ and goes on to agree that they can’t go back to the days of A Hard Day’s Night or Help, but points out that ‘this is a film’, meaning the current Get Back/Let It Be project, and that he (George) had no problem with this. Paul speaks at some length, whilst John merely looks at him, and smiles enigmatically without speaking as Paul concludes. The impression we are clearly left with by this scene is that John has no interest at all in future projects. In Get Back, making use of MLH’s’ multi-camera set up, we see this conversation at greater length, and at a greater distance from its participants. Through this, we learn that it is actually a much longer and wider discussion, involving not just John and Paul but several people, including Ringo, MLH, and producer Glynn John’s. We also learn that John, contrary to the impression given in Let It Be, was fully engaged in this conversation. Here, at least, Jackson is not revising but correcting the historical record.

From Twickenham to Apple

To push on, we don’t know the entirety of the concessions that were made to George at the second, again unrecorded meeting, which led to him agreeing to re-join the band on the 15th January. We do know that they included the relocating of the project from the cold, cavernous, film studios at Twickenham, to their as yet incomplete Apple recording studio at Saville Row. The idea of a live album and television special were also dropped. Although it was not yet explicit, and discussion as to exactly what they were doing would continue periodically at Apple, from here on in we can safely say that it was essentially established that they were making a film of the recording of an album, though the original rootsy, no overdubs ethos remained, as did the notion that the film should still conclude with a live performance of some sort, though this performance would include none of Harrison’s original material.

At any rate, after a false start due to the ‘state of the art’ recording studio promised by their flavour of the month guru/inventor Magic Alex (who is unseen in the film, though we get a glimpse of his ‘genius’ through his prototype combined bass/rhythm guitar, which is essentially a child’s toy that causes the band much merriment) being an unusable shamble. After George Martin and Glyn Johns oversee the insulation of temporary recording equipment, we finally see George arrive at the Apple studios and pronounce it has ‘good vibes.’

From her on in, though the cameras were deliberately absent from the first working days at Apple, the Beatles are back to being a more or less cohesive unit, a foursome, and soon, at least temporarily with the arrival of Billy Preston, a fivesome.

Certainly, the relationships within the band improve at Apple, with a clear sense that they have collectively resolved to avoid conflict as far as possible. From now on, as seen in Get Back, it’s pretty much a forward march towards the climax, even though it is not yet known, and won’t be almost until the last minute, what that climax will be.

The Players

Before covering that climatic performance, it’s necessary to say a little about the main participants in what would eventually become Peter Jackson’s Get Back. Within the band itself, Paul and George have been covered in some detail, and there is no need to say more here.

It’s generally agreed that John is shown as much more engaged once the band relocate to Apple. There is some truth in this, though personally, on the evidence of Get Back, I think he always seemed pretty engaged, perhaps surprisingly so. At any rate, whatever he might have said later, he was clearly up for the project from day one. As he himself points out at one point late in the film, he agrees to every single suggestion as to where they should perform, not even rejecting outright MLH’s fantasy of ‘ten thousand torch-lit Arabs.’ He even says he’ll be happy to ‘play on the Moon.’

It’s known that at this time he was increasingly using heroin (as was Yoko), though we don’t see too much evidence of that in the film. There is a longstanding ‘Two Junky’s’ bootleg video of an interview he and Yoko gave to Canadian television, from which a gaunt looking Lennon had to break off to be sick. We see the aftermath of this interview in Get Back, though not the interview itself, during which John, rather embarrassingly I thought, though some seem to have enjoyed it, speaks by quoting a selection of his own song lyrics. It is also at this time that we see a little of a rather awkward visit by Peter Sellers. In addition, John begins to speak at one point about ‘getting high’ the night before, only to be gently rebuked by Paul with a ‘do we really need to do this on camera, Mr. Lennon?’ comment. All in all, this whole scene is the low point of John’s Get Back. For the vast majority of the film, despite the heroin, despite the Yoko infatuation, and accepting that he did lack new material in comparison to Paul and George, he is fully ‘there’, and shows amongst other things that, as well as the great vocalist we know him to have been, he was also a highly underrated and innovative guitarist.

I realise that Ringo hasn’t got much of a look-in so far in this lengthy review. Put simply Ringo, at this time, before heavy drinking almost destroyed him in the seventies and eighties, and long before he took to doing that annoying ‘Peace and Love’ thing he does, comes across as a calming, likable, surprisingly quiet presence: ‘We all love ‘Rings’’ says Linda at one point, and this seems to have been the case. As a drummer he is of course superb, the perfect drummer it was possible for the Beatles to have had. As Mark Lewisohn has pointed out, you can listen to hundreds and hundreds of Beatles outtakes, and songs break down perhaps because John fluffs a line, George or John mess up their guitar part, a stoned Paul gets a fit of the giggles. But they are almost all reasons that are entirely none-Ringo related. Ringo almost never makes an error, and his time keeping is second to none. As he once said, with justification, when asked if he ever used a metronome as a guide, ‘I am the metronome.’ In Get Back, whenever another band member begins to play, be-it a take of one of their new songs, a run through of a work in process, an old cover, an early John and Paul original, a simple exploratory riff, Ringo is immediately there, doing his thing, playing correctly and appropriately. He intelligently stores material away mentally for future use too. For instance, when the decision is made to change the song Two of Us from a fast electric rocker to a softer, mid-tempo acoustic number, he utilises the beat he had originally developed for the fast version of this song for the new McCartney-led work-in-progress Get Back; and it fits perfectly. Also, given his temporary walk out during the White Album sessions, he is surprisingly open to direction from other band members as to how to develop his drum parts.

Briefly, a few of the other members of the extended Beatles family. First, the BWAGS (Beatles’ Wives and Girlfriends, and yes, I did just make that up).

Yoko we have covered in some detail. Linda we have mentioned, but it should be said that I don’t think anybody has ever captured her natural beauty in the way that Jackson has here. To see her taking photographs of the band at work, and then to see these beautiful developed photographs onscreen is a fitting tribute to the clear love of McCartney’s life. A highlight of the film is the day she brings her, and soon to be Paul’s adopted, daughter Heather, then aged six, into the studio. Her on mic’ Yoko impression, after some amusing banter with John about her new kittens, which Lennon suggests they eat, is simply priceless.

Maureen Starkey, Ringo’s then wife, is seen mostly towards the end of the film, bopping away on the rooftop, and again in the control room as the band listen to a playback of the recording of their performance. She comes across as essentially a super-fan, and it’s easy to imagine her boogying in similar fashion just as enthusiastically in the Cavern a few years and a lifetime earlier.

It’s known that George was already having marital problems at this time, and we see his then wife, the utterly gorgeous Patty Harrison nee Boyd only very fleetingly, entering the studio to whisper something in George’s ear, and to give him a rather awkward looking hug, as he hunches over his guitar.

Of the rest, we have covered Michael Lyndsey Hogg at some length. It’s worth adding however that he was a natural choice for his role in the original project, having worked with the Beatles on the Paperback Writer/Rain promo films (arguably the first rock videos), on the recording of the Frost Show appearance, and having also directed the Rolling Stones Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus, at which John and Yoko performed, though this was to be unreleased for three decades. Yes, he’s the butt of much Beatles’ humour, but he’s also an engaging character who clearly wants nothing more than a successful conclusion to the project.

Like MLH, Glyn Johns (generally ‘Glynnis’ to the band), employed as the producer of whatever music was recorded during these sessions, is a figure of sartorial excellence, an almost quintessentially late-sixties figure; and also like MLH, he is treated with a high degree of irreverence by the band. Ultimately, they would reject both of his mixes for the album that was then called Get Back and would later be renamed Let It Be, despite (perhaps because) of his adherence to the original, simple, rootsy ethos of the project (and Paul has always been keen to emphasise how much he liked these bare, basic productions). He clearly knows his stuff musically though and, with a little help from his friends and collaborators, principally George Martin, he gets an amazing sound out of the rooftop performance, which is quite a feat given the biting , open-air-wind, and the sheer logistics of trailing numerous wires down steps, through corridors  and into the studio control room.

George Martin, the Beatles’ regular and legendary producer since  1962, had been assigned the rather vague title of Executive Producer for this project. He is to be seen much more in the latter parts of Get Back, where he is clearly keen to play a much greater part in proceedings now that it has been established that they are recording a conventional album rather than preparing for a television special, though an album that would retain a live feel, avoiding the studio trickery of which George was a master. He cuts a dapper figure, posh despite his working-class origins, handsome for a man nearing fifty, and is certainly treated with greater respect by the band than is ‘Glynnis’.

Of the others, two people stand out: Mal Evans and Billy Preston.

Evans had been a humble telephone operator in Liverpool when he fell in with the Beatles during their Cavern days. He was soon appointed their road manager, a role that gave this down to Earth working class scouser the opportunity to shoot pool with the Memphis Mafia during the brief, Bel Air Beatles/Elvis, Epstein/Parker summit of ’65 and, for him most excitingly of all, to drink JD and get royally smashed with Frank Sinatra and a few of his gun-toting Italian ‘friends’. Although a family man at heart, Evans is also said to have taken great advantage of the opportunities that close proximity to the Fab’s afforded him in terms of female ‘companionship.’ By the time of the Get Back sessions, with touring long – two-and-a-half-years is long in Beatles years – a thing of the past, his job had evolved into that of general gofer. If the Beatles wanted it, Mal was expected to arrange it, from making a simple cup of tea, to replacing guitar strings, to sometimes more obtuse demands. In Get Back, Paul suddenly decides that what the song Maxwell’s Silver Hammer really needs (other than dumping into the dustbin of history, as the other Beatles would have preferred) was extra percussion provided by an anvil and a hammer. What the Beatles want, the Beatles get, and in a nice piece of cinematic editing by Jackson we see Paul make the request to Mal followed immediately by a cut to the next day where a delighted Mal is seen excitedly wielding the hammer against the anvil as they run through yet another take of the song. We also see Mal contributing creatively in other ways, suggesting to Paul that ‘you left me standing here’ is better than ‘waiting’ here in the song The Long and Winding Road, a suggestion that Paul readily accepts. Without going too deeply into the story, things didn’t go well for Big Mal post Beatles. Though he continued to work and socialise with the ex Beatles (though not Paul), and had some success as a producer, notably with Apple band Badfinger, he slid into ever greater depression worsened by drink and drugs and the break-up of his marriage, and died in what may well have been a ‘death by cop’ incident, or was perhaps simply the victim of a trigger happy LA policeman whilst Mal was having a psychotic episode in 1976. Paul’s comment that ‘anybody who knew him well would have been able to talk him down, to say to him ‘don’t be so stupid Mal’’, suggests drug crazed, erratic behaviour from the seemingly lovable Mal wasn’t unknown even in the Beatles period. But we see none of that in Get Back, and now, thanks to Jackson’s film, he is about to gain a slice of posthumous fame that will forever cement his place in the Beatles story, being the subject of not just one but two books by respected Beatles author Ken Womack. The first, expected next year, will be a straight biography, and the second a selection from the personal diaries that have always been regarded as the Holy Grail of Beatles ‘lost’ items (actually one of several Beatles ‘Holy Grail’s of Beatles ‘lost’ items), but have hitherto, apart from the odd extract, remained secreted away within the Evans family.

The Beatles had known the young, brilliantly gifted and black keyboard player Billy Preston since Hamburg 1962, where he’d been part of one of their heroes, Little Richard’s, backing band. He would apparently often be found in the audience at the Star Club to watch the band, and would always request they perform the old standard A Taste of Honey. In January 1969, now attempting to make it as a solo artist, he was in Britain for an appearance on the Lulu Show, and popped into the Apple studio merely to say hello to his old friends. Unbeknown to him, and we see this in Get Back, the band had already spent some time discussing how great it would be to have a dedicated piano/keyboard player for some of their new material. Paul was, and is, of course more than adequate himself on the keys (John and George weren’t bad either, though not at the level of Paul) but given the no overdubs ethos of the project, and the prospect of a live performance still looming, leaving this job to McCartney would have meant either John or George having to play bass, a role neither of them particularly enjoyed (though musical equipment nerds will take an interest in the six string Rickenbacker bass which both favoured when they absolutely had to take on the role). Thus, after Billy wafted, a word that perfectly sums up Preston’s persona in Get Back, into Apple he, after they obligatorily play him a self-parodic version of A Taste of Honey, immediately ask him to sit in. A request he is clearly delighted to oblige.

The way Paul’s eyes light up when he first hears what Billy’s electric piano flourishes add to I Got a Feeling, is one of those classic little touches in Get Back. The recorded versions of this song and Don’t Let Me Down, in fact all of the songs performed on the rooftop, are now hard to imagine without Preston’s invaluable contributions. ‘You’ve lifted us, Billy,’ said John accurately on the first day of his appearance; and George would later talk about how the presence of another musician not only improved the sound of the songs, but also the relationship within the band.  Another highlight is John and Billy together improvising an embryonic I Want You (She’s Heavy) which would later appear in finished form on Abbey Road. At this stage it was simply Lennon’s classic riff, embellished masterfully by Preston, with improvised lyrics based around Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ (John had already talked animatedly earlier about MLK, who’d actually been assassinated whilst they’d been in India nine months’ earlier. John’s renewed interest had apparently been sparked by a television documentary about him shown on British television at this time.) Sadly, life hadn’t dealt Preston a great hand. He’d apparently been badly abused as a child and, despite having some solo success in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, and being an in-demand sideman, working with the Rolling Stones, the solo Beatles (again minus Paul, the ex Beatle least keen to maintain Beatle era connections, it seems), he never really broke free of the trauma caused by this, dying aged 59 in 2004, after a long history of drug and alcohol abuse.

In Search of an Ending

So, with the pressure of a live television performance now out of the way, and with Preston onboard, the sessions proceed relatively smoothly. There are still tensions, and still highlights and details to revel in, but there is little further need for any great detail.

The main problem remained exactly what form the climatic Beatles live performance would take. Gone now was talk of Roman Amphitheatres and Torch-lit Arabs. The consensus, which it seemed initiated with Paul, became that they should just turn up and play somewhere, preferably somewhere they shouldn’t, with any intervention by the forces of Law and Order being seen as a cinematic bonus. For a while, Primrose Hill is favourite. Why this is dropped is never quite made clear. But, with time running out, with the days on Peter Jackson’s screen-filling calendar being crossed off one by one fifty years in the future as we move rapidly towards the end of January deadline, we do see the moment when MLH whispers something in Paul’s ear in the studio with one finger pointing suggestively upwards. Paul nods and smiles, and it seems that in that moment the idea of simply locating their performance on the rooftop of their own studio was born. George’s earlier comment that ‘the best things with us just sort of happen, without too much planning’ are apt and prophetic.

It was still not a done deal. In discussion on January 29th, the day before the day they had finally chosen for their, sort of, return to live performance, we see George state that he doesn’t want to do it. Ringo does, Paul, well Paul sort of does, but doesn’t think they are ready and would sooner wait until they’ve reached the magic number of fourteen songs and then perform them then, even if it’s straight to camera without an audience, once the Magic Christian is out of the way and the band can reconvene.  John, surprisingly given what we thought we knew about his waning interest in being a Beatle at this time, still seems to be the keenest on performing, reasoning that although they might not have achieved what they set out to achieve, they might as well go with what they have, and as they have no better idea on the table than the roof, then the roof it should be.

We don’t see the moment before the Beatles mount the stairs towards the roof the following day, but the whole idea still seems to have been in jeopardy until the very last moment. From what we can glean from various after the event accounts, George still doesn’t want to do it. Ringo states ‘it will be bloody cold up there’, Paul is still wobbling out of a fear that they won’t do themselves’ justice. Finally, it is said, it was John Lennon who, perhaps for the last time, asserted his leadership of the band he had founded as The Quarrymen: ‘Fuck it, let’s do this,’ he said before leading the band onwards and upwards.

Or so the story goes. We’ll probably have to wait until volume three of Mark Lewisohn’s massive, definitive Beatles’ biography, sometime around the mid 2030’s, to learn whether or not it is true.

The Toppermost of the Poppermost

We move now towards Jackson’s treatment of the rooftop concert/recording session itself. We cannot of course do this without reference to the treatment of the same event in Let It Be. 

In MLH’s movie, we see approximately half of the Beatles’ forty-three-minute performance, one performance of each of the five songs done, minus the duplication the band used, both to stretch out their short set and to enhance their chances of getting usable recordings. Footage of the band playing, from differing angles, is interspersed with cut-aways to the street, where we see short vox pop style interviews with passers’-by, mostly positive but with some complaining local business owners, upset over the disruption to normal, lunch time, London commerce. The performance of course ends with the appearance of the representatives of the local constabulary onto the roof, giving the Beatles pretty much what they wanted as far as a climax to their film went, and John’s iconic comment, often somewhat wrongly taken as a coded farewell forever from the band, that ‘I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group, and I hope we passed the audition.’

 Let It Be’s handling of the Roof is perfectly fine, a great finish to a highly uneven documentary movie. But we now know that so much more was available to MLH. He had in fact employed an innovative nine camera set-up which is only made proper use of by Peter Jackson five decades on. We get of course the full forty-three-minute Beatles performance (three versions of Get Back, two each of Don’t Let Me Down and I Got a Feeling, and singular versions of I Dig a Pony and One After 909), again with cut-aways to, now extended street vox-pops. In addition, and unlike in Let It Be we get to see the unfolding drama taking place, as the band played on, in the Apple reception area as the police, led by the incredibly youthful looking PC Dagg, whom Get Back has made into a minor celebrity in his own right, responding to the complaints of local businessmen about the noise and disruption, are expertly stalled for as long as possible by the Apple receptionist Debbie Wellum. She initially plays dumb as to the source of the music, and then tries to claim she doesn’t have the keys to enable them to access the roof. This is once the police have finally asserted that the source of the sound[GC1]  is indeed the rooftop: ‘I thought these places were soundproofed’ says Dagg, at least displaying a rudimentary knowledge of how recording studios generally work: ‘Oh, they’re on the roof: why are they on the roof?’ ‘To do something different…it’s for a film.’ ‘But can’t they just dub on the music later?’ asks Dagg, now venturing into the realm of movie soundtrack creation, which was almost certainly above his pay grade. I should mention that PC Shayler and PC Craddock are also on the scene, and that some of these comments may actually have come from their direction. But history has chosen to appoint PC Dagg as the representative lawman of that day, and I’ve decided to place all of these words into his mouth. If a dramatisation of these events is ever to be made, which it almost certainly will be one day, adding yet more meta-aspects to the whole project, then that is almost certainly how it will be portrayed.

At any rate, the venerable Miss Wellum does a sterling job of allowing the Beatles to keep on doing what they needed to do for long enough for them to do be able to do it. They were it seems pretty much done when the police finally gained access to the roof anyway: there is sadly no fantasy extended Beatles’ set that was prevented from taking place by the forces of the Establishment. Only when top brass arrives in the form of no-nonsense Sgt David Kendrick does she finally relent and send for (who else?) Big Mal Evans, who reluctantly leads the forces of law and order to their destination. The shimmy of delight we get from Paul when he first catches sight of the policeman on the roof as he effortlessly does what he does best, playing harmonically complex bass lines whilst singing a completely different melody, is one of the great moments of Get Back. I also love a defiant George Harrison turning his amplifier back on after, under police instruction, Mal had turned it off.

Jackson has come in for criticism from some fans for not showing the Beatles final public performance unadorned, with no cut-aways to the street or the Apple reception area. I see their point, and there is certainly an argument for being able to view that forty-three-minutes as the Beatles and nothing but the Beatles somewhere, in some form. This would have been an excellent bonus disc had we got a decent, Extras packed Get Back physical release instead of the disappointing reproduction of what has already been available on Disney for months. Or, it could be released as a standalone disc, or maybe as part of the restored Let It Be we have been promised, but which I restate I’ll believe when I hold it in my hands. For now, you’ll have to make do with the audio Playlist of the whole set on Spotify, which sounds fantastic, by the way. From a personal perspective, I think Jackson got this spot on in Get Back: the Beatles performance, the view from the street, the comedic farce in the Apple reception, all blended to perfection. A superb piece of filmmaking.

I want to say a little more about the street scenes. Firstly, from this level, you get an idea of how loud the Beatles were that day, something that doesn’t come across in Let It Be. They were fairly blasting it out, and this must have been quite an experience for them, given the still insubstantial equipment they were saddled with even for their final tours in ’66. But then there is the whole cultural dimension too, what Get Back tells us about the changes Britain has gone through in the intervening five decades. Firstly, for someone of my age, who grew up in the seventies (1969 is the first year I can remember being aware of what year it was, although I’ve no idea why), there’s a lot of nostalgia to be had from seeing those police officers in their traditional ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ uniforms, custodiam helmets and all. How much different do police officers look today; and how would today’s Woke-Robocop’s handle such a situation if it was to occur now? Perhaps by battle ramming open a few doors before dashing up the stairs fully armed, followed by forcibly carrying off the band (which Paul wanted to happen, though I doubt he would in the form it would take today), pausing only to take a respectful Black Lives Matter knee before a bemused Billy Preston?

It is very instructive and interesting to look at the street scenes. With the single exception of a lone, dapper, very posh sounding black man, everyone interviewed, or at least everyone being shown being interviewed in the film, though I’m sure this is more or less representative of the truth, is white. What would be the demographic make-up of random people being solicited for comments in that exact same spot now, I wonder, given that white British people are now a minority in our capital city?

Then, there are the issues of cultural recognition and the fragmentation/atomisation we have seen taking place over the subsequent decades.   

Pretty much, every single person interviewed on the street, or again at least every interview shown on camera, knew immediately when asked that the source of the music from on high was the Beatles. This was despite the fact that the band were performing material that had not been heard by anyone outside of the Beatles’ inner-circle. One of the interviewees even distinguishes between lead vocalists: ‘That’s Paul singing now….or that was Paul….’ As a song concludes. How many bands, artists, figures from any walk of life would have that instant recognisability now? Perhaps Oasis was the last to come close circa 1994/5, but only with younger members of society. It’s doubtful if random middle aged taxi drivers or businessmen would have known an Oasis song that had never even been played on the radio.

(And I am concluding this particular edit four days after the announcement of the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 11, perhaps our last surviving symbol of national unity. Look at the throng crowding around Buckingham Palace and other Royal residences. They look more representative of Get Back era London than they do of modern London. What does that tell you?).

So, what of the Beatles’ performance itself? Objectively, given the impossible task they had set themselves, they had failed. They didn’t have fourteen new songs honed to a standard that could be performed live on television, and later released as a live album. They had five songs they felt confident enough to perform, and one of them, One After 909, wasn’t a new song at all, as we have seen. But, given that they hadn’t played live in two-and-a-half-years, that they were playing material they’d never performed before (possibly One After 909 had been essayed at the Cavern, in Hamburg or on the road pre their conquest of the world? I’ll leave that one to Lewisohn), and that they had only really worked on twenty two of those thirty January days available to them, given John’s lack of preparation and new material, and George’s clear feelings of under-appreciation within the band, then the Beatles, with the absolutely invaluable addition of Billy Preston on keyboards, positively rocked. Despite all the tensions and problems, for forty-three minutes in the bitingly cold open air, they proved themselves to be an almost unbelievably tight unit.

Mick Jagger has said that the Beatles couldn’t be compared to the Stones as a live act, because they only played barely audible thirty -minute sets to audiences of screaming girls. Leaving aside the days when they played eight-hour, Prelude fuelled all-night sets in Hamburg (and please, please Apple, can we apply some of the technological wizardry employed by Jackson in Get Back to those Star Club tapes from December 1962, so we can further grasp how great the band were live on the cusp of fame?), he ignores the rooftop and the tantalising glimpse of what might have been. If the Beatles had been able to put aside their differences, particularly regarding Paul’s refusal to accept Allan Klein as manager (Klein is referenced in Get Back, but you have to know a fair bit of the back-story in order to grasp the implications of John’s effusive praise of him), had continued to rehearse, and had embarked on a tour performing a selection of the material premiered in January 1969, and maybe an oldie and a cover or two if they felt like it, still with Billy on keyboards, then they would quite frankly have blown the opposition away. The Stones, the Who, the Kinks, all as great as they undoubtedly were, none of them could have touched a honed and focussed late-Beatles live, just as none of them could come close to them as innovative recording artists. Interestingly, when the Stones returned to the stage at Hyde Park later in 1969, shortly after the death of Brian Jones, following their own withdrawal from touring (even in this they had followed the Beatles’ lead), and on tour the following year, their set consisted of precisely fourteen songs…

A month wasn’t quite enough for the Beatles, and as I said they really only ‘worked’ for around two-thirds of that. And yet, in that short space of time they produced enough material for what became the Let It Be album (which I, like many others, have gained a much greater appreciation of through Get Back), premiered several of the songs that ended up on Abbey Road, and even a few that wouldn’t be heard again until the band had broken up and the solo years had begun.

Not a bad three week’s work, is it? Doug Sulpy produced a book called ‘Get Back: The Beatles Let It Be Disaster.’ Great book actually, an invaluable source of documentation of exactly what was done and when by the Beatles in that eventful first month of the final year of the sixties. But a truly terrible title. ‘Great Let It Be Miracle’ would be more apt, because no band in history could have achieved what the Beatles achieved in such a short space of time.

Some Closing Thoughts

The Beatles continued to work on the day after the rooftop, putting the final touches (minus a few contentious overdubs) to the recordings of Let It Be, The Long and Winding Road and Two of Us. And Jackson has come in for some criticism for dealing with this concluding day of the project only very briefly over the closing credits. But, in my opinion, he had no choice, given the narrative structure he, correctly, chose, he could really do no other than effectively finish with the rooftop. Quite simply, after the band finally made the live appearance, of sorts, to which the whole month, and whole project had been building, where else was there to go?

There are though I think valid questions to be asked about the decision to omit complete takes almost completely from the film. Towards the end, when the band are engaged in a take that ended up as being the take used on the Let It Be album, we are informed of this by Jackson via a caption. A nice touch. But we still don’t see the full take itself. I think this is probably a mistake. We do see full takes of Let It Be and The Long and Winding Road in MLH’s movie (a sore point with John, who was afforded no similar opportunity to sing perfectly straight to camera in the way that Paul was here), and Jackson has always been clear that he didn’t see his film as a replacement for Let It Be. So, there is an argument for avoiding repetition, and hopefully (again) we will soon see the restored, extended version of MLH’s film made available.  But still, I would have liked to have seen more complete songs from the Beatles, and less broken down or simply truncated versions. This applies not only to material that ended up on the Let It Be album. There are much loved, amongst hardcore fans at least, bootlegs that it would have been nice to have heard in full, cleaned up form. A strong case in point is the song Suzie Parker (sometimes referred to as Suzie Parlour), which I always thought was an obscure fifties cover, but is in fact a John and Paul original. Many were mystified that this was left off the Anthology 3 collection in 1996, and even more mystified that it failed to appear in the Let It Be De Lux Box Set a couple of years ago. I thought we would get at least a substantial chunk of it in Get Back yet, as with All Things Must Pass, we disappointingly get only a few tantalising seconds. This song, in my opinion, would also have been a worthy addition to their rooftop set, had they worked on it.

But these are nothing more than personal gripes really. Whatever he did and didn’t include, Peter Jackson was always going to come in for criticism from one quarter or another.

What we have got from him is a comprehensive and rounded view of a remarkable month that challenges and changes our perception of the latter part of the Beatles career, and which looks and sounds utterly beautiful. Yes, he cuts and pastes events and scenes a bit in order to fit his chosen narrative, and he even misleads those who aren’t full up to speed with this material on occasion.

But, more importantly than any of that, we get to spend real quality time with the Beatles as they worked; and what we see is a still functioning band who, whilst showing awareness that the end is perhaps not far away, are not done yet; and we learn that, despite the coming recriminations, mainly emanating from John,  team Lennon and McCartney, the greatest and most important song-writing team in history, were at this point still Lennon and McCartney, a two-person creative bubble which could not be penetrated from outside, even by fellow Beatles, a creative partnership which neither could ever successfully replicate, operating at a level of musical genius that, alone, neither of them, despite some fine work, could ever equal or surpass.

By way of conclusion, generations to come will study and dissect Peter Jackson’s Get Back. I would suggest that students of filmmaking would benefit from such a study, as well as Beatles fans and fans of music in general. Like me, those who are here for the Beatles, will have their own favourite bits and their own criticisms. But most of all, again like me, they will thank Jackson for the wonderful gift he has given to the world.

Now, what about that fourteen-hour cut Apple/Disney, and the restored, extended Let It Be?

As the man said, ‘You Can’t Have Too Much Beatles.’

Get Back is still streaming on Disney+, and is available to buy on DVD or Blu Ray in all the usual places.


(806) All Things Must Pass WAS NOT REJECTED by the BEATLES part 1| #038 – YouTube Doug Sulpy: Books, Biography, Blogs, Audiobooks, Kindle

There are a lot of Beatles podcasts out there, all of which of course have dealt with Get Back at some length. The best is probably Something About the Beatles, which has looked at the film from a variety of different angles. This is but a sample 233: The Brits’ Get Back with John Leckie, Ian McNabb and Derek Forbes | Something About The Beatles

The Inner-Groove

I couldn’t quite find the right place to fit one of my very favourite Get Back scenes into this review. That is early in part three when the band are shown reminiscing about their time in Rishikesh with the Maharishi the previous year. This is inter-cut by Jackson with some of the private footage taken by Paul and John at the time, the former of which Paul had mentioned he’d been watching the night before this discussion takes place. None of this footage had ever been seen before publicly, and it was nice to see some figures who had, by the time of the Get Back sessions, left the Beatles circle, people such as ex Paul fiancée Jane Asher (dignified Jane, the one person who has never, and will never sell her story) and John’s first wife Cynthia.  Again, we get a great meta-moment when John says that if a film of the trip is ever put out for public consumption, then he wants his two reels to be labelled ‘Produced by John Lennon.’ More than four decades after his tragic murder, Jackson of course makes John’s wish come true. I would love to see an official Maharishi and the Beatles or The Beatles in India film made (there’s been plenty of unofficial ones) using all of the footage and photographs taken by the band and their coterie, and utilising some of the earliest demos of the songs that were written there for what became the nucleus of the White Album. Paul also apparently took his daughter Stella and son James to meet the old mystic about a year and a half before his death in early 2008. Stella took video footage at this meeting too, so we could also have a bit of that…

Us Beatle uber-fans are nothing if not dreamers, though probably not the only ones.

By Anthony C Green


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Antigone: the Musical

The civil war in Thebes is over, and Antigone’s two brothers are dead. Her uncle, Creon, is now king and has declared that one of the brothers (Eteocles) will be given a proper burial while the other will be left to rot (Polynices). Anyone who disobeys his order is to be put to death, but that is not going to stop Antigone. She knows that it is her duty to bury her brother, and she is willing to risk everything – even her life – to do so. Creon is a wicked man for what he has done, ordering such an inhumane thing. Creon exposes himself as an inflexible dictator who exercises his power over the people selfishly. Antigone is heroic for standing up to him.

A fascinating musical production that packs a punch

What’s the theme? In a nutshell, it’s about a group of friends who band together to take on an unjust ruler. They’re armed with little more than their wit and courage, but they’re determined to stand up for what is right (both morally and according to the religious convention). Along the way, they learn that the power of the people can be greater than any ruler.

Why see it? Whether you’re a fan of musicals or not, this show is sure to entertain. The songs are catchy (I was humming away later to “someone’s gotta be the villain”!” and the characters are lovable (even the villain, Creon, is strangely likable). Hard Luck Musicals was established in 2021 by students Marina McCready and Felix Elliott whilst studying at the University of Cambridge. The cast, sound engineers, and musicians are young, accomplished, and passionate. Each character is developed (I was drawn to the Fool/Adviser to Creon but it is an ensemble cast).

Antigone has always been one of my favourite stories from ancient Greece. ThThat’saybe not too surprising for an old Philosophy student who did his thesis on Civil Disobedience! Antigone is a radical story about rebellion and standing up for your principles in the face of state power. This retelling embraces that. I loved the protest songs, the holding up of placards/signs, and the leaflets handed to the audience. In this retelling, the ending is different from the Sophocles original (and that’s all I’m saying as I don’t want to plot spoil!). At a time of turmoil in our own country, this ancient story is still relevant and this production packs a punch. It’ll leave you feeling inspired and ready to take on the world!

Reviewed by Patrick Harrington

Listings information

Date 15-27 August (excluding the 21st)
Venue theSpace @ Surgeons Hall – Grand Theatre (15-20th August); Fleming
Theatre (22-27th August)
Time 16:25 (15-20th August); 19:20 (22-27th August) duration 50 mins
Ticket prices £10 / concessions £8
Venue box office 0131 510 2384 /
Fringe box office 0131 226 0000 /

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Review: Medea the Musical

Medea the Musical is a show that will leave you on the edge of your seat. It’s a stripped-down version of the ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides. Four characters re-tell the story of betrayal and revenge. Euripides’ 5th century BC tragedy Medea is not a happy tale and might seem an unlikely choice for a musical adaptation. It depicts the ending of Medea’s marriage with Jason after he abandons her for king Creon’s daughter Creusa. In revenge, Medea murders Creusa and then her own sons by Jason.

A unique, thought-provoking musical experience

While the subject matter might sound heavy, the musical is actually quite funny and entertaining. The catchy songs and clever lyrics will stick with you long after the show is over. And even though it’s (partly at least) a comedy, the musical still manages to raise some important questions about love, betrayal, and forgiveness.

The audience is invited to sit as a jury as the story is told. All four characters have complex motives. Our narrator is Aegeus, a manipulative lawyer who seems to push events along and cause trouble partly out of a desire just to see what happens. Jason is a man who leaves his wife for another woman and ends up losing everything, even his faith in God. Glauce (Cruesa in the original) is Jason’s new woman who is entertainingly bitchy with some great songs and lines. And then there is Medea whose motivation and responsibility we are invited to consider. It’s thought-provoking stuff.

The cast is backed by an accomplished live music ensemble. The songs are great and move much of the action as well as explaining the vulnerabilities and motivations of the characters. I particularly enjoyed Thick Skins but there are a number of good songs drawing on different musical genres.

If you’re looking for something different at this year’s Fringe Festival, be sure to catch Medea the Musical. You won’t be disappointed.

Reviewed by Patrick Harrington

Medea the Musical
Venue 152
Paradise in Augustines – The Studio
Aug 17-20, 22-28
1 hour 20 minutes
Group: Tiny Mouth Productions

Fringe box office 0131 226 0000

Cast and Crew

Aegeus: Xander Pang

Medea: Hayley Canham

Glauce: Dixie McDevitt

Jason: Gabriel Jones

Violin: Hannah Erlebach

Cello: Beatrice Thompson

Guitar: András Droppa

Keys: Fleur Gardner-Wray

Director: Maria Telnikoff

Musical Director: Fleur Gardner-Wray

Writer: Hayley Canham

Producer: Bella Cavicchi

#edfringe @medeathemusical @ParadiseGreenUK

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Did I Ever Get the Feeling I’d Been Cheated?

Anthony C Green reviews Pistol, an FX Production, produced and directed by Danny Boyle, and written by Craig Pearce

Currently streaming in the UK on Disney+

I only subscribed toDisney+ in order to watch the Beatles Get Back last November, and only the continued existence of Family Guy and pressure from my ten-year-old son has kept me subscribed. The news that this was also to be the place to stream a new FX-made six-part drama, produced and directed by Danny Boyle, about the Sex Pistols, based on the 2016 book Lonely Boy; Tales of a Sex Pistol by guitarist Steve Jones gave me another reason to keep my £6.99 a month Standing Order current.

I was fourteen when the Pistols recorded Anarchy in the UK, fifteen at the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the height of the band’s popularity/notoriety a year, give or take, later.

And now we’ve just celebrated The Platinum of the Eternal One and I’ve suddenly hit sixty. The original Punk explosion is now so long ago that if we were to travel back in time by the same distance from now to the time it was happening, we would be in the early stages of microphone-enhanced vocals and Bing Crosby Mania.

In any case, I was never a punk. In 1977 I was in my very early stages of second-generation Beatle fandom, and mourning the loss of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. I remember liking Pistols’ single Pretty Vacant, but only in the way I liked other current hits sing-a-long hits of the time.

Only later, would I discover Punk as a moment, and Never Mind the Bollocks as one of the most important albums ever made.

It’s also one of the best. That’s what many people forget about the Pistols. Yes, they were a cultural phenomenon that changed forever the world of Popular Music (or for a long time at least, before the movement was co-opted and reincorporated back into the big business, capitalist machine, as all sub-cultures ultimately are, no matter how outwardly radical.) But they wouldn’t have become what they were to become if they hadn’t had the songs. Not many songs, it has to be said, but in the end, the short and (not so) sweet nature of their career, and the fact that there is only one proper Pistols album is soooo right.

The book on which the series is based

And the world of popular music, and entertainment in general, is all the better for stories that are perfect in and of themselves, no matter, in fact often because of, the tragic nature of the end of those stories. The Beatles had to end at the end of the sixties. Elvis had to die when and how he did; and the Sex Pistols had to produce that single near-perfect collection of songs (OK, there’s a handful of post-Lydon Pistols’ tracks you should have in your collection, Silly Boy, Something Else, My Way, but that’s still not proper Sex Pistols material.)

I limbered up for the series by watching John Lydon, Rotten as was, on a couple of lengthy podcast appearances.

He was not a happy man.

Or rather, that is to say, that he strikes me as a man who is happy, with his place in history. True, drinking wine from a pint glass, as he did during one appearance, suggests alcoholism. But he’s still working, limbering up for a new Public Image Ltd. tour, and if he is indeed an alcoholic I’d suggest it is of the high functioning variety(And I too was once such a best, so I know what I’m talking about).

But he was/is not happy about the Pistol’s series, claiming that not only was he not involved in its making, but that Danny Boyle gave him no opportunity to be properly involved, his claim, if true, IS rather scandalous.

He also mentioned several times that this Disneyfied re-telling of the Pistols’ story would trash the band’s legacy and ‘everything we had stood for.’

Arguably, the 1996 Filthy Lucre tour, the clue is in the name, did that, as did other, more short-lived reunions, but we’ll set that aside. All I’ll say here is that I like Lydon, and believe him to have many admirable qualities. Not least, the clear and unconditional love in the way he speaks of caring for his beloved Nora, mother of the late Ari Up, once of The Slits, and his wife of forty-three years, though now several years of rapidly worsening [GC1]  dementia.

But he has never been great at giving credit to his former bandmates, indicating to this day that, whatever it says on the record labels, where the whole band is listed as co-composers, he alone is really responsible for the creation of those songs. This of course particularly unfair on Glen Matlock, the most musical of the Pistols’, a fact that legend has it, and as we will soon come to, in large part led to his removal from the band and replacement by one John Simon Ritchie, AKA Sid Vicious.

And, although of course, it would have been better had Lydon been involved in its making, at least morally, we should remember that the series is actually based on Jones’ book, a fact that must be taken into account when assessing its style and quality.

It also should be mentioned that Lydon’s podcast denunciations were based only upon seeing a single, short-trailer to the series, not on the series itself, which he claimed, and as far as I l now still claims, to have never seen.

This said, is he right: Does FX/Disney/Danny Boyle’s telling of the Sex Pistols’ story really trash their legend? Is it any good?

The two things are of course not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Firstly, I have to say that the best acting performance of Pistol comes from Anson Boon as Lydon. He has him down to a tee, the strange mix of cockiness and insecurity, the manic stare that always was an act of self-parody, and has merely become more so over the years. The would-be wordsmith who is at first reluctant to share his words with the world, the jerkiness of his movements both on and off stage, the man of principle who loves being in the Sex Pistols but not at any price, the boy/man who wishes to put two fingers up to the world, whilst actually quite liking people, and caring about them.

That’s the other point: not only is Boon’s portrayal of Lydon spot on, but Lydon, despite all of his expressed misgivings about the making of the series, actually comes across as by far the most likable character in it. The caring nature that he shows today when he talks about Nora’s dementia, and his reaching out to other sufferers and carers in the same position as the two of them, is already there, in the way he cares about and tries to look out for his mate John Ritchie, and his later agonising over how his own role in re-christening of him as ‘Sid Vicious’ and promotion of him to the status of Sex Pistol (essentially in order to even up the score as far as voting power in the band went) contributed to his early self-destruction, though as Jones says in the final episode, “Sid was always going to end up like that, whether he became a Sex Pistol or not.”

Of the others, Toby Wallace puts in a good performance as the roguish Steve Jones, a young man whose compulsive thieving and shagging were really a mask donned in order to hide the chronic lack of self-esteem caused by being raised by a brutish, hateful, domineering stepdad who had made it his mission in life to drill into the young Steve that he would never amount to anything, and a weak, often drunken mother. It’s not a greatly nuanced performance, but I did find myself rooting strongly for him as he set out to learn the rudiments of guitar in four days straight, helped only by handfuls of amphetamine pills and a determination to prove his stepdad was wrong.

His upbringing also contrasts nicely with that of drummer Paul Cook (played by Jacob Slater), the product of almost stereotypically nice working-class parents for whom nothing mattered more than their son’s happiness. They even allowed Paul to keep his drum kit in their bedroom, as this was the only room in the house that allowed him the space to properly practice, despite the obvious inconvenience to themselves.

The best-known actor in the series is probably Thomas Brodie-Sangster (you’ll know him when you see him) who plays the Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren. I’ll admit I’ve never been the world’s biggest fan of McLaren, nor have I ever really brought fully into his role as Situationist-Svengali of genius, feeling that this over-emphasis of his role, which of course is largely a creation of McLaren himself in the truly terrible Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle film, and is I think bought into to a regrettable degree by Julian Temple in his The Filth and the Fury movie, a documentary which should be, but isn’t quite definitive.

But there it is. You can’t ignore Malcolm, and Brodie-Sangster gives a decent performance in his portrayal of him. A little over the top and cartoonish perhaps, but that just about suits the subject matter. Talhula Riley as his King’s Rd Sex boutique sidekick Vivienne Westwood gives a much more measured performance, and it is often her, through a word here and a look there, who exposes Malcolm’s pretensions for what they are – pretensions stolen from others. I’d have liked to have seen more of Westwood, but I’ll return to that shortly.

Of the other roles, Louis Partridge does a good job as the talentless, doomed, sadomasochistic Vicious, as does Emma Appleton as the dark, satanic, equally doomed groupie Nancy Spungen, a woman for whom it seems no one but Sid had a good word, in life or death.

And then thee of course there is Glen Matlock (played by Christian Lees). Poor Glen Matlock, the butt of the band’s jokes for the crime of ‘liking the Beatles’ and being quite good at his instrument. It is of course a cliché that he was sacked because of his love of the Fab Four, and it’s a cliché that is here mentioned early and mentioned often. The truth is, Lydon wanted him out of the band because he saw him as a threat to his dominance through being the only band member who had a justifiable claim to being at least as responsible for their greatest songs as John was. As someone once said, after Glen was replaced by Sid, the band produced their best ever photographs. They looked great. But there were no more songs.’

Yes, the ‘liking the Beatles’ gag is laboured, but Matlock comes out of the series pretty well, which is of course another reason for Lydon to hate it.

And finally, as far as acting performances go, we come to the truly vital role of Chrissie Hynde….

‘What’s that,’ you say, ‘Chrissie Hynde, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders Chrissie Hynde: what’s she got to do with the price of glue?’

I knew Chrissie had been a face on the scene at this time, as the girlfriend of legendary ‘rockist’ to use a word then current, New Musical Express, NME, ‘or ‘Enemee’ as Lydon liked to pronounce it, journalist Nick Kent. I also knew that Chrissie, an American resident in the UK, herself contributed occasional articles herself to the British music press. I also believe I was aware of the fact that she had an affair with Steve Jones, and was, briefly, a musical collaborator with Steve’s near-namesake, Mick Jones, soon to become a key member of the Clash (then trading under the name of the London SS). I also may have just about been aware that she quite fancied the gig herself as the replacement for Matlock once the decision was made to sack him. Maybe. But was I aware that her presence and sheer ubiquitous-ness within the Pistols circle made it likely that she would have at least as much screen time as the members of the Pistols themselves, probably more so in the case of Cook, in five out of the six episodes of a far-off futurist dramatisation of their story?

No, I was not aware of this, any more than anyone else was, including probably Chrissie, because I strongly suspect it isn’t true. What I do strongly suspect is that her role was beefed up in order to fulfil the apparently mandatory need for a Strong Woman character in every television drama series now made.

 If that was indeed the criteria, then actress Sydney Chandler does a good job of meeting it, being most definitely strong, and even more definitely a woman, as revealed in the more than ample sex scenes with (Seve) Jones.

But I believe that this now apparently mandatory role could have been played much better, and more truthfully, Vivienne Westwood.

Another possibility would have been to increase the screen time of punk tend-setter and fashion icon Jordan, a woman who sadly died soon before the series went to air, and at least got an episode dedicated to her.

Or what about a little more of the action for Siouxsie Siox (we do see her reciting The Lord’s Prayer, with Sid Vicious on drums, in what is generally regarded as the debut performance by the Banshees), or the girls who were soon to become The Slits, including Ari Up, daughter of the soon to become Mrs Nora Lydon?

In other words, what about showing that there were women on the scene who had a genuinely important part to play in the Birth of Punk?

Anyway, just a thought, and for those who are wondering, Chrissie also made a brief appearance in episode six too, singing a version of Brass in Pocket, almost certainly long before it was written.

Some of the above leads me to another major criticism of the series. Punk is shown as a movement of philosophical and fashion aesthetics and attitude, essentially led by McLaren, Westwood, Jamie Reed (the man behind the graphics, including the ‘Bollocks’ cover), and to some extent the band themselves, in particular Lydon. But apart from that brief snapshot of the nascent Banshees, we don’t see it as part of a wider musical movement that included The Clash, the Damned, The Slits, the highly underrated X-ray Spex, and bands that were never punks but who got their great break through the opportunities that punk provided, bands like The Jam, The Stranglers, and I suppose The Police and The Pretenders too.

So, the series lacks depth in that regard. If you want depth, I’d suggest reading Jon Savages’ excellent England’s Dreaming book, or investigating the wonderful, regionalised Messethetic collections of great bands that would never otherwise be heard, bands like The Digital Dinosaurs, Crispy Ambulance (best name for a band ever), The Homosexuals, and The Performing Ferrets Hyped to Death’s front door

Somehow, although it undoubtedly lacked depth, Pistol also managed at times to seem stretched. The main case in point here is Episode Four, Bodies. This episode is essentially an attempt to dramatise the rationale behind the macabre lyrics of the song Bodies off ‘Bollocks.’ It is apparently true that the lyrics were based on a real story, that there really was a severely mentally damaged woman called Pauline who was known to the band, and who really did carry around an aborted Foetus in her handbag for a time. But did this relatively minor Pistols track really need a whole episode in order to justify it? I’m also unsure of whether or not Pauline really was a black woman, or was this another attempt to insert another element of unnecessary diversity?

Just on that subject, we do get flashes of the undoubtedly real sense of camaraderie that existed between the punks and Ganga-smoking, reggae-listening Rastafarians. Lydon, in particular, was of course a big fan of Reggae music, a fact that showed through in parts of ‘Bollocks’, and much more so on the first two, arguably first three, excellent Public Image Limited albums.

And there was some nice attention to detail here. Lydon had a Captain Beefheart poster on his wall because that signified his real taste in music. Maybe he did listen to Iggy and the Stooges and the MC5, but he also listened to Beefheart, Peter Hamill/Van Graff Generator, Can, Faust, and the rest of the Krautrock/Musice Cosmiche oeuvre. That’s why those PIL albums sound like they do. It has been said that early PIL is essentially how the Pistols would have sounded had Lydon had his way. McLaren of course preferred a Punk Bay City Rollers, though he didn’t quite get that either.

So, that’s about it really. It’s certainly not a boring series. It has weaknesses, some of which I have highlighted. But it didn’t trash the Pistols’ legacy, and no, it didn’t leave me feeling I’d been cheated….

I have to say that I enjoyed it more the second time around too. First time, for me, there was a bit too much confusion as to who was meant to be who. For instance, I thought Jordan was Siousie Sioux first time around. I also thought initially that Pauline in the Bodies episode was Pauline Black, soon to be of the Selector, and that two random schoolgirl Pistols’ fans determined to follow the band from far away oop North, actually were two members of the soon-to-be Slits. Once these misunderstandings were overcome, it was simply easier to watch.

There was a nice vignette too from Mathew Cottle as the great newsreader Reggie Bosanquet (a man forever known to me as the man who broke the news of Elvis’ death), unapologetically buying ladies’ underwear for himself in the Sex boutique, then slipping the staff a wink at the end of New at Ten in order to let them know he was at that moment wearing his latest purchase under his regulation Newsreader attire.

One last point about the music. The actors performed the music themselves, and aside from James Slater who played Cook, who had previously fronted a band but had never played drums, none of them had any previous musical experience at all. With that in mind, they did a good job and made me forget that I wasn’t listening to the Pistols themselves.

THE highlight of the series was for the recreation, and recreation is the right word here, of the Pistols’ (in)famous Bill Grundy television series appearance. This was very well done indeed, and showed, through sticking almost word for word and frame by frame to what actually transpired, showed conclusively that it was Grundy (played by Steven Pemberton), a drunk, a local television presenter who will only ever be remembered for this moment, who very clearly and very deliberately goaded the young, naïve Pistols and their entourage into using ‘rude’ words. Lydon’s later comment that the accolade for being the first person to use the ’F’ word on British television belonged not to either he or Steve Jones, but to Irish Poet Brendan Beehan, gave Lydon another opportunity to show his literary, knowledgeable side.

I also very much enjoyed the excitement the Pistols showed, like any other young band in any genre, in crowding around a transistor radio in order to experience God Save the Queen’s inexorable rise to become the number one single that never was. The joy the band exhibited in showing the completed single of GDTQ to their families (apart from Jones’ joyless family) made me think perhaps of the Beatles probably handing around a copy of Love Me Do in a similar fashion a decade and a half earlier.

Glen might or might not have been sacked for liking the Beatles but in reality, the two bands were essentially in the same game. Yes, the Pistols may have helped rid the world of fifteen-minute guitar solos (and the Jones character got that particular cliche out the way within five minutes of the opening of episode one), but it was only temporarily, and didn’t we all, in the end, decide that there was room on this Earth for both the Sex Pistols and Rik Wakeman?

As Billy Joel would one day point out, “It’s still Rock ‘n’ Roll to me”

Anthony C Green, July 2nd, 2022.

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Top Five Beatles Podcasts

One of the joys of my lockdown/house-husband-father period, early 2020-late 2021 was the discovery of, and freedom to listen to, Beatles Podcasts. For what it’s worth, and for those who are interested, here is my personal top five.

The Beatles arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport, 7 February 1964
  1. Something About the Beatles

Presented by Richard Rodriguez, but it’s well worth going back to listen to the earlier episodes when British podcaster Richard Buskin was his co presenter. The two had an almost Lennon and McCartney like creative tension between them, and the show has never quite scaled the same heights since the seemingly irrecoverable breakdown of the relationship between the two of them a couple of years or so back.  Still, for sheer depth of knowledge and intelligent discussion, it’s hard to beat. Buskins’ solo podcast Beatles Naked doesn’t make my top five, but is certainly deserving of an honourable mention.

Something About The Beatles

  • Glass Onion on John Lennon

OK, ‘Lennon’ rather than strictly ‘Beatles’, but you can’t really have one without the other, and in any case the strength of this podcast lies in the sheer breadth of subject matter covered by presenter Antony Rotundo and his wide-ranging variety of guests. Frequently, discussions will, sometimes planned and more often not, veer off into the realms of psychology, conspiracy/alternative media, philosophy and much else beside. Its centre piece is perhaps what Antony has termed the ‘Coleman-Goldman’ debate, in other words, the question of whether or not the essence of John Lennon’s life and career is more accurately reflected in Ray Coleman’s somewhat hagiographic 1985 biography, or in Albert Goldman’s much more controversial Lives of Lennon three years later? Antony also presents Film Gold, an excellent film review podcast, and the more general, and also excellent, Life and Life Only.

Glass Onion: On John Lennon – YouTube

  • I Am the Eggpod

The most mainstream podcast on the list, in that it’s presented by Chris Shaw who has a background in more ‘old-style’ traditional media, and that many of the guests tend to be BBC/Guardian journalist types, with a smattering of musicians. Still, the usual format of taking a single album, Beatles or solo Beatles, and discussing it between track clips, almost always makes for an entertaining hour.

I am the EggPod | A jaunty stroll through Pepperland discussing The Beatles & solo Beatle albums with a pot pourri of delicious guests.

  • Things We Said Today

The first one I got into listening to and, I think, the oldest on the list. It is also the only one of my choices that doesn’t feature any audio clips at all. The three presenters are the scholarly Allan Kozinn, the former classical music critic for the New York Times, and long running American radio presenters Ken Michaels and Darren de Vivo. The opening ‘news’ section related by Michaels, which can feature items so tangential to the Beatles story as to be ridiculous, can be a bit waring, but once we get past that the main discussion is usually stimulating enough.

Things We Said Today – A Beatles radio show – YouTube

  • One Sweet Dream

Presented by Diana Erickson. The Beatles story, in particular the break up and the relationship between John and Paul told, and at very great length, from a radical feminist perspective. It can be infuriating, especially the tendency to denounce all male Beatles podcasters and Beatles authors, even the preeminent Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn, as ‘jean-jackets’, and to spend far too long correcting a ‘Lennon-centric’ narrative that was in reality demolished more than two decades ago. Nevertheless, it’s different, and It’s good. Its sister podcast is Another Kind of Mind, with Diana’s former co presenter Phoebe, which covers similar ground.

One Sweet Dream (

A review of Peter Jackson’s Get Back to follow shortly.

Anthony C Green, January 2022

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Cover Versions: Metallica – Whiskey In The Jar  

COVER VERSIONS.  Some you love & some you hate.  Many of us could probably name plenty of cover versions that have completely ruined a great, if not iconic, song.  But this isn’t about songs that have been ruined – although that might be the subject for one or two Counter Culture reviews sometime in the near future!  On the contrary, this is about a cover version that, in my honest and humble opinion, is better than the original.  

To my mind, one of the best cover versions ever has got to be Metallica’s reworking of the Thin Lizzy classic, Whiskey In The Jar.  And one of the best live performances of it is this from the House of Vans, in London from 18th November 2016.  

Metallica performing in 2017. Picture from: Kreepin Deth, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Before we start to look at Metallica’s masterful version of this classic, it’ll probably be useful to provide a little background information about the song itself.  As some folks may know, Whiskey In The Jar is a traditional Irish song, thought to have been written in the 17th century.  The song itself is set in the southern mountains of Ireland – there are specific mentions of the Cork & Kerry mountains – and tells the tale of a highwayman who is betrayed by his wife or lover.  

The Dubliners, an Irish folk band, were probably the first group to really make the song popular.  Indeed, they included it on at least two albums – More of the Hard Stuff & Live at the Albert Hall– during the 1960s.   

Whiskey In The Jar has been covered by everyone from The Seekers to Bryan Adams.  However, the first version I ever heard was by the Dublin-based rock band Thin Lizzy who really brought it to prominence to my generation when their record company – Decca– released it in November 1972  

I have a very eclectic taste in music – and art in general – but have been into heavy metal & rock since my early teens.  My memory’s not as sharp as it was, but I’ve a vague notion that I’d seen Lizzy performingWhiskey In The Jar on TV.  I presume that this would’ve been on Top Of The Popswhich in those days was essential viewing for anyone interested in music.

Like most people, I was instantly hooked on the song – especially by the crisp & intricate introduction played by Belfast-born lead guitarist, Eric Bell.  Hopefully, this clip from 1973 will illustrate his musical prowess.

(Bell was one-third of Lizzy.  The other two were Brian Downey on drums & probably the most famous of all, Phil Lynott, who was the main songwriter, lead vocalist, and bassist.)  

Years later Bell showed that he’d lost none of his skill when he appeared with Gary Moore– a songwriter & former guitarist with Thin Lizzy.  Billed as Gary Moore and Friends: One Night in Dublin – A Tribute to Phil Lynott one of the highlights included Bell playing on this version of Whiskey In The Jar. 

Now that we’ve got what amounts to the history of Whiskey In The Jar out of the way, it’s time to examine what makes Metallica’sversion just so perfect.  

Metallica was formed in 1981 by main songwriter, vocalist & rhythm guitarist James Hetfield& drummer Lars Ulrich.  Both featured on Whiskey In The Jar alongside along lead guitarist Kirk Hammett& bassist Jason Newsted.  (Newsted was replaced by Robert Trujillo in 2003 & other former members include Cliff Burton, Ron McGovney & Dave Mustaine of Megadeth fame.)  

Whiskey In The Jar was actually the 21st single released by Metallica and featured on their 1998 covers album Garage Inc. The idea behind the album was to feature songs by artists that have influenced the band.  In addition to Thin Lizzy, it features covers of tracks from the likes of Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult & Lynyrd Skynyrd.  

So what makes Metallica’s version of Whiskey In The Jar just so perfect?  

For me it’s the way that they’ve taken a classic track, put their distinctive stamp on it, and made it even better than it was before.  For those into heavy music, there’s no getting away from the fact that Lizzy is most usually associated with Whiskey In The Jar – and rightly so.  However, there’s no mistaking that this version has Metallica written all over it.  

Earlier I mentioned that the introduction to Thin Lizzy’s Whiskey In The Jar had me & many others instantly hooked.  The same could be said of Metallica’sversion – although both versions are completely different!  Indeed, Metallica did away completely with Lizzy’s‘crisp & intricate’ intro & dive straight into the song itself.  

Despite the lack of a distinctive – almost iconic – intro, as soon as I heard Metallica open the song with a thumping ‘dun, dun, dun’ I was captivated.  I’ve absolutely loved their version from the very first time I heard it.  Every time I hear it, I find myself both headbanging – although, due to old age, it’s more of a slightly vigorous nod these days – and wishing that I could play any sort of instrument.  (Singing would be an extra bonus, but I gave up on that one years ago.)  

One of the things I love about Metallica’s version is that it’s just so powerful.  I’m wondering if that’s simply because they’re a much heavier band than Lizzywere – or is there something else to it?  To me, the combined & unrelenting beat created by Robert Trujillo on bass & Lars Ulrich on drums gives it the edge.  I also think James Hetfield has an earthier – maybe even more passionate – voice than Phil Lynott had.  Hetfield’s voice is very distinctive & is well suited to the song.  

Another thing I really like about the Metallica version can be seen at the gig that was mentioned earlier –  Here, I absolutely love Hetfield’s guitar solo (starting at around 2.55) which is completely different from the Lizzy original & his later interaction with the crowd who are clapping and chanting along with him.  

For me, therefore, Metallica have made Whiskey In The Jar their own and their version is simply by far the better version.  

Reviewed by John Field   

O  CHECK OUT the lyrics to Whiskey In The Jar here. 

O  COUNTER CULTURE would really be interested to hear the views of our readers relating to the Thin Lizzy v. Metallica versions of Whiskey In The Jar.  We’d also be interested to know what you think about cover versions in general.  Are there any that improve on the original – and are there any that absolutely butcher the original?  

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Nine Below Zero – Live At The Marquee 


Nine Below Zero in action.  From left to right: Peter ‘Pete’ Clark (Bass), Kenny Bradley (Drums), Dennis Greaves (lead vocals & guitar) and Mark Feltham (vocals & harmonica).

IN THE PAST I’ve provided a few random reviews for Counter Culture.  However, it’s always been my intention (and ambition) to review as many of my own books, CDs & DVDs as is possible.  Now that I’ve got a bit of time on my hands – and I’m still looking down at the daisies as opposed to looking up at them! – I thought that now’s a good as time as any to start.  So, in the words of the Ramones, Hey Ho, Let’s Go!

With the above in mind, I thought that I’d kick off with Nine Below Zero’s brilliant CD Live At The Marquee.   

I first heard about Nine Below Zero from a friend from East London many, many years ago, probably in the early to mid 80s.  He highly recommended both the band and their live CD.  I’ve listened to it lots of times over the years and have always thought that it was probably one of the best live albums I’ve ever heard; not only does it convey the music but also seems to capture the shear energy of a live gig.  

I must admit that (at the time) I’d never heard of the band.  However, my friend had been over to South London a couple of times to see them.  He’d described how frenetic they were – effectively a Blues band that performed with the speed & energy of a Punk band.  Therefore, I’d a rough idea of what to expect on the live album.  But having an idea of what to expect & listening to the real deal are two different things.  Suffice to say that I was blown away by the CD itself.

I’ll leave the actual review of Live At The Marquee until another time.  However, I thought that it might be helpful to provide a little background information about the band themselves.   

Nine Below Zero started off life as Stan’s Blues Band in 1977 and consisted of four South London lads who found inspiration in the Rhythm and Blues.  Led by Dennis Greaves (lead vocals & guitar) the band included his schoolmates Mark Feltham (vocals & harmonica), Peter ‘Pete’ Clark (Bass) and Kenny Bradley (Drums).

Graves was obsessed by the Blues.  But to form a R&B band in the late 70s was a bold, almost reckless, move.  This was the time when Punk was exploding, and had literally blown other music genres – like R&B and Progessive Rock – out of the water.  (I think I’m right in saying that Dr. Feelgood were probably the only well-known British R&B band at the time. They’d formed in 1971 and hailed from Canvey Island in Essex and were known for their driving R&B which had made them one of the most popular bands on the growing London pub rock circuit.)

Despite the seemingly unstoppable rise of Punk, the sharply dressed Stan’s Blues Band played in local South London pubs like the Apples and Pears, the Clockhouse, the Green Man and the Thomas ‘A’ Becket.  Playing six to seven nights a week they built up a loyal following.  Like Dr. Feelgood they went hell for leather and played at a frenetic pace.  Mixing original songs with covers at their gigs, they were soon playing all over London.

Stan’s Blues Band changed their name to Nine Below Zero (they were named after a song by Sonny Boy Williamson II) on the advice of former musician Mickey Modern.  He’d seen them play at the Thomas ‘A’ Becket (in the Old Kent Road, Southwark, South London) in 1979 and was so impressed that he offered to manage them.

In a bold – but completely justifiable – move, Modern decided that Nine Below Zero’s first album would be a live one.  And so with just one change of personal (Micky Burkey for Kenny Bradley on Drums) Live At The Marquee was released in 1980.  

The album was recorded at the well-known music venue, the Marquee Club (in Wardour Street, West London) on Wednesday 16th & Thursday 17th July and was billed as a live recording.  The admission fee was £2 with a reduced rate available for students & Marquee Club members.

Apparently, it’d been an ambition of Dennis Greaves and the rest of the band to play at the Marquee – even in the capacity of a support band  Therefore, to appear as the headline act & record your first (live) album must have been out of this world.  Prior to this gig, Nine Below Zero were well known as an brilliant high energy act.  However, I’m wondering if their desire to play at the Marquee spurred them on to go the extra mile and produce such an electric album?

I feel that the CDs sleeve notes excellently conveys something of gig itself:

‘Fourteen high octane R&B monsters – including three Greaves originals Straighten Her Out, Stop Your Nagging and Watch Yourself – merged Chicago chops and cockney charm in a ferocious homebrew of adrenalin which never once seemed out of step alongside the ten regular live favourites: the aforementioned Freddie King’s Tore Down, Otis Rush’s Home Work and J Geil’s version of Pack Fair and Square line up with the John Mayall and Paul Butterfield collaboration, Ridin’ On The L&N, Lloyd Price’s Hootchie Cootchie Coo, Sam the Sham’s Wooly Bully, Muddy Waters’ Mojo Working, and Rush’s I Can’t Quit You Baby, plus Motown stalwart’s The Four Tops’, Can’t Help Myself and Marvin Gaye’s Can I Get A Witness, are all nailed down before the band signs off with their instrumental wig-out, Swing Job.’

(With the sleeve notes in mind, they were printed on thick glossy card which served as part CD sleeve cover, part poster & part information sheet about the band.)

To celebrate their 40th anniversary, Nine Below Zero released a new album in October 2019.  Unlike a lot of anniversary releases which tend to be ‘The Best Of’ albums, Avalanche refreshingly featured 12 brand new original songs.

In addition to their anniversary CD, they’d kicked off a new tour in Belfast, with many further dates set.  However, as we all now know, the world effectively stopped spinning when Covid-19 reared its ugly head.  Therefore, they had to cancel all of their gigs from mid-March onwards.  According to the band’s web-site – – their next scheduled gig is early September in Fleet, Hampshire. Here’s hoping!

Hopefully this brief potted history of Nine Below Zero has provided readers with some insight into the band.  Now the only thing to do is to review the album itself. However, as mentioned earlier (and to absolutely cement my Counter Culture reputation as the slowest reviewer in the world!) this’ll appear in the next thrilling instalment.

Reviewed by John Field 

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Better than the Beatles!

I began writing my latest novel Better than the Beatles! in early 2016, but its real beginnings were around the turn of the millennium when I purchased a book called Raw Vision, a large coffee table style tome that was essentially a compendium of articles and photographs from the magazine of the same name, a magazine that was, and is, dedicated to the subject of Outsider Art Welcome to Raw Vision Magazine | Raw Vision Magazine.

There is no fully accepted definition of Outsider Art, but the attempt by the man who first identified it as a distinct entity, the French artist and collector Jean Dubuffet, is perhaps as good as any:  

We understand by this term works produced by persons unscathed by artistic culture, where mimicry plays little or no part... These artists derive everything from their own depths, and not from the conventions of classical or fashionable art.”

 Originally, Dubuffet used the term Art Brut to denote his newly patented genre. It was the English art critic and writer Roger Cardinal who renamed it as Outsider Art in his book of the same name:

Through my reading of Raw Vision, of Cardinal and other sources, I discovered the collection of loners and misfits who made up the Outsider Art cannon, if there can ever really be such a thing, including such marginal luminaries as Adolf Wolfli, Henry Drager, Madge Gill, and Sabato Rodeo

Although Outsider Art would become an enduring interest, it was my discovery that this primarily visual art had spawned the sonic off-shoot of Outsider Music that led me to immerse myself in a whole new world of creative exploration.

It was the American Disc Jockey and writer Irwin Chusid who adopted the phrase ‘Outsider Music’ and publicised it as a distinct genre in his book ‘Songs in the Key of Z’, which was followed by an accompanying two volumes of illustrative C. D’s.

I am not without my criticisms of Chusid. For me, it was a mistake to incorporate into his book and C.D. collection such artists as Syd Barrett, Scott Walker, and Captain Beefhart, artists whom, whilst occupying a space well beyond the musical mainstream, were too well known to be classed as true outsiders. He also included material that I regard as revealing a knowing ‘so bad it’s good’ attitude that I found rather patronising. For instance, a recording of an old man suffering from dementia singing fragments of songs hazily remembered from his youth may be either sad or sweet, but it is not particularly musically interesting, and is therefore not, in my opinion, Outsider Music.

Nevertheless, it is primarily Chusid whom I must thank for my discovery of the work of the likes of Jandek, the Shaggs, and Daniel Johnston, artists who have continued to fascinate and inspire me to the present day. The first and last named of this trio have had great, niche films made about them, both of which are well worth checking out

Although a work of fiction, the movie ‘Frank’, written by Jon Ronson and based (loosely) on a combination of the stories of papier-mâché headed Mancunion outsider Frank Sidebottom and the bizarre story of the making of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s weird classic Trout Mask Replica, also gives a great feel of the nature of Outsider Music

It was however the story of The Shaggs which had the most impact upon me, and which was the catalyst for the writing of Better than the Beatles!

The Shaggs was the family name of the three sisters who initially made up the band, Dot and Betty on guitars and Helen on drums, with a fourth sister, Rachel later joining them on bass for live performances. The band were founded in 1968 in their hometown of Freemont, New Hampshire, and were set on their musical path by their father Austin Shaggs. He claimed to have done this in response to a premonition by his late mother, who had apparently correctly predicted the hair colour of the woman he would marry, and more interestingly, that the couple would have three daughters who would go on to attain musical stardom.

In response to this prediction, he took the then teenage girls out of school, bought them instruments, paid for singing lessons and encouraged them to write songs. In 1969, he paid privately for recording studio time, and for the pressing of 1000 copies of the resultant album, an album which was named Philosophy of the World after one of its best loved tracks on the album. Allegedly, the man responsible for pressing the album absconded with 900 of the 1000 copies of the album, and it’s been suggested that he, whether as a form of artistic criticism, through shame at his involvement in such a project, or for more prosaic reasons, simply dumped them. This left around 100 copies to be distributed, mostly locally and for free, by Pappa Austin.

The music of The Shaggs is perhaps best described as the sonic equivalent of a naïve-primitive painting. The ten songs on the album are conventional in structure, but are written and performed in a manner that suggests that they have been produced by ‘musicians’ who have only recently been introduced, and in a very quick and basic fashion at that, to the rudiments of melody, harmony and rhythm. In addition, the lyrics, about such topics as fidelity to one’s parents, self-acceptance, the joys of pet ownership and much else besides, have a charming, child-like quality that is a perfect accompaniment to the music.

Whilst recording their album, the producer of Philosophy of the World is said to have suggested that Austin allow his daughters more time to hone their musical and vocal skills before letting them loose in a recording studio. Austin’s response, which has gone on to become a part of Shaggs folk-lore, was to say that he wanted to catch them ‘whilst they are hot.’

Philosophy of the World would have disappeared without trace had a copy not somehow found its way into the hands of legendary muso Frank Zappa who played a couple of tracks, and professed his love for the album, whilst appearing as a guest on a radio show presented by a DJ by the name of Dr Demento in the early ‘70’s. From there, its reputation grew by word of mouth amongst lovers of left-field music, until it was eventually re-released by Rounder Records in 1980.

It should be noted here that it is Zappa who is often erroneously credited with ironically describing The Shaggs as ‘Better than the Beatles,’ the phrase that I used as the title of my novel. In fact, the phrase originally came from the headline for a Rolling Stone magazine review of the re-released album by iconic music journalist Lester Bangs.

The album was given a further boost in the 1990’s when Nirvana front-man Kurt Cobain placed it no. 5 in his list of his all-time favourite albums. This helped it to gain a CD release by RCA Victor in 1999. Its popularity/notoriety was also greatly aided by the growth of the Internet.

Initially, and until quite late on in the writing process, my novel was called triplets, which is also the name of the Shaggs-like band in the book, as well as of their sole recorded album. In addition, when I began writing the novel, I took the decision to transfer the action from small town America to the North West of England, and the time of the band’s slim recorded output from the late ‘60’s to the late ‘70’s. ‘Write what you know’ they say, and this approach also had the advantage of allowing me to work a potted history of British rock music into the narrative, from fifties rock ‘n’ roll, through Merseybeat, psychedelia, and onwards to punk/Mew Wave and the mostly localised Lo Fi ‘cassette culture’ which emerged from it MESSTHETICS: U.K. DIY/postpunk 1977-84, Hyped to Death (

Much of this was done through the character of the father Sam Curtis who, in the manner of many 1950’s British rock ‘n’ roll hopefuls, was gifted a new, larger than life name by representatives of noted show business impresario Larry Parnes, in this case Sam Singer (see real-life examples such as Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, Duffy Power et al)

 In the true story of the Shaggs, the father Austin Shagg was a key player. By all accounts, in particular by the accounts of his children, he appears to have been a driven, pushy and authoritarian figure in the manner of music biz dad’s such as Joe Jackson of the Jackson family and Murray Wilson of the Beach Boys’ Wilson clan. It’s probably no accident that the Shaggs disbanded as a band (despite some latter-day reunions once Philosophy of the World belatedly found its fan-base) in 1975, immediately following the death of their father. In my novel, Sam Curtis/Singer plays an equally key role in the story, although I did try to make him a touch more likeable and sympathetic than his real-world counterpart.

In my previous novel, Special, I drew on my twenty five years of experience as a social care worker in order to tell the story of a fictional woman with a learning disability.  In writing Better than the Beatles! I again decided to make use of this experience, by incorporating into the narrative the suggestion that the triplets have a form of high functioning autism. Although I have never seen it explicitly stated that this was also the case with the real-life Shagg sisters, my reading and observation of their public comments, their music and lyrics, and the testimony of those who worked with them suggest that this is not entirely out of the question.

Speaking of lyrics, as something of an ‘outsider’ singer/songwriter myself, although I’m not sure that one can be knowingly such, one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing the novel was my writing of excerpts of triplets songs in the naïve style of the Shaggs themselves. At one point I even considered writing these songs in full, and then seeking to find three suitable females to record them with, or perhaps one suitable female to sing each vocal in, to use a phrase that re-occurs throughout the novel, ‘near-unison’. In the end however, I decided that some things are best left to the imagination….

 I won’t give away any more of the plot. In my opinion Better than the Beatles! In my opinion, it is by far my best novel to date, a novel that I enjoyed writing very much, such that I felt a distinct sense of loss when I finally decided that it was finished. It’s a novel that I’m proud to have written, and I only hope it will find a readership. Hopefully, I won’t have to wait as long as the Shaggs for it to do so.

Anthony C Green, January 2021  

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