Posts Tagged The Beatles

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.

Links:

(806) All Things Must Pass WAS NOT REJECTED by the BEATLES part 1| #038 – YouTube

Amazon.co.uk: 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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