I may have mentioned that I’m quite the Beatles nerd, so I’m very much the target audience for Peter Jackson’s Get Back. That said, for all I’d listened to, read and absorbed about these sessions, I had pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that turned out to be more richly detailed than I’d imagined. The picture was different and more beautiful too.
Spending so much time in close quarters with Paul, John&Yoko, George and Ringo had a cumulative effect. By the time they were singing atop the Apple building, my emotions were tingling. I even liked “One After 909.”
The totality of this thing got me thinking: Why does this mean so much to me? I was too young to experience the Beatles as they were happening; my musical consciousness arrived during the Wings era, and I embraced the Beatles in retrospect.
But I fell hard for it, listening to their music until I had absorbed it in my bones. I also devoured everything I could that was Beatles related. I would study books such as Roy Carr and Tony Tyler’s The Beatles: An Illustrated Record, Nicholas Schaffner’s The Beatles Forever, Ron Schaumburg’s Growing Up with the Beatles (a goofy one, but I cared about this guy's impressions too) and Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik’s All Together Now, a pre-internet discography detailing everything the band released up to 1975.
Weirdly, when there was talk of a Beatles reunion, I didn’t want it to happen. I related to the Beatles as a myth, something that occurred in ancient times despite how recent it actually was. I couldn’t imagine John and Paul doing anything together because I’d never seen that reality—and after Dec. 8, 1980, that wasn’t a possibility.
My fear, I guess, was that they couldn’t create such magic once again, so they shouldn't spoil their legacy. I was young and was worried about such myths.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought more and more that of course it would’ve been nice to see John and Paul or all four of them play together in public again. (John and Paul did participate in an infamous, addled all-star in-studio jam in L.A. in 1974, but the results weren’t grand.) What if they’d taken up Saturday Night Live on their reunion offer, as Paul said he and John almost did?
The Beatles playing music together, regardless of whether it reached their highest standards, would have been all about the human side, not the mythology. That’s the side I’ve come to appreciate more and more—and the side that’s spotlighted in Get Back.
In this series we spend almost eight hours in studios and on a rooftop with four people who happened to be making some of the most impactful music ever, yet they’re not conscious of the larger-than-life repercussions as they weigh words and chord changes. When George Harrison is playing “Something” for the others while trying to nail down some key lyrics, no one says, “Wow, George, that may be the most gorgeous melody you’ll ever write. Frank Sinatra will call it ‘the greatest love song of the past 50 years,’ and it’ll be the second-most-covered Beatles song after ‘Yesterday.’” To them it’s just another Beatles song, just as “Let It Be,” “The Long and Winding Road” and “Dig a Pony” are.
This is what they do: make Beatles songs. They also smoke (a lot), fart (and fess up, as the honorable Ringo does), argue passionately for their artistic points of view but don’t want to appear like jerks. They’re human.
Get Back forces us to set aside the mythology and to see these four musicians attempting to be creative despite endless distractions and intense attention. They deal with bad advice, faulty equipment, poor planning and tight deadlines just as the rest of us do.
Then they make some of the most beloved music the world has known—as well as some songs that are just OK. That all of this was achieved by mere people, in their mid-20s no less, may be the most inspiring message of all.
2. There’s a heartbreaking scene late in Part 3 in which George tells John and Yoko that he’s written so many songs that it’ll take forever to get them on Beatles records, so he’d like to do a solo album to showcase who he is. John and Yoko encourage this idea, and George suggests each of the Beatles could do solo work yet still come together to record as a band.
This was the Beatles’ alternate path: They deal with having grown in different directions by pursuing separate projects while keeping the Beatles going. Perhaps John would have been amenable to such an arrangement; although later in 1969 he told the other Beatles he was leaving, he never pulled the trigger (albeit under management's advice), and, as Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn revealed to the Guardian a couple of years ago, he proposed a post-Abbey Road album in which he, Paul and George each would have contributed four songs. Was he hedging his bets?
The Beatles break-up became official only when Paul announced the split—and enraged John in particular—in a self-interview included in British promotional copies of his McCartney solo debut in April 1970. The movie and album of Let It Be were released amid these bad vibes the following month.
You can see in Get Back that the artistic paths of Paul, John and George are diverging, but George’s suggestion makes clear that a complete split wasn’t the only option. Maybe they could have worked something out if not for the person who, one might argue, actually broke up the Beatles…
3. No, it wasn’t Yoko. I’d thought that John was responsible for the break-up given that he told the other Beatles he was leaving and later expended much energy in trashing the Beatles mystique.
But another person came between him and Paul, and he makes a few fateful off-camera appearances in Get Back:
The aggressive Rolling Stones manager had set his sights on the Beatles as the ultimate client. When Paul leaves the studio for an appointment days before the rooftop concert, John shares with the others that he’s meeting with Klein and is impressed already. John is even more gung-ho about the New Yorker after hanging out with him late at night.
Glyn Johns warns John that Klein is a strange guy, and you can sense the engineer’s reluctance to overstep his bounds in relaying his negative impression. But John has been won over, and Ringo says he’d finally like to have a conman on their side. That’s what they get.
Not seen is the conflict that eventually would erupt when John, George and Ringo want to sign with Klein, and Paul refuses, insisting instead on being represented by his about-to-be in-laws Lee Eastman (Linda’s father) and John Eastman (her brother). You can see why the other Beatles wouldn't want to be managed by Paul’s new family, but Paul proved to be right about Klein, whom the other three placed in charge of the Beatles’ affairs over Paul’s objections.
Ultimately everyone sued everybody (spawning George’s 1973 song “Sue Me, Sue You Blues”), with John, George and Ringo as well as the Stones turning on Klein amid accusations of financial mismanagement. Klein wound up serving a brief prison sentence on a tax-evasion charge while the Beatles’ legal and financial entanglements became a huge barrier to a reunion.
4. One big difference between Let It Be and Get Back is that Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s documentary, although presented mostly chronologically, comes off as a series of impressions, often dreary ones, while Get Back offers an actual narrative.
In Let It Be the Beatles wind up performing on the Apple rooftop, but there’s no sense of how they got there or why. Get Back, with its progression of X’d out calendar dates, makes clear that the group was working toward some culminating event, though the nature of it keeps changing in the days (and even minutes) leading up to the performance.
Get Back also tells the story of a band whipping itself into shape. In Part 1 a gaunt John comes across as passive and stoned, contributing little music and few ideas as Yoko sits silently at his side. By Part 3 he looks healthier and is more energetic and engaged, a worthy foil again to the supercharged McCartney.
George also perks up as the sessions progress, and Ringo no longer appears on the constant verge of a golden slumber. The combination of George’s departure and return, the move out of Twickenham Film Studios, the addition of keyboardist Billy Preston and the approaching deadline transform the band. It’s no wonder that the strongest performances of “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Dig a Pony” and “One After 909” come on the rooftop.
This momentum would carry into the making of Abbey Road, their last (and my favorite) album. Compare, for instance, the energy level of an earlier Let It Be version of “She Came in Through the Bathroom” (as featured on Anthology 3) to the one that appeared on Abbey Road.
5a. Get Back runs over 468 minutes, almost six times the length of length of the 80-minute Let It Be, yet Peter Jackson’s series doesn’t include everything that was in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s documentary. I don’t recall seeing Paul’s painstaking instructions to a bristling George about how to play the descending guitar notes of “I’ve Got a Feeling” or the John-led version of “You Really Got a Hold on Me.” We also don’t get Paul’s laughing versions of “Besame Mucho” and a cha-cha “The Long and Winding Road.”
Let It Be also includes, out of sequence, the full performances of “Two of Us,” “The Long and Winding Road” and “Let It Be” filmed in the Apple basement the day after the rooftop concert. Jackson includes snippets of these over the Get Back end credits.
Now that they’ve gotten their preferred version of the story out, it’ll be interesting to see whether the surviving Beatles ever make Let It Be available again.
5b. Also not covered in Get Back or Let It Be is the tortured path that the album Let It Be took to its release more than 15 months after the initial sessions ended. This is well documented, so I don’t need to go on about it here, but it’s too bad the band, with George Martin’s help, couldn’t finish Get Back/Let It Be before moving on to Abbey Road.
Glyn Johns made questionable choices in terms of song and take selection for his murky mixes, which the band rejected. The Phil Spector version does fine on the straightforward numbers (“Two of Us,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Dig a Pony,” “One After 909”) but smothers “The Long and Winding Road,” “I Me Mine” and “Across the Universe” in strings and choirs and renders the album incoherent.
As I noted previously, the band members were spread awfully thin in 1969, so they likely had little energy to deal with these tapes. You reach the end of the Get Back series thinking you’ve watched the Beatles get it together to record a strong album after all, and that’s not how things turned out.
5c. The rooftop concert is great, legendary and all that, setting the stage for countless bands’ stunt public performances. But imagine how it might have been with a little…you know…planning. They had obvious constraints involving the rooftop’s capacity as well as Lindsay-Hogg’s desire to get optimal takes of each performance.
Still, if you were programming this event as the band’s first concert in almost two-and-a-half years (and, it turns out, their last), would you really include two performances each of “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “Don’t Let Me Down,” three performances of “Get Back” and one of “Dig a Pony” and “One After 909”? It probably would’ve been impossible for them to get a piano onto the roof (though Preston’s electric piano made it), but can you imagine having a fully rehearsed “Let It Be” in your back pocket and choosing not to play it for all of Central London?
I would have loved to see the faces on passerby as they heard “Let It Be” for the first time, as opposed to “Dig a Pony.” That might’ve even stopped the bobbies in their tracks.
For my "Five takeaways from 'Get Back' Part 1," click here.
For my "Five takeaways from 'Get Back' Part 2," click here.