GET BACK – The Beatles

Written by Adam Porges
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I was 9 in 1969, my older sister and I adored The Beatles, my rosy memory is of at least one of their films being shown on television during every Christmas school holiday.

Our dad brought us home a numbered copy of the ‘White Album’ when it came out the previous year and we both knew every word of every song on all 4 sides. Like so many, I remain a lifelong fan.

I sat and watched ‘Get Back’ Peter Jacksons' recently broadcast three-part, eight-hour documentary mostly with a wide grin on my face uttering the word ‘fantastic’ at pretty regular intervals. Amongst such pleasure though also huge feelings of nostalgia during an emotional roller-coaster, but what fascinating viewing it makes. Jackson has edited his footage down from 60 hours of film and 150 hours of audiotape that has, quite incredibly, been sitting on the shelf for the past 52 years. The vast majority of the finished product is of the band in the studio interacting during the rehearsal of new songs, some of them repeatedly, so it is certainly for the more devoted and Beatles curious and not the casual observer, for me, it was totally captivating from start to finish.

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It’s new year January 1969, The Beatles haven’t performed live since 1966, but on the back of the pleasure they had from performing Hey Jude with a live TV audience at Twickenham Studios the previous summer, the idea has been hatched to do a live TV Special with the rehearsals and build up being filmed as a documentary. We find the band, looking somewhat unkempt, holed up back at a cold vacuous Twickenham with no studio equipment just instruments and amps. The aforementioned documentary is to be directed and filmed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and a young dapper Glyn Johns has been brought in as sound engineer. Later many of the songs crafted and recorded during what will become known as the ‘Let it Be’ sessions will end up in some form on the same-titled final Beatles album that was released in May 1970, a year after the Abbey Road LP.

It’s worth having a brief reminder of how much had happened in the short period of time preceding this; remarkably it is only 18 months since ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ was released in June 1967, two months later Brian Epstein had been found dead in his London flat and at the end of ‘67, the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ film and double EP were released. In Spring ‘68 The Beatles took off for their infamous hiatus to India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and in August they have a huge worldwide hit with Hey Jude, November the ‘White Album’ is released, and here we are just 5 weeks later. It's only five short hectic years since ‘Please Please Me’ came out!

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The backdrop unfolding is that there has been no agreement or decision taken as to where the live performance is going to take place, the fast realisation is that the studio where they had had such fun with the Hey Jude audience is not going to be suitable largely due to terrible acoustics. Wide-ranging ideas are mooted, such as Lyndsay-Hoggs's idea of playing in a coliseum in Libya, to ocean liners with an audience at sea or on the top of Primrose Hill in London. There is also a three-week deadline to contend with due to various other individual commitments. Meanwhile, as viewers, we get to sit in with the band as they interact and rehearse. The sheer intimacy and quality of the footage is astounding, it takes a while to get used to the initial excitement that you are in effect going to be sitting in the same room with the Fab Four for the next 8 hours.

Very early on it is apparent that The Beatles are not currently much of a ‘group’ at all, they are individually in very different places and completely lacking leadership. Epstein has not been replaced (tellingly they still refer to him as Mr Epstein), and George Martin though partly present is playing a bit part in favour of Glyn Johns. Paul McCartney, bearded and brimming with music and ideas is desperately trying to hold things together and get some collective focus, asking the others how they feel and what they want but they are all by now on separate paths. Lennon, constantly shadowed by Yoko Ono and besotted with each other looks like he has already left the band, very obviously stoned most of the time and arriving late after the previous night’s shenanigans. His famous humour, quips, and silliness though is there to see and are wonderful to experience first-hand, he was clearly a genuinely funny man. That isn’t to say when he does plugin and get into his stride he isn’t magnificent, this is after all John Lennon.

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George Harrison has moved on considerably too; at the outset, we see odd Hare Krishna mates of his hanging around the studio. Musically though is the most telling, he is ready for a shift in dynamics in the group and it is evident that Paul and John aren’t either able or more likely willing, to embrace his clearly burgeoning songwriting talent. Lennon in particular is openly scathing of some of George’s quite beautiful singing and playing as he gives them a taste of ‘I Me Mine’ and ‘All Things Must Pass’. His frustration is compounded furthermore by McCartney’s overpowering dominance on all arrangements including his own lead guitar parts. He snaps after one particularly unproductive session during which Lennon and McCartney have been messing about for hours on end completely ignoring his songs, he simply unstraps his guitar, announces he is leaving the band, and walks out.

Not to forget lovely Ringo in all of this who remains utterly charming throughout, if a bit sad at times, probably painfully aware the end of The Beatles is so evidently nigh but helpless to do much about it other than just be Ringo and enjoy it while it lasts.

Following a couple of ‘clear the air’ band meetings, the live tv special idea is abandoned and they decide to leave Twickenham and decamp back at Apple Offices in Saville Row and set up a recording studio in the basement with the help of ever-reliable George Martin. Happily, Harrison agrees to return, not only that but arrives back wearing some wonderful attire, always the coolest Beatle, there are few that can carry off a pink pinstripe suit and purple shirt combination with Converse boots, George does so effortlessly.

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But now here’s the thing, amid the discord lies the real surprise in Jackson’s film, as contrary to what history and the stories have led us to believe and taking all the above into account, it evidently wasn’t all acrimony and bitterness, far from it. It's striking in fact how well the band are able to work together and how tolerant, patient and convivial they are with each other considering how fragmented things had become. One of the real delights amongst many is to observe Lennon and McCartney’s obvious love for each other, which despite all they have been and will go through is still so apparent, just a look and a smile (and there are plenty of both) between them whilst jamming an improvised cover of stuff from the Hamburg and Cavern Club years says it all, it’s joyful to behold.

Paul’s genius is in full focus, as the days are ticked off we witness moments of sheer magic, to see him seemingly construct ‘Get Back’ from scratch while strumming his bass is breath-taking stuff, and as the others join in its nothing short of spine-tingling. It’s a similar experience whilst jamming ‘I’ve got a Feeling’, and him hitting full voice as John joins in with his ‘everybody had a bad year’ etc parts. The Long and Winding Road and Let it Be being tried and tested in front of our very eyes, I could go on. There are so many wonderful side moments too, I particularly enjoyed the clapper operator standing alongside the piano as Paul nonchalantly plays ‘Martha my Dear’ and explains that all songs come from just a few chords, also Ringo arriving one morning and after a ‘Morning Paul’, Morning Ritchie’ exchange they laughingly improvise an excellent four-handed boogie-woogie on the piano, just great mates and so lovely to witness.

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But there is evidently something the band needed to give it a spark and it comes with the arrival of Billy Preston who happens to be in London, and who they know from the Hamburg days, and in a brilliant move has been drafted in. His electric piano accompaniment on gloriously captured versions of ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ and ‘Don’t Let me Down’ immediately galvanises the room which is suddenly united in smiles, John quips, ‘You’re in the group’. It’s the moment of the film. Come together. Game on.

As we all know the decision is finally taken to do the culminating live performance on the rooftop of the Apple offices at No 3 Saville Row and in the film we get its full 42 minutes, with Preston in tow it’s unsurprisingly a great performance in front of a few lucky neighbours and Apple personnel.

One of the striking features from the rooftop gig footage are the clips and interviews shot from the streets below and in how much London’s population and its demographic has changed in 50 years. In 1969 we were still a pretty even mixture of bowler-hatted gents, plummy middle-class accents, and cor-blimey boys and girls. Meanwhile, The Beatles high up in the sky above look absolutely timeless. The gig is famously shut down by the police for causing noise disturbance and crowding.

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In a telling scene on the eve of taking to the roof, there is a band meeting with Martin and Lindsay-Hogg where there still remained a complete diversity of opinion on what the past few weeks labours were to become.

A mention of some of the bit-part characters that I particularly enjoyed; Jimmy, Apple’s mod ‘doorman’ who we later see in the background on the roof having abandoned his post (good move Jim, I bet Debbie the receptionist wishes she had done the same!). PC Ray Shayler, now 77 years old and the first copper on the scene, who said retrospectively he wasn’t that bothered about it being The Beatles and if it had been The Stones he might have been more interested! Some other wonderful turns are road manager Mal Evans with his infectious smile, who not only manages to produce a hammer and anvil but the sheer pleasure on his face when he gets to strike it during the rehearsal of ‘Maxwells Silver Hammer’ is a beautiful moment, and last but not least young ever-present Kevin the gofer, I was interested to read that he had a book out a while back called ‘Who’s the redhead on the roof…?’.

‘Get Back’ with ‘Don’t Let me Down’ on its B side was the first single to enter the UK charts at No 1, it spent 6 weeks in that position and was also No 1 in fifteen other countries.

‘Let it Be’ the album was released in May 1970 around a month after the Beatles had broken up for the final time. It was in fact remixed and produced by Phil Spector, Glyn Johns describing it later as "a syrupy load of bullshit".

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Michael Lindsay-Hoggs TV documentary was abandoned and instead made into a feature film titled ‘‘Let it Be’. It was not particularly well-received by critics or The Beatles themselves, the edit shows McCartney in a particularly dominant fashion which added very much to the myth that the sessions were such a dark time. This film seems to show a different mostly happier story, though of course, we may never know what was chosen not to be used.

Peter Jacksons'‘ Get Back’ is such a lovely present, it’s a thoroughly absorbing time capsule capturing a unique and magnificent band, I loved going back and being right there.

Read 872 times Last modified on Monday, 17 January 2022 16:40
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Adam Porges

Adam Porges

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