"The Beatles: Get Back"—an experience or memory?

It’s the holidays and once again I’m arguing with friends about the latest Beatles’ release! This time it’s about Peter Jackson’s sprawling but captivating miniseries, The Beatles: Get Back. It documents the Fab Fours’ creation of the Let It Be album, including the rooftop concert that would become their last.

For those of my generation The Fab Four seemed to dominate our Decembers, beginning in 1963 when “I Want to Hold Your Hand” jumped out of our transistor radios just before Christmas, signaling to young American teens that rock & roll was back! A year later the Beatles 65 album was released (in December 1964) and 12 months later Rubber Soul served notice that The Beatles were serious recording artists and songwriters. The week after Thanksgiving in 1967 we were presented with Magical Mystery Tour and a year later The White Album. Where I lived, snow dropped when a new Beatles’ record dropped.

This time there was a five-decade gap between the previous and the latest Beatles’ holiday release, but no matter. We Beatlephiles are a patient bunch. It was welcome news when Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson volunteered to open the Beatles’ vault and comb through 55 hours of film and 120 hours of sound recordings from 18 days in January, 1969, as the band rehearsed for an album and live concert. Their hour-to-hour work and chatter—ruminating, gossiping, joking, teasing, venting—was all there for Jackson to happily cherry pick. The result is The Beatles: Get Back, a nearly eight-hour documentary now streaming on Disney+ (for a mere $8 a month).

A small portion of this audio and video appeared in the Let It Be film that was released in May, 1970. But that documentary was a sanitized 80 minutes. This one is an untidy 468 minutes, including hours of conversing, songwriting, arranging, jamming—plus the entire rooftop concert at Apple Corps headquarters that disrupted central London for 42 minutes.

Some less-than-fanatic viewers have complained that the doc could have used heavy editing. (I was never asked to help, but I'll get over it.) Yet every time I thought of fast forwarding the doc the band would begin work on a song fragment that was instantly recognizable as another Beatles’ classic-in-the-making—e.g., “Get Back,” “Let It Be,” “Across the Universe,” “The Long and Winding Road.”

The big surprise from this documentary, as you may have heard, is these lads were actually having fun together. They were not a miserable bunch of grumps, despite their own characterizations of this period later. Now some dissension did surface. George Harrison—having been marginalized by John Lennon and Paul McCartney for years but now feeling validated after playing with Dylan and The Band in Woodstock—chafes at Paul’s micromanagement of his playing. “I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play.” He finally walks out on January 10. Later John tells Paul how they might deal with it. “I think if George doesn’t come back by Monday or Tuesday we ask Eric Clapton to play.”

But George’s departure is temporary and he returns with a more sanguine attitude. The Beatles move their rehearsals from the cold, cavernous Twickenham Film Studios to their new Apple Studios, which enhances their mood considerably. When old friend and keyboardist Billy Preston drops by at George’s invitation, they immediately put him to work for the remaining rehearsals. The band moves into an even higher gear as a five-piece unit.

Yet, to my ears, from the beginning of January the band was already playing better in the studio than they had in the past. (They had stopped touring almost two and a half years earlier.) Though Paul had long been a consummate musician, his bandmates—especially George, but also Ringo and John—were finally coming into their own as skilled players and were better able to enhance each other’s musical ideas. They were developing songs together (though in fits and starts) in ways they weren’t capable of previously. They were approaching a creative peak, according to some critics, that they eventually reached in the Abbey Road sessions in the months that followed.

The perception of the curmudgeonly Beatles in perpetual conflict before and during the Get Back sessions was created in part by the acrimonious breakup of the band 15 months later. That’s when they found themselves in times of trouble. The Let It Be album and documentary were released within a month of Paul suddenly announcing his departure from the band in April 1970. The depressing breakup narrative seemed to permeate that album and film, accompanied by discouraging statements by band members at the time. It wasn’t helped by John, George, and Ringo’s embrace of the unscrupulous Allen Klein as the Beatles’ new manager. Or by Klein asking producer Phil Spector to finish off the Let It Be album. Both moves served to alienate Paul—and in retrospect he was right to resist. (Klein was eventually sued by the remaining Beatles and Spector’s syrupy production of the Let It Be tracks was considered an artistic disaster by critics.) The band WAS a mess by spring 1970.

To make sense of the disconnect between the mostly joyful creativity on display in the Get Back documentary and the dismal recollections of it by the lads themselves, I turn to Daniel Kahneman, the acclaimed hedonic psychologist and behavioral economist. Kahneman is famous for drawing a distinction between the experiencing self, who is aware of only the present moment, and the remembering self, whose memory of an event can be much different, based on an after-the-fact story constructed about it. Thus the Beatles can come across as actively engaged in their Get Back rehearsals, while over a year later, in the throes of their mutual divorce, they mostly remember the disputes.

By analogy: when you look back on a particular period of your life (perhaps your childhood or your college years) might you remember it less glowingly—or more glowingly—than you actually experienced it at the time?

Now for the few of you who wonder what this fuss is all about and who consider The Fab Four something only your parents or grandparents listened to, what can one say? After all, this is a band that played its last note over 51 years ago.

Well, I can only assert that this working-class band of Liverpool rockers was the only pop music act in history that was simultaneously the BIGGEST and the BEST. In fact, this is still true. They have sold over a billion units—far exceeding any other rock or pop artist—and they've won more critical success than anyone else. No other act has matched their artistic innovation or commercial success as I’ve argued here.

But to get back to Get Back... let me highlight a few surprises from the documentary.

    All Together Now. There was a total absence of “this is MY song” in how they rehearsed or jammed. John and Paul often traded lead vocals on each other’s tunes. Hearing Paul riffing on the vocal of John’s “Strawberry Fields Forever" was wonderfully unexpected. Or watching John helping Paul with the lyrics on “Two of Us.” John and Paul had often written songs together “eyeball to eyeball” in years prior, but it was refreshing to see them fully engaged in it again—despite the distractions of audio and video crews buzzing around them. Also, there was John helping George (in “Something”), George helping Ringo (in “Octopus’s Garden”), and even roadie Mal Evans helping Paul (in “The Long & Winding Road”). At times if we didn’t know how the finished product would turn out we couldn’t have guessed whether a song was John’s or Paul’s. We saw none of the rancorous competitiveness between them that was in evidence after the band’s breakup.

    Tomorrow Never Knows. The Beatles appeared indecisive about any plans for the future. Would their rehearsals lead to a live concert, a documentary film, a TV special—in addition to a new album? They all agreed they had lost their rudder after the death of manager, Brian Epstein (always referred to as “Mr. Epstein”), who had guided them from the beginning of 1962 through the summer of 1967. And within the band, John—who was the undisputed leader in their early days—had become notably passive and almost indifferent about the band’s future (though he loved playing music in the present), possibly due to the domestic tranquility he was experiencing with bride-to-be, Yoko Ono. Or maybe he was just high a lot?

    Here, There and Everywhere. By 1969, despite rumors to the contrary, the band members seemed ok with Yoko becoming a permanent appendage to John wherever he went, including to band rehearsals. When John/Yoko were absent at one point, Paul stuck up for her: “She’s great, she really is all right…and he’s not going to split with her just for our sakes.” Speaking words of wisdom, he said it would be funny if historians in 50 years said, “They broke up because Yoko sat on an amp.”

    Money, That’s What I Want. It was amusing to hear the Beatles lament that despite their name they couldn’t get free musical gear or discounted rates. (This is comforting to hear for many musicians who have tried in vain to get deals on music equipment.) George complained that the band couldn’t even get a free guitar amplifier from Fender!

    I Should Have Known Better. John raves to George and later to Beatles’ engineer Glyn Johns about his first meeting with Allen Klein, who would eventually become the new manager of the band. “Incredible guy,” John gushes. Glyn offers a much less rosy assessment of Klein, but it fell on deaf ears. Anyone knowing the havoc Klein would wreak on the remaining career of The Beatles has to cringe at these scenes. (Rolling Stone would ominously report that the moment John meets Klein, “The Titanic has just grazed the iceberg.”)

    Let It Be. The scenes of the rooftop concert and the placid police response to the noise complaints were more detailed and entertaining than in the Let It Be movie. It was fun to witness how diplomatic and deferential the London Metropolitan Police were to The Beatles' reps. As one young constable told the doorman at Apple, “I don’t mind the noise … personally … but we’ve had about 30 complaints.” The bobbies certainly looked serious and protested to anyone who would listen, yet it took them forever to demand rooftop access and to eventually shut down the 42-minute concert! (I can personally attest that this level of understanding by law enforcement would not have happened in that period of history in Los Angeles!) As a side note, there were reports of many toilets flushing throughout the Apple building when the police arrived.

    Do You Want to Know a Secret? And, in the end, we may have finally found the hidden-in-plain-sight formula of Beatle success: John and Paul’s two-part vocal harmony. The not-so-secret sauce. It was omnipresent in their jamming and rehearsing throughout the movie—not always pitch-perfect but uncannily well blended (which can hide many imperfections). If Paul yawned out loud, John would harmonize it. After all, they had been singing together since 1957. 12 years is a lifetime in rock & roll.

Well, that’s all for now. But in case you were about to blurt out, “Don’t leave me standing here,” I should add the rumor I heard that Peter Jackson was considering an 18-hour director’s cut of Get Back! Unfortunately (or fortunately) I can report it was a ruse. So this may be it on the Get Back sessions.

Oh, one last thing: Apple Corps released in October an impressive coffee table book—also entitled The Beatles: Get Back—to accompany the film. It includes nearly 500 glossy pix of the rehearsals and rooftop concert (thanks to the photography of Ethan Russell and Paul’s wife-to-be, Linda Eastman) plus transcriptions of more-juicy intra-band dialogue. Though I recommend it, you might need a roadie to carry it around. (It’s 4.37 pounds, 240 pages, and $36, so it’s not for the fair-weather Fab fan.)

(For business lessons from The Beatles, check out here, here, and here.)


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16 Comments

  1. Nice work, John. You might want to look at an article in the October 18 "New Yorker," by David Remnick. He makes some of the same points about the doc, but his focus is more on McCartney.

    1. Yet despite the Beatles' fame, I feel their songwriting is under-appreciated by many today — especially Gen Y, Z, and Alpha.

  2. Excellent review, John. Witty, personable, right on target, and a pleasure to read.

    Good work giving each item of the “a few surprises” section a song title.

    I was similarly impressed with the level of restraint shown by the London bobbies at the rooftop concert.

    Very relevant to remind us of the distinction noted by Daniel Kahneman between the experiencing self and the remembering self.

    1. I was playing in bands in LA for much of 1968 and 1969 and we had lots of run-ins with the LAPD. Sometimes they showed up at our home with guns drawn if we were rehearsing too loudly. Other times when we were playing on Sunset Strip and were walking down the street between sets they'd drive up on the sidewalk, jump out of their cars, and tell us to go home. So when I saw the London police gently admonishing the Apple staff to see if the band could tone it down "upstairs," I had to chuckle.

  3. 18 hours of Get Back is next????? You'd have to take a vacation to watch the whole thing. Who has that kind of time?

      1. Um... you DO know that's a joke web site, right? From the site:

        About Screen Idle

        Screen Idle is a satirical website that publishes satire, silliness, spoofs, and something else that would be alliterative.

        To be clear, everything is made-up and there will be nothing factual or useful here. I just hope it raises a smile, laugh or occasional guffaw.

        Obviously.

        1. Thanks, Ed. Yup, I got punked. I WANTED to believe it, so when someone told me about it I skimmed the site and grabbed the highlights. My bad.

  4. Dr. Kahneman nails it. His observations are brilliant and the Beatles provide us a terrific example of the gap between experiencing self and remembering self.

    1. Kahneman's distinction is such a practical one and so widely applicable. I recently came across letters I sent my mother from college (a few short years ago!) and immediately noticed the difference between what I was going through at the time (my experiencing self) and how I characterized that whole period (my remembering self) decades later. I'm now more skeptical of my "stories" of childhood, my schooling, etc. And perhaps what I remember of my rock & roll life after college is rosier than I experienced at the time. While the Beatles' example is one of a harsher reconstruction of a past experience, it often works the other way as well. The "remembering self" can forget the painful experiences of a particular time which the "experiencing self" had to deal with. Might be useful to dig into more deeply in a future post.

  5. Hey John, Really enjoyed your piece. Very well said. Yeah it struck me that they were getting along a lot better than what was known. I think they remained good friends all through their time together. They had fun also, always joking around. The singing was always so good, they had the harmonies down. I think they worked out harmonies when they were writing the songs. Also during these sessions. Paul said the writing sessions were 3 hours long.
    Anyway so glad this came out.

    1. Yes, they had the harmonies down. Always interesting and always well-blended. And they seemed to push themselves to the highest key possible. They also perfected the art of harmonizing to themselves when that sounded best (like Paul harmonizing to himself in "All My Loving").

  6. After watching the documentary this weekend, I'd have to say the material they were writing and recording at that time has been underappreciated. There are timeless classics on the Let It Be album, like "The Long and Winding Road." The LP was probably overlooked for the reasons you mentioned. The fans were disappointed by the break-up and infighting which tainted their appreciation of the album. And Phil Spector's production of the album just wasn't up to Beatles standards.

    1. Yeah, the Let It Be album has turned out to be the runt in the Beatles’ litter—undeservedly. TLAWR is one of McCartney’s greatest songs. Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys (one of a tiny handful of McCartney songwriting peers at the time) said it was his all-time Beatles favorite. I think that tune (along with the other jewel on the album, “Across the Universe”) didn’t get a proper showcase because it was basically an unfinished demo. (Lennon played a half-assed bass part on it that no one wanted to go back and fix.) That left producer Phil Spector the job of putting lipstick on a pig and he overdid it with the syrupy production. (He DID have a tough job working with unfinished tracks though.) But the song itself is brilliant.

      Likewise, with “Across the Universe.” That contained lyrics that Lennon considered his best. But it too was basically a rough demo.

      Sometimes it takes the passage of time to be able to recognize a great SONG as distinct from a mediocre TRACK. The Beatles usually produced great tracks with their songs, but not always.

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