Peter Jackson’s three-part Beatles mini-series Get Back debuted today on the Disney+ streaming service. It’s a revisionist history that reworks the hours of footage that was shot for the Beatles’ 80-minute long Let It Be movie, which originally debuted in 1970. For decades, that film was only seen in grainy VHS-scanned bootlegs. (I bought my VHS copy around 1983 when I saw it in a remainder bin, and eventually transferred it to a DVD-R disc about a decade ago.)
The murkiness of early-‘80s videocassettes only added to the gloom most Beatles fans associate with Let It Be, the last album and film released by the Beatles. As the hosts of the Beatles Naked podcast noted in late October in an segment titled “Let It Be 2021 Review — Take a Bad Film and Make it Better,” that 1970 documentary, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg (who may or may not be the son or Orson Welles), suffered from a lack of narrator, title cards, or any explanation of what we’re seeing and where it’s taking place. The film began at Twickenham Film Studios, and then a third of the way into documentary shifted to the Beatles’ custom-built studio in their Apple Corps building on Savile Row, and then concluded with the legendary concert on the building’s roof — but we’re never told the purpose of the change of locations.
The opening music was Paul McCartney playing Samuel Barber’s gloomy “Adagio for Strings” on piano, which helps to set the original movie’s funeral tone. And one of its first shots was of Beatles roadie Mal Evans removing the famous Beatles drop-T embossed drumhead from Ringo’s bass drum. This was done for recording reasons, to get a microphone inside the bass drum, but the symbolism, as we believe we’re witnessing the end of the Beatles, is striking.
It didn’t help that both John Lennon and George Harrison, in later interviews, frequently slammed the film and its editing for making McCartney its star:
“We got fed up with being sidemen for Paul,” [Lennon told Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner in December of 1970]. The documentary itself was evidence of McCartney’s self-serving manipulations, he thought. “The camera work was set up to show Paul and not to show anybody else. That’s how I felt about it. And on top of that, the people that cut it, cut it as ‘Paul is God’ and we’re just lying around there. . . . There was some shots of Yoko and me that had been just chopped out of the film for no other reason than the people were oriented towards Engelbert Humperdinck.” Lennon was so disaffected that when Wenner asked him if he would do it all over again he said, “If I could be a f**kin’ fisherman, I would!”
Jackson secured his role in restoring the Beatles’ footage in part because of his brilliant 2018 documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, for the which England’s Imperial War Museum gave him access to all of their filmed archives of World War I. He and his technical crew did a staggering job of eliminating a century’s worth of scratches and dirt, corrected the speed of each shot, and then colorized those digital transfers, using Jackson’s own enormous archive of WWI uniforms and equipment to grade each shot. Presumably, compared to restoring footage a century old, the 16mm reels shot for Let It Be couldn’t have been as daunting a prospect.
On the Road to the Tension Album
To understand the Beatles’ goal during the original Get Back/Let It Be project in 1969, it’s necessary to return to 1967, when the Beatles released their magnum opus, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. A revolution in the process of recording albums; Sgt. Pepper was built in layers with a mammoth amount of overdubs, one of which, in the case of “A Day in the Life,” was a 40-piece orchestra. The Beatles’ process for Sgt. Pepper was to record several takes of a song, select the best one, and then painstakingly add layers and layers of sound on top of the initial group recording. But due to the success of Sgt. Pepper, many of their trademark sounds and effects would become cliches, even before the year was over. Bands such as the Electric Light Orchestra would base their careers out of imitating the string arrangements that producer George Martin had written for the Beatles.
While proud of their achievement, the Beatles were a bit miffed at the publicity that Martin received due to his role in Sgt. Pepper, as Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan noted in their brilliant 2006 book, Recording the Beatles:
In a 1968 magazine interview conducted during the “White Album” sessions, Martin confessed that he no longer had the control he once did: “[In the early days] I was very much the boss and they were my pupils. They were virtually under my thumb. This naturally changed with their success and power in that today they are considerably wealthier than I am. Naturally they want more to say about what goes on. It’s a rather like the students revolting in France. Youth is realizing its power and it wants to have more to say about his fate.” Speaking of 1967, Paul McCartney had this to say: “[George Martin] always has something to do with it but sometimes more than others…Sometimes he works with us, sometimes against us; he’s always looked after us. I don’t think he does as much as some people think. He sometimes does all the arrangements and we just change them.” As Paul later revealed to Rolling Stone, the amount of credit often given the producer was a point of contention: “The time we got offended, I’ll tell you, was one of the reviews, I think about Sgt. Pepper — one of the review said, ‘This is George Martin’s finest album.’ we got shook; I mean, we don’t mind him helping us, it’s great, it’s a great help, but it’s not his album, folks, you know.’ So you know there’s got to be a little bitterness over that.”
So when the Beatles reconvened in 1968 to record the double-album now universally known as “The White Album,” they took a much different approach: they would exhaustively rehearse and rehearse a song, choose the best take, and then add a few extra overdubs on top of that. In the case of George Harrison’s “Not Guilty,” a song that went unreleased until the Beatles’ 1996 Anthology series, the recording session went over 100 takes.
While McCartney later dubbed the “White Album” “the tension album,” the foursome often enjoyed playing together as a band in the same room once again. One of the most challenging songs on the “White Album” was Lennon’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” pieced together by Lennon from multiple fragments of songs, and whose intricate backing track was recorded live in the studio by all four Beatles.
Getting Back to Playing Live
So after the experience of the “White Album,” the Beatles set some ground rules for their next project — it would be recorded live in the studio, as a band, with no overdubs. They also decided it would be filmed in 16mm, with the tentative goal of releasing the film as a TV special. The band hired American director Michael Lindsey Hogg, who had directed the British music series Ready, Steady, Go, several of the Beatles’ own music videos, and was fresh off The Rolling Stones’ Rock & Roll Circus, where John and Yoko had appeared as performers. As Ian MacDonald wrote in his well-researched 2003 look into the Beatles’ oeuvre, Revolution in the Head:
Working on “Happiness is a Warm Gun” had been a special case — a stimulating challenge, but a tough one compared to idling by with edits and overdubs. Suddenly The Beatles found themselves faced with flogging through much the same process many times over. In effect, they had called their own bluff: this was too much like hard work for men with nothing to prove and no compelling financial reasons to put themselves through hoops. Unfortunately, the press had been notified and a film-crew hired in to shoot the proceedings. They had to do it — or at least pretend to. Their instinctive solution was to jam sporadically, sending the whole thing up, much as they did on loose nights in Abbey Road. This time, though, the meter was running: a film studio was rented and cameras were rolling. Driven by his ingrained work ethic and assumed burden of leadership, McCartney attempted to impose discipline on this devious disorder, but the others had had enough of his pedantic MD-ing and resented being drilled like schoolboys. (When, he suggested that they were merely suffering from stage-fright, Lennon stared at him in stony disbelief.)
The truth was that they were adults and no longer adaptable to the teenage gang mentality demanded by a functional pop/rock group. Harrison yearned to be third guitarist in an easygoing American band, Starr was looking forward to being an actor, and Lennon, who a few months earlier had been simultaneously attacked as a sell-out by the revolutionary Left and busted by the forces of the establishment for possession of drugs, wanted to break the mould completely and confront the world with outré cultural subversions in company with Yoko Ono. (Sitting inscrutably beside him throughout these dispiriting sessions, she contributed to their failure, something of which she seemed uncharacteristically oblivious.)
During the run-up to the 2021 Get Back release, the crew behind the project, including George Martin’s son Giles and director Peter Jackson, have gone out of their way not to blame Yoko Ono’s continued presence for breaking up the Beatles. This seems like a bit of revisionist history too far, likely because Yoko needed to be kept sweet to sign off on the project as the controller of Lennon’s estate. In any case, by the time of their real swan song, 1969’s Abbey Road, as the Beatles’ longtime engineer Geoff Emerick wrote in his 2006 autobiography, Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles, the tension of Yoko’s continued presence finally reached the boiling point. Lennon and Ono, recovering from an auto crash in Scotland, had a bed for Yoko wheeled into EMI famed Studio Two for the recording sessions, where she wore a tiara to hide the scar from the crash as it healed:
We were working on the backing track to “The End”—the song designed to conclude the album’s long medley—when the four Beatles trooped upstairs to listen to some playbacks. Yoko stayed behind, stretched out languorously in the bed, wearing the usual flimsy nightgown and tiara.
As we were listening, I noticed that something down in the studio had caught George Harrison’s attention. After a moment or two he began staring bug-eyed out the control room window. Curious, I looked over his shoulder. Yoko had gotten out of bed and was slowly padding across the studio floor, finally coming to a stop at Harrison’s Leslie cabinet, which had a packet of McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits on top. Idly, she began opening the packet and delicately removed a single biscuit. Just as the morsel reached her mouth, Harrison could contain himself no longer.
Everyone looked aghast, but we all knew exactly who he was talking about.
“She’s just taken one of my biscuits!” Harrison explained. He wasn’t the least bit sheepish, either. As far as he was concerned, those biscuits were his property, and no one was allowed to go near them. Lennon began shouting back at him, but there was little he could say to defend his wife (who, oblivious, was happily munching away in the studio), because he shared exactly the same attitude toward food.
Actually, I think the argument was not so much about the biscuits, but about the bed, which they had all come to deeply resent. What Harrison was really saying was “If Yoko is well enough to get out of bed and steal one of my biscuits, she doesn’t need to be in the bloody bed in the first place.” It almost didn’t matter what the argument was about. By this stage, whenever the four of them were together it was like a tinderbox, and anything could set them off…even something as dumb as a digestive biscuit.
The Get Back project was obviously a key mile marker on the way to the Beatles’ breakup, but it was begun with good intentions. The Beatles brought in Glyn Johns, then arguably England’s best rock-oriented recording engineer, to produce the album:
Johns listened as McCartney outlined the Beatles’ upcoming project: a live album of all-new songs. It was to be the band’s first public concert in over two years. To mark the occasion, a film crew would document the proceedings for a proposed television special tie-in. Johns’ credentials made him uniquely suited to assist them with this ambitious multimedia venture, stepping into the role traditionally filled by their producer, George Martin. He’d previously engineered several live albums and also handled sound for The Rolling Stones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus concert film [directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg], which featured performances from John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Given the Beatles’ close ties with the Stones, it was only natural for Johns’ name to come up during pre-production.
“Paul very politely told me what his plan was and asked if I would be interested in doing it,” says Johns. “And I went, ‘Absolutely, yeah! Great.’ So he said, ‘Well, we’re going to start rehearsing just after New Years and I would really appreciate it if you’d come to all the rehearsals.’ I said, ‘Sure, okay.’ And off we went.”
Johns’ subsequent mix of the album, shelved for a half-century in favor of Phil Spector’s wall-of-sound orchestrations, is now available as part of the Let It Be album’s new box set.
157 Minutes Later…
Having just watched the first episode of Jackson’s three-part mini-series, here are my initial thoughts, with a bit of a spoiler near the end.
Someone once said, the world wants to see the baby, it doesn’t want to hear about the labor pains. And there were plenty of labor pains for the Beatles to produce what ultimately became the album and film Let It Be, now reworked as Peter Jackson’s seven hour, three-part miniseries, Get Back.
In the spirit of They Shall Not Grow Old’s run-up to the World War I trench scenes, the first episode of Get Back begins with a ten minute prologue in black and white and letterboxed, as it explores the Beatles’ early history, as John and Paul decide to play music together as teenagers, and then George joins the band, and after initial success in Liverpool and Hamburg, Germany, finally Ringo Starr joins the group. This opening montage then goes off on a whirlwind tour of Beatlemania, and then the psychedelia of Sgt. Pepper, with the extended clanging E major massed piano chord ending of “A Day in the Life” overlaid with a news clipping that their manager, Brian Epstein, had died in 1967 at age 32. Following scenes from A Magic Mystery Tour and their meeting with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, there’s a clip of Philadelphia newsman Larry Kane interviewing John and Paul in 1968 about the birth of Apple Corps, the Beatles’ goal for an all-inclusive series of companies, including record and film labels, fashion, and a vague interest in electronic manufacturing.
In September of 1968, the Beatles record promotional film clips of “Hey Jude” and “Revolution,” which debuted on The David Frost Show, their first time playing in front of a (comparatively small) audience in two years, with the exception of guests they had invited to watch them record in the studio. A series of title cards announce “They enjoy the experience and decide to record their next album in front of a live audience. This performance will also be broadcast as a TV special. Their new songs will need to be performed live, without overdubs or studio tricks. There is limited time. Ringo has to start shooting [the Peter Sellers movie] The Magic Christian on the 24th of January .”
Also in the spirit of They Shall Not Grow Old, the letterbox expands until the image then fills the screen, and we find ourselves observing a pan across an empty sound stage at Twickenham Film Studios and the aforementioned shot of faithful Beatles roadie Mal Evans carrying Ringo’s bass drum head. The various Beatles are introduced as they assemble, and John Lennon is shown playing “Child of Nature,” which would eventually be reworked as “Jealous Guy” for his 1971 album, Imagine. In the corner of the studio, a random Hare Krishna, a friend of George, can be seen sitting Indian-style.
A title card announces, “The Beatles face a daunting task: They must write and rehearse 14 new songs. And perform them live…two weeks from now.”
At the moment in the film’s chronology, the goal is to film the rehearsals as a promo film for the ultimate goal — a TV special featuring the Beatles performing live in a club, or perhaps an exotic location. Michael Lindsay-Hogg suggests the ancient Roman amphitheater in Sabratha, Libya, which would have beaten Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii film by two years. But Paul jokingly tells Lindsay-Hogg that Ringo doesn’t want to go abroad, “but us and Jimmie Nicol might go abroad,” a reference to the Beatles’ stand-in drummer for eight shows in 1964, while Starr was recovering from tonsillitis and the Beatles’ Australasian tour had already been booked. (Jackson knows plenty of hardcore Beatles obsessives, err, like your humble narrator, will immediately get the reference.)
A calendar fills the screen and the first day is X-ed out (a process that would repeat at the end of each filming day). The second day consists of jamming numerous old songs, including some of the first songs John and Paul wrote. Brief black and white still photos of the Beatles in the earliest years are interspersed to give a sense of how far the group has travelled, particularly in terms of their looks, since the late ‘50s and early 1960s.
John’s “Gimme Some Truth,” which would eventually appear on his Imagine album in 1971, is rehearsed. Then, George Harrison’s brilliant “All Things Must Pass” is rehearsed, which would of course become the title of his first solo album, arguably the best of the group’s solo projects. It would of course be rejected for the Get Back/Let It Be project, one of the greatest songs John and Paul rejected, and a huge mile marker on the way to George’s dissolution with being a Beatle.
By day three, McCartney is discussing with Glynn Johns outfitting the Beatles studio in the basement of the Apple Savile Row building, to replace the recording equipment allegedly being built by “Magic Alex,” the wannabe electronics genius who boasted he could build a 72-track recording studio in the Apple building. (For comparison sake, the Beatles record label had only gone from four to eight track the previous year.) Magic Alex’s recording equipment was a disastrous failure, and Johns and George Martin replaced it with conventional equipment borrowed from EMI’s Abbey Road studio for the project.
It becomes obvious that by 1969, Paul is directing the group, or at least attempting to. This would lead to George Harrison temporarily quitting the group. The legend, based on the original 1970 film Let It Be, is that Harrison and McCartney got into a tiff over the way Paul wanted the guitar parts on “Two of Us,” and then immediately afterwards, Harrison temporarily quit:
However, as shown in Get Back, the band continue to rehearse and jam as a foursome for several days after that incident, often quite happily, until about a week later, on January 10, 1969, when out of the blue, as the band break for lunch at Twickenham, Harrison abruptly walks on the stage, tells his band mates, “See you round the clubs,” and that’s that.
George: I’m leaving the band now.
John Lennon: When?
As depicted in Get Back, George’s diary entry for the day is as dry as his wit onscreen:
The most contemporary retelling of the events of January 10, 1969, comes from George himself, later that day, in his personal diary.
Got up, went to Twickenham rehearsed until lunch time – left the Beatles – went home.
Part 1 of Get Back concludes with the segment’s most cathartic moment, with three remaining Beatles, with Lindsay-Hogg, George Martin and Glynn Johns asking what happens next, while underneath, the demo version of Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity” plays:
Yet another gorgeous Harrison song rejected by Lennon and McCartney as a Beatles number.
For the middle episode of Jackson’s trilogy, the band will move into their basement studio, and Harrison would bring in his old friend Billy Preston to lighten the atmosphere. The third part of Get Back will climax with the Beatles performing their legendary rooftop concert atop their Savile Row office building.
Michael Lindsay-Hogg doesn’t know it at the end of Part I, but he will ultimately get the iconic ending he’s hoping for, as we’ll see on Saturday, when the last massive slab of Get Back debuts on Disney+.