Today we sat on the deck with our daughter Ella and her boyfriend Nick. Knowing of my fascination with all things Beatles, Nick gave me a Japanese 45 of Get Back flipped with Don’t Let Me Down. His gift coincided with a 5 minute cut of material from a newly authorized production of a new version of Get Back, the film. A short history follows.
In the waning days of The Beatles’ partnership, the band decided to return to a more slimmed down production style, minus overdubs and plus a live feel. After original sessions in Twickenham Studios, the group decamped to the basement of their Apple headquarters and a hastily rebuilt studio courtesy of their usual producer, George Martin and loaned equipment from EMI Studios.
In the years since Sgt. Pepper, Beatles records had begun to retreat from their highly produced studio experiments. The most recent double album, The Beatles (commonly known as the White Album) was largely recorded in single takes, driving a wedge between the group and their producer that fostered a two week holiday where Martin turned the production over to his assistant.
The multiple takes also exacerbated growing tensions between the band members, as hundreds of attempts to perfect Paul McCartney songs like Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da drove Lennon further into his heroin experiments with Yoko Ono. Bickering drove Ringo Starr to quit for two weeks before being lured back with flowers draping his drum kit; George Harrison invited Eric Clapton in to a session in a successful attempt to put the rest on their best behavior. This gambit worked again with Billy Preston in the Get Back sessions four months later in January 1969.
It may be hard to understand the context of these tensions in a world beset with a global pandemic and the worst president in the history of the free world, but this was the middle of the Vietnam War and the first term of Richard Nixon. His landslide reelection in 1972 would preclude the voters turning him out of office, and the Watergate scandal that drove him to resign was only just beginning to unfold. Compare the emotional turmoil of four rock musicians to today’s terror at the actions of an unhinged autocrat being removed from office in what seems like an endless thirty days. But it really sucked then as now.
Part of the problem was the disquieting anxiety on the part of the postwar boomer generation that we didn’t really deserve the respect we weren’t getting from straight society. The silent majority of our parents and peers sneered at our experiments of free love and drug-induced “insights.” The counter culture we labeled ourselves was as lonely a place to be as the Deplorables of 2016. We had no power, no real leaders, and nowhere to go but down when Woodstock collapsed into Altamont, assassination, and addiction.
So we didn’t know what we were talking about and yet here we were owning the ceramics we broke. Our heroes in London were on top of the world, and they couldn’t stand each other. What to do? Let’s make a movie of how we really are. On the plus side, there was real alchemy between these four young men. Even though sick of each other, they loved the results of what they found together. Lennon was haughty but funny, McCartney pleasant but coiled like a big cat. Ringo was Everyman, with an actor’s surprise at his luck and proud of his true role of ignition switch.
Harrison is the crucible, where the steel is forged. In interviews after the breakup and narrating during, George seems to be the one who realizes the true value of the partnership even as he explodes it with solo success. The backlog of his material spilled out in his first album, so successful that its chart topping drove McCartney and Lennon to try and keep up for the next 8 years until Lennon’s death.
Yet of all the others, he was the one to recognize the value, the responsibility, of keeping the door open for what they had together. When Lennon recorded his vicious assault on McCartney, How Do You Sleep, George not only played on the record but provided the emotional power with a surging slide guitar lead he’d only developed when the group was done. During the White Album sessions that produced some of Lennon’s best work, he suggested Lennon change the title from Maharishi to Sexy Sadie to lose the personal attack on the guru for what may have turned out to be a jealous setup by another of the group’s coterie.
In the film fragment released for Christmas 2020, Harrison is seen kicking off Get Back, the first time you can really see the role George played in the propulsion of the track. As with many players, you can best understand this when he drops out for a retake or a tempo adjustment led by Paul; the absence of the guitarist shows how central he is to the mix. In the only footage released prior to this new material, Harrison seemed subdued on the roof concert version of the track. He reportedly was opposed to doing a live concert in general, and only agreed to go out on the roof when Lennon finally committed.
It’s this context that is so striking in the new material. The tensions within the group can be seen not only for the inevitability of their collapse but also their courage to be filmed and displayed for all to consume. As a persistent fan of the band and all of its dynamics at the core of the century, the new footage comes across like The Godfather and its sequels. Like Godfather II, the Beatles studio phase once they abandoned live performance in 1966 transcended their initial success in a way that essentially invented the modern Hollywood business of sequels.
The return to live phase that began with the White Album and continued through the Get Back sessions resolved itself with the last Beatles recording of Abbey Road. In this way the Get Back film apparently includes early recordings of material from Abbey Road as well as Harrison and McCartney tracks never finished by the group. Unlike the Let It Be film that emerged as a director’s cut of the breakdown of the group pre-Abbey Road, this new Get Back film will likely serve as a document of the final phase of the group in both defeat and resolution.
The last Beatles recording of all four plus Billy Preston produced I Want You (She’s So Heavy), the long bluesy track that ends side one of Abbey Road. It’s a tantalizing glimpse into the future that never was of the greatest group there ever was. Like Francis Ford Coppola’s reimagining of the the last Godfather sequel, Get Back is a coda to the tragic highs and lows of the time that was the Sixties. At the time, it was impossible to imagine where we could go from there. Today, we share that same feeling of despair, but perhaps, the hope of what the future could bring.
from the Gillmor Gang Newsletter
Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor
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