"Fans gave their love we gave our nervous systems" , George Harrison states within the confines of Friar Park during the Beatles Anthology in the mid 90's and its hard to argue against that when you see what The Beatles set themselves up for in January 1969 for the filmed Let it Be sessions. Less than a year earlier they had gone to India to seek refuge and answers to everything , some staying weeks (Ringo) some staying months (George) . The sitting around in the Ashram in Rishikesh with guitars is the core of the resulting, sprawling but strangely coherent and equal parts compelling White Album (The Beatles) in no small part to the expert sequencing of tracks by Lennon, McCartney and producer George Martin.
May 69 photo to recreate the Please Please Me release - EMI Building
With the release of the White Album done at the end of November 1968 the group could (and in hindsight probably should) have given themselves some time off. Yet they (or at least fan worship seeker Paul McCartney) had seen the impact of the Elvis 68 comeback special and were close (by association) to both the Cream Farewell TV special and the Rolling Stones Rock n Roll Circus productions . So an idea was hatched , though what the endgame was is still clouded in uncertainty. It has emerged recently for example that the intention was to film some White Album performances (complete with a live audience similar to the famous "Hey Jude" video) but that was amongst many ideas that seemingly changed along the way.
Over 50 years later we get more than an insight with Get Back beaming in from dreary Miramar , Wellington (with a tax payer funded NZ Film Commission credit, to boot ) . Oil tanker film maker Peter Jackson has thrown the kitchen sink at it documentary & tech wise and Apple Corps have done a usual bland boxed set of audio , not forgetting the weighty Get Back book edited by John Harris, to complete the trifecta and lighten your wallet .
Apple Studios, Saville Row, Jan 1969
It's pointless separating all of this out; every format of this project blends into the other (like the original belated release Album , Film, Book ) - it's "Let it Bleed", to quote the Rolling Stones great 1969 release indeed instead of "Let it Be" .
One wonders about the sanity of setting up at Twickenham film studios in early January 1969, within a huge soundstage with zero ability to playback what they were doing; it really comes across in part one of the doco as equal parts chaos and creation. This was a band whose creative process over the previous 3 x years involved the ability to record, playback and build up songs in the studio. With no manager and no George Martin (although becoming increasingly visible during the month of January) they were on their own . Except of course for a film crew , director Michael Lindsay Hogg , the legendary Glyn Johns and assorted characters that thankfully now have some real context (in the original Let it Be movie, at "evil" Allen Klein's directive, Lindsay-Hogg was told to show the Beatles only hence we missed Johns, Mal Evans, Kevin Harrington, Linda Eastman, Dick James and many more.)
If it all comes down to the music, then this is where the Let it Be project always had a problem . There are four songs recorded during Jan 1969 which are drop dead classics , so much so that like nursery rhymes you know them without thinking you do and may even be completely tired of them (you certainly will be by the end of Get Back) . I’m talking about "Get Back" , "Don't Let Me Down", "Let it Be" and "The Long and Winding Road". .As for the rest of the songs (from the original album anyway) they were nowhere near up to Beatle standard compared with The White Album, anything from Abbey Road or indeed anything Beatledom - "For You Blue", "I Me Mine", "Dig a Pony", "Dig It", "Maggie Mae", "I've Got A Feeling" , "One After 909" - the quality control here is off , and the Glyn Johns mix rejected by the band in April 1969 shows how sloppy some of the playing was , and as recording artists the Beatles official output could almost never be termed sloppy.
It's not the case to trash Glyn Johns though . His brief was to record and mix the sound but from day one he is called upon for production ideas. Glyn is a real hero here, he is engineering to tape, providing a PA so the Beatles can hear themselves (including a crack up sequence shifting monitor speakers around in Apple Studios) and (who knew) possessing a spectacular dress sense with all his clothes choices throughout filming . Oh, and not forgetting the extraordinary live sound of the concluding Rooftop Gig
And being called equal parts "Glynis" and "Fuck Face" by Lennon & McCartney (!) . Yes being ordered around by four of the most famous people on planet Earth in 1969 is no easy task but he was so up for it.
Yet for all the variable song quality, Jackson's edit shows in exhaustive detail there is still the magic of creation and the mystique of the four men described by Derek Taylor as the "20th Century's greatest love affair" there for all to see throughout the nearly 9 hours . It's both a grueling and riveting watch (the second time through I separated it into recording days which is about 20 mins each) and offers new insights into the bands dynamic.
Acknowledging they were always a sum greater than its parts , here is my take on each Beatle contribution during the sessions on the evidence in Get Back.
John cuts a curious presence during the Twickenham scenes, there is quietness , sleepiness , laziness, then you see the infamous Canadian TV 2 x junkies' interview interview in mid January and you get it. Musically he remains an enigma, there is a hilarious sequence where he plays note for note an old instrumental piece "Harry Lime" from the movie "Third Man" (presumably they hammed this up back in Hamburg days pre fame) . Clearly he has guitar chops but he is unorthodox .In other musical contributions he is lame. Who can forget Ian MacDonald claiming his bass playing on "The Long and Winding Road". as "atrocious" in the extraordinary "Revolution in the Head" book ("prodding clumsily around as if uncertain of the harmonies and making many comical mistakes") Like his bass playing his keyboard playing observed is at best rudimentary. Lennon doesn't seem to enjoy jamming with the band on a relatively unfamiliar instrument yet was quoted once as saying he liked composing this way to "surprise himself" . His creative output was likely more as a solitary endeavor rather then playing in an ensemble live setting like the "Let it Be" sessions.
However once at Saville Row it seems to change and this may be caused by the jolt of Georges walk out, or the clarity of not partaking of opioids. Either way you see the wit and accompanying work ethic as he drives the band to do take after take (now they could multi track).But he is still far behind his creative twin McCartney as mentioned "Dig a Pony "and "Dig It" are hardly classics but its intriguing to glimpse what was left behind or picked later up in the solo years. "Gimme Some Truth" is clearly a collaboration with McCartney but they don't take it any further (would love to have heard the Beatles do this as a finished record) and "Jealous Guy" gets an early work out as "Child of Nature" .
Perhaps he could be forgiven , just look at the White Album and shake your head at what he was coming up with as well as all the media & police attention , he could be excused for having a break.
My recollection from my old VHS bootleg of the original movie of Let it Be was Paul as a control freak pain in the ass, equal parts ordering the others around and noodling classical piano licks at the same time as introducing drivel such as "Maxwell Silver Hammer". Not forgetting the blow up with George seemingly baked into Beatle legend as a tipping point. You wonder how they tolerated him based on the original cut. However Jackson's edit has largely rewritten history, you see how much McCartney loves the band and the people in it. The scene of him staring into space in the wake of Harrison's departure in Twickenham is emotionally draining ("the dream is over"?) . There is no doubt creatively he was in a purple patch (witness outside work with Badfinger and Mary Hopkin) casually introducing "Another Day", "Back Seat of My Car" and other songs destined for solo McCartney . The song "Get Back" has Paul, knowing the band is in a creative slump, strumming his Hofner Bass like a six string guitar with a look on his face as if in an Indian inspired trance and chanting "Get Back" over and over. He is following his muse and George and Ringo realise something is going on . Here indeed is the magic of creation out of chaos and his colleagues have a look of "quiet please genius at work" One of the other Twickenham highlights is Paul explaining to a film tech when seated beside him at the piano "the history of music is all here across these piano keys". And during this time of his life he was contributing more and more to it.
George in the first two thirds of the sessions inherits the pain in the ass mantle from Paul . There is the non stop whining culminating in the couple of (unseen) meetings to bring him back after leaving the band. There is evidence amongst other Beatleologists that in fact George had split from his wife Pattie during this time, and also was awaiting an operation to have his tonsils removed so perhaps mitigating circumstances were involved . But what a return, bringing in Billy Preston and seemingly enthused by the material and being able to spark off another musician to come up with some accompanying parts (see/hear the interplay between Preston and Harrison on "Don't Let Me Down" and "I've Got a Feeling" during the rooftop gig) .Talk about paradox, then again the Quiet One always was - the spiritual vs the material world. However despite the value of his suggestions and enthusiasm his guitar playing remains largely faceless during Jan 69. It's no wonder they revisited the "Let it Be" solo and "I Me Mine" a year later at Abbey Road - he seems to have regained his chops by this time. I suspect he was at a similar point to Keith Richards with his approach to the guitar. In his biography Life Keith talked about the late 60's inspiration provided by Ry Cooder with the whole open tuned 5 x string electric approach. With George he transitioned to slide guitar sometime around All Things Must Pass, who knows could have been Ry Cooder again , as he was someone George was a great fan. As for songwriting Get Back has 3 x occasions where he walks in with "I wrote a song last night" comment and out comes "I Me Mine "and "For You Blue" - these are truly forgettable generic compositions but there are glimpses of his future greatness with snatches of "Isn't it a Pity", "All Things Must Pass", "Something" and the third overnight effort "Ol Brown Shoe", the latter particularly revealing as he struggles with the iconic piano riff and off center shuffling rhythm , yet when Billy Preston takes over the piano and plays it "correctly" it falls completely flat . The magic of creation again..
Everybody clearly loves Richard Starkey, and he clearly is the most at ease with the film cameras in constant proximity. He is closest to Lennon in the comical stakes but without the biting wit or sarcasm , its more genuine illustrating again the extraordinary personality differences they had. Paul, in no small part being a great drummer is in Ringo's face a lot "less on high hat more on snare, do this do that etc.." Its a bit like the scene in A Hard Days Night where the others are telling him what to play and he has enough and walks out . Maybe the remaining 50 hours footage proves otherwise but as a personality he seems serene yet equal parts morose behind the kit .There are many closeups on his expressionless face to illustrate his patient nature at handling the geniuses of Lennon and McCartney playing in front of him. It's as if he knows to get out of the way and let them lead. You can never fault Starr's playing either, he never brings a performance to an unscheduled halt but the recorded output of Let it Be doesn't match his heights of "Come Together" or "Here Comes the Sun" , but like Harrison, it may be a function of the material that was being presented and the circumstances .
And finally ....
What if Social Media was a "thing" in 1969
Call me old (well yes I am) but in the world before the internet creative people were untethered to any devices and could just sit around and....create. Sure the Beatles had a newspaper or fanzine or television from the night before as distractions but these are conversation starters and often ice breakers during the sessions. There are no bloody devices around. It started me thinking of Social Media and if it was around back then what would each Beatle have gravitated to?
If John Lennon had Social Media Access in 1969 his choice would be...Twitter .. he would be all over this together with Yoko, can only imagine the spur of the moment ramblings in amongst the chants for Peace and Love.
If Paul McCartney had Social Media Access in 1969 his choice would be...Instagram ..with Linda as his camera Macca would be hamming it up, mugging or being serious artiste in front of a lens (any lens will do just pick one). Wouldn't put TikTok past him either.
If George had Social Media Access in 1969 his choice would be..to run a mile from it and fast ...but with an eye for commerce and the lure of the dollar (who could forget his comment re the Internet "Where is the money in it?") he may be inclined to do LinkedIn to promote Apple as a corporate enterprise
If Ringo Starr had Social Media Access in 1969 his choice would be...Facebook.. he's the grannies favourite after all
So what do we now make of this ?
We return to Friar Park, this time outside the gates following his recovery from a cancer scare in the late 90's (sadly it was the only the start). George instructs the pesky reporters to "just tell everybody I'm not dying on anyone yet and leave it at that" Well over a quarter century later and we still don't want them to die either. How appropriate Disney have put this out the Beatles existence is increasingly a fantasyland from a bygone age ,,,a true Twilight of the Gods . From a pure output perspective , four of the greatest songs ever , both written and recorded during January 1969 is not a bad return.
The "Get Back" Book & "Let it Be" Audio Box
"Let it Be/Get Back" Reissue- The Beatles rating:
Audio Box Set 6,5/10 (Apple does it again , underwhelming)
Get Back Book 7.5/10 (Transcriptions & Photos , a nice addition)
Get Back Doc 10/10 (Real Pay dirt, for once Jackson's MO pays off)
Overall comment - Forget the audio boxed set and even the book, the Get Back doc is the real goldmine here .