They passed the audition but the demise was fraught
Putting the fab back in the Fab Four
As legend has it, the 21 days spent recording, first at Twickenham Film Studios and then at their own brand-new Apple Studios in January 1969 were a grim time for a band falling apart, but, as novelist Hanif Kureishi writes in his introduction to the new book “The Beatles: Get Back”: “In fact this was a productive time for them, when they created some of their best work. And it is here that we have the privilege of witnessing their early drafts, the mistakes, the drift and digressions, the boredom, the excitement, joyous jamming and sudden breakthroughs that led to the work we now know and admire.”
The book and films invite us to travel back to that January, the beginning of The Beatles’ last real year as a band. “The Beatles” double album (for ever known affectionately as “The White Album”), released on November 22, 1968, was still at number one in the charts. It too had been recorded under some tension, but the Liverpool foursome, the greatest band in the world, had now regrouped in London for a new project, initially titled “Get Back”.
The fact was, plain and simple, that The Beatles had signed a contract in 1963 to make three films for United Artists, and only “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” had been delivered. The band had hoped that “Yellow Submarine” would complete the commitment but the full-length cartoon was not accepted as such. Thus, the “get out of jail card” of a documentary to show the band rehearsing and recording.
The idea behind the album had been to capture the group “live in the studio” without overdubs or effects; “getting back”, in other words, and this was originally to be the album title, before it became “Let It Be”. But these were the problems, as history perceives it: the Fab Four were no longer so fab together and they didn’t like getting up early every day to create music in a very cold and sterile film studio surrounded by cameramen and other technicians.
Plus, John Lennon now had Yoko Ono in tow, and her ever presence seriously breached the Beatles’ “no ladies” rule for recording sessions, as did Paul McCartney’s Linda Eastman, with her camera.
In one particularly revealing scene in the “Let It Be” film, McCartney and George Harrison had a tiff. Harrison found the whole experience unbearable and abruptly walked out on January 10, only returning 12 days later after his bandmates agreed to his demand that they abandon Twickenham’s dour atmosphere immediately in favour of the newfangled basement studio at the headquarters of their company Apple Corps, 3 Savile Row, London.
“The Beatles: Get Back”, released on October 12, 2021, is the first official standalone book by The Beatles themselves since their told-in-their-own-words “The Beatles Anthology” in 2000, which was accompanied by a three-volume set of double albums when they finally opened their studio archives.
The new 240-page hardcover tells the story of the creation of their 1970 album, “Let It Be” through transcribed candid conversations drawn from more than 120 recorded hours of the studio sessions. These have been edited by music writer John Harris, one of whose books, “The Dark Side of the Moon, The Making of the Pink Floyd Masterpiece”, is on The Budapest Times bookshelves.
“The Beatles: Get Back” contains hundreds of previously unpublished photographs, with the majority by two people who had special access to their sessions – Ethan A. Russell, an American photographer who had the trust of John and Yoko, and Eastman, another American, who was to marry McCartney on March 12, 1969.
The book also includes a foreword written by New Zealand film director Peter Jackson, an Academy Award winner perhaps best known for his film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit”. His three documentary feature films, also titled “The Beatles: Get Back”, will premiere on Disney+ on November 25, 26 and 27, 2021.
Jackson’s films re-examine the sessions using more than 55 hours of unreleased original 16-millimetre footage filmed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the director of “Let It Be”, and now restored.
As is well known, the three weeks of recording culminated in the historic final “rooftop concert” that famously took place atop their own Apple Corps office building, bringing central London to a halt.
The recording sessions that generated the “Let It Be” album and film, both finally released in May 1970, represent the only time in The Beatles’ career that they were filmed at such length while in the studio creating music.
When it was all through, the disillusioned and disinterested band left the “Get Back/Let It Be” audio tapes on the shelf. In one last burst of energy they recorded a final album, “Abbey Road”, intermittently over February-August 1969. It was released in September 1969.
The shelved “Get Back” tapes were then handed over to Phil “Wall of Sound” Spector for salvage work, and he upset McCartney in particular by adding strings and voices to what had originally been intended as a back-to-basics project. “The Long and Winding Road”, for instance, was given a new musical arrangement featuring orchestra and choir.
(In 2003, McCartney pushed through the “Let It Be… Naked” album, his revisionist version of the album minus the offending overdubs, though he did some tinkering himself. The late George Harrison and John Lennon were no longer around to object. Ringo Starr, we suspect, was easily persuaded by the assertive McCartney to go along with the idea.)
All in all, the fly-on-the-wall “Get Back” saga was a messy end to a spectacular career that half a century on still sees The Beatles regarded as the greatest group/band ever to walk the planet. “The Beatles: Get Back” films and book aim to bring the story to a much happier ending.
See YouTube for a sneak peek of Jackson’s “Get Back” films