Hearing that a new Beatles' documentary had been released was like waking up and realizing it was Christmas morning. Ever since that night in February 1964 when the Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan, all I wanted to do was to be a drummer. By 1968, I was sixteen, in high school and playing drums. But that is another post!
For the Beatles, 1968 had been difficult and unpleasant. The band was recording the White Album and things were not going well. It was not that they were running out of ideas. Just the opposite. The White Album was their first and only double album. A single album just would not contain the volume of new songs they each had written while they were in India. But the ties that held the band together were fraying.
Ringo quit the band for two weeks feeling that his contributions to the music were not appreciated. He was tired of McCartney’s complaints about his drumming. He finally came back to the studio to find his drum set covered with flowers after the other three assured his talents were respected.
Paul and John were at odds with each other since Yoko was attending many of their recording sessions. Recording sessions had been a very private affair with few if any visitors. Paul felt her presence was detracting from the creative process.
Geoff Emerick, the Beatles’ recording engineer and the creative source of so many of the band’s unique sounds, left mid-session and refused to work with the Beatles any more due to the tension and arguing during this time.
George invited Eric Clapton to join in on the recording of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. He had hoped that a respected peer might improve the groups attitude in the studio. And for a while it worked. But that was not enough. The group was feeling the strain of being together for so long. There were four incredibly talented musicians who were struggling to find their own musical voices apart from being in a group.
Let It Be
In 1969, Paul talked the band into recording another album in an attempt to get back to their roots–recording rock and roll songs without the studio trickery and special effects that they had embraced over the last several albums. The hope was to not only record new songs, but to capture the creative process that went into the creation of their albums. Once recorded, they would perform the finished album of new songs to a live audience.
The sessions started in January in the empty, cold, and damp Twickenham Studios. The sessions started off with the same frustration and animosity that had been left behind during the White Album sessions. And it was all captured on film. The video did chronical so much of their creative process, but it also captured the highs and lows of the relationships that created one of the most popular bands in history.
To add insult to injury, the album with left with Phil Spector to produce. He added lush string parts to some of the songs that took away from the simplicity of what had already been recorded. It defeated the whole idea of the group getting back to their roots. Paul was not happy.
Let it Be (the film) was a released in theaters in 1970 and it was available on VHS and laser disc in 1981. My bootlegged copy was as lifeless and dismal as the Twickenham Studios. I watched it once and put it on the shelf. Last year, Disney released a much longer and beautifully remastered documentary entitled Get Back with the final rooftop concert in its entirety. The documentary could have been shot yesterday based on the sound and visual quality. There were undeniably some slow moments which there were bound to be in the three-part special that lasted almost eight hours. But even in those segments, there were insights into the history being made. I believe that this will be the quintessential Beatles documentary beautifully capturing a moment of musical history.
I watched the special over a period of a week just to make sure that I did not consume this new piece in the Beatles' mythology too quickly. This post is an attempt to jot down my first impressions of what I hope to be the first of many times to watch Get Back. There were many new insights so that even the most fervent Beatle nerds will walk away having learned something new. Certainly, many of the insights will be subjective based on the viewer's own version of Beatle history.
Personalities: For those of us who always wanted to be a "fly on the wall" in the Beatles’ world, this documentary was our chance. I don't believe that reality can ever be truly captured when a camera is running but Get Back will be as close to their "studio reality" as we will ever see. There was a part of me that loved seeing all four of the Beatles enjoying the process of recording and being a band. There were also parts that were difficult to see as the four friendships continued to deteriorate under the stress of time egos and pride.
George: The original version of this documentary showed the frustration on George's part when he and Paul argued about a guitar part while they were still in Twickingham Studios. Get Back showed much more of the fissure that was increasing between the two. There were a lot of happy moments when the four members jammed, but the facial expressions and body language showed that he was growing increasingly bored with the band.
As mentioned earlier, Ringo had quit the Beatles for a short period during the recording of the White Album, but his retirement was short lived. George's departure from the band certainly seemed more deeply rooted. Even when he returned, it seemed as if his attitude towards the project overrode the good times they had playing.
I loved seeing George work with Ringo on Octopus's Garden and a sincere interest in helping him put the song together and make the verses flow into the chorus and back again.
Ringo: Geoff Emerick's book Here, There and Everywhere referenced how much time Ringo just sat around the studio and read comic books during the White Album sessions. The pattern seemed to continue through the Let It Be sessions. The recording process is painstakingly slow under normal conditions, but the process is amplified if you are writing, arranging, and working out parts in the studio under the scrutinous eye of a camera. The process includes a lot of down time. As great a drummer as Ringo is, most of the documentary showed him just sitting in the studio or behind his drums with his eyes closed and napping against the wall behind him.
Ringo, however, did have his moments in the special. He seemed truly intent on making Octopus’s Garden a good song. And there was something special in seeing his smile so reminiscent of his playing in the early 60’s when he found those moments jamming with his friends and remembering times gone by. I was a little shocked to see him and Paul jamming on the piano together (Who knew?)
John: I recognize attention deficit disorder when I see it (because I am the poster boy for ADD). But John may have me beat. I loved seeing him happy and bouncing off the walls in a million different directions. But he seemed happy and always willing to change gears and start jamming on some song from their past. He had not lost his joy of using silly voices and word play.
As much as has been said about the strained feelings between him and Paul, they seemed to have a good working relationship in the studio; each of them working on the other's songs. The song writing chemistry between John and Paul was amazing to watch. There is a scene when John and Paul and working on the lyrics to Get Back. When Paul comes up with the town Tucson (for Tucson Arizona) you could see it on John’s face that it was the perfect fit for the lyrics.
One particularly telling conversation between John and Paul was picked up with a hidden microphone. Paul was acknowledging that John had always been the leader of the band, but Paul was the second in command and he knew that he could be overbearing. He also acknowledged that everyone had their ideas (and good ones) about what they did in the studio. Someday, they would all get the chance to play their music the way they wanted to. Most of the time, however, Paul’s chair was facing the other three, so he looked in charge whether he was or not.
While, I would have thought Yoko's position of being joined at the hip with John, would have been distracting, but maybe there has been made too much of it in history. Linda McCartney and Paul's daughter Mary were in the studio; George had the Hare Krishnas chanting in the corner; Maureen was there several days with Ringo. There seemed to be a revolving door with people coming and going throughout.
Paul: Ever the people pleaser, he seemed to have taken over the leadership role in the band regardless of his earlier comments. He had a vision for what he wanted the album to be. He had ideas of what/where the final concert should be even if he could not express his vision well enough to sell it to the group.
Even though the songs he brought with him to the sessions were nothing but skeletons, he knew the feel that he wanted even if he did not have the lyrics, melody or chords tied down. When asked at one point, how he liked to write songs (guitar/piano/both), he started playing In the Backseat of My Car. He said that it had come to him the night before while playing piano. This song which is one of my favorites from Paul's solo career, was almost fully developed and could have been recorded that day.
On the day that neither John nor George showed, there was a great conversation between Ringo, Paul, Linda, Neil, Mal, and Glyn. Paul was defending John. He was saying that no one had the right to tell John about Yoko. He stated that he knew if it came down to making a choice between the Beatles and Yoko, John would choose Yoko. He ended his monologue with "and then there were two.” (referencing that only he and Ringo had shown up that day).
Capturing the Past: Before the Beatles were the Beatles, they would hang out at the Jacaranda club owned by Allan Williams (Allan became the band's first booking agent and manager). They would paint and do odd jobs for which Allan's wife would fix them jelly or bacon butties (toast with jelly or bacon). It was noteworthy to see plates full of toast sitting around during the Get Back sessions. They were drinking Champaign but had obviously not lost their taste for the sandwiches that had been their pay fifteen years earlier.
The old saying of “you can’t go back home” was evident. Even though Paul’s vision was to capture the recording process as they went back to their “roots”, so much had changed. George Martin’s role in the recording process seemed to be almost non-existent. The engineering expertise of Geoff Emerick was gone. They now had the luxury of writing and recording of at the same time, but there was no adult supervision, nor had there been since Brian Epstein had died.
The transition from Vox and Rickenbacker was almost complete by the time the Let It Be sessions started. The days of George's Gretsch Tennessean and twelve string Rickenbacker were gone. Paul's Hofner bass and John's refinished Casino were the last remnants of their old instruments, most of their new instruments reflected a new direction and a new sound.
Rocky (George's hand painted sonic blue Stratocaster) made several appearances as well as a new rosewood Telecaster gifted to him by Fender (the Telecaster was later gifted to Delaney Bramlett of Delaney and Bonnie) by George. George's Gibson J-200 which he began to play during the White album was used frequently throughout the sessions. The documentary also shows the delivery of a Leslie cabinet made for organs. This was a gift from Eric Clapton for George to play his guitar through ( I believe the guitar solo in Let it Be was George’s Telecaster played through the Leslie.
Paul had moved away from Vox and used the new Fender Bassman with the tall cabinet housing two 12" speakers. George and John were using the new 85-watt Fender Twin Reverbs. It was fascinating to see such classics instruments and equipment in mint condition.
Ringo played a new five piece set of Ludwig Hollywood drums in a maple finish. With an added mounted tom and no front bass drumhead, it was an ever-present reminder that things had changed. The four-piece Ludwig set in black oyster pearl with the drop-T bass drumhead had become a symbol for the Beatles and its absence was glaring. Even though a towel covered his snare drum for dampening most of the time, occasionally you could catch a peak of his old Ludwig Jazz Festival snare drum from his old set.
The mastery of their instruments was obvious, but it was interesting to see them play other instruments throughout the process. George or John would pick up the Fender VI six-string bass guitar when Paul was on piano. John sat behind the drums when Ringo was working out Octopus’s Garden on the piano. John, Paul, and George all seemed equally capable of playing bass, rhythm, or lead guitar (Paul was quite a good drummer as well). Apparently, John learned how to play a lap steel guitar that had been brought into the studio and recorded it on George’s song For You Blue.
The biggest change to the overall sound of Let It Be had to be the chance appearance of Billy Preston. Supposedly just dropping by to say "hi" to his old friends from their days in Hamburg, Billy was asked to sit in on keyboards. His contributions to the overall sound of the album were immeasurable. Playing a Rhodes piano, Billy added some of the most recognizable "hooks" on the album. His playing on Don't Let Me Down and Get Back turn good songs into great songs.
But as always, the real magic was in the music. For all the reasons they had grown tired of being Beatles, their chemistry was still there. There was an almost magical intuition that they all shared that allowed songs to grow from an idea to a completed classic in incredibly short periods of time. The process would appear supernatural if these four individuals had not grown from boys to men spending their lives working together. They could speak in musical shorthand that George Martin had originally help them to interpret, but by this point, they were almost telepathic (Okay . . .maybe exaggerated but not by much.) Growing in the sixties, it was hard to differentiate the personalities from the music they produced. John was the serious one, George was the deep one, etc. Looking back now, I think I loved the idea of the Beatles as much as I loved the music. Get Back was a realistic reminder that the four mopped-topped lads were still young men but with wives and families of their own. They had set every standard possible with music sales and awards. They had altered the culture of the time. They had even been awarded the MBE by the Queen. This may be oversimplifying things, but they had outgrown being Beatles. They had grown tired of being seen as a group instead of individuals with unique talents and ideas.
When the day finally came (and all the options for performance locations had fallen through) the now famous “roof-top” concert provided a fitting finale for the video. What had started out as rough ideas for songs, were delivered polished and (at least some of the songs) recorded on the roof-top made it to the album.
Paul’s voice on I’ve Got a Feeling was never better and was belted out with confidence and swagger. Don’t Let Me Down (which is one of my favorite Beatle songs) came off flawlessly with great harmonies, tempo changes, and one of the most melodic bass lines in the Beatles’ catalogue.
Billy’s Preston’s work blended in with the Beatles’ compositions as if he had been in the band from its inception. His keyboard parts, solos, and feel complimented the others perfectly (especially the piano and bass parts on Don’t Let Me Down).
The rooftop performance of One After 909 was one of the songs that made it on the album. This was one of the earliest Lennon/McCartney compositions that went back to the late 1950’s and sounded as new and fresh as all the other songs they performed.
The half-hearted attempt by the London police to get them to stop playing seemed a little silly and personally I thought it took away from the movie. Ringo had once said that they had hoped that the police would arrest them for disturbing the peace and the video would end up with them being taken away in handcuffs. The police seemed at a complete loss as to what to do and as a result did nothing. It is hard to find fault with the two officers sent to ask them to stop playing. It would have been difficult to be the one shutting down what was obviously a major happening by the premier band in the world.
As the concert wound down, John made the comment to the effect that “he hoped that they had passed the audition”. I couldn’t help but think back to their concert in 1963 at the Royal Variety Show when he made the comment, “For our last number I’d like to ask your help. Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.” It was the perfect way for Lennon to end the concert.
The credits start to roll as they are back in the studio trying to get The Long and Winding Road recorded with the same inability to remain focused. But what a great eight hours it had been.
Some of my favorite songs will still be from their latter albums: Revolver, Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper. But without the breakup, we might not have had So This is Christmas, Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey, My Sweet Lord, Back When We Was Fab, Imagine, Baby, I'm Amazed, and hundreds of other songs.
And just when you thought their recording history was done, they got back together three months later to record just one more album . . . like they used to . . . with George Martin and Geoff Emerick. And what a great album Abbey Roadwas. George recorded his masterpiece Something; Ringo finally played a drum solo, and the guitar work in The End showed that John, Paul and George still had some great guitar chops left.
And as far as most people believe, Paul is still alive and well and playing great music.