The Banality of Genius: Notes on Peter Jackson's Get Back
A Special Edition of The Ruffian
(Ruffians: I warn you this is quite long. You may have to click at the bottom of the email to access the whole thing).
A friend of mine, a screenwriter in New York, believes Get Back has a catalytic effect on anyone who does creative work. Since it aired, he has been getting texts from fellow writers who, having watched it, now have the urge to meet up and work on something, anything, together.
This is strange, in a way, since the series does not present an obviously alluring portrait of creative collaboration. Its principal locations are drab and unglamorous: a vast and featureless film studio, followed by a messy, windowless basement. The catering consists of flaccid toast, mugs of tea, biscuits and cigarettes. The participants, pale and scruffy, seem bored, tired, and unhappy much of the time. None of them seem to know why they are there, what they are working on, or whether they have anything worth working on. As we watch them hack away at the same songs over and over again, we can start to feel a little dispirited too. And yet somewhere on this seemingly aimless journey, an alchemy takes place.
Peter Jackson’s decision to make Get Back an eight-hour series rather than a two hour movie was a risky one. When I heard about it, I wondered if it was the result of a man who, locked down in his Antipodean editing suite, had waded too deep into his material and lost control of it, a Kurtz in the Beatle jungle. But I was wrong: there is a logic to the longeurs. That so little happens for long stretches makes the viewer pay closer attention to what is happening. It forces us to become attuned to the microscopic level at which close relationships unfold; to read the densely compressed messages that can be contained in a look, a smile, an offhand comment.
Watching extraordinary people do ordinary things is also just oddly gripping. I loved witnessing the workaday mundanity of The Beatles’ creative life. Turning up for work - for the most part - every day, at an agreed time: Morning Paul. Morning George. Taking an hour for lunch, popping out for meetings. Sticking up your kid’s drawing by your workstation. Confessing to hangovers. Discussing TV from the night before. Fart jokes. Happy hour at the end of an afternoon. Coats on: Bye then. See you tomorrow. See you tomorrow.
Immersed in all this banality, a funny thing happens to the viewer. As we get into the rhythm of the Beatles’ daily lives, we start to inhabit their world. Since we live through their aimless wandering, we share in the moments of laughter, tenderness and joy that emerge from it with a special intensity. When they get up on that roof at the end of the final episode we feel exhilarated, joyful, and almost as thrilled as they look. I think we learn something along the way, too: that the anomie and the ecstasy are inseparable.
Let’s remind ourselves about how unwise, or if you prefer, insane, the Twickenham project was. The Beatles had only just finished a double album, the White Album (that was its nickname - I love hearing the Beatles call it “The Beatles”). It was a huge project and they had plenty of arguments in the making of it. Fortunately, it sold boatloads - their most commercially successful album to date. Paul and John have new girlfriends they’re very serious about. George is with Patti and hanging out with Dylan, Ringo has two young kids. In other words, they had every excuse, and every reason, to take six months or a year off. But no. In September, they enjoy making a promo for Hey Jude in front of a live audience, which rekindles their interest in performing, and they come up with a vague plan to do a TV special in the new year.
The initial idea was to perform songs from the White Album. That makes sense: using a show to perform songs from the album they just made is what ANY NORMAL BAND WOULD DO. But no. John and Paul get together before Christmas and decide they have to create a whole album’s worth of new songs, learn to play those while being filmed, and then perform them. That would be hard enough to achieve in three to six months. But because Ringo has to make a film they end up trying to cram all of this - writing, learning, rehearsing, show-planning - into three weeks. And they choose to do it all in an aircraft hangar.
The Beatles’ allergy to repetition, their relentless instinct to seek out the new rather than repackage the old, is here taken to such an extreme that it puts them in an absurd position. As a group, they were terrible at making non-musical decisions. They were much better at saying what they didn’t want to do than at making sensible plans for what they did want to do. So they ended up in this trap. As we watch the four Beatles try to escape from it, we are moved, because we see, for the first time, quite what a fragile creative entity they always were, and how hard they worked to stay together.
Nearly every Beatles album was perfect or close to it, a succession of immaculate conceptions. The Beach Boys, perhaps their closest artistic rivals, made some jewels, some stinkers, and some just-OK albums. That was typical, even for the best artists. There was something mysterious and implacable about The Beatles’ ability to keep a high standard at a high volume of output. It baffled their peers. Brian Wilson said of them, “They never did anything clumsy. It was like perfect pitch but for entire songs…everything landed on its feet.” Lou Reed, not noted for gushing praise of fellow artists, said, “They just made the songs up, bing bing bing. They have to be the most incredible songwriters ever - just amazingly talented.”
Let It Be, the album that eventually emerged from the Get Back sessions, and the last new Beatles album to be released, has always been the closest thing to a glitch in this long run of jewels. Unfinished by the group, it is messy, uneven and incoherent by their standards, even though it contains a few songs that would be enough to turn most bands into legends by themselves. Today, Let It Be exists in various iterations, none of them definitive. One effect of Jackson’s Get Back is to find, or restore, a purpose to this loose strand from The Beatles’ recording career, by letting us in on a secret: they didn’t know what they were doing.
At one point in Get Back, during the endless discussion about why they’re all here, George Harrison reminds the others that The Beatles have never really made plans: “The things that have worked out best for us haven’t really been planned any more than this has. It’s just… like, you go into something and it does it by itself. Whatever it’s gonna be, it becomes that.” I think this represents a profound truth about The Beatles. They moved through the world in a dream, and the world became their dream. They were famous in Britain and then America and then everywhere; they made albums with sitars and tape loops and kids’ songs on them; they dressed up in sherbet-coloured military tunics and gave themselves a different name; they made a wild sprawling double album with nothing on the cover. And everything worked.
In a dream, you decide to fly and you fly and it doesn’t even seem odd that you can fly. When I say the Beatles didn’t know what they were doing, that’s what I mean. The Beatles certainly knew what they were doing in the sense that they were incredible musicians and intelligent individuals. But they didn’t understand the secret of their other-worldly achievements any more than Brian Wilson or Lou Reed did - any more than we do now. They didn’t want to know, and they didn’t need to. It does it by itself.
Whether you prefer to call it genius or providence (Rick Rubin says The Beatles are the single best argument for the existence of God), the dream lasted for the best part of a decade. In Get Back we meet the group in the midst of waking up from it, the spell wearing off. When they throw a pack of cards in the air, they can no longer rely on a castle magically assembling itself. It turns out they can’t set up a record label and wait for the money to roll in, and it’s looking very much like they can’t make a TV spectacular from scratch in a few weeks. It also turns out that there’s more than two songwriters in the band and more than four people in the friendship group.
What makes Get Back so dramatic, in its undramatic way, is seeing the Beatles struggle to adjust to waking life. The struggle unfolds in the music they’re making and in how they negotiate their changing relationships to each other. This was a group comprised of talented, wilful individuals who shared a powerful resistance to being told what to do. The question should not be why they split up so much as how they stayed together. The answer is that they loved each other, they shared an appetite for work, and they knew they were special as a group. But it was nonetheless hard and getting harder. In Get Back, the mythical, world-conquering, four-headed beast is revealed to be four young men, beset by uncertainty, wondering if they really want to be tied together like this forever.
They’re also wondering if they’re still any good. Even if they had more right than anyone else on the planet to believe in their own creative infallibility, they clearly do not. George Harrison, in particular, is keen to tell his bandmates that other artists are making music as good or better than anything they have in the locker, and what they’re doing right now is corny and would be thrown out of Apple if it was by another band. Lennon and McCartney do not seem in the mood to argue. Before a take of (the song) Get Back, George Martin asks from the control room, ‘What are you calling this, Paul?”. McCartney replies, “Shit. Shit, take one.” They may have genius on their side, but right now it doesn’t feel like it.
The nucleus of the Beatle atom was comprised of John and Paul, who shared a mental channel along which music, emotion, ideas and jokes travelled at the speed of light. As the dream faded, so did the efficiency of the connection (or vice versa). By 1969, Lennon and McCartney can’t hear each other as well as they used to. They are like kids who have been listening avidly to Radio Luxembourg all night and now find the signal drowning amidst waves of static. The place they can still commune with each other is in the studio, which is why the Get Back sessions, and the songs, centre on their relationship. We get to see what George can see: that for all their difficulties these two are still locked into each other, emotionally and musically. At Twickenham, they sit face-to-face and harmonise on a song called Two of Us, while George glowers at them. At one point, McCartney stops and notes that his songs are telling a bigger story. I’ve Got a Feeling, Two of Us, Get Back… John says it out loud: “It’s like me and you are lovers”. McCartney, suddenly inarticulate, grunts assent, and they both flick their hair.
We see quite how much the Lennon-McCartney partnership was the central power bloc of the band, and how dominant they still were. In the wake of Harrison’s exit, George Martin notes that John and Paul, for all that they haven’t been getting on as well as they did, are “still a team”. This was rooted in economics as well their personal relationship: when one of George’s songs is up next, John asks, “Is this Harrisongs?” (Harrisongs was George’s publishing company). The basic dynamic of the group has not changed much since Paul recommended George to John as a worthy addition to The Quarry Men, and John and Paul decided they were the songwriters.
One way to read the story of Get Back is Paul trying to spark John into life, whether by confronting him over missing songs, or, more subtly, and more touchingly, playing Strawberry Fields at the piano while John sits with his back to him, fiddling on the guitar, pretending not to listen. See, John - this is how you good you are.
McCartney takes centre-stage in Get Back, its most vividly human, full-spectrum personality. Even to those of us who thought we ‘knew’ him pretty well, he comes alive in a new way. We see him glum, slumped in chairs, staring off into the middle distance, biting his nails, or even, in the scene where he considers that this might be the end, sucking his thumb, as his eyes pool with tears (“And then there were two”). We see a toothy, boyish, involuntary grin, different to his practiced public smile, which lights up his face when John makes a joke or Billy Preston plays a ravishing lick on the keyboard. The grin makes several appearances on the rooftop, including right after he sees the police arrive.
We get glimpses of how overbearing and annoying he could be. He doesn’t shout or bully but he is so clear, at least in his mind, about what he wants from a song that he can leave little room for the others to feel like they are anything but session musicians. We see him react to whatever George says with minimal interest, and pay scant attention to George’s songs. At the same time, he is self-aware enough to know he is annoying people, and emotionally intelligent enough to diagnose the underlying problem: that the group needs a decision-maker but resists anyone who tries to take the role. Paul’s creative vitality makes him the navigator but the others aren’t keen on him driving the car.In the flowerpot conversation, we hear Paul reassuring John that he’s the boss, has always been the boss, John demurring. Paul has power without legitimacy; John has legitimacy but no longer wants power.
McCartney lays out the central problem faced by the group with such startling lucidity that it feels at times as if we’re watching a scripted biopic. In a discussion of how difficult they have found it to make decisions since the death of “Mr Epstein”, he says, “Daddy’s gone away now, and we’re on our own at the holiday camp.” McCartney puts more effort than anyone else into understanding where others are coming from. He tries to understand John and Yoko, and to “explain” them to the others as sympathetically as possible. We see him playing with Linda’s daughter Heather, with whom he has evidently struck up a loving bond within months of meeting her. Some of the most beautiful moments of the series are of them playing together: her combing his hair, him throwing her in the air, her clamped to him like a limpet, while he plays the piano.
We see how open Paul is to those around him, inviting suggestions for lyrics from Mal Evans, accepting Glyn John’s musical direction on Let It Be. He teaches a young clapboard operator about songwriting at the piano (“Unless you stop yourself, there’s no stopping yourself” - a great line). We see how funny he was, particularly in the presence of John. I love his cockney gangster voice (after George gets a shock from his mic - “IF THIS BOY DIES YOU’RE GONNA COP IT”). Then there’s his only-a-northern-bloke voice, which he uses to say thanks to Billy Preston: “Coming from the north of England, it doesn’t come so easy, the soul.” We see how much he relishes his physicality, scaling the gantry, climbing the chain, leaping up to the rooftop for a recce. And how good does he look? Blackly Irish hair, thick beard, soulful eyes, slender figure in well-cut clothes.
If Paul takes the leading role in Get Back it’s worth bearing in mind that this is a snapshot of the group, and that if a similar documentary had been made in, say, 1965, it would probably have been Lennon who captivated us the most. When Billy Preston was interviewed in the 1970s, he said that to him Lennon was clearly “the boss” of The Beatles. That’s slightly surprising until you remember that Preston got to know the band in 1962, when he was part of Little Richard’s touring band. That was his anchor point, and at that time Lennon would have been the band’s dominant personality. By 1969, Lennon had receded, although even in recession he is somehow still the group’s pivotal figure, the one they all wanted to please, the puzzle they most wanted to solve. (Note that after George walks out, all the conversations are about John.)
When we meet Lennon in Get Back, he is in a fallow period, which has a dampening effect on his all-round confidence. Although, hang on a minute: can we really say a man is in a creative trough if, just a matter of months ago, he made Dear Prudence, Julia, Happiness Is a Warm Gun? When he is in the midst of creating Don’t Let Me Down? Perhaps it depends on who he’s sitting next to. In January 1969, Lennon seems like he’s drying up, and to an extent is drying up, because his primary creative partner is on a hot streak of epic proportion. McCartney apparently only has to sit at the piano, pick up a guitar or just allow his mind to wander, for songs to come surging through him. Months after Blackbird and Hey Jude, we now get Let It Be, Long and Winding Road, Get Back, Golden Slumbers, Two of Us, Oh! Darling, and more. Perhaps the question is not why Lennon is in a creative slump, but why McCartney isn’t.
Towards the end of the 1960s Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys were in states of disarray, creative outputs stuttering, minds and bodies giving out. Meanwhile, The Beatles increased their rate of production, making a double album in 1968 and two albums in 1969 (about three weeks after the end of these sessions they were back in the studio for what became Abbey Road). The engine of the band throughout this period was the relentlessly fecund McCartney. We ought to sympathise with Lennon. Yes, we can blame his drug-taking, but imagine being in his position: a tired genius whose closest collaborator is hurling down thunderbolt after thunderbolt from the top of a mountain, pausing only to ask, so what have you got?
Lennon may not be at his most dynamic in Get Back but he’s still compelling, partly because he’s not the character we expected to meet. At least, he’s not who I expected. Having ingested many books about the Beatles I thought he was going to be fiery, caustic, domineering, and - in this period - bitterly scornful of McCartney. Yet the Lennon we see here is for the most part a rather gentle presence who acts as a calming mediator between Paul and George. He grins at Paul, laughs heartily at his jokes, listens patiently to him. There is something quite childlike about John, particularly when his face opens up into a smile as the band hits a groove, or when he’s sitting patiently on the floor with a guitar and Yoko, waiting for another take. When Ringo starts playing Octopus’s Garden with George, John says “What am I doing, Ritchie?” and gets on the drums. There is bravado, of course - as when, following George’s departure, he immediately suggests they get Clapton in and split George’s guitars. But there is tenderness, too: after George leaves, it is John who brings the three remaining Beatles together into a hug.
We are used to thinking of Lennon as the visionary and Paul as the pragmatist. Yet here it’s Paul who throws up wildly impractical ideas - a news show that ends in an announcement of The Beatles’ split, a TV spectacular, an album full of songs they haven’t written yet, by next week - and John who suggests, mildly and sympathetically, that they consider what’s actually possible. (I was struck by how McCartney’s vision of The Beatles encompassed so much more than music; he was always thinking about film and TV, image and story. He wasn’t satisfied just with making another album - “a very non-visual thing”.)
Even though John is under-powered in this period we still see what made him so magnetic to Paul and to others around him. There is a scene early in Part Two that I find riveting. It takes place a couple of days after George has left. The status of everything - the project, the band - remains uncertain, but they are ploughing on for now. John, Yoko, Ringo, Paul and some of the crew are sitting in a semi-circle. Paul looks pensive. Ringo looks tired. John is speaking only in deadpan comic riffs, to which Paul responds now and again. Peter Sellers comes in and sits down, looks ill-at-ease, and leaves having barely said a word, unable to penetrate the Beatle bubble
Paul: See, what we need is a serious program of work. Not an endless rambling among the canyons of your mind.
John: Take me on that trip upon that golden ship of shores… We’re all together, boy.
Paul: To wander aimlessly is very unswinging. Unhip.
John: And when I touch you, I feel happy inside. I can’t hide, I can’t hide. [pause] Ask me why, I’ll say I love you.
Paul: What we need is a schedule.
John: A garden schedule.
I mean first of all, who is writing this incredible dialogue? Samuel Beckett?
Let’s break it down a little. The first thing to note is that John and Paul are talking to each other without talking to each other. This is partly because they’re aware of the cameras and also because they’re just not sure how to communicate with each other at the moment. John’s contributions are oblique, gnomic, riddling, comprised only of songs and jokes, like the Fool in King Lear. Take me on that trip upon that golden ship of shores sounds like a Lennonised version of a line from Dylan’s Tambourine Man (“take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship”). “We’re altogether, boy”? I have no idea. Does Paul? I think John expects Paul to understand him because he has such faith in what they used to call their “heightened awareness”, a dreamlike, automatic connection to each other’s minds. But right now, Paul is not much in the mood for it. His speech is more direct, though he too adopts a quasi-poetic mode (“canyons of your mind” is borrowed from a song by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band) and he can’t bring himself to make eye contact. “To wander aimlessly is very unswinging,” he says (another great line, I will pin it above my writing desk). Then John does something amazing: he starts talking in Beatle, dropping in lyrics from the early years of the band, I Want To Hold Your Hand and Ask Me Why. (To appreciate John’s response to Paul’s mention of a schedule, American readers may need reminding that English people pronounce it “shed - dule”.)
What’s going on throughout this exchange? Maybe Lennon is just filling dead air, or playing to the gallery, but I think he is (also) attempting to communicate to Paul in their shared code - something like he loves him, he loves The Beatles, they’re still in this together. Of course, we can’t know. I can’t hide, John says, hiding behind his wordplay.
After this, Paul suggests, as if quoting from a self-help book, that they aim to “achieve something every day”. Yoko and John dissent (“That’s hard”). Then Lindsay-Hogg complains that his film is grinding to a halt. “Grinding to a halt?” says John, “I think it’s taking off.” At this, the mood shifts. Everyone, including Paul, starts laughing. A phone rings. John picks up a film reel case, pretends to answer it, embarks on a glorious riff which culminates in a joke about scouts and masturbation which leaves Paul, so morose just a minute ago, helpless with giggles.
You can see in this scene, and throughout the film, why John was forgiven for so much: he was just so bloody funny. His gift for comedy was not far short of his gift for music. He uses jokes to obstruct, obfuscate and deflect, and yet the undeniable truth is that he is a genuinely brilliant, lightning-quick, Peter Cook-level improviser. Paul has been laughing at John’s jokes since they spent every spare hour together in their parents’ homes. It’s hard to stay stern or angry when you’re laughing.
Adjacent to this is John’s knack for spontaneous, nonsense poetry. On the Let It Be album there is a fragmentary track called Dig It, in which Lennon incants incongruous names over a Preston-infused groove:
Like the FBI
And the CIA
And the BBC
And Doris Day
We can now see this was taken from a tape of one of the furious jams they played at Apple. I’d always thought of the words as lyrics, but they are part of a stream of improvisation which might have been stepped into at different places. This kind of thing is much harder to do than you might think. Lennon, at least when he was in the mood, was a master of it. His linguistic jamming made its way into lyrics, most unforgettably on I Am The Walrus. Written down on the page, it pales somewhat (his poetry books are thin stuff). It is Lennon’s delivery, his voice, his physical self, that make his wordplay such a thrill. He was more of a comedian than a poet - one who, like Cook, did his best work in private, without a script.
There is a charming moment when Paul is leafing through the catalogue of songs Dick James has purchased on their behalf, and comes across Carolina Moon. “That’s one of my uncle’s favourites!” he says, slipping into an impression of Uncle Ron at a New Year’s party, slurring his words: “Carolina Moon! C’mon Paul, join in!” You can almost see little Paul by the piano with his Dad, surrounded by beery uncles and merry aunts as they launch into another song. To know a little about the Beatles’ childhoods from reading is one thing; it’s quite another to see the children come to life in the men. By 1969, they were worldly and somewhat weary rock stars but they were also chums who met at school and knew each other’s parents. When George suggests covering a wall at Apple with gold discs, John replies, tartly, “You’ll have to get them off Mimi’s wall.” When George leaves the group, where does he go? Liverpool, presumably to see his mum. There’s a moment at Apple when they are tuning up their instruments, and they start playing, and Glyn Johns interrupts to say the bass is out of tune. John and George hoot with glee because it’s Paul, the swot, who is at fault. He takes it well.
As for Ringo, what impresses us about him in Get Back is his stoicism, his ability to wait in silence without loss of motivation (he is the most Eastern, the most Zen, of all the Beatles). When the others stop talking and start playing, Ringo is always ready, responding alertly to their shifting needs. His rare contributions to group discussions are pivotal (“I would like to go on the roof”) and perceptive (“It’s the autobiography of The Beatles, isn’t it?”). Observing Ringo’s talent for watchfulness, I thought about his childhood, too: the endless hours he spent on a sickbed with nobody to talk to and nothing to do. His long apprenticeship in patience.
One of the pleasures of Get Back is watching the Beatles throw themselves into songs they learnt in Liverpool and Hamburg and seeing how much those songs are in their bones. They had instant, muscle memory access to a vast library of rock n’ roll and country and pop. Then there are the Lennon-McCartney Originals: songs the two of them discarded but still know back to front; songs written at Mendips or Forthlin Road, some of which are irresistible even in half-cocked form. They aren’t just rock n’ roll, either - Half a Pound of Greasepaint sounds like a George Formby deep cut. John and Paul’s singing can lift any song out of the ordinary, give it flight. When they hit those harmonies, and that inimitable blend of voices rings out, I don’t really mind what the song is.
The Beatles don’t spend much time reminiscing about stadium gigs in America or Japan, or doing the Ed Sullivan show, or meeting the Queen or Muhammed Ali. When they talk about the past, it is mostly about the years when they were struggling to make it. Hamburg in particular seems vividly present to them. They joke about “MAK SHOW” which their first German boss used to shout at them on stage until they learned how to do just that. John breaks into pidgin German. One reason they trust Billy Preston immediately is that they hung out with him in Hamburg (they sweetly serenade him with the song he used to request, A Taste of Honey). At Apple, Paul suggests to George Martin they need a sound system like the one they had at the Star Club. Martin rather briskly cuts him off, implying, without quite saying, that this is London in 1969, not Hamburg in 1962, and you’re the biggest group in the world now; you can probably do a bit better than that.
If they so often return to Hamburg in their minds it’s because that is where John, Paul and George became, not just a band who called themselves The Beatles, but The Beatles - if only to themselves, at first. Abroad for the first time, far from families and rivals, in a place where they didn’t speak the language, they founded a sovereign country of their own, with its own norms, traditions, and politics. Being themselves and staying themselves was a founding principle (when Paul talks to John about India in Get Back this is what he pinpoints as his regret - that for once they had allowed an outsider to shape their personalities). But the principle of always moving on was foundational, too, and that entailed moving apart eventually; the Beatles were too adventurous to stay in their own magic kingdom forever. The Get Back project shows them looking both ways at once, longing to be a tight little band of brothers, yearning to leave the motherland.
When you read a lot about The Beatles you’re amazed at their talents and also at the wave of flukes they rode along the way. A lot of things had to fall into place for them to succeed. In particular, they had a knack of finding, or being found by, the right collaborators at the right time. If it hadn’t been for “Mr Epstein” happening upon them in 1961 they may well have given up before they got going. There was Ringo, of course, the perfect drummer, and the perfect personality, for the three founders. And if they hadn’t been sent to George Martin they probably wouldn’t have been signed, and certainly wouldn’t have reached the musical heights they did.
In Get Back, Martin is not the central character that he would have been in a documentary about any album up until Sergeant Pepper. He has been deliberately marginalised by the band so that they can make a different kind of record to the ones they made with him. Precisely because of that, we get to see what an exceptionally decent man he was; more concerned with seeing The Beatles flourish than in being the one who made them flourish. His official role is as EMI’s representative, there to ensure the band deliver some kind of material to the label, but he has no fixed role otherwise. If Martin had been more egotistical - that is, if he had a normal-sized ego - he would have been either sulking or desperately trying to impose himself on proceedings. He does neither. He is content to offer help when needed, while looking supremely suave.
Martin’s protegé Glyn Johns has become the band’s main producer for this project and is doing a very good job. You might expect Martin to be a little miffed by this. But we hear him insisting that Johns should be the one to finish the record. Throughout he is cheerful. When George and Ringo play through Octopus’s Garden at the piano he sings an accompanying line, but on the whole he restricts himself to technical matters. When the band moves back to Apple and it turns out that the studio built by Magic Alex is as much use as one of his reversible bass guitars, it is Martin who, Jeeves-like, clears up the mess and makes it work. He puts paper into the piano so that it sounds “less like a Blüthner”, for George’s honky-tonk For You Blue. Once the band’s orchestrator, he is now its plumber.
He accepts this role because he loves his boys. You can see how much pleasure he takes in their company, how much he wants them to succeed at whatever they’re doing, and how much he wants them to be happy - as happy as they were when they first tumbled in to see him at Abbey Road. Martin is acutely alert to the tensions between them, particularly between John and Paul. He sees better than any other outsider that they are finding it hard to rediscover their old ease with each other. That brings a certain poignancy to his interactions with them. During a discussion over how to improve the acoustics of the Apple studio, Martin says, “Don’t worry boys, I’ll get you back to where you were yesterday. I’ll fix you, I’ll fix you.”
After watching Get Back we can add two more to this list of benevolent outsiders who turn up, miraculously, at the right time. Billy Preston drops in to say hello and ends up extending the band’s creative life by a year. Preston, whom they instantly recognise to be an astonishing musician, reminds them of an aspect of collaboration that they had been in danger of forgetting: joy. Then there is Peter Jackson. Only Jackson could have made this film, for three reasons. First, he’s a deep, deep Beatles nerd, who understands the significance of every moment captured on this film, and whose love for the band meant he was prepared to give up nearly four years of his working life in order to make it. Second, he is a master storyteller and a director of stature who clearly wasn’t ever going to be pushed around by Apple or Disney. Third, he is a technology enthusiast, on a project where the technical challenges were immense and fundamental. That’s a freakishly apt combination of attributes and yet, well, this is The Beatles.
Michael Lindsay-Hogg has received a bad press from this series. I mean, I get it, but my main feeling towards him is one of gratitude. Thank you for putting cameras and mics absolutely bloody everywhere, even in a flowerpot. Thank you for giving us this up-close look at the creative life of the greatest band that ever lived. Thank you for being brave enough, or insensitive enough, to ask such direct questions. So you and Paul aren’t getting on so well, right? The same robust ego that made him ask about Libya and children’s hospitals every five minutes also got the members of the band talking more about each other than they would have done otherwise.
And remember: MLH had an impossible job! He’d been invited to make a film by a client who then withdrew their cooperation, at least partially. This is something that Paul (of course) acknowledges, in a moment that didn’t make into Get Back, possibly because it includes rather colourful swearing. McCartney was producing a record for the singer Jackie Lomax at this time. Referring to MLH, he says, “Any other director in the world would say, ‘Fuck off. Get off my set, you cunt.’ I mean, wouldn’t you? I couldn’t operate…if Jackie in the middle of the album said he won’t do it, we wouldn’t have the album.”
Since we are giving thanks: thank you, Debbie Wellum, Apple receptionist, for your quite masterful stalling. “Don’t go actually on the roof, it’s overweight.”
The decision paralysis afflicting the group meant that the rooftop concert nearly didn’t happen right up until the last minute. According to a recent radio interview with MLH (who, you’ll be glad to hear, sounds in his eighties just as irrepressible as he does in the film), the Beatles were still debating whether or not to do it when they were literally about to step out on to the roof.
In one of the vox pops, a puzzled passer-by asks why they didn’t play where people could see them. This is a fair question. Perhaps because they were only playing for themselves. It was certainly a crazy idea - to play live but in a way that they couldn’t be seen or even heard properly; to play only new songs, rather than any songs the crowd might just have recognised. It was wrong in so many ways, and yet it became one of their finest moments. Another beautiful Beatles fluke.In George Saunders’ book about creative writing, A Swim In The Pond In The Rain, he quotes Einstein to the effect that “no worthy problem is ever solved within the plane of its original conception.” The rooftop concert didn’t answer the question they started with, but it was a perfect answer nonetheless.
My favourite moment from the rooftop - ah, there are many. But if I had to pick one, it’s a shot that lasts about a second during their first performance of Get Back. When the beat kicks in and Billy Preston hits that riff we get an overhead shot (well, a shot from the other roof). We had overhead shots of them at Twickenham, marooned on a little island in that vast expanse of linoleum. Here, we look down on them and they’re dancing. Now, it’s cold, for sure. But to me, this is the precise moment when John, in particular, thinks FUCK YEAH, this is what it’s all about (maybe he’s not thinking it, but he’s got that feeling). When did they last dance like that on stage? Not at Candlestick Park or the London Palladium or the BBC. They are dancing like they danced at the Cavern or the Kaiserkeller. Except here they’re dancing like nobody’s watching.
“Writing is a technical process that results in a mystical experience.”
There’s a truism in sport that what makes a champion is not the level they play at when they’re in top form but how well they play when they’re not in form. When we meet The Beatles in Get Back, they’re clearly in a dip, and that’s what makes their response to it so impressive. Even the best songs they bring in are not necessarily very good to begin with. Don’t Let Me Down is not up to much at Twickenham. George calls it corny, and he isn’t wrong. But John has a vision of a song that eschews irony and sophistication and lunges straight for your heart, and he achieves it, with a little help from his friends. They keep running at the song, shaping it and honing it, and by the time they get to the roof it is majestic.
The already classic scene in which Paul wrenches the song Get Back out of himself shows us, not just a moment of inspiration, but how the group pick up on what is not an obviously promising fragment and begin the process of turning it into a song. In the days to follow, they keep going at it, day after day, run-through after run-through, chipping away, laboriously sculpting the song into something that seems, in its final form, perfectly effortless. As viewers, we get bored of seeing them rehearse it and we see only some of it: on January 23rd alone they ran it through 43 times. The Beatles don’t know, during this long process, what we know - that they’re creating a song that millions of people will sing and move to for decades to come. For all they know, it might be Shit Takes all the way down. But they keep going, changing the lyrics, making small decision after small decision - when the chorus comes in, where to put the guitar solo, when to syncopate the beat, how to play the intro - in the blind faith that somewhere, hundreds of decisions down the line, a Beatles song worthy of the name will emerge.
A good song or album - or novel or painting - seems authoritative and inevitable, as if it just had to be that way, but it rarely feels like that to the people making it. Art involves a kind of conjuring trick in which the artist conceals her false starts, her procrastination, her self-doubts, her confusion, behind the finished article. The Beatles did so well at effacing their efforts that we are suspicious they actually had to make any, which is why the words “magic” and “genius” get used so much around them. A work of genius inspires awe in a lesser artist, but it’s not necessarily inspiring. In Get Back, we are allowed into The Beatles’ process. We see the mess; we live the boredom. We watch them struggle, and somehow it doesn’t diminish the magic at all. In a sense, Paul has finally got his wish: Let It Be is not just an album anymore. Joined up with Get Back, it is an exploration of the artistic journey - that long and winding road. It is about how hard it is to create something from nothing, and why we do it, despite everything.
After the rooftop The Beatles and their gang listen back to the recording of what they did up there. In this scene, I really feel like I’m in there with them, exchanging grins, seat-dancing away. It’s a joyous moment and it seems like a natural end to the series - certainly, Jackson could have ended it there if he wanted. But then we hear Paul suggesting they get back to work, and instead of saying screw that we’re getting drunk for a fortnight, everyone agrees. As it turns out, the studio isn’t ready, so they come in the next day to do the songs that weren’t suitable for the roof.
The closing sequence is from that last day. An exhausted contentment prevails. They play the same few songs over and over and over: Two of Us, Long and Winding Road, Let It Be. They start to look bored, glassy-eyed, and the silly voices creep in, but they keep going. As they begin yet another run-through of Let It Be, we get one of those magical subtitles that signify this is it - this is the take we’ve been listening to all these years.
When it comes to an end, John, who is sitting on the floor with his guitar, says, “I thought that was rather grand. I’d take one home with me.” Paul asks Glyn if it was good enough. Glyn says yes. Paul says, “We’ll do one more, just to cover ourselves.” John has a grumble, puts his cigarette out, and gets ready to go again.
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You might also enjoy 64 Reasons To Celebrate Paul McCartney. More about me here. I’m on Twitter here. I’m currently writing a book about John and Paul, for Faber & Faber.
Oh and in the latest edition of The Ruffian (for paid subscribers) you’ll find some DVD extras - something I wish I’d said about Lennon, and a few other observations that didn’t make the cut.
They trapped themselves semi-deliberately. In a conversation with Michael Lindsay-Hogg at Apple, McCartney says, loud enough so that Lennon can overhear, words to the effect that John is at his best when his back is against the wall. (Lennon says the same when McCartney confronts him at Twickenham over his lack of songs). I think Paul believed he had to create a crisis (or at least, as he puts it in conversation with John, “an artificial framework”) in order to galvanise his increasingly passive partner(s) into action.
It might not be coincidence that during this time Paul comes up with a song about driving from the back seat.
The presence of Sellers does little for the story except remind us how much The Beatles interacted with Britain’s comedy scene (this continued in the 1970s, with Harrison’s sponsorship of Monty Python). In Get Back we get to see just how vital goofing around was to their creative process; every song has to be done in eight different silly voices. Has there ever been a serious band to which humour was so central?
The interview he’s referring to took place at Twickenham. You can watch it here - note the band’s set-up and Lindsay-Hogg’s cameras in the background. Note also the noises off as The Magic Christian crew bring in props, something we see in Get Back. Lennon makes his enforced exit at about the 16 min mark and returns noticeably sharper.
Note how McCartney’s voice, in particular, always seems primed and ready to go throughout - he never has to warm up, rarely sounds like he’s straining, he just opens his mouth and there it is.
The rooftop gig wasn’t the only Beatles fluke that year. When they were making the album which became Abbey Road, its working title was “Everest”, inspired by a brand of cigarettes. A vague plan emerged to do the cover shoot on Mount Everest, the equivalent of Tripoli and a thousand Arabs. Once again, they took the easiest, most proximate option instead - this time, strolling across a zebra crossing outside the studio. Once again, it worked out pretty well.
This is such a great read Ian. You don't always want to read things that make you nod, agree with everything, and go "yes, yes. exactly this. yes" but your analysis chimed very deeply. So thank you.
It's delightful, as a longtime denizen of the endlessly deep and meandering Beatles rabbit warren, to read so many original and acute observations. I loved this piece.