The Beatles, ‘Get Back’ and the Britain of 1969 and the Present
Scottish Review, 1 December 2021
The Beatles still fascinate, mesmerise and speak to us – a timeless phenomenon from post-war British society and another age and world.
Peter Jackson’s opus ‘The Beatles: Get Back’ – released last week on Disney+, an eight-hour extravaganza of the band in three parts – shows their work and different personalities up close in an unprecedented fly in the wall film that drew from 56 hours of footage and 150 hours of audio tape.
The result is spell-binding and transfixing, inviting the viewer into private conversations and a set of stories with so many levels – about them and us, our collective and individual relationship to the Beatles, and how music and society has changed and not changed over the intervening 50 years.
‘Get Back’ has been gestating for over half a century: a mere 51 years after ‘Let It Be’ their swansong and sour kiss-off of a film and album and 52 years since the original ‘Get Back’ sessions. This puts Abba’s 40 year hiatus in perspective – and even Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys long aborted ‘Smile’ which appeared 37 years late (1967 to 2004).
The original ‘Get Back’ premise was never fully nailed down in 1969: it was meant to capture the group on camera rehearsing and recording for a concert and possible TV special. But over several weeks in January 1969 the lack of precision sapped energy and produced tension within the band – and between them and then director Michael Lindsay-Hogg.
The foundation myth of the Beatles break-up is that the ‘Get Back’ sessions were bitter and filled with acrimony, sowing the seeds of their disintegration and split in late 1969 (which did not become public until April 1970 when McCartney announced to the world that he was leaving but had been set in motion in September 1969 when Lennon told the others he was leaving but it was agreed to not go public because of record company negotiations).
All that is a backdrop to eight hours of gorgeous, multicoloured film as we sit next to Paul, John, George and Ringo, a shifting cast of helpers – George Martin, Glyn Johns, Mal Evans, Derek Taylor, wives, partners and children, and most importantly for John and Paul, Yoko Ono (who sits next to John every day in the studio) and Linda Eastman, as well as Pattie Boyd and Maureen Starkey.
This beautifully restored footage of these four young men – John 28, Paul 26, Ringo 28, George 25 – offers an intimate look into the greatest rock and roll group of all-time, revealing things about their chemistry, bonds, history, creative processes and how they even in adversity and disagreement connected. It shows that they were a family and that as they grew up, the boundaries of this changed and they became more individuals than the collective whole which had made them.
The film opens with them arriving in a cold, unwelcoming Twickenham Studios on the morning of 2 January. They have decided to record an album live without the studio wizardry and tricks of ‘Sgt. Pepper’. Yet they have few songs between them by their standards, having emptied the vault only a month and a bit previously with the 30 track ‘The White Album’.
John has next to nothing to offer; Paul always has a song up his sleeve as well as a work discipline but even he is struggling to begin with; and George is sullen and withdrawn at his growing song-writing talent being ignored by Paul and John.
This looks like the beginning of the end. George walks out and only returns when they decant to the basement of Apple Corps headquarters, and Billy Preston (who played with Little Richard and Ray Charles, and is a long-time friend from Hamburg) joins them as keyboard player after passing by and dropping in the studio. His contribution makes things gel – and suddenly they sparkle, smile, the songs come together, and the interplay between the four works.
The film’s finale is the last ever Beatles live performance: the 42-minute rooftop concert of 30 January in central London at lunchtime, when part of the city stops as they play nine tracks and some fusty types complain of the noise.
McCartney earlier in the film says of where they should play live: ‘We should trespass. In a place we’re not allowed to do it … and that should be the show, getting forcibly ejected, still trying to play your numbers.’ This sort of comes to pass when 25-year-old PC Ray Shayler comes to Apple acting on the complaints and provides the climax and closure to the occasion and film. Shayler now aged 77 is a notable footnote in the group’s history – having ended up in the band’s promo for the ‘Get Back’ single, appeared on ‘Top of the Pops’ in 1969, and two Beatles films fifty years apart.
The insight, charm and love between the four Beatles is there nearly all the time. Paul starts a run through of ‘Two of Us’ – a song about his love for Linda – which many of us for years have also thought is about Paul and John, only to have it confirmed by John saying as the song starts directly to Paul: ‘Yeah, it’s like you and me are lovers’.
Paul shows an emotional intelligence which belies the present-day conceit that it was only in this century that men (and Englishmen at that) talked about their feelings. The band know they have struggled for direction and discipline since the death of their manager Brian Epstein in 1967. Paul says he doesn’t want to be ‘the boss’, but that they need ‘a central daddy figure’; all four talk about ‘Mr Epstein’ with affection and respect.
There is the way the Beatles talk about being Beatles, how they understand themselves, their personas and yet distance themselves from who they are seen as stars to retain their humanity. John talks to Paul with real nuance about the ‘festering wound’ George is carrying by their marginalisation of him as a songwriter of growing talent and confidence.
Later John aids George on his song ‘For You Blue’ and says ‘I’m full of ideas like that, I’m famous for them – literally a Beatle, you know’ with depreciation and dry humour. In one exchange when 1969 director Michael Lindsay-Hogg comments, ‘I don’t know what story I am telling anymore’, Ringo replies: ‘You’re telling the autobiography of the Beatles, aren’t you?’ – as always getting to the heart of the matter.
So much of ‘Get Back’ reflects from 1969 to today. The way the Beatles look and dress would not be out of place in 2021, they talk and behave like contemporary young hipsters. The only thing which dates the four is of them smoking and the monocultural, whiteness of Central London outside when they start playing live on the rooftop.
Then there is the music – the wonder of McCartney’s songwriting talents as he draws together a wealth of material for ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Abbey Road’ as well as what became solo songs (‘Back Seat of My Car’; ‘Another Day’); John gives us an early version of ‘Gimme Some Truth’ which appeared on 1971’s ‘Imagine’ and George ‘All Things Must Pass’ – which became the title track of his first post-Beatles album.
A stunning moment is the creation of ‘Get Back’ from the doodlings Paul starts out with and slowly the song, its shape and lyrics take form. Rather pertinent to the state of Britain 2021 is what inspired ‘Get Back’ (long known to Beatles aficionados but now shown in its full glory) namely Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ 1968 speech on the threat of immigration to ‘white Britain’.
‘Get Back’ began as ‘The Commonwealth Song’ against racism and stigmatising of immigration and people from black and ethnic minorities (including the lyrics: ‘Enoch Powell said to the immigrants, immigrants you better get back to your Commonwealth homes’). Seeing this unfold on film is a revelation and rather relevant to the present – one week after 27 people drowned in the English Channel trying to seek asylum as the UK Home Secretary Priti Patel ramps up the xenophobic ‘hostile environment’ rhetoric. Tragically ‘Get Back’s’ message is as contemporary as ever.
The Beatles Story Today and the State of Britain
There is the cultural impact of the Beatles on British society to reflect upon – bursting through old stifling boundaries of class, deference and taste. This has usually been presented as the end of the old aristocratic order and the arrival of the new classless Britain of the 1960s. But none of this looks so straightforward from the vantage point of Britain in 2021.
Writer Hanif Kureshi put it that the Beatles never let us down, were never browbeaten, defeated or demoralised by the obstacles and forces which they encountered in the UK in the 1960s and that ‘no one put them down’. Implicit in his observation is an awareness of the Beatles as four bright young working class men and the world opening up for them and a rising generation of working class men and women of talent.
Such an experience is not really possible in Britain today – after ten years pre-COVID of Tory austerity, the re-emergence of privilege and private education as unapologetic forms of social apartheid, and the brutal form of capitalist exploitation we now seem to accept locking out a younger generation of working class talent.
In the UK today popular music and the creative industries are in large part colonised by those with connections and private education who perpetuate the existing order and don’t ask any difficult questions or create challenging material: step forward Coldplay, James Blunt, Mumford & Sons and many more (although the worlds of UK grime and hip-hop are still holding out).
Some will say, so what if working class voices are increasing excluded from the arts, culture, and world of popular music? But it does matter so that songs about real issues and real life experience emerge instead of anodyne anthems. As Stuart Maconie writing in the ‘New Statesman’ a couple of years said: ‘The best art, and the best pop music certainly, has always been made by smart, impassioned outsiders such as Cocker or Morrissey, or by the cussed and ornery: the likes of Lennon or John Lydon.’
Even how we portray popular culture has been reframed by the continual reselling of the past, the nostalgia industry of which a key part is the mythology of the Beatles, and by the likes of Thatcherite historian Dominic Sandbrook. The latter does not like the idealism and hopes of the 1960s radicals and cutting-edge popular music and art; for him the likes of John Lennon and the Rolling Stones are worthy of contempt because they tried to question the existing system while being prepared to play it; more worthy of our respect according to Sandbrook is the likes of Elton John in his 1970s superstar mode.
The Beatles were trailblazers, musical pioneers and cultural revolutionaries. They blew open the doors, they did not recognise restrictions, they were fearless, supportive of each other and of many others musically and culturally – both directly and even more indirectly. But they were also human, had doubts and made lots of mistakes as they dared to go where no one had before.
Watching eight hours of Beatles film brought forth so many powerful emotions and feelings – joyful, sad, an elegy for an era of experimentation and opening, and reflection on the social and cultural closure which followed and the current toffication of popular culture, society and even high politics.
I feel blessed to live in a world where the Beatles existed, were possible, and we still have their glorious body of work and example. I cried at the end of the film. This beautiful film tells us something not just about them and the past, but about the present and how we have lost our way.
‘Get Back’ has many meanings. Somehow as a society we have to find a way back to idealism, expansiveness, hope, and creativity. The Beatles showed us what is possible and remind us how constricted, tawdry and offensive is present day Britain and the world we live in. We don’t need to accept this rotten, indefensible global order we currently inhabit.
‘Get Back’ is a tale from a more idealistic time, a witness to the end of an era and a clarion call; it is truly about the gift of four men from Liverpool but also about us and the joyful potential of being human.