How we remember the Beatles: Vir Sanghvi on Peter Jackson’s Get Back
Nobody seriously disputes that the Beatles were the greatest band of the 20th century. It is as clear that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were the best songwriting team of the last hundred years.
But as much as we appreciate the genius of the Beatles, we also believe the stories that have been told about the band. Of these stories, none has had more impact than the story of their break-up. In the popular imagination, the Beatles broke up because John Lennon fell in love with Yoko Ono and she turned him against his band mates, destroying the band.
It’s a legend that relies on self-serving testimony and scraps of information. When Ono entered Lennon’s life she was regularly pilloried — often in a casually racist manner — by the British and American press. Later, after the band had fragmented, John Lennon gave bitter (and, it now seems, somewhat mendacious) interviews in which he attacked his former band mates for being cruel to Ono.
His worst words were reserved for his former best friend and songwriting partner, McCartney, who became the subject of the vicious How Do You Sleep, a song full of hate and bitterness. (Released on the album Imagine, in 1971, one verse goes: A pretty face may last a year or two / But pretty soon they’ll see what you can do / The sound you make is muzak to my ears / You must have learned something in all those years…)
Crucial to this characterisation of the end of the Beatles was the film Let It Be (directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg; 1970), a documentary about the band rehearsing new material.
The film shows the group bickering unhappily in a cold and cavernous soundstage at Twickenham Film Studios in January 1969, while Ono loomed in the background like some malign presence.
Let It Be was edited while the band was breaking up and the film was released soon after the Beatles formally broke up. Because the Let It Be LP, released in 1970, was the last album of original Beatles music to be released, it became, in the popular imagination, a record of the last days of the Beatles, the last music that they created together.
The Beatles, who had commissioned Let It Be, were clearly not pleased with this unpleasant reminder of their time together and, after its initial release, the film was hardly ever shown.
But even as memories of Let It Be contributed to the legend of the collapsing Beatles, something about that characterisation did not ring quite true. There was one obvious problem with that legend. Let It Be may have been the last Beatles album to be released, but it was not the last one they recorded. After they had finished with the sessions for the Let It Be movie, the band went on to record the excellent Abbey Road (later in 1969), one of their best LPs, and still widely regarded as a classic.
So, if the band was falling apart during the Let It Be sessions, then how did they get it together for Abbey Road?
Beatles fans debated this question for years until the answer finally arrived a week ago. It turned out that the Let It Be sessions had produced nearly 60 hours of footage of which only a small fraction had been used in the movie. The two surviving Beatles, Ringo Starr and McCartney, entrusted all 60 hours of footage to Peter Jackson, best known for directing the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson spent four years on the project, during which time he used the latest technology to restore the fading footage to its full glory. He also used technology to take apart the mono tracks on which film’s audio was recorded and re-constructed it, voice by voice, instrument by instrument, sound by sound.
He then sifted through the footage, producing a three-part documentary that runs for nearly eight hours. Not only is it a fly-on-the-wall account of the Beatles in the studio, it also looks and sounds fresh and bright, as though it was filmed yesterday.
And the story it tells is very different from the legend that has passed into the popular imagination. The band members were not at each other’s throats during the making of the Let It Be LP. Yes, there were disagreements, but the tone of the sessions was warm and friendly.
The Beatles we see in the Jackson documentary are, oddly enough, not so different from the Beatles we saw in the films A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965): four witty, playful friends who fit together musically and were always ready with a quip or a laugh.
The Jackson documentary, titled The Beatles: Get Back, is at its most revealing when it deals with the relationship between Lennon and McCartney. Contrary to the view that the sessions were riven with the tensions between the two men, Get Back shows them as musical collaborators who understand each other’s music and habits. There are warm and affectionate moments between the two of them, and an undeniable intimacy.
As for Ono, yes she comes to the studio with Lennon every day, but nobody seems to object too much because she is not a disruptive influence. (In the documentary series, she barely speaks or moves while in the studio). And lots of other people come to the studio too (albeit not as regularly). McCartney’s girlfriend (later, wife) Linda Eastman drops in and on one occasion brings her daughter (who is then six and is, actually, a disruptive influence). Ringo Starr brings his wife Maureen Starkey. And Harrison invites two Hare Krishna monks to sit in on the sessions.
There are other invitees too. The actor Peter Sellers (soon to act with Starr in the film The Magic Christian) turns up. So does George Harrison’s friend Billy Preston, who is immediately drafted by Lennon to play keyboards on the album.
At one stage, McCartney and Starr talk about Lennon and Ono and the press speculation that her presence is tearing the band apart. McCartney takes the line that Lennon’s choices are his business, while recognising that if it came to a choice between Ono and the band, he believes Lennon would choose Ono over the Beatles. As for the reports about her breaking up the band, McCartney notes how absurd it would sound 50 years later to say the Beatles broke up because Yoko Ono sat in on the sessions. (Would it? Fifty-two years later, that is still what people are saying.)
The original idea, when the sessions begin, is for the Beatles to make a TV special full of new songs. A sound stage is offered to them at the cold and draughty Twickenham studios and the Beatles, who have not recorded together for months, are awkward and uncomfortable at first. They have to finish writing and recording 14 songs for the TV show in three weeks because, after that, they will not have the use of the soundstage, and Starr will have to go off to shoot for The Magic Christian.
The tension, at this stage, is not between Lennon and McCartney but between George Harrison and Lennon-McCartney. For most of their careers, the latter two have written nearly all the Beatles songs and Harrison resents being the junior songwriting partner in the band. His own writing skills have come of age and he has written, he says, an album’s worth of songs, but feels restricted by the quota (about two per album) that he is allowed to record.
One day, he walks out and says he’s leaving the Beatles. The others huddle together wondering what to do, clearly shattered, though Lennon is outwardly dismissive (give him a few days, he suggests, if he doesn’t come back, we can get Eric Clapton instead). Eventually the three other Beatles make two trips to Harrison’s home to persuade him to return, which he eventually does, on condition that they move out of Twickenham.
The band agrees and the sessions shift to a studio in the Beatles’ own office building on Savile Row in London. The mood changes and the tensions of the Twickenham sessions seem to dissipate.
So why did Let It Be paint such a different picture? Perhaps because Lindsay-Hogg had wanted to end it with a live performance by the Beatles at an amphitheatre in Libya and the Beatles said no. In Get Back, he is shown hustling the idea only to be rebuffed. Left with what he says is no narrative structure or even “pay-off” to end the film with, he has to make do with a performance by the band on the roof of their Savile Row building.
His solution may have been to find a storyline for the film by focussing on the tensions during the Twickenham sessions. He knew the band was breaking up, and the timing would in that sense be perfect. It is significant that the original Let It Be movie hardly features the happier sessions at Savile Row.
So why, then, did the Beatles break up? The answer would seem to be disagreements over the band’s financial future. The Beatles had been screwed over by everyone from their label EMI to their music publisher Dick James (the butt of many jokes in the Get Back documentary). So when the American manager Allen Klein appeared and offered to get them their due, Lennon naively believed him and enthusiastically sold him to the rest of the band. Starr was wary (he saw it as hiring one conman to fight the others), Harrison was reticent. McCartney bitterly opposed any association with Klein (as subsequent events showed, he was right to do so) and Lennon and McCartney fell out mainly over the financial future of the band.
The music had nothing to do with it. In Get Back, we see McCartney generously co-writing Gimme Some Truth with Lennon (the song would eventually appear on a Lennon solo album with no credit to McCartney) and the two work together on Don’t Let Me Down, probably the best so-called Lennon song on the Let It Be LP. Even Harrison’s Something benefits from the intervention of the other Beatles. The picture that emerges from the Let It Be sessions is of musical collaborators: somebody will suggest a riff here or add a verse there.
And there are moments of musical magic, most involving McCartney. We see him strumming on his guitar until suddenly the familiar chords of Get Back emerge. He keeps at it until, over the next few days, the full song develops before the viewer’s eyes. Sometimes he sits alone at his piano working on the melodies that become The Long and Winding Road and Let It Be. When McCartney is at work it is hard to escape the feeling that one is watching a musical genius at his creative peak.
Lennon, on the other hand, seems to have been stoned for much of the 60 hours. (The Beatles biographer Philip Norman has suggested that he was on heroin at the time.) But a stoned Lennon is still better than most other musicians sober and in full form.
By the time the documentary ends with that famous concert on the roof, and the police trying to break it up, you realise just how many of the legends surrounding the Beatles are pure myths. Nearly everything we have been told about their breakup is called into question.
But the music is not a myth. It is their legacy to a world they helped transform. And it lives on.