We present Peter Fincham’s long and winding review of the epic new Beatles documentary series, Get Back
Towards the end of Peter Jackson’s Get Back , his monumental re-edit of footage originally shot for Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 film Let It Be, the Beatles, together with a camera crew and various members of their entourage, assemble on the roof of Apple’s headquarters in Savile Row (that’s the original Apple, not the one I’m writing this on) for their soon-to-be-famous outdoor concert.
As with everything in the seven or so hours of the series up until then, the revelations come thick and fast. I’d always assumed the concert ended because the police stopped it, but in truth they’ve run out of songs. They’re well into their third version of Get Back when Mal Evans (more of him later) creeps gingerly forward and turns off John and George’s amplifiers mid-song. Brave man!
By this point, law enforcement in the form of PC Ray Dagg (who looks even younger than the Beatles, and God knows they look young enough), PC Ray Shayler and the moustachioed Sgt David Kendrick have finally got past Apple’s decoys on reception – “I’m not sure what’s going on, I think they’re recording an album” – and climbed the stairs to the top floor.
The scene they encounter is extraordinary. Apart from anything else – who’s in charge of health and safety? The whole thing looks unbelievably precarious, literally one stumble away from becoming Mayfair’s answer to Altamount. Lindsay-Hogg is prowling around smoking a cigar, like a general surveying a battlefield. People are perched on ledges, slipping down roof tiles. There are cameras everywhere.
In the midst of the chaos, the Beatles themselves are having a ball. Having spent the past few weeks cooped up in, firstly, Twickenham Studios, and then the tiny, ill-equipped basement of Savile Row, the simple joy of playing a gig is written all over their faces.
And the police really don’t know what to do. They’ve received 30 complaints in the first half hour because of the noise, and crowds have gathered on the streets below. But the officers don’t seem to have the appetite to bring proceedings to a halt. They’re not sure whether they’re witnessing a breach of the peace or history being made.
Down on the streets, three different camera crews are focusing on reactions from passers-by. Mostly, people are amused and entertained. This section alone is a wonderful snapshot of late-sixties Britain – a strange mix of people, some of whom have stepped straight out of the 1950s, and others who seem to have paid a visit to a Carnaby Street boutique while on drugs, and then got dressed in the dark.
The overall mood is of tolerance and amusement. “Yes,” they respond in answer to questions, “we like the Beatles… No, we don’t mind the interruption. It’s more interesting than the average lunchtime in Savile Row.”
What you get very little of is the fanatical interest in The Beatles that has developed since. The reaction of the lucky few who witness the concert is strangely muted, as if to say, “It’s the Beatles, isn’t it? Or is it Herman’s Hermits? Yes, I like them. Sort of.”
If, like some of the secretaries and office workers on that cold January day, you’re only mildly interested in the Beatles, then Get Back probably isn’t for you. If, on the other hand, you regard the restoration of this long-hidden footage as the musical equivalent of discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls, it’s extraordinary. And every vivid, vibrant frame – the colours pop out as if you’re on acid – has something of interest. So in no particular order, here are some of the surprises on offer…
Tensions. The recording of the Let It Be album is famous for its tense moments. The group were disintegrating, they were at each other’s throats. Weren’t they? Well, it turns out they weren’t. There were certainly some of what we would now call “issues”, but the overall mood is creative and collaborative. And things get better as they go on. It takes them a while to get into the swing of things, and there’s a certain awkwardness during the first episode, but the pace picks up when they move into Savile Row and by episode three it’s mostly joy.
Hair. There’s a lot of it, and pretty much any hairstyle was considered acceptable. John has gone for the centre-parted, shoulder-length look that will become more familiar in the 1970s. At the other end of the scale, the smoothly attired George Martin is clearly still using Brylcreem. Paul, George and Ringo have unbelievably rich thatches of chestnut-coloured hair – mop tops, indeed. A point of interest – there appear to be flecks of grey in Paul’s beard, but when I google “when did Paul McCartney go grey?” the answer that comes up is 2016.
Evans, Mal. The teddy-bear-like Mal Evans is on the list of people who are sometimes known as “the fifth Beatle”. He was the Beatles’ roadie and personal assistant – and he steals every scene he’s in. One minute he’s humping an amplifier into an awkward corner, the next he’s giving Linda’s daughter Heather a piggy-back. He has an irresistible smile and huge mutton-chop sideboards. He’s clearly a life force, and has the Beatles’ complete confidence and trust. There’s something especially sad about watching Mal Evans in Get Back – he died in awful circumstances just seven years after the footage was taken. See Wikipedia for details.
Lennon, John. We all know what Lennon was really like, don’t we? Caustic, sarcastic and difficult, and by this stage a Beatle in name alone. It’s only a year or so before he’ll start slagging off his former bandmates in every interview he gives. So how do we explain the Lennon we see here? He’s a delight. The tensions that do develop in the first episode are all around George. John just turns up – sometimes a bit late, admittedly – and gets on with it. He seems fully committed to the whole project. He’s funny, generous, always ready to help sort out a line in a song that Paul’s struggling with, happy to pick up any instrument, polite to whoever brings him his umpteenth cup of tea.
Ono, Yoko. She sits in on every session and, conventional wisdom has it, is a major disruptive element and the Principal Cause of the Demise of The Beatles. But would you believe it, in Get Back she doesn’t appear to disrupt anything. She hardly says a word and is occasionally seen sewing. At one point when John and Yoko aren’t present the other Beatles discuss their still-new relationship, and Paul robustly defends John’s right to invite her along to recording sessions.
Nicotine. OMG, the smoking! There’s so much of it that Disney has seen fit to put a warning at the top of each episode. (Imagine how weird that would have seemed back in 1969.) Literally everybody seems to have a fag on at all times, and some – not just Lindsay-Hogg but Paul too – are fond of a cigar. Assuming that the air filtration system wasn’t up to modern standards, what was the atmosphere like in the studio?
George(s). There are two Georges in Get Back and both have a difficult time. George Martin is there, but it’s not clear what’s he’s doing. The Beatles have decided to record and perform their new songs live, with none of the technical wizardry that their famously well-spoken producer specialises in. Then there’s his appearance – he looks like a character in a Terence Rattigan play who’s just strolled in through the French doors. His role seems to have been usurped by the engineer Glyn Johns, who is a lot younger and a dedicated follower of fashion, even by 1969 standards.
Things are tougher still for George Harrison, who provides the first episode with its one real moment of drama when he decides to leave the group. It’s hard not to sympathise with George. He keeps turning up with songs he wants the others to take seriously, or even listen to. He admits they’re all a bit slow, but what’s wrong with slow? Paul likes a ballad, doesn’t he? Nothing George offers up gets any traction, and we see the steeliness behind Paul’s affability as he turns away mid-song, leaving George humiliated. Eventually, George doesn’t turn up at all, and sends a message saying he’s quit. Various crisis meetings take place off-camera, and suddenly he’s back again, smiling sweetly through to the end. In the last episode, George tells John he’s been writing so many songs that he’d like to make an album of his own. The seeds of the Beatles’ destruction are being sown here, I suppose. John gives him some half-hearted encouragement and is probably thinking, “Good luck with that.” But George doesn’t need John’s blessing, or his help – the songs he’s talking about will form the basis of All Things Must Pass, the first great post-Beatles album and arguably as great as anything John or Paul ever came up with. George gets the last laugh. One morning he turns up in a great mood and says, “I wrote a new song last night – it’s upbeat and happy!” It turns out to be “Old Brown Shoe”, which we then see the band rehearsing. But guess what – it doesn’t make the album.
Associates. Not surprisingly the Beatles have lots of associates and their appearances are always telling. Here’s Dick James popping in like a kindly uncle, showing John a glossy new sheet-music edition of their best-known songs. Dick is received politely but warily – by now they’ve worked out that publishing their songs is more rewarding for Dick than them. We don’t see Allen Klein but we hear about him in a conversation in which John goes on about how “fantastic” he is and Glyn Johns counters by saying that he’s “interesting”. Again, distant alarms. The standout associate, though, is Billy Preston. What a ray of sunshine he is. From the moment he joins the sessions, things start coming together. Billy looks as if he’s really enjoying the music. This may not seem that remarkable, but one of the odd things about Get Back is that in nearly eight hours of it nobody ever says, “That’s a great song.” A song is something to be worked on and improved, not flattered meaninglessly. Paul runs through “Let It Be” at the piano and people just puff on a fag or check a microphone position. Billy Preston’s upbeat positivity immediately makes the rest of the group feel better about themselves. The mood dips one day when he’s not there. Why? He’s been booked to perform on a Lulu TV special.
New. An obvious point, but they seem heroically dedicated to coming up with new material. Apart from the songs that make it onto the Let It Be album, we hear snatches of many of the unfinished songs that will wind up on Abbey Road. It’s as if they never stop writing. If they’re daunted by the fact that they’re competing with their own masterpieces – Revolver, Sgt Pepper, The White Album – it doesn’t show. They just soldier on. One day Paul tries out a verse or two of “Back Seat Of My Car”, which will then be put aside until Ram. Glyn Johns raises an eyebrow – he can tell that it’s good. There’s a sequence in which Ringo is sitting at the piano trying to finish “Octopus’s Garden”. George wanders over and suggests he ends the second line on G not C, as it will help him get into the middle 8, which he hasn’t yet worked out. The door opens and John breezes in, all smiles, with Yoko. And a couple of minutes later here’s Paul and Linda with little Heather. The whole effect is completely charming. Are they playing up for the cameras? You could argue that, but the cameras are so constantly present that it would be hard to keep up the façade. You feel that this is the real thing – the Beatles, plus family, at work. How could it all have ended in acrimony a year later?
Dentistry. Not good. Presumably there weren’t a lot of orthodontists in 1950s Liverpool, and it shows. George’s teeth in particular look as if they’ve all fallen out and he’s tried to put them back but forgotten which one goes where.
Wine. A lot is drunk, but very little beer, which might seem surprising. The white wine doesn’t look as if it’s been properly chilled. Very occasionally – there’s one sequence towards the end where Paul is looking decidedly rosy-cheeked – they appear drunk.
Informality (1). Considering what’s at stake, the informality of the Get Back sessions is astonishing. Early on, a couple of Hare Krishna disciples are invited along by George and sit silently in the corner of the big stage at Twickenham. You could say that they’re bored, or meditating, or just the luckiest Beatles fans ever. There are many, many others who show up for no obvious reason. You would imagine that, from the Beatles’ point of view, writing and recording an album while being watched by a camera crew and the flotsam and jetsam of late-sixties London – Peter Sellers pops in for a chat at one point – would be difficult. But it doesn’t put them off their stride. At Twickenham, they quickly discover that the acoustics are terrible – how come nobody worked that out in advance? There are plenty of roadies and general assistants – George asks during one session whether there’s anyone available to go and buy him some shoes – but the most famous group in the world don’t mind getting their hands dirty. At one point I swear I saw John Lennon helping someone lift a Hammond organ through a narrow doorway. I don’t suppose that happens when Coldplay are recording their new album.
No. Affable as they are, most of the time, the Beatles know when to say “no”. They can be pretty stubborn, and after all – they’re the Beatles. The main victim of this is Michael Lindsay-Hogg. What can we say about the original director, now eclipsed by the more famous Peter Jackson (who, by the way, receives a sole director’s credit for Get Back, despite being just seven years old when it was originally shot, and in New Zealand)? Well, he looks absurdly young, and he’s a very odd mixture of posh English and American. He tries hard to win the Beatles’ trust, and fails. He keeps wanting to talk about them playing live, when they want to talk about the music. He pushes hard to get them to perform in an old amphitheatre in Tunisia, but it’s never going to happen – Ringo doesn’t like foreign food. And as the rooftop concert shows, just as you can make as memorable an album cover in 10 minutes on a zebra crossing in Abbey Road as you’ll get by commissioning Peter Blake to create an iconic pop art collage, you can create an unforgettable spectacle by climbing onto the roof of your own office – no need for overseas travel at all.
Drugs. We all know that the late 1960s was a blizzard of drugs. Weren’t the Beatles high all the time? Isn’t that what half the songs are about? Once again, prepare to be surprised. There are a couple of days when John seems a bit – how to put it – distant, and who knows what he might be on. But because it’s being shot by a camera crew, who keep regular hours, the feel is surprisingly like observing regular office work. The Beatles turn up at about 10.00am, break for lunch and then wrap up towards the end of the afternoon. And there’s no evidence of drugs whatsoever. It’s possible that if the cameras weren’t there, they’d be smoking something stronger than cigarettes, but we never see it.
Informality (2). People swarm around the Beatles at all times, and when they move to the basement of Savile Row, the so-called Apple scruffs – girls who still fancy them as if they were permanently stuck in 1963 – can actually see into the studio by hanging off the railings. Nobody stops them or puts a blind up.
Nutrition. They don’t eat well. (See Dentistry above.) There’s a large plate of buns on the floor in Twickenham one morning – it sits there for ages, going stale. Mother’s Pride sandwiches are brought in from time to time. There is no sign of sourdough. This is the modern world, and yet it’s not.
Genius. When all’s said and done, what we’re looking at is genius at work. This is where Get Back is completely unique. If you’re one of those people who think the Peter Jackson version is absurdly, self-indulgently long – and I could understand that – look at it this way: nobody filmed them recording any of their other albums, or any other major artist of the times. Not remotely like this. Halfway through the first episode Paul starts playing something on his Hofner bass. You can’t see where he’s going for a while. George is sitting opposite him and picks out a chord. Ringo fills in the beat. Then you realise, he’s actually in the process of writing “Get Back” in front of our eyes. If the prospect of seeing that bores you, then I wouldn’t recommend the series. But then you won’t have read this far anyway.
Rivalry. The Beatles may have been big, but they had rivals. The previous month the Rolling Stones had released Beggars Banquet, and a copy of its gatefold cover can be seen lying around in the studio. Beggars Banquet is a very good album indeed. Does this worry them? It’s hard to tell. There’s something about the camaraderie of the group that creates a shield against the outside world. But the shield’s not going to last and, starting the following year, they’ll each be on their own. They might work with brilliant musicians and collaborators, but they won’t be The Beatles.
Outdoors. Let’s not forget, this footage was filmed in January. Nobody in their right mind would want to be on the roof of the Apple building except to fix the guttering. About half an hour after they begin, John says, “My fingers are getting too cold to play.” The wind is starting to get up; Ringo’s eyes are looking bloodshot. But they suffered for our pleasure, because the wintry scene – and their wardrobe – are all part of what makes the sequence so memorable. John’s fur coat, Ringo’s red PVC raincoat – randomly chosen, you suspect, but now forever associated with that one-off performance, which as we all know turned out to be the last time they ever played to a live audience.
Asher. Spare a thought for those who aren’t there. Paul went out with Jane Asher for five years but they split up the previous summer. Also in 1968, John’s six year marriage to Cynthia came to an end. In the sixties it was all change, all the time. Fashions, wives, songs – the Beatles were perpetually moving on. Jane Asher was the subject of some of Paul’s greatest songs, but in Get Back there is no trace of her.
Deadlines. The writer Douglas Adams (a Beatles fanatic himself, as I can attest after many late-night conversations on his favourite subject) famously said he loved deadlines – he liked the whooshing sound they made as they went past. Ditto the Beatles. The new edit cleverly makes use of the impending deadlines to instil drama. First there’s the aborted show in Tunisia (or almost anywhere else – breaking into the House of Commons to perform is discussed at one point), and then there’s the simple need to get the whole thing wrapped up by the end of January. Why? Because Ringo is about to start filming The Magic Christian. Time is pressing, but the Beatles remain unperturbed. They know they’ll come up with something memorable. Deadlines? What deadlines? This is where Paul’s strengths come to the fore. He chivvies the others along. He’s constantly pushing things forward. His mentality, he explains, is that he likes to achieve something every day.
Again, the seeds of destruction are there, because Paul becoming the main cheerleader starts to undermine the dynamic of the group itself. He tells John, “You’re the boss, you were always the boss,” but it doesn’t convince. The Beatles’ individual names are usually recited in the same order – John, Paul, George and Ringo – for a reason: that’s the order in which they joined the band. By force of personality, and sheer productivity, Paul has become the boss now. When George has his wobble, Paul regrets it. He’s self-aware enough to know that he needs to give George more oxygen. He tries to mend his ways (for example, listening with exaggerated attention to “Old Brown Shoe”). And on the final day of filming, with everyone exhausted by the pressures of the past few weeks, Paul performs the mesmerising version of “Let It Be” that we’ve been familiar with for over 50 years.
Get Back is a remarkable series – it’s joyful in many ways but with an elegiac aftertaste. After nearly eight hours of it, I regretted it reaching its conclusion, because we’re starting to see the Beatles themselves reaching their own conclusion. Yes, there’s still Abbey Road ahead but you can glimpse the end. And what’s so wonderfully surprising is to find what fun they’re still having. Thank goodness somebody kept all those tapes, and those rusty cans of film. Over a blustery and cold weekend in 2021, I was able to imagine it was 1969 all over again and get back to where we once belonged.
Peter Fincham was MD at Talkback until 2005. He then became Controller of BBC One and from 2008 to 2016 was Director of Television at ITV. In 2017 he co-founded independent production company Expectation.
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