When the second part of Get Back begins, The Beatles are in a real quandary. Not only are they nowhere near having 12-14 new songs ready to unveil to the world in a live performance just a couple of weeks later, but they have no idea what form the concert will take or where it will happen (increasingly desperate, documentary director Michael Lindsay-Hogg suggests an orphanage or children’s hospital at one point). Most crucially of all, they are one Beatle down. George has had enough, and shows no sign of returning. John, his abandonment issues perhaps coming to the fore, flippantly suggests they “get Eric Clapton in” – a preposterous idea on so many levels, and he undoubtedly knew it. This is one band which could never have interchangeable members. They soldier on as a trio (astonishingly, still consolidating the development of the song ‘Get Back’ as they go), and Yoko even makes up the numbers at one point as they embark on a frenzied, free-form, grungy “wig-out”. It’s the kind of screechy, feedback-heavy exercise that would become an early trademark of John-and-Yoko, though here you suspect it’s more of a cathartic musical metaphor for the floundering Fabs. They can’t go on like this, and things soon come to a head in what is one of the most riveting and revealing parts of the whole film.
One day, John doesn’t show up either, and proceedings grind to a halt. A discussion between Paul, Ringo, Lindsay-Hogg, Linda and others spotlights not only the problems besetting the project, but also the issues within the band. A meeting at Ringo’s house (presumably seen as neutral ground) to persuade George to return had gone badly – largely, it seems, because John refused to engage, allowing Yoko to do his talking for him. While acknowledging it has caused tensions within the band, Paul seems relaxed about Yoko’s continuing presence (“he just wants to be with her”), but at a loss about how to deal with John’s on-going apathy. An audio recording of this conversation has been circulating a while, but seeing it take place puts it in a whole new light. While Macca makes jocular references to the documentary ending with The Beatles’ break-up, the most telling moment comes when he sums up the stark situation with: “And then there were two.” Everyone falls silent, and the camera lingers on his face for a moment; his eyes glisten, and he looks heartbroken. Likewise a few moments later, when Lennon finally returns their calls and says he is coming in after all, Paul returns from the phone with a spring in his step, visibly relieved and happy. No matter how famous they all were, or what they had achieved, their relations with each other were still paramount. This wasn’t a loveless marriage, with people staying together just for the sake of the kids or their finances; they really cared. The problem was, things weren’t the same as when they first got together as teenagers.
When John does show up, a private conversation between him and Paul was captured by Lindsay-Hogg via a hidden bug in a plant pot in a nearby dining area. It’s miraculous we have this, a completely unfiltered, unguarded dialogue between them on how to save The Beatles. The content is a bit of a jumble, as intimate chats between close friends often are to anyone listening in, and there are no clear answers or solutions in it. But we do hear some unflinching, startlingly self-aware admissions from John: that excluding George from the Lennon/McCartney writing partnership (a decision made back in 1962) was a “festering wound” for George that they’ve never really addressed; that he (John) has been “frightened” of Paul’s powerhouse composing and arranging abilities, and that they need to make compromises to stay together. Paul, for his part, seems to be tacitly imploring John to be more involved, to show more leadership. He again reiterates that he doesn’t want to be the “secondary boss”, I’m guessing because he knows the group dynamic won’t work like that. It’s amazing stuff, and does seem to make a difference to how things play out afterwards.
We later hear George has gone to Liverpool for a couple of days, so the Fab Three continue work at Twickenham, play host to a brief but uneventful visit from Peter Sellers (soon to be starring alongside Ringo in The Magic Christian) and hold further talks about where the project goes from here. Paul also has chance to wheel out more sparkling baubles alone at the piano, including the debut of ‘Oh! Darling’. But the absence of George is palpable, and it’s a relief to hear that a further meeting at Ringo’s house has brought him back into the fold – on condition that the proposed concert abroad is ditched, and that they abandon Twickenham for the more cosy confines of their new Apple studio in Savile Row to concentrate on finishing the album. And what a difference these decisions make. Once they reconvene there a few days later, the mood and ambience is dramatically different. They instantly seem more relaxed, together and focused. John, in particular, is more like the Lennon of old – alert, interested and playful, constantly goofing off and making cracks. He’s even come up with a new song, ‘Dig A Pony’, washed his hair and eased off on the drug use (he doesn’t appear strung-out, at least). George Martin is also much more to the fore, coming to the band’s rescue by borrowing recording equipment from EMI after Apple’s own electronics “genius”, ‘Magic’ Alex Mardas, had over-promised and under-delivered once again. The shift to recording, instead of rehearsing, gives him greater prominence, although engineer Glyn Johns remains a lively, colourful presence.
In short, facing up to their internal problems and shifting locale galvanises the band and the whole enterprise. This is further augmented by the unexpected arrival of American keyboardist and friend from their Hamburg club days (where he was in Little Richard’s backing band), Billy Preston. The fact that he just drops in the exact moment they are (literally) crying out for an additional musician to help them stick to the ‘live performances, no overdubs’ approach to making the album is one of the seeming endless slices of serendipity which litter The Beatles’ entire career. He not only helps to flesh out some of the songs with soulful electric piano and organ contributions, but also – equally as important – burnishes the positive vibes which have blossomed in the Apple studio. The Fabs clearly love him, he’s obviously thrilled to be there, and he slots seamlessly into the picture. “You’ve given us a lift, Bill” says John at one point, and he’s right. Musically, things undoubtedly start to gather pace. Certain songs from Twickenham are quietly ditched (such as ‘Across The Universe’, ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ and ‘All Things Must Pass’) while they concentrate on bringing others to fruition. ‘Get Back’ finds the groove and shape we all know and love, with George cleverly suggesting they borrow some inspiration from the Four Tops’ ‘Reach Out (I’ll Be There)’. ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ really come to life, greatly benefiting from Preston’s swampy keyboard licks. John finally gets behind one of George’s songs, playing some pitch-perfect slide guitar on ‘For You Blue’, while ‘Two of Us’ – a tune they’d laboured over a little earlier in the sessions – is reworked in a more persuasive, wistful acoustic setting, with George (playing bass on it) happily commenting on how they’ve turned it around.
In truth, though, the pleasure Get Back comes as much from soaking up their banter, interplay and humour as from the music. As I wrote last time, they loved reading about themselves in the press – in an ironic way – and a sensationalist tabloid piece by Michael Housego about their recent troubles captivates them during their first day’s work at Apple. Falsely claiming that John and George came to blows at Twickenham and gleefully dancing on the grave of the band’s public image, the article is ludicrous, riddled with cliche, fabrication and self-righteousness (though probably reflective of how some parts of the public now saw their once-beloved moptops, who they believed had turned into “weirdies”, as Housego puts it). But The Beatles lap it up, John having a mock fist-fight with George, and Paul reading out the entire article in a faux intellectual, pompous comedy voice while the others jam around him. It’s a hoot, but then most of the time at Savile Row is full of laughs. Like their uproarious reaction when roadie Mal Evans brings in a ridiculously impractical guitar – with a revolving neck – designed by Magic Alex, or when John and Paul (in thick Scouse) playfully chide Glyn Johns for interrupting a take of ‘Get Back’. Or when Paul points out that some lyrics in their new songs seem to echo or reply to each other and John says that makes him and Macca sound like lovers, suggesting they should “camp up” the tunes in concert. John is on fire at Apple, firing off non-stop quips, gags, funny voices and musical parodies, displaying the full force of his charm and wit that was partly absent at Twickenham.
There’s a fascinating segment when the Fabs discuss their visit to India the previous year. Some of this chat was featured in the Let It Be film, but it is greatly expanded here and – crucially – augmented by footage captured at the Maharishi’s retreat in Rishikesh. We saw excerpts from this in The Beatles Anthology series, but we get more of it here, not only restored to pristine condition by director Peter Jackson and his team but also with a narration from Paul, as he recounts watching it the previous night. John and Paul seem to view the whole escapade as a jolly jape, with Macca repeatedly saying “it wasn’t us”, meaning that they weren’t being truthful to themselves. In one of the few moments of tension at Apple, George disagrees, clearly feeling they didn’t take it seriously enough. Paul nods his head in understanding, but you get the feeling he’s just reluctant to rock the boat after their recent schism; shades, perhaps, of his careful handling of George during the Anthology reunion 25 years later.
As with the first episode, though, there are too many highlights to list here. It’s thrilling, for example, to finally see John say some of the one-liners we’ve heard on the Let It Be album all these years (such as “I dig a pigmy, by Charles Hawtry and the Deaf Aids!”). And the visual context often places familiar incidents in a wholly different light – for example, Lennon’s jokey spoken improvisations during their performance of an embryonic ‘Teddy Boy’ (as heard on the Anthology 3 album) are often portrayed of a sign of his disdain for the song, but here you can see it’s just another instance of them larking around, something which happens with nearly all the tracks at one time or other. Then there’s the moment when George asks Paul if they’re going to have an intro for ‘Let It Be’, and Macca just produces one out of thin air. I also love the scenes where they gather in the control room to listen to playbacks, sitting shoulder to shoulder, joking around and discussing everything from the drum patterns for ‘I Dig A Pony’ to whether they should rush-release ‘Get Back’ as a single. They’re just four mates from Liverpool hanging out, but at those moments I’m sitting there open-mouthed thinking: “Fuck – it’s The Beatles!!!” There’s a particularly eye-opening moment in the control room when Paul and George are discussing the arrangement of ‘The Long and Winding Road’ with George Martin. George suggests brass might be good, whereas Paul is thinking of strings. Quite how either of these would have been incorporated into a live performance isn’t clear, but it also calls into question Paul’s oft-expressed outrage at Phil Spector’s orchestral overdubs when the song was readied for release a year later. To be fair, it was probably the scale of the additions Paul resented, but it’s still intriguing to learn he was imagining a fatter sound for the tune from the get-go.
Two other things occurred to me while watching the first two episodes. First, they were very conscious and aware of their own history, and constantly refer to it. As when Paul points out an early attempt at ‘Get Back’ is in danger of sounding too much like ‘She’s A Woman’ or reminds the others that they’ve recorded numbers without a bass part before, citing ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’. Or when John and Paul both hark back to the 1964 TV special Around The Beatles. Or their regular dipping into previous songs, from ‘Love Me Do’ to ‘I Feel Fine’ to ‘I’m So Tired’. You’d think stuff like that would seem ancient to them, so much had happened since, and then you realise that all this took place in just seven years, a blink of an eye really. Staggering. Second, how comfortable and at ease they are with each other. I know that might sound obvious, considering John, Paul and George had been together since their mid-teens and they’d been friends with Ringo for almost a decade. But when you consider the intense spotlight of fame and unimaginable pressures they’d been under for so long, how their egos must have mushroomed with years of being treated almost like gods, and the strains on their relationships of recent months, it’s remarkable they get along so well – a testament to their special friendship and enduring bond. The bonhomie of A Hard Day’s Night may have been played up for the cameras, but watching the real thing unfold, they’re still every bit the gang you wish you could be part of. They love being together and strike sparks off each other, personally and creatively. I always think that’s a big part of their lasting appeal. They get a real buzz making music together, and that transmits to us.
Despite the newfound direction and communal intent at Saville Row, however, uncertainty about the ultimate purpose of the documentary remains. The original dates for a concert have been scrubbed, and Lindsay-Hogg is fussing and fretting. A restless McCartney, concerned that it will just be a film of them making “another fucking album”, is still keen on some kind of live finale. Lennon seems up for it, Harrison less so; Ringo, as ever, seems content to go with the flow. But where, and when, and have they got enough songs that are (a) suitable, and (b) ready to premiere? They briefly consider Primrose Hill, a public park with spectacular views of London not too far from Abbey Road, though how that would’ve worked in the middle of winter I’m not sure. But a more prosaic solution soon presents itself, and gives part three of Get Back a whole new momentum, which I’ll discuss in my next post.