‘Paul was not an ego-monster’ … the Beatles in Get Back. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy
Peter Jackson’s eight-hour documentary on the Fab Four reveals Ringo is an amazing drummer, McCartney was a joy and their entourage were coolest of all
The Guardian-Andy Welch
The Beatles didn’t know what they were in for
The concept for Let It Be was: no concept. The Beatles arrived in an empty studio and wondered where the equipment was. (And revealed that they knew very little about setting up PA systems.) What were they rehearsing for? A show on the QE2? A concert on Primrose Hill? A TV special in Libya? A film? What would the set look like? Would it be made of plastic? Why, George Harrison wondered, were they being recorded? Get Back makes clear that the Beatles didn’t have a clue what to expect from Let It Be.
And they certainly didn’t know how devious director Michael Lindsay-Hogg was. Not only was he recording their conversations, but he was also hiding microphones in canteen flowerpots. I had no idea the surreptitiously recorded conversation between John Lennon and Paul McCartney existed, in which the greatest songwriting partnership of all time discuss their deteriorating relationship and the way they’ve failed Harrison.
“George said he didn’t get enough satisfaction any more because of the compromise he had to make to be together,” says Lennon. “It’s a festering wound that we’ve allowed. Yesterday – it’s a wound that festered even deeper, and we didn’t give him any bandages.” While it was thrilling to hear that secret, candid chat, I can’t have been alone in feeling slightly cheapened by the experience.
Michael Lindsay-Hogg made a terrible film and had a lot of bad ideas
Sometimes you need to know when to shut up and listen. But not Lindsay-Hogg. Throughout Let It Be, no matter what’s happening, he’s there, puffing on a cigar, chiming in with unhelpful comments and directions, or stories about working with Orson Welles when he was a child actor. He just will not quit with his idea for a trip to Libya, and at one point suggests filming in an orphanage, or a children’s hospital. “Not one where they’re really sick,” he adds, as if that makes his awful idea any better.
Yoko didn’t break up the Beatles. Blaming it on her was always an absurd, lazy accusation
Paul McCartney is really good at writing songs
Macca’s songwriting skill was hardly in question prior to the release of this documentary, but watching him muster Get Back out of thin air is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. One second, the song doesn’t exist; the next, he’s playing it and improvising the lyrics, bringing it into being by sheer force of will. The fact that Ringo Starr is sitting opposite yawning and Harrison looks equally disinterested suggests McCartney did that kind of thing a lot. For those of us seeing this for the first time, it looks like some kind of witchcraft.
Ringo is an amazing drummer
Another long-running non-debate that really needs putting to bed. Starr is not some journeyman who got lucky – he’s one of the best drummers ever and the Beatles wouldn’t have been as good without him. Let’s blame Jasper Carrott for adding fuel to this particular fire. But once again, his input is here for all to see. He wasn’t as creatively involved as the other three, but when needed, he was there – drunk or hungover if Get Back is anything to go by – whether bashing a piano lid, slapping his thighs or caressing his drum kit – and better than anyone.
The world owes Yoko Ono an apology
Yoko didn’t break up the Beatles. Blaming it on her constant presence was always an absurd, lazy accusation grounded in misogyny and racism (seeing Paul, Ringo and George’s partners and various guests wander in and out of the studio really hammers home those double standards), but hopefully we can once and for all put to bed any nonsense about how she brought about the band’s decline. Yes, there were tensions – complicated, deep-seated and long-running – but, as McCartney says in part two, Yoko’s presence was only an obstacle if the rest of the band allowed it to be. “It really isn’t that bad. They just want to stay together,” he says of her and Lennon. “She’s great, she really is all right.”
Billy Preston could solve any crisis
“It’s interesting to see how nicely people behave when you bring a guest in, because they don’t want everybody to know they’re so bitchy,” remarked Harrison in the 1995 TV documentary Anthology when asked about bringing in keyboardist and Little Richard band member Billy Preston for the Let It Be sessions. They are on fire when playing with Preston – perhaps inspired by his skill, perhaps liberated by the shift from Twickenham Studios to Savile Row, and finally jettisoning the idea of performing a concert in Libya to close the film. Above all, maybe it’s that Preston was totemic, a friend from the Hamburg days they talk of so fondly throughout Get Back, and a reminder of friendlier, happier times.
Glyn Johns dressed incredibly
Despite the best efforts of Harrison in a purple shirt, pink striped trousers and furry boots seemingly made of carpet, he can’t hold a sartorial candle to engineer Glyn Johns in his various coats. Whether mustard, thigh-length and double-breasted, big, white and hairy, black vinyl proto-puffer, maroon crushed velvet or navy blue with a deckchair stripe, the man dressed like more of a rock star than anyone in the room.
Mal Evans is a joy to watch
The Beatles’ road manager would have done anything for them, no matter what they asked. McCartney casually mentions, as he’s walking off for lunch, that maybe it would be good to have an anvil. An hour or so later, Evans is sitting there smacking an anvil during an early take of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer. He chips in with song ideas for The Long and Winding Road, and almost immediately after Harrison announces he’s leaving, Evans checks he’ll be OK for money and says he’ll speak to Apple about his residual payments. What a guy to have around.
Reality TV primed us for Get Back
Ghastly as some of his ideas were, Lindsay-Hogg was probably right about trying to construct some kind of narrative. Unlike now, he didn’t have 20 years of reality TV to fall back on, which has conditioned viewers to the idea of nothing much happening. Let’s also remember that up until this point, most artists were only seen in stage-managed formats, never in an unfiltered, direct way. Now, we’re comfortable with – we demand – that kind of access.
McCartney comes out better than anyone expected
The received wisdom was that McCartney behaved like some kind of controlling ego-monster during the Let It Be sessions, and that this was the main reason it had never been rereleased. Watching Get Back, however, Peter Jackson takes a sad song and makes it better. We see McCartney support his bandmates in their writing, massage their egos, write prolifically, inject enthusiasm and keep the whole thing moving forward, all the while displaying previously unseen levels of self-awareness and an ability to predict the future. The moment after Harrison has left and Lennon is a no-show where he sits back in his chair and says “and then there were two” as his eyes fill up with tears is too much.
This didn’t have to be the end
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, but there was a way through all this. The history books tell us that by January 1969, the four were pretty much at each other’s throats, disinterested with their tedious day job and McCartney’s schoolmasterly ways – but that just wasn’t the case. It’s impossible after watching Get Back not to imagine a different future where the Beatles recorded All Things Must Pass for Let It Be, heeded Glyn Johns’ warnings about bringing in the inevitably disastrous Allen Klein as manager, got back to their roots with a string of concerts around the UK, took a couple of years off to make a solo record each and reconvened.
If that’s too much, let’s at least imagine a future where Jackson is given all the footage from Anthology to work his magic on.