I have vague memories of watching Let It Be on television in my childhood, as part of a season of Beatles films shown on BBC2 in the early evening. With a little help from my friends (pun partly intended), I’ve been able to pin it down to The Beatles at Christmas, broadcast over the festive season in 1979. Little could I have known it at the time, but this was one of the last times that the documentary film was shown on British TV. For many years, the only way that you could watch it was on dodgy bootleg VHS tapes alongside A Clockwork Orange and The Exorcist. A DVD release was mooted in 2005, following the re-release of George Harrison’s Concert for Bangla Desh (also unavailable for many years) but the project was quashed by the remaining Beatles before it could reach completion. But why did the Beatles hate Let It Be so much?
After the complicated production of The Beatles (aka The White Album), John, Paul, George and Ringo were aware that they were drifting apart, but they were keen to keep the Beatles brand going. They’d performed their recent single Hey Jude in front of a live audience on The David Frost Show and found the process invigorating, so they cooked up the concept of an original album performed and recorded live in front of an audience. The idea was that they would rehearse in a film studio that Apple Films had hired for the motion picture The Magic Christian, with a view to eventually performing a concert that would be recorded as a live album of original songs. The rehearsals would be filmed by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg for a television special and photographed by various artists for a book to accompany the album.
Of course, it didn’t work out that way. The unnatural environment of an echoing film studio and the enforced time pressure of a pre-arranged date for the concert caused tensions among the band, leading George Harrison to quit. He came back on the condition that rehearsals continued in the more conducive environs of Abbey Road Studios, but they were still less productive than they had hoped and the famous Rooftop Concert was a hastily organised, last minute affair that came about because they couldn’t agree on anything else. The project was put on indefinite hold and the band reconvened at a later date to record the Abbey Road LP by more conventional means. The Beatles split in 1970, but eager to squeeze out more product, their management dug up the ‘live album’ footage and created the movie and soundtrack LP Let It Be.
It’s easy to see why the Beatles were unhappy with the finished product. With hindsight of the band’s split, Michael Lindsay-Hogg chose to manipulate the footage to create a narrative of ‘the break-up of the Beatles’… which it kind of wasn’t, because they’d gone on to record Abbey Road after that. My memory of Let It be, such as it is, is of the Beatles constantly bitching at each other, with Yoko Ono permanently attached to John’s side, having her say in the future of the band. But that’s the story that Let It Be wants us to believe – which is not necessarily a true record of events. In 1996, The Beatles Anthology went a little way to redressing the balance, but not far enough. Only now has film-maker Peter Jackson undertaken the gargantuan task of cleaning up and re-editing over 90 hours of footage to create a more accurate record of those events in the 3-part Disney+ documentary series Get Back.
First things first, be aware that watching Get Back is a substantial undertaking; each of the 3 episodes is approximately 2 and a half hours in length, giving it a total running time knocking on for 8 hours and most of that is ostensibly four blokes sitting around strumming guitars and tinkling on pianos (and smoking – there’s LOTS of smoking). So, if you’re only a casual Beatles fan, you might find this hard going. However, it you have an interest in the song-writing process, you’ll probably find this interesting even if you don’t know anything about the Beatles, because hidden among the rough chord structures and half-formed lyrics are some of the greatest songs ever written. We’re privileged to see the very genesis of songs, some of which won’t actually see fruition for many years. John Lennon is frequently heard noodling at a song called The Road to Rishikesh, which never sees light as a Beatles song, but eventually becomes his solo hit Jealous Guy.
Here we are given an insight into the creative process of the Beatles, which was always the intention of these sessions, but which became kind of distorted by Let It Be. Sure, it’s not all plain sailing, not by any stretch of the imagination; John is initially distant and uninterested, Paul is pushy and demanding, George is frustrated by his colleagues and Ringo looks like he’d rather be anywhere else, but as time goes on – and particularly when the action shifts to Abbey Road – we start to see bits of the world’s greatest rock and roll band re-emerging. What’s fascinating is how each of the Beatles seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of their back catalogue dating back to their days in the Cavern Club, so John will say to Ringo something like, “Remember how you used to do that drum roll on Johnny B. Goode?” and Ringo will know exactly what he’s talking about and be able to replicate it flawlessly. When they’re operating on all cylinders, you really get a great impression of why they worked so well together as a unit.
The first episode ends with George quitting the band and, presented in context, you can entirely understand why he does it. John and Paul (particularly Paul) are quite dismissive of the songs he brings to the table and they don’t get much rehearsal, whereas he has to listen to them singing Two of Us over and over again. I don’t believe there’s an intentional message there, but you can see how it might have worked upon George’s mind to the point where he couldn’t take it anymore. At the end of the 60s, George was coming into his own as a songwriter and on Abbey Road, the two songs he would present (Something and Here Comes the Sun) are only really rivalled by Come Together out of Lennon and McCartney’s bunch; so I think that John and Paul, so long in control of the wheel, felt more than a little threatened by George’s sudden burst of creativity and that is the cause of some of the tension.
A revelation in Get Back is the presence – or absence – of Yoko Ono; she’s long been cast as the villain of the piece, John’s evil twin, constantly at his side and whispering poison into his ear like some latter-day Lady Macbeth. But here, at last, the truth is shown. There are days when Yoko is seated at John’s side, but there are days when she’s not there at all and when she is, she’s knitting or jotting in a notebook rather than interfering in Beatle affairs. There’s a very sweet scene with Yoko Ono and Paul’s future wife Linda Eastman having a cheerful chat at the side of the studio while the boys are jamming and even the lesser spotted Maureen Starkey puts in an appearance. Most contrary to the accepted order of events is a moment when neither John nor Yoko are in the studio and Paul McCartney is defending the Japanese artist’s presence at the recordings!
This will give you an idea that it’s not all about the four Beatles, they are often surrounded by a crowd of faces who will be familiar to Beatles fans – George Martin, Geoff Emerick, Mal Evans etc. – many of whom had been with the band throughout their entire recording career. Get Back usefully provides captions to let you know who everyone is, as and when they appear. When keyboardist Billy Preston turns up at Abbey Road and is roped into playing on the remaining sessions (a much more ad hoc arrangement than I’d previously thought, they even discuss whether they ought to start paying him), the mood of the Beatles becomes much friendlier. There’s even talk of adding him to the line-up for live performances, which is probably what the band needed to stay fresh. I also never realised until this point that Billy Preston was someone they’d known from as far back as their days in Hamburg.
If the Beatles had gone back to doing live performances – which definitely seems to be being considered during these recordings – then I think we would have seen a backing band similar to that which George Harrison had on the Concert for Bangla Desh, with a horns section and backing singers They may even have had a strings section, as John Lennon famously stated on a radio show in the mid-70s that ELO’s Showdown was the sort of thing the Beatles would be doing if they were still together. It’s clear from the conversations that take place in Get Back that the pressure of being the Fab Four was starting to weigh them down and they were all keen to expand; something which, ironically, they could only eventually achieve by splitting up. It’s a shame because I think an expanded version of the Beatles sound with keyboards, horns and strings would have made for a tremendous live performance.
I realised a few years ago that the famous performance on the roof of Abbey Road Studios wasn’t quite the ‘concert’ that pop history books would have us believe, when I bought a bootleg CD of The Complete Rooftop Concert and discovered that it was mainly multiple performances of the same few songs. Get Back emphasises the chaotic lead-up to the rooftop performance even more. At first, the band’s management suggest a big show to be filmed as the climax of the project, pushing the idea of a desert amphitheatre in Libya. An unrealistic date is set for the concert and it’s just as well that Ringo vetoes the idea of travelling abroad because I find it hard to believe that they could ever have arranged the venue (let alone a concert) in that short a time frame. Various other suggestions are made, including staging the concert in the film studio on transparent plastic sets (!?) but somewhere along the line, the idea of performing on the roof of Abbey Road is suggested as a sort of easiest possible option. Even up to the date of the performance, nobody even seems certain that it’s going ahead. One of the lads asks something along the lines of, “So, are we playing on the roof tomorrow or not?” as they’re leaving the studio the night before.
Like much of Let It Be, the rooftop performance seems to have been manipulated to provide a more interesting narrative. Paul jokes the previous day that it would be a good ending for the TV Special if the Police burst in and arrested them and that’s pretty much what happens in the original film. Get Back reveals that it was planned that way, with hidden cameras set up in the reception of Abbey Road to film any bobbies that might turn up. At first, it seems like this might not happen, as most people in the vox pop interviews from the street below seem to be enjoying the music, but eventually the wool merchant next door to the recording studios phones the police to complain about the noise. It’s not explicitly stated, but it feels very set up – and not by the Beatles, but by their management and Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who probably thought that headlines screaming ‘Beatles arrested for rooftop concert’ was better publicity than ‘Beatles perform free public concert, enjoyed by all.’
Internal politics aside, the rooftop concert is a lot of fun and despite the less-than-ideal climate (let’s not forget this was January!), the Beatles seem on top form and some of the recordings made on the roof of Abbey Road were the ones used on the eventual LP. It was not the end of the Beatles, of course; that makes a nice cinematic ending for Let It Be, but it’s simply not the case. As bitchy as they might seem in some of the footage, this is actually the Beatles on relatively good terms; it would get a hell of a lot worse after the recording of Abbey Road, with the boys being egged on to sue each other by various self-serving lawyers. Get Back ends on a much more positive note, with the lads listening back to the recordings of the rooftop performance with their friends and family around them. At this stage they all seem fairly buoyant and there doesn’t seem to be any public talk of the band coming to an end. I like this ending.
Peter Jackson and his team have undertaken a superhuman task in trying to make this wealth of film and audio footage into something that is revealing, entertaining and fair. As far as I’m concerned, he’s done a sterling job and I really enjoyed Get Back. We’ll never know what it was really like to be in those studios with the Beatles. We’ll never know what was going on inside their heads and what secret plans they might have been considering for the future. Making assumptions and putting words in their mouths doesn’t help us to understand what it was like to be the Beatles at that time in their career and it only serves to perpetuate a series of myths that are almost certainly untrue. What Get Back does is allow us to take a peek behind that curtain, unobscured by prejudice and agenda, into the outer reaches of the private world of John, Paul, George and Ringo as they neared the end of the decade that made them. If you’re a Beatles fan or just someone interested in the mechanics of the music industry, you need to watch this. It won’t let you down.
‘Get Back’ is currently streaming on Disney+