• Get Back

    Lorrie Moore

    Spring 2024


    The Beatles: Get Back directed by Peter Jackson (2021)

    The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present by Paul McCartney, edited by Paul Muldoon (2021)

    (consulted: Lennon Remembers by Jann S. Wenner; All We Are Saying by David Sheff; Love And Let Die by John Higgs; George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle by Philip Norman; George Harrison: Living in the Material World directed by Martin Scorsese)

    Early Beatles songs, when one gives thought to them, are often rockabilly numbers: “Love Me Do” (their first hit) or “I Saw Her Standing There.” While often considered baby boomers, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were of course born earlier than that (part of the mysteriously named “Silent Generation”) and came of age in the 1950s. Their influences were Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis. (According to Jann Wenner, Lennon sometimes claimed that no song by anyone ever surpassed “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”) This inspiration is seen repeatedly in the long, amusing breaks John and Paul take in Peter Jackson’s extraordinary 2021 documentary, The Beatles: Get Back, as Lennon and McCartney appear to seek refuge from composing their own material on a brutal deadline (in the winter of 1969 they had less than four weeks to finish a dozen songs for a TV special) and instead begin to horse around, launching merrily into “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Roll Over, Beethoven,” or even “The Harry Lime Theme” from The Third Man.

    Yet two of the Beatles’ most haunting ballads (a year before the composition of “Yesterday”) were released together early in 1964: “And I Love Her” and “If I Fell.” The former is widely attributed to McCartney (Lennon referred to it as McCartney’s first “Yesterday”) and the latter belongs to Lennon who sings the main melody. (On YouTube one can find a group of mourners at Central Park’s Strawberry Fields all singing “If I Fell” in grieving chorus around Lennon’s memorial.) Listening to the two ballads, one might be forgiven for assuming that they both had the same singularly brilliant composer. Which, in a way, they did. Credited as Lennon-McCartney compositions, as most of the Beatles’ songs were, the sound was indisputably theirs. Both pieces have beautiful switches into open minor chords and a subtle cha-cha meter underneath. They were released on a single forty-five but neither was really a B side, though the B side was dealt to Lennon, the Beatles’ usual practice; McCartney typically had the A side. (George Harrison had the A side once, with “Something,” on a double A release with Lennon-McCartney’s “Come Together,” the latter eventually the target of a lawsuit from Chuck Berry. “Everybody was nicking from everybody else,” says McCartney to Paul Muldoon in the recent edition of The Lyrics, a huge two-volume beauty, which, although it leaves out “Come Together,” still does not quite fit on a coffee table.)

    In later years, however, McCartney and Lennon lightly squabbled over who in 1964 had contributed what to “And I Love Her” and “If I Fell”—the bridges (the middle eight) seemed most in contention. “We both had our fingers in each other’s pies,” Lennon said after they had broken up. McCartney later acknowledged that Harrison—who received no attribution at all at the time—had contributed the stirring four-note opening to “And I Love Her”—a bit of flamenco Harrison cooked up on the spot. Despite John and Paul’s intense collaboration, rooted in their early closeness as creative adolescents who had both lost their mothers—were Lennon and McCartney “hurt” into songwriting? Muldoon, in The Lyrics, believes so—the group was destined for rupture. (Ringo, then George, were the first ones to walk away from the band, later returning: Ringo to a roomful of flowers from George, George to a contrite Paul and John.) Rumors of the Beatles’ difficult and financially risky breakup began early. Among Beatles fans there was much discussion of Lennon and McCartney’s ostensible alienation from each other (Yoko Ono was sometimes blamed; sometimes the Maharishi). There was even, briefly, a conspiracy theory that Paul had died. Was he not the barefoot corpse on the cover of Abbey Road? Playing “I Am the Walrus” backward could possibly, faintly produce the words “I buried Paul,” uttered in a Lennon monotone. Or perhaps it could be heard in a slow drone at the very end of the song? It was, after all, the B side to “Hello, Good-bye.” Did the A side have to be played backward as well? In the 1960s, much vinyl got scratched up, turntables damaged, and needles ruined in search of such clues. 

    Yet, despite those rumors, right to the bitter end, when working together Lennon and McCartney composed like a single highly coordinated organism, sitting across from each other—in recording studios or other spaces—urgently ad-libbing, Paul with his left-handed, upside-down bass-playing, like a twin in a mirror reflecting John. (Left-handedness is often associated with high intelligence, and even if McCartney were the only example, it might be enough. Moreover, if you believe that genius children tend to be born only to women over thirty? McCartney’s mother was thirty-three.) Lennon’s guardian aunt Mimi found the young McCartney’s excellent manners akin to a snake charmer’s, and in almost all the images of them through the years Lennon and McCartney appeared to be in mind-meld. Lennon said that he believed he and Paul were able to communicate telepathically, traveling along their locked mutual gaze to explore each other for harmonies, inspiration, energy, tunes, and lyrics, which, despite McCartney’s current publication, were sometimes mere rhythmic placeholders for the melody; the words were summoned and assembled as disposable containers for the musical notes. 

    “Songs didn’t necessarily have to make sense,” McCartney declares in The Lyrics. The songs that were more enduring lyrically—“In My Life” or “Strawberry Fields”—tended to be Lennon’s. But even Lennon could spin his wheels and idle the engine: “And I found that love is more / Than just holding hands” is a finished if flimsy line—a wink to the earlier “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”—yet it occurs in one of the loveliest ballads ever written. Another paradox: “If I Fell” was sometimes performed onstage by John and Paul stifling fits of laughter—possibly a combination of cannabis and tour-induced dehydration. But Lennon takes it further: in the film A Hard Day’s Night he sings it as a jokey serenade to Ringo. In The Lyrics, McCartney leaves out “If I Fell” entirely, not even giving it a mention in the index, a concession to Lennon perhaps, or a sore point.

    The Beatles’ collaboration has been shown before in other films—Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Let It Be, Ron Howard’s The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—but never so intensely as in Peter Jackson’s recent documentary, which is a film for the ages, nearly eight hours forged from one hundred and fifty hours of audio recordings and sixty hours of footage left on Lindsay-Hogg’s cutting room floor and stored for decades in unarchived canisters. (Lindsay-Hogg was rated a cut above most documentary filmmakers, perhaps because—a nepo baby!—he was rumored to be the out-of-wedlock son of Orson Welles.)

    Because of his accomplishment with World War I footage in They Shall Not Grow Old, Jackson was asked to visually and sonically augment the footage for a proposed Beatles exhibition. When Jackson saw what was in storage, he was amazed and wanted to see what he might do with linking up the footage with the audio, and shaping it into a story. (The lip sync is sometimes only approximate but Jackson did his best matching up the audio with representative visuals, as he did in They Shall Not Grow Old.) He received the cooperation of the Beatles—that is, McCartney, Starr, and the widows of Lennon and Harrison. The four of them serve as producers of the film.

    They Shall Not Grow Old could have been the title of this documentary as well: for someone who grew up in the 1960s, watching old footage of the Beatles with all their vivid familiarity is like looking at home movies of one’s own brothers. They were a group mind, as the ever-covetous Eric Clapton noted. One can see in Jackson’s film that despite the growing rumors to the contrary there is never any separation between Lennon and McCartney: in the group mind, they are the frontal lobe. They laugh at each other’s silly remarks when no one else does; they lean in, intermeshed, dependent and fused, Lennon perhaps high on heroin, McCartney sometimes overbearingly managerial. Still the creative bond feels unbreakable.  But despite the group mind, their partnership is unjoinable by Harrison or Starr, who mostly accept this lack of democracy. In the end, however, even as they retired in their twenties, despite the words to one of their last big singles, there was little hope that the Beatles would ever get back.

    Jackson’s great and surprisingly absorbing film uses the composition of that song—“Get Back”—as a narrative frame or spine, or at least tracks its composition (suspense is also supplied in the form of efforts to lure Harrison back to the set when at one point he walks off in a huff; the pun of the title works in several different directions at once)—to show the Beatles preparing and rehearsing their final public performance together. These are the “Get Back” sessions of January 1969, and the album they are assembling was originally to have that name. Jackson’s is a documentary about a documentary—the film Let It Be (the original title of which was also Get Back) is being shot by Lindsay-Hogg and thus is an interior film within Jackson’s, though what Let It Be often leaves out is the Beatles’ playfulness, sardonic reminiscences, and intermittent cheer in order to show a grimmer kind of foreclosure on the Fab Four. Lindsay-Hogg’s footage is sometimes fuzzy; Jackson has literally sharpened up the print and clarified the sound. Yes, they are preparing never to get back, but McCartney does say in Jackson’s film rather poignantly at one point, “I think when we’re old we’ll all sing together.” Later, the New Yorker would call Lindsay-Hogg’s documentary, “a very bad film and a touching one—about change, about the breaking apart of this reassuring, geometrically perfect, once apparently ageless family of siblings.” 

    After the 1967 death of manager, impresario, and department-store heir Brian Epstein (who, despite his deep love for the group and for Lennon in particular, ran them ragged in their early years, requiring a single every three months and an LP every six), the Beatles were missing a father figure, even a misguided one. In their early years, playing in the strip clubs of Hamburg, Germany, they had gotten something close to the ten thousand practice hours needed for excellence, according to Malcolm Gladwell, and after the “Hamburg crucible,” despite some hours dedicated to red-light district debauchery, and despite having to sleep most nights in bathless broom cupboards behind the stage, the group had established a sound unlike anyone else’s. Epstein had seen how young, talented, and penniless the Beatles were and was enchanted. They were charismatic kids with thick swirls of hair; each boy had been the beloved child in their own Liverpool families, and they were cheeky, confident, composed. Epstein, however, had never managed a band before, only a store, and, devoted to adorning the shop window, he made them all ditch their leather jackets and dress in matching suits and pudding-bowl haircuts: a boy band. When Epstein presented their recordings to Decca in 1961, he was astonishingly told “groups with guitars are on the way out.” But he had better luck with a thirty-six-year-old George Martin at EMI, who signed them.

    Perhaps out of panic that the groups glory days were numbered, Epstein and Martin drove the Beatles to exhaustion, indeed shortening their careers—a self-fulfilling prophecy. Martin, having a military background, put the Beatles on a strict studio schedule in order to get the records done. Both Paul and John are heard saying in Jackson’s film that they work best when their backs are up against the wall. But throughout their brief, driven, and difficult career, the wall never really retreated. 

    One can discern in Get Back that by January 1969 Paul has been in unofficial leadership of the group for a while and resents it, as do the other three. Lennon and McCartney are more entrepreneurial and want the generous budgets and paychecks that other groups have, but Lennon is also ambivalent. The Rolling Stones are referenced sarcastically but Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, and his organist, Billy Preston, are name-dropped reverentially by Harrison, who has just come back from America and is already mapping his own direction. Harrison, wanting to widen the band or leave it (he does both in the course of the documentary), later brings in Preston to help rescue their January project. Lennon loves Preston too (they had all met back in Hamburg when Preston played with Little Richard). They try flailingly to think like artists and businessmen. Each Beatle notes that while they subsidized EMI (having a very inequitable recording deal with them, and having to supplement their income with grueling stadium tours), the Beach Boys and Benjamin Britten had it easier and got better recording equipment and support. The Beatles estate would, in 2005, spearheaded by McCartney and Starr, sue EMI for fifty million dollars of withheld royalties. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount. 

    As for the climactic January 1969 concert? Lindsay-Hogg suggests an ancient outdoor amphitheater near Tripoli with an expensively imported British audience. How on earth would they get EMI to pay for an ocean liner to bring people to Libya, asks George, when the company wouldn’t even pay for a proper amp? Jackson himself has expressed great respect for both Paul’s and George’s common sense (although they took different, often opposing, forms) and many of their sometimes stony exchanges are retained in Jackson’s film.

    The January Get Back sessions are fascinating for all they reveal about the most successful songwriting team of the modern age and the group they’d formed around them. Rehearsals begin in the Twickenham Studio where Ringo will soon be starring in the film The Magic Christian. The space is cold and cavernous with subpar acoustics. Harrison arranges to have his own personal eight-track recording equipment rolled in, though he continues to be electrocuted by the microphones. It is a little astonishing to see them making do this way, since they are also pulling up in expensive cars and wearing fur coats. Except for Paul, who looks strappingly handsome, black-haired and black-bearded (fifty years later, all that pigment will have faded), the band looks gaunt, unhealthy, and generally weary. They are retiring at the shockingly young ages of twenty-eight (Starr and Lennon), twenty-six (McCartney) and twenty-five (Harrison)—although they all look ten years older. 

    Still, the closeness of Lennon and McCartney cannot be shaken by anything: tabloid rumors, Yoko Ono, Linda Eastman (both muses are on the set and awaiting divorces from previous husbands), or Lennon’s time-wasting clowning. Paul laughs delightedly at all of John’s inanities—“it’s a very Liverpool thing to say silly things,” he notes in The Lyrics. Harrison’s taciturn isolation radiates from his dark, chiseled face (a cross between Harry Dean Stanton and Jesus) as his attempts to break through the Lennon-McCartney attachment with small musical ideas are largely ignored—Harrison had a stockpile of haunting guitar licks he would later use on solo albums. (He would also become a film producer for Terry Gilliam and others, seeking collaborative work elsewhere.) When Harrison says he has been working on a song for six months and still can’t figure out what the simile should be—“something in the way she moves attracts me like . . . ” John suggests “a cauliflower.” Paul suggests “a pomegranate.” Words are metric filler and the final ones will be inserted at the end. “With words the options are limitless. . . . It was as if I could toss them up in the air and then see when they all came down how language could become magic,” McCartney says in The Lyrics. There is a lightness and serendipity in McCartney’s approach to songwriting that is of no use to Harrison. (Ringo Starr, promoting his current tour, “Rewind Forward” recently said it was only Harrison, not the other two, who patiently encouraged Ringo in his own songwriting.) After they wrote their songs, the quick and haphazard McCartney and Lennon would toss their own hand-jotted lyric sheets into a trash bin. It was Linda McCartney who later rescued the pieces of paper and put them in photo albums for posterity.

    “Get Back,” which begins as a protest song against white nationalism, winds up as a much more confused if happy-sounding thing. The film shows them “laying the tracks in front of the train” as Jackson puts it, and one can hear the verbal slapdash in the composition. The song’s meaning is in the tune. In The Lyrics, McCartney’s explanation of the song’s genesis is that it sprang from his wistfulness to return the Beatles to their small-time origins. But Jackson’s documentary reveals a different story. The song begins as a protest against the anti-immigration stance in the United Kingdom at the time. But then it scuttles sideways and crumbles elegantly into fun. This suggests a possible problem with using an artist’s work to prompt autobiographical memories, which the Muldoon and McCartney book attempts. Perhaps an oral history decades later will always be at odds with actual footage. The composer’s mind wanders. Reminiscence is both a candle and a noise.

    The mad scramble to write “Get Back” and brainstorm a culminating event to showcase it takes place when the Hong Kong flu is circulating (the flu pandemic of 1968 and 1969 would kill between one and four million people globally), and McCartney at one point believes he may be coming down with it. Jackson’s film runs the ticking clock of a full-screen January calendar with X’s through each passing day as the film proceeds to show how the Beatles must write and perform a baker’s dozen of new songs. Two weeks drag into three. They have decided on a live performance because, despite having abandoned touring in 1966, in 1967 they’d performed “Hey Jude” in front of a live audience and quite liked it—at least McCartney did. “Touring’s good, it keeps us sharp . . . Keep music live,” he said. Soon the idea of a TV special (part of the original concept) is also dropped. When Harrison returns from his temporary walkout, he brings Billy Preston with him, and they all move out of Twickenham to begin jamming at the Apple Studios in Savile Row. 

    Even though musically things start to come together (Preston’s presence gives them a lift), by the third week of January Lindsay-Hogg says of what will turn into his documentary Let It Be, “At the moment we’ve got a film about smokers, nose pickers, and nail-biters.” He is chagrined that all of his concert ideas have been shot down and that he has lost the story thread of his own film. (His Let It Be is currently hard to find.) He doesn’t seem to believe in simply including everything, the rehearsing and composing, the playful asides, the trying out of one another’s instruments—Paul on drums, Ringo and George on piano—or in shooting the film as cinema verité musicianship, to see it as jazz, like the Beatles themselves and subsequently Jackson did. If there is suspense as to whether they will meet this deadline with performable songs, it is somewhat invented for story purposes. The Beatles know they are Mozartean, working brilliantly on the fly, with their backs against that omnipresent wall. If they have to use a song Lennon composed when he was fifteen—“One After 909”—it is not a loss but a gain.     

    In the end, Jackson has spliced and collaged an amazing historical document: one that in a hundred years will still be watched for all that it offers up about an iconic time in twentieth-century music. In Jackson’s footage are portions ofLet It Be’s best recordings, including Harrison’s tender, simple rendition of “For You Blue” with Lennon on lap steel guitar. The Beatles’ tracks may be quickly laid—there are zigs and zags—but the locomotive proceeds. To paraphrase the teenaged Lennon: the railman says you have the right location.  Preston slips into each song and performs essential buttressing on the keyboards, and instead of the Libyan amphitheater or London’s Primrose Hill or Parliament itself (all venues that were proposed and vetoed), the concert takes place in exhilarating fashion on the windy winter rooftop of the Apple Recording studios, to the dismay of the local police. (This rooftop scene is also how Let It Be, Eight Days A Week, and Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe all conclude.) An excellent version of “Get Back” has emerged—a happy ending—though the song is no longer one that pines or protests. (This movement from substance to nonsense is interesting to compare, for instance, with Joni Mitchell’s process, which is often the reverse, engaging banal matters but ending up with large melancholic art songs. “Man from Mars” was originally about Mitchell’s cat; “Like Veils Said Lorraine” was inspired by her real estate agent.) 

    At the rooftop climax of Jackson’s film, the band runs through their playlist of five numbers (saving the other songs for the LP) and sings three songs twice. “I’ve Got a Feeling” is a kind of round anyway, with Lennon and McCartney singing separate parts of hinged compositions, McCartney’s “I’ve Got A Feeling” and Lennon’s “Everyone Had a Bad Year,” which they discovered could be sung together. Winter wind rakes their hair. In discussing this number with Muldoon, McCartney says in his book, “If anyone asks me what was it like to work with John, the truth is it was easier—much easier, because there were two minds at work. Mine would be doing this, his would be doing that, and the interplay was just miraculous.” When one now views footage of McCartney performing with anyone other than Lennon—even an exhilarated Bruce Springsteen in London’s Hyde Park—McCartney often looks lost, preoccupied, indifferent, detached. Without Lennon, he looks alone. All of McCartney’s great work was compressed into his first decade of adulthood. (He is now in his eighties.) It is an unusual condition for any artist in any art. 

    During the film’s closing concert, McCartney soulfully belts out songs while playing bass, though he has already announced worriedly in the film that he can’t play bass and sing at the same time. But his voice is agile and protean, and even when not featured in the song, it goes both high and low over Lennon’s, as it has always done. (McCartney is in general an underrated vocalist.) Up on the roof, just when the world has started getting him down, McCartney now has what he has hoped for: a final public performance that is also a culmination of their teamwork. His eyes glisten with joy or nostalgia or freezing wind or Jackson’s tinkerbell photoshopping. Harrison is cooperative; his bendy guitar licks add dimension to the sound, usually at the end of the verse. The sanguine, beloved Ringo, already graying at the temples (now in his eighties, he dyes his hair), sports his wife Maureen’s shiny red mac behind his Ludwig drums. Lennon in swiftly summoned leadership stance wears what looks to be a sable coat: he is focused and in great voice. His singing on “Dig a Pony” is spectacularly moving.

    Whereas the story of, say, the middle-class Rolling Stones, is probably fundamentally comedic—do we not see Mick Jagger with some regularity on Saturday Night Live?—that of the Beatles feels essentially tragic. That the Beatles’ less-than-expert handlers wore them out, that they all eventually retreated from their brief but culturally incendiary moment into independent art-making and the family lives they couldn’t have while in the band with its travels and orgies and financial mismanagement, should be considered signs of an abusive business situation. In 1980, Lennon was murdered by a fan—a fate they all began to fear. Harrison, two years after having been stabbed forty times by an intruder in his home, lay dying of lung cancer at fifty-seven, and from his sickbed groggily, compliantly, signed autographs for his oncologist, including inscribing the doctor’s son’s guitar. (His widow sued the doctor over this and won, the incensed judge confiscated the boy’s guitar.) All four of the Beatles were too young at the start, working-class boys unprotected from elders and graspers and nutty admirers. (In The Lyrics, McCartney describes being a teenager in thrall to his girlfriend Jane Asher’s posh Mayfair family; affluent wives followed in her wake. Lennon found the social class system absurd, but McCartney became, according to John Higgs, “the Beatle most likely to mix with wealthy people.” Surely a desire for safety was part of that, though McCartney did not send his children to private school, which he felt might skew their view of the world. Peter Jackson’s film comes with warnings about strong language, mature themes, and smoking, but that is all. I heard hardly any swearing. The cigarettes, however, are countless, and it’s mostly the lads from Liverpool who are smoking them. If you are prone to pangs of any sort—or worse, if your heart is easily broken—viewer discretion is advised.  

    Yet if a warming coda is desired, there is, released just this past autumn, a surprise song written by Lennon titled “Now and Then,” in which Peter Jackson at McCartney’s request used his demon technology to peel aside Lennon’s voice from the muffling piano accompaniment Lennon recorded on a home demo in 1977. McCartney then remixed the disarticulated tracks. Jackson’s technique is like splitting a molecule—new life is created for a sad old song. On the B side, for bookending, is “Love Me Do.”

    Lorrie Moore is the author of the novel I Am Homeless if This Is Not My Home as well as See What Can Be Done, a collection of thirty-five years of nonfiction. She teaches at Vanderbilt University.

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