Been watching ‘Get Back’, Peter Jackson’s exhaustive highlights reel from the 150 hours of documentary footage of The Beatles as they attempt to produce from scratch a set for a live performance and album.
What struck me immediately was the madness, and perhaps hubris, in even attempting to do it. They had just gone through what was, to all intents and purposes, a difficult and cold experience pulling together an album that, ultimately they were either too tired, or too bored to put a proper title and cover on, never mind edit with any real care. The ‘White’ album, as it is known purely because they decided not to put anything on the cover, was a flawed, sprawling Eton Mess of a record; a ‘bit of a this, a bit of that, chuck it all in and stir it up, see what comes out’ kind of thing. Obviously, when you’ve got arguably two of the greatest songwriters of the period in your band, some of it is going to stick, but it’s also, to my ears, quite an unpleasant, ego-driven, vanity project, without the conciseness or edge of previous records. George is already showing signs of fatigue and despondency with his offerings and perhaps suffering from a crippling lack of confidence. I suspect that he already had some of the great songs which made up the triple album ‘All Things Must Pass’ but was met with such disinterest from the the other two behemoths whenever he offered anything, that he sat on them (the songs, not the bandmates, that is).
John, meanwhile, has met Yoko and heroin; not the most productive combination. Again, I suspect the loss of Brain Epstein and the loss of his status as band leader, somewhere around Revolver, left him frustrated and unhappy. I also think that there was an incident in Rishikesh, where the band had gone on a spiritual ‘holiday’. Things between John and Paul seemed different after that. Is it possible that John revealed a deeper love for Paul than he was comfortable with? Just look at the songs he wrote for the ‘White’ album: Happiness is a Warm Gun, I’m So Tired, Julia, Dear Prudence, Revolution #9. These are not the creative products of a contented man, nor of a happy one, and they are almost exclusively introspective.
Their problem? Paul McCartney. He had emerged throughout the latter half of the Sixties as the creative force behind the band. Sgt Pepper was his concept. Magical Mystery Tour was filled with McCartney genius. The closest to a classic Beatles sound on the White album is McCartney. His singles of the time are regarded as some of the greatest of all Beatles songs: Lady Madonna, Hey Jude. The sophistication of his songwriting was leaving the others behind. And yet, he remained loyal, resisting the temptation to go solo. I bet the others wished he would. The band that had won English and American hearts with their obvious tight friendship and quick wittedness had become a taught, frustrated bag of jealousies and damaged egos.
All of this, then, came to a boil nicely with ‘Get Back.’ We have heard a lot, in Beatle-fandom, about how the tapes from the period don’t tell the story that we’ve all believed: that the sessions were fractious, difficult and lacking that crucial spark of any real creativity. That, in fact, they were still four friends, still interested in just making music together. Well, that ain’t true. There are moments of levity, sure. You’d be hard pressed to sit four old friends and colleagues in a room together for a month without there being some fun had. But, whilst incredibly fascinating, the tapes are precisely what we always thought they were. McCartney is punctual. He is productive. He is pushing the others to do more than just the same old corny thing. George is truculent, self-conscious, lacking confidence (often making self-deprecating comments about getting his mate Clapton in instead – how painful that Clapton, the nasty old twat, also stole his wife!). It is Lennon, though, who I found most painful to watch. Because, for much of the time, he is just not present. Where is the sharp-tongued, funny, aggressive and swaggering man of legend? He is habitually late to sessions. He often turns up unwashed, in the same clothes as yesterday (Harrison makes a witty comment about him being more prepared for the editing suite than the others who, he says, will look like they nipped of to get changed every half hour). He offers little other than some rather tired blues-y efforts, which, of course, Paul works hard to fashion into something useable. He is acutely and perhaps understandably, bored. The band he loved is not his anymore. They don’t even rock like he always wanted them to; he criticises Harrison’s maudlin ‘I Me Mine’ because ‘We’re a rock band y’know!’ Harrison’s attempts to get the others to recognise his talents, or at least to try to provide material which they were (wilfully?) short of is ignored. He doesn’t have the confidence to push the band to work on them to the standard he wants and this makes him increasingly dismissive of the others. In one moment that comes as a real shock to the viewer expecting this to be a nostalgia-fest of Fab-Fourdom, he stops a rehearsal of ‘Don’t Let Me Down, with the words ‘I think it’s awful… If you had a tape with that on, you’d get rid of it straight away…’ To be honest, I don’t disagree with him, but it’s still a shock. Unsurprisingly, he walks out of the sessions. Ringo, meanwhile, sits dutifully waiting for something to do. As bored as Lennon in his own way.
It was always going to be a tall order. Marshalling four bored megastars into a work of almost off-the-cuff creativity was always a ‘make-or-break’ plan. What makes it all the more depressing is the quality of what each of the band would produce once freed from the confines of the group, not least Harrison’s ‘All Things Must Pass’. The title track of that would have made a beautiful Beatles song, carrying exactly the kind of zeitgeisty feel for the end of the Sixties and the optimism that is lacking in ‘Get Back’. They rehearsed it, but, in a move typical of Harrison at the time, he gave up on it, too battered by the lack of support. But then, maybe he knew that it just wasn’t right for the ‘Get Back’ project. Perhaps the suspiciously nasty ‘Get Back’ single is the perfect summation of it. Of course, they then pulled a blinder with ‘Abbey Road.’ Watching these sessions, it seems even more of a feat that they were able to pull together that last time.
Anyway, all of this sent me back to a playlist I did years ago of a ‘Black’ album. Y’know, the one that every white man of 50 or more has made where you pick songs recorded after the split for a follow up to Abbey Road? Here’s mine, if you’re interested… Let me know your thoughts.
- Another Day
- Dear Boy
- My Sweet Lord
- Every Night
- Maybe I’m Amazed
- Beaucoups of Blues
- What is Life?
- Ram On
- Gimme Some Truth
- Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey
- All Things Must Pass
- Instant Karma
- Sentimental Journey
- The Back Seat Of My Car