Isn’t It a Pity about Get Back / Let It Be
Jack of Hearts
While Let It Be was the last album released by The Beatles in May 1970 in tandem with a documentary of the same name, most of the songs were recorded over a year earlier in January 1969, as many Beatle fans know. The sessions for the album, under the working title of Get Back, were conceived originally as a project that would allow the band to focus upon playing as an ensemble again without relying upon overdubs in order to play a concert that would be televised then released as an album, all in an effort to revitalize the group after the recording sessions for their previous album (The Beatles, commonly referred to as the “White Album”) revealed disconnection and discord among them at times. The sessions were filmed originally by Michael Lindsay-Hogg for a documentary that was intended to accompany the TV concert, showing The Beatles working on the songs that would be featured in the live show. That was the plan, anyway, or at least one version of it, courtesy of Paul McCartney, whose fellow Beatles did not share equally in his enthusiasm for all aspects of the project, as many Beatle fans also know, as it evolved into what we know today as the Let It Be album and documentary, complete with the rooftop concert marking the band’s last live performance.
Fast forward half a century, and fans like me find themselves enjoying a flurry of releases associated with the project, including the 50th-anniversary reissue of the Let It Be album along with a book of transcripts of conversations among The Beatles and their circle that were recorded during the project and a new documentary of the sessions by Peter Jackson, both titled The Beatles: Get Back, both of which are culled from footage and audio recordings originally overseen by Lindsay-Hogg of the rehearsal and recording sessions for what became the Let It Be documentary. As I immerse myself in the reissue of Let It Be, I have been reveling in the various takes, rehearsals, and jams that are included in the super deluxe edition, not to mention the original Glyn Johns mixes of the songs, all of which devotees of the band will enjoy immensely, especially those who are familiar with bootlegs of this material released over the years. The same can be said about the Get Back book, in turn, along with the Get Back documentary, although Jackson’s film will not be for everyone due to the protracted story that it tells about the Get Back / Let It Be project over the course of almost eight hours. That said, a revisionist narrative accompanies these releases, one that emphasizes how the rehearsal and recording sessions for the Let It Be album and film were much less discordant than is generally believed, and Jackson’s film offers ample evidence in support of the genial spirits shared by The Beatles during these sessions. (A similar narrative concerning the recording sessions for what became The Beatles accompanied the 50th-anniversary reissue of the album in 2018 too, and in writing about that reissue then for KZUM I was keen to dispel that revisionist narrative circulating at the time, as it challenged received wisdom concerning the recording sessions for the album just as the latest one concerning the Get Back / Let It Be era does.) In immersing myself in all of this material, though, I find that both the received wisdom and the revisionist narrative concerning this era of The Beatles’ career lack the nuance that the era deserves. The album reissue, book, and documentaries associated with the Get Back / Let It Be sessions reveal a band that is ambivalent about its future together, as the sessions at Twickenham Film Studios and Apple Studios find them mindful that they are growing apart musically and personally, despite the charisma that they can exude still while rehearsing or recording, all of which results in a collection of songs that turn upon these mixed emotions.
Despite participating in a project that is designed to reinvigorate them as a band, the sessions at Twickenham and Apple find the four Beatles mindful that they are growing apart musically and personally. As creative 20 somethings, the four were caught up in living the life of musicians yet did not limit themselves to musical pursuits necessarily, as 1968 gave way to 1969. John Lennon, for one, had rediscovered his artistic side with a little help from his new paramour, conceptual artist Yoko Ono, whom he first met at an art exhibit in 1966; Paul continued to pursue his various interests, including art exhibits along with avant-garde music, cinema, theatre, etc., often in the company of his girlfriend, actor Jane Asher; George Harrison spent time immediately prior to the Get Back / Let It Be sessions jamming with Bob Dylan and The Band in upstate New York, enjoying the communal spirit that suffused the proceedings; Ringo Starr indulged his passions for acting and photography while enjoying family life. Of the four, George’s experience with Dylan and The Band, where everyone was a musical equal, stood in sharp contrast to his status in The Beatles, as John and Paul continued to treat him as a journeyman songwriter whose songs continued to be passed over in favor of their own, even though both of them did not have much along the lines of songs as the sessions began, unlike George, who had a backlog of songs that he was keen to record. Such inequity in the songwriting only exacerbated the dissonance that existed between them already and morphed into dissension as sessions for Get Back / Let It Be commenced in January 1969.
Many Beatle fans already know about some of the trouble that marred the sessions at this time. George walked out of the Twickenham sessions over his frustrations with John’s and Paul’s lack of enthusiasm for his songs and Paul’s continuing habit of stage-managing musical arrangements; George’s disdain for staging a concert for broadcast on television was a factor as well. A conversation between John and Paul recorded surreptitiously after George’s departure, included in the Get Back film, finds John lamenting their treatment of him, describing George’s frustrations as a “festering wound” in need of healing before chiding Paul that his habit of stage-managing musical arrangements has not served their songs best always, all of which of course reflects poorly on them both. While George’s departure is not depicted in the Let It Be film, it is treated in the Get Back film, and it is presaged by a scene featured in both documentaries in which Paul and George haggle over arrangements after a run-through of “Two of Us” during the second week of rehearsals, which culminates with George saying “I’ll play, you know, whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play. You know, whatever it is that’ll please you, I’ll do it. But I don’t think you really know what that one [the arrangement for the middle eight of the song] is.” Such an exchange undermines the bonhomie Paul hopes to restore within the band, certainly, not to mention how it reveals that the teamwork and compromise necessary in order to function as an ensemble can be lacking among them. A transcript of the conversation underscores this sentiment, as George interjects “‘You and I are [rather than ‘have’] memories…longer than the road…’” (45, emphasis added) as they struggle with the middle eight, which points up how much of the Beatle dream lies in the past at this point. A transcript of a conversation a day later shows George floating the idea of a “divorce,” in turn, prompting Paul to reply “Well, I said that at the last meeting. But it’s getting near it, you know,” before adding that he thinks it would be a shame for them to break up at this point in their career (60), which reinforces how fraught their interpersonal relationships could be at times. George then leaves the band three days later to cap the second week of rehearsals, following more work on “Two of Us,” ironically enough. (I wonder sometimes if George was put off not only by the stage-managing of its arrangement but by how the song’s trademark duet between John and Paul reminds him of their songwriting partnership and ongoing prominence within the band.)
While the move to Apple following George’s return, coupled with the appearance of Billy Preston who joined the project at the band’s invitation, helped alleviate the dissension among them to a great extent, its manifestation during the sessions remains sobering and points up how the three primary songwriters in the band continued coming into their own as individual songwriters, the significance of which I first discussed in my review essay on the 50th-anniversary reissue of The Beatles for KZUM. George voices his interest in recording a solo album, in fact, in order to work through his backlog of songs in a conversation with John, Yoko, and Billy late in the sessions in that January of 1969 which reveals even more than his individuation:
George: John…I tell you what I’d like to do after this…
George: After this show, you know, I’ve got so many songs that I’ve got, like my quota for the next ten years, or albums.
George: I’d just like to maybe do an album of songs.
John: On your own?
George: Yeah…’cos it would be nice to get ‘em all out of the way…
John: Yes. It’d be nice anyway.
George: And secondly just to hear what all mine are like all together.
John: Yeah. You see it’s good if we put out an LP and it’s all safe that The Beatles are together, but George is doing an album.
George: Oh yeah. But, I mean, it’d be nice too if any of us can…
John: Same as me doing an album…
George: …do separate things, like, as well. That, that way, it also preserves this, The Beatle bit of it, more. Because then…
John: You could have an outlet for every little note you want…
George: You know, ‘cos all these songs of mine I could give to people who could do ‘em good, but I suddenly realised, you know, fuck all that: I’m just going to do me for a bit… you know. [laughs]
Billy: Yes, yes. That’s the real thing, man.
Yoko: It’s great. That’s a good idea. (190)
I find this exchange quite revealing in the way it points up how aware The Beatles are of the enormous expectations that exist concerning their togetherness that they must navigate while recognizing their need for creative “outlets” outside of the band as they cope with their continuing individuation as songwriters. Their continuing growth as individual songwriters has a way of undermining the collaboration and compromise needed to sustain a collective, though, let alone unify the band.
While the dissension that marked the sessions has become the received wisdom over the years since the break-up to which I referred earlier, its depth at this time is undercut considerably by the charisma that they can exude still while rehearsing or recording together, which is palpable at times in both the Let It Be and Get Back documentaries. The synergy during these sessions is nothing short of revelatory, as Peter Jackson along with the music critics and journalists who have seen Get Back on Disney+ have emphasized. Musicians respond instinctively to good songs and the same holds true for The Beatles, whose work (especially with Preston) on various tracks find them reveling once again in their ensemble playing. “Get Back” finds them rocking once Ringo shifts to a drum pattern that accentuates the song’s rollicking rhythm; “Don’t Let Me Down” finds them simpatico as John’s soul stylings elicit sympathetic accompaniment from his bandmates, rounded off by the complementary figures and fills that Billy coaxes from his electric piano; even “Two of Us” finds them shining once they switch to an acoustic arrangement for the song. These moments of interbeing, if you will, for The Beatles are heartening to see and mark a band that has spent a lot of time together over the years, which enables them to play off one another deftly (provided of course that the songwriter is flexible when it comes to a song’s arrangement). This brotherliness manifests itself in quieter moments too, such as when George seeks help with the lyrics for “Something,” which prompts John to suggest that George say whatever comes to mind as he sings the line “Attracts me like…” until the right word or phrase emerges, or the various moments of mugging or horseplay for the camera. This esprit de corps manifests itself in the bonus tracks that are included on the album reissue, moreover, particularly when John interjects himself in the proceedings in various ways, such as when he suggests to George that he might sing “A mind can blow those clouds away” instead of “The wind can blow those clouds away” (emphasis added) after a pass through “All Things Must Pass,” or when he parodies Dylan briefly while singing “in the sun” near the end of a take of “Two of Us,” or when he jokes how “I’m not getting on that kit without a ciggy” after Ringo demos “Octopus’s Garden” on the piano for him and George, or when he asks Ringo “Do a nice big [imitates sound of cymbals crashing] for me, you know, to give me the courage to come screaming in” before counting in “Don’t Let Me Down” after a false start, all of which can be heard in the bonus material that makes up the super deluxe edition of the Let It Be album. That the “inexplicable charismatic thing” (qtd. in Lewisohn 174) that producer George Martin witnessed time and time again when all four Beatles worked on songs together still endures during this rocky juncture in the band is a joy to hear and / or behold, even if the dream is receding from them.
For all of the synergy exhibited during these sessions, though, the band produces a collection of songs whose musicality cannot mask the mixed emotions upon which they turn, as several may be understood as indirect commentaries upon the state of affairs in the band. During these sessions the band continued to experiment with music genres and styles as they had previously but to a lesser extent, with their forays into blues, gospel, and soul, respectively, producing songs that considered together have been seen by many critics and listeners alike as uneven in quality, which is due in part to their misgivings about continuing on together. Make no mistake: songs such as “Across the Universe,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “For You Blue,” “Get Back,” “I Me Mine,” and “Let It Be” are all first-rate. To know that John and Paul actually co-wrote “I’ve Got a Feeling” and to hear them duet on “Two of Us” is great, even though these songs are no “A Day in the Life.” (I do love how John ad libs “Everybody put The Fool down” when he first sings his section of “I’ve Got a Feeling” during the rooftop concert, name-dropping the Dutch art collective associated with The Beatles, reverting later to “Everybody put their foot down” during the coda.) The band’s performances of “Dig a Pony” and “One After 909” bristle with energy during the rooftop concert, especially with George’s muscular lead guitar carrying both songs, yet the lyrics to both are slight, with John in particular coasting lyrically with his surrealistic wordplay on “Dig a Pony.” But none of these moments can obscure the mixed emotions circulating throughout the songs. Several songs, such as “I Me Mine” with its critique of egotism, “Let It Be” with its recognition of “times of trouble,” along with “The Long and Winding Road” and “Two Of Us” with their acknowledgements of loss, all read like elegies for the band and / or the interpersonal relationships in the band. Other songs that were rehearsed during the sessions or written during them, especially George’s “All Things Must Pass,” “Isn’t It a Pity,” and “Wah Wah,” are elegiac as well. George’s songs, in fact, make me wonder at times if they were rejected because they cut a little too close to the damaged heart of The Beatles. It would not be surprising.
The songs that emerged during the Get Back / Let It Be project resonate with some sadness and uncertainty, which reminds me of a remark by jazzer Louis Armstrong, who once said “What we play is life,” in describing musicians. While we can appreciate if not applaud the impetus behind the project—the dissonance that marked some of the recording sessions for The Beatles inspires Paul to push for a project that turns upon playing live as an ensemble in order to revitalize them as a band, building upon those moments of genial collaboration that also marked some of the sessions for that eponymous album—it is a shame, really, that they gave themselves so little time for the project, so quickly after the sessions for The Beatles. Sure, they may not have been exhausted per se at the beginning of 1969, but it took John and Paul some time to write new songs and they both should have been mindful enough to know that a month was nowhere near enough time to demo, rehearse, and record songs for an album and concert, given the amount of time that they had been spending on recording the previous two albums. (They could not begin sooner because George was vacationing in America, where he met up with Dylan and The Band; they could not continue past January because Ringo was booked to film The Magic Christian beginning in February.) And it is a shame they did not just hold on to the Glyn Johns’ versions of Get Back to release as a companion disc to polished versions of the songs, in order to showcase The Beatles’ creative process (something like the “Fly on the Wall” disc that accompanied the Let It Be…Naked release) if not shelve the album all together and move on, but of course bands and labels did not think in any of those terms back in the day. George’s observation that he, and the others, could record solo albums while keeping the band together resonates now as an if only to Beatle fans, but as always, everything changes. If all things must pass serves as an epitaph for the band, then isn’t it a pity aptly characterizes what could have been with Get Back / Let It Be.
The Beatles. The Beatles: Get Back. London and New York: Callaway / Apple, 2021. Print.
The Beatles: Get Back. Dir. Peter Jackson. Apple Corps Ltd. / WingNut Films, 2021.
The Beatles. Let It Be. Apple Records, 1970.
Let It Be. Dir. Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Apple Films / ABKCO, 1970.
Lewisohn, Mark. The Beatles: Recording Sessions. New York: Harmony Books, 1988. Print.