December 1, 2021

Reading “The Beatles Get Back”

By Stuart Mitchner

“Though I don’t pretend to understand what makes these four rather odd-looking boys so fascinating to so many scores of millions of people, I admit that I feel a certain mindless joy stealing over me as they caper about uttering sounds.”

So says Brendan Gill in his review of A Hard Day’s Night in the August 22, 1964 New Yorker. As an example of mindless joy, he mentions “a lady of indubitable intelligence” who told him that the Beatles “make her happy in the very same way that butterflies do; she wouldn’t be surprised if, in a previous incarnation, the Beatles had been butterflies.” A more mindfully memorable response came from the Village Voice’s Andrew Sarris, who dubbed A Hard Day’s Night “the Citizen Kane of juke box musicals.”

Another Beatles Landmark

Fifty-seven years later here they are again alive and well in The Beatles Get Back, which could be called the Citizen Kane of rock documentaries. Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson has carved a landmark out of 60 hours of film and 150 hours of audio, much of it transcriptions of conversations among the Beatles during the making of the album that would be released more than a year later as Let It Be. While I have yet to see Jackson’s three-act epic, I’ve been enjoying the book (Callaway Arts & Entertainment $60). It’s a massive volume, 250-plus pages brimming with digitally scanned and restored frames from the original footage, along with photography by Linda McCartney and Ethan A. Russell. By far the book’s most fascinating feature is the in-the-moment sensation of “being there.” Reviewing Get Back in Variety, Chris Willman was impressed by how much of the dialogue “reads like it could be adaptable into an off-Broadway play, full of dark comedy and rich insight about what can and can’t emerge out of ego and compromise among longtime partners approaching a crossroads.”

Paging “Citizen Kane”

Although this monumental four-star reality show transcends the theatrical analogy, Get Back actually does have something central in common with Citizen Kane, which is driven by a quest for the meaning of “rosebud,” the word Kane uttered with his last breath. In Get Back the quest is for the perfect setting for a live farewell performance, and the mystery word that eludes everyone until the moment of truth is “rooftop.” There the play ends, with London skies as the backdrop and London police looking on as John Lennon takes a rushed bow and ad libs, “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we’ve passed the audition.”

My main problem with Get Back, the book, concerns the cover. The image I have in mind — an atmospheric London variation on Rene Clair’s Sous les Toits de Paris, the embattled Beatles up on the rosebud rooftop of 3 Saville Row playing, a luminous halo overhead — is out of the question of course. All I really want is something as striking as the Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Abbey Road album covers, not the dull, who-cares-any-more cop-out on Let It Be. Yet the same set of four glorified yearbook photos (Class of ‘69) is reprised on Get Back’s glossy wrap-around jacket and again on the opening page.

Trapped in Twickenham

If a plot can be extracted from what happened in the Beatles’ world in January 1969, the first act would have them struggling to adjust to an alien setting, Twickenham Film Studios in Richmond-upon-Thames, where they spend too much time slogging through frustratingly petty, silly, going-nowhere conversations about how to stage and record their farewell performance. A playwright versed in the theatre of the absurd might make a comedy of the situation, or maybe a paranormal parable taking into account the fact that John Lennon and George Harrison have been dead since 1980 and 2001, respectively.

As it happens, John, then 28, and especially George, at 25, play active, vivid, consequential roles in this existential drama, even though Paul McCartney has the most to say (and Ringo Starr the least, since he was not mic’d). Still, it’s George who creates the definitive crisis by announcing, suddenly, as if out of nowhere, that he’s leaving the band, thus precipitating the move from the cavernous confines of Twickenham to Apple’s cozy basement studio, where, as John Harris puts it in his preface to Act Two, the solution for a finale “lies four stories above.” 

Wouldn’t you know, it’s McCartney who intuits a key component of the eventual solution when everyone else is still squabbling about what and how and where. Says Paul, maybe they “should do the show in a place we’re not allowed to do it. You know, like we should trespass, go in, set up and then get moved — that should be the show…. Getting forcibly ejected, still trying to play your numbers, and the police lifting you…”

Making Something

My first time through Get Back, I enjoyed collaboration-in-action passages like the one when Paul calls on the others for help with the lyric for “Get Back,” the song they close out the rooftop recital with, a message for the benefit of the hovering bobbies. Numerous exchanges recall the banter between Hard Day’s Night’s “odd-looking” purveyors of mindless joy, as when George is working on “Something.” He’s looking for the right word to complete the line “Something in the way she moves attracts me like … “ Like what? “a moth to candlelight?” John tells him “Just say whatever comes into your head each time: ‘Attracts me like a cauliflower’ until you get the word, you know.” After John offers “grabs me like a monkey on a tree,” George abruptly decides he doesn’t “like moths,” Paul says, “It’s a lovely image, a moth,” George sings “attracts me like a pomegranate,” then it’s George and John singing “attracts me like a moth to granite” before George returns to “pomegranate,” John to “cauliflower, and all three join in singing the song “as it stands.” The answer to the riddle of the rhyme is “attracts me like no other lover” when “Something” finally surfaces in August 1969. George’s first A-side single tops  the charts, ultimately inspiring over 150  cover versions, including one by Frank Sinatra, who called it “the greatest love song of the past 50 years.”

“Only a Northern Song”

On January 7, six days before George announces he’s leaving the band, he and John and Paul are discussing what’s been going wrong. When Paul says “it doesn’t really matter as long as the four of us notice it,” George snaps, “I’ve noticed it all right!” After Paul’s lame comeback that he’s “for not just noticing it but putting it right,” George says, “I think we should get a divorce.” Without missing a beat, John says, “Who’d have the children?” And Paul says “Dick James,” the managing director of Northern Songs, because of course the Beatles’ children are their songs, which James has in custody.

It’s the Beatles in a heartbeat, another update of A Hard Day’s Night, spoiled a bit when Paul rambles nervously on about how “silly” it would be for them to split, since they’re “all just theoretically agreeing with it, but not doing it, you know.”

On January 13, George does it. And he does it after Dick James drops in for a visit that same day. Writing about Harrison last week, I learned for the first time what his composition “Only a Northern Song” actually refers to, with cranky lines like “You may think the chords are going wrong but they’re not / I just wrote it like that.” The point is it doesn’t really matter what chords he plays or words he says, since “it’s only a northern song,” and if you think “the harmony is a little off and out of key,” you’re right because the song’s not really his, it belongs to bald, bespectacled, middle aged executive Dick James, who arrives wishing everyone a Happy New Year.  After George thanks him for a holiday present (“Very nice glasses, those”), Paul says “I didn’t get any glasses,” James says, “You did you know,” and it’s like a reprise of a scene with the fussy adults trying to manage the “boys” in A Hard Day’s Night. With nothing more to say, Paul sits down at the piano and escapes into playing “The Long and Winding Road,” as if to caption the story of their lives.

“I’m Leaving”

Later the same day, while they’re rehearsing “Get Back,” Paul tells George the guitar is “conflicting” with what he’s singing: “And then I’m trying to sing louder to get over the guitar.” Still later, as they move on to “Two of Us,” Paul repeatedly goes over the “on our way back home” passage with both John and George. According to the transcript, when John “plays loud guitar,” Paul says “Could you just stop playing for a minute, John.” John says, “Yes, all right, Paul!” Paul tries to break the tension with a bit of playful theatre, “Thank you. Shall we go for lunch?” John plays along, putting on a posh accent, “Is it lunch already?” Meanwhile George may be thinking of all the times Paul’s told him “to just stop playing,” so that he could be advised what to play and how to play it.

John is playing a Chuck Berry guitar riff when George suddenly says, “I’m leaving…” John stops playing. “What?” George finishes his sentence: “… the band now.” John: “When?” George: “Now.”

Six days later the band’s back together in the Apple studio, George is saying “This is the nicest place I’ve been for a long time,” and Paul agrees. Soon they’ll be up on the roof, discussing the possibilities, and you’ll be smiling because George walked out as they were working on the line, “We’re on our way back home.”

In the Field

I’m remembering the “four odd-looking boys” romping in an open field to the full-tilt frenzy of “Can’t Buy Me Love,” which is where A Hard Day’s Night picks you up and runs off with you. Poet/critic Geoffrey O’Brien remembers walking into the theater “as a solitary observer with more or less random musical tastes” and coming out “as a member of a generation sharing a common repertoire with a sea of contemporaries, strangers, who suddenly seemed like family…. The world became, with very little effort, a more companionable place.”