Since it was announced that there was going to be an eight-hour movie of the Beatles January 1969 recording sessions, I have deliberately avoided all previews or post release reviews, to give myself the chance to watch it. I’m glad I did as it was an incredible experience and one I could never have imagined.
It sounds strange to say this about the Beatles, but ultimately the music is of secondary importance here. There are wonderful moments, such as Paul painstakingly developing “Get Back” and “The Long and Winding Road” from empty shells to bona fide classics and John and George strumming and mumbling through early versions of “Jealous Guy” and “Something”.
Also we see a lot more of the fun jams on old classics we saw briefly in the 1970 movie of the sessions. I love that. But let’s face it, the Beatles actually rejected the album recorded here and it wasn’t released until seven months after John left the band and it split up. Yes, it contains three of Paul’s classics, but those and a couple of other decent tracks apart it is plodding and workmanlike at best. If it didn’t have those four faces on the cover it would be long forgotten.
The value of “Get Back” lies in its myth-busting revelations. I checked my bookshelf after watching this. There are 27 books on the Beatles, with another 3 on my Kindle. There are some great ones there, but this eight hours, set across just one month, renders many of them obsolete. In short, if these were the last days of the Beatles, they were very different days from those presented in most accounts of the time.
To me, the Beatles story is one of the relationship between the two resident geniuses John and Paul. Get Back confirms that. But not in the way I expected. We’ve always been led to believe that the Beatles split was one full of unrelenting acrimony and bickering between the two of them, but there’s no evidence of it here.
They remain on very good terms throughout, collaborate constructively on each other’s embryonic songs and retain a clear musical and personal chemistry. But the tragedy is one of two soulmates naturally growing apart with age and experience.
The unique bond that defined their relationship from their early teenage years was that they both lost their mother young. But now they’ve both found their life mates who they will both be parted from by tragic early death. So their personal mutual dependence has diminished.
Paul alludes to that early in the movie when asked if he and John write together as much as before. His answer is so revealing as it was in real time rather than with the benefit of hindsight or “official” post-split narrative. He simply says that when the band toured all year, they “lived together in hotels, got up at the same time and spent all day together “so obviously something would happen”.
But those days were gone and with it that enforced closeness. You get the impression he misses in more than John does at this stage. Yet he concludes that passage with “but now we play better than ever”. And they do in these sessions. It’s just that the songs aren’t as consistently groundbreaking.
The high spot for me comes in the opening segment of the second part of the series and presents the most vivid record we’ve ever witnessed of John and Paul’s closeness. At that point, George Harrison has flounced out of the session, with the pretence he’s left the band for good. When they convene after the weekend, he still isn’t there, despite a band meeting at the weekend.
At that point, the camera is switched off, but the tape keeps running. It’s an incredibly moving and revealing five minutes in which two twenty-somethings lay bare the whole basis of the most vital relationship in the history of popular music. They discuss how they treat other people, and their own dynamic is laid bare by Paul saying quite clearly to John that “you were always the boss”.
Not in an argumentative way but with respect and almost tangible regret that it was no longer the case. I’m sure when McCartney saw this footage it must have been an incredible experience. Certainly to Beatles anoraks like me it was breathtaking and in a strange way reassuring.
So the real story here was of Paul McCartney – at the time at his absolute creative peak, producing the best music of his life – struggling manfully to hold the band together. The subtext is the relationship between he and his partner and friend, who had clearly lost his creative mojo a year or two before and who had effectively handed the leadership of his band to Paul a couple.
The sessions are driven by Paul. The whole initiative of the original documentary and the TV special initially planned for the end of it were Paul’s ideas and throughout the series, you can see Paul trying to motivate his colleagues. But with no powerful support as their manager, Brian Epstein had died eighteen months earlier.
So if the story is Paul trying to inject some life into his band, the tragedy is that ultimately, he fails. But would it have been better if we’d watched them stay together to plod unconvincingly through the seventies to end up as a glorified tribute band? No chance!
Ian Clarke spent 36 years in sales & marketing for newspapers in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland – including the Belfast Telegraph, Wolverhampton Express & Star, Northern Echo and The Herald (Glasgow) after graduating from QUB in Political Science. Glentoran supporter.