The Beatles: Get Back - our review of the book documenting the magic, mundanity and misunderstandings of the band's Let It Be sessions
Peter Ormerod reviews The Beatles: Get Back, by the Beatles and edited by John Harris
"I think that's too much of an obstacle," says Michael Lindsay-Hogg. He is directing a film documenting the Beatles' rehearsals for a live show, their first in three years.
He is replying to Paul McCartney, who had just said the performance should end with the band "getting forcibly ejected, still trying to play your numbers, and the police lifting you". At this stage, McCartney had no idea where the show would take place, what they would play, who would be there or if it would even happen.
It did take place, and it ended with the arrival of the police. Lindsay-Hogg had made a fundamental error: no obstacle was too much for the Beatles.
But perhaps that is to slather a layer of legend over the truth. McCartney had envisioned the officers arriving "with boots and truncheons". "You have to take a bit of violence," he had said. But when the police showed up, they did so with some embarrassment, with the slight air of the well-meaning but bumbling bobby. The enter the scene hesitantly and apologetically, in response to complaints about noise. The concert seems about to end anyway. McCartney both got his wish and did not get his wish.
Such is the stuff of this ordinary and extraordinary book. It is essentially an edited transcript of what was said during those rehearsals. The words are accompanied with photographs and film stills that help resolve inherent problems with the text: the difficulty in conveying tone and the challenge of expressing what is said when so much of what is said is really unsaid. It is a sort of literature vérité, and the project it ostensibly records was itself an attempt by the Beatles to 'get back', to return to the basics of being a band. The aim was to present themselves in unvarnished fashion, to rediscover a certain directness and purity after the baroque Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and its successor, the sprawling 'White' Album. Simple, plain, unadorned, straightforward.
It is remarkable then that it ends up raising the most profound questions about truth, myth, story and art. It leaves one wondering how memory operates and what magic is. The book is officially a companion to a forthcoming three-part television series about this chapter of the band's career. But it is hard to imagine anything on the screen feeling as vivid, immediate and urgent as this.
The book begins on a film set in Twickenham, where a desultory air pervades. It is a cavernous place and the Beatles look small in it. It is entirely lacking in charm, and it is early January 1969, and a certain dankness rises from the photographs to the nostrils. Since the death of their manager-cum-patriarch Brian Epstein in 1967, McCartney has emerged as the de facto leader of the band, but they operate a form of democracy whereby any member can veto any idea. Much of the early discussion surrounds the nature of the planned performance, which was due to take place just a few weeks later. These conversations now sound absurd.
An idea was taking hold that the concert should be somewhere grand and exotic. The preferred location was a ruined amphitheatre in Libya. But disagreements were soon to emerge. McCartney wanted an audience; George Harrison did not. McCartney wanted fans to join them on an ocean liner to their destination; Harrison did not. It was ultimately Ringo Starr's refusal to travel overseas in any circumstances that saved the Beatles from what would surely have been a calamitous folly: it seems obvious today that the band's very groundedness was a crucial ingredient in their alchemy. (A similar debate would take place regarding their final album, which was initially to be called Everest, with the cover depicting the band in the Himalayas; it ended up being called Abbey Road, and everyone knows how the cover turned out).
But what seems obvious today was not obvious then, even to them. Which takes us to the music and the spectacularly unspectacular nature of its creation. What are now regarded as gold-plated classics are just tossed out with casual abandon and zero fanfare. At one point, McCartney is messing about with Mal Evans, the Beatles' roadie and assistant, and some castanets. They fall into idle chatter:
Mal: Have you heard, er, Bonzo Dog - 'Urban Spaceman'?
Paul: Heard it? I produced it!
Mal: Did you?
Mal: Do you have any more words to write out? Any more songs?
Paul: Yeah. [sings] 'When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me...'
And thus is Let It Be performed for the first time. Never at any point are such songs greeted with astonishment or their creators especially venerated. The Beatles may now be revered as gods but here they are just some blokes.
Again, though: are they? A particularly poignant moment arises when McCartney picks up his old bass guitar and finds taped to it a list of songs from their last tour in 1966. He reads them out: "She's a Woman, If I Needed [Someone], [Day] Tripper...". He continues: "I Feel Fine, Yesterday...". There is the sense of a man somehow reading out his life, or perhaps reading out a slightly different man's life, or a fictional man's life. A past has been created and it is towering and inescapable and incomprehensible. The Beatles are already living in their own shadow.
Assorted other intriguing details emerge. These supposedly uninspired sessions led not only to the album Let It Be, but were the source of most of Abbey Road as well. The Beatles spend much of their time jamming and playing rock and blues standards; their roots are clear and deep. And McCartney comes out of it all particularly well: he is considerate, wise, understanding and prescient, not least with his observation that Yoko Ono would one day be unfairly blamed for the band's demise. The ideas that are most commonly vetoed are his, but he never seems resentful. It is easy to see how his perfectionism could rankle, but he was fierce in his desire to do justice to the talents of his bandmates and to the very idea of the Beatles.
There is another voice in this book, beside those of the band and their many associates. It is the voice of John Harris, the journalist, writer and critic. The book is labelled as being 'by The Beatles,' with Harris credited as editor. But perhaps a better word would be director, because his work here goes far beyond redaction. The text is presented as a script, with certain annotations reading like stage directions ("Enter John"). It is set out in three acts. The characters are introduced as 'dramatis personae'. Harris chooses excerpts from hour after hour of recordings as if he is picking certain shots or favouring particular light. They flesh out character and present arresting angles. For example, there is a lot in this book about food: on one page, all the words are about what the Beatles want for lunch. It is the sort of detail that may exasperate those seeking technical information or facts about the process of songwriting. But it reveals at least as much about the band as their choice of microphone or their chord progressions. Harris also contributes typically insightful and incisive introductions to each 'act', and it is perhaps the subtlety of his work here that brings out the essential tension between the Beatles as men and the Beatles as cultural phenomenon. If it feels as if they're in a play, perhaps they are, anyway.
Much of the commentary surrounding this book and associated documentary has focussed on how they correct a widespread misconception. For decades, the Let It Be sessions have been regarded as a pretty miserable affair that left relationships in the band damaged beyond repair and led directly to their break-up. This belief, which has long been accepted as fact, is here thoroughly dispelled: although the environment feels uninspiring, there is a lot of humour, wit and warmth; there are genuinely funny improvisations, surreal turns of conversation and a tangible affection and respect between the four of them. This is despite the odd act of passive aggression and Harrison quitting the band for a few days and regardless of the introduction of keyboardist Billy Preston, although he certainly lifts spirits. Touching moments abound, not least Harrison's willingness to learn about songwriting from McCartney and Lennon at a time when Harrison was arguably writing even better songs than they were.
But it is not just the critics and historians who now find themselves scrabbling to change their script. It is also McCartney himself, which surely tells us something about the malleability of memory and the construction of history, even our own. This particular story ends with that performance, which takes place not at some faraway locale but on the roof of the building to which they decamped after Twickenham. The concert is now often described as 'legendary', which is both true and false. It is part of the legend but is also a deliberate act of disenchantment. The wind blows, the sound is raw, some lyrics are forgotten; the band are exalted yet exposed. Some people on the streets down below are thrilled, others unbothered, others unhappy. And up they come, those slightly shambling bloodhounds of the law, and the thing finishes quite gently as Lennon quips hammily: "I hope we've passed the audition."
It is tempting to see this season of the Beatles' life as an aberration. Their gloss is restored on Abbey Road; that album, like most Beatles albums, is sharp and clean and crisp and tastefully lush. Let It Be, the album, would finally appear, after the band had broken up; by then, the American producer Phil Spector, not known for his rootsiness, had gunked much of it in strings and choirs. McCartney would return to it in 2003, stripping it back once again for a release called Let It Be...Naked. The film Let It Be, which was part of the point of the original project, came out in 1970 but has not been officially available for decades, existing only on scrappy bootlegs. The whole episode seems uncharacteristically messy.
But in that mess is a kind of glory. It refuses to be easily contained or defined. It lets daylight in upon magic, but the magic is not dispelled. Rather, its weird nature becomes more apparent. No amount of books will ever really explain what these four men did and how they did it. The beauty of this book - a handsome work that borrows its rather naive design from the Let It Be album - is that it implicitly acknowledges that fact. And in doing so, it comes as close as any ever will to a kind of truth.
* The book The Beatles: Get Back is available now, published by Callaway Arts & Entertainment and Apple Corps Ltd, costing £40. The accompanying documentary series, directed and produced by Peter Jackson, will be available to watch on Disney+ from November 25.