Published on February 26th, 2021 | by Kim Kurtenbach0
Get Back: Re-writing the history of The Beatles final album
Good news, bad news, weird news. The good news is we can finally expect The Beatles: Get Back (2021) to arrive on Disney+ this August 27th. The bad news is that a lot of people are going to undervalue the importance of the new Peter Jackson project and therefore misinterpret its significance. The weird news is that it looks, by all measures, to be a historical re-write of The Fab Four’s final release and their ominous last days as the greatest band in the world.
Get Back is a richly restored new edit and perspective on an old film, Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s documentary Let It Be (1969). Lindsay-Hogg was the son of an aristocratic father and an Oscar nominated actress. He grew up amongst her peers, the likes of Gloria Vanderbilt and Orson Welles (it was a long time rumour that Welles was his biological father). Michael went to boarding school, got jobs in film, became well known for directing episodes of the British rock show, Ready Steady Go and later went on to direct two of the first “music videos” ever made: the Beatles Rain (1966) and Paperback Writer (also 1966). Then he directed things for the Rolling Stones and eventually got called upon to film a Beatles experiment where they would record an album and documentary about the making of said album at the same time. Let It Be was first cut as a three and a half hour movie and was eventually trimmed to a 1 hour 21 minute Paul-centric doc that included a 21 minute version of the famous rooftop performance in London.
I’ve seen Let It Be dozens of times. It’s a bummer. The colour pallet, the poor sound quality, the overall relentless message of This is the Beatles Breaking Up Miserably, can’t be overshadowed by the amazing music. Another Beatles’ first. Have a look at what I mean here:
Now it seems that Peter Jackson has been suddenly bequeathed access to 56-hours of unseen footage from that project. (Again, amazingly, more pristine “long-lost” footage/photos/songs/letters/documents appear from nowhere, man). The teaser trailer has been on Disney+ for a couple of weeks in new format, colour scheme, social themes and sound quality in full force. It looks amazing, and it promises to be a tonne of fun. It looks like four friends having a good time making music. Not just any music, mind you. Magic Beatle music. The best of the greatest of the elite.
And what was I saying earlier about re-writing history? Well, it’s a dangerous game. When an event unfolds and the media takes to reporting and recording the events, it’s an in-the-moment account of transpiring occurrences captured to educate future generations on what happened and how it affected the times. But what happens when, in the moment, the events are documented incorrectly? Are we allowed to mess with historical perceptions in order to improve their accuracy? Peter Jackson seems to think so, and I support the notion entirely.
Let’s start by going back to the fundamental importance of why I’m bold enough to support the request revising of Let It Be. The break-up of the Beatles in 1970 (or 1969, or 1968, depending on your views) was monumental beyond the imagination of most post-internet observers. The Beatles were the first to do so many things (use feedback; pack a stadium; make a “concept” record; quit playing live shows; make a 7-minute pop single go to number one, etc. etc. etc.) including breaking up. The Beatles were the first band to “break up”. For an entire generation, that split was the adulthood equivalent of being brashly told – there is no Santa Clause! It’s disappointing, even though you kinda suspected for a while now. Without internet, social media, satellite television or much in the way of home recording devices, the Beatles were examined, photographed, filmed, recored, catalogued, studied, and written about more than anyone since Elvis and before Michael Jackson. It must have been an excruciating microscope they were under! And not only did they survive, but what celebrities can you think of with as much history as Paul and Ringo who have such squeaky-clean images? Very few, if any. And it’s Sir Paul and Sir Ringo to you.
So, back to the break-up. Given how much people cared about Brad and Angelina divorcing, imagine how an even higher-profile, media-frenzy, four-way divorce would look and feel. A lot of things contributed to the Beatles’ demise beyond Yoko’s influence or Paul’s pushy and annoying cheerleading of his own agenda. In fact, let me state outright – Yoko did not break up the Beatles. I grew up reading a lot of things that told me she was the reason John left, but now that I’m an adult I call bullshit. The idea is supposedly that, in 1968-1970, when women were rarely recognized or fairly accredited for their work and influence, this one women single-handedly invaded the Beatles like they were Poland and destroyed the greatest rock band the earth has ever seen all by herself. Pffft. Nope. It was a lot of things.
Ringo was the first to “leave”. Then George walked out, saying he would not return (he did). Eventually, John said he was going to break up the band he had started back in 1958 but, ultimately, the blame was placed on Paul, who made an unwittingly official announcement to the press in April of 1970. Paul had been trying to be captain of the band, but he and his long-standing writing partner were seemingly at creative odds. George had been under-utilized, even as his songwriting talents grew to equality with Lennon and McCartney. All Things Must Pass (1970) is sufficient argument of that. Ringo was rich, bored, famously fantastic, and had job options less annoying than drummer of the Beatles. They were all ready to – not stop being the Beatles, per se – be something other than just the Beatles.
The break up was a mess and it was drawn out like a political term, the fractured party limping to end of term and their inevitable demise. Despite the very mature facial hair and long locks, the band were still young men as things began to fall apart. Let It Be might show film-footage proof of tension and the tearing fabric of the group separating, but some say it began even earlier, during the Beatles trip to India the year before. And some say they were barely hanging on as a group by the time Sgt. Pepper’s was released in June of 1967. But I don’t buy that. In June of 1967, the Beatles had only produced thirteen of their eventual twenty Number 1’s, and George was still a baby-faced 24-years-old. Ringo was the oldest at 27. That seems an awfully premature ending for a band producing results like the Beatles. Most of their actions could be chalked up to brothers fighting (Liam/Noel – you guys took it too far!) and wondering the great mysteries of life, each in their own way. Things didn’t get really complicated until the last two albums.
In my mind, the legacy of the Beatles is obstructed by a misinterpreted ending that is a little too complicated to follow with ease, so being misinformed remains status quo. But consider the following: Let It Be was not the last record The Beatles made together – Abbey Road (1969) was – it simply got released last. The recording dates are a little convoluted, and there was still some recordings being done in early 1970, months after Abbey Road had been released the previous September. But The Beatles had clearly set Let It Be aside, almost like it was an unfinished film soundtrack they were working on in their spare time. They banged out Abbey Road, finished some last pieces for Let It Be and continued to entertain thoughts of something new again. In 2018, letters and tapes surfaces which indicated that the lads had every intention of returning to the studio to record yet another album after Abbey Road. That never happened, as you know, but the plan to do so was there right up to the 11th hour.
Much of the delay in releasing Let It Be was the time taken for all the post-recording production. The task of going through the mountains of raw tapes and constructing a final project fell to Phil Spector, the genius behind The Wall of Sound that made him the first Superstar producer. He was also a gun-toting, alcoholic lunatic that shot a woman in the face and killed her. He died on January 16, 2021 in the California prison where he was serving a life sentence.
If you don’t know Phil Spector’s collection Back to Mono (1958-1969) word for word, go get after it:
Sure, I love all the great soul, doo-wop and R&B stuff Spector produced in the late 50’s and early 60’s, but I loathe the idea of him being involved with the Beatles in any way. All Things Must Pass, Harrison’s first solo album and a spectacular, mind-boggling masterpiece, received a much more appropriate treatment from Spector six months later. But Spector got The Beatles wrong. I can’t even listen to The Long and Winding Road any more. I don’t know if fault lies with the radio overplay or the production, but those strings are just too sappy-sweet. While songs on Let It Be such as I’ve Got a Feeling, Two of Us, Get Back and the lovely waltz I Me Mine are great Beatle tunes, the heavy-handed production of other tracks makes the whole album seem a little out-of-place in their catalogue. Yeah, The White Album was weird, but it wasn’t misrepresented strangeness as is the case with Let It Be. Spector really missed the mark with some strings and production he insisted upon. Many of the songs are world-class cocktails, delicious to sip upon, but a few tracks seem like Rock-a-berry coolers snuck in place of better offerings. As example, it’s well documented that McCartney argued over Spector’s treatment of The Long and Winding Road, a number one hit and near train-wreck in the same song. That three and a half minutes feels like ten on the album. McCartney never played it again the same way live.
And so it bothers me, – nay, it bugs the shit out of me – that the last two albums were inverted with their release dates. When I take the time listening to the entire catalogue, usually once every year and a bit, I make a conscious decision that Let It Be will not be the final album. Sometimes, I even substitute the original for the 2003 version Let It Be…Naked (it feels closer to what I imagine would have turned out had plans gone smoothly) but then I always make sure Abbey Road is the final curtain. It would have made more sense if Abbey Road came out last: George had Something and Here Comes the Sun (the most played Beatles song on Spotify with nearly 593 million listens). The transition from here to All Things Must Pass and the first post-Beatles number one – My Sweet Lord (1970) – could have been so poetically illustrated, an obvious progression of his songwriting and the missed opportunity by his former band. Nothing against I Me Mine or For You Blue, but…well, just play them all in that order (again) and listen to him grow.
It also feels like the last line of the last song of the last album could have been more powerful, an erudite and laudable sentiment to echo on. Though both albums technically end on a cheeky note (John’s audience-addressed ‘thanks for the audition’ or Paul’s ditty to the Queen) the last line of the last song feels better as “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make” instead of “Get back to where you once belonged”. It seems far more apropos.
And yet here we are, fifty years later, still laying pennies over the eyelids of The Beatles at the very mention of Let It Be (it. wasn’t. their. last. album!). The opening line of the ever popular allmusic.com review for Let It Be…Naked (2003) begins thusly: “In its original form Let It Be signalled the end of an era, closing the book on the Beatles, as well as literally and figuratively marking the end of the ‘60s.” This is exactly the type of partial misconception of the Beatles demise that has been perpetuated since 1970. First, let me say I agree with the end of the statement, regarding the significance of them being the swan-song for all of the sixties. Like I already mentioned, their break-up was Shocking Headline News. Anyone currently under the age of 45 has been hearing folk-tales of the cultural whirlwind/social revolution that was The Sixties, and how the Fab Four, the lads who saved America from their post-JFK sorrows, went their separate ways at the end of that journey. But Let It Be isn’t that marker! Technically – no, imperatively – Abbey Road was the final goodbye. And history should tell it that way, so we can see it that way, so their legend – their mantra – can go peacefully rather than by way of the filthy domestic abuse soap-opera that the original Let It Be film (unintentionally?) pedals.
It’s possible that Michael Lindsay-Hogg just missed the mark entirely with the mood he set for Let It Be back in 1969, but it really seems more likely he was merely another sullen mechanism in a sad clock that announced to all the children, every hour on the hour, that Santa isn’t real and magic is dead. The scene was degrading to all, cheapened by our lust to peek through their windows 24/7 like they would literally spew light-beams of god and magic upon us forever. No one can do that. Sometimes Ringo had a hangover. Sometimes Paul was a git. Sometimes…well, sometimes you just shouldn’t be peaking through peoples’ windows while they are engaged in the serious therapies of their own lives. You wouldn’t like what you see or hear. You wouldn’t like it anymore than you would like the way you sometimes sound in your therapists office. But, hey – Beatles. We finally got everything would could ask for, some we didn’t, and it was too much. Someone really should have given that film a shower, a proper dress up, and combed its god-damn hippy hair before sending it out in public. To put it another way, pretend you’re a sports fan and you love, I dunno, the Lakers. If someone was going to make a documentary about the Kobe years, what would you rather see? A) 90 minutes of sweet dunks, smooth moves and championship highlights or B) an hour of locker room arguments, Kobe being a dick to Shaq, followed by twenty minutes of VHS quality scrimmage time in bad lighting. Yeah. That’s what I thought you would say. Me too.
This September, we finally get to see a new version of old history, a long over-due alternative to the botched chronology that has plagued the actual events. It’s going to be like Old Yeller (1957) where they don’t shoot the fucking dog because they find out that Yoko didn’t give him rabies after all.
Now, have a look at the new footage here (you already saw some of the old footage earlier). Tell me, does this look like four people who hated each other?
If you just got a little excited, maybe because it looks like so much giddy fun, or maybe because a lot of what I’ve written here is really starting to make sense, you’re not alone. Last year, Paul had a spontaneous conversation with Jackson, who showed him some of the footage long before making it public. McCartney, who was only mildly interested, suddenly perked up when Jackson told him that it looked wonderful, like “friends making music together”, and had this to say: “It’s so lovely to me because I kinda bought into this idea that me and John were rivals and didn’t like each other and stuff, but you see the film and it’s like, thank God it isn’t true! We were obviously guys having fun together.”
Agreed, Paul. It seems obvious to me too. Soon, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Peter Jackson, everyone will see that Let It Be wasn’t a dismal ending, but merely a bump in the road to their actual final resting place, Abbey Road. Here, we learn what The Beatles were telling us all along – in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. That sentiment is a noble and satisfying closure to the most amazing, illustrious career in the history of rock ’n roll. August 27, 2021 can’t come soon enough.