For my generation, as expected, the release of Peter Jackson’s “Get Back” trilogy, reworked from the Beatles’ “Let it Be” footage, has been emotional. And why not – as it harks back to an important element of our childhood days? However, the films have also served as a reminder of the way we were.
I have always counted myself blessed that the “Beatle Years” – 1963-1970 – coincided exactly with my years at secondary school. It meant that I followed their journey to global fame from being a wide eyed 11 year old fan to a music obsessed student – and enjoyed them through the changing emotions that accompanied my teenage years.
By chance, I was also living around twenty miles north of Liverpool at the time, and attended a school a few miles from the Cavern, though I had no awareness that the location would have seemed wonderful to millions of Beatle fans around the world.
Retrospectively, in age and locality, I was afforded a good vantage point – close by, but not so immersed as to obscure a wider view of the whole phenomenon.
My cousin was five years older than me and lived in Liverpool itself, so she was of an age to be a regular at the Cavern and even went out with a drummer from one of the Merseybeat groups for a time. Her perspective, in age and place, would have been different to mine.
Watching the films, the first thing I remembered was that, almost invariably, until 1970, we would see the Beatles as a foursome, and seldom as imdividuals, and, of course, this footage returns us to that experience. It helps us recall the surprise when it was announced that John would appear in “How I won the War” and Ringo in “The Magic Christian”. Even McCartney’s involvement in the music for the Boulting Brothers’ film “The Family Way”, and George’s fascination with Indian mysticism and music, was a departure from that “group thing” to which we had become accustomed.
In the years since, we have come to think of them individually – Paul as the chat show guest, Ringo with his peace and love gestures, and, sadly, the deaths of John and of George. These films remind us that a large part of the Beatles original appeal was the interaction between them,
And that, in itself, is interesting to recall.
Before the Beatles, “pop stars”, male or female, were generally solo artists. Even if they had a band, they continued the old bandmaster tradition, being styled as “Buddy Holly and the Crickets” or “Cliff Richard and the Shadows”. The members of the backing group were largely anonymous. In the Shadows, for instance, probably the most popular group before the Beatles, fans may have been able to name Hank Marvin because of the glasses and twangy guitar, but Bruce Welch, Tony Meehan and Jet Harris would have been far less visible.
One of the elements that contributed to the Beatles success was Brian Epstein’s recognition that he could market them as individuals as well as promoting a strong group identity. They soon established almost cartoon personae: Paul as the self aware charmer with his boyish grin and cheery thumbs up; Lennon the cynical, his short sighted leer at the camera often seen as truculence; George the shy guitarist, lop sided smile at the ready; and Ringo – nearly always called “loveable”, head on one side as the mop top flopped and he grinned at his good fortune. When we think of them back then, it is almost always in those poses, and, to be fair, Jackson’s films do little to eradicate these images.
Even the press began referring to them as “John, Paul, George and Ringo”, and everybody, fan or otherwise, was soon able to identify each of them – but they seldom appeared in public as individuals. Ringo’s solitary walk in “A Hard Day’s Night” is partly memorable because he is not with the others. The group’s excited breakout from the studio to the sounds of “Can’t buy me love” in the same film is reminiscent of the Marx Brothers – not merely because of the madcap antics, but also, like the comic trio, they are operating as a familiar unit and interacting with each other.
As fans we were encouraged to buy into this “one for all” image – none more so than in the film “Help”, when the lads enter four neighbouring terraced houses whose interiors are revealed to be one big communal living area. Consciously or otherwise, Beatles fans liked to imagine them actually living like that – individually – but together. It must have been an irksome image for them at the time – a fact partially reflected in some of the interchanges in “Get Back” and more so in the original “Let it Be” release.
So for original fans there is some comfort to be had in watching the interactions in “Get Back” and recognising that the success of the original “cartoon personae” was that they were largely based on how they actually were. In those relatively unsophisticated times, it’s hard to see how totally false images could have been maintained, and I suppose we were always aware that the demands Epstein put in place to gain them stardom were never completely followed – there was always a tie unfastened, a jacket removed, a haircut missed. It explains how the Beatles could switch from their Hamburg leathers to smart suits – and from pill popping anarchy to bowing in unison at the end of each number – in the pursuit of fame, but also how their deal with Epstein was always knowing, and never one of complete subjugation – as McCartney suggests in “Get Back” when he wonders if they miss a “father figure like Mr Epstein” to get them organised.
Over the decades I have often struggled to capture in words the particular excitement associated with the Beatles that we felt back in the sixties. The forthcoming release of a new single, an appearance on television, the arrival of the fan club magazine or its special Christmas record, the scenes from airports and concert halls wherever they went – all of this felt like Christmas morning – the anticipation and the joy of a new song, the next appearance, or even a different outfit.
Naturally, part of this was related to our age and the times in which we lived. Celebrity, of all kinds, was nowhere near as universal as it is today. Pictures and pieces about the Beatles were many, but quite controlled – and fans would have little idea of what they were doing when not in the public eye. So the publicity we did see – from grainy grey and white newspaper pictures, through glossy fan magazine shots, to the covers and sleeve notes on LPs, were gone through again and again, committed to memory and quoted to pals repeatedly.
We studied them as well, knew every facial and verbal tic, their different takes on how they wore their clothes, how they smiled or frowned, the way they walked. Young people had far fewer entertainment distractions in those days and so the scrutiny was intense.
And reliving that while watching “Get Back”, I found myself thinking again about that original excitement: the stomach churn at the sound of the drum roll that started “She Loves You”, the quickening of the pulse during the feedback introduction to “I Feel Fine”, the intake of breath on hearing the chord for “A Hard Day’s Night”, the involuntary movements caused by the opening bars of “Baby you can drive my car”, or the surge of happiness as the harmonica led into “I shoulda known better”. Many of these moments remain as distinct childhood memories.
How to describe it effectively and with resonance?
It strikes me now that those feelings had all the ingredients of “first love” – that childhood crush on someone who was unreachable, probably unknown to you, and almost certainly unconscious of your existence. Ridiculously, you felt you knew everything about them, and just the mention of them would bring a red face, a quickening heartbeat, a launch into projected fantasies of a relationship that would never be reality. The nervous ignorance of actual adult relationships was submerged in a dreamland which created a one dimensional view of the object of the affections, an impossible world in which they would be completely as you wished them to be – in essence an extension of yourself.
Both sexes could buy into this.
For girls, there was the future boyfriend they imagined – with John, Paul, George, or Ringo fitting preconceived stereotypes of the kind promoted by teenage magazines: Paul would be lovely and romantic, John would be dangerous and exciting, George would be friendly and non-threatening, and Ringo – well, they would just want to mother him. There was something for every girl there – particularly in pre-pubescent years where relationships seemed simple and straightforward. Psychologists tell us that the hysteria amongst girls at Beatles concerts was far more based on sexuality than this simple view – but, if that is true, given the times we were living in, I suspect a lot of that would be subconscious.
The attraction for boys was also based on the personalities we thought we saw, or knew, in the group. You could be soft and gentle like Paul, edgy and hard bitten like John, quiet and mysterious like George, or a bit more mature and sensible like Ringo. Teenage boys love to play a part, and we chose our roles, and often, publicly, or not, identified ourselves and each of our friends with one or more of these traits. And they could also fulfil the place of big brother, little brother, or mate.
There is also a suggestion, which is subconsciously present in “Get Back”, that the members of the group actually represented different parts of our own personalities – which would make them a kind of four headed hydra. This popular technique in literature and drama was very current in the early 1960s – “The Likely Lads” on BBC presenting Bob and Terry as two parts of the same character in conflict – the upwardly striving, under confident, Bob, and the superficially arrogant, but inferiority cursed, Terry – as two sides of our nature; or the Steptoes – Harold’s grandiose ambition stymied by the cold reality of his father’s defeatism. I suspect we all had times when we felt like each of the Beatles in turn in the way we handled the world – a reflection of the confusion of the teenage years of growth and development.
This identification with the members of the band was made possible by Epstein’s decision to promote them as individuals while emphasising the importance of them all being in the group. The great “what if” of their story, of course, is how their manager could have “managed’ them as they matured and forged stronger individual roles – as musicians, but also as partners and parents. Maybe the looming difficulty of this scenario contributed to Epstein’s increasing depression.
The other big reminder I took from “Get Back” was the realisation of how much the 1960s were a time of “permission” – for us as youngsters, but also across society. The tabloid memory of “the sixties” would see them as times of freedom, rebellion, and creative innovation. For some, it was, but for the huge majority, it was a very slow emergence from post war repression.
Politicians were still very much patrician in their approach to government, and it took the Profumo scandal to suggest to the public that maybe they were not as trustworthy as they appeared.
As children, we went to school, did our homework, were told how long our hair could be and how to wear our uniforms. At home, had to ask permission to go out, were quizzed as to where we were going and with whom, told when to be back, and even wore clothes either bought or sanctioned by our parents.
This is maybe not surprising in an era when the idea of children having “rights” would be, and often was, openly ridiculed.
Perhaps this was nowhere more obvious than in the area of entertainment.
This aura of “control” was certainly part philosophical and based on the inherited image parents had of family life, but it was also practical.
The early sixties were a time when most families had no central heating, meaning the living room, with its coal fire, was likely to be the only warm room in the house. This, as much as any family feeling, tended to keep everyone together in the same place. In this room would be the one and only television set, with its two channels, and also, possibly, the family “radiogram” – with a radio, a record turntable, a space for a dozen LPs, and flowers, ornaments and a bowl of fruit on the top – much more a piece of furniture than an entertainment centre.
This led to much negotiation – generally with the father as “head of the house” – as to what could be watched on television, what could be played on the radio or gramophone, and when it could be played, and decisions on who had first choice in all these areas. My generation have fixed memories of “family watching” of shows like “Dr Finlay’s Casebook”, “Dr Kildare”, Perry Mason” and “No Hiding Place” which would have been considered acceptable family viewing, though not perhaps the first choice of teenagers. It did provide a shared experience and topics for family discussion, however.
Later, with the emergence of “Z Cars”, “Coronation St” and “The Wednesday Play”, and “Monty Python”, discussions became more complex, especially when there was a range of ages within the family. “Can I watch?” was a familiar question, as was “Can I put this record on the gramophone?” The likelihood of permission was based on family relationships, timings of the request, or content of the television programme or record. In the early years of the decade, “dad going out” was often a sign for an explosion of record playing or television choices!
These limitations would slowly change. The coming of the transistor radio and the pirate radio stations, as well as improved domestic heating options, made it more feasible for teenagers to retreat to their bedrooms to listen to what was already known as “their music”, and the explosion in record sales, allied to more accessible record players, added to this.
But, in the early days, the Beatles benefited from their “universal” appeal, and, while part of this reflected Epstein’s image making, a lot of it was to do with their music and its roots.
Much has been written about their R & B preferences and the style of music they played in Hamburg – influenced by rare records brought into the port of Liverpool by American sailors. This was a feature of Liverpool life at the time, and most of the local groups played a similar set.
However, what set the Beatles aside perhaps was the eclectic nature of their song book – even before they gained the confidence to use their self written material. Their first two albums reflect this broad influence – the Miracles’ “You really got a hold on me” alongside “Till there was You” from the stage musical The Music Man”; the Brill Building’s Goffin and King’s “Chains” sharing LP space with “A Taste of Honey” – originally the theme to the Broadway version of Shelagh Delaney’s play of the same name.
Even in odd moments during “Get Back”, they will still break into a scat version of a well known musical standards.
The truth is that the Beatles, like most of their generation, had grown up aware of the great stage musicals – such as Oklahoma, Carousel, My Fair Lady, and South Pacific, and their early music and lyrics demonstrate this fact. The aftermath of the swing era, and even music hall, was still resonant, especially in the McCartney household, as Paul’s words and music often reflected. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, “When I’m Sixty Four” and “Yellow Submarine” would all demonstrate this musical background.
Basically, they were writing songs and lyrics that our parents’ generation could appreciate – which was a departure for teenage music. In Beatles songs, the older generation heard tunes and words which they understood – in contrast to the “Bee Bop a Lula” rock and roll of Elvis, Gene Vincent and Little Richard – which the adults would generally refer to as “just noise”, and which they found rather threatening.
The Beatles songs, by contrast, were often easy on the ear with catchy tunes and relatable lyrics – and the fact they were sung in a familiar if regional accent, rather than the fake American of other rock and rollers and skiffle devotees, also helped make them accessible to our parents, in the early days at least. So, consciously or otherwise, the Beatles song book broke down at least some of the domestic generational barriers when it came to watching them on television or begging use of the gramophone. This “cross over” appeal greatly enhanced and widened their popularity, and, secretly, we were impressed by the fact that “even our parents” liked them.
Of course, while Epstein sought to present his “boys” as every mother’s favourite son, and the boyfriend each father hoped his daughter would bring home, The Rolling Stones’ manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, aimed to make his group appear as the opposite – dangerous, subversive and, as the right wing press would have it, “dirty”.
Naturally, the idea was that the (relatively) neat and tidy Beatles would appeal to younger teenagers with the “permission” of their parents, who were also quite taken by their image, and the Stones – portrayed as dangerous, scruffy, and rude, would appeal to the older teenagers – desperate to rebel against their parents and the establishment.
Even though celebrity image making was stil recovering from the ongoing demolition of the old Hollywood studio “star” system, it was able to function successfully up to a point. The truth of the matter was rather more complex, especially in an era where class background was considered important.
The Stones, as we have come to realise, were far more middle class than the Beatles – Jagger’s practised sneer hardly disguising his Grammar School and LSE education, Brian Jones a product of Cheltenham Grammar School for Boys, Keith Richard a boys’ choir soprano and art school student.
The Beatles had a more mixed background, although their families were largely middle class aspirant – James McCartney bringing up his son to value the arts, listen to music, with a piano in the house, and to be polite and thoughtful as his late mother would have wished, George’s Speke council house upbringing was marked by his mother Louise who was active in the local Catholic church and expected her son to work hard. Ringo came from the working class Dingle, his step dad a great swing music lover, his mother, Elsie, over protective after his many childhood illnesses, which minimised his education.
Most notable, perhaps, was the attitude of John’s Aunt Mimi who brought him up after his mother’s early death, and much of the time before it. She is reported to have been obsessively “middle class” in her outlook, with John and Paul often forced to play their guitars outside the house, and the council house-raised Harrison viewed with much suspicion.
As Beatle fans, the results of such upbringings were crucial to our view of the group. Certainly, John was long motivated by his Aunt’s bourgeois tendencies in his rebellion against societal norms – whether with cruel humour, excessive impoliteness, or just a general impulse to go against the grain of acceptable behaviour. Paul responded to his childhood in his style of song writing, and his desire to behave with propriety for the media and the group’s public.
However, though the sixties may not have been quite as revolutionary as reported, the Beatles and their ilk did contribute to a certain opening up of the high arts to a wider section of the population.
Paul’s upwatd mobility saw him living in Wimpole Street of all places, in the home of his girlfriend Jane Asher, whose father was a medical consultant and whose mother a professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He learned much about music and the arts, as well as joining a certain level of London society while he was there.
John found his way in to an artistic community with such as Art Gallery owner, John Dunbar, published books of drawings and poetry, and came to be regarded as an avant garde member of the arty set.
George famously immersed himself in the world of Indian religion and music, and mixed with the likes of Ravi Shankar.
Young men from their backgrounds would not have been able to enter such rarified company in previous decades. They were the musical wing of the Angry Young Men literary movement, and were followed by the explosion of working class photographers, models, and actors.
Part of this success reflects the diversification of the arts from London-centric to appreciation of more regional perfomers and productions – as films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar – and the books and plays from which they came, became popular.
Something else of which “Get Back” reminds us is that traditional English sneer from the metropolitian capital to the far flung areas of their little country – known as “the Provinces”.
In his brief memoir “A Cellarful of Noise” which Brian Epstein published in 1964, it is remarkable to learn that, at that stage of the Beatles’ success, what he was most pleased about was not their talent or popularity – though, of course he much valued and appreciated that – but that he had managed to bring success to a group “from the Provinces” – he had taken on London’s Tin Pan Alley with its stranglehold on the music business in all its guises and he had eventually won!
The accepted route to fame and fortune had always been to go to London – and though, of course, the Beatles would eventually end up in the English capital, it was important to their manager, to the group themselves, and their legion of fans, that they represented a part of England that was not London and paved the way for the Hollies from Manchester, The Move from Birmingham and even the Troggs from Andover! Over fifty years later, geography still has a much reduced part in the success of creative artists in all fields – where you are from is no longer crucial – though class, wealth and background remain determinants for many in making a popular success of their art.
At least, if the class system was not demolished by the musicians of the sixties, it became a lot more permeable to those of all backgrounds with talent and ambition. To hear George speak of the need for recording equipment in their studio lot in “Get Back” is instructional. He says EMI will have to provide the equipment if the Beatles ask for it – given their importance to the company: “If Benjamin Britton wants to make a recording somewhere, he just tells EMI to provide the equipment and it’s there!” It’s a telling sentence which reveals both the economic power of the Beatles at the time, and the lingering determination to be seen as “just as good as that lot”!
Sure enough, before long, EMI employees – the technicians in white lab coats, and the besuited management, can be seen scurrying about, carrying out the Beatles’ request.
So perhaps the Beatles success nibbled away at the edges of the “permission society”, and, in the creative arts, gave young people, “provincials”, and the working classes the confidence to make choices and take decisions without always deferring to their “elders and betters” as the popular saying went.
And maybe that was one of the major innovations forged by the Beatles.
Better transport links, the success of the education act which brought secondary education to all, the ending of National Service, and the emergence of television, especially the independent channels, all, in their way, contributed to the youthful and regional impact on culture in the sixties, and the emergence of “The North” as a creative hub. The Beatles first television appearance was on Granada – the commercial station for the north west of England.
Toughened up by their sets at the Cavern and their gruelling stints in Hamburg, the Beatles had less of the “provincial cringe” than did their manager. They came over as sure of themselves, at least superfically, and that added to their allure in the north and fascination in the south.
In “Get Back”, we see characters like Mal Evans and Kevin Harrington – assistants or “gofers” – meeting all the Beatles’ requests. By 1969, they have reached a stage where they can expect to have their demands met – whether for recording equipment, sandwiches, wine or transport: it is very clearly “ask and ye shall receive”. And, while the group individuals don’t seem to be overbearing in their entitlement, there is no doubt that their relationship with the world around them must have changed by this stage in their careers, not necessarily for better or worse, but still a factor in how they operated as a group.
And while Jackson’s films allow us to recall how we felt when the foursome were presented interacting together, they also set the group in context with the folk around them – some of the stranger elements of Apple Corps, but also figures like Neil Aspinall, Peter Brown and Derek Taylor who were known to us when we were fans in the sixties but whose roles and relationships with the Beatles were perhaps not so clear.
This brings us to the contest for the soubriquet of “Fifth Beatle”.
Candidates have always included the prematurely deceased Stuart Sutcliffe, and Ingrid Kirschner, his girlfriend, who is credited with the Beatles’ stylish leather and fringe “look”, and Pete Best, their original drummer.
However, most folk would agree that the only real choice for “Fifth Beatle” is producer, George Martin. His appearances throughout the “Get Back” films are a reminder of the influence and effect he had on the group’s career, and the scenes of his involvement in the studio recall the particular style of this remarkable man.
After service in the Fleet Air Arm he had graduated from the Guildhall School of Speech and Drama, where he had been taught by Jane Asher’s mother, and his interest was in orchestral music, piano and oboe. He ended up at EMI where he was more or less shunted into their Parlophone label which released obscure classical pieces and quirky comedy singles.
Martin’s real abilities lay in composition and arrangement, and as such he was the perfect counterpoint to the Beatles’ much more informal approach to their writing and recording. He could make Lennon’s sound dreams become real, he could suggest arrangements to McCartney involving string quartets and piccolo horns, and he understood the importance of Harrison and Starr’s contribution to the finished product. In short, he made them raise their game musically, and he was an enabler and faciitator of their creativity and innovation from the start. In the beginning, he created the recorded sound of the Beatles, giving it universal chart appeal without totally removing the urgency and excitement of the Beatles’ own approach.
What he originally spotted was not so much their musical abiity – of which he was not totally convinced – as the excitement they brought when they performed. He was very interested in using his musical and technical skills to get them into the Hit Parade as it was then known. He had achieved some success in that area, even beyond the comedy records, but was determined to try out his theories in the ever developing recording studios of the time. The Beatles provided somewhat of a blank canvas, but they learned quickly and provided him with myriad ideas – it was to prove a happy collision of innocence and experience, raw talent and carefully honed musicology. Martin was open to innovation when the Beatles were scarcely aware of the limits of what was feasible, so they pushed him and he guided them.
From our standpoint it is perhaps difficult to see this soberly suited, quietly spoken, middle class gentleman as a pop music revolutionary – but George Martin was not exactly how he appeared.
He had grown up in poverty and it was really only his position as a Fleet Air Arm Officer that had given him his air of quiet authority. Like so many of his generation, he had quite deliberately switched his London accent to more “socially acceptable” middle class tones – a decision made frequently by ambitious working class folk in those days. They may have been breaking down class barriers but before the Beatles fame, there was still an expectation that one spoke “properly” – a convention much mocked in “A Hard Day’s Night”, and also in “Get Back”
He had the personality of an effective teacher. He did not lecture his charges nor belittle them for their relative ignorance. He was sure enough of his own musical and technical ability to listen to their ideas and to admit when they were better than his. He definitely encouraged their own development rather than adopting the “Svengali” approach of later and lesser producers like Joe Meek, Mickie Most or Chinn and Chapman, who took complete charge of their groups’ “sound”.
As it happened, this worked well for the Beatles – Paul, with his eclectic musical background, valued Martin’s classical skills; Lennon was impressed by the producer’s ability to transfer his aural ideas to actual music, George found an ear perhaps more open to his suggestions than were John and Paul, and Ringo’s confidence was boosted by Martin’s ongoing support after a rocky start.
The Beatles tended to see Brian Epstein as a necessary evil who could get them commerical success, but, while apprecating what he did for them, they found it difficult to respect what they saw as an archetype of a Jewish businessman with little musical knowledge. George Martin, on the other hand, won their respect through his musical knowledge and ability, but also because he had the skill of knowing when to be silent and to let them work things out for themsleves and when to step in and solve a problem.
Perhaps most importantly, especially for Lennon, he was non-confrontational. He could send them in a particular direction with a quiet word without them even realising it.
All of this is clearly demonstrated in the “Get Back” films. He is constantly there in the background – almost a comfort blanket for the group, depite Glyn John’s role as producer of the “live sound” required for the project. Martin’s closeness to the band by this time, and his own self assurance, clearly avoided any resentment at the other producer’s role. Indeed, it could be said that Glyn Johns was one of a generation of producer/engineers who combined musical knowledge with technical studio expertise in a style which George Martin himself had pioneered.
To our eyes, Martin seems to show a huge amount of patience in “Get Back” and that is a good reflection of his role as “Fifth Beatle”. After seven years of working with them in the studio and seeing their development, he knew to give them the space they needed for the ideas to emerge. Somewhere between father and teacher, I would say, and a good antidote to the bluster of Klein and Dick James.
The final element in the film which lends context to the group’s interactions is the varying presence of what were called at the time “the Beatles’ women”, who were in themselves an interesting backdrop to the development of the individual group members, and also very much reduced to cartoon status by the press and the majority of Beatle fans. This was partly a reflection of contemporary gender views, but also a function of music press and wider media coverage of the group.
Epstein originally felt it was important that “the boys” should appear unattached, as that would make them more appealing to teenage girls – a common approach in the music business at the time, where fans were generally offered a one dimensional idol to adore.
When news of John being married eventually emerged in the media, there was sympathy for Cynthia’s as having been “hidden”, and also an appreciation of the “art school lovers” backstory. As a “nice middle class girl”, Cynthia smoothed out some of Lennon’s rough edges, it seemed, and the fans accepted her.
Much the same could be said of Jane Asher, when she became Paul’s constant partner.
Even more middle class than Cynthia, and a reserved and successful actress as well, she gained some acceptance as a “suitable partner” for McCartney as she appeared to complement his style and aspirations. They were, said the press, “a lovely couple”, and our parents, of course, agreed.
When George fell for Patti Boyd on the set of “A Hard Day’s Night”, there was another love story to be told to the group’s advantage, and the story of Ringo’s long term attachment to Mo, from Cavern days, worked well also.
As was the case with the personalities manufactured for the Beatles themselves, the wives’ characters “worked” because they were largely based on reality – Cynthia, Jane, Patti and Mo were not so different to the caricatures which the fans thought they “knew”.
In the mid sixties then, the group’s popularity meant that the four couples involved were accepted by fans as part of the deal – they were comfortable with it, as they grew up alongside the group members, and no doubt entered long term relationships themselves.
Then Paul and Jane broke up, and John and Cynthia – and this didn’t fit the template.
As previously mentioned, with John writing books and starring in “How I won the War”, Ringo being announced in the cast for “The Magic Christian”, Paul writing the music for the film “The Family Way”, and George’s increasing involvement with Indian mysticism and music, these were developments which made it impossible to deny that “the Beatles” was composed of four young men approaching their thirties, growing up and emerging from that period of their life that started with Hamburg and ended with mass hysteria across the world. In simple terms, fans were realising, in reference to “Help”, that when they closed the doors of their houses behind them, they did not live together, and they were individuals, whose lives, quite naturally, were diversifying.
Worse was to come, however, when Paul started dating an American photographer who had a hinterland of her own, and then John appeared with a Japanese woman who just looked “different”, both women unleashing a level of prejudice and sexiam which was higher than we care to remember at the time. The cartoon fan reaction was “How could they do this to Cynthia and Jane?”, based on the marketing of the group urging fans, like Monarchists towards the Royal Family, to view the Beatles as “people we know”.
Part of this strange reaction was based on a contemporary nervousness about the possibility of the Beatles breaking up. There were longer gaps between releases, “The Magical Mystery Tour” film with its family friendly Boxing Day release had shattered the universal appeal, with the oldies, already unnerved by “Sgt Pepper”, declaring it “rubbish”. Folk of my age, who had literally grown up with the group, were starting to wonder what it would be like without a Beatle release to anticipate or another innovative recording in the offing. So, any outward sign of inward distancing tended to be howled down as untrue or unacceptable – and Linda and Yoko certainly caught the rough end of that deflection.
From that angle, and with the perspective of fifty years, it is interesting to see the appearances of the Beatle partners in the films.
Patti, despite her later renown as Rock Music muse, inspiring “Something”, “Layla” and “Wonderful tonight”, makes only the briefest of appearances, and Mo really only appears in one sequence as the group listen to playbacks, and at the end when they are playing on the roof.
However, rather poignantly, she still appears to be a fan, and her and Ringo look ideally suited. It seems that the break up of the group, allied to the years of coping with egregious fame, took their toll on the couple and influenced the means in which they would later seek to handle it.
Linda, too, actually states at one point: “And I am talking as a fan.”
For me, Linda was one of the surprise elements of the films. While, hopefully, being a bit too mature to join in the hate fest against her and Yoko, back in the day, I did find her public image rather haughty and withdrawn, if not awkward. In “Get Back”, though far from ever present, she comes across as an extremely “normal” and warm person and I found I really liked her.
Then we come to Yoko, about whom so much has been written in relation to the Beatles.
I have no idea whether she contributed to their break up – all I have mentioned previously points to the group coming to a “natural” end. They’d been together for over a decade in an era where, at the start, they may only have expected to last “a year or two”. In a sense, the group, and we as fans, were in uncharted territory. Like those other icons, Morecambe and Wise, used to say, the annual strain of having to “save everybody’s Christmas” by the quality of their festive television show, was a pressure that increased exponentially. For the Beatles, the knowledge that each release had to be fresh, innovative and mind blowing must have been a similar weight to carry – pun intended!
In 1969, by the standards of those days – though certainly not now, they were quite geriatric as pop stars, and they had the added pressures of outrageous celebrity before the famous were afforded effective means of privacy. Perpective tells us that there were many reasons for the end of the Beatles, most totally understandable and to be expected. Whilst Yoko may have been one of the symptoms, it is foolish to blame her for the break up of the group.
She is, of course,a constant feature in the three episodes of “Get Back”, seldom more than a foot away from Lennon. What is noticeable is that the other three Beatles, and generally speaking, Lennon himself, more or less ignore her presence and, apart from a couple of occasions of performance art screaming, she seldom interacts with the group, other than leaning on her boyfriend.
As a viewer of the film, this dark presence was vaguely annoying, but easy enough to ignore. Speaking frankly, the emotional needs of any of the Beatles or their partners is unlikely to be known to us, and, in any case, none of our business. Clearly, Lennon was attracted to the avant garde, as a former art student not surprisingly, and there were elements of Yoko’s personality which matched his needs.
Taken as a whole in the films, like Mal Evans, Glynn Johns and the rest, the Beatles’ partners provide a context in which we can view the group and add to our reflections on what it felt like to be a Beatles fan in the sixties.
If these are the characters, what about the films themselves?
As others have commented, they are far too long and detailed, yet leave us wanting more. Jackson, as is his style, has gone for documenting what happened as much as creating a piece of filmic beauty – though it has to be said the quality of both sound and vision is extraordinarily good thanks to digital refurbishment.
Anyone who has collaborated in music or drama or in other creative arts will recognise the hiccups, the dead times, the searching for any inspiration which will move things on. Old tunes are resurrected – sometimes for the joy of performance and remembering, other times to try and raise the creative juices, something which is effectively achieved with the arrival of Billy Preston – who, like a guest in the house, seems to encourage the group to up their game and become more focussed.
There is excellent use of subtitles and still photography and arty angles are thankfully kept to a minimum. Checking off the “days to the show” on a calendar is a good technique for transmitting the mounting pressure, making the film ironically more ordered than its content, and it is to Jackson’s credit that he doesn’t play the walk out of Harrision, or the late arrivals of Lennon, for sensation, but rather as signposts to the group’s onward direction, and an opportunity to reflect their feelings for each other..
As I have said, for the viewer, it is really useful to have so many minor characters in the landscape – all explained and given their place – and it feels like we are really vouchsafed an insight into that strange existence – where an hour of doodling and looking for a direction can be followed by a relatively quick completion of a tune like “Get back”. It feels like a privilege to see something of how the Beatles composed – especially in those moments when John and Paul are sparking off each other, as if they cannot help themselves – those siamese twins of songwriting.
You have to feel for George Harrison – bursting with his own ideas, held back by an understandable diffidence in the presence of John and Paul, but still generous with his contributions to their compositions. The sound only segment where John and Paul own up to their guilt at the way they have treated him is almost distressing – for all involved, and for the viewers as well.
Ringo is stoic. It is the drummer’s lot to be a bystander for a lot of the time, especially when the group are gathered with few, if any, finished pieces. He still seems in places to be aware of his good fortune to be part of it all, though one imagines his even tempered self deprecation could only get him through his role to a certain extent.
Though Yoko was not as annoying as predicted, the vocal contributions by director Michael Lindsay Hogg became hard to take – a mixture of flattery, self regard, and desperation – though it has to be said that, if his filming had been more structured and focussed, there would have been far less interesting content for Jackson to mine all these years later.
In many ways, these are films which highlight the conflicting realities which gave the Beatles their energy as a group. Possibly the world’s best group, they no longer perform live on stage. Having stretched studio capabliities betyond their potential, they now feel a need to make a simple record. Bound together as a foursome, they can sense their competing individualities.
The songs they put together are a good reflection of the Beatles overall oevre. Some are simple to the point of banality but made more than the sum of their parts by the musicianship and arrangements; others are heartachingly beautiful and seem to have come from another planet. “I dig a pony” is hard to compare to “The Long and Winding Road” – but it remains an engaging Beatles track. Mostly we just enjoy hearing them play and seeing the songs coming together (pun intended!). That such an informal rehearsal period can produce some of their best songs, to be spread across the “Let it Be” and “Abbey Road” albums, is merely further proof that they were not like other groups!
There is throughout, of course, the sauce of perspective, which adds to the flavour – we know, as we watch, that these are the last days of the group, that what was such an integral part of our adolescence will shortly cease to be, and will never be recaptured. We don’t want to see it, but we can’t look away, and we just want it to keep going, even when it’s painful.
We also know, naturally, that it is all leading to that last climactic rooftop concert. We can hardly wait for it, but we don’t want to get there, because when we do, it will be over. It is a bit like the rising crescendo at the end of “ A Day in the Life”.
The concert is an excellent denouement for the film, encompassing so much of what we loved about the group, and, as a gifted film maker, Jackson handles this section with aplomb. The race between the phyical and technical elements which are needed in place, and the growing urgency of the song rehearsals, builds the tension nicely, and, when the group emerge on to the roof, like the folk surrounding them, as viewers, we can hardly believe we are seeing them play and pay so well.
One of the triumphs – for both group and director – lies in the fact that their performance is so accomplished, tight, and fluent. The songs are so fresh and so well produced, that even with our retrospective knowledge, we start enjoy the concert for what it is, rather than from the perspective of it being their last ever live performance. It is another part of “Get Back” that manages to recreate that stomach churning excitement we felt when the Beatles performed.
Jackson subtly makes a good point in the use of the vox pop interviews on the street below. The overwhelming majority of passers by are either pleased or excited that it is the Beatles they can hear playing – it is one last reflection of those times when their appeal ran across the generations and classes. Indeed, the only negative responses come from those who would today be classed as “gammon”, who feel they need to make a point about their business being disrupted – a reaction which would have pleased the group.
There is even the comic Keystone cops element as young London bobbies seek to locate and silence the noise while obviously feeling somewhat out of their depth. Various Apple employees seek to delay them or mislead them, but they eventually end up on the roof, accompanied by the local station sergeant.
It is a wonderful Beatles moment as Mal Evans is forced eventually into a token switching off of Harrison’s amplifier, only for an annoyed George to switch it right back on. The group themselves are obviously delighted that, even at the peak of their fame, they can still take on the authorities and be seen as “naughty boys”.
Perhaps that joy in bucking the rules is symbolic of one of the film’s revelations: that, for all their fame and fortune, and all the personal difficulties encountered on the road from Liverpool to Hamburg to Abbey Road and Saville Row, these four lads retained a sense of mischief, a unique musical talent, and the ability to take their work, but not themselves, seriously.
Once the last note fades away, of course, fifty years of reality kick in, and we are left with the joy of their having been part of our lives, and the sorrow that it, and they, and us, can never be like that again.
To quote another 60’s icon, Pope John XX111, on the theological modernisation of the Catholic Church at the Vatican Council, this film was an “aggiornamento” – a bringing up to date of the Beatles myth, and an opening of the windows to let in fresh air. The Beatles as a phenomenon were living, vital, innovative and exciting. They should not be preserved in aspic as museum pieces, but invesitgated and assessed with the perpective of time passing – by those of us who were there, and those to whom the torch has been passed.
For me, the success of “Get back” is that, like the group themselves in those early days, the experience got inside of me, took away any self consciousness, and left me loving them as much as ever.
And in the end
The love you take
Is equal to the love you make.