Beatles Vérité

It’s been 41 years since Mark Chapman murdered John Lennon. Unlike Shapiro, I don’t have a great story about where I was when I heard the news. Besides, I came to praise Peter Jackson’s remarkable documentary Get Back, not to bury John Lennon.

I was shamed by friends into subscribing to Disney+ in order to get back to where I once belonged. You know who you are. Thanks, y’all. I can always cancel without pain or penalty. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

I have a different take on Get Back than Shapiro so let the games begin.

I’m in the minority on Let It Be. I’ve always liked it. The album came out when I was laid up. I had mumps and mono at the same time. I rarely do anything halfway. Let It Be was the new Beatles album so I listened to it intently on the record player my mom bought so I could play music in my sick room. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

I do, however, prefer the 2003 Macca remix Let It Be Naked to the original 1970 release. The running order is different, and the Phil Spector effect has been expunged. The result is the stripped-down album the Beatles thought they were making before the dread Allen Klein brought in Spector. More about Allen Klein anon.

Until recently, I bought the conventional wisdom that the Fab Four were at each other’s throats during the Get Back sessions. The CW was wrong: the vibes were good with intermittent squabbling. All bands bicker. It’s called creative tension.

There *were* genuine moments of tension. George Harrison walked out, but he was convinced by his mates to return. The day after the band met with Allen Klein there was a dark cloud in the room, but it was dispelled when they strapped on their instruments and played. The presence of Billy Preston helped considerably: the man was a ray of sunshine with musical chops to burn.

I’ve been reading at Philip Norman’s 827-page biography of John Lennon. I say reading at because it’s absurdly over-detailed. Norman is a music writer, but as a biographer, he’s what Gore Vidal called a scholar-squirrel who includes more details than even this lifelong Beatles fan is interested in hearing. I did like the bits about how much John loved cats. Claire Trevor approves. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

I consulted with Norman’s mighty tome after seeing Get Back. The source of many of the gloom-and-doom stories is Let It Be director Michael Lindsay-Hogg. I was not surprised. In Get Back, he’s forever stirring the pot hoping some drama will emerge from a bunch of guys sitting around in a room smoking and playing music.

To gin up drama, Lindsay-Hogg keeps asking why John and Paul no longer write songs together. They rarely take the bait. In fact, John makes significant contributions to the song Get Back, which was written in the studio during the sessions.

MLH also ratchets up the pressure on The Beatles to be great when all they want to do is rock. I caught Ringo rolling his eyes several times at the director who is much posher than the lads from Liverpool.

I’ve got a feeling that it’s time to jump to the break. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Most of what I’ve taken away from viewing Get Back are moments:

  • John plays a new song he’s written called The Road To Marrakesh. It will eventually become perhaps his finest solo song, Jealous Guy.
  • George plays several songs that will turn up on his first and best solo album All Things Must Pass. Much to George’s irritation, the other are indifferent. No wonder he was ready to call it quits.
  • Song fragments abound including many songs that will turn up on Abbey Road. Watching road manager Mal Evans hit an anvil with a hammer during Maxwell’s Silver Hammer is a delight as is Evans himself.
  • I’d seen bits of the rooftop concert before but the whole thing is hilarious. The cops who are first on the scene realize they’re in over their heads and summon their sergeant. He, in turn, reminded me of the Monty Python copper Harry “Snapper” Organs.
  • When Peter Sellers comes for a visit, John perks up in the presence of one of his comedic idols and riffs like crazy.
  • The day Linda’s young daughter Heather comes to the studio and charms everyone with her antics. She’s particularly drawn to John and Ringo but it’s obvious why Paul adopted her not long after he married Linda. Heather was already a daddy’s girl.
  • The warning about smoking before each episode cracked me up. The cool kids all smoked in the Sixties, and nobody was cooler than the Beatles and their entourage.

Get Back has re-opened the debate about why the Beatles broke up. It’s not because of Yoko Ono. She’s present most days but doesn’t intervene in band business and mostly knits or reads. Her face is impassive and expressionless much of the time, which has been misinterpreted as a glower.

Yoko looks puzzled when the boys are wise cracking. She’s a non-native speaker who doesn’t get their very English humor, which is dependent on word play, silly voices, and inside jokes. John often said he would have rather been a member of Monty Python than a Beatle.

Yoko is not why the band broke up. And I say that as someone who has never liked her singing or her impact on John’s music.

I agree with Shapiro that The Beatles had outgrown one another but there are two more specific reasons for the break-up: George and business.

George was tired of being the kid brother and being musically patronized by Paul. He was bursting with songs and ideas. Two of the best songs on Abbey Road are his: Something and Here Comes The Sun. Being a third wheel is never easy and George had had enough. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Then there’s money. Allen Klein was a shady character who managed the Rolling Stones at the time of the Get Back sessions. The Stones were trying to disengage from Klein when he was wooing The Beatles. Klein was a brilliant salesman who sold John by being a gruff-working class guy. He was really a borderline criminal who skimmed money from all the bands he managed. He even took a slice from the proceeds for The Concert For Bangladesh. That’s right, he stole from refugees. No, no, no.

Paul McCartney had a different plan: his future brother-in law John Eastman was a skilled entertainment lawyer. Before Klein besotted John, George, and Ringo, Eastman was to be the band’s new manager. Instead, they divided into warring business camps.

By the mid-Seventies, the other Beatles dumped Klein and even John admitted that Paul was right about him. But the damage was done.

What came to be known as Beatledammerung didn’t happen until after the breakup. Smack/trash talk was one of Lennon’s specialties and he unloaded on Macca. The target didn’t take it as seriously as everyone else: he knew that Lennon was a shit-talker with no filter. The two acted more like lovers who broke up than friends. They were that close.

I’ve long thought that Paul and John might have made music together again but not as Beatles, George was unlikely to participate. Their business disputes were settled, and John reached out to Paul for parenting advice. Their brotherhood was slowly rebuilding. Then it was smashed to bits 41 years ago today.

As you can tell, I enjoyed Get Back. I’m grateful to Peter Jackson for bringing Beatles Vérité into our living rooms. Before grading Get Back, a cautionary note. If you’re not a Beatles fan, don’t watch it. You might find the fly on the wall approach annoying instead of enlightening.

I give Get Back 4 stars and an Adrastos Grade of A. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

The last word goes to the Fab Four with a song that’s essentially a love duet between Paul and John: