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Thanksgiving With the Beatles
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Like a lot of folks, I spent a good chunk of this past Thanksgiving weekend With the Beatles.
Peter Jackson's long awaited film documenting the "Let it Be" sessions was released to the world. Nearly 8 hours long over 3 parts, "The Beatles: Get Back" takes just about everything we thought we knew about this period and stands it on its head.
This was supposed to be a band imploding in front of cameras and boom mics. Four still-20-somethings grown weary of being in each other's faces the entire decade, dying a slow death in a cavernous, cold rehearsal studio, being evil-eyeballed the entire time by John's whacked out new girlfriend, who sat beside him the entire time, like a vulture on his shoulder, reading the newspaper and knitting.
Well, Yoko was always there, and it is kinda creepy, but after a while you get used to her reading the paper and knitting, and you pay it no mind. She's hardly disrupting things, which has always been Beatle gospel. John is just crazy-in-love. During a playback the ever gracious Ringo offers Yoko a stick of gum. She smiles shyly and then breaks it in half so John can have some too. It's an innocent and sweet moment. The rest of the band don't seem bothered by Yoko at all. Paul senses the coming narrative though, cracking "It's going to look so comical in 50 years time: 'They broke up because Yoko sat on an amp!'"
Here's the thing with bands. Even the best ones suck a lot of the time when nobody is listening. You're sitting in a circle, trying out new ideas, with barely tuned instruments, it's gonna sound like a train slamming on its brakes to avoid hitting the damsel in distress tied to the tracks. The only thing democratic bands have in common is that they never last. Somebody has to take charge. It doesn't always have to be the same person....but it has to be someone. So here it's Paul doling out directions, trying to focus John (“Can you just stop playing for a minute, John? I’m trying to talk to you about this arrangement...."), who at times seems more intent on barreling through "Blue Suede Shoes" the entire day. Here is Paul annoying the shit out of George by telling him what to play, and George, who could be as catty as Bette Davis, amping up the tension with passive aggression ("...whatever it is that will pleeeeeease you I'll do.."). But this is normal band stuff. Hell, I'm in a band and if I bring a new song in that I slaved over for hours or days and the rest of them don't like it they'll immediately cut me off and say "that song sucks, what else you got?" It ain't for the faint of heart. And you’d better have something else.
It could not have been easy being George. By this time he's clearly one of the best songwriters in the world. It's unfortunate for him that he just happens to be in a band with 2 slightly better ones. Also, in the heat of the moment sometimes bands make lousy choices. During the sessions the band briefly works on 2 of George's greatest songs, "All Things Must Pass" and "Something", yet chose to focus on the obviously inferior "I Me Mine" and "For You Blue". When George gets fed up and leaves (“Well, I think I’ll be leaving the band now.” “When?” Lennon asks. “Now,” Harrison replies. "See you 'round the clubs." George then entered the following laconic entry in his diary.....“Got up, went to Twickenham, rehearsed until lunch time—left the Beatles—went home.”), the rest put on a brave face, with John snarkily suggesting they hire Eric Clapton. They continue the day without him, and Yoko takes over George's mic to screech and John and Paul and Ringo bash away in a bit of manic catharsis. Paul, still wired, eventually resorts to climbing the studio scaffolding. But through the bravado you can tell they're scared, and they're soon off to George's house to beg him to return. "How many Beatles does it take to change a light-bulb?", George once asked. He answered his own question. "Well...four".
When George returns, and they move out of the drab rehearsal space and into an actual studio, spirits soar. The songs are coming together. It's only been about a week, and they've already worked up, from scratch, songs that others could build careers on. "I've Got a Feeling". "Two of Us". "Let it Be". "Don't Let Me Down". "Get Back". In the latter, Paul searches in real time for lyrics. "Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona …” he finally finds. Lennon, chewing gum, glances up to ask: “Is Tucson in Arizona?”
Harmonies are locked into place. Arrangements solidified. At George's urging, Billy Preston is brought in to buttress up the live sound. All boats rise with Preston's tide. Guitars are suddenly in tune. Nobody wants to be left behind now.
Through it all, you never get the feeling that the friendship between the Beatles has dissipated. "Good morning lads" is how the cheerfully greet each other....discussing last night's TV viewing or playing each other snippets of what they'd written the night before. Ringo comes in with the chorus to "Octopus's Garden". George is immediately charmed, and grabs a guitar to help building the music for the verses (George takes no credit when the song is released. It’s credited to Ringo alone. Says a lot of George). Paul's soon to be wife Linda visits with her irrepressible young daughter Heather, and the girl is seen playing at Lennon's feet, laughing with George, assisting Ringo with a drum part, combing Paul’s hair, and singing, Yoko-like, into any live mic she can find. John and Paul crack each other up with vocal asides. They jam on long forgotten Quarrymen numbers. John and Yoko waltz to George's 6/8 timed "I Me Mine". If this is the band breaking up, what the hell do they look like when they're getting along?
The climax of all of this is the legendary rooftop concert. The grandiose plan of doing a live show in an amphitheater in Libya or on the decks of the Queen Mary was mercifully dropped at George's insistence...one of his conditions for re-joining the band. Ringo had been saying all along that he had no intention of leaving England. Paul joked about bringing in Jimmy Nicols, the guy who replaced Ringo on tour in 1964 when he came down with tonsillitis. "I think you'll find we're not going abroad 'cause Ringo just said he doesn't want to go abroad. And he put his foot down. So, us and Jimmie Nicol might go abroad."
So instead they merely climbed a few flights of stairs.
We get the whole rooftop show, in all it's ragged, 45 degree, windy glory, including priceless footage of the 2 exasperated, decidedly un-hip London cops called to investigate the "noise complaints" from various pissed off merchants on Savile row. They're told they can go up to the roof if they wish, but warned that putting their weight on it might cause them and the Beatles to go crashing through to the floor below, which would have made for an amazing ending to the film. But still.
The cops hover in the roof's doorway instead. At one point somebody actually manages to turn off George's amplifier. George scowls and immediately turns it back on. The cops seem content to let the band finish their set, so they actually don't deserve the blue meanie reputation they've been given.
As it is the band made quite a glorious racket up there, tearing through "One After 909" in particular like they were back at the Kaiserkeller. Also it was here that "I've Got a Feeling" finally gelled after a mind numbing amount of false starts over the last 3 weeks. These are the versions of those 2 songs that were included on the eventual "Let it Be" album, reminding everybody that this was still the same crack live band that used to play 8 beer and pill-filled hours a night in Hamburg, eschewing studio trickery and tape loops for toilet seats around their heads.
After the set on the roof, they all crowd into the basement studio to hear what they sounded like. There’s a great shot of 8 feet on the mixing desk, tapping in unison.
I've got shelves full of Beatle books. I didn't think I could learn anything new all these years on. But for 7 hours I was proved wrong. "Get Back" is a stunningly honest film about friendship, and the music that could not have been created without it.
In a bit..