In which I dig a pony (and a lot of other things)
On Saturday, from mid-afternoon to midnight, a friend and I marathoned Peter Jackson’s new three-part documentary The Beatles Get Back. This is supposedly (and I do suppose) the entirety of the footage from which the original Let It Be film was culled.
I would say we have to rewrite history, but the history was written correctly all along and it’s just that we now have the opportunity to see it with our own eyeballs. The band aren’t at one another’s throats the entire time, and nary a tension boils over (except for the period where George walks out, but even that could be remedied; watch the thing and you’ll see). There are no mean-spirited jabs at Yoko. Read that again. She is present but not at all intrusive or interfering; Paul even tries joking around with her, which in this group is the ultimate demonstration of a desire to include someone. Old buddy George Martin is there, looking far too smart to be hanging around the likes of these long-haired weirdos. Linda and Heather Soon-To-Be-McCartney get some screen time, and let me tell you, five-year-old Heather knows how to work a room. Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the director of Let It Be, who got all this footage to begin with, is constantly in dialogue with the band about how they want these sessions to go: when to rehearse? When to record? Will they do a TV special? No, a concert! Where will the concert be? On a boat? In Libya? No, on the roof of 3 Savile Row! Everyone is excited to lay down the new songs and perform them live.
So it would seem that the whole urban legend is in fact just that. Still, as someone pointed out to me, it came together to at least some extent because the people on the inside wanted us to believe it—that is, the stories weren’t simply fabricated by the press or other external sources. The band members needed that myth just as much as the public did, if not more. They couldn’t have walked away from the most successful band in the world by saying “#selfcare” and peacing out. There had to be some justification to the legions of heartbroken fans. And it was easy to weave those stories out of the fabric of their final days together: they were credible, if not true. Not that none of it was true. I think the White Album sessions ended up being more of a strain than these. (That said, although they probably did not intend to hurt Yoko, she got very hurt in the process, and I believe someone owes her an official apology if one has not already been issued.)
Of course, we’re all drawn to juicy drama, and acrimonious band breakups—especially in the upper echelons—hold a Schadenfreude kind of allure for ordinary people. But after the bleakness of the nearly two COVID years we’ve had, I couldn’t have been happier to see four guys who are obviously best friends and obviously remember how important they are to one another just jam out and have the time of their lives creating music. They began their joint career with a live act; they knew they had to end it with one. That’s the uplifting content we need right now.
And here’s where I must say, because it’s a documentation of recording sessions: prepare to hear the same songs over and over again. I’m lucky I love “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” as much as I do, because those two are ever-present. I was reminded again that the songwriters were only getting stronger: I’ve always liked “I Me Mine,” one of the two Harrison contributions to the album, but “For You Blue” is pretty darn good too, and I loved watching them rehearse it. We also hear snippets of solo Harrison, Lennon, and McCartney tunes which would surface on their respective releases within a couple years. And there’s just so much to see—I’ll definitely be returning and watching each segment more slowly, to digest it thoroughly and catch the many details I missed.
One thing I remember vividly about first getting into the Beatles is all the smiling. I couldn’t wipe the ear-to-ear grin off my face whenever I listened to their songs. The Beatles were, ultimately, a story of joy and friendship. They help me to continue to choose those things for myself and my life, both at times when the choice comes easy and at times when it takes a toll. It was so affirming to see their love for one another and their people and their music reflected in this expansive (and very well-restored) collection of material. As John said on “Dig a Pony,” you can radiate everything you are.
Some favorite moments:
- George muttering “maybe we should learn a few songs first” at the beginning (he is frequently seen having fun during the sessions, clearly against his will)
- John forgetting the words to a verse of “Don’t Let Me Down” on the rooftop and singing nonsense (and the look on his face during the playback of the tapes)
- Paul’s sweaters (solid colors, on point the whole time honestly)
- The genesis and evolution of “The Long and Winding Road,” truly one of the finest McCartney compositions
- The lady who, when asked about her feelings as the rooftop gig is going on, grumbles “they woke me up from my sleep and I don’t like it”
- All the goofing off during rehearsing and recording, really—it just looks like so much fun!