The Beatles ended not with a bang but a whisper from a rooftop
Less than ten minutes into the second episode of the Beatle’s documentary series “Get Back,” now streaming on the Disney Channel, Paul and Ringo find themselves the only two members of the band arriving for rehearsal at Twickenham studios where the lads are rehearsing for what will become the “Let it Be” album and movie.
Twickenham was a cavernous disaster. No one liked rehearsing on what was actually a movie soundstage for “The Magic Christian” - a movie in which Ringo had the second lead role. George got pissed off and left the band at the end of the first week of rehearsal. John was in a drawn out process of leaving the band to spend time with Yoko and there seemed to be no energy in the "Get Back" project other than from Paul. Ringo was along for the ride. At one point Paul wondered out loud if 50 years later people would say the Beatles broke up because Yoko leaned against an amp.
As eerie as that was, with a slight tear in his eye, Paul acknowledges that only he and Ringo have shown up for rehearsal that day. “Then there were two.” It was hauntingly prescient. Fifty years later and John and George have both left us. Only Paul and Ringo remain.
Makes it hard to watch the Beatles playing "Two of Us," without remembering the lyrics "You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead."
When George returns to the band in Part 2 after meeting with his bandmates twice and settling their rift, he and John get into a discussion about the recent trip the Beatles took to India. The Beatles were looking for a little spiritual enlightenment after losing their manager and ended up following a Yogi to India; it was supposed to help them discover who they really were. John sardonically says the trip did accomplish that much and George says “that’s the biggest Joke”. . . “If you were really yourself you wouldn’t be any of who you are now…”
John just nods. “Act Naturally then,” he says wryly as he begins playing “Act Naturally.”
Even as they argue, they are disarmingly congenial. This was fighting? I know people who aren't this nice when they're trying to be. Turns out the Beatles are also that easy going as artists. They were messy and much more organic than some could imagine. Nothing seemed planned other than turning the on cameras and watching the Beatles hash it out. They got together in the late morning every day, worked for several hours with appropriate lunch breaks, “ciggies”, tea, wine and biscuits and then were home by nightfall. The Beatles remain incredibly comfortable in front of the camera - even when things are at their worst - which they often are in the first episode of the three-part series. And yet, despite the strife, in the course of a month in 1969, those “Get Back” sessions would spawn two Beatle Albums and several solo efforts.
Much more than the original film "Let it Be", produced from the same source material, “Get Back” shows in graphic detail the disintegration of the band. What "Get Back" also finally explains is the root cause of the band's breakup. It isn't Yoko. It is obvious throughout the six hour journey that the Beatles are still hurting more than a year and a half after their manager, Brian Epstein, died of a drug overdose.
In his 1970 Rolling Stone interview John Lennon acknowledged this, saying that after Epstein’s death, it was the beginning of the end of the Beatles. “I knew that we were in trouble then . . . I thought, ‘We’ve F**king had it now.”
Referred to in the series as “Mr. Epstein,” by members of the band, he was just seven years older than Ringo (the oldest Beatle) at the time of his death. He was the band’s father figure, equally loved and respected by everyone in a band in which its members always agreed to take action only if there was universal agreement among band members. The Beatles chose their father collectively and he delivered them into Super Stardom. No one adequately filled his shoes after his death and that killed the band.
It is here that a true Beatle fan has to take notice of the one historic inconsistency in the documentary. At the beginning there is an apparent mistake in the Beatle’s timeline. Original drummer Pete Best was not fired until Epstein became the Beatle’s manager. Ringo “The lovable nose” was a member of Rory Storm and The Hurricane and would occasionally sub for the Beatles - but did not join the Beatles as the documentary suggests in 1961. He didn’t join the band until around the time the band was on the eve of Beatlemania. Years later when I interviewed Pete Best, the original drummer, he said he was never told the reason for his dismissal. Some said Paul and John were jealous of Pete’s looks. But, there was always a question of Best’s ability as a drummer.
There is no question about the talent among the band members in this series. Ringo, Paul, George and John were accomplished musicians on a variety of instruments.
Ringo plays keyboards. Paul, John and George take their turn on the drums, on guitar leads and keyboards as well. They even pull out a slide guitar and Lennon plays it with ease as George sings “For You Blue”. Who needed session musicians? "Go Johnny. Go"
By the time the band leaves cold Twickenham in Part 2 for the intimacy of the new Apple recording studio on Saville Row the attitude of the band members toward the project changes from a begrudging acceptance to some inspired enthusiasm - made more so by the appearance of keyboardist Billy Preston. He later played the character Sgt. Pepper in the Bee Gees 1978 horrible rock opera “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” based very, very loosely on the Beatle’s album of the same name. That film, in turn, was produced by Robert Stigwood, who worked with Epstein and was rumored to be considered as Epstein’s replacement upon Brian’s death. But the Beatles wouldn’t work with him.
Preston’s upbeat attitude, later displayed on hits like “Will it Go Round in Circles” and “Nothing from Nothing” was infectious. By the end of Part 2 of the documentary, smiles and laughter have replaced the doldrum and tears.
Part of the planned project included a live performance. But when George apparently got his bandmates to return to Apple studios to record the album, he also lobbied hard to remove any traveling to play live. By then the Beatles have tossed several ideas around about where to stage their first live performance since walking off the stage at Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966. Locations from Libya to a nearby park are considered, but no one can agree on anything more than what George says at one point: “Really I Just want to play.” John ads, “All we got is us.”
But no one can agree on where to stage a mini-concert of about a dozen songs and Paul acknowledges that the Beatles are not best at making plans; “We’re always best when our backs are against the walls,” he observes.
That much anyone can discern if they watch the series.
Nothing is more embarrassingly funny than watching Peter Sellers stiffly walk on the set at Twickenham to say hello to the Beatles. He enters with a Peter Sellers smile only to apparently get nervously confused by Beatles humor - which is also interesting and ironic as the Beatles were all fans of and were imitating The Goon Show - the Spike Milligan show in which Peter Sellers was a regular - and which served as an influence on the Beatles and later Monty Python.
Also, anyone who's been in a music group will recognize the discussions the Beatles have about which key to play in and when to come in on a song and on what beat. But watching musicians who are only in their mid 20s making instrumentation, harmony and lyrics look so easy is still intriguing and enjoyable. Playing eight hours a day in Hamburg all those months did them a favor. Paul McCartney at one point in the film appears to create the song “Get Back” out of thin air in nearly no time one day during rehearsal; just sitting by himself and playing a guitar he does it. Conversations are going on around him. Some in the studio were paying attention (especially the sound engineers), some aren't, but the camera saw it all.
If you don't understand the historic importance of this recording session, then consider it this way: The outtakes and unused portions of songs recorded during the Get Back sessions would go on to make the bulk of arguably the best album the Beatles ever produced: Abbey Road. It was also the last Beatle album ever produced, but "Let it Be" was the last ever released and is seen as the Beatles swan song. That album, born from these sessions was the first Beatles album ever trashed in the press. Critic Alan Smith wrote: "If the new Beatles' soundtrack is to be their last then it will stand as a cheapskate epitaph, a cardboard tombstone, a sad and tatty end to a musical fusion which wiped clean and drew again the face of pop."
The truth is the Beatles, with little energy at the beginning of the "Get Back" sessions appeared spent. But John, Paul, George and Ringo were so enthused by the end of those sessions that they decided to put their differences aside to give it one last shot for Abbey Road. And still, the "Get Back" sessions were so prolific that some of the songs that began in that session didn't make it to Abbey Road, but are included in the best solo albums recorded by the Beatles after they split; including but not limited to George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass - the titular song there as well as the album Ram by Paul McCartney (“Backseat of my Car,”) and John Lennon’s Imagine Album, (“Jealous Guy”).
The series also serves both as a time capsule on the current events of 1969 and speaks to ongoing problems we face today; take a look at the back story of “Get Back” as a protest song about bigotry in immigration. The film also includes Billy Preston singing “Black and White Deserve Equal Rights,” and “I have a dream” to the tune of “I want you.”
Billy Preston recorded that scene with John Lennon and the Beatles at the end of January 1969 - a fitting tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a little more than nine months after his assassination. George brought Preston into the studio at the same time he urged the Beatles to move back to Apple to record. The ease with which Billy Preston blends into the group prompted the Beatles to make him the only musician outside of themselves to ever be credited on a Beatle single. “Get Back,” is credited to The Beatles, “with Billy Preston.”
George's influence on the project, his obstinance and even his leaving the group helped to salvage the sessions and led to the explosion of creativity that spilled over into so many albums.
At one point Ringo is standing around at a keyboard playing what will become “Octopus’s Garden” when George walks up and joins in with his guitar and offers a suggestion. “Want to hear what I wrote last night?” George, John and Paul offer at other times - and the bandmates hop right in trying to enhance and birth a song. When it came to the Beatles the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
By the time the end of Part 2 the whole group decides that the easiest way to play a live gig, and without putting yourself out, is to just walk upstairs and do it on the roof of their own building. There’s your hook. It turned out to be the last live show the Beatles ever gave as a group. Instead of going out before throngs of adoring fans, they walked out and played on a rooftop and only a handful of people could see them. They did not go out with a bang. They went out with a whisper.
Still, the performance in the short rooftop set on a cold January afternoon in 1969 gives us a good sense of why the Beatles were wildly popular then and now. The energy in the live performance is palpable. The execution of the material is sublime. The material itself wasn't considered the best by The Beatles' standards when it was first released. Watching it now makes a viewer ache to see what they would've done with their "A" list material. Still, "Get Back" itself is a great rocker and every other song they perform live on the rooftop is worth repeated viewing. Turns out "Get Back" is a bit underrated. It has aged better than its thrashing when it was released.
Nine cameras captured the action, including three on the ground recording crowd reaction and one in a neighboring building to capture the establishing shot.
But the true value in the three-part series isn’t just in intimately reuniting us with the greatest Rock n’ Roll group in history. It isn’t just in giving us an unprecedented look into a unique creative process. It isn’t in watching the live show, the minor arguments, or how the band is on the verge of breaking up. It isn’t that the film is a nice time capsule of the moment. It isn’t about how they discuss giving profits to charities, or how they have a grudge against a reporter for making up lies about them.
The true value in this series is all of it. It speaks to music, politics, journalism, relationships, love, and greed. It's also appealingly fresh. It will reintroduce some fans to The Beatles and produce new Beatle fans as they watch.
The Beatles were talented and likable, which is why this series is watchable and ultimately why it works so well.
The whole remains greater than the sum of its parts.
Brian Karem is an unabashed Beatles fan since the 1960s. He’s the lead singer for The Rhythm Bandits, and the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East, and is the author of seven books, including "Free the Press," due out this fall.