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The Beatles’ Get Back sessions are where my wandering mind goes

The Let it Be album was my gateway to the Beatles. I had heard bits and pieces of their work before, through radio, my Dad’s Best of George Harrison tape, and weird collections like that blue album. But until Let it Be I had not been drawn in.

Then, on a bus trip, a friend at school introduced me to the White Album. He lent me his headphones, I listened, and I fell in love. I was about fifteen.

I went out and bought Let it Be and The Beatles in fairly quick succession, and sort of preferred Let it Be.

He’s right you know

To me, listening to it 25 years after release, without any preconceptions, it was a great album. There were non-single delights like Two of Us, For You Blue and I’ve Got a Feeling sharing space with one of the great Paul songs in Get Back. It had a pleasing live feel, interspersed with cool Lennon chit-chat like:

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It was easier to take in than the sprawling white album. Let it Be required me to jump up and skip a track only once (The Long and Winding Road is just awful glunk – with or without Phil Spector production) where the White Album had me on my feet skipping tracks all the time (Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, Martha My Dear, Don’t Pass Me By, Julia, Everybody’s Got Something to Hide, Revolution 9).

Also, isn’t Long, Long, Long terribly produced? I can’t hardly hear that damn track. This take had so much more promise lads.

I could listen to him for hours

Even as my mania developed, and I spread my wings into other albums like Sergeant Pepper, Revolver, Rubber Soul, into Abbey Road and Past Masters Volume 2, I discovered greater individual tracks, but no real challenge to Let it Be as my favourite listening experience.

I devoured books on the fab four, and came across the popular critical notion that Rubber Soul/Revolver are the true masterpieces. I had no problem dismissing that as obvious tosh. Sgt Pepper was astonishing, more than those that had preceded it.

Still, somehow, I couldn’t love it as much as Let it Be. Other contenders, like Abbey Road seemed over produced.

Well I read it in a book

At first I didn’t wonder so much about the fact that Let it Be had been the band’s final album release. For a time I think I presumed this was a kind of natural process – that they had simply burned out.

The fact that Let it Be was recorded in such a short space of time, so soon after the White Album, demonstrates both how insanely prolific they were through 68 and 69, and how steep and complete their decline was immediately afterwards as solo artists:

McCartney is mostly very bad. All Things Must Pass is wildy overrated (1973’s Living in the Material World, I’d argue, is better). Plastic Ono Band was excellent, if a bit of an ordeal (Mother, Working Class Hero, I Found Out) – but Lennon was only two years away from Some Time In New York City.

It was only watching the anthology, and reading Peter Brown’s brilliant Love You Make, that I began to understand that rather than considering Let it Be a peak, the band considered their “new phase” Beatles album an absolute crock of shit. This was distressing.

Looms large in his legend

Investigating the Get Back sessions, and listening to the Beatles Anthology three, I started to become flat-out obsessed with the project. I discovered the weird Lindsay-Hogg film and the rooftop concert, and those few clips that were obtainable back in the 90s. Most of all, I discovered that sessions had produced a huge amount of half-attempted and absently picked tracks.

I remember reading an Anthology Three review which lamented the incomplete potential of the band’s cover of the Buddy Holly song, Mailman, Bring Me No more Blues.

Why couldn’t the band have tried a bit harder, I wondered? Why had it all become such a mess? Suddenly my favourite album was transformed into an incomplete hodge-podge. Why hadn’t they made they album it could have been?

In many respects, my relationship with Get Back became an unhealthy one. Life was far better when it simply was the album and nothing more, when I had no idea about its history.

Still, this concept of the album it might have been, with that alternative cover; the notion of a more dignified and orderly outcome, is for some reason irresistable to my deranged Beatlemaniac mind.

So it is that, for over a decade, it become a sort of hobby of mine to dive deeper and deeper into the Get Back sessions, exploring the sort of album that might have been completed.

Me mind boggles

One of the key points about Let it Be, one that its critics frequently highlight, and one that the band themselves fretted about during production, was that it feels rather scraped together, not quite complete.

Even if you add back in the beautiful, bafflingly omitted Don’t Let Me Down, and keep the godawful Long and Winding Road, you’re still left with essentially an EP of rooftop concert stuff, with bits and pieces of studio recordings tacked on – unevenly united by the Spector production wash.

Seriously, how was this left off the final album?

But, dig a little deeper into fellow fanatic sites like the Beatles Bible, and you see that an enormous amount of tracks were run through (if not recorded as such) in a half-arsed, time-killing fashion.

Particularly popular, apparently out of a vague nostaligia for simpler days, were rock’n’roll standards, often given only one or two run throughs – Mailman Bring Me No More Blues among them.

The reasons for the mess the project became are much more interesting than simply ‘the band was falling apart’. My early reading pretty much conveyed that standard mythology: that Yoko poisoned the band dynamic; that John was off his head on horse; that George was sick of understudy status; that Paul wanted to run the band. All of these things, to some extent, are true.

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But watching the excellent and equally Get Back obsessive “pop go the 60s”, a much more human story emerges: of a band that was underprepared, overambitious, and unsure almost to the end what it was they were doing. The common myth, that Paul was trying to take control of the band, probably reflects that he was most bothered by this sense of chaos.

At first the idea was to rehearse white album tracks, perform them live and film the whole process. Very doable. Then they decided to do new songs, turning the project (probably unintentionally) into something far more complex: a fly on the wall documentary about the making of a new album – plus the concert aspect.

As if that weren’t tough enough, it seems that when they began filming they simply didn’t begin to have the songs ready for a new album, arriving with only a handful (understandable after pumping out the enormous white album only ten weeks before).

They probably could have overcome even this, if not for the awkward presence of film cameras, placing them under the dual pressure of performing while creating. Even that might have been handled, if there had been a Brian Epstein there to crack the whip and make them get the thing done.

As it was they placed themselves in a distracting, alien environment, without a clear goal – and the whole thing began to feel like a ship drifting towards the ice, with no captain to salvage the situation.

The rock’n’roll recordings seem to have been a symptom of this lack of direction – bored and frustrated, or trying to generate some positive energy, someone starts picking an old favourite in an effort to lift spirits. Often it fizzles out before it begins. (I mean this one makes me want to shoot myself).

It is all horribly familiar to anyone who has been involved in a creative project that just isn’t quite gelling.

They do doh, don’t dey dough?

Other times though, there is a glimpse of something special, as in the case of Mailman, or this little effort at Chuck Berry’s 30 days.

I am obsessed with this idea: what the sessions might have produced if the Beatles had decided to embrace this notion of falling back on rock’n’roll and having some fun.

What if they had decided to flesh out their album as they did in the Please Please Me days, with six or seven covers of the music they love, uniting the new and the old with live performance?

Looking at the Beatles Bible, it’s possible to see what tracks were most on their minds, simply by the number of runs the band had at them over the project.

This is where the delusional Beatlemaniac in me can really get on with wasting his time and create his fantasy album – a joyful Get Back rather than a solemn Let it Be – a collection based on live performance, pulling together 14 songs, and pumping out a couple of singles that aren’t on the album. And they could have given George more space at the same time.

What would that have looked like? Can I make a track list that works from that sprawl?

Course I can. Let me peruse it.

First things first: the new tracks. This is simple enough. There are 10 that could be thought of as complete Get Back session tracks (ditching Dig it and Maggie May)

Two of Us
Dig a Pony
Don’t Let Me Down
I Me Mine
Let it Be
I’ve Got a Feeling
One After 909
The Long and Winding Road
For You Blue
Get Back

Then you have the rock and roll standards the band performed numerous times:

3 performances:

I’m Talking Bout You (Berry)
Right String, Wrong Yo-Yo (Perkins)
Take this Hammer (Lonnie Donegan)

2 performances:

What I’d Say (Ray Charles)
Thirty Days (Chuck Berry)
That’s allright mama (Elvis Presley)
Something Else (Eddie Cohran)
Some other Guy (Richie Barrett)
Singing the Blues (Guy MItchell)
Mailman Bring me No More Blues (Holly)
Lucille Llittle Richard)
Lotta Lovin (Gene Vincent)

Looking at that, you can take a pretty decent idea of creating an album that’s half new tracks, half rock and roll greats, all performed live, with more equitable representation for our George.

SIDE 1

1.Two of Us (Paul & John)
2.Dig a Pony (John)
3.I Me Mine (George)
4.I’ve Got a Feeling (Paul & John)
5.For You Blue (George)
6.Don’t Let Me Down (John)
7.Get Back (Paul)

SIDE 2

8.Thirty Days (John)
9.Something Else (Paul)
10.Lotta Lovin (George)
11.Mailman Bring Me No More Blues (John & Paul)
12.Right String Wrong YoYo (George)
13.Lucille (John)
14.That’s Alright Mama (Paul)

Yes, I’m leaving Let it Be off there: I choose to make it a single, with One After 909 as its B-side, which as a resurrected old Lennon-McCartney track would make a nice counterpoint to Let it Be in 1970 after the band’s breakup, and much more appropriate than the daft You Know My Name Look Up My Number, the actual B Side. Besides, it’s a way I can dump all the problem songs, the ones I disklike or don’t fit on my fun Get Back.

Single:

Let it Be
One After 909

Single;

The Long and Winding Road
Across the Universe

And who the Billy Shears are you?

There you go. Job done, right? Well, no, not quite. Who am I to say how such an album might have worked? There are endless combinations.

I mean, on early Beatles albums they would have mixed original and cover tracks, not divided them, right? So maybe the tracks would have been mixed.

And if we’re playing fantasy, why not have a Let it Be that includes versions of the other Beatles/ solo tracks practiced but never completed during the sessions?

These include Isn’t it a Pity. Hear Me Lord and All Things Must Pass from George; Another Day, Back Seat of My Car. Teddy Boy and Every Night from Paul; and Gimme Some Truth from John.

The fact is, the exercise never ends. Reworking the album is a kind of game for me, a sort of meditation, a place to send my mind at times of boredom: a lot of fragments I can reshape over and over.

Imaginary track listing for Get Back
The expression of a deranged mind

Nothing is Beatle-proof

The truth is, this is a crazy way to spend one’s time. There is no going back and fixing the album. The Beatles were, to some measure, beginning to fall apart. This thing didn’t quite come together, and that is that.

I could not be more excited about viewing Peter Jackson’s forthcoming documentary. I love the Beatles heart and soul. But, I have to admit, I worry a little about how the documentary is being trailed.

Jackson has talked a great deal about the positivity he sees in the footage. The friendship, the humour, the camaraderie. Well, of course the Beatles were friends, and naturally they tried to make it work. It was an ambitious undertaking in the first place, not the kind of task taken on by a group about to quit.

Jackson says that he thinks the reason the Beatles slagged off the album later is that they bought into their own Let it Be myth. That it was in fact a positive experience that they misrepresented around the time of the Michael Lyndsey Hogg film release.

Well, that is almost certainly true in some part. In 1970 things had turned very sour indeed, with John’s fascinating, if nasty Lennon remembers interviews, Pauls’ ludicrous self interview, and the rest.

But we should be equally cautious not to rewrite history, and we should not take what we see on screen as the history of the band during this period. Jackson himself reveals that the Beatles were keen to prevent Lindsay Hogg capturing disagreement, faffing or uncertainty.

Equally, no mention is made of George breaking up with his wife throughout the sessions, or Lennon doing heroin with Yoko. There is a lot more happening here than what takes place in the studio. What we are seeing is them at work. Working at being Beatles.

It’s all in the mind

Thrilled as I will be to see them having fun, and genuine as most of it may be, Lennon and Harrison both spoke repeatedly about the main reason for the Beatles break up not being an album, event or person, but the relentlessness of being Beatles: of having to be ‘on’ all the time, of having to satisfy the weight of expectation their audience had. In bootleg audio, even Paul (probably the most at ease with fame) speaks of their need to constantly reinvent themselves, to be becoming something else with each new step.

So while I am thrilled that Jackon has found so much obvious joy in producing this project, it is equally important to accept that there was at least a kernel of truth in the Beatles later perceptions, and that this last effort to take some new pioneering direction was part of a prolonged flame out for the group.

We should accept it when something dies – that it really was a case of Let it Be, not Get Back. It would be crazy to pretend it was otherwise – almost as crazy as it is to pass hours of one’s life writing out imaginary track listings to a fifty year old rock and roll album.

Still, who realy gives a shit? There is six hours of unseen Beatles footage coming. I’ll be watching it again and again and again. I love the fab four so much I may end up sobbing with joy. And, of course, a little regret.

For this really is the last juice to be squeezed from the archive, the final meat to be picked from the bones, and the part of their work which has always meant the most to me. There are no more hidden treasures to be found after this. And worst of all, one day soon, I really might have to quit the fantasy track listings, and let this album be.

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