‘Get Back’ Book Review: Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’ Session Transcripts Read Like a Great Off-Broadway Script

·13-min read

The new book “Get Back,” which is comprised of transcriptions of conversations during the making of the “Let It Be” album and film, put the lie to the idea that the Beatles were getting a bit prickly with one another during that time frame and that not all was fab with the foursome at the time.

It’s really much worse than that.

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Until, you know, it’s suddenly wonderful. “You’re working so well together!” producer George Martin is heard saying in the latter stages of the book, like a proud papa whose boys have made up; he, too, has got to believe it’s getting better. And then, as the famous 1969 rooftop concert approaches, the whole affair ends on a note of ebullience … with premonitions of further clouds to come.

Peter Jackson was not lying when he said that his upcoming documentary film of the same name will capture a more mirthful or even joyful side of the band in its waning days than the notoriously dour 1970 “Let It Be” movie did. In the “Get Back” book, out today, both notions turn out to be true: it was the worst of times, and it was also a bloody good time… just not at the same time. Presumably, with six hours to fill, mostly using this same material, Jackson will have to show the darker side of what went down, too, and has just been emphasizing the period’s lighter side as a necessary corrective to the 50-year-old conventional wisdom that everything about “Let It Be” was a bummer.

The idea of reading straight transcriptions of in-studio banter — well-interspersed with the photography of Ethan Russell and Linda McCartney — sounds like a chore, if not outright bore. But “Get Back” will prove to be thoroughly absorbing for most Beatles followers, since it does loosely tell a story — not to mention the fact that John Lennon and Paul McCartney are just damned funny fellows, left to their own jocular devices as unwitting dialogue writers. Certainly there are interchanges in the book that a playwright would throw out, but it’s remarkable how much of “Get Back reads like it could be adaptable into an off-Broadway play, full of dark comedy and rich insight about what can and can’t emerge out of ego and compromise among longtime partners approaching a crossroads.

It’s not just about being in a band. “It’s like you and me are lovers,” Lennon says at one point, tellingly, talking about their harmonies as things start to really click, but perhaps unwittingly speaking their deeper connection. “Yeah, well, I’ll be wearing my skirt on the show anyway,” jokes McCartney in response (during a time when they thought they were moving toward a TV special, not a feature film). You could see it as a little bit like a band version of “Scenes From a Marriage,” albeit with three partners moving from bickering to banter to bliss, as George Harrison is very much a key third partner in these exchanges. (Ringo Starr isn’t heard from nearly as much, amid all the brainstorms and thunderstorms.)

Belying the nearly stage-worthy action, the book divides the core month that was spent making “Let It Be” neatly into three “acts” — the first being the largely unhappy time they spent recording and filming in the foreign and uninviting environs of Twickenham Studios; the second being the cheerful experience they had after moving to the cozier confines of Apple Studios, with Billy Preston in tow; and the final, far shorter act being the famed London rooftop mini-concert.

It’s hard to overstate just how stark a contrast there is between the first and second parts of the book. It’s as if Act 1 is all about thinking about getting a divorce… and Act 2 is about pushing past that for the makeup sex. And, sure, the divorce eventually came, but not before a temporary happy ending in which much whoopee was made.

The Beatles at Twickenham Studios, as seen in “Get Back” - Credit: Ethan A. Russell / © Apple Corps Ltd.
The Beatles at Twickenham Studios, as seen in “Get Back” - Credit: Ethan A. Russell / © Apple Corps Ltd.

Ethan A. Russell / © Apple Corps Ltd.

McCartney deserves special points for prescience. At one point in the first half, after an offsite band meeting in which the omnipresence of Yoko One was apparently a topic of discussion, he tells the others: “It’s going to be such an incredible sort of comical thing like, in 50 years’ time, you know: ‘They broke up ‘cause Yoko sat on an amp,’ you know [laughs]… or just something like that. What? ‘Well, you see, John kept bringing this girl along.’ What? It’s not as though there’s any sort of earth-splitting rows or anything.” You’d swear this prophecy was a contemporary insert into the vintage dialogue — maybe made up by McCartney and Jackson themselves, to prove just how temperate things really were! — but if it’s on the 1969 tape, it’s on the tape.

Having Ono around as Lennon’s emotional support person, sitting beside him in the studio, was a concern, but hardly a deal-breaker for the other Beatles. “I mean, I’m not going to lie, you know, I would sacrifice you all for her,” Lennon tells the others. “She comes everywhere, you know.” And McCartney adopts a pretty good attitude about that: “There’s, like, always only two answers: one is to fight it and fight her and try and get the Beatles back to four people without Yoko, and sort of ask Yoko to sit down at the board meetings,” he tells other participants while Lennon is away. “Or else the other thing is just to realize she’s there, you know, and he’s not going to sort of split with her just for our sakes. And then it’s not even as much of an obstacle, as long as we’re not trying to surmount it. … It’s not that bad, you know. … It’s all right, let the young lovers stay together.”

Any tensions about Ono seem quickly and easily reconciled, at least compared to the less surmountable issue of Harrison actually quitting the band, mid-project. The way it’s presented in the transcript is almost comically abrupt: Lennon is described as noodling on a Chuck Berry riff on guitar when Harrison says, “I’m leaving…” Lennon stops playing and asks, “What?” Harrison finished his thought: “…the band now.” John: “When?” George: “Now.” And he means it. Even after 50 years of all the hindsight and scrutiny in the world, it still counts as quite the cliffhanger.

Lennon doesn’t seem to think this is a reason to shut anything down. “Now the point is, if George leaves, do we want to carry on with the Beatles? I do… If he doesn’t come back by Tuesday we get Clapton,” he says. Lennon allows that the group’s lead guitarist may have some legit grievances: “It’s a festering wound… and yesterday we allowed it to go even deeper, and we didn’t even give him any bandages.” He adds, seemingly more out of practicality than sympathy, “If we want him – I’m still not sure whether I do want him – but if we do decide we want him as a policy, I can go along with that because the policy has kept us together.”

If there was a specific straw that broke the camel’s back for Harrison, it does not appear to have been captured on tape, any more than his being lured back was. But the transcripts effectively set up the litany of complaints or grievances that made the early going at Twickenham so frustrating for all the members — the glare of the movie cameras; disagreement about whether to jam their way to finished songs or find a more formal approach; even sharper dissent over what kind of return to live performance they should be aiming for to cap the TV special… or whether it would even be for TV (ultimately it wasn’t, of course). And George, with a bagful of songs that would ultimately mostly end up on his solo debut, feeling more like a tutored sideman than ever. He’s already long been quoted as griping to McCartney, “I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play. You know, whatever it is that’ll please you, I’ll do it. But I don’t think you really know what that one is.”

And we read more of McCartney’s self-aware but not exactly relenting response, when Lennon tells him it’s OK to dictate parts: “I’m scared of that one… me being the boss. And I have been for, like, a couple of years – and we all have, you know, no pretending about that.” It’s bracing, to read virtually in real time for the first time, just how much Real Talk was being laid out on the table.

What’s just as arresting is realizing how quickly this whole defeat-to-victory arc transpired — in just under a month of tracking — and how much “the lads,” wisened veterans that they might have seemed, really did moments of realizing they were boys, in their late twenties. “Ever since Mr. Epstein passed away, says Harrison, referring to the 1967 death of manager Brian Epstein, “it’s never been the same.” McCartney waxes philosophical: “There really is no one there now to say, ‘Do that.’ Whereas there always used to be. And we just sort of [used to think], ‘Oh fucking hell, you know. Keep getting us up at 8?’ But it’s us that has to get us up at 8 now… that’s only growing up. You know, your daddy goes away at a certain point in your life. You stand on your own feet. I mean, that’s all we’ve been faced with — Daddy’s gone away now, you know, and we’re on our own at the holiday camp.”

In the loosely formed reconciliation that followed, then, you could choose to see a transformation from boys to men, as compromise ultimately prevailed for the length of an album and a half — recording on “Abbey Road,” arguably their pinnacle, followed within a few short months — before they reached that particular point of maturity when even a peaceable boys’ club doesn’t seem the place to be. And/or outside villains entered the picture, with still sharper disputes over Allen Klein as Daddy #2. The band’s last act is really a deep sigh, a regrettable tragedy and a Cinderella ending wrapped up in one big Rorschach ball.

The Beatles film the rooftop sequence for the “Let It Be” film in January 1969, as pictured in the book “Get Back” - Credit: Courtesy Apple
The Beatles film the rooftop sequence for the “Let It Be” film in January 1969, as pictured in the book “Get Back” - Credit: Courtesy Apple

Courtesy Apple

But as much as I’ve been one of those who feared that the Peter Jackson docu-series might swing the pendulum so far away from Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 documentary that it could count as a whitewash, it’s hard to read the second half of this book and not share his enthusiasm for the sense of fun and play that emerged out of a more relaxed quartet. There’s banter and wordplay left out of the band’s last movie that almost fits the spirit of their first.

And they’re rocking. While this is not a dialogue passage, how much fun is it, if you love music at all, to read a description of an interstitial section on the tapes like: “Led by George, the band fall into Randy Newman’s ‘Love Story (You and Me),’ before playing Duane Eddy’s ‘Cannonball,’ and the bluegrass and skiffle standard ‘Last Train to San Fernando,’ before calling it a day” marking the close of a pretty average day on the job for the ultimately more free-wheeling “Let It Be” sessions.

Many mega-fans will already be familiar with some of the exchanges in the book, which have been previously paraphrased by authors who had access to the master tapes, though never laid out verbatim the way they are here, certainly. For most of us, though, the book provides delight after delight, along with its share of “Oh, damn” moments.

Reacting to “I’ve Got a Feeling” starting to feel good, Lennon quips, “Well, I’ve got a hard-on!,” then sings, “Everybody had a hard-on,” which McCartney perhaps inevitably answers with, “Except for me and my monkey.” For sheer goofiness, it’s hard to beat the day when Linda (then-) Eastman’s daughter Heather comes into the studio with reports of baby kittens. “Mmm. Are you going to eat them?” inquires Lennon. “Lots of people do, you know… You put pastry round them and you have cat pie.” “A few days they were just born, weren’t they?” protests Heather. “Oh, well, you better wait a week or two before you eat them.” (How did she sleep, after that?)

In a more grown-up exchange between the Lennon-McCartney camps, meanwhile, Paul seems genuinely curious as he pursues a line of questioning with John: “Can you (and Yoko) see each other in the bag?” Lennon: “Yes.” McCartney: “When you’re in the bag?” Lennon: “Yes. We’re together in a bag.” Paul: “I know. But can you see each other inside when you’re in the bag?” This is comedy gold.

And then there are a couple of telling exchanges toward the end, either one of which you could choose as your takeaway moment for the Beatles as they somewhat knowingly, somewhat unknowingly approach their swan song.

The one that really reinforces the Jackson-ian vision of “Let It Be” as an experience that turned into a high-spirited romp comes when Lennon and Harrison, the two bigger cynics of this whole experience, can’t stop gushing about how well the sessions are going. “It’s such a high when you get home… I’m just so high when I get in at night,” Lennon enthuses. “Yeah, it’s great, isn’t it?” agrees the now ex-ex-member Harrison. Continues Lennon, “I was just sitting there listening to the last takes: ‘What have I had?'” (Meaning drugs.) “You know, I ask her, ‘Have we had anything?’”

And then, for portent, we have a dialogue between John, Yoko and engineer Glyn Johns about a new potential savior who’s entered the situation… attorney Allen Klein. Lennon and Ono can’t stop rhapsodizing him, but Johns is subtle in trying to introduce a note of caution to the new zealots: “Strange guy, isn’t he?… He’s very, very clever… And he’ll ask you a question, and you’re halfway through answering it, and if he doesn’t like the answer, or if it’s not what he really wanted to hear, he’ll change the subject right in the middle of a sentence.” Ono says, casually, “Oh yeah. I can imagine it, yeah.” Johns isn’t finished: “That bugs me a bit, actually.”

But, of course, it was the Beatles responsible for their own demise, and subsequent phoenix-like qualities as stand-alone artists, not handlers or influencers. And you can only feel so sad that all things must pass. There’s something that kind of says it all when they’re having one last very minor squabble about whether to proceed with the rooftop concert scheduled for the following day, after much prior gnashing of teeth about whether it should have been in a TV studio, along a beach or on a barge. Harrison says he still is really not into it, here, at the last minute. McCartney is having some second thoughts, too. Ringo, though, pipes up: “I would like to go on the roof.” Lennon agrees. Paul utters a simple two-word phrase: “Diverse people.” Yes, they were.

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