My Overdue Takes (Some Contrarian, Some Not) on the Beatles’ ‘Get Back’
Ringo was great on drums. Lennon was great on guitar. The Beatles were a bar band at heart.
The Beatles and I go way back. I learned to play the guitar by borrowing my brother Gary’s Beatles songbook, which conveniently showed the fingering for every chord. The first song I learned with “No Reply,” a relatively obscure part of the Beatles canon that taught me five chords or so, including extremely useful ones like G and Em. I saw them play Shea Stadium on my 13th birthday, which was as exciting as you might think.
But then, The Beatles and everybody go way back. Hence the resonance of what would otherwise be a boring title for the movie: ‘Get Back.’ They’re not talking so much about the melody as they are about the memory.
Everybody has already weighed in on this movie, it seems, but here goes anyway, beginning with one of its heroes:
Billy Preston was the perfect session musician. He was energetic, enthusiastic, and encouraging. He not only came up with great parts, seemingly effortlessly, but he always played them with joy. Everything about him radiated encouragement toward the primary artist.
That is the perfect person to back you up in the studio. A performer who’s recording their own material is stressed and vulnerable, even if they’re world famous. The ideal session player is a musician, therapist, coach, and mindreader. That’s Billy Preston.
The Beatles as backup band
But wasn’t he really part of the band at the time? After all, the ‘Get Back’ single was credited to “The Beatles and Billy Preston.” Yes, but that gets to the essence of what the Beatles had become by this time: As each songwriter (John and Paul largely writing on their own, as well as George) evolved, the band increasingly acted as session musicians for whoever wrote the song they were recording.
That attitude is especially visible in the scene where John and Yoko offer encouragement to a frustrated George Harrison. George tells them he wants to do an entire album of his own material. John tells him that would be great, and that the record could be billed as the Beatles backing up George Harrison. George somehow finds the nerve to tell John (who clearly intimidates him) that he wants to choose his own musicians for the project instead. Great idea, says Yoko.
We don’t get to see much of The Beatles working on a Harrison song. But Paul clearly calls the shots on every aspect of his own material, as many commenters have noted. He was well known, even at the time, for a tight hand at the helm. Paul also tries to help John, who is detached and distracted, discover what would work best on his tunes.
Lennon Family Values
About that distraction: As many people have noted, drugs clearly play a huge part in it. So is his disaffection with the confining role of a Beatle. So is his readily apparent love for Yoko, who means more to him than “the boys.” This is part of the differentiation process that most people go through in their late teens and early twenties as they distance themselves from their parents and birth family and form distinct adult identities.
John didn’t have a birth family as such. His father had disappeared. His mother palmed him off to relatives, then died before John’s eyes. By all accounts, his aunt and uncle provided a loving and secure home. But who, exactly, would he differentiate from? As he was mourning his mother, he was growing closer to Paul McCartney, then George, then the Beatles as a unit. Finally, as he approaches thirty, he is going off on his own. That’s what we’re seeing here.
Many viewers of the film have concluded that Paul was the major talent of the outfit and John was along for the ride. They’re mistaking a snapshot in time for the entire history. John’s vision, energy, voice, and songwriting talent were pivotal to the Beatles’ success. It was very much a 50/50 partnership. What people are seeing in ‘Get Back’ is a detached family member, high on heroin at a family reunion and yearning for a life of his own.
John Lennon as Guitarist
“Clapton says I’m good,” Lennon said once, revealing an insecurity about his evident lack of chops on the instrument. Well, he is good. His solo on “Get Back,” while imperfectly executed, is a brilliant variation on the soul guitar styles that were then being pioneered by the likes of Reggie Young, Bobby Womack, Cornell Dupree, and so many others. He had great ears and a great feel, so the little slips don’t really matter.
After George temporarily leaves the band, Lennon carries off “I Dig a Pony” and a couple of throwaway tunes in a grungy power-trio format, foreshadowing a range of guitar players (with varying ranges of talent) to come. Blue Cheer’s Leigh Stephens, Grand Funk’s Mark Farner, and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain all echo Lennon’s heaviness.
Lennon was always a great rhythm guitarist. (See, for example, “All My Loving.”) Here, for good and for ill, he pioneered the idea of rhythm as lead. And it was, in the words of a Lennon song, heavy.
Paul McCartney, Coach and Utility Player
It’s impossible to disagree with one conclusion every viewer seems to have made: Paul McCartney is staggeringly talented. Personally, I can’t let go of the image of McCartney singing incredibly well while playing complicated bass lines and simultaneously smiling and grooving to the music. That is hard, hard, hard. It’s even harder when you’re as deeply stoned as Paul clearly is at certainly points.
McCartney is, by this time, the undisputed leader of the band. He chafes in the role, but he is the leader anyway. His songs are exquisite, his playing on a variety of instruments is outstanding, and his producing/arranging is top notch. I don’t know how much they treated the sound afterwards, but his bass tone — from a Hofner violin-style bass with plastic-coated strings, played through a Fender Bassman amp — is superb.
A few weeks later the group would record Abbey Road, where Paul use a hypnotic bass line to turn “Come Together,” an ordinary Chuck Berry-style number written by Lennon, into an unforgettable track. Here, he struggles to realize Lennon’s vision for “I Dig a Pony” with a couple of corny vocal arrangement until, by dint of sheer persistence, the group finds the right groove for it.
George Harrison, Prodigal Son
As someone says in the movie, you try dealing with Lennon and McCartney for a few months and see how pissed off you’ll get. Harrison is treated with real insensitivity, especially by Lennon, when he semi-bashfully shows the band a new song. It’s so hard to play a new song for anyone, much less someone talented who’s acting indifferent. I don’t know how he did it.
“Isn’t It a Pity” is such a beautiful song that it’s hard to understand how the band passed on it. “Old Brown Shoe” has always struck me as a weak number. How could they choose that one instead? “I Me Mine” always seemed preachy and dull to me, but George’s plaintive singing sells it here.
George appears to be a prisoner in this movie. His three-day liftoff fails to achieve escape velocity and he returns to the band, wary and wounded but treated with more tenderness. As a lot of people have observed, George would release a triple-album record the following year that was filled with great songs (and some others) and would vastly outsell Lennon and McCartney’s solo albums.
All things must pass, indeed.
... doesn’t get enough love, and he certainly doesn’t get enough respect. His stage presence was perfect for the early Beatles. His drumming is unique and creative, despite what all the naysayers say.
I think Ringo’s reputation has taken an unfair hit for one unrecognized reason: Drum styles, especially drum tone styles, changed dramatically in the 1970s. Despite what the haters say, Ringo was a great drummer whose legacy fell victim to changing fashions in drum tone and attack. Ringo’s attack on the drums is lighter and more trebly than has been fashionable for the last four decades or so. It’s very much the tone of the 1960’s rock-and-roll era – the era that was ending as this movie was recorded.
Within a couple of years, Led Zeppelin would dominate the airwaves. John Bonham’s ultra-heave attack would become the standard – one that couldn’t be duplicated, but could be approximated. It’s unlikely that Ringo, with his slight build, could replicate that attack even if he tried.
But why should he try? His timekeeping is really solid, and his style is perfect for The Beatles. Later, he would tell Dave Stewart that his unique approach grew out of the fact that he was a lefthander playing a right-handed drum setup. But it’s more than that. He wasn’t constrained by the typical drum clichés of his time. His playing was fresh, unique, and always appropriate to the song.
Here’s a good test of that: I can recognize most, if not all, Beatles songs by listening to the drum track alone. So can a lot of other people. That tells you that Ringo’s hooks were an essential part of the sound.
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top once quoted Carlos Santana to John Lee Hooker. “A man’s” – and, of course, a woman’s – “tone is his face.” Hooker responded, “Well, he know.”
The great rock drummers of the 60’s had that kind of “face.” Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, Levon Helm, Charlie Watts: each of them is instantly recognizable by their tone. They’re all gone now, except Ringo. It’s time to give the man his due.
The band qua band
I have a deep sense of loyalty and affection for bar bands, those workaday units that churn out cover after cover, night after night, to smoke-laced crowds with a wild indifference to the racket emanating from the stage. From their days in Hamburg on, the Beatles were a great bar band, and God bless ‘em for it.
Everything else – the brilliant songs, the fame, the charisma, the psychedelia, all of it – arises from this essential fact. None of it would have been possible without Hamburg. If it ain’t tight, it ain’t right. That’s why I wish the Beatles had stuck around to do some more live gigs, but that was not to be.
The best part of this movie is seeing four people who had been carrying the burden of unprecedented fame – and worse, of being taken as role models for millions – set that weight down and concentrate on doing what drew them together in the first place, on the path they had chosen for themselves as teenagers.
The Beatles don’t need to be your musical lodestar, or mine, or anyone’s. Sure, they put out some weak songs and even weak albums. (Contrarian take: Aside from a couple of songs, I’m not a ‘Sgt. Pepper’ fan.) But it was great to be around in their musical era, and to see them live. They could play, they could write, they could perform, they were charismatic, and they had depth.
That was enough, wasn’t it?
Very good stuff, Richard. Enjoyed your perspective on the doc. Thanks.
Thanks RJ…always love your political interviews but this is the first piece I’ve seen you do on music. I think your assessment of the Beatles is spot on and , naturally, it jives its the way I’ve always felt about them. Now, you have to do a piece on Frank Zappa…btw Ive read that Freak Out influenced McCartney to do Sgt Peppers…and both albums are just ok.