[This fragment is available in an audio version.]
I watched all eight hours of Jackson’s Get Back Beatles documentary. I’m a pretty intense music geek and while I gather there were some for whom this was Too Much Beatles, there was hardly a moment I wanted to look away. I found the whole thing intense and feel like sharing a few purely musical take-aways: If you care about will-George-quit or the-meaning-of-Yoko drama, I got nothing for you.
Payment · But first: I don’t subscribe to Disney+, a friend helped me out. Dear world: The number of streaming services keeps expanding but my willingness to subscribe to more of them has ground to a halt. I think I’m not alone?
So, they need to find another way: Hint: I would cheerfully pay to watch this! It’s huge, three very long episodes. If you’d asked me for $10 I might have grumbled a little but would have coughed up the dough.
[Is it too long? Maybe a little, but I think if you cut out any more than an hour you’d be losing real value.]
Now, on to those musical impressions.
Sound Quality · It’s fabulous! Especially the rooftop sequence. I guess Glyn Johns and George Martin knew what they were doing? Toward the end of the show, there are occasional subtitles saying that the performance currently on-screen is the one on the album.
Back in the day, I disliked the sound of Let It Be, so the documentary audio was a pleasant surprise. A visit to Wikipedia reveals that Phil Spector peed in the pool of the first release; now I’m going to have to give a serious listen to Let It Be… Naked and, oh my goodness, check out Let It Be: Special Edition.
Audio weenies will enjoy Glyn Johns’ repeated entreaties for less bass in the guitar sound, and similar fine-tuning.
Is it surprising that they got great sound in spite of the primitive ganged-four-tracks tape setup? It shouldn’t be; many music lovers and basically 100% of audiophiles agree that 1970 marked the beginning of a long steady decline in the quality of pop-music sound, and one reason was just too much technology.
Tragedy · It’s unspeakably sad that the Beatles never performed as a band once they’d grown up. In a few of the studio segments and the far-too-brief rooftop concert, they were tight as a drum, focused, and exciting.
Songs · There are lots of keepers, obviously. It’s pretty wonderful to watch Get Back be born right there before your eyes, and then grow and branch out and acquire lyrics and take its final shape as a mature, wonderful rock ’n’ roll song. We hear it maybe once or twice too often in the documentary.
It’s not my favorite, though; that would be Don’t Let Me Down, which inexplicably didn’t go out on the original Let It Be release. The melody is compelling and Lennon’s vocal is absolutely heart-wrenching.
I mentioned the lyrics: The movie suggests that Lennon was the band’s amanuensis, scribbling words and corrections furiously on a clipboard as they were worked out. This required, and he seemed to exhibit, endless patience.
I also really liked One After 909 which, Paul explains, is one of the “hundreds and hundreds” of songs he and John wrote together before they got famous.
Pick One · OK, suppose that you (unlike me) had major songwriting talent and were putting together a band to perform your music, and you were allowed to hire one Beatle. Who’d be your choice?
For me, it wouldn’t be close: John Lennon, if only for the rhythm guitar and the vocal agility. Controversial?
McCartneyology · Obviously, a one-in-a-century singing voice; he croons and howls and growls and goes all music-hall silly, and does all those things in an intelligent way, and then of course, all those fabulous songs.
Listen to the vocal pyrotechnics on I’ve Got a Feeling; no other human could do that.
Instrumentally? The bass playing is competent and the piano backing on the ballads (Let It Be, Long and Winding Road) drives the songs gracefully.
Harrisonia · In mid-to-late Beatles, if there are noticeably high parts on guitar or vocals, that’s George. These days, people are kind in retrospect to his guitar playing, but they’re being charitable; the tone is thin and there’s really no rhythmic drive. But those high vocal harmonies are sweet; there’s a hilarious moment on one of the early takes of a song where George comes in on the high line ridiculously out of tune and the whole thing lurches to a giggling halt.
And Mr Harrison wrote songs that people will still be enjoying decades after we’ve all shuffled off.
There’s this moment where he’s showing off one of his new songs to the band, playing it on piano, and asking Billy Preston “What’s that chord, eh, Billy? It’s an E but I put a C in too. Couldn’t do that if I were writing on the guitar.” Which makes the point that in 1970, as they were breaking up, they were still learning their craft, still growing up.
Billy too · I actually once attended a Billy Preston concert, back in the Seventies when he had big hits on the radio. A guy with a whole lot of talent and a good performer too. The college-paper reviewer (an art-rock victim I think) intoned snottily: “Just some nice tunes with a huge backbeat and a lot of energy.” Works for me.
Anyhow, his arrival on the scene half-way through the process lit up the room and made the Beatles a much, much better band.
Starrdom · The Get Back footage reveals that Ringo (whom the others often address as “Rich” or “Richie”) is, you know, a really good drummer. Powerful backbeat and extremely tasty intros and fills. No flash, none needed.
And Ringo wrote some pretty good songs. What I learned watching this is that he could play some decent piano too; one of the highlights for me was Paul and Ringo pounding out a fast four-hands rock boogie-woogie instrumental at ferocious, intimidating speed, both grinning ear to ear.
Rich hardly says anything though.
Lennonism · By a wide margin the most interesting person in the room, and his music hits me harder than any of the others’. His singing is idiosyncratic and flexible and totally wonderful. I mentioned Paul’s work on I’ve Got a Feeling; listen to John’s huge, driving guitar chords, then his vocal take on the “Everybody had a good time…” part, and enjoy the contrast. And the movie also makes it obvious that those Paul/John harmonies are The Real Deal, the sound you just couldn’t ignore, and still can’t.
And the guitar; for example, listen to that staccato break on Get Back; we probably hear it twenty-five times in the course of the movie, and I never wanted to skip it.
At this point in his life John was suffering from disaffection and heroin, so you’re probably not seeing the full spectrum of what he could be, and he’s still pretty awesome.
Mr Martin Says Why · I said I wasn’t going to talk about the personal dynamics, the human dimensions. One reason for that is that I don’t need to, because George Martin said what needs to be said; his son Giles posted a heart-warming little video, which anyone interested in the Beatles should probably watch.
I quote: “They were the kind of people that you liked to be with.”
I sure liked the eight hours I spent with them. Jackson’s direction is deft, gets right out of the way. Thanks to him and to all the people who made the film, living and dead.