A book about a film about an album? The new coffee table book from Callaway Arts and Entertainment and Apple Corps, The Beatles: Get Back, is essentially that: a hardcover, 240-page tome based on the film footage shot in the buildup to The Beatles' final album, 1970's Let It Be. Get Back was, of course, the name of the first version of Let It Be. It's also the name of director Peter Jackson's upcoming three-part, six-hour documentary (the first part of which premieres November 25 on the Disney+ streaming service) to which the book serves as a companion. The story of this period is one that's been often-told: a mere two-and-a-half months after sessions conclude for The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album), John, Paul, George, and Ringo regroup in the New Year to stage a live, televised concert in which they'll "get back" to basics. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg is engaged to film rehearsals at London's Twickenham Film Studios for use in a potential documentary about the making of the concert. But matters quickly go south, and chaos and creativity ensue in equal measure. But this tried-and-true story about the most-written-about-band-ever hasn't been told before in quite this manner.
The Beatles: Get Back, the book, is almost exclusively told in the Fabs' own words via the dialogue captured by Lindsay-Hogg first at Twickenham (January 2-16, 1969) and then at Apple Studios (January 21-31) including the Rooftop Concert of January 30. It reads like a series of vignettes from an as-yet-unproduced play blending the absurdity of Harold Pinter, the subversive humor of Joe Orton, and the kitchen sink drama of John Osborne. These sometimes angry, sometimes cheerful young men are at a personal and professional crossroads, and Get Back vividly brings this period to life on the printed page. The visual element of the book is provided by the stunning photographs of Linda McCartney and Ethan A. Russell (displayed with rectangular borders) and original 16mm film stills (displayed with round-corner borders). All that's missing is the music, which will likely ring in one's head while reading. This non-traditional approach turns out to be the book's greatest strength.
Editor John Harris has shaped the text as a three-act play with the settings of Twickenham, Apple Studios, and the Rooftop of 3 Savile Row. While the four Beatles are the key players, there's a strong supporting cast (director Lindsay-Hogg, recording engineers Glyn Johns and Alan Parsons, producer George Martin, roadie Mal Evans, and musician Billy Preston just a few of the other "characters") and even some cameos (chameleonic actor and Ringo's co-star in The Magic Christian, Peter Sellers, music publisher Dick James). Peter Jackson and playwright Hanif Kureishi offer introductions, and a text piece by Harris sets up each act. But the lion's share of the story is told through The Beatles' "scenes," if you will.
The Twickenham rehearsals are the foundation on which the Get Back/Let It Be story has been built, and there's plenty of the tension that Peter Jackson has reportedly sought to downplay in his upcoming film. One might say that the arc of the Twickenham rehearsals builds to Harrison's temporary departure on January 10; the seeds of his discontent are evident in many of his exchanges, particularly with McCartney. At one point on January 6, Paul optimistically states, "We've got to improve on that [take of 'Don't Let Me Down']" to which George acidly replies, "If we had a tape recorder now and just taped that and played it back, you'd throw that out straight away." (Of course, it was all being recorded.) The next day, Harrison and McCartney acknowledge what's changed in the group: "Ever since Mr. Epstein passed away...it's never been the same," George acknowledges. Paul agrees, "We've been very negative since Mr. Epstein passed away." Such candid, even touching, moments linger far longer than the tense ones. Mal Evans stands in for the reader when he chimes in after some tense back-and-forth that "I'd just like to say that you are needed, you know. The Beatles are needed, like, to so many people."
Without the Fabs' inflections and clear intentions, the reader can "direct" the dialogue. Often humor and drama go hand-in-hand, as during a January 8 confrontation between Lennon and McCartney:
PAUL: [theatrically] We're gonna be faced with a crisis, you know.
JOHN: [equally theatrically] When I'm up against the wall, Paul, you'll find I'm at my best.
PAUL: [shouting] Yeah, I know, John, I know, but I just wish you'd come up with the goods!
JOHN: Well, look, I think I've got Sunday off!
Harrison's departure is captured in just a few lines ("I think I'll be...I'm leaving," he says. "What?" John replies. "...the band now." "When?" "Now.") without much evident provocation beyond the band's seeming lack of purpose direction as the omnipresent cameras and the two Nagra tape recorders roll. John, Paul, and Ringo carry on with nervous laughter ("Just pretending nothing's happened," Lennon quips) as they attempt to resume work.
The exchanges of Monday, January 13 are among the most affecting, not to mention prescient.
PAUL: It's going to be such an incredible sort of comical thing like, in fifty years' time, you know: 'They broke up 'cos 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.
Linda McCartney makes another wise observation: "You make good music together, whether you like it or not." John replies, "I like it." Even during the most uncomfortable moments, a bond of affection, respect, and camaraderie is evident.
Things lighten considerably in Act Two once the boys move to Apple Studios following a near-weeklong break. George returns (though his reappearance was not captured on the tapes) and at his insistence, the ideas of a live concert and TV show are placed to the side. Instead, the band focuses on crafting an album. George Martin becomes a key player in this act, and Billy Preston drops by to make music with the band. Both prove to be calming influences; Martin even observes the morning of January 23 that "you're working so well together now...let's keep it going." The tapes capture songs beginning to take shape alongside mundane events like the Beatles ordering lunch and John making playful banter with six-year-old Heather McCartney. While the more famous exchanges have been quoted in the past, it's likely that all but the most dyed-in-the-wool Beatles fans won't have heard or read everything as presented here.
There are delightful shout-outs to Fleetwood Mac (John asks Paul, "Did you see [them] on Late Night Live? Oh, they were so sweet, man!") and Randy Newman (the "stage directions" read: "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") as well as fleeting references to "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "I Say a Little Prayer." It's clear reading just how much the Fab Four enjoyed what they did, and what their contemporaries did, as well. There are dark portents, for sure, including the first mentions of the controversial Allen Klein:
GLYN: Have you met Allen before?
JOHN: I met him the other day over here, and I met him at the [Rock and Roll] Circus.
GLYN: Strange guy, isn't he?
JOHN: I know. He's fantastic, though.
Get Back culminates in the staging of the rooftop concert, as surely an actual dramatic presentation would build to this historic moment. An array of impressive photos dominates this section and the script shifts to the man-on-the-street interviews being conducted and the arrival of policemen to the scene. There's something undeniably magical and manic about this improbable afternoon, so the scenes that follow (the band listening to the rooftop playback that afternoon, the following day's recording sessions) are anticlimactic, and John Harris completes the story with a brief text epilogue.
As the release date of the Peter Jackson documentary approaches, the book makes for an entertaining and compelling appetizer. It remains to be seen how much of its contents will be echoed in the lengthy documentary but even if all of the dialogue is heard in the film, the book will still remain a valuable addition to any Beatles library to which a reader can return. It also proves a fine companion to The Beatles Anthology, a very different kind of "in their own words" volume. Some might want to devour this book now and others might rather wait until Jackson's film arrives and then get back to relive favorite moments.
The book ends on a quiet note as the foursome have recorded the version of "Let It Be" that will be used as the basis for both the LP and single releases:
PAUL: One more time.
GEORGE: Fair, very fair.
PAUL: Very fair. One more...
They play the take of 'Let It Be' that will make it into the film. The tape ends.
And in the end, The Beatles would go on to record the triumphant Abbey Road before getting the divorce that George Harrison joked about in Twickenham. Over fifty years later, though, we collectively remain anxious to revisit the world of The Beatles and recapture that magic. One more time...