In 1969, it was obvious to those around them, and especially to themselves, that the band was splintering badly. The events of 1968, from the good but misguided intentions of the India trip, to managing themselves after Brian Epstein’s passing, to the unveiling of Apple Corps, to the protracted and often solo production of nearly three dozen songs over the course of five and a half months…it was too much, too soon, and too disorganized. Patience and tolerance was deteriorating. John, Paul and George had been best mates and constant companions for over ten years at that point, knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses…and especially what set them off.
The Get Back project had been another of Paul’s ideas; given that their sound’s evolution had expanded as far as it could possibly have taken them by 1967, and that their attempt at a more organic sound for The Beatles ended up more disjointed than cohesive, perhaps it was time to start over again, start from the beginning. Become a foursome again, play simple rock and roll that had influenced them so deeply in the late 50s. It had also been a good couple of years since their last touring performance. The semi-live performances of “All You Need Is Love” in 1967 and “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” in 1968 had somewhat rekindled the happier memories of playing live–just the four of them rocking out and having fun. Upon their next meeting in late 1968, Paul suggested perhaps playing out again. George emphatically nixed the idea–he wasn’t about to relive the frustration of getting mauled by fans and not being able to hear himself play, let alone sing, even if the PA systems had improved since then. John was interested, but in his own way, refused to say yes or no…and he was by this time distracting himself with multimedia art installments with Yoko. Ringo, ever the nice guy, would go with whatever the other three agreed on.
Okay, touring was out. Perhaps a one-week appearance somewhere? A one-off show? A television special?
That last suggestion had merit. It provided the least amount of preplanning and production. It would another fulfillment on their United Artists contract, it would keep them in the spotlight…and perhaps it would force them to behave more maturely in each other’s presence.
Rule Number One: No overdubs (or at least no obvious multitracking). The music would contain only the four members playing, forcing them not just to become a cohesive unit again, but would rekindle their ability to counterpoint each other’s playing, an ability that they had in spades back when they started but had lost over the course of the last few years. Any additional sound effects would possibly be played by their assistant Mal Evans, and any additional keyboards would be played by their friend and labelmate Billy Preston.
As they say, the best laid plans…
* * *
Single: “Get Back”/”Don’t Let Me Down”
Released: 11 April 1969
The Get Back project had pretty much ended by the end of January–not so much with a bang, but a whimper. Jamming and rehearsing at Twickenham Film Studios had been arduous and frustrating; it seemed obvious that the band was not happy at all there. After moving to their new Apple Studios, they worked a week or so more until the end of the month, still disjointed but somewhat more cohesive now. Regardless, there were a good handful of usable songs somewhere in that mess, enough to cobble into an album and perhaps a single or two. Many of the filmed rehearsals included a full-band performance that could be used as a promotional film. Even their semi-planned “live” performance on the roof of 3 Savile Row on 30 January might have carried some gems.
Side A: Get Back
One usable song was a great shuffling jam that quickly became a fan favorite, and it has quite the interesting history. Its genesis came from an untitled bluesy jam on 7 January, borrowing a lyric from George’s “Sour Milk Sea” (“Get back to where you should be”) and changing it slightly. A few days later, inspired by UK Cabinet minister Enoch Powell’s wildly extremist ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech from April 1968, Paul wrote a scathing satire of anti-immigration and pro-discrimination. Two versions of these lyrics surfaced, the slower, more Elvis-inspired “Commonwealth” and the more visceral, angry “No Pakistanis”. The latter is much closer to the released final version. By the time a serious full take was laid down, the immigration satire had been dropped, or at least severely dialed back; the final lyrics seem more of a commentary of the band itself, letting go of the extraneous and returning to the source of your happiness.
The single version was recorded on 27 January in their Apple Studios after much studio rehearsing on the 23rd. Many versions were recorded at this time, including an ever so slightly different take that would eventually surface on the Let It Be album. This version would suffice as a tight single until they had something down for their next release. It was quickly produced and released just a few months later, much like their stopgap album-only singles. By this time they knew it would take awhile for the special-turned-movie and album to surface (not to mention they’d washed their hands of it by then). Despite its dark history, to this day it’s still considered one of their biggest late-era hits, and Paul has revived it numerous times on his tours.
Side B: Don’t Let Me Down
Though it’s often commented that John’s role in the Get Back sessions was minimal–in essence, he was pretty much phoning it in at that point–it’s not to say that his songwriting had deteriorated. Personally he was dealing with a hell of a lot of personal demons, many of which were threatening to take over his public life if not his sanity. In this instance Yoko became a saving grace for him, an anchor he’d desperately needed for years. In response, “Don’t Let Me Down” was written as a desperate plea; he was hopelessly in love with this woman who could help him find his inner peace–this song is him down on his knees, begging that, for once in his life, the thing closest to his heart would not break him.
The track is an incredibly sparse blues track (its F#m7-to-E riff influenced by Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross”, interestingly enough, and used again later in “Sun King” on Abbey Road), with just the four playing their usual instruments and supported by Preston on electric piano. Despite its bare essentials, it still comes across as an incredibly heartfelt track. The vocals are rough in tone yet tight in delivery, and Paul and George’s countermelody in the bridge is phenomenal.
* * *
As this would be the only release to surface (for now) from the Get Back sessions, it was just enough to tide over the curiosity of the fans and the critics, many of whom had heard quite a few rumors about what they were up to but were yet to hear anything substantial. Despite the trainwreck the project ended up being, very few seemed aware that anything was wrong. These two songs sounded like a logical extension of the organic sound of The Beatles, so no one seemed surprised by the bare sounds. It would be a little over a year before they’d eventually hear and see what really had transpired in that month.
* * *
Single: “The Ballad of John and Yoko”/”Old Brown Shoe”
Released: 30 May 1969
Right around the same time the “Get Back” single had been released, John was itching to get back in the studio to record his next song about his ongoing relationship with Yoko. After many setbacks and a long and arduous divorce settlement, the two had finally gotten married in March, recording and filming all along the way. The sounds turned into their third avant-garde outing Wedding Album, their filming turned into Honeymoon, and the story fodder for their next single. It also served as the kicking-off point for their next album project–one that would be their last as a foursome, but one that would be done right this time, back at Abbey Road with George Martin back behind the finally-installed eight-track boards.
Side A: The Ballad of John and Yoko
The lyrics to this song tell the story, pretty much verbatim, of the trials and tribulations of trying to get married when you have so many things going against you. John and Yoko’s quest to tie the knot had been filled with roadblocks. Due to their drug bust earlier in 1968 as well as their vocal anti-war stance, several government agencies were refusing to let them enter their countries, or at least were making it hard for them to do so. Many critics and fans thought John had gone off the deep end, many having seen and/or heard Yoko’s weird performance art. Despite all that, they chose to soldier on, until the band’s assistant Peter Brown (who had been Brian Epstein’s assistant before then) informed them that they could at last get married in Gibraltar. The second half of the song also mentions one of their Bed-Ins for Peace, in which they would stay in bed all day, inviting any critic and reporter to speak with them about their peace movement. An admittedly silly idea for a war protest (they were fully aware of its ridiculousness–that was partly the point), but in the context of the song it also serves as a cutting jab at those same critics and reporters who were already writing them off as whackjobs.
Musically, this is quite fascinating: it’s only John and Paul playing everything here, as George was on holiday and Ringo was in the middle of filming The Magic Christian with Peter Sellers. It’s a quick song that only took about eleven takes on 14 April, one take which includes a breakdown mid-song where John yells to a drumming Paul “Go a bit faster, Ringo!”, to which he replies “Okay, George!”. It also serves as the return of engineer Geoff Emerick, who had left in disgust during the sessions for The Beatles some months earlier.
Due to its lyrics, it did of course have its own run of trouble; many stations refused to play it because of the use of “Christ” and “crucify” in the lyrics, but that would not stop the single from being a hit, reaching #1 in the UK and #8 in the US.
Side B: Old Brown Shoe
George serves up a rocking b-side to this single, the final version recorded on 18 April. It’s almost his own take on Paul’s “Hello Goodbye”, an exercise in opposites, but more on a metaphorical level. He lets himself go wild here, foregoing his usual oblique lyrics and inserting witty and sly riffs about having a relationship while being a full-blown pop star. A full band plays here, delivering an extremely tight and detailed performance. Most obvious is Ringo’s drumming here, strong and to the fore, playing snare on the unexpected upbeat for nearly the entire song (he switches only briefly on the bridges, where he plays on the downbeat instead). George also delivers a powerful, heavily treated Claptonesque solo. There’s some confusion as to who’s playing bass–most say it’s Paul, but George has also claimed it was him playing instead, but there’s some great tandem bass and guitar riffing going on here. John originally had a rhythm guitar riff on this song, but it did not make the final cut, his only surviving parts being backing vocals.
Compared to many of George’s previous songs, this one sticks out as an incredible leap forward in composition. His abilities had been hinted at, especially on Revolver and The Beatles, but here we finally hear just how strong his songwriting really is. By this time he had quite the backlog of tracks just waiting to be put down on tape, but as most Beatles albums were primarily Lennon-McCartney productions, he was willing to hold back. By the end of 1970, free of his band, he would deliver many of these gems on his first true solo album, All Things Must Pass.
* * *
This single was an unexpected turnaround both for the band and for their fans. Having expected the groggy, spare sounds of the previous album and single, they instead heard a grand production, clear and glorious. It might just be possible that after a year or so of questionable releases, they’d rebounded, found their magic, and were rearing to go again. This was released so quickly after “Get Back”, which was still high in the charts at the time, that perhaps that possibility was a reality. The truth was somewhat different, but no less magical: the fantastic Fab Four had returned.
* * *
The latest single now released, they felt positive about the next project. It would be a true back-to-basics studio record–perhaps not the barebones attempt of Get Back, but more like the albums they’d been recording a few years previous. This would be more like a logical progression after Rubber Soul or Revolver, bypassing the high experimentation and psychedelia of Sgt Pepper and the meandering Magical Mystery Tour. In a way they were going to write off The Beatles and Get Back as steps in the wrong direction, even though many of the tracks on the next project were in fact coming from the sessions for those two albums. The truth, however, was more straightforward: they knew there was a real possibility they were about to go their separate ways, and decided that their last effort would be their absolute best ever. They returned to Abbey Road and asked Martin to produce them one last time, in order to bow out in the best way they could.
Next Up: Abbey Road and the “Something”/”Come Together” single