Things learned from watching The Beatles: Get Back (review)

Music

I’m a little late to the party, but I finally managed to watch The Beatles: Get Back. While it was incredibly interesting, I wonder if many casual fans were deterred by its duration. I’ll provide a little background then highlight the main takeaway points I found from this miniseries. If you have watched this, please let me know your thoughts!

Background

Peter Jackson’s documentary launched at the very end of November last year, in three 2+ hour installments. It covers most of January 1969, when The Beatles, assistants and tech crew assembled in a large recording sounds stage with a documentary film crew in tow. The original plan was to record an album of brand new music, written from scratch and performed live in some form. In the end, sessions were strained before the group love to the new studios in the basement of the Apple Corps (their own record label) offices on Savile Row. The project culminates in a half hour performance on the roof of this building before the police arrive to shut it down.

The music from these sessions was eventually released shortly after The Fab Four had split up. Legendary and infamous American producer Phil Spector was hired to make an album out of the material available, which had been largely worked on by regular Beatles producer George Martin and engineer Glyn Johns prior to the abandonment of the project. The resulting album (Martin later said that he produced it, and “then Spector over produced it” ), now called Let It Be, was released in 1970, seemingly against The Beatles’ wishes. Indeed, Paul McCartney eventually stripped the record of the elements Spector had added – the choir, stings, horns, etc, and re-released the record as Let It Be… Naked in 2003, hoping to finally covey the project’s original direct-to-tape aesthetic.

Parts of the film footage was released in a documentary film of the same name. But 50 years later, after hundreds of hours of footage was discovered intact, Jackson (director of the Epic Lord of the Rings film trilogy and a self proclaimed Beatles super fan) stepped in to create a new documentary which told the full story of this short period in Beatles history. It includes a vast swathe of footage never seen before, including moments when The Beatles did not realise they were being recorded (such as a microphone hidden in a canteen flower pot which picks up John Lennon and Paul McCartney frankly discussing how their own egos getting in the way of their music). Overall, it’s fascinating and many musicians I know have marvelled at being able to see how The Beatles worked out songs such as Get Back and Dig A Pony. Here’s a few other things I observed

Paul doesn’t seem to know what he wants

Most of the Get Back project appears to be McCartney’s idea. He is the driving force behind the ‘live’ aesthetic, either in the form of performing to a live audience or recording without overdubs. However, he also seems a little lost and unsure of what he actually wants to look like. Sometimes it seemed like he was genuinely running out of inspiration (while simultaneously writing some great songs seemingly from scratch), and on other occasions he appears to have ore of a plan than he lets on, but is hesitant to force it onto the rest of the group. Perhaps he feared a mutiny if he pressed his ideas too forcefully. This does indeed happen in Episode 1 when Harrison reaches the end of his patience for having his playing criticised by McCartney (often without him providing a clear idea of what he wants George to play). Seeing McCartney’s indecision, or fear of being too forthright with his ideas, shows us a project that is doomed from the start.

Yet McCartney is not lacking in songwriting inspiration. He brings in Let It Be and The Long And Winding Road to be rehearsed by the band, having apparently written both if these songs almost to completion at home. I was left with the feeling that these were ‘back pocket’ songs; perhaps ones McCartney had considered keeping for a future solo album? However, when it becomes clear that the group don’t have enough material, he puts them forward, and of course, they end up being among the highlights of the subsequent album.

There is small but telling detail which emerges very near the end of Episode 3, after the rooftop concert has been finished and the band are recording the final takes for the album. During a moment listening back to a recent take of The Long and Winding Road, regular producer George Martin mentions McCartney having discussed adding a sting ensemble to fill out the sound on the record. The moment goes by quickly, and McCartney is very noncommittal in his acknowledgement of this statement, but it goes very much against the straight-to-tape aesthetic pursued by none other than McCartney himself. It indicates to me that perhaps his stated intentions and private desires have not always been the same.

Two things saved the session from an even earlier end

The huge soundstage The Beatles start in gives them acoustically-related problems from the outset, and appears to prove a hindrance to their creativity. Speaking from my own experience, it is hard to really dig into new songs, or even your own playing, if you’re struggling to hear everything around you clearly. Their decision to relocate to their just-completed basement studio in the Apple Corps office gives them the opportunity to work on the songs they have started in a more familiar and better sounding environment. You can see in Episode two how much more quickly things come together for the group after the move. But there is anoter factor which helped things along considerably, and arguably saved the project altogether…

The arrival of Billy Preston to the sessions is the real turning point in the Get Back sessions. The Beatles had first met Preston in their early days of performing in Hamburg. Preston was part of Little Richard’s band and was in London performing with Ray Charles when he ran into George Harrison and popped into the sessions to say hello. Once invited to sit in on electric piano and organ, something clearly changes for the better in the atmosphere of the sessions. This happened once before during the recording of their previous album, 1968’s The Beatles (also known as ‘The White Album’ due to it’s blank cover). Harrison has spoken about having fond memories recording While My Guitar Gently Weeps with Eric Clapton providing an (at the time anonymous) guest solo, because the band were all on best behaviour in the presence of a guest and friend. In a similar way, things seems much less acrimonious or stressful once Preston starts adding to the Get Back sessions. It is clear that the group enjoy his contributions. Lennon even suggests recruiting him officially, to which McCartney counters that it is hard enough reaching agreements between the four of them already! The value which The Beatles themselves placed on Preston’s presence is evidenced in the initial release of the song Get Back as a single – it is credited to “The Beatles with Billy Preston”. High praise indeed.

Ringo seems to play no part in the decision making process

The Ge Back sessions are full of decisions, indecisions, wrong decisions and changed decisions. Arguments, conflicts, reflections on their egos and statements of intent. But none of them come from drummer Ringo Starr. Although jokey and stylish as ever, once he sits behind the drum kit, Starr quietly listens as the three remaining members pf the band discuss arrangements or argue. Sometimes suggestions or directions are given to him on how he should play. Interestingly, he is more often than not left to create his parts based on what he hears, showing a high level of trust his band mates place in his abilities.

Yet I still found it striking how – in these sessions at least – it is Starr who is the real ‘quiet one’ of The Beatles.

Several elements precipitated the breakup of The Beatles, but Yoko Ono probably wasn’t one of them

Yoko Ono is a presence throughout this documentary series. But it doesn’t appear disruptive. Sure, during some of the downtime moments, she joins in the free-spirited jams by wailing down a microphone, but most of the time she sits by Lennon, supporting him silently in a way I think he obviously needed at the time. She is seen chatting amiably with the wives and girlfriends of the other members of the band, but nothing we see of her in this series, either voiced aloud or whispered into Lennon’s ear, gives any indication that she was responsible for the tensions the band faced, or their eventual breakup later in the same year.

Those tensions, and those decisions, came from the same place they had since the passing of the band’s manager Brian Epstein a few years before – they came from the four members of The Beatles themselves.

Final thoughts

It was fascinating to see how big the team around The Beatles had become by this point in the life of the band. From the arguments and arrangements to the songwriting and even the business side of The Beatles rearing its head again and again, we are given a clear picture of a small group of people hemmed in by their own success and unsure the best way to continue. Although their main team is comprised of trusted individuals, long term partners and even old friends from their days in Liverpool, the heart of this miniseries is the four members of The Beatles themselves. Many were close – very close. But the only four who really knew what it meant to be a Beatle were John, Paul, George and Ringo. Somehow, it seemed to keep the together, against everything and everyone else. At least, that is, for a time.

Overall, this is a truly fascinating insight into the end of one of the most influential, if not the most influential, musical groups in popular music history. The famous rooftop concert might be one of the less interesting things in this entire series, though this might be because many of us have seen or heard this before (indeed, a few of the live tracks from this concert were used in the final album). It was so much ore enlightening to see the group at work, crafting and recording songs, just like musicians across the world still do today. It is worth watching, but be warned, it’s a long, deep dive…

Reblog: Three things we can learn from Sir George Martin (1926-2016)

Advice & Tips

Legendary producer of The Beatles, Sir George Martin, passed away on this day, five years ago. The following day, I wrote this article on a now-defunct page. Reposting here to mark this sad anniversary:

Sir George Martin, most famous for acting as the producer of all but one of The Beatles’ albums, passed away yesterday, aged 90.

Beatles_and_George_Martin_in_studio_1966

Already, reports and obituaries have been published, quoting Martin and highlighting his amazing achievements with and without The Beatles. Though Martin was a producer for over a decade before meeting them, it is undoubtedly his work with this music-changing band, the very Zeitgeist  of musical development in the nineteen-sixties and beyond, for which he will be best remembered and discussed for years to come.

There’s been plenty of debate on whether or not The Beatles succeeded artistically because of suggestions made by Martin, or if he was simply very effective in channelling their natural talent. In reality, it was probably a mix of the two. That in itself is not a bad legacy to leave behind.

Though Martin now sadly has passed away, we can still learn something valuable from the work he left behind. Here are my three things which we can learn from the life and career of George Martin:

Have an open mind

I’ve mentioned this in several previous posts, but an open mind and a willing pair of ears is without a shadow of a doubt the most important tool for any artist. This is especially true for musicians and producers, and a sentiment to which Martin himself prescribed more than once, including in his own books.

It is well established in rock history canon that The Beatles were been turned down by several record companies prior to being signed by Martin to EMI. Think about this for a moment: every almost ‘industry expert’ had refused to take on another guitar band, believing them to be going out of fashion. Fair enough, it is called the music business for a reason. Money has to be made and trends will always be followed. This is as true today as it was in the nineteen fifties and sixties. However, ‘following the money’ is a great way to be a follower, but you are default already a follower from the start, and not a leader.

The best leaders, artists, teachers, and indeed the best in any profession listen first. In seeing the potential that The Beatles had, Martin was able to continue listening to them throughout their eight years working together making hit after hit, and classic album after classic album. This is especially noticeable when at the point mid-sixties where the band stopped performing live altogether, becoming a studio band only. The resulting works, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, The Beatles and Abbey Road, are unique in sounding very much of their time, but still fresh and exciting in 2016.

And it wasn’t just Martin doing all of the listening. The Beatles themselves were avid consumers of art and music. In being open to anything interesting, they brought elements of avant-garde, atonalism, looping, sampling and a whole world of musical styles to their music. By opening your ears, and combining the sounds you love, it is entirely possible to produce a new work, which speaks to the future while recognising that which has gone before.

Know your limits, and push them

Looping, you say? Sampling? In the nineteen-sixties?! It is worth noting that the vast majority of The Beatles’ recorded output was recorded on a four-track (or, at very best towards the seventies, eight-track) tape machine. This was state of the art back then, but lacking in the limitless options of the digital recording software in use everywhere. Leaving aside all the other technological innovations and improvisations Martin would conjure up to accommodate the visions of The Beatles in their songwriting, there is the question of the sheer number of instruments and sounds on some songs. The solution to squeezing so many different elements onto a four-track recorder? Multi-tracking.

Multi-tracking was first developed by guitarist Les Paul some decades before Martin made such effective use of the technique. Put simply, the process involves recording onto three of the available tracks, then ‘bouncing’ that mix onto the fourth track. The process can be repeated using tracks one and two, then bouncing to the third. Then it can (if needed) be taken even further by mixing tracks three & four onto one of the other tracks, meaning there are now three left to add on more parts (and here is where I start to go cross-eyed myself!).

The biggest issue with this method of recording is the physical degradation of the tape onto which the sound was being copied. By layering track upon track, the overall mix becomes more dense, and done incorrectly, can leave with a muddy sounding, uninspiring record. George Martin, however, seems to have been perfectly capable of getting clean, crisp recordings of individual mixes, which hold their brightness as they get ‘bounced’ and mixed into a deeper and more complicated arrangement. Even with Martin’s confident ‘know how’, there was still a limit to how many additions could me made. In these days of endless tracks and almost any possible sound available to laptops worldwide, I personally don’t see the same level of mechanical creativity. Sometimes working with what you have, pushing the limits, is better than having no limits at all…

Have a sense of humour

There’s a famous anecdote – which Martin was often fond of telling – detailing the first time The Beatles first met their producer (retold once more in the Washington Post’s obituary of George Martin today). After Martin had spoke at length about the recording process, he asked the Fab Four is there was anything they didn’t like. The response, from George Harrison, was “Well, I don’t like your tie for a start…”. From there, Martin knew that they would get along famously.

A sense of humour can not only ease any tensions rising in the studio, which can be high-pressure for some acts expected to produce hit after hit. It can also serve to bridge the gap between generations. In that respect, Martin must have impressed the Beatles from the start, having quite an extensive background in comedy and novelty recordings – some of which became unexpected hits – including John Lennon’s comedy heroes, The Goons. In quite a lot of interview footage from the early sixties, The Beatles were set apart from their questioners, an exclusive club with a shared sense of humour and in-jokes which created a barrier to those outside of the group. Martin, I believe, was very much inside their ‘circle of trust’, otherwise they would not have allowed him such authority in the studio. A shared sense of humour must have been a major in-road to gaining the trust of these young Liverpudlians.

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Final Thoughts

As a musician, producer and in some ways, mentor, Martin helped the Fab Four to realise the sounds they heard in their heads. His creative, yet critical thinking fuelled The Beatles’ insatiable appetite for art, and helped their music transcend to heights which otherwise may have remained untouched. Though I have spoken mostly about Martin’s work with the Fab Four, we should be no means overlook all of the other artists he worked with & film scores he wrote/arranged. Without Martin, popular music, and therefore the world we live in today, would be very different indeed…

R.I.P. Sir George Henry Martin (1926-2016).