I finally got around to watching Peter Jackson’s “Get Back!”, a distillation of the many hours of video from the Beatles’ recording sessions covering 21 days back in late 1969. The culmination of the film was a brief rooftop “concert” in London. It was the band’s first public performance in years, and it proved to be their last ever. Get Back! is lengthy but very enjoyable and an incredible glimpse into the various personalities of the group.
The film projects a strong impression of the Beatles’ anxiety, at that time, about playing a live gig. During all but the last few days captured on the film, it was unclear to everyone involved whether the band would actually do a live performance. The band members were of decidedly mixed enthusiasm about it. They were also skeptical that the cameras at their sessions could capture enough interesting material for a film.
The Beatles had an early reputation as a great live band, but they had last played live in 1966. Kieran McGovern says the band quit touring for three reasons: poor sound quality, exhaustion, and security concerns. The last two are probably self-explanatory, though McGovern thinks the “bigger than Jesus” controversy was worrisome to the band. As to sound quality, the Beatles were the first band to play massive stadium concerts, but the sound equipment was too puny and not adequately advanced to handle those demands. Even worse, the band was unable to hear itself on stage over the throngs of screaming fans. So they just stopped. By then, they were so wildly successful as recording artists that it was unnecessary to promote themselves by touring.
During the Get Back! sessions, Paul McCartney mused about the pros and cons of doing a live concert, but the band seemed a little paralyzed by the notion. It was as if they were clinging to the idea that studio albums should remain their sole focus. And as they worked out arrangements for new songs, various “takes” were preserved by the engineers so that, if nothing else, they would have material for a new album. They did take after take, often stopping after just a few bars.
I’m sure studio sessions with new material can be challenging. In fact, a few of the songs were composed right there in the studio, going from rough idea to fruition over the course of days. It was interesting to witness the band’s humanity in the face of self-imposed pressure to “get it right”, over and over. I know the feeling in my own small way. When I learn new material on the guitar, I sometimes record myself, but an odd thing happens as soon as I hit “record” … it’s hard to get through a song without some perceived mishap. And one attempt is followed by another. And another. Sometimes these “mishaps” stop me almost right at the start. In some ways it was reassuring, and frustrating, to see the same thing happening to the iconic Beatles. I’m also sure this reinforced their hesitation to “go live”. But when you play live, you just have to play through the mishaps, and I’m sure they’d done it many times before!
Years earlier, as the band rose to fame, they performed live all the time, but oddly, the highly creative years away from the stage seemed to corrode their confidence as a working band. There were so many incredible groups performing live in those days, but not for such immense crowds until perhaps Monterey, Woodstock, and maybe a few other big festivals in the late 60s. Much larger sound systems were a requirement that went unfulfilled at the Beatles’ earlier stadium shows, and the poor sound quality was a great frustration to the band. In the later, post-Beatle years, individual members of the band played huge concerts, and the surviving members still do.
While *nobody* is quite like the Beatles, all live bands make mistakes and play through them. Practice might make close to perfect, but even well-drilled classical musicians have their bad days. The Beatles, however, seemed intimidated by the possibility of screwing up in front of an audience, and about knowing the right notes to play. So the film gave me the impression that the Beatles were at heart, or had at least become, what one might call “book musicians”. Play it the same way every time! And they were so eccentrically “book” oriented that they fought a certain paralysis as to the demands of live performance.
There was an astonishing admission from George Harrison fairly early in the film: I’m paraphrasing, but he found it incredible to hear Eric Clapton launch into lengthy guitar improvisations and then somehow end up “in the right place”. And Harrison said, “I just can’t do that.” I love George Harrison’s guitar work, and he wrote some wonderful songs, but the first statement sounds like something one might have heard from a newbie at a Grateful Dead concert. His lack of improvisational confidence puts emphasis on the idea that he was, in fact, a “book musician”.
For the Beatles, in 1969 at least, the idea of improvisation, or just playing around, was fine for a bit of fun in the studio, or to loosen up. They tended toward old rock n’ roll material or messed around with their own, older stuff, often with comic effect. And John Lennon was very funny, by the way. But the emphasis wasn’t on the concept of musical improvisation, and the idea of doing it on stage, or playing from the cuff before a live audience, was out of the question.
Meanwhile, improvisation had been an active pursuit among jazz musicians almost from the beginning. It was inherently a looser form than what the Beatles wanted to do. The jam band genre was an extension of the jazz aesthetic into adjacent musical forms like blues, rock, and even country. The Grateful Dead pioneered the jam band “form”, if that word can be used, but in any case, improvisation, or a loose approach to live performance with spontaneous creativity, was widespread in the late 1960s. That’s definitely not where the Beatles were at.
The Beatles were a wonderful band, brilliant songwriters, poets, and musicians. They also were driven by perfectionism, at least at the late stages of their time together. Improvisation was not their “cup of tea”, as it were. They had strong reasons for their reluctance to play live after their 1966 tour. By 1969, they hesitated to do even one concert before a smaller audience. The tentative “show date” on their calendar seemed like an approaching freight train, and they dithered over the kind of show it would be and where it would be staged. Finally, the rooftop of Apple Studios was selected with just a couple of days to go. It was an interesting promotional stunt, but it seemed like a cop-out. Not many people could really see them up there, and the sound quality on the street was probably a very mixed bag. Still, Get Back! was a lot of fun to watch. And I do love the Beatles, even if I love the music and often careening style of the original jam band much more.