It was April 10, 1970, when Paul McCartney walked out on theBeatles, to announce the end of the most cherished musical idyll of all time. And with their dissolution went all the possibilities of witnessing a similar experience anymore. Because, although I’m not saying that music died with The Beatles split, the event marked the end of an era of so-called innocence and hope. Especially for the people that dreamed about peace and love being conquered through music.
As some may remember, Charles Manson’s family murders were still fresh in people’s minds and hearts. And rock music had also yielded its first casualty of renown in the person of Rolling Stone, Brian Jones; in a mysterious death that involved drowning, intrigue, and drugs. Rock ‘n’ roll wouldn’t be the same anymore.
By the time of their official break-up, all of the Beatles had been working on solo projects, being John and George the first ones to put out their own music. The split might had not come as a surprise to many, but the shock was still there. Caused mainly by the confirmation —once and for all— that The Beatles were through as a family, and the concept of the Fab Four was no more.
The feud that followed among the former bandmates was legendary, with myriad of sordid characters —such as greedy managers like Allen Klein, judges, media people, and eccentric record producers like Phil Spector— parading through their new lives as single artists. And also their new individual dilemma: “What’s life going to be like after The Beatles?” Not to mention people’s fixation with trying to figure out who had been the fifth Beatle: Pete Best, Stu Sutcliffe, or Billy Preston. To which I would reply that it was actually George Martin, their producer. Since George Martin was the only person who contributed creatively (and even musically, on a couple of tracks) with them on a consistent basis.
Two records would epitomize the end of The Beatles era: Let it Be and Abbey Road. The former, an excuse to return to their roots; which was also in tune with the kind of music that bands like The Band and the newly formed Allman Brothers Band —and Derek and the Dominoes, a bit later— were making. The latter being the fulfillment of their promise to George Martin, that this time they’d make a glossy, well produced, top-of-the-line album. And they had what it took. Because at this point the Beatles had reached the top of their musical maturity that was in constant evolution since the days of “Love me Do,” the song with which they greeted audiences on a big scale for the first time. The rest is history.
After the split, they all went on to have successful careers, with their normal ups and downs, and gave us music that was not confined in its quality to what they could do together as a band. There were those who thought that the boys wouldn’t be able to pull it off individually, but were proved wrong, since all of them had number-one hits in their solo careers. And there was even a time when John, Paul, George and Ringo were in the charts simultaneously.
But the last word hadn’t been said yet. Fifty one years later, the story of the break-up is being retold by the Beatles themselves, in the three-part documentary Get Back, which premiered last year, on Thanksgiving. And, although Get Back only covers the initial 29 days, we get to see a sort of spontaneous chronicle of what happened behind the scenes in the recording studio during their last fifteen months together. The band gets summoned to make new music for a TV special, and the magic of the creative process (making music from scratch) starts happening right before our eyes, for the first time.
Later on the project of the TV special is aborted, and they decide to do the famous rooftop concert instead. Again, the rest is history. Besides the songs executed in the concert, in these sessions they started gathering the music for two key albums in their career, the aforementioned Let It Be and Abbey Road. The latter, by the way, is considered one of their finest albums.
In Get Back we see some very interesting dynamics among the Beatles. And those dynamics we witness are quite contrary to the general understanding that toward the end they couldn’t stand each other. The spirit of camaraderie in their interactions attests to the fact that, after all, the four lads from Liverpool never lost the chemistry they had together since the early days. The hard work, the creative process, the magic touch when they were making music together, and the exuberant playfulness are all there. But, my main take away was, perhaps, being able to witness the special chemistry they had not only among themselves but with the people in their inner circle; like Mal Evans, who proves to be such an endearing figure in the documentary.
The world of the Beatles was a world of characters, starting with themselves. And anybody who’s lived fully enough to think about life as something more than the sole act of existing, knows that characters enrich our life in a significant way. Jack Kerouac wrote about the 63 days he spent alone on Mount Hozomeen, also known as Desolation Peak: “The trouble with Desolation is no characters, alone, isolated.”
It was the Beatles’ personalities —not their music— as a group and individually that conquered George Martin’s heart at their first encounter. Each one of them was a character in his own right; funny, articulate and quick-witted. That was probably what had more bearing on the decision to get rid of Pete Best, who was too quiet and stand-offish for their liking. We also can appreciate the way they interact with people in their inner circle, and how they get what they need. In the documentary I personally loved their interactions with three people: Michael Lindsey-Hogg, the filmmaker who shot all the footage Get Back derived from; Glyn Johns, the recording engineer; and Mal Evans, personal assistant and close friend. And those interactions show us clearly that it wasn’t only the four musicians who kept the fire going for the time they lasted together as a band.
Mal Evans was known as the “Gentle Giant,” for his affable nature. He was hired initially as the band’s bodyguard, roadie and gofer. That was in 1963, when Mal was working as a bouncer at the Cavern, the place where the everything started. But more than a gofer, Mal Evans was the go-to man, and also the person who had the boys’ best interests at heart, in a committed, professional and selfless way. He did everything in his power to satisfy their every need, and was also a comforting presence to them. The way Mal deals with the police —trying to keep them at bay— when they show up to silence the band, after they got complaints from the neighbors about the noise generated from the concert taking place on the rooftop. Mal was always making sure that they had a smooth ride in the studio, delivering the goods in the form of refreshments, musical instruments, good vibes, writing lyrics for them, etcetera.
Mal Evans was one of the boys, in his own particular way. That’s very obvious in his interactions with them. Like the scene where he’s telling Paul about the Wizard of Oz (Mal’s favorite movie, apparently), with such enthusiasm. He sounds like a kid when he asks Paul if he’s seen it (and, to my surprise, Paul very candidly answers “no”). It reminded me of the time when my friend Matt e-mailed me (before FB) very excited from Qatar, to share “a very nice song” (“Over the Rainbow”) with me, covered by Israel Kamakawiwoʻole. Matt didn’t know that the song had existed since 1938 and that it was part of a movie with the same title.
And we also have the conversation of Mal with Michael Lindsey-Hogg that is hilarious:
Mal Evans: “I’m on a special diet, as of today.”
Michael Lindsey-Hogg: “What are you on?”
ME: “No food.”
MLH: “Oh, poor! Why?”
ME: “I just feel a little heavy. When you get out of the bath and find you’re not admiring yourself in the mirror.”
And at minute 1:26 of Part 2, enter Billy Preston. Another cool and reassuring presence in the Beatles’ world of characters. He drops by the studio casually, just to say hi, because he happened to be in town. And the boys were all happy and excited to see their old friend from their days in Hamburg, when they were the opening act for Little Richard. At 16, Billy Preston was a musician in Little Richard’s outfit. After the initial hugging and exchange of pleasantries, they asked him to hang out in the studio if he didn’t have anything else going on. And, once more again, the rest is history.
Billy Preston was cooler than cool, with the swagger of the American musician in Swinging London. And his strong musical presence is felt right off the bat when he sits at the electric organ and starts messing with the keyboard; he was there to save the day. To the point that sometime later we witness a conversation among the boys, where John states that Billy Preston could be the fifth Beatle; to which Paul answers half-jokingly that it’s not possible, because it’s already bad enough with four.
Of course, Billy Preston didn’t become the fifth Beatle. And even the other four wouldn’t be a Beatle for too much longer. But Billy Preston left his stamp on the Let It Be album. A legacy that has stood the test of time, with Billy’s brilliant touch on songs like “Don’t Let Me Down”, “Get Back”, “Let It Be” and “One After 909,” all recorded live; which was like homecoming to him. And to all the old-timers who grew up with the Beatles it was also some sort of homecoming; which was about going back to that place in our memory where everything started. From the moment we heard the first Beatles song, to the moment we bought our first record and started our journey —going through all the different phases—, to the present.
In closing, I’d like to give my personal take on Get Back. I think it is great for fans. Just for the fact that we get to see the Beatles’ creative process as a band and all the different dynamics that take place in the studio; that’s one of the things that I loved most about it. But, on the other hand, it is somehow disjointed. It lacks direction, aim, and even coherence, at times. In other words, it’s not for everybody. But still, Get Back is golden…
You and I have memories
Longer that the road that stretches out ahead
By Rodolfo Elías.