I’d intended to watch a bit of Get Back. Waiting at home for a delivery, I thought the eight-hour Beatles’ documentary would be easy to dip in and out of. What I’d not planned on was the addictiveness of watching some of the most famous songs ever materialise from a stray tune, fail, be reformed, become recognisable and then honed until perfect. Songs which are in my blood, in everyone’s blood, without us consciously absorbing them. The footage is remarkably intrusive. Here is creative process enhanced by accident right in front of us, along with bitten fingernails, dirty plimsolls and plates of cold toast. I was hooked.
Firstly, by the thrill of being present as legendary songs emerged. Tinkering with a new riff in Part One, Paul McCartney goes back and forth and around something vaguely familiar. The song that we all know, Get Back, is sitting there, waiting for him. You hear the melody but it’s wrong, it doesn’t fit the aural jigsaw piece in your memory. He tries it again, and then again, and your tingling, pre-emptive brain urges – ‘No, not like that, like this’ – as if McCartney needs leading to the correct version. And when he finally cuts it out in the shape that you know, it’s magical. Bizarrely, it’s as if you helped to create it.
The band’s patience was impressive. Their willingness to play the same few things repeatedly for hours, days, weeks to achieve that penny-in-the-slot feeling, came as a surprise. I didn’t imagine it would be this much of a slog. It was a relief to see that a musical genius still needs many, many goes at getting it right and even then, is never completely satisfied. How many times did a weary, seemingly bored Ringo Starr join in with something potent that improved and expanded the sound? Or a brooding, isolated Harrison still keep trying to develop a number for which he would never be name-checked?
In contrast to this doggedness, lyrics were formed casually, generously, never too treasured to be revised. Sometimes on scraps of paper, a missing word thrown in by one of the sound crew, a lift from another song or a newspaper article. I had assumed that every word was picked and pickled early on but there were plenty of random and late reasons for choosing a phrase. And if the rhythm of the text didn’t fit the music there was always Lennon’s advice to use anything at all – “cauliflower”, “pomegranate” - until the right word showed up. I use similar markers in poetry but I do this shamefully, sensing that a good poet never needs extra time. It was comforting to see the method being exploited by musicians who were more than just good.
The bond between them was captivating. Constantly scanning faces and hands for signals of change they each adjusted and blended their input, an endless circuit of unspoken understanding. They swapped seats and instruments, took any glimmer of an idea seriously, escalated every daft interlude. There’s a session in Part Two in which McCartney and Lennon work out the harmonies for On Our Way Home: they’re arsing around, singing in differing accents, following and then leading and then following each other. They are clearly enjoying themselves, at a time which has always been described as acrimonious.
As for Part Three – clips and stills from the rooftop concert have been around since 1969 so I expected nothing new. Yet something did shock me. I noticed that not one person watching from nearby roofs or listening in the street below moved an inch in response to the music being blasted out. The bowler-hatted, the overalled, the mini-skirted were all there but everyone stood completely still. Why no twisting and shouting? Is this proof that even fans feel more comfortable with an old set list – or because the swinging sixties were actually more prim than we’ve been led to believe? Mrs Starkey/Starr was having none of it. ‘Mo’ received McCartney’s mic'ed thanks for her joyous whooping and jiggling but she was a lone enthusiast.
I’d not anticipated Yoko Ono’s silence. Ensconced for the entire three weeks, she said far less than the visiting Linda Eastman, despite being accused of creating the tension which caused the final four-way rift. Linda brings her camera and her kid, both triggering lively interaction with everyone. In contrast, Yoko sits, listens and roots around her bag a lot. At one point, there’s a magnificent, wild jam centred on her wailing vocals but mostly the film reveals a suffocating proprietorship: Ono sits at her man’s left elbow all day, every day and makes scant effort to connect with anyone else in the room. She’s a cold little mermaid but Lennon, chipper and shrewd, clearly saw someone much more vibrant. It’s a privilege to be given this kind of access when history has already told us what happened next: we can now decide the why for ourselves. A day well spent.