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Something I wrote a short while ago about the Beatles, the Get Back documentary, and what time does to art
Who is the best-dressed Beatle in the Get Back documentary? My personal choice would be George, but that’s only if we’re confining selection criteria to official members of the band itself. During the 468 minutes of footage, shot by Michael Lyndsay-Hogg in January 1969 and edited more than half a century later by Peter Jackson, the most consistently, fabulously attired person in the studio is Glyn Johns, the engineer responsible for the superior original cut of the Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’ album plus many even more mindblowing records, including ‘Pentangle’ by Pentangle, ‘Harvest’ by Neil Young, ‘Sticky Fingers’ by The Rolling Stones, ‘Get The Picture’ by the Pretty Things and ‘Traffic’ by Traffic. If we’re being strictly accurate, to the most fashion-concious person of the time Johns might have been considered – with the exception of George Martin – the creative person in the studio most sartorially passe. His afghan coat, silk scarves, slightly helmetlike hair and floral kaftan shirts are probably more in tune with a period around twelve months in the rear view mirror. 54 years on, though, all that matters is that he looks repeatedly, startlingly wonderful, each time he reappears. What he actually puts me in mind of, more than people from the actual 60s, is people I met in the 1990s who made it their full-time job to commit to a mid-to-late 60s look: a kind of “best of 1966-69”, very carefully matched to their physique and finetuned from the then still rich pickings available in charity and junk shops. I ended up with a feeling that maybe I’d met him before, or somebody very like him, but I think that might just be Get Back’s way of playing with my mind, a unique way the documentary itself has of bringing events of the distant past into the present.
The pop cultural past swirls around us all the time these days, constantly rehappening, on subscription television channels, blogs, Instagram feeds. We’re used to it now and it’s sometimes easy to forget anything was ever any different. One of the most unimaginable things about growing up in the 80s and 90s, sometimes even for people who did grow up in the 80s and 90s, has become just how culturally remote and exotic – if not downright inaccessible – a lot of the period just before that could seem. The Beatles broke up a mere five years before I was born but, while their songs were a constant, familiar part of my childhood, the idea of them as a functioning band seemed to come from a file in my head marked ‘Unknowably Old And Murky’ which also contained my parents’ wedding, World War II and a general lack of heating and electricity. A 13 year-old in the modern age who liked listening to music from 2002 wouldn’t be especially remarkable. But my closest friend at secondary school, Richard ‘Bushy’ Bush, was deemed deeply unusual due to his passionate interest in mid-1960s music at the same age. Via my tiny black and white TV, I, like Bushy, obsessed over the rerun of the second series of a stripped-down presenterless show called The Rock’n’Roll Years, which mixed news footage from 1964-71 with archive performances of the significant songs of the day. The music clips we saw on it – many of them then around as old as ‘Sweet Dreams My LA Ex’ by Rachel Stevens and ‘Hey Ya’ by Outkast are now – seemed like tantalising glimpses into a ghostly world, like looking through a thick hailstorm into a cave where something very exciting seemed to be going on.
Thanks to YouTube, of course, the goings-on in that cave are now available on demand, and you don’t always have to squint through quite so much hail and sleet to see them. But we still think of archive footage from rock’s golden age as something inherently low definition. Even though we know it’s not true, to some extent in our minds we accept that the fuzz or slight graininess or quaint colour wash has been made by time itself, performing the same function as dust accumulating on a painting left in an attic. Meanwhile, despite the more exhaustive musical documentaries made this century – Martin Scorcese, for example, devoting three and a half hours to George Harrison for Living In The Material World and Peter Bogdanovich lavishing half an hour more than that on Tom Petty in Running Down A Dream – it is the montage, the Rock’n’Roll years-type collection of punchy highlights, which still tends to give us our mental picture of the 60s and 70s. These are the two main reasons why the Get Back documentary is so revelatory. It looks so vivid, scarcely less so than the cup of tea on the table in front of you as you watch it. And it happens, apparently, at the same pace as actual life. Look at Paul, yawning and being bored! Look at Ringo’s beer, being brought to him by a young roadie! It looks just like beer people drink now! That my watching of Get Back also fortuitously happened to coincide with me acquiring a bigger TV made it the closest thing I’ve experienced to time travel. It felt very possible that I could put a finger and a thumb on the screen, as I do with the map on my phone, and expand it, following the Beatles back to Ringo’s house for their tense summit after George’s walk-out in Twickenham, zoom across London and see what the Stones and Julie Driscoll and Mighty Baby and Jimmy Page were up to as well. Maybe I could find one of the bands I like even more than The Beatles and hang out with them in just the same way? Bereft at the end, I immediately devoured Ian Macdonald’s brilliant, non-fawning song-by-song account of the Beatles’ entire career, Revolution In The Head, partly because I’d been intending to read it for quarter of a century but also because it seemed the best way to remain in the almost touchable world I’d been inhabiting for the previous eight hours.
There was a period in my late teens when I lived fairly commitedly in my own era. I remember spending 1992, 1993 and 1994 very much inside 1992, 1993 and 1994, marinated in a lot of the grunge, lo-fi, hip-hop and – to a lesser extent – indie dance crossover songs that soundtracked them: a period I found much more interesting than the Britpop era that followed it. But since 1995 – the year I turned 20 – I’ve thoroughly romanticised the late 60s, embraced 1969 as the centre of almost everything I most adore, musically. I like songs from all periods in history and I flit about a lot. But 1969 is The One: the combination of dark and light, hope and decay, psychedelia and rootsiness, the symbiosis of black and white culture. Some people – including me – sometimes make the mistake of thinking I actually want to live in 1969. In truth, I want to live in my own optimistically edited pick’n’mix version of 1969 with no sexism or racism, a high level of ecological awareness and more adventurous food. Look at the top twenty selling singles of the first week of January, 1969, the week when the Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ sessions began. Compared to almost any period of popular music before or since, the quality and depth of songwriting is staggering. ‘Private Number’ by William Bell and Judy Clay, ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’ by Dusty Springfield, ‘Love Child’ by Diana Ross And The Supremes, ‘Sabre Dance’ by Love Sculpture, ‘Ain’t Got No’ by Nina Simone. At the same time, though, this is the same chart that included ‘Lily The Pink’ by Scaffold, ‘1-2-3 O’Leary’ by Des O’Connor, and two – TWO – cover versions of the most nauseating of Beatles songs, ‘Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da’ (by the Marmalade and Bedrocks). It’s still a long way from the edited fantasy psychedelic mindsixties I’ve been constructing for my entire adult life.
People like me are always rooting around for extra nuggets to add to our fantasy psychedelic mindsixties. I’ve been doing it for more than quarter of a century and the river still doesn’t appear to be close to running dry – particularly having long since been expanded to include innumerable tributaries of non-western music. Such was the amount of mind-altering, innovative noise being made in the ten years directly preceding my birth, the thrilling tremor running through popular culture, there simply wasn’t room for anywhere close to all the great songs that were around to get the praise and attention they deserved. Now they keep coming. To name just a few, recently, for me: the fuzz-laden ‘The Dog Presides’ by former Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones (featuring Jeff Beck on guitar and Paul McCartney on drums), ‘Think Of Love’ by Love Sculpture (the superior B-side to the January 1969-charting ‘Sabre Dance’), the relentless frugworthy mod-funk ‘Speak The Truth’ by Louisa Jane White, and ‘Sweet Mama’ by Blue Mountain Eagle, a band who were put together by Buffalo Springfield drummer Dewey Martin as ‘The New Buffalo Springfield’ and whose lone 1969 album sounds like a heavy acid rock Byrds. Everyone has been made very aware that the 60s were culturally thrilling to live through for young people but the other 60s underneath those 60s are full of little revelations and soon become a much less annoying place to hang out in. Don’t go thinking that everything the Marmalade did was pap based on an appraisal of that chart-topping cover of ‘Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da’; ‘Mess Around’, the B-side to their sacharrine single ‘Wait For Me Mary Anne’, is a stinging late freakbeat classic. ‘Ain’t Got No’ by Nina Simone is of course a totally righteous banger but her true transcendental incantatory peak is the less well known ‘Come Ye’ from 1966’s ‘High Priestess Of Soul’ album. Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich? Lightweight and faddish, very often. Yet ‘The Sun Goes Down’, the B-side to their goofy ‘Zabadak’, is, if you ask me, more mindmeltingly psychedelic and forward-looking than anything on ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ bar ‘A Day In The Life’.
In a way, these recordings do sound like they have actual dust on them. But that dust is in fact part of their delicious analogue clarity: the feeling that you can hear everything going on, every speck of anything that falls on a microphone, every little flaw that makes a performance more interesting. It’s all such a huge contrast to the big suffocating drum-led production that came in during the mid 90s, where everything got turned up and compressed and most rock records ended up sounding like the people making them are playing their instruments inside an enormous empty biscuit tin. After his exhaustive, addictive analysis of the 188 songs in the Beatles’ catalogue in Revolution In The Head, Ian Macdonald goes on to write a very convincing short essay about why 60s recording techniques allowed for a particular kind of exploratory freedom, a fusion of feeling, and – crucially – an element of suprise that, for all the benefits of digital recording, has never been quite the same since. The Get Back documentary doesn’t showcase the Beatles at the happiest or most experimental juncture of their career, but there’s still a very strong sense of creative exploration, of four people who know each other inordinately well messing around, letting their fingers wander lawlessly over their instruments and seeing what happens. Get Back and Revolution In The Head underlined something I already knew but perhaps hadn’t quite fully acknowledged: I only really like around 50% of Beatles songs, maybe 60%, tops. But what I do like, I usually really really like, and a central part of the band’s genius is the room they gave themselves for bold mistakes. It’s something that makes them so representative of what made their era so artistically rich. When I complain about an annoying novelty track that besmirches one of my favourite psychedelic albums – usually one sung in some overdone posh or cockney voice or seemingly aimed solely at children – and fantasise about going back in time and setting off the fire alarm in the studio when the band were recording it, I think I’m perfecting my pick’n’mix mindsixties, but more likely I’m ruining the exact spirit which made the remainder of the album so wild and timeless. Do I really want to set those fire alarms off? Probably not. If I set too many fire alarms off, there’s probably no ‘The Dog Presides’, no ‘The Sun Goes Down’, no ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’.
Do I in fact want to go back in 1969 at all? Again, probably not. But for a few moments, in Get Back, the temptation was strong. When the camera began to pan along Savile Row, I daydreamed about wandering off the edges of the screen, exploring the clothes and record shops of Soho, picking up a couple of shirts and coats not dissimilar to those modelled by Harrison and Johns, maybe a few copies of ‘Os Mutantes’ by Os Mutantes, ‘SF Sorrow’ by the Pretty Things and ‘Tomorrow’ by Tomorrow: one unplayed original of each for myself and a close friend plus a few duplicates to sell on eBay when I got back to the present. But I am not sure I want to inhale that much cigarette smoke and I think I am ok with the access levels to the musical past I have from the here and now. Although the gigs would no doubt have been better, it’s very probable, had I lived through the real 60s, I might not have spent them listening to as much great 60s music as I do in 2022.
Last year I had cause to spend even more time in the late 60s, since it’s where a sizeable chunk of my latest book takes place, being the era when the long playing acid folk record which forms the background to the book’s plot – a record neglected at the time of its creation, then rediscovered much later – is recorded. It made me think a lot about dust, a lot about what time does to music, to art in general. I often find myself feeling a boiling sense of injustice about a record or a book from the past touched by magic but neglected in its own time, leaving its creator marginalised, uncherished and/or poverty-stricken. While it’s true that such injustice is often very real and very scandalous, it’s also possible that some records – and books – just have to live for a while in the world before their essence truly comes through. I can’t imagine ‘Indian Rope Man’ by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and The Trinity ever not sounding like a rhapsodic electric shock to all five senses plus another nine you didn’t know you had before you heard it, but who knows, perhaps if I’d caught wind of it when it first came out, in 1969, it wouldn’t have connected with me in quite the same way. Could it be true that the world needed to catch up with it before it could truly shine? Side two of ‘Abbey Road’ – recorded in spring and summer 1969 – sounded pretty great to me in 1980 and in 1995 but somehow it makes more sense right now than it ever has done: the Beatles at the absolute peak of their excitable creativity, alongside most of ‘Revolver’ and the ‘Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane’ and ‘Daytripper/We Can Work It Out’ double A sides.
‘Let It Be’ is thoroughly wonderful in places, too – especially if we are talking about the original mix before, in the words of Johns, Phil Spector – having been handed the mastertapes by John Lennon a year or so later – “puked all over it”. During Get Back, otherwise known as the sessions that became ‘Let It Be’, it’s difficult to know just to what extent the Beatles are “playing nice” for the camera. Harrison says that the band have been in the doldrums for a couple of years and walks out after just a few days, before the other three persuade him to come back and everyone decamps from a Twickenham soundstage to a studio in the Apple building on Savile Row. While it’s probably been overstated in Beatles literature and gossip in the intervening years, there’s an obvious sense of tension and four people with increasingly conflicting ideas about what their future holds. Harrison often appears frustratingly sidelined, McCartney (probably very necessarily) controlling, Lennon distant, Starr bemused. But they still clearly love playing music together, haven’t stopped making one another laugh, and their huge smiles as they listen back to what they’ve recorded are undeniably genuine. “Aren’t you all getting a bit tired of hearing ‘Get Back’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ now, after playing them so many times?” I found myself thinking, as they grin and groove to what Johns and George Martin have helped them lay down. But then I remembered: what I was watching was The Beatles, in January 1969, not some people from 2021 who look exactly like The Beatles, playing at being The Beatles in January 1969. It might be the late evening of their career as a band but all of them are still very young; Harrison won’t turn 26 for another month; it’s less than seven years since they all signed their first recording contract. They are barely more than lads and have only just written these songs. It’s easy to forget this, while watching Get Back, such is the way its picture quality and pace pulls it into the here and now. It’s something very rare: a largely unaltered portrait of newborn art before any dust has settled on it. Time will make its refinements and adjustments to that art, just as it always does. You don’t have any control over that, even if you’re the most famous band in the world. All you can do is try to be as free as possible, give yourself space to fail, which is the same space that could very likely also permit you to flourish. Then it’s up to your other collaborators, which are the years that stretch out in front of you. They could be looked on as a kind of invisible post-production. They’ll sort it all out. They always do, even if they’re sometimes cruel or unsympathetic to your personal circumstances while going about it. If you’ve put your heart and soul into some kind of major creative endeavour, searched and quested along the way, you’ll have felt it too, had the sense of yourself letting go and passing what you’ve done into time’s strong, enigmatic hands. It’s such a frightening, frightening thing to do, yet ultimately quite a reassuring one, too.
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