Beatles on the brink: the truth about the Fab Four’s final days

On paper, the idea looked brilliant. In the opening weeks of January 1969, the Beatles were working up new songs for a televised concert, and being filmed as they did so. Where the event would take place was unclear – but as rehearsals at Twickenham film studios went on, one of their associates came up with the idea of travelling to Libya, where they would perform in the remains of a famous amphitheatre, part of an ancient Roman city called Sabratha. As the plan was discussed amid set designs and maps one Wednesday afternoon, a new element was added: why not invite a few hundred fans to join them on a specially chartered ocean liner?

Over the previous few days, John Lennon had been quiet and withdrawn, but now he seemed to be brimming with enthusiasm. The ship, he said, could be the setting for final dress rehearsals. He envisaged the group timing their set so they fell into a carefully picked musical moment just as the sun came up over the Mediterranean. If the four of them had been wondering how to present their performance, here was the most gloriously simple of answers: “God’s the gimmick,” he enthused.

Paul McCartney seemed just as keen: “It does make it like an adventure, doesn’t it?” he said. Ringo Starr said he would rather do the show in the UK, but did not rule out the trip: “I’m not saying I’m not going,” he offered, which sounded as if he was open to persuasion.

But George Harrison was not interested. He feared “being stuck with a bloody big boatload of people for two weeks”. The idea of getting to Libya on a ship, he insisted, “was very expensive and insane”. When Lennon suggested they could get a cruise liner for free from P&O, Harrison flatly pointed out that, despite their celebrity, the Beatles had trouble even getting complimentary guitar amps.

Among an array of other ideas for a concert venue, there were also mentions of the Royal Albert Hall, the Tate Gallery, an airport, an orphanage and the Houses of Parliament. But whatever the suggested setting was, everything seemed to founder on a mixture of inertia, logistical impossibility and Harrison’s implacable opposition. Indeed, two days after the longest conversation about Sabratha, Harrison would temporarily walk out of rehearsals, with the deadpan line: “See you round the clubs.” When he returned, it was seemingly on the basis that the idea of a spectacular live performance would be shelved.

In the end, there was a compromise. Having begun working at Twickenham, the Beatles relocated to a makeshift studio in the basement of 3 Savile Row, the central London address that was the home of their company Apple. The plan for a televised concert was abandoned, and it was agreed – just about – that the group were now being filmed for a feature-length documentary. And on Thursday 30 January, the four of them – joined by the American keyboard player and singer Billy Preston – played, with a mixture of panache and joyous energy, on the Apple building’s roof. No one knew it was their last public performance, but, in retrospect, they ensured that such a significant moment passed off almost perfectly.

Such was the finale of four weeks of filming and recording that eventually resulted in an 80-minute feature-length film titled Let It Be, and the album of the same name. What remained in the Beatles’ vaults – although some of it subsequently fell into the hands of bootleggers – was 50 additional hours of rushes and more than twice as much audio, brimming with an immersive sense of who they were and how they worked.

Eventually, in preparation for Let It Be’s 50th anniversary, most of this material was collected together. In 2017, Apple recruited the New Zealand-based director Peter Jackson – the creator of the six film versions of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, as well as the documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, built from restored footage of the first world war – to cut a new feature-length film. As it eventually turned out, the pandemic made a normal theatrical release impossible, and opened up the possibility of something even more ambitious. Jackson ended up creating three two-hour documentaries, which will premiere at the end of November on the streaming platform Disney+.

As Jackson puts it, his new films tell the story of the Beatles “planning for a concert that never takes place”, and “a concert that does take place, which wasn’t planned”. Thanks to his and his team’s restoration work, everything is pin-sharp, and unbelievably evocative of time and place: the tale unfolds in a London of trilby hats, Austin Powers-esque fashions and copious cigarette smoke. But the films’ key attribute is their intimacy, and the light they shine on the Beatles’ instinctive creativity, their deep personal bonds and, as they neared their final split, their thoughts about their future.

The three-part documentary series is titled Get Back, and forms the central part of a huge new project that also includes an expansive package of music and a book. The latter features photographs by Linda McCartney and Let It Be’s on-set photographer Ethan Russell, and detailed transcripts of the Beatles’ often candid conversations – which, it still amazes me to say, I was given the job of editing down from raw material made up of hundreds of thousands of words, and about 120 hours of audio.

For someone who has been a passionate Beatles fan since the age of about eight, it was a dream job (circa 1981, Let It Be was the first Beatles album I ever bought, on a family holiday in Yorkshire). When I recently spoke to Jackson, something he said got to the heart of what an amazing project this was: “To have intimate, behind the scenes, fly on the wall coverage of the recording of an album from a band in the 60s is one thing. But the fact that it’s the Beatles is mind blowing, really.”

In September 1968, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, a one-time director of the trailblazing TV pop show Ready Steady Go!, gathered the Beatles at Twickenham to film the promotional video for Hey Jude, in front of a small crowd that joined them for the song’s “na-na-na” ending. Between takes, they spontaneously played rock’n’roll standards, and were reminded of the pleasures of performing for an audience. By late autumn, in the wake of the completion of the so-called White Album, this realisation had flowered into a plan – for the Beatles’ first proper concert since August 1966, which would largely be made up of completely new songs. Lindsay-Hogg and his crew would film rehearsals for an appetite-whetting half-hour TV film, before the cameras captured the Beatles’ climactic performance at an undecided location, which would then be broadcast around the world.

What then happened, as the concert idea shrank and the group took the default option of making another album, has been routinely portrayed as an all-time low. Read the accounts of this period in any number of Beatles books and you will find words such as “crisis”, “nadir” and “impasse” in abundance. During the time when his interviews were often full of seething resentment, Lennon – who was accompanied throughout the sessions by Yoko Ono – added a quotation to Beatles lore that has long stuck to this period: “Even the biggest Beatle fan couldn’t have sat through those six weeks of misery. It was the most miserable session on earth.” McCartney, whose take on this period was always a bit more measured, said that Let It Be “showed how the breakup of a group works”.

When fame reaches a certain point, facts blur into mythology and received opinion. And in Let It Be’s case, the film’s reputation as a story of endless misery and strife was partly due to its timing. The original movie was released over a year after it was filmed, in May 1970, only a month after McCartney had confirmed that the Beatles had broken up, and was therefore received as a portrait of a group in its death throes. As the ensuing years went by, in the absence of an official rerelease on DVD, the fact that most Beatles fans only saw murky third and fourth-generation versions hardly helped.

What the new documentary series, book and audio reveal is something much more nuanced and complicated. In hindsight, the Beatles were indeed moving towards their end. Many of the tensions that fed into their split are clearer: their divisions over returning to live performance, Harrison’s growing confidence and the dissatisfaction that came with it, the unease and bafflement sown by Ono’s arrival right at the group’s core. But the business tensions that would decisively divide them had yet to explode – and early ’69 saw them still creating wondrous music, and largely getting on very well.

This is the central revelation of the Get Back project. After Jackson had begun work on the rushes, I was approached by Apple executive Jonathan Clyde about writing an accompanying book. He told me about the long hours of on-set conversation and creativity that had been captured on two constantly whirring tape recorders, even when the cameras were not rolling. Some of this stuff had been reproduced in a book that came with initial pressings of the Let It Be album put together by the American producer Phil Spector back in 1970; now, the idea was to come up with something altogether more exhaustive and definitive.

Over the next weeks and months, I took delivery of 21 spiral-bound books of meticulous transcripts, and was given access to all the audio recordings. I was also loaned an iPad by Apple, which contained just about all the restored rushes: a magic-box of revelations that filled in many gaps, allowing me to understand the nuances of dialogue via facial expressions and watch scenes that had no accompanying audio. Editing down such a mountain of raw material into a 50,000-word text – around half of which reproduces material that isn’t in the new films – was a lengthy process, but every day delivered surprises and pleasures.

A lot of these centred on how the Beatles made music. Contrary to myth, they were still closely collaborating, a point illustrated by a sequence in which Harrison asks the others for help on a love song he has been working on for months, soon to be titled Something. He was stuck on this new song’s second line:

Harrison: “What could it be, Paul? It’s like, I think of what attracted me at all.”

Lennon: “Just say whatever comes into your head each time: ‘Attracts me like a cauliflower’… until you get the word, you know.”

Harrison: “Yeah, but I’ve been through this one for about six months.”

Lennon: “You haven’t had 15 people joining in, though.”

Harrison: “No. I mean just that line. I couldn’t think of anything like a…”

John: [sings] “‘Something in the way she moves / Attracts…’ ‘Grabs’ instead of ‘attracts’.”

George: “But it’s not as easy to say…”

Lennon: “Grabs me like a southern honky-tonk…”

Harrison and Lennon: [singing] “Something in the way she moves / And like a la-la-la-la-la…”

Lennon: “Grabs me like a monkey on a tree…”

Lennon and Harrison: [singing] “Something in the way she moves / And all I have to do is think of her / Something in the way she shows…”

Harrison: [sings] “‘Attracts me like a pomegranate…’ We could have that: ‘Attracts me like a pomegranate.’” [laughs]

Lennon and Harrison: [singing] “Something in the way she moves / Attracts me like a moth to granite…”

George: “Pomegranate.”

John: “Cauliflower.”

The day before, Harrison had arrived at Apple dressed in a dazzling white and purple suit, sat at the piano, and premiered another new song. If you want an instant antidote to the idea that the Let It Be sessions were thoroughly miserable and rancorous, what followed is perfect:

McCartney: “How are you?”

Harrison: “Oh, I went to bed very late. I wrote a great song actually… [enthusiastically] happy and a rocker.”

Lennon: “It’s such a high when you get home… I’m just so high when I get in at night.”

Harrison: “Yeah, it’s great isn’t it?”

Lennon: “I was just sitting there listening to the last takes: ‘What have I had? What have I had today?’ You know, I ask her [Ono], ‘Have we had anything?’”

Ono: “You’re just high in general.”

Lennon: “Just want to… Wooooaah! I just can’t sleep…”

Harrison: “I keep thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll just go to bed now’, and then I keep hearing your voice from about 10 years ago, saying, ‘Finish [the song] straight away: as soon as you start ’em, you finish ’em.’ You once told me…”

Lennon: “Oh, the song… But I never do it, though. I can’t do it. But I know it’s the best.”

McCartney [to Harrison]: “Well, what’s it called?”

George: “I’ve no title. Maybe you can see a title in it somewhere.”

He then played Old Brown Shoe, which would appear on the B-side of The Ballad of John and Yoko. McCartney gamely joined in on drums, and then a guitar he played upside down; Billy Preston played bass. Later the same day, the five of them recorded a superb version of Get Back – the rollercoaster piece of rock’n’roll that was arguably this period’s defining song.

“This is so good – this is great,” enthused Glyn Johns, the recording engineer and producer who was in charge of getting everything on tape. When George Martin, their usual producer, paid the sessions one of many visits, he was even happier: “You’re working so well together: you’re looking at each other, you’re seeing each other, you’re just happening.” Music was pouring out of them: not just the best songs that would be performed in the Let It Be film (the title track, Get Back, The Long and Winding Road, Two of Us, Don’t Let Me Down), but a big chunk of Abbey Road, and other creations destined for their solo albums.

In between the music came endless conversations – about their distant history in Liverpool and Hamburg, what they would have for lunch (one Harrison favourite was “big, fresh, uncut mushrooms”), and their hangovers (Starr: “I won’t lie – I’m not too good”). They habitually discussed what had been on TV the previous night, from Peter Cook clashing with Zsa Zsa Gabor to BBC Two’s science fiction, and talked about politics, as evidenced by a sendup of the demagogic politician Enoch Powell and a heartfelt conversation about Martin Luther King. There were also hundreds of mentions of other musicians: Fleetwood Mac, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan and the Band, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin.

The Beatles also talked about something much more dramatic: the prospect of their own split, and the tensions that sometimes flared up as the cameras rolled. A lot of these ruminations happened just after Harrison’s walkout, crisply recorded in his diary: “Got up, went to Twickenham, rehearsed until lunchtime, left the Beatles.” In his absence, Starr, McCartney and Lennon (who said that if Harrison didn’t return, they could recruit Eric Clapton) still turned up at Twickenham film studios. Even if the group’s sensitivities meant that he couldn’t use the resulting material in Let It Be, Lindsay-Hogg had the presence of mind to gently encourage them to talk about their internal relationships, and where the group might be going.

He also surreptitiously hid a microphone near the table in the studio canteen where Lennon, Ono and McCartney had lunch, and recorded a remarkable conversation. On the audio I was given, it began suddenly and unexpectedly:

Lennon: “I mean, I’m not going to lie, you know. I would sacrifice you all for her [Ono]… She comes everywhere, you know.”

McCartney: “So where’s George?”

Lennon: “Fuck knows where George is.”

Ono: “Oh, you can get back George so easily, you know that.”

Lennon: “But it’s not that easy because it’s a festering wound… and yesterday we allowed it to go even deeper, and we didn’t give him any bandages.”

McCartney: “See, I’m just assuming he’s coming back, you know. I’m assuming he’s coming back.”

Lennon: “Well, do you…”

McCartney: “If he isn’t, then he isn’t; then it’s a new problem.”

Lennon: “If we want him – I’m still not sure whether I do want him – but if we do decide we want him as a policy, I can go along with that because the policy has kept us together.”

When Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, had died suddenly in the summer of 1967, it was McCartney who had quickly taken on the role of coming up with new ideas and instigating work in the studio. Thanks partly to Lennon’s resulting resentments, the received view of Beatles history has tended to frame this aspect of the group’s relationships in terms of McCartney’s supposed bossiness, but what the films and book tend to show are very different qualities: empathy, sensitivity and the patience needed to get four increasingly different people to move in roughly the same direction.

When there was a discussion about Ono’s permanent new place at Lennon’s side, McCartney cautioned against trying to get in the way. “They’re going overboard about it, but John always does, you know, and Yoko probably always does. So that’s their scene. You can’t go saying: ‘Don’t go overboard about this thing, be sensible about it and don’t bring her to meetings.’ It’s his decision, that. It’s none of our business starting to interfere in that.” He also had a prescient sense of how future historians would understand the Beatles’ breakup: “It’s going to be such an incredible sort of comical thing, like, in 50 years’ time: ‘They broke up cos Yoko sat on an amp’… or just something like that. What? ‘Well, you see, John kept bringing this girl along.’ What? It’s not as though there’s any sort of earth-splitting rows or anything.”

McCartney could also be assertive and blunt, something that happened early in the rehearsals, at Twickenham, when the prospect of a big live show was starting to recede.

“As far as I can see it, there’s only two ways – and that’s what I was shouting about in the last meeting we had,” he said. “We’re going to do it, or we’re not going to do it. And I want a decision. Because I’m not interested enough to spend my fucking days farting round here while everyone makes up their minds whether they want to do it or not, you know. I’ll do it. If everyone else will, and everyone wants to do it, then all right. But [laughs], you know, it’s just a bit soft. It’s like at school, you know. ‘You’ve got to be here!’ And I haven’t! You know, I’ve left school. We’ve all left school…”

Though their split was initially hushed up, the Beatles would soon be no more. But in the meantime, they managed to surmount their differences. They didn’t make it to Sabratha, or the Royal Albert Hall, or the Tate Gallery, but when they played on top of the Apple offices, the music and the spectacle they created made it a triumph. Glances passed between them, seemingly in recognition of how great it all felt and sounded – and amid the mayhem on the street below, when two Metropolitan police officers tried to shut everything down, the episode was injected with a lovely rebellious romance. “They rocked and rolled and connected as they had in years gone by, friends again,” Lindsay-Hogg later wrote. “It was beautiful to see.”

Half a century later, we now know that was not some fluke, but the end result of four weeks that, after a very shaky start, had gone much better than all those subsequent accounts suggested – something crystallised in a couplet Lennon added to McCartney’s song I’ve Got a Feeling, which they played twice on the roof. “Everybody had a hard year,” he sang, into the January chill. “Everybody had a good time.”

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