I am aware that writing about The Beatles risks making me look like an old fart, so let's start by setting up some context. Like most people who are around these days, I discovered the Beatles after the fact. I'm not quite old enough to have been a part of that whole 60s thing when it happened. I might be old enough for the kids to still call me an old fart, but I'll deal with the kids separately.
If, like me, though, you have any love for the creative process, a fascination with collaborative creativity, love for the great artists of the past - even if you are NOT a Beatles fan - then the 8 hour-long Beatles reality show currently streaming on Disney+ will prove to be endlessly surprising, fascinating and gripping.
It also helps if you ARE a Beatles fan. Just saying. Knowing some of the history makes it just that much more mind-blowing.
So, here, in no particular order, are some take-aways that linger for me after watching all 8 hours almost twice (I'm writing this after rewatching the first 2 episodes, before watching the final episode again later tonight).
Beatles solo songs- Filmed and recorded in the context of The Beatles imminent break-up (sort of, more in a moment), it is amazing to watch George Harrison and John Lennon workshopping an early version of George's "All Things Must Pass." This song became the title track of George's 1970 solo album - a tour de force triple album, and considered by some to be the best Beatle solo album of all time. John also busts out an early version of his own eventual solo song, "Gimme Some Truth," and at one point begins singing what I thought was his later solo song, "Jealous Guy," only to realize that it is the exact same tune with completely different early lyrics.
No, This is not the breakup - This month-long project took place in January, 1969. A year later the footage was finally edited into the film "Let it Be," (the title song also released as The Beatles final single), and coincided more or less with the 1970 announcement of The Beatles final split. What is most surprising about the intra-group disagreements, though, in this 8 hour version, is that the four members really want, and work hard, to mend their differences. Yes, George quits the band for a few days, but the other 3 meet with him off-camera twice, in what had to be intesive discussions, eventually convincing him to return. Also, given the early 1969 time-frame, we have to remember that the entire Abbey Road album - was it their best? I tend to think so; I won't argue too forcefully against the Sgt. Pepper voters, though - was recorded over the following half-year. So...maybe they still did their best work AFTER all this turmoil.
John and heroin - We know for a fact that the always-experimenting John Lennon was going through his one heroin phase around the time of these recordings. What we don't know - and I won't even try to guess - is how much of it he was doing, how affected by it he was on a given day, or whether this was before, during or after his primary period of using the drug. What we do know - what we can see with our own eyes - is that John seems fairly out-of-it early on (episode 1 has a moment when Paul calls him out for nearly falling asleep). the first episode features a sometimes quiet John, a band-member who is there in person, but sometimes only barely there in spirit, By the time the second episode starts, though, John seems to begin waking up. By the mid point of the second epsiode, we have a whole new John who wasn't there at the beginning. He is engaged, creative, playful. He cares about the work. He writes and rewrites songs with Paul. The real John Lennon finally turned up.
Paul is a musical force of nature - The history of The Beatles has tended to make people choose sides. Some people are on the John side. Others are on the Paul side. the sides will never agree....or will they? Years after the split both John and Paul referred to each other as "best friends," and there are many stories of Paul visiting John and Yoko in New York in the 70s. Watching the Get Back footage play out, it is impossible to hate Paul (and yes, I had often considered myself to be on the John-side). Songs seem to pour out of Paul in a way you might imagine symphonies pouring out of Mozart. It is stunning. He can toss out something improvised that never made it onto any recording, and you just look on in wonder. I came away from watching it, humbly admitting that I may have been wrong about Paul. He is a genius. Case closed.
George's selflessness - Yes, he quits the band for a few days. That might not be considered 'selfless.' I was surprised, though, at his complete change in attitude after returning, and I look on this attitude in the context of George being the one most fully immersed in eastern religious philosophy. George always had to swallow his ego, being around the Lennon-McCartney machine. Maybe that is what pushed him further into eastern mysticism. You're a Beatle. You're going to have an ego. But you're not John or Paul. Now you have to swallow your ego. Watch George after he returns from his little Beatle-vacation. He buys in. He gives all of himself to the projecct. He is smiling. He's having fun. Amazing.
Ringo the dependable - He's a drummer. Drummers have to be dependable. Rarely have I witnessed a personality that so closely resonates with a band member's job within the group. Ringo is always there, always on time (the only one who is always on time), always watching his bandmates, listening, rarely making a fuss, always contributing exactly what he needs to contribute. He's quiet, but he's like a quiet magician who you sometimes don't notice, but who makes everyone else in the room better.
Abbey Road songs - As the project began, the band was aiming for something like fourteen songs. They were struggling to get there, not that they didn't have fourteen good ideas. Some of the ideas were just that, ideas, not fully formed songs. Many of these set the foundation for Abbey Road a few months later. If you're an Abbey Road fan (this more than 50 year-old album just ended the year 2021 at #96 on the Billboard top 100 albums for the year), it is beyond happiness to watch George work on "Something," John try out early versions of "Polythene Pam," and "Mean Mr. Mustard." One morning Ringo shows up with an unfinished version of "Octopus's Garden," and George huddles with him at the piano, helping him refine it. Paul does several takes of "Oh Darling." Oddly, maybe surprisingly, the first version of "Come Together" that we hear is Paul singing, sitting at the piano. fun stuff!
Billy Preston - When old friend Billy Preston shows up one day just to say hi (they had met him years earlier in Germany, when Preston was backing up Little Richard), the band (of course) asks him if he wants to sit down at the piano, and from that moment the whole enterprise takes off to a whole new level. No one questions it, not even Preston himself. Everything begins to click, to connect. It begins to feel predestined. Preston is there on the rooftop, performing as the "Fifth Beatle." He should get more credit for this than he does. John wanted him in the band. For this moment, he WAS in the band, and he fit perfectly.
The rooftop concert - This is what it's all about, isn't it. The Beatles final live performance, and it's an icnoic one, an illegal performance, one that disrupted the London business day, an outdoor performance that brought out the cops...just as Paul wanted. Yes, it was Paul who wanted to do something illegal. He even says at one point, "We should trespass." He was musing on where they should perform, where they should trespass, setting up as a band someplace where they would possibly be kicked out. He even suggests the Houses of Parliament. this is one of the great moments of the Beatles short career.
January 14, 2022