Get Back: Peter Jackson & the Beatles

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Get Back: Peter Jackson & the Beatles
getting back.

I’ve been trying to write this fucking thing for three weeks now, so I’m throwing out everything I’ve written so far and just starting it over again. If you have not watched the Peter Jackson Beatles documentary, most of this will not make any sense. My apologies for all of the above in advance.

I didn’t plan to write about Get Back and I didn’t plan to take notes about it or do anything except watch it. I consider myself an above-average Beatles fan but I also consider myself to be very retired from that area of scholarship. The Beatles were how I learned to be a music researcher from the age of, like, 10 or 11. It is when I started reading books and taking notes and figuring out that I could use the Readers’ Guide to Periodicals that I used for school to find articles about the bands I loved in old newspapers or magazines. Suddenly the fact that I knew how to use a microfilm reader was a highly valuable skill.

The best and the worst parts of Get Back are the rooftop concert; the best because we get to see the Beatles in an element that pretty much no one ever got to experience; no, your mom’s trip to Candlestick Park or Shea Stadium doesn’t count because that was less a musical performance than a cultural event; you couldn’t see or hear them, so you were basically just spending time in the same approximate physical location for an hour or so. I’m not dismissing that experience at all, and I wish there was better scholarship on this subject, but it wasn’t a concert experience as we would later come to know it. In their defense, no one was doing that except for jazz musicians. Even Motown was running a “revue,” Elvis was spectacle, country was more participatory but it was still closer to the show-and-tell feel of a variety show than an understanding that this isn’t a musical jukebox, we are here to listen and then watch.

The worst is because I absolutely hate they spend so much time splicing in the crowd footage because after the first three people it’s just the same thing over and over again, and there are shots of the band in the Let It Be movie that are not in Get Back and that should absolutely not be the case.

For all of the “I don’t know if we should do this” or “we should take a boat to Libya and play at this ancient ampitheater with people from the area as the audience without bothering to see if the venue had electricity or if the equipment would damage the ancient ruins (not to mention a million other issues that someone should have taken into account before trying to hard sell the Beatles over an entire month on this thing)” and even taking into account that the Beatles were still discussing whether or not they would play literally ten minutes before they said “fuck it, let’s do it” and walked up the stairs and onto the roof of 3 Savile Row, the first thing that I saw was their utter emotional delight in being a band, of standing in close physical proximity to one another and playing music.

They were freezing - it was January for fuck’s sake - but even without the dopamine of a feedback loop of a live audience sending energy back to them, they are excited and having fun, even if there is part of them (George) that doesn’t want to be doing this, they have connected the physical circuits that they remembered and it is tangible. You could almost see the sparks flying between them. If I could read auras they would have been completely different colors than they were at Shepperton or downstairs in the basement. If they could have figured out how to connect to that dopamine on a regular basis I guarantee you that the Beatles wouldn’t have broken up.

Even in the second run-thru of “Get Back” up there, there are a million moments: Paul shouting in encouragement when John peels those notes off his white Epiphone. George standing sideways carefully watching Paul and John. Paul whirling around in delight when Billy Preston takes a solo. Maureen Starkey (you hear Paul calling her ‘Mo,’ which was her nickname) rocking out up against the chimney sitting with Yoko. Maureen was in the audience at the Cavern Club when she was 15, she was a music fan, I’m thrilled she gets to experience that again.

The way Paul’s laugh lines crinkle. Watching John, then George, then Ringo, tiptoe over to the edge of the roof to peer down at the crowd, breaking out into huge grins. John’s giant grin of contentment in the last bridge in “One After 909.” We missed this. We missed getting to inculcate this into our fandom; we missed the ability to watch the Beatles be a live band, to be able to study and debate and squee over their energy and the way they interact with each other, the looks and the jokes and the shared inside language. I kept waiting for friends to catch up and watch so I could text them the kind of little jokes I do about Springsteen or Dylan or U2 or anyone I have seen live so many times that it is all part of my larger environment.

I also feel it is incredibly important to point out that this is exactly where the trope of “band plays on roof” absolutely started. Everyone who has done it since is trying to copy something about this scenario. On the roof where everyone can hear but not everyone can see. You hear the music, you try to figure out where it’s coming from, and the only reason you think “the roof” is because of the Beatles. The only reason bands think about playing on a roof is because of this scene. They want the elements of delight and surprise and the incongruence of putting something where it doesn’t normally exist.

hmm such an original idea where did they think of it
hmm such an original idea where did they think of it

It’s funny that my reaction to six hours of Beatles footage is to rewatch it multiple times and pull out all of my books to fact-check (yes of course I fact-checked Peter Jackson) and remind myself of things I once knew by heart. And more than anything right now I want them to release the footage of the rooftop concert -- you can’t buy Let It Be except on expensive second-hand videotape -- so I can zoom in and pause and find more small details, so I can make room for this knowledge in the active part of my brain, so I can take a step back and see how it influenced me and how it impacted everything that came afterwards.

No sooner did I say "Sorry no pub date or pre-order link" in the last newsletter than I had the pre-order link and the cover for the US edition.

May 2022

May 2022

You can pre-order directly from UTP here or from [disclaimer: that is an affiliate link]. In the UK, you can pre-order from Rough Trade. You can also call or walk into your local bookshop and ask them to pre-order it for you! They will be delighted to do so.

For those who have been asking, I will be making arrangements with a local bookstore so you can buy signed copies. I also will have book plates to send out and I am hopeful I will be able to see many of you on book tour!

I fully plan on keeping on track with newsletters twice a month in 2022 so tell your friends, etc. Thanks for reading.