Saturday, October 5, 2019

The Beatles: Get Back (1969)


(Apple [unreleased]; volumnious bootlegs from 1969 onward)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The Glyn Johns construction of Get Back, before it was rejected by the Beatles and slightly reengineered to better fit with the then-forthcoming feature film and then thrown out entirely in favor of Phil Spector's reimagined version, is a deeply flawed album -- were it in the canon, it would still have been the Beatles' weakest major LP release apart from Help! -- but it's also very clearly a better one than Let It Be. That's thanks in part to nothing fancier than its mere sense of focus: Johns is interested in the band's (or at least Paul and John's) original vision of a rock band's frayed work-in-process with no tracking, no overdubs, no bells and whistles, and he integrates dialogue, aimless studio jams, chaotic covers and flubbed false starts and such to make the strong case that the Beatles' timeless magnetism falls into place naturally.

He also focuses heavily on this being relatively "hard" rock music, at least until the back half of Side Two, perhaps to reassert the band's mettle not as strictly studio wizards but as architects of rock & roll who'd been there almost from the beginning, thus demonstrating the direct lines drawn from classic Chuck Berry and Elvis numbers to the then-explosive movement toward macho blues rock being propagated by the likes of Canned Heat, Led Zeppelin and the band's own racist buddy Eric Clapton. Not surprisingly, while the Beatles with their unabashed pop background (as emphatically worshipful of Carole King as they were of Little Richard) are less than credible as uncritical meatheads on the road to heavy metal, their wealth of unironic appreciation for black music and classicist, liberating rock & roll renders them almost automatically more interesting and soulful than those peers, which is only exacerbated by the presence of the pianist-organist Billy Preston, and their unmistakable, equimonious camaraderie with him, on many of these numbers.

If you're trying to string together a narrative throughline strictly using the Beatles' albums, Get Back as an outgrowth of the White Album and a contradiction of the forthcoming Abbey Road makes considerably more sense than the whiplash of Let It Be following Abbey as it sits in the official discography. Not to say Spector's album doesn't carry an elegiac tone, but how much of that is manufacted by us retroactively? It's always been remarked upon how much Paul resented the goopy strings Spector poured over "The Long and Winding Road," but less discussed is how he must have felt when three of his most personal songs -- "Two of Us" about his romantic relationship with Linda Eastman, "Let It Be" about his late mother and "The Long and Winding Road" his rawest-ever response to loss -- were co-opted semi-officially as narratives about the Beatles themselves, which may add an extra layer for some listeners but still feels rather trite, and seems to rob us of a bit of each song's true resonance. That I assume is why early 1969 is never thought of as one of McCartney's peaks as a composer, even though he really is firing on all cylinders here as both a rocker and as a choked-up balladeer whose passion and directness would perhaps reach its crescendo a year later with the magnificent non-Beatles track "Maybe I'm Amazed," perhaps the last truly perfect (though not the last great) song he would write.

It's instructive to look at the takes Johns uses on his assembly, how they differ from what Spector picked up on, and how he uses them. Famously, Johns had a truckload of tapes to sort through, though he took to the job with great enthusiasm, and the two albums serve as a fascinating primer on how interpretations of gathered material can differ. One of the frustrations of Spector's LP is that he violates the sense of raw, immediate presence and unmasked spontaneity by adding overdubs here and there, and venturing outside the Get Back sessions altogether for some material, but doesn't entirely, so that a few various snatches of dialogue and banter between songs remain, but not enough to make it a part of the record's general conceit rather than just odd. (His transition from John joking around after "Dig It" straight into "Let It Be" remains simultaneously bold and vaguely offensive.) Johns, on the other hand, goes all-out; he seems to want the record as a whole to feel like a single day's off-the-cuff work for the Beatles, capturing on-mike discussions and debates and gags between performances and with songs seemingly appearing out of nowhere. It sounds strikingly unprofessional from a certain POV, but there's no denying that had it been released in 1969 it would have been a rather striking innovation -- the sort of inventiveness of spirit that Let It Be would miss entirely.

Johns opens with an assertion of the Beatles going "back to their roots" by airing "One After 909" from the Apple rooftop on January 30th (Spector used the same version in a different mix); it was a John and Paul song dating from their "eyeball to eyeball" years in the late '50s and even dredged up once before for a studio recording that never made it out (until 1995), and appropriately enough it's followed by two more statements of shambolic purpose. From Jan. 22nd, "Rocker" is a standard jam that slides abruptly into a loose version of the Drifters' "Save the Last Dance for Me" (not one of the better covers from the sessions, but a convincingly spontaneous and thus representative one) and then John's one and only great (or even better than decent) song from these sessions, "Don't Let Me Down," which John somehow would never complain about Spector cutting from Let It Be. This deeply sincere, sensual love song is one of the best cuts the Beatles ever recorded, an almost immaculate sampling of their extraordinary interplay, and there are many fine performances of it from the first half of the month -- then Billy Preston comes in and the song turns into a masterpiece, delving into genuine, unadulterated blues and soul with his influence, and on nearly every performance, John and the other Beatles completely allow Preston's soloing to define the song, which is to its considerable benefit. George Martin had prepared a minimalist mix of one of the versions from the 28th of January for release as a b-side a month before Johns completed this assembly; Johns sticks to the last several songs on his cut and includes an even less polished version from nearly a week earlier, at which point Lennon is still audibly starry-eyed and in awe over Preston's contributions, giving us his Sam Cooke moment with a shout of "Take it, Bill!" just before the closing instrumental break. It's probably as great a rendition as the one on the single, or the rooftop performance in the film; all three are extraordinary moments of pure performance for the Beatles and Preston.

We come next to one of the better versions of John's "Dig a Pony," a throwaway compared to "Don't Let Me Down," though this January 23rd take is arguably stronger than the rooftop version used on Let It Be, and benefits from the fact that the "all I want is..." intro hasn't been cut as it would be by Spector (some agree with his decision and may be right, but I rather like it, and I like very little about this song!). It's a reasonably enthused performance but there's no mistaking its half-assed wordplay and uninspired melody for top-drawer Beatles; the only thing separating it from one of the bones they threw to the Yellow Submarine film is the enthusiasm of their various performances, including George's consistently strong soloing. Johns again sticks to the same day for its very next performance, of "I've Got a Feeling," in a strong, pleasingly raw and rocking variant with great call-and-response work from Lennon that was eventually issued by Apple on the Anthology 3 disc. It's hard to conclude whether Johns or Spector, who goes with a rooftop extract, uses the "better" version since they're both exceptional performances of one of the last great moments of genuine John-Paul collaboration.

Things get a bit less noteworthy for a spell: "Get Back" is the same January 27th performance as the single (which I to this day don't understand; there are at least half a dozen stronger, harder rocking performances of the song, including one in the film and one from the roof on Anthology 3); "For You Blue" is the same take Spector would use, except the latter would have George record a totally new vocal including various ad-libs breaking the monontony of his robotic original lead. And the dreadful "Teddy Boy," a Paul fake-folk trifle he was inexplicably proud enough of to record it himself on McCartney, was (mercifully) cut down a bit and featured on Anthology 3. "Two of Us" is one of the few cases in which Johns makes a significantly worse choice than Spector, who picks a far stronger (though overdubbed) take from the last day of sessions for Let It Be; one wonders why Johns didn't spring for the wonderful rock version heard in the film, which would have fit much more snugly into the overall aesthetic of the sessions, though he is maybe wiser to pair it with the acoustic "Teddy Boy" than Spector was to open the LP with it. Next comes the nadir of John's tomfoolery from this period; he was oddly excited to throw together a brief take on the mythological Liverpool prostitution ballad "Maggie Mae" for the sessions (you can hear him repeatedly reminding the others he wants to get around to it on some of the tapes), but it's really just an energized throwaway that Spector buried on the end of the first side, and the organ-based improvisation "Dig It" -- which Spector also used, though he cut it to less than a minute -- is worse yet, an aimless, opiate-addled jam that could only be seen fit for release by a band paranoid about a dearth of material.

Out of that sad detour comes the record's sudden climax, the one-two punch of Paul's anthems "Let It Be" (written for Aretha Franklin to sing, which she did) and "The Long and Winding Road," and perhaps inevitably it's on this last performance that the massive advantages of Johns' approach come into play. Spector really would ruin this song by drenching it with an orchestra, robbing it of the modesty and loneliness of its despair; as heard on the radio in 1970, it must have seemed like the Beatles' worst-ever moment of schlocky melodrama, but as played without Spector's contributions, it's a stunning, impressively desolate creation, as heard when the same take found a home on Anthology 3. "Let It Be" here resembles the eventual Martin-produced single, though I've always quite liked the harsher overdubbed guitar solo on the Spector version. Placing the two songs back to back emphasizes their gracefulness as ballads and strengthens them both. The structure of Johns' album is overall quite impressive; all that's missing is better songs from Lennon, or better acoustic material to place in the run of quieter stuff on Side Two.

Get Back was on the cusp of being released at least twice in 1969, with schedules penciled in, a cover prepared and orders taken, but it was vetoed by Beatles on every occasion, and Let It Be might well have suffered the same fate had there been enough of a unit to protest it by 1970. For years it was a strong candidate for slight cleanup and official release, but Apple took a different and wholly more frustrating approach with Let It Be... Naked in 2003. Not only did this skirt the existence of the perfectly fine Get Back album cover, an ingenious homage to the cover of Please Please Me emphasizing the "back to roots" mythos and all the clutter of disorganized rehearsals, replacing it with a photoshopped monstrosity, it attempted to treat these sessions as though they were those for a regular Beatles album, completely ignoring the unorthodox setup and very different intentions. The songs were processed, cleaned of any evidence of the original "warts and all" purpose, and thereby missed the point just as much as Spector did with all his confusion of motives. Worse yet, it didn't have the good sense to use any of the various alternate takes Johns employed, instead going either with the canonical Let It Be performances or with jarring hybrids of varying recordings from the Jan. 30th rooftop gig. The only new performance was one of "The Long and Winding Road," employed presumably because Apple had already released the Spector-less version a few years earlier; for all the considerable hype accompanying the release, it was shameful that only one actual complete new Beatles performance made it to the public; and thus, Get Back still stands up as a worthwhile candidate for official deployment by Apple in the next year or so as the fiftieth anniversary of Let It Be approaches.

***

When I want to hear this material, I've long used Get Back as my go-to, but I still find it a bit wanting. Part of this is, yes, that this was a misguided idea, thrown together too soon after the White Album, and the songs -- apart from some of Paul's -- just aren't top-drawer. But I also think one could make a Get Back album that, if not great, might come closer than the other attempts, and with the wealth of material available, there are a decent number of prisms in which we can view the process while still presenting an end result that might be more satisfying than what either Johns or Spector (or Martin, or Apple) was able to give us. I've always been too lazy to make my own personal Get Back, but here's my attempt, allowing myself to violate canon rules a few times by incorporating things that would get worked up on Abbey Road and other official releases:

Two of Us ["rock" version from the film]
Jenny Jenny/Slippin' and Slidin' [studio jam from Jan. 9th]
One After 909
I've Got a Feeling [Glyn Johns version]
Dig a Pony [Glyn Johns version]
For You Blue [Phil Spector version]
I Want You [from Jan. 28th, with Billy Preston co-lead vocal]
Don't Let Me Down [rooftop version (30.06)]
Blue Suede Shoes [studio jam from Jan. 26th]
Get Back [rooftop version from Anthology 3]
She Came In Through the Bathroom Window [slow version]
Stand by Me/Where Have You Been All My Life [studio jam]
Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues [studio jam from Jan. 29th w/o Anthology 3 editing]
Mama, You Been on My Mind [cover of a then-unissued Dylan song, recorded by George on Jan. 3rd]
Because I Know You Love Me So [very early Lennon-McCartney played on Jan. 3rd]
All Things Must Pass [full band version with drums from Jan. 8th]
Watching Rainbows [studio jam from Jan. 14th, for the fans]
Let It Be [Spector album version]
The Long and Winding Road [Glyn Johns version]
Two of Us [reprise, Phil Spector version]

bonus tracks:
I've Got a Feeling [Phil Spector version]
Don't Let Me Down [original b-side]
Across the Universe [Anthology 2 version]
I Me Mine [Anthology 3 version]
Sweet Little Sixteen/Around and Around
Get Back [harder rocking rehearsal from film]
Don't Let Me Down [Glyn Johns version]

sorry, no sale:
Dig It
Maggie Mae
Teddy Boy