Music Week continues as Steve Braunias reviews the book of the Beatles film about to screen on Disney+
Sometimes it can feel that no one has a good word to say anymore about Peter Jackson, or to be precise Sir Peter Jackson, that knight in shining Tory-approved armour, Key’s mate, sponsor of Wellington’s awful mayor, his true colours apparently revealed when he sided with the bosses against the Actor’s Equity union in the hobbit wars of 2010. Surely some of the animus comes down to the usual recipes of tall poppy and low envy. He got too powerful, too wealthy, too remote, a Citizen Kane wandering around the many rooms of his Xanadu estates.
But before all that, before LOTR and Middle Earth and the rest of that shit, he was alright; I ran into him a few times in Wellington after he made his first film Bad Taste (1987) and the only thing I remember was that we talked about The Beatles and he was very proud of his modest collection of Yellow Submarine toys. It’s that guy who comes blazing into view in his Foreword to Get Back, the illustrated coffee-table book that accompanies his epic restoration of the filming of their 1969 sessions. It’s probably the best portrait I’ve ever read of Jackson and it’s all in his own words. It’s also kind of like the best thing about the book.
He writes, “I was an only child and my parents were comparatively old. They had a gramophone and a record collection of around 30 LPs. Their favourites were things like the soundtrack of South Pacific.” And then, one night in 1970, his Dad came home with a 45rpm single. “I remember it looked kind of weird being so small. He’d fallen in love with a song he’d heard on the radio called ‘Something’ – so much so, he had actually bought the single. It was the one and only time he ever had that impulse.”
It’s such a lovely, intimate story and you can see where it’s going – you picture Jackson as a kind of lost child, his youth suspended in a vacuum of old age, then rescued by a sudden impulse that took hold of his nice old Dad, who brought The Beatles into his son’s life. The story doesn’t quite happen so smoothly. Yes, the song got thrashed, and he fell in love with it – but it was a cover version of “Something” by Shirley Bassey. The real thing came his way, he writes in affectionate detail, after he collected wild mushrooms growing in the hills near his family home in Wellington’s Pukerua Bay, then sold them in paper bags on the side of the street; he took his profits to town, and bought two Beatles albums. Mind duly and enduringly blown.
“The true spirit of the Get Back sessions is captured in these pages”- Peter Jackson
You warm to the Jackson in this self-portrait. The rest of his Foreword – all up, it’s only about 500 words – are a few brief lines blandly asserting that his forthcoming Get Back films are a portrait of a band having an awesome time. He rejects the standard narrative that their recording sessions in January 1969 (released as the Let It Be album) were evidence of a group who were sick to death of each other; he has busied himself these past few years set on proving the sessions were, in fact, a thing of joy, that he has edited into a film that lasts forever.
Jackson watched all the footage shot by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg at Twickenham and Abbey Road. There was over 60 hours. Jackson has likely watched it over 60 times. He doesn’t do things by halves, or wholes; he always goes the extra mile beyond human patience, with his trilogies, his additional footage, his philosophy that more is always more. The result is that Get Back – the infinite movie that screens this week on Disney+, and the book (which that enterprising bookseller, David Hedley of Hedleys bookshop in Masterton, helped publish) – are fan letters to the dear old Fabs. “The true spirit of the Get Back sessions is captured in these pages,” Jackson writes. Many of the photos show the band enjoying themselves and most of the text transcribes the Beatles chatting in the studio. “Just look,” Jackson says of the dialogue, “at the number of times the description ‘laughing’ is used.”
Yeah, just look; but sometimes you see what you want to see. Jackson sees everything as a movie (a very long movie) and cinema demands triumphalism, a happy ending. Look at Bohemian Rhapsody, written by New Zealand’s Anthony McCarten, who incidentally knocked around a bit with Jackson in Wellington in the 1980s; great film, a sumptuous knock-out, and it ends in triumph as Freddie Mercury puts on a fantastic performance with Queen at Live Aid. Well, you wouldn’t want to end it where it really ended, with Mercury dying of Aids. Audiences might not exactly leave the cinema on a high. Get Back is documentary, not drama, but Jackson’s comments previewing the film suggests that the framing is the same as Bohemian Rhapsody – a narrative arc that travels through bad times and ends with good times.
The book travels the same path. Hanif Kureishi, who writes the Introduction, sees it like Jackson sees it. “It is a privilege and an opportunity to see them chatting and improvising, in close-up in their everydayness,” etc. The only living authors who could have done a worse job than Kureishi are Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis. The writing is so rotten, so humourless and po-faced and pretentious: “You could call this Eros, a form of pleasurable, creative making, the best kind of enjoyable work.” What? Kureishi cites Gide, Jung, Coleridge, Beckett, Sontag, Picasso, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House….Lennon, a philistine at heart, would surely have hated him.
Here is Lennon on the 1969 sessions, from his classic interview with Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner: “I was stoned all the time and I just didn’t give a shit. Nobody did.”
Wenner asks, “How long did those sessions last?”
Lennon answers, “Oh, fuckin’ God knows how long. Paul had this idea that he was going to rehearse us. He’s looking for perfection all the time, and had these ideas that we would rehearse and then make the album. We, being lazy fuckers – and we’d been playing for 20 years! We’re grown men, for fuck’s sake, and we’re not going to sit around and rehearse, I’m not, anyway – we couldn’t get into it. We put down a few tracks, and nobody was into it at all. It just was a dreadful, dreadful feeling in Twickenham Studio, being filmed all the time.”
I’m not seeing “laughing” there, I’m not seeing “Eros”. Who to believe – Lennon, who was there (“dreadful, dreadful”), or Jackson, from his editing suite in Xanadu 50 years later? But actually they’re both right. Lennon is really only talking about the fortnight recording in the cold empty spaces at Twickenham, from January 2-16, when Paul McCartney bored everyone senseless with his desire for The Beatles to rehearse a live show that would be staged, somewhere, anywhere. Lennon: “I’m warming up to the idea of an asylum.” McCartney suggested performing on the Queen Mary. Harrison: “I think the idea of the boat is completely insane. It’s very expensive.” (He always was a skinflint, with his “Taxman” complaint.) As well, McCartney nagged him on his guitar parts; Harrison had a gutsful, and walked out: “I’m leaving the band.”
The new book publishes a hilarious exchange between the two greatest songwriters in pop.
McCartney, the next day: “So where’s George?”
Lennon: “Fuck knows where George is.”
McCartney: “I’m assuming he’s coming back.”
Lennon: “I’m not sure whether I want him.”
The sessions were cancelled. Harrison came back six days later when The Beatles returned to their familiar cosy nook in Abbey Road, from January 21-31. The great keyboards player Billy Preston came too. Things immediately improved, and it led to the famous rooftop concert. This is Jackson being given his equivalent of Queen at Live Aid – a triumphant ending, the music doing all the talking (“the true spirit”).
But this is the same version that’s always been told. It’s there in the 1970 documentary Let It Be that I have on DVD – Jackson claims never to have seen it; he’s welcome to borrow my copy – and it’s there in the original Get Back book, with text by Jonathan Cott (a pretentious Kureishi of that generation), published by Apple in 1970. Both the film and the book from that time show The Beatles horsing around, making puns, making music. The narrative arc then and now is the exact same two-act drama: not so good times at Twickenham, then very good times at Abbey Road, that culminate in the ecstatic lunchtime show on top of the building on Saville Row. Maybe the only real difference in 2021 is that Jackson presents the Twickenham recordings as not all that bad, and the Abbey Road sessions as even better than anyone thought at the time, including Lennon. “I just did it like a job,” he told Wenner.
The Beatles brought some of their worst songs to the 1969 sessions and made their worst LP
I watched the Let It Be film again this week on DVD. It’s kind of depressing, even with the rooftop concert. It’s not the bickering that casts a pall; it’s the music. Harrison brought along the insipid “I Me Mine” and “For You Blue”. Lennon had the beautiful “Across the Universe” but never knew what to do with it. McCartney was going through a pompous phase with “The Long and Winding Road” and “Let It Be”, and takes centre stage as the wise and bearded band leader. (Lennon: “That film was set up by Paul for Paul.”) Even so, they could likely have made art out of such weak material if they had the services of the fifth Beatle – producer George Martin. But he was largely absent in the Let It Be sessions thanks to McCartney’s terrible idea of rehearsing for a live album. They discovered new frontiers in electronic music when The Beatles with Martin made three insanely brilliant and innovative studio albums (Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt Pepper) and that blathering masterpiece The White Album before McCartney cooked up the Let It Be concept. It was an even worse idea than his idea for Magical Mystery Tour. George Martin was surplus to requirements as they strummed awful songs at Twickenham and shunned the sixth Beatle – the recording studio. No simulation of Tibetan monks chanting as on “Tomorrow Never Knows”, no backwards guitar and backwards vocals as on “Rain”, no nothing, just the band, unplugged, undone.
I also looked at my copy of the original Get Back book from 1970. It’s a bit depressing, too, with lots of photos of three Beatles looking resentful in the vacant lot at Twickenham, later cheering up at Abbey Road when Billy Preston joined the band. It’s like a condensed version of the new Get Back book – less transcripts of Beatle chat, less photographs by Linda Eastman and Ethan Russell. It’s less well made, too: the terrible binding made all the pages fall out, but the 2021 book is hardback, sturdy, built to last. The paper stock is good. The photos are good. The worst that can be said about the new Get Back book is that it sometimes feels boring and at over 230 pages (printed and bound in Italy), kind of endless, Jackson’s preferred measurement of time.
Strange, this need to see The Beatles as loveable mop tops, great artists every second of the day, in the same thrall to their genius as any fan. Get Back preserves them in that kind of jar. But they brought some of their worst songs to the 1969 sessions and made their worst LP, or at least as bad as Beatles for Sale (1964). Abbey Road was made straight after Let It Be, almost as a kind of apology. It still wasn’t enough. They were all young and frisky in 1969 – none of The Beatles were 30 – and wanted to get the hell away from each other. “I don’t believe in Beatles,” Lennon sang on his debut solo album. Jackson never stopped believing. The myth endures.
Get Back by The Beatles (published by Callaway Arts and Apple Corps, $85) is available in bookstores nationwide, definitely including Hedleys in Masterton.