The Beatles were hardly a happy band of musical brothers when they assembled before film cameras shortly after ten in Twickenham Film Studios on the morning of January 2, 1969. It was too early in the day for John and George, too cold as well, and it was only ten weeks since they’d finished their thirty song double White Album.
Now, already, they were back at the mill, as it were, rehearsing for… Well, no-one quite knew what.
Perhaps it would it be a TV concert in the remains of a Roman amphitheatre in the Libyan desert, they conjectured, alongside director Michael Lindsay-Hogg who was filming the project. Or maybe a show before a hall full of empty chairs? That was Yoko Ono’s avant garde suggestion – and wherever John Lennon now went Yoko was at his side?
Or, what about a gig on a cruise on the QE2? That seemed like a good idea until George Harrison realized they’d ‘be stuck with a bloody boat load of people for two weeks…’
‘…who think they know us,’ added Ringo in gloomy horror at the prospect. Impossible fame had become a jailer.
So began several uncertain days of rehearsals. At the very least they would have a television film which showed them at work, they eventually agreed, and a new album with them playing together as well. They hadn’t been seen playing together in two and a half years since fan mania had forced them to give up touring.
As it turned out, it took another fifteen months before the album, and a film of its making, both titled Let It Be, would be released, and, unfortunately, by that time, the Beatles had broken up. As lawyers began the long road of divorcing the four members of the group from each other, none of them bothered to turn up for its premiere.
For a world full of Beatle fans the break-up was a calamity without comparison. And, reflecting it, the Let It Be film felt, to some, to be a sad sunset to a glorious epoch.
But was that a correct interpretation? The Let It Be film had to be fitted into just 81 minutes for cinema release, but that meant that a further fifty hours of film of the Beatles wasn’t used. Fifty unseen hours of the Beatles. Think about it!
Which is exactly what the Beatles’ Apple company did, when, seeking a way to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Let It Be, they looked again at the unused archives, and realized they had a treasure trove in a time capsule.
Not only was there the unused film, but equally fascinating were 120 hours on tape of the Beatles chatting, singing, arguing and playing together during those January weeks half a century ago.
Few outsiders had ever been able to even observe the Beatles in the studio (including wives and girlfriends), everyone being tactfully discouraged from watching the boys at their jobs. But with his fly-on-the-wall technique, Michael Lindsay-Hogg had assembled a small squad of cameras and microphones to capture everything that happened.
And when in 2017 Apple approached Peter Jackson, who had made The Lord of the Rings films and the documentary They Shall Not Grow Old from restored World War 1 footage, the New Zealand director, a Beatles fan, saw a fascinating challenge.
The result is a three part TV series The Beatles Get Back which is due to be shown on Disney+ at the end of November, along with a new album packed with extra songs, out-takes and a book of photographs from the sessions, in addition to transcriptions of the many conversations from those Let It Be sessions.
Like many Beatles fans I’ve had bootlegged copies of these studio conversations for many years. But to read them now is intriguing in that they show the first open strains on the bonds that had, until then, kept the four Beatles together.
John Lennon would later tell me that the Let It Be sessions were at Paul McCartney’s insistence – at least, the timing of them was. Since the death of their manager Brian Epstein in 1967 there had been a vacuum in the band’s leadership and workaholic Paul’s boundless enthusiasm had filled it.
The problem was that Paul already had three terrific new songs in various stages of completion, Get Back, Let It Be and The Long And Winding Road; but John Lennon didn’t have any he thought were good enough.
So, although the band began rehearsing, playing snatches of new songs and old and breaking off for conversation as they always had done, John was miserable from the start.
‘Even the biggest Beatle fan couldn’t have sat through those six weeks of misery. It was the most miserable session on earth,’ John Lennon would later exaggerate to me and others. He did love an exaggeration.
But there was something else, too. John’s new girlfriend, Yoko Ono, was a distraction to the extent that he was losing interest in being a Beatle at all. ‘I’m not going to lie,’ he says on tape to the other Beatles at one stage. ‘I would sacrifice you all for her.’
Which must have given the man, who had been his co-writer since they’d been teenagers, pause for thought. ‘There are only two things to do,’ Paul says to George Harrison. ‘One is to fight and try to get the Beatles back to being four people without Yoko and ask her to sit down at board meetings. The other is just to accept that she’s there… He’s going overboard… but he always does go overboard.
‘If it came to a push between Yoko and the Beatles it would be Yoko for John… And we’re not wanting this to happen. It’s going to be an incredibly comic thing if in 50 years’ time people say the Beatles broke up because Yoko sat on an amp.’
Well, it now is fifty years’ time, plus a few, and we know that there were other problems in the band as well. One of them was that George Harrison felt that Paul McCartney kept telling him how to play, which irked him no end. As good a guitarist as he was, being the baby in the band had always been difficult.
More serious than that, he also felt, with much justification, that his songs didn’t get as much attention as those of Lennon and McCartney – if they were indeed recorded at all. And on the seventh day of the Twickenham rehearsals he suddenly put his guitar down while playing a Chuck Berry riff.
‘I’m leaving,’ he said.
John stopped playing. ‘What?’
‘The group…’ said George.
‘Now. See you round the clubs.’ And, with that, George left the rehearsals and went to see his mother in Liverpool.
In truth, George had already come up with a solution to some of the Beatles’ growing problems of being locked together for so long when he’d suggested a few days earlier that they break up for a time, go off and make their own albums. Then, if they felt like it, get back together a year later. It was good advice, but at that stage, the others hadn’t been interested.
His sudden departure worried Paul and Ringo, but John, while being sympathetic, was practical. George’s attitude had been ‘a festering wound,’ he said, ‘and we allowed it to go deeper and we didn’t even give him any bandages…’ Before adding coldly: ‘I think if George doesn’t come back by (next week) we ask Eric Clapton to play…’
As it happened, they never got around to that, but in the meantime Peter Sellers, who was also at Twickenham Studios casting for his film The Magic Christian (which would later have a part for Ringo Starr), wandered into the session.
Like everyone else at work, the Beatles often broke off playing to talk about what they’d seen on TV the night before. And now Sellers’ appearance provided a welcome diversion from their problems.
‘Welcome to Panorama,’ quipped John, who, as a boy, had been a huge fan of the radio programme The Goon Show. ‘Pull up a star seat.’
Instantly Paul joined the mock banter. ‘We’d like you to do a little introduction for the Ed Sullivan Show, Peter.’
Whereon John took on an announcer’s voice. ‘We’ve been lucky enough this evening to secure the… er… talents of Mr Peter Sellers, who’s going to give us Number 3.’
‘Yes. Number 3, folks. Number 3,’ comes back Sellers happily, not having a clue what they are talking about.
‘If we ask him really nicely, he’ll probably do Number 5,’ added zany John.
‘Yes, I might…I can’t count that far these days…I’m notoriously bad at this type of thing.’
‘You’ve noticed we are, too,’ laughs Paul. ‘It’s half the fun.’
At which point, for no reason at all, John takes on a pompous Harold Macmillan type of persona and says: ‘Unaccustomed as I am to pubic hair…’
It could very easily have been a real, off the cuff, Goon Show interlude.
The following day rehearsals were abandoned but George did come back when recording began six days later in a little studio that had been built in the basement of the Beatles’ Apple headquarters in London’s Savile Row.
No-one knew yet whether there would ever be a concert, but, with the help of producer George Martin, the job of making the album had begun, with American Billy Preston now joining the sessions on keyboards.
And it’s there, through their conversations, that we see and hear the combined strength and talent of the Beatles as a team. They all had something to offer each other, and were not afraid to make suggestions.
They may not have been quite equals, as John and Paul were always dominant creatively. But in the recordings we find an ease and confidence in their playing as they go from one style to another, from an old American rock and roll favourite, to a fragment of a song not yet finished. Maybe it’s a new line for Let It Be, or a new rhythm from Ringo for Get Back as both songs began to take their final shape.
Soon we find them playing One After 909, one of the first songs that John wrote when he’d been at art college. While on another day George Harrison tells how he’s been working on a new love song called Something for six months, but can’t get the lyrics right.
‘Just say anything that comes into your head,’ John advises.
‘Something in the way she moves, attracts me like a….pomegranate,’ George sings, laughing.
‘Grabs me like a monkey on a tree,’ suggests John.
That was how they worked, helping and editing each other, in a kind of collective musical genius that was the Beatles, and that was bigger than all four of them. Lennon and McCartney would miss it when they broke up, although they might not have admitted it publicly.
In the end, with the lyrics still unfinished, the song Something ended up being held over until an Abbey Road recording session later in the year, since when it has become one of the all-time Beatles’ favourites.
The recording sessions were nearing completion, when, with no venue still agreed for a concert, it was suggested that the most unlikely place would be on the Beatles’ own roof in Savile Row. Would it be technically possible, they wondered. Would it be safe, clambering around between the chimney pots? And would it be even legal?
The Metropolitan Police would, on the day, take a view on that last question, but, although Paul McCartney was doubtful, carpenters and technicians were sent up to the roof to build the stage for what would become the most famous (short) rock concert ever.
I was a young journalist sitting at my desk on the London Evening Standard when news of the gig reached me, via phone calls from office workers in and around Savile Row.
A company director called Stanley Davis, whose office was in the house next door to Apple had this to say. ‘I want this bloody noise stopped. It’s an absolute disgrace. You can’t use your telephone, dictate a letter or leave your window open,’ he ranted as in the background John Lennon singing Don’t Let Me Down carried across central London.
Others took a different view. The six song, 42 minute concert, seen live only by the film crew, the Apple staff and a few office workers at high windows around Savile Row, was a masterstroke of publicity.
As expected, a couple of constables from the police station just along the street, were quickly sent to investigate. Which meant that they, too, found themselves with bit parts in musical history as some of the dozen or so cameras (including one on a helicopter and another hidden in the Apple front hall that had been surreptitiously placed by the film crew) captured the moment.
‘I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we’ve passed the audition,’ said John Lennon to camera as the policemen arrived on the rooftop to end the show.
No-one knew it then, but, although the Beatles as a group struggled on for a further eight months, during which they even made another album, this would be their last public appearance. It was a brilliant way to go out.
No entertainers before or since were as loved and admired as the Beatles. As writer Hanif Kureishi says of their status in the Sixties: ‘They weren’t just ahead of the curve. They were the curve.’ But, back then, at the beginning of 1969, after seven years of constant work and success, they were just wondering about what would come next.
The Beatles Get Back is published by Apple and Callaway on October 12. The new expanded and remixed versions of Let It Be will be available from October 15, while the three-part Get Back documentary series is on Disney+ on November 25-27.
The Ray Connolly Beatles Archive is available from Amazon.