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The Beatles

Get Back: The Beatles' Let It Be Disaster written by Doug Sulpy and Ray Schweighardt

Review by Steve Alspach

If there was ever a band that was in need of a vacation, it was the Beatles in January 1969. They were in a 16-month slump starting with Brian Epstein's death in August 1967, the less-than-flattering critical response to the Magical Mystery Tour movie, and the PR fiasco of their jaunt to India with the Maharishi. The White Album was received well enough, but when they convened at Twickenham Studios in early 1969 for their next project (a film that would show the stages of their new album, from writing and rehearsing to its grand premier in front of a live audience), the Beatles were a band that was physically, mentally, and musically spent. Let's face it - "Let It Be" doesn't exactly rank that high on most people's list of top Beatles albums, and that it sold as well as it did is a testimony to the Beatles' legacy. "Get Back: The Beatles' Let It Be Disaster" is a painstakingly thorough look at the rehearsal sessions and all the surrounding chaos.

"Get Back" is not your typical biographical book, though. First off, Doug Sulpy and Ray Schweighardt listened to all the available rehearsal tapes, and the book reads as more of a reference book than a biographical work. The book is broken down chronologically by day, and within day by song. For example,

22.56 Don't Let Me Down >0:11<
Another fragment with part of the chorus. Once again, this is obviously part of a longer take.

In other words, the 56th tape "log" entry on the January 22d, and this snippet, though at eleven seconds, appears to be part of a longer run-through.

Beatle aficionados will no doubt get a kick out of all the songs that the Beatles were playing or at least taking a stab at. Everything from "Get Back" to "Three Cool Cats" to Dylan covers to a half-hearted stab at "MacArthur Park" is documented. On the other hand, the myriad aborted attempts at songs, screw-around versions, and "dead time" in between takes indicate that the Beatles weren't exactly inspired or focused at this point. The "Fab Four"? Try the "Bored Four."

The underlying catch to this book, though, is that Sulpy and Schweighardt have rare access at documenting a band in disintegration. To read "Get Back," one gets to see the various roles the Beatles had resigned themselves to. Paul was the reluctant leader who seemed hell-bent on seeing the project through to completion, George Harrison was growing more frustrated with his role in the band and was hesitant to play live, John Lennon was quickly losing interest in the Beatles, and Ringo Starr was the passive observer with little to say, though he was not keen on playing live or going on tour as well. George Martin is conspicuous in his absence, and Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the director of the "Let It Be" film, appears to be beating a dead horse in getting some sort of interesting footage out of the sessions, and at this point was probably thinking "Right - they couldn't have asked me to film the 'Revolver' sessions, but they ask me to film this?" Things hit a low with Harrison's departure from the band (attributed more to his frustration with John than with Paul as widely thought), and it's quite surprising to read how the day's sessions continue without him. Also of interest is the desire of some of the Beatles' to sit down as a foursome to discuss matters, but John's interest in other things (most notably heroin and a certain sycophantic Japanese artist) make such an event unlikely. Sulpy and Schweighardt do an excellent job of dealing fairly and objectively with the four band members, careful not to make anyone out to be the hero or the heavy.

The book succeeds in that it leaves the reader to come up with his or her own answers to the question "how could all this have been avoided?" Was anyone at fault more than anyone else? Was Paul being too controlling? Did John need a smack upside the head? Should someone have told Yoko to take a hike? Was it time for John and Paul to allow George Harrison more album time for his songs? Should the band have scrapped the film project and taken a year off? Or were the seeds of the Beatles' demise already planted and are we witnessing a band that was, plain and simply, doomed?

One of the wonderful things about the Beatles is that their legacy is full of entertaining "What If" questions and fun observations to be made in hindsight. (Still arguing about that "edit-the-White-Album-into-a-single-album" project, are you?) "Get Back" is an interesting opportunity to play psychologist / band manager and decide what could have been done to save the most influential rock band of all time.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2005 Year Book Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
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