Since a number of my friends and family — familiar with my obsession with the Beatles — have asked for my opinion on the new Peter Jackson film, The Beatles: Get Back, I thought it might be easiest to share my inklings with everyone at once. (Spoiler alert: The Beatles break up in 1970.)
I’ve watched the entire Get Back documentary twice. The first time alone. The second time with my wife Debbie. I think Peter Jackson did an incredible job assembling the footage into a coherent and compelling storyline, a race against the clock filled with obstacles that up the stakes, something sorely lacking from the original Let It Be movie.
For more than forty years, I’ve known about and have yearned to see the treasure trove of 56 hours of film from the Beatles ill-fated January 1969 Get Back sessions that remained in a vault, unseen by the public (except for the 80 minutes used to make the 1970 movie Let It Be). I also knew that, in the early 1970s, thieves stole the 150 hours of original mono sound recordings made on Nagra tape decks by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s crew during the Get Back sessions.
In July 1975, as a 17-year-old high school student attending a college summer program in Massachusetts, I went to a Beatles Convention promoted in the Harvard Crimson and held at the Bradford Hotel on Tremont Street, a few blocks south of the Boston Common.
At that point in my life, I had read Apple to the Core by Peter McCabe and Robert Shonfeld (a detailed account of the Beatles’ financial disputes), The Longest Cocktail Party by Richard DiLello (a memoir by Apple Corp’s “house hippie” from 1968 to 1970), and Lennon Remembers by Jann Wenner (a transcript of an interview with John Lennon conducted in December 1970).
Much to my amazement, the Beatles Convention (the only one I’ve ever attended) featured a panel discussion with authors Peter McCabe and Richard DiLello, and photographer Jürgen Vollmer (responsible for the photo on the cover of John Lennon’s 1975 Rock ’N Roll album, taken when the Beatles played in Hamburg). In the lobby of the hotel, New York street musician David Peel, immortalized in the lyrics to John Lennon’s song “New York City,” strummed his guitar and led sing-a-longs of Beatles favorites. On Saturday night, along with hundreds of other attendees, I watched eight hours of Beatle movies, including Hard Day’s Night, Help!, The Beatles at Shea Stadium, The Beatles Live at the Washington Coliseum, and The Beatles in Japan.
Vendors at the convention sold their Beatle wares, and I bought an original copy of the Official Beatles’ Fan Club 1969 magazine (still one of my prized possessions) and a double bootleg album entitled Sweet Apple Trax Volume 2, culled (unbeknownst to me) from the stolen Nagra tapes. The bootleg includes excellent sound-quality recordings of Paul McCartney teaching the other Beatles the chords to “Let It Be,” seven versions of “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” one take of “Be Bop a Lula (by Gene Vincent),” “Hi Heel Sneakers (by Tommy Tucker),” seven versions of “I Me Mine,” two versions of “I’ve Got a Feeling,” and one version each of “One After 909,” “Norwegian Wood,” “La Penina” (a McCartney song later recorded by Carlos Mendes) “Shakin’ in the Sixties (by R. Stevie Moore),” “Move It” (by Cliff Richard),” “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (a Roy Brown song made popular by Elvis Presley), “Across the Universe,” “Two of Us,” “Ramblin’ Woman” (believed to be a George Harrison composition), and Bob Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away” and “Mama You Been on My Mind.” Those recordings sound like a garage band struggling to write and learn new songs, and the unpolished versions helped me realize how much time and energy the Beatles dedicated to making their songs shine.
Two years after the Beatles Convention, I saw the movie Let It Be for the first time at a midnight showing at a theater in Sunny Isles, Florida. The grainy, poorly lit, and incoherent film is a colossal disappointment. There’s no plot. It’s like watching a bad home movie — with the exception of the exuberant rooftop concert, which lasts a mere twenty minutes.
Over the years, many other bootlegs from the stolen Nagra tapes went into circulation, and while many of the takes can be found and downloaded for free from the Internet, I find listening to fifteen half-baked versions of “I Dig a Pony” more monotonous than illuminating. Anyone who has ever worked with musicians in a recording session knows how tedious the goings-on can be.
In 1996, as a part of the Beatles Anthology project, the remaining three Beatles released the Beatles Anthology 3 double CD set, which included several songs found on Sweet Apple Trax, but gleaned instead from multi-track studio masters from EMI Records.