In January 1969, the Beatles gathered on a soundstage of London’s Twickenham Studios to write and record several songs they would perform live for television and release as an album.
After several years of not performing for a live audience, the Beatles, or Paul McCartney anyway, wanted to recreate the excitement they generated when they toured before shrieking audiences worldwide.
When they moved into Twickenham that January, they gave themselves only three weeks to write the songs, rehearse, and record them.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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They did this while their professional lives were in flux, even in crisis. They lived entirely separate lives because they had stopped touring three years before. They had hardly seen each other on any regular basis.
Brian Epstein, their young manager who handled everything for them, had died only a year and a half before. There was a struggle over their finances and who would handle them. They needed help. Their company, Apple, was in disarray—too many bad, hippy decisions.
Paul wanted his wife’s father, Lee Eastman, to handle finances. The rest of the Beatles wanted roguish American Allen Klein, who also handled the Rolling Stones.
This was the pressure cooker they stepped into that January day.
These sessions were video recorded by documentarian Michael Lindsay-Hogg, a rosy-cheeked, cigar-smoking cherub. They were all achingly young. He edited and released the footage as the movie Let It Be that seemed to show the Beatles at each other’s throats, on the verge of breaking up, as the haunting visage of Yoko Ono sat in the studio glued to John’s side. You can only find bootleg copies of Let It Be these days.
Decades passed, and filmmaker Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) got buy-in to view the more than 60 hours of film footage and 160 hours of audio and produce another version of those nearly last days of the Beatles. Part of his motivation was to show that these sessions were hardly the acrimonious Beatles breakup that the Lindsay-Hogg version seemed to show.
His version was shown in three installments totaling seven hours and forty-eight minutes. Except for the most intense, nearly professional fans, watching it all is a chore. For the typical Beatles fan, it is a little like medicine. “Come on, one more swallow. It’s good for you!” There are hours of them merely noodling around on their instruments, not doing much of anything. There is endless talk about the looming deadline and whether they will do a live show in some Roman ruins in North Africa. Things pick up when they move from Twickenham to the Apple studios and keyboard artist Billy Preston shows up. Now that an outside musician is in there, the Beatles seem to get serious and stop goofing around.
There are exquisite moments in this footage. You see the creation of more than a few iconic Beatles songs. Paul starts strumming his guitar and begins singing nonsense lines to what will become “Get Back.” Paul sits at the piano with roadie Mal Evans standing nearby and writes “The Long and Winding Road.” It is simply fantastic. It seems unreal.
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There are tense moments. At one point, George, annoyed at Paul’s instructions, walks out and quits the Beatles (he comes back). It is clear that the Beatles were Paul’s instrument. They were there doing this project because Paul pushed them. John is almost passive.
And here is the thing. Even in this crazy pressure cooker, under a massive deadline threat, with a financial crisis looming, and on the verge of breaking up, you do not hear even one of the Beatles raise his voice. You’d think there might be yelling and even screaming. Not a bit. You hardly notice even when George walks out because the emotions are dialed way down.
And the second thing is this. We live in a world where the f-bomb is used constantly. Go to a sporting event and it is hardly all you hear. Walk down the street in a major city and you smell pot and hear f-bombs. A friend of mine is a partner in a law firm in Northern Virginia. He says even the youngest female associates lace their vocal fry up-talking with f-bombs. We live in a world where the f-bomb is used constantly. Go to a sporting event and it is hardly all you hear. Walk down the street in a major city and you smell pot and hear f-bombs.Tweet This
I came away from my first viewing of this film with the impression there were no f-bombs. I was wrong. I watched it again to count them—and there are only eight. In almost eight hours of film and audio, there are only eight f-bombs.
It’s not as if the f-bomb was unknown in those days. Historian Paul Fussell writes that it was used constantly by soldiers of the Second World War. There was even a contest to use it as every word in a sentence. “F, the f-ing f-ers f-ed.” And here, the Beatles use it only a handful of times.
When the Beatles ended up performing their new songs not in Roman ruins but on the rooftop of their Savile Row headquarters, Lindsay-Hogg sent cameras and soundmen into the streets around the building. A huge crowd had gathered for what would be the Beatles’ final public performance. Any man-on-the-street interviews these days would be interspersed with f-bombs and the whole plethora of verbal vulgarity. And yet, in 1969, there was not a one. Not a single one.
I wrote two weeks ago about how British housewife Mary Whitehouse laid siege to the BBC that was busy introducing vulgar topics to the British viewing public. It was like holding back the ocean. She lost. We lost. The barbarians won. But even then, the most famous pop group in the world, perhaps of all time, did not let the f-bombs fly. Well, not much anyway.