Baby, Get Back

Autobiography and a bootleg box prove that when it comes to the Beatles, you can never just let it be

Doug Sulpy and Ray Schweighardt's book Get Back: The Unauthorized Chronicle of the Beatles'Let It Be Disaster contains the sort of minutiae that gives a hard-on to the hard-core. The 332-page book, published last year, is less a narrative than an autopsy constructed from bootlegged outtakes made during the January 1969 rehearsals for the documentary Let It Be, itself a sort of horror film with a Top 10 soundtrack. The two authors simply sat down with hours upon hours of tape and transcribed what they heard: every argument, every oldies cover, every improvised jam, every attempt by George Harrison to leave the band (on January 10, for instance, “George is speaking to John and calmly announces he's quitting the Beatles immediately.... George coldly suggests that the other Beatles write to the New Musical Express in order to get a replacement for him”). Sulpy and Schweighardt are true obsessives, leaving no crumb behind, meaning that for every revelation, there are 100 useless scraps. Of a one-second, ah, version of “All Things Must Pass,” the two write, “This briefest of fragments consists of nothing more than the word “all.'”

Get Back ranks among the most compelling accounts of the Beatles' final days; it's the rock and roll equivalent of reading Richard Nixon's surreptitious Oval Office tapes, a literary exercise in voyeurism. But in the end, sitting down with the book is an utterly joyless experience. Without the soundtrack -- the ragged rehearsals of embryonic classics, the improvised wanking, the half-remembered versions of their own hits, the bitching and moaning -- what's the point? It's like listening to someone describe an episode of Seinfeld or a porn video. You had to be there, or, barring that, at least own the bootlegs from which the authors “wrote” their book.

For the first time, such a thing actually is possible: Last month, no doubt to coincide with the release of the Beatles' own “autobiography,” the 60-buck, six-pound oral history The Beatles Anthology, the Vigotone label released the seventeen-disc bootlegged box set Thirty Days: The UltimateGet Back Sessions Collection. It's the most complete account of those sessions ever made available (legally or, in this case, otherwise), including four discs' worth of material recorded at the Twickenham Studios and a complete disc of producer Glyn Johns's first compilation for the scheduled but never released Get Back album. The discs dispense with much of the sarcastic, bitchy chitchat. Only here and there do we get glimpses of the body beginning to stiffen with rigor. On January 29, when Paul suggests the band run through “One After 909,” an especially testy John responds with a sneering “fuck you”; we also hear, quite literally, Harrison storming out of the rehearsals, after which the band continues without him as though nothing has happened. Priced at nearly $300 (or five times the cost of the new coffee-table book, which is a coffee table all by its lonesome) the box is for fetishists only, or, at the very least, the fan who felt dissatisfied with the three double-disc Anthology collections released in 1995 and 1996, which were the ultimate tease: They gave us only enough to want more. (As with the book, the Beatles' most recent compilations always seem to leave out the best parts.)

Thirty Days, which Vigotone says consists of the best material culled from “more than 500 rolls of tape,” fills in gaps even Sulpy and Schweighardt overlooked. The label insists that more than 50 percent of the box is being released for the first time, with most of that (indeed, about 90 percent) coming from the rehearsals at the band's own Apple Studios on Savile Row, which take up nine discs. For the first time, we can hear in its entirety the 47-minute concert on the roof of Apple Studios; we hear the dozens of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Gene Vincent covers (not to mention McCartney's version of “Hello, Dolly!”); we hear myriad run-throughs of “All Things Must Pass” and “Let It Down,” both of which ended up on Harrison's solo debut; we hear John Lennon and Billy Preston funking up “I Want You (She's So Heavy),” until one take sounds as heavy as Blue Cheer. And we hear off-the-cuff versions of Lennon-McCartney songs that date back to the earliest days of their friendship, among them the country-tinged “I'll Wait 'Til Tomorrow” and the most appropriately titled “Won't You Please Say Goodbye.”

The box set, like the new book, does its very best to demythologize the Beatles -- to present them as just four guys in a band who loved one another till they could no longer stand to be in the same room with one another. If these guys thought so little of their own history (on January 28, for instance, they turn out a slow, bluesy, nearly off-key rendition of “Love Me Do,” the band's first single), how come we've spent more than 30 years turning them into gods? “The Beatles were always a great little band,” Paul McCartney insists near the end of Beatles Anthology. “Nothing more, nothing less.” The true believer might take umbrage with his modesty -- indeed, the Beatles' shadow will forever touch any band that springs to life in a garage -- but after listening to the complete box set, you kind of see his point. Out of the public's earshot, they were known to make a horrible mess. It's nothing less than astonishing to discover the Beatles forgot words to songs you've known word for word, note for note, since you were a child. They thought nothing of legacies, of myths, of meanings. They wanted only one thing by January 1969: out.

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