Baby, Get Back

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

“Suddenly we didn't believe,” Lennon says in one of myriad interviews cut and pasted into Anthology. (Most of the quotes from the book can be found on the eight-tape Anthology video box set, which sells for $130; McCartney, Harrison, and Ringo Starr augmented that four-year-old material with some new interviews, but much of the book feels too familiar to anyone who saw the shows when they first aired.) “And it'd come to a point where it was no longer creating magic.... Paul has this idea that we were going to rehearse, more like Simon and Garfunkel, looking for perfection -- and then make the album. And of course we're lazy fuckers, and we've been playing for twenty years, for fuck's sake. We're grown men; we're not going to sit around rehearsing. And we couldn't get into it, and we put down a few tracks, and nobody was in it at all. It was just a dreadful, dreadful feeling and, being filmed all the time, I just wanted them to go away.”

Of all the Beatles boots on the market -- and there are dozens, including a remarkable nine-disc BBC box and several grab bags of outtakes and audition tapes -- Thirty Days is perhaps the most intriguing, if only because it lets us listen to legends on their death bed, breathing their last gasps. (It's astonishing they would make one more record together, Abbey Road, after these torturous sessions, which were filmed by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg for the now-out-of-print Let It Be.) The birth of a band is fascinating only to those who like their stories happy and sentimental; it's all giddy grins and optimistic giggles, the shiny faces of unblemished promise. The new book is filled with smiley-faced photos and top-of-the-world tales, such as the day the boys smoked pot with Dylan or the time Paul taught Elvis a few things about bass. But the death of a band -- especially this band, these best friends who would so quickly become bitter rivals -- makes for a far better tale, particularly when it's laid out for you without history's censors getting in the way.

Listening to the box set in its entirety is like watching the Zapruder film over and over; you squint hard and try to see the precise moment of impact. It never gets dull listening to version upon version of “Get Back,” or “Don't Let Me Down,” or “Across the Universe,” because no two versions are at all similar. Each is weighed down by the baggage of the moment. Where one “Get Back” will be turgid and lethargic, hinting at the crushing boredom that threatened to consume the Beatles in 1969, another will be frenetic and thrilling, imbued with joy or even a little rage (the trio version of “Get Back,” recorded three days after George “quit” the band, sounds like something off Kick Out the Jams). It was as though the boys had enrolled in a monthlong therapy session in which they could finally let it all out, for better or worse.

“What happened was, when we got in there, it showed how the breakup of a group works,” McCartney says in the book. “We didn't realize that we were actually breaking up as it was happening.” But how could McCartney have missed it? Only he wanted to be there; the rest considered it “work” -- up at 8:00 a.m. for the day job they never before had. They resented Paul for taking the role of band leader, especially given the fact they had so little time to recover from the making of The White Album. When Paul ordered them into Twickenham to begin filming rehearsals for a documentary, which was to culminate in a live performance (they had no idea where at the beginning of January 1969), the other three members all but revolted.

“Even the biggest Beatles fan couldn't have sat through those six weeks of misery,” John said. “It was the most miserable session on Earth.” Harrison was surly from the get-go. He had spent the last part of 1968 hanging out with Bob Dylan and the Band in Woodstock, New York; he also was producing other artists and working on his own material. He believed he no longer needed to play third wheel to Lennon-McCartney, and when McCartney summoned him back to England for this half-assed making-of-an-album documentary, he at first thought of staying away. He knew it would be unhealthy. He knew it would be the Beatles' undoing.

“But I can remember feeling quite optimistic about it,” Harrison adds in the book, sounding always like the voice of reason, the man in the middle, trying to choose sides. “I thought, Okay, it's the New Year and we have a new approach to recording.' I think the first couple of days were okay, but it was soon quite apparent that it was just the same as it had been when we were last in the studio, and it was going to be painful again.”

You can hear that pain on Thirty Days: It's palpable, almost unbearable in spots. But every so often, when the foursome stumbles over “Blue Suede Shoes,” or “Great Balls of Fire,” or “Save the Last Dance for Me,” you can hear the joy of being a Beatle. And no book, least of all one so official, will ever give you that.

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