By Andrew Berthoff
When I was younger, so much younger than today, I grew up with the Beatles. I can thank my music-loving mother for that. Some of my first memories from the late ’60s are of sitting around the house colouring and listening to LPs like the Stones’ Aftermath, the Who’s Tommy (I remember wondering what “Tommy-The-Who” was, and if he was like the Nowhere Man), Blind Faith, Simon & Garfunkel, Cream, and, of course, the Fab Four.
I would have been about five when Let It Be came out. For my mom, a housewife at the time, I was her main daytime companion for a year, with my older brother and sister in full-time primary school.
She would take me to movies like Yellow Submarine, True Grit, Woody Allen’s Bananas, and I remember seeing Let It Be at our local Varsity cinema. My most vivid recollections were the shot of an older person scaling a roof ladder on Savile Row to get a better view of the band, and that I was a bit frightened by John and George. I was more a Paul and Ringo kid.
While the Beatles are baked into my brain, I wouldn’t consider myself an ardent fan, compared with others who’ve memorized every detail about the band. But I know their music up and down, and, without hesitation, I would say they’re the greatest band in history. Their writing, song for song, is rivalled only by Cole Porter.
I consumed Peter Jackson’s epic documentary Get Back voraciously. The nine hours flew by, and, even in our attention-deficit-disordered world, I can’t understand the post-release whining from some that it was too long.
Too long? Too long are the 50 years that we’ve gone with nary a new piece of footage or fact revealed about the group. Too long is the endless revisionist history about the band. Too long is the winding road of those who’ve since passed: Lennon, Harrison, Linda McCartney, George Martin…
Relative to five decades of nothing, nine hours of brilliant, unfettered, new footage is everything.
I can’t imagine a more fantastic view of the art and skill of professional songwriting than Get Back. What struck me most was the work these geniuses put into their craft. Anyone who believes that a four-minute song takes a minute to make will be quickly disabused of the notion. Each song is carefully massaged, manipulated, and mastered over intense working sessions for a solid month – many hard days’ nights working like a dog.
Despite being on top of the world, they sat down and WORKED
Get Back is nothing but good for professional music creators. I’m not a songwriter, but I’ve composed and published music, and too often, a life’s work is belittled as throwaway, and somehow “easy.” It’s tantamount to undermining a major league athlete as “getting paid millions to play a kids’ game,” discounting the thousands of hours of continual learning, practicing, and perfecting that got them there.
If there’s a scene in Get Back that resonated with me most, it’s when John, George, and Ringo are off to the left of the rehearsal space discussing some relatively mundane topic with the legendary producer Glyn Johns. Not in the shot, one can hear the first few chords of the song “Let It Be” being tested out by McCartney at the piano. The discussion group on the left doesn’t pay any attention to it. They don’t jolt upright, stop everything and shout, “What’s THAT, Paul?!” No, they continue talking because this is simply the everyday songwriting process.
While I see this moment as several of the genesis-type moments of creation (I picture outstretched fingers about to touch the Sistine Chapel roof), it’s one of many quiet but spellbinding incidents in Get Back. It’s profound; a spiritual, near-religious experience.
I’ve always thought that every time a songwriter humble-brags that their No. 1 hit took “20 minutes to write,” that they do themselves and their fellow music creators a disservice.
The essence of the song might well have been scribbled out in a few minutes, but it ignores the years of learning, practice, and preparation that took them to that point, and the hours, days, eight-day weeks, and months of tweaking, arranging, playing, recording, and mastering that made the song what it is.
Every member of the Beatles had no airs and graces that I could detect. Despite being on top of the world for the previous eight years, they sat down with their instruments and worked. They debated, cajoled, kidded, prodded, tweaked – in a word, collaborated. They didn’t come into the space with pre-conceptions of greatness, or even an indication that I could detect that they were about to create anything great.
Indeed, like the best of us, it was their creative humility that appeared to push them forward, without assumption until, in the end, creativity caved to commerce. The inklings of business interrupting their art creep in during the final part of Get Back. To me, it’s a moment as mournful as first chords of “Let It Be” are beautiful.
We can thank The Beatles for many things, and we can thank Get Back for putting the craft, and art, and hard work of songwriting into real context. It shows the genesis of genius.