Get Radical (Part 6 of Learning…With The Beatles)
The Art Collective known as The Beatles had released their masterpiece, now known as the White Album, but tellingly entitled The Beatles. This virginal white release signified their creative rebirth after Epstein’s death and the hat trick of experimentalist cartoon alter-egos they had donned in the mid-sixties. Having gone to India to clear their heads, regrouped unplugged with a broader group dynamic than ever before, they had amassed a huge swathe of songs and then recorded them, often as leader plus backing band. To me, along with opening Apple and signing and recording many other artists, this indicates that musically they had changed states for the third time. But this time we didn’t get it.
They had formed the twentieth century equivalent to a Renaissance Art School, but led by more than one genius, hold up in their Atelier, Abbey Road; only this time all three studios were pressed into action. Like Andy Warhol with Velvet Underground they were producing music and signing it, and that included Badfinger (especially), Mary Hopkin, and a cast of hundreds. But this time, unlike when they became the “self-contained unit” or created the “album as artwork”, the new “beat group as Atelier” model never gained acceptance; it was too specific to them; others tried but only the Beatles could pull it off. They had become a new Fluxus, a collaborative co-operative, creative collective, sharing their good fortune, and their fortune with all and sundries (perhaps too many sundries) to recreate the music industry, and just like Shawn Fanning they were taken down. Their reward for this collaboratively heutagogic approach to their profession was what became the contractual obligation album, initially known as Get Back.
The creative fecundity of “The Beatles” album was so rich and diverse that it took me twenty years to get it. Its geographically scaled creative streak was so vast that the continental Americans got it, but we land-locked history-constrained Brits just didn’t get its density all. Nope! Such growth, depth and ambition (as well as generosity) allied to such vision was rewarded in the traditional music industry way; another contractual obligation album.
The Get Back project was triply retro, apart from implicitly rejecting the newly created values of “The Beatles”. Firstly, tragically, it was required to fill the United Artists film contract. Ironically United Artists initially only wanted a soundtrack album from the new overnite sensations, from which they planned to extract a $1m and for which they got the peerless Hard Days Night. Despite this excessive success they insisted that Yellow Submarine was not a Beatles film and demanded the third film required to fulfill the contract. They got it; but finished the Beatles off in the process.
So this IS the picture; You’ve released yet another game-changing masterpiece which contains, within its Beatle collective form, the possibility of you emerging from your gilded chrysalis into a new loose affiliation of collaborators operating under the Beatles imprimatur, and/or the Apple brand. You released two further albums, Wonderwall and Two Virgins, and a Christmas record for fans, had arrests, miscarriages, a movie (Candy), recorded with Cream and the Stones, as well as the media to deal with; oh and got through Xmas and New Year. But, as you are the Golden Goose, you have old, old contracts still to fulfill…
So, on January 2nd 1969, on a cold cavernous soundstage, you found that your newly redefined and freshly declared group genius was rewarded with the requirement to re-assemble for United Artists, in Twickenham far from your Atelier, to go through Groundhog Day and “audition” for your old job back as a nifty little beat group.
To be fair the idea for Get Back was deliciously intriguing, and emerged when the Beatles made live recordings of Hey Jude and Revolution in front of a live audience for the David Frost Show. The overwhelmingly positive response of the audience had excited the Beatles and encouraged them to consider playing live again. They thought that after “The Beatles” they would work on a project to record a bunch of new songs and this time release them first in a live performance; they would fuse creation and performance and so return to live shows in this quirkily unique way.
The problem was both the timing and, to some extent, the accompanying profound denial of their newly evolved form of Beatleness. It was like graduating with a Ph.D and then being invited to a tryout for a part-time job in primary school. The resentment was palpable. Nonetheless the Beatles did enough work for the resulting Let It Be album and film to be intriguingly close to its original artistic intentions; to reveal the Beatles ways of working and recording in extreme close-up. Well we got the close-ups but we lost the context. The Beatles were being recorded in situ for the convenience of bulky 1960s film cameras, and not in that quintessentially Fifth Beatle space; Abbey Road Studio 2. They were craftsmen cruelly deprived of one of their tools; ambience.
So the learning they had gone through in the album phase of their career, that collaboration was creativity, got lost. Ironically it was restated once George Harrison brought Billy Preston in and they knocked off the album we know as Let It Be in a week, as Preston had other contracts to fulfill from February 1969. As Kenneth Womack points out they still produced four Beatles classics in that week, once time was demonstrably running out; maybe that was their key driver, deadlines? So on January 30th, after capturing Dont Let Me Down, Let It Be, Get Back and a number of Long and Winding tracks for the album, The Beatles plus Billy Preston climbed on to the Apple roof and undertook the 45 minutes of live performance which, in the end, closed their career. As a recording group they had started in a Cavern and ended Up On The Roof patently rediscovering their live chops; who knows.
In learning terms the magic was broken. As Lennon ironically comments at the end of the rooftop concert “and I hope we passed the audition,” which more precisely translates as “what the f*** have we got to prove?” They weren’t building on what The Beatles had taught John, Paul, George and Ringo, as this would have required Apple to function effectively as a contracting framework organisation.
They were badly advised. Klein might get better deals than Epstein but going out on a limb for the world’s biggest group wasn’t the same as gambling on a bunch of nobodies based on a hunch and some word of mouth. In fact in a week they produced a pretty good contract obligation album. They had been producing contract obligation albums for their entire career, but this time instead of their work ethic and creativity letting them get ahead of the obligations they didn’t have a strong enough concept, or enough cohesion to transcend the usual limitations. So much so that Peter Doggett’s “You Never Give Me Your Money” just details the issues and problems that overwhelmed them and finished them off.
Like Jimi Hendrix, who had decided to disband the Experience but maintain links with fellow band members, and others, to present shows with a variety of line ups, the Beatles new Atelier model of working was never packaged by Apple in a way that worked. It is also a tough sell to represent the worlds biggest group as a loose affiliations of goofs and friends. They werent up to it individually and the business certainly wasn’t up to it collectively. Only one thing left to do; go out with a bang In the Court of Abbey Road.