“It seems highly unlikely we’d be on,” the guitarist told the director.
With a member of the band unexpectedly AWOL, he was justifiably skeptical the Beatles could stage the big concert to end the film.
“I mean, the law of averages are against it,” he continued. “I think if you could get the juggler on with a couple more clubs, that’d fill in a bit of time.”
That guitarist speaking was George Harrison, and the production was A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles’ first feature, filmed Spring 1964. On the afternoon of Friday, January 10, 1969, it wasn’t a self-deprecating Ringo Starr who was missing, it was a self-reliant George himself, having sprung Twickenham during his “Winter of Discontent.” This left the remaining Beatles and director Michael Lindsay-Hogg juggling ideas for how to close what would become “Let It Be,” their final film, and who else would be on stage playing lead guitar.
Michael and Ringo, January 1969. From Peter Jackson’s Get Back.
More than a week into the Get Back sessions, Michael continued making similar iterations of the same pitch for the show.
“One of my ideas is if we go to, like, anywhere, that we mightn’t just announce any times for the concert at all,” he said to Paul McCartney later in the day on the 10th. “We’ll set them (the Beatles) up in whatever desert we do it in, and they start to play. And one by one, and ten by ten, people will come in.”
“Inane, I’d call that,” Paul replied with a comedic aggression. “Straight off the top of my head. … Imbecilic. Salacious.”
(Like in his songwriting, at times, Paul sometimes spoke words that simply sounded good, even if they didn’t make sense in context.)
Michael deflected the response, saying “‘imbecilic’ sounded like a bad bug you get the flu from.”
Regaining focus, he invoked the show’s target date, 10 days hence: “I though that could make a very kind of groovy, trendy opening. Seriously, like: January 20, 1969.”
Moments later, the director and the others in the room — which extended beyond just the band — discussed the issue of visas and difficulties several of the Beatles’ peers (Donovan, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards) faced getting into the United States. They were open to several options, including Mexico, the Virgin Islands and other Caribbean destinations.
“And Catalina, which George said wasn’t very nice,” Michael said.
Not that it mattered what George thought then, he’d quit the group almost an hour earlier.
“So what’s our next move?” Michael asked the others.
“We split George’s instruments,” John Lennon said to laughter.
It was clear in the immediate they were not considering splitting the band, though. If the Beatles were going to be on the move, it would just be in a different iteration. Abandoning the project wasn’t a consideration at present.
The conversation would shortly return to locations, with the Roman amphitheater at Sabratha in Tunisia remaining at the forefront, all other contenders just conversation pieces to keep the group engaged. Michael’s long-preferred destination, he enlisted a “reconnaissance team” that included Beatles assistant Mal Evans and producer Denis O’Dell slated to scout the venue the upcoming Monday.
“There has to be someone to say, ‘The weather’s fine, come on in,’” Michael said.
Paul repeated familiar, feasible suggestions (The Cavern Club, Tower Ballroom) along with new nearby options (the Underground) and more distant, outlandish and outrageous ones (“the mouth of a volcano near Ecuador”).
“I think we should do it for more than 500 people,” Michael added.
It was a tough time to think big. This was an afternoon and evening of distractions and interruptions.
In the wake of George’s departure, there were several coincidental arrivals at Twickenham: A package arrived for Paul (marked “‘handle tenderly”); several “EMI heavies” wandered around the soundstage; a CBC interviewer prepped John and Yoko for an infamous interview that would come a few days later.
Rather than return to a full rehearsal, the group joined Michael in telling several imbecilic (and salacious) knock-knock jokes. Of more interest was Michael discussing his career and relationship with Orson Welles, whom decades later he would discover was his father. One lengthy anecdote (which was also detailed in his 2011 autobiography, “Luck and Circumstance”) described Michael acting in Welles’ 1960 stage production of “Chimes of Midnight” when Welles briefly stormed out of the production in anger.
“See you ’round the clubs!” Glyn Johns reacted, laughing — and confirming George’s earlier valedictory statement, which wasn’t caught on tape.
An afternoon replete with nostalgia would soon continue after Paul returned to the piano (you can hear “The Long and Winding Road” and “Adagio for Strings” clearly on the tapes in the background). After quizzing the band on whether they had endured any scuffles with their fans (Ringo recalled being kicked in the head), Michael asked if they looked back fondly on their frenzied touring period.
John replied with an affected accent, the voice of a ragged bluesman looking back on a lifetime, not merely a few years earlier:
Why, I think of it every day. I think what fun we had when we was [sic] the Beatles, playing and rocking with the group around the world. I said, ‘Richard, you remember that?’ He says, ‘No, I hadn’t joined you then.’
One of the not-so-fond memories: “Having eggs thrown at us in Australia was one of my big moments,” John said.
Reminded by Ringo he had missed part of the 1964 Australian tour (although he was there for the egging in Brisbane), John evoked the name of the rare Beatle stand-in.
“Jimmie Nicol: Now making a living as the 29th Beatle in New Mexico,” John said of the fill-in drummer, who was actually in old Mexico at the time.
Now with the band facing a new vacancy, would they soon get to Beatle No. 30?
As if on cue, moments later, Michael barked an instruction for additional equipment:
“Glyn, Yoko wants a mic.”
She was back, but the music was hardly intense, with Paul having moved onto his White Album ode “Martha My Dear.” Now, her vocals were largely calm and controlled, more comedic than anything.
While Yoko once again wailed, John — in conversation with Michael — laid out his plans to replace George. He didn’t suggest Yoko.
A few hours earlier, George told the other Beatles, “You need Eric Clapton.” The time had come for John to heed the advice, sharing it with Michael.
“I think if George doesn’t come back by Monday or Tuesday, we ask Eric Clapton to play, ” John said. “Eric would be pleased. He left Cream because they’re all soloists. … The point is, if George leaves, do we want to carry on as Beatles?”
Harsh feedback shortly overwhelmed the room, obscuring some of the conversation on the tapes. But the discussion continued, as Yoko again passionately called out John’s name.
MLH: Maybe for the show, you would just say George is sick.
John: (Sincerely): No, I mean, if he leaves, he leaves.
MLH: But what’s the consensus, do you want to go on with the show and the work?
John: Yeah. If he doesn’t come back by Tuesday, we get Clapton.
John: Whaaaaat? (laughter)
John and Yoko continued to repeat each other’s names, but this was the couple playing for laughs. Meanwhile, John and Michael’s discussion continued through the call-and-response, bringing together the issue of show location with locking down a replacement guitarist.
MLH: And what about the venues? … If George comes back we go away, and if Clapton comes in we stay here.
John: We should just go on, as if nothing’s happening.
MLH: I think we should go away.
So eager to get the show on the road, Michael had the potential logistics lined up in his head, proposing the group spend the following week at Twickenham and the week after abroad, all conforming to the group’s timetable, which was in part defined by Ringo’s filming schedule for The Magic Christian.
“What I’ve always thought is we leave here next weekend (January 18-19) and do the show the following weekend (January 25-26) there, if we decide to go there,” Michael said. “And then come back on Monday (January 27), which is just inside Ringo’s seven days.” (The January 20, 1969, date floated previously must have only applied to a domestic show or an alternative, abbreviated schedule.)
Michael’s plans to this point were more extensive than expected, implying there really was no option, at least that he was eager to prepare, other than Sabratha.
“We’ve arranged everything food-wise to come in from Germany,” Michael said, adding for the skeptics, “I do not joke. It’s the same food from the American [military] base.”
Eric Clapton and John Lennon, from the Rock & Roll Circus, December 1968.
And if it wasn’t enough John was trying to enlist Eric Clapton to join the Beatles, Michael casually suggested a near reunion of Cream, if it meant just getting Paul and John to Libya for rehearsals, and Ringo — who was least receptive to travelling — to be minimally overseas.
“We can get out a session man for a couple days,” Michael said. “Or Ginger Baker can come for a few days. Just to kind of routine it.”
The discussion between John and Michael petered out as John joined Paul and Yoko on another jam. Unlike earlier, when the Beatles played hard blues rock out of rage, this improvisation was more subdued, a more gentle and at times an arguably pleasant performance, containing elements of “Palace of the King of Birds.” Paul was on piano, John on guitar and Ringo on tambourine with Yoko providing another disruptive vocal — although not quite as consistently intense than earlier in the day.
Soon, Paul shifted to the drums — and it’s a noticeable drop in quality from Ringo to Paul, as strong as the latter is as a multi-instrumentalist. More importantly, it freed up Ringo, who returned to conversing with Michael. But first, he played up for the cameras (and tapes).
Yeah, rock it to me baby, that’s what I like. You may think this is a full orchestra, but if you look closely you can see there’s only two people playing and one person singing. I know it sounds like Benny Goodman, but don’t worry. It’s the big sound of 1969! You bet your life. Oh, sock it to me, sock it to me. (Laughter)
Interested in the filmmaking, Ringo asked Michael precisely what he was doing — “I thought what we should do is the first sessions when you came back, make it very hand-held looking,” Michael said, pulling the curtain behind the sausage-making. More importantly, Michael shared his first-hand view on what he saw after George walked out.
“And the interesting thing is, Paul went to his amp. … I don’t know if you knew what you did, psychologically, after lunch. You (addressing Paul, who joined them) went at your amp like you shut the door into a closet. … And you (Ringo) were playing very hard. … And John was doing whatever he was doing.”
Ringo, Paul and Michael continued their conversation, as John provided background music — “Sun King” and “Dear Prudence.”
MLH: Have you ever had coverage when you were doing a whole album?
MLH: Have you ever wanted it?
Like it or not, the Beatles — what presently remained of them — were getting blanket coverage, and the real drama was happening in the studio, not on location.
“Are we meeting again Monday?” Michael asked hopefully in the waning moments of the day’s session.
“Yeah, I’ll have Eric, Jimi (Hendrix, although it could feasibly be Jimmy Page) and Tommy (Evans of the Iveys, perhaps?) lined up,” John replied, with varying and low degrees of sincerity.
Paul’s set his bar much lower.
“A7, D7, G7,” he instructed Maureen Starkey, who was visiting Twickenham that afternoon. “Get ’em off over the weekend and you’re in.”
(Ironically, armed with those chords, Maureen would have been able to fill in for George on his For You Blue.)
Paul with guitar protégée Maureen Starkey. From the Get Back trailer.
Before splitting for the day, Michael made sure to capture the scene. “We have this well-documented. And a lot of shots of the empty cushion.” We’ll see what Peter Jackson shows us in Get Back ’21, but this footage was left on the cutting-room floor of the final cut of Let It Be.
“And I guess that’s it,” wrapped up Michael, who wished the others luck in their planned weekend business meeting, which would include George. “And I hope everything really goes swell. I’d like to say, I’ve enjoyed our week together, hope one day we have another one like it.”
“Surely,” Paul replied. “Why not?”
And thus ended the first full work week of the Get Back sessions. While George was kicking Eric Clapton’s ex-girlfriend out of his own house, John pushed the concept of welcoming Eric into the Beatles’ office.
As you certainly know, Clapton never joined the Beatles, and John didn’t bring him in the following Tuesday, even though George wasn’t back. There clearly wasn’t an actual offer anyway.
Here’s Paul, from the Anthology book:
After George went we had a meeting out at John’s house, and I think John’s first comment was, ‘Let’s get Eric in.’ I said, “No!” I think John was half-joking. We thought, “No, wait a minute. George has left and we can’t have this — it isn’t good enough.’
For his part, Clapton repeatedly downplayed the idea he was an actual fallback option for the Beatles. In modern parlance, Clapton thought John used him as clickbait, and the friendship he had with George would have been a blocker anyway.
Eric, from the April 1998 issue of Mojo:
There may have been [a suggestion the Beatles would ask him to join]. The problem with that was, I had bonded or was developing a relationship with George — which was exclusive of them. I think it fitted a need of his and mine, that he could elevate himself by having this guy, that I could be like a gun-slinger to them. Lennon would use my name every now and then for clout, as if I was the fastest gun. So I don’t think I could have been brought into the whole thing, because I was too much a mate of George’s.
Several years later, after George’s death, Clapton literally laughed at the idea of joining the Beatles when he was interviewed for Martin Scorsese’s 2011 documentary “Living in the Material World”.
As he said in the clip, the Beatles could be the most close-knit quartet, but at the same time, “the cruelty and the viciousness was unparalleled.”
The latter led the Beatles to this moment. After their first full day at Twickenham, on January 3, George described with envy The Band‘s ability to blur their domestic and working lives, something he witnessed first-hand when he visited the group and Bob Dylan six weeks prior. “They’ve got all that gear there, but … they’re just living, and they happen to be a band as well.”
His relationships with his wife and his band in distress, George had neither element 10 days into January 1969 — he wasn’t living properly, and he didn’t feel like a useful member of the Beatles.
While he’d join John Lennon as a member of the Dirty Mac before and the Plastic Ono Band later, Eric Clapton was neither asked, nor was he seemingly willing to accept an assignment with the Beatles.
The Beatles didn’t need Eric Clapton, a gunslinger for hire. They needed George Harrison.