To write about the Beatles’ lunchroom discussion on January 13, 1969, is to write about a conversation that has no particular aim and a sudden ending. As I wrote last time — I cut-and-pasted this part — it’s sincerely impossible to give a linear rundown of this 30-minute discussion, as it isn’t a linear discussion. My disclaimer remains: You may have already read some of the below in previous posts. Now three parts in, this isn’t a straight recap — instead I’m trying to follow themes as they moved across different points in the conversation.
If you haven’t already, please read Part 1 first and then Part 2. It’ll get you right where you need to be to start off here.
There’s no snark, no playing for the cameras, no sarcasm. Otherwise absent, John Lennon revealed his instinctual charm in his vulnerability.
“I played a weaker game now than ever,” John was recorded saying at one point during the Beatles’ lunchroom discussion on January 13, 1969, as captured by the Nagra Tapes.
He did know, however, that whomever he was speaking to, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman could listen in and follow up. This wasn’t complete privacy.
This conversation, like so much on the lunchroom Nagra tape and so much of the serious discussion around the band these days, is framed around the group’s approach to George Harrison’s role in the group. John and Paul certainly admitted to treating him “like a mongrel.” But much of the conversation is really centered on John and Paul themselves, the conjoined Nerk Twins and compositional heart and soul of the Beatles, the two biggest heads of the mighty four-headed monster that embodied the Beatles.
Much drama lay in store for the John and Paul relationship in years to come, but a lot had developed already. The threat of a further fracture — of the greater four, of these specific two — hung over Twickenham on January 13, 1969. The four were really three at this point anyway, with George gone.
And then there were those two. It was clear the relationship between John and Paul was, at best, impaired. The Lennon-McCartney partnership was discussed at some length before John and Yoko arrived for the day. In the presence of Ringo, Linda and others, Paul admitted his relationship with John — certainly when it came to songwriting, their job — wasn’t the same.
As the tapes secretly rolled in the Twickenham canteen, John came off as sincere in airing his grievances, which he must have held close prior, given how fresh his admissions sound.
“It’s like George said,” John conceded 12 minutes in, a line captured in the 2021 Get Back docuseries. “It just doesn’t give me the same sort of satisfaction anymore, because of the compromise we’d have to make to be together.”
The end result of the records now aren’t enough. … When something came out, like Revolver or [Sgt.] Pepper or whatever, there was still that element of surprise that we didn’t know where it came from. But now we know exactly where it comes from, and how it arrived at that particular noise, and how it could have been much better. Or it needn’t have been at all. The only way to do it satisfactorily, for yourself, is to do it on your own. And then that’s fucking hard.
So what’s the way out? It should have been these very sessions — the Beatles were in the midst of conducting exactly what it seems like John sought. The Get Back sessions weren’t delicately curated, and even if the actual noises weren’t necessarily unique, the process of creating new songs for a show demanded spontaneity unseen in their history.
John didn’t say the above to Paul, who was engaged in conversation with Yoko. Instead, John was speaking to Linda, who challenged her partner’s partner.
Linda: But you were saying yesterday … you write good songs and it can’t be any better way. You don’t want just studio musicians. I mean, that’s how I look at it. You make good music together, whether you like it or not.
John: I like it.
Linda: And making good music is also … it’s really hard working at a relationship.
Issues clearly emerged in 1968, and whether it sprouted from the death of Brian Epstein or the trip to India or during the White Album sessions itself isn’t necessarily relevant to this discussion. While the 1967 noises still surprised, the White Album left John “dissatisfied” (Ringo disagreed), even though “the end result was as good as it could’ve been.”
At once, John yearned for time on his own, while also lamenting that the Beatles had turned more in that very direction – more actively working separately — during the recording of their last album. To this end, The Beatles LP should have been called “John, Paul, George and Ringo.”
“I dig it, individually, far more than Sgt. Pepper,” John said. “But as a whole — as a Beatles thing, I think it didn’t work as a Beatles thing.”
There’s another contradiction. To get The Beatles Thing, they had to be themselves. But that behavior alienated George.
I wrote about some of what’s written below when I recounted Paul’s concept of a “breakup show” earlier on the 13th, but it’s worth not only repeating but going into further detail in the context of the rest of the lunchroom tape. We’re now in the post-Get Back docuseries world, which requires more commentary than before to amplify or clarify what a broader audience has now seen.
“You try and make George play competently, because you’re afraid that how he’ll play won’t be like you want him to play,” John told Paul. “And that’s what we did.
“And that’s what you did to me.”
The accusation came as no surprise to Paul, who simply mustered a “yeah,” like he did so many times during this conversation in response to John.
We can’t pretend this is a surprising point of contention. Paul Was Bossy largely defined the iconic Winter of Discontent. It was why the Let It Be Sessions, as we often called it once upon a time, was a “failure,” and why we believed the Beatles entered the summer of 1969 to produce Abbey Road as a way to go out on a high. This is 50 years of how Beatles history was recounted, whether you like it or not, to quote Linda.
We know better today, but even if it wasn’t the ultimate casus belli, of course Paul was bossy, even if that’s just in the lowercase. The other Beatles struggled with it: George quit at least in part because of it, and at the canteen, John protested. Paul may have placed himself as merely “secondary boss” earlier in the conversation when discussing an expanded lineup, but now, with around seven minutes left on the lunchroom recording, John conceded he felt powerless working with Paul, and had for some time.
“I’d got to a bit where I thought it’s no good, me telling you how to do it, you know? All I tried to do on [the White A]lbum was just sing it to you like I was drunk, you know? Just did me best to say, ‘Now look, this, this stands up on its own.’
“And I’m not doing this quite well this time, ‘cause I — like, even with ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, the first time I sang it. Because I hadn’t allowed meself to say it was a whole song. I couldn’t — it was only after we’d done it that I’d realized it was done. You know, and on The Beatles album, I just sort of said, ‘Here it is, ignore here, this is me singing it drunk, but I’m pretending as if I’m not. What would you do with it? George, you play whatever you like.’”
Paul laughed at John’s second mention of singing drunk, but it goes to John feeling he had to be stripped of inhibitions to present and arrange a song to Paul as finished in his ears and in his eyes. John entered these sessions feeling unsure again, though. As he said regarding “Don’t Let Me Down,” it took Paul and George to help arrange it earlier in the sessions after John himself said he wasn’t sure in which order the song’s three sections should be presented.
You know, and that’s what it was. It wasn’t -– it wasn’t the arrogance of, “Listen, this is it, baby.” It was that I can’t tell you what to do because you won’t play, here, like what I think you should play. And I’m not going to tell you what to play.
Paul and John continued to speak to and over each other. It wasn’t angrily, they just were doing everything to make their respective points.
Paul: OK, and that’s great, you know. And then – it’s just being able to say that, on the occasion, just being – say, “Look, I’m not going to say anything about the song, because it’ll be difficult … to sing it to you.”
John: Yeah, I know, but you wouldn’t say – listen to me – you probably arranged it you know?
Paul: I know, I know.
John: Well, I’m saying that “Dear Prudence” is arranged. Can’t you hear [John vocalizes part of the song]. That is the arrangement, you know? But I’m too frightened to say “This is it.” I just sit there and say, “Look, if you don’t come along and play your bit, I won’t do the song,” you know? I can’t do any better than that. Don’t ask me for what movie* you’re gonna play on it.
Because apart from not knowing, I can’t tell you better than you have, what grooves you can play on it. You know, I just can’t work. I can’t do it like that. I never could, you know. But when you think of the other half of it, just think, how much more have I done towards helping you write? I’ve never told you what to sing or what to play. You know, I’ve always done the numbers like that. Now, the only regret, just the past numbers, is when because I’ve been so frightened, that I’ve allowed you to take it somewhere where I didn’t want.
[* Author’s note: I swear “movie” is what John said there, even if it doesn’t sound like it makes sense in context.]
What made the last bit a dialogue instead of a monologue was only the occasional “yeah” delivered by Paul.
John was pouring it out. He admitted fear, regret and submission.
“And then, my only chance was to let George … take over, or interest George in it, because I knew he’d …”
“’She Said, She Said,’” Paul interrupted, and John confirmed.
Interestingly, you can hear Linda replying, “yes, yes,” which means this was a big enough deal to Paul that he shared the story of that song’s recording with her (the couple didn’t meet for nearly a year after that session, so she wasn’t around at the time). It’s easy to reason why he did, and why he likely brought it up within the last 100 hours. With George having just quit, Paul probably told Linda about the time he himself walked out on the band – during the recording of the final song cut for Revolver, on June 21-22, 1966.
An anecdote absent from Beatles history until 1997 — the post-Anthology era — Paul recalled the walkout for Barry Miles’ authorized biography Many Years From Now.
I’m not sure but I think it was one of the only Beatle records I never played on. I think we all had a blarney or something and I said, “Oh, fuck you!” and they said, “Well, we’ll do it.” I think George played bass.
Paul’s account had been the single source of this incident. It’s now part of the Beatles’ official history with this passage appearing in the book that accompanied the 2022 Revolver deluxe reissue (along with Paul’s quote):
The disagreement that happened in the dead of night seems to have been about how to resolve differing ideas for the arrangement. A recording sheet in the Abbey Road archive indicates a piano was added to the song at one stage, but no trace of the instrument remains on the tapes.
Back in the Twickenham canteen, John was clear about what mattered to him that night in 1966: “He’d take it as it is,” John said of George before continuing.
“So on [the White Album] … it’s probably George, you know, if there’s anything wrong with it. Because I don’t want your arrangement on it … I only want your … If you give me your suggestions, let me reject them, or if there’s one I like, it’s when we’re writing songs. The same goes for the arrangement.”
Exasperated and resigned, John continued, “I don’t want it to … I don’t know.”
Both Paul and Yoko said they knew what he meant, even if John couldn’t pin it down.
In the tape’s final moments, John returned the focus to his in-studio working relationship to Paul and continued to show what, at best, can be called inconsistencies.
And that’s all I did on the last album was say, “OK, Paul, you’re out to decide [how] my songs [are] concerned, arrangement-wise.” … I’d sooner just sing them, than have them turn into, into ‘[Being For the Benefit of] Mr. Kite,’ or anything else, where I’ve accepted the problem from you that it needs arrangement. … I don’t see any further than the guitar, and the drums, and, and George Martin doing the … I don’t hear any of the flutes playing, you know? I suppose I could hear ‘em if I [spoken as if straining] sat down and worked very hard! You know, I could turn out a mathematical drawing, if you like …
Indeed, John was more likely to tell George Martin he wanted “to smell the sawdust” in “Mr. Kite’s” circus atmosphere, or that he wanted to sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop in “Tomorrow Never Knows.” It’s all consistent with John’s outspoken, retrospective dissatisfaction with arrangements on his own songs, like “Across the Universe” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
Isn’t John lucky to have run into a guy like Paul McCartney (and a producer like George Martin) to help him take the song beyond guitar and drums and happily chart out those mathematical drawings?
It’s the archetypal refrain when bands splinter: There were musical differences. The Beatles didn’t really have musical differences. Just listen to the music they kept making and their general output as solo artists. These guys just had differences in how to make music. Despite the protestations, John and Paul weren’t incompatible but perfectly complementary, they knew it and we all know it.
How to fit in George (Harrison) was an entirely different issue. This was all part of the “compromise we’d have to make to be together,” as John said earlier at the canteen.
Paul: I’m onto the same thing, you know. … It is only, like, if you can just remember that we’re, you know, the four of us are trying to do that. ‘Cause I mean, all of those things you say, you know, in some way, apply to me. Not always —
John: Yes, yes, because everything applies a little bit to each other.
Paul: It is just you saying it. They’re all, you know, in some way, to some degree, will apply to me.
John: But there was a period where none of us could actually say anything, about your criticisms.
Paul: Yeah. Yeah.
John: ‘Cause you would reject it all.
Paul: Yeah, sure.
John: And so George and I would just go, you know, “I’ll give you a line here,” “OK,” you know, “We’ll do four in a bar, and I’ll do…” [resigned, sincere] And a lot of the times you were right.
John: But a lot of the times you were the same as they always are. But I can’t see the answer to that.
The “we’ll do four in a bar” bit is what the Get Back docuseries claimed was “I’m Paul McCartney” — my complete forensic analysis of this sequence is here at CSI: Twickenham. Regardless if the show’s transcription decision was human (or AI) error or a deliberate editorial misrepresentation, even if John wasn’t actually mocking Paul we can understand why Peter Jackson and Co. either thought he was or just wanted that quote to have some traction.
Paul’s ego at this moment was justifiably boundless, and it extended to his thoughts on the band itself. The Beatles’ reputation earned them wiggle room. It ties indirectly to an imaginary scenario he laid out earlier in the conversation: drunkenly playing the piano just because he felt like it and “everyone in that room will dig it, because it’s me really doing it.”
Here Paul insists the Beatles don’t have to play perfectly to sound that way to listeners and critics.
The thing is, like, within each other, within ourselves, we’ve reached something that’s nearly perfect. And everyone else who’s listening to it — “That’s it! We’ve done it!” … OK, so we know we nearly made it, but we’ve really made it for everyone else. ‘Cause, OK, we’re into the fine, finest, finest technicalities, you know, I mean, that’s where it’s at, you know? If one day, we can even keep all the people who are listening to this, nearly, nearly made it, they think we’ve made it. They think that’s it.
The next bit is familiar from the opening moments of the lunchroom scene of the Get Back series, although on the tapes it actually was said very close to the end.
“Like last week,” Paul said, “I say I was doing all right for me, I was really trying to just say to George, ‘Take it there,’ you know? Whereas I wouldn’t have gone, previously — I would have said, “Take it there – with [vocalizing] ‘diddle-derddl-diddle-der.’ But I was trying last week, to say, ‘Now, take it there, and it needs to be like…”
“You see, the point now is we both did that to George this time,” John replied.
The policy that kept us together. The compromise we’d have to make to be together. John had asserted in the canteen several times there was a system, and in not so many words, he believed that system had collapsed and they broke George. This was, like so many issues these four had, a communication problem.
John put it succinctly: “It’s like if I say, ‘All right, take it,” he’ll say, “Well, look, I can’t take it.”
Before the tape ran out in the lunchroom, as John and Paul continued to discuss their inability to get through to George, musically, we get to hear part of an exchange that was introduced in an edited fashion very early in the Get Back version of the sequence.
Paul: So he knows that when we say, “Take it,” we expect [Paul vocalizing]. If I said that, then he’d … [vocalizing George playing a simplified version of that same part]
John: But it’s just that bit. The bit where we’ve — “I’ve Got a Feeling.” There’s no way we could have translated it to him to say …
Paul: He’d have said, “I’ll do it at home.”
John: He’s gonna go home. But so have I, you know. I’m gonna go home in a studio, rather than go through this with anybody.
Paul: I’ve never said to George, “Look, George, I think, when I want a guitar bit, I want it exactly like I want it.” And he’s never said to me, “Well, you can’t have it.” … But that’s it, while he’d never said that to me, and I’ll never say that to him, and we’ll go on. But, really, I mean it is gonna be much better if we can actually say, “Look George, ‘I Got A Feeling,’ I want … exactly [like this].” And he’ll say, “Yeah, but I’m not you and I can’t do it exactly how you do it.”
And that ended the near-30-minute reel. It’s unclear how much longer they spoke, and what direction the conversation took.
So where are we left after extensively eavesdropping on the Beatles?
Ultimately we only know what a 1960s-era miniature spy microphone shoved into a flowerpot in an active lunchroom was able to pick up over a single half-hour period. At several points, the conversation is completely indistinguishable. At others we have a conversation being picked up in the foreground when one in the background is completely obscured. Even with Get Back’s AI, we’ve learned it’s not all perfectly heard.
Thanks to the lunchroom tape we know the Beatles better than before if only because there are more data points to draw upon, but that doesn’t mean we understand things proportionally better. These Beatles were never ones to keep a story consistently straight when it was for public consumption, and it doesn’t seem much different in private.
All at once during this same conversation, John wanted to:
- Assign song arrangements to Paul because he didn’t want to bother with the job himself
- Ask for suggestions on arrangements with the right of refusal
- Not have any additional arrangements to his songs
As relaxedly outspoken he was on the lunchroom tape as well as earlier in talking to the others prior to John’s arrival, Paul was likewise levelheaded, perhaps thinking all along, “John, you’re all over the place, as usual” while never coming close to saying as much.
The tape and these sessions overall allow us to witness a maturation in Paul’s temperament and what sounds anecdotally like a softening in his micromanagement style in the 30 months since his 1966 walkout. He could still be very stubborn, but if we assume the “She Said, She Said” situation was comparable to other tense moments in January ’69, he handled these recent situations with greater poise. Paul recognized it himself saying just above, “Like last week, I say I was doing all right for me.” There are several similar snapshots throughout the sessions at Twickenham where Paul can be heard stopping himself.
Get Back was misleading in its presentation of the “I’ll go home to do it” quote. It’s not that George wanted to quit the band — or for that matter that John wanted to also. Home was the space George was more comfortable working on certain things. Witness the “last-night” songs George composed alone at home. When John says George will go home, he didn’t mean he was quitting the band, as Get Back implies. The context is clear it was to be in a different space to work out his parts.
Still, George had quit the band, and attempts to get him back the day before failed. Perhaps John was so vocal at the canteen as a reaction to the complaints others had that Yoko was speaking for him over the weekend. John wasn’t relying on her, or code words or telepathy to communicate with Paul.
The Get Back edit of the lunchroom tape is a very frustrating viewing once you know the contents of the entire original half-hour audio tape. Deceptive at its worst and unreliable at other points, the TV edit simply blurs an already schizophrenic conversation. Even if the two central participants were John and Paul, the active presence of Ringo, Yoko and Linda needed to be acknowledged, period.
An alternate televised account of the lunchroom — perhaps openly presented as a supercut or trailer of sorts of the full conversation — would have come off cleaner. A movie trailer never presents the action in the final order, but that’s OK and assumed by a viewer. Openly presenting the lunchroom sequence as a sampler of the conversation — one that jumps in, out and all around — would have been a more fair portrayal to satisfy the critics (like me) while keeping with the show’s clear time limitations.
Paul was most outspoken when discussing the group’s future, both before and during the lunchroom tape. But to be clear, the Beatles always discussed their future, even publicly, going back to the dawn of Beatlemania. You’ve heard John’s quote from November 1963 before:
You can be big-headed and say, ‘”Yeah, we’re gonna last 10 years.” But as soon as you’ve said that you think, ‘We’re lucky if we last three months,’ you know.
That they were conscious of their future more than six years after that interview should be no surprise. Breakup rumors appeared in the mainstream press as early as 1964 and reignited periodically. They were always expected to break up until they unexpectedly broke up.
How often did the Beatles privately have conversations like this one at the Twickenham canteen? How often over their career during a bumpy period? How often in January 1969? This 30-minute sequence was a one of a kind capture, but it doesn’t make it a one-of-a-kind conversation.
The individual Beatles of January 13, 1969, were closer to 30 years old than 20. Closer to the release of the McCartney LP than Sgt. Pepper. Their egos were developed, and John said he needed to smother his in Paul’s shadow. George’s could hardly develop in the space of John and Paul.
Did John even want George back? That’s not my question, that’s John’s question.
At this point, there are conflicting goals: self-preservation and singing how you really sing it vs. the Beatles Thing. With the luxury of retrospection, we know it shook out OK. Abbey Road was terrific, Let It Be was great and the intermittent singles were fab. It was more in question on January 13, 1969.
Meanwhile, if John was looking for sounds that would surprise, in 10 days time, the embodiment of a new sound and new attitude would walk through the door, giving life to John’s search for an element of surprise.
Like “Her Majesty” — the conclusion to Abbey Road that had its origins in the Get Back sessions — the lunchroom tape cuts off unresolved. We only know what comes next some short time later: John, Paul and Ringo head back to Twickenham’s sound stage. George isn’t there. They don’t replace him either. They simply go back to the studio.
But George’s on their mind.
“Let’s go and see George,” Paul said about 10 minutes into the post-lunch Nagras, which were initially filled with idle talk — a little bit about camera work, some about television. There was one problem with that excellent plan, and Ringo delivered the news: George, in fact, had — quite literally — gone back home.
“He’s gone to Liverpool” and would be back Wednesday.
“Oh, then Wednesday’s the day we see him, right?” Yoko replied, cheerfully.
“Yeah, and I think til then … ” Paul said before being cut off by Ringo.
“Should we rehearse the numbers?”
And so the remaining Beatles got back to work.