The Beatles’ work ethic stood peerless, regardless of situations and obstacles placed in their way, even if they were responsible for those very obstacles.
“It’s good you sort of said to come to work,” said Ringo Starr on January 13, 1969, in response to a conversation he had with Paul McCartney the night before. That exchange happened after Paul showed up, nearly an hour after Ringo arrived to rehearsals, despite the assurances of the remaining Beatles to show up around the same time that Monday morning.
As it stood, Neil Aspinall didn’t expect anyone to show, according to director Michael Lindsay-Hogg.
John Lennon was missing to start the day, too, but he never announced he was leaving the band. John was always last to the sessions, anyway.
Twickenham Film Studios served as the Beatles’ office for seven working days. January 13 was different than the others in so many ways. Paul didn’t start the morning alone at the piano. George didn’t present a last-night song. There was no music at all for hours after the first members arrived.
More than 50 years after film and audio captured its events, January 13, 1969, served a significant role in opening Part 2 of the 2021 Get Back docuseries, occupying 18 drama-fueled minutes, perhaps the entire program’s emotional core.
We know more than we did before, the visuals adding unimaginable depth to moments previously available only by audio, but the show’s presentation opens more questions.
The initial sequence in the Day 8 segment in Get Back — that is, the first 9 of those 18 minutes, prior to John’s arrival for lunch — in reality accounted for more than two hours of audio on the Nagra tapes.
Thanks to the series, we can see the extent to which Ringo looks completely cooked. It’s enough that he has an 18-month-old at home and a significant movie role weighing on him, but this is a different man from the week before. Michael appears defeated. Paul seems anxious and affected. This is a dispirited crew and the body language in this sequence is critical viewing — fidgeting, hair- (and beard-)pulling, face-rubbing.
January 13, 1969, should have been a day of at least mild celebration. The Yellow Submarine LP — a compilation of songs from the film (released in November 1968), previously unreleased tracks and George Martin’s orchestral score — was released in the United States that day, with the record arriving at stores in the U.K. later in the week.
The Beatles were “All Together Now” on record only; today’s cut was “All together, when?”
For the near-hour Ringo was the lone Beatle on site, idle talk dominated. Conversations with Michael, Tony Richmond, Glyn Johns, Mal Evans and Kevin Harrington spanned the arts, including film (Wonderwall and the new Cinecenta theater), television (What’s the Matter With Baby Jane?), books (Pinktoes, Candy) and music (Simon & Garfunkel, Little Richard, Tiny Tim and James Brown, among the dozens of other names mentioned that morning).
Of highest importance when it came to television and music, they discussed their own production still in progress, too. When questioned, Michael told Ringo that he had enough material to this point for a good documentary, with one caveat.
MLH: It depends on what we’re allowed to use, if you know what I mean. It depends on how liquid the situation is. .. In other words, if we tell it like it is … then we’ve got a very good documentary. But if …
Ringo: We’re hiding …
MLH: If we’re hiding — the word I was fishing for but not be brave enough to say — but if we’re hiding, then we don’t have much of a documentary. A couple of days and things didn’t work out, that’s it. I’ll have an apple rind … as opposed to an apple core.
Ringo: An apple pip.
The Beatles’ gradual reassembly continued with Paul’s arrival, along with girlfriend Linda Eastman. While John’s attendance was in question, but Paul was saying he still expected him, Michael quickly changed the subject to a Lennon-McCartney composition and started playing Arthur Conley’s cover of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” on a record player.
“[Molly is a singer] on a band? .. What’s wrong with him?” Paul asked, unimpressed with the recording. “I think I like the Bedrocks‘ [cover], if anything.”
The conversation soon turned to other contemporary pop/soul acts: Love Affair, The Equals — Paul sings a bit of their 1968 hit “Baby Come Back,” in particular — and the Foundations.
The multi-ethnic British combo presently owned the No. 2 hit on the UK charts. “Build Me Up, Buttercup” finished the previous week wedged between the chart-topping “Lily The Pink” by Mike McGear’s Scaffold and Marmalade’s own version of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” (Writing that song was like printing money for Northern Songs.)
Assuredly, Paul was predisposed to the No. 1 song, co-written by his brother, and No. 3, which he himself shared the writing credit.
As for No. 2? “I love it, yeah,” Paul said of “Build Me Up, Buttercup.”
It took nearly an hour and a half on the tapes — and about 30 minutes after Paul arrived at Twickenham — for the Beatles’ rhythm section to even address how they would approach the new day, which would at best still be missing one member. It’s a relatively level-headed discussion on tape.
Paul: I just thought I’d [write] a few words for the songs we haven’t got words for and stuff, just rehearse them a bit more.
Ringo: For what?
Paul: I dunno. It doesn’t matter, though. If we do an extra week and then we decide to chuck it, it’s just with the decision that near, and then we really just split and then just see you in a year’s time.
Ringo: It’s good you sort of said to come to work [last night]. Gives you another week here together. Cause it would have been, I’d have been there, you’d have been down there.
Paul: That’s what I thought. I just thought, what am I going to do tomorrow?
Ringo: I was going to lay in, actually and do the garden. [laughter]
Linda: Paint the ceiling.
Even here it’s acknowledged any split would be temporary, even if it lasts a year. That’s a long time, but not a lifetime.
A few seconds later, all we hear is Paul singing the chorus to “Build Me Up, Buttercup.” (He actually sang it a few minutes earlier as well, in a less memorable, more upbeat moment. We hear it on the Nagra tapes again, on the last day of the Get Back sessions, too.)
Thanks to the Get Back docuseries, we now know just how emotional Paul felt, even if that moment in the series isn’t presented in its actual sequence. It was shoehorned into a later discussion (which we’ll get to below).
Instead in real-time, Linda jump-started the conversation by suggesting the Beatles solve their issues by meeting, just the four of them alone (read about this part of the conversation at length here).
The morning of January 13, two Beatles remained absent, but in the wake of Sunday’s meeting at Ringo’s, only one of them — and the relationship with his girlfriend — was the key issue. Sparking off the above discussion, Paul shared several feelings on the Lennon/McCartney songwriting partnership within a physical space shared by Lennon/McCartney/Ono.
“I’d rather write without Yoko, thank you. That’s the way I write,” Paul said. “I’d go off to the bathroom to write a song and come back when it was done to show it to you, and sort of say, ‘What do you think, and let’s do a couple more words now.’
“But it’s difficult starting right from scratch with Yoko there … cause I start off on a Yoko beam. I start off writing songs about white walls [said to laughter] just cause I think John and Yoko would like that. And they wouldn’t. I mean, I give them too much credit for what I think they’d like. … They’re very straight, you know.”
A short time later, Paul elaborated on the songwriting process and the overall issue of Yoko’s proximity — which Paul seems to almost guiltily take the blame for acknowledging.
“It’s a bit embarrassing cause I do think of it,” Paul said. “I start examining my emotions with Yoko there. And it’s probably silly because Yoko’s not what we’re also thinking she is.”
“The only one time we’ve done it, she was great. She really is all right. It’s the thought of her being there, and then you don’t talk to John. So then he doesn’t talk to you. And it’s like, you can screw it up just as much because she’s there as John relying on her because she’s there. … We were trying to get the last verse to ‘I Will,’ and eventually I just ended up doing it (myself), because we couldn’t actually do it. But Yoko really tried to stay out of it.”
(For his part, Paul made no mention of this incident in either the 1997 authorized biography Many Years From Now or his 2021 memoir The Lyrics, when discussing writing the words to “I Will.” We can get into any deeper meanings of the lyric “And when at last I find you, your song will fill the air” some other time.)
Back to the songwriting discussion:
Paul: They’re going overboard about it, but John always does. Yoko probably always does. So that’s their scene. You can’t go saying don’t go overboard about this thing, be sensible about it and don’t bring it to meetings. It’s his decision. None of our business interfering in that, Even when it comes into our business. Still can’t really say much unless, except, look I don’t like it, John. Then he can say “screw you” or “I like it” or “well, I won’t do it” or blah, blah.
MLH: Have you done that already?
Paul: I told him I didn’t like writing songs with him and Yoko.
Time to fire Michael as interviewer. He never asked the most obvious, slam-dunk follow-up question there could be: “How did John respond to that?”
Instead, he asked Paul if the songwriting partnership had slowed down before Yoko entered John’s life. (A fair question, but not the one he should have followed up with).
“We cooled it [already] because not playing together, ever since we didn’t play together [on stage],” Paul said. “We lived together when we played together. We were in the same hotel, up at the same time every morning. Doing this, all day. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re this close all day, something grows. And then when you’re not this close, physically, something goes.”
Attempts to reach John by phone continued, unsuccessfully. Throughout, Paul, along with Linda and Ringo, recapped the Sunday meeting for the others. Linda shared her regret at attending at all, and openly bemoaned Yoko’s domineering presence. (This was covered in a previous post.)
Paul again worked to make it crystal clear that the John-Yoko relationship was sacrosanct and completely their own concern. The Beatles plus Yoko, while not an ideal conclusion, is superior to the alternative of no Beatles at all.
Over the course of 20 seconds Paul repeats the phrase “it’s not that bad.” He also applied his custom of suggesting a binary choice, something that continued throughout the day.
“There’s only two answers. One is to fight it, and fight her and try to get the Beatles back to four people without Yoko, and sort of ask Yoko sit down at board meetings. Or else the other thing is to just realize she’s there and he’s not going to split with her just for our sakes.
“Then it’s not even so much of an obstacle then, as long as we’re not trying to surmount it. While we’re still trying to get over it, it’s an obstacle. But it isn’t really. It’s not that bad. They want to stay together those two.”
Striking a sincere tone, Paul resumed: “So it’s all right, let the young lovers stay together. It shouldn’t be [changes voice to tone of serious business] ‘Can’t operate under these conditions, boy. We’re coming out.’ It’s like we’re striking! That’s what it is, it’s like a strike cause work conditions aren’t right. [laughter]. It’s not that bad.”
“We’ve done a lot of Beatles now, we’ve had a lot of Beatles, and we’ve got a lot out of Beatles. So I think John’s saying now if it came to a push between Yoko and the Beatles, it’s Yoko (who’d stay…)”
It’s here the tear-jerking “Build Me Up, Buttercup” moment is interjected in the film.
As the Nagra tapes rolled, we hear that neither Paul nor Linda suspected John would ever come to making that choice. Likewise Michael, who said John told him “he really did not want not to be a Beatle.”
To be clear, Linda wasn’t being viewed as the same sort of interloper Yoko was accused of being.
“I’m know I’m talking to Paul [now], I’m not talking to Linda,” said Neil. “But when you’re talking to John, these days, I know you tend to think you’re talking to Yoko more than you’re talking to John.”
This is a struggle — it’s not what we see in Get Back, and it’s not entirely what we hear on the tapes. When the Beatles make music, Yoko doesn’t appear to intervene. She may be painting or reading the newspaper and distracting the others by her mere presence — a problem in itself — but it’s not as if she’s tugging on John’s shirt while he plays. The greatest issue appears to be behind the scenes when the cameras and tapes aren’t rolling.
“Actually, musically, we can play better than we’ve ever been able to play,” Paul said. “I really think that. We’re all right on that. It’s just that being together thing. And like I said yesterday, underestimating each other. And talking down to each other a bit. And playing safe.”
Paul’s solution was actually what the band was in the process of doing. To him, the broken sessions at Twickenham had in fact been conducted appropriately.
“We should just work a lot, really get back into the slog. A job. Where almost 9 to 5, and then weekends off, so that there really are weekends. Then back on the slog. Cursing it, the drags and the ups and the downs. But [also] the achievements.”
Work was a good thing, at least that was what everyone said, And given the group’s workaholic nature, it’s no surprise.
“John was saying the fact that you do work inspires you,” said Michael.
“I remember when they were doing the (White) Album, George was saying that it’s so great working again,” Linda recalled.
Earlier Ringo, speaking of taking the time out to film Candy, told Michael he found the time for that role “because I have to do something.”
There was just one problem, and it wasn’t the Beatles’ work ethic.
“I understand Yoko coming, and doing all that,” Neil said. “But I don’t see why she has to sit on your amp.”
While Paul agreed, he also said the group’s attitude needed to mature as its members did.
“I don’t see why she has to sit on the amp. And if we were in a Northern band, [affecting a Scouse accent] I’d put my foot down to that. But we’ve grown out of all that. And we really can’t go to John, ‘Look John, the union thinks that you can’t have this woman.’
“We can go on talking like this forever but I think for them to be able to compromise, I have to be able to compromise first. Then they’ll be able to, or else they have to be able to compromise first. But its silly, neither of us compromising.”
While it’s possible Paul is speaking for the others in the group, he made clear “I have to compromise,” not “we” (ie., Ringo and George as well). With Ringo sitting a few feet away from him, it probably is just himself he’s speaking for, either relinquishing the others of the need to compromise as well, or simply acknowledging it’s not important if they do.
Isn’t compromise a mutual exercise, though? Is Paul compromising or is he conceding?
“We thought that the only alternative would be for John just to say, ‘OK, well, see you then.’ And we’d not wanted that to happen. We hustle each other like mad, you know. We probably do need really sort of a central daddy figure to say, “Nine o’clock, none of the girls. Leave the girls at home, lads.’”
That is, they really needed Brian Epstein more than they even did a week earlier, when they said much of the same thing.
Neil dismissed that idea, saying it wouldn’t work. With truly incredible prescience and awareness of the group’s legacy, Paul simply replied:
It’s going to be such an incredible, comical thing in 50 years time. They broke up because Yoko sat on an amp.
You see, John kept bringing this girl along. It’s not as though there’s any sort of earth-splitting row. There’s nothing wrong.
Everyone enjoyed a good laugh.
Having pitched a breakup show — covered at length here — and almost as an afterthought coming more than 90 minutes after the day’s recordings began, Michael asked about George, and Paul revealed he walked out of Sunday’s meeting.
If it wasn’t already clear enough, George’s exit was an issue, but the lesser one. Paul continued his defense of John and Yoko without any further discussion of George’s own problems, perhaps taking advantage of the stage while the couple remained absent.
George’s abrupt departure feeds the dramatic arc of the Get Back story as the conflict of the first act. It’s the dynamic of Paul-John-Yoko that’s the actual conflict of this period.
“They’re trying to be as near together as they can,” Paul said of John and Yoko. “So If she sits over here, it’s just slightly less good than if she sits very near to him. If she’s touching him then that’s even better. …”
“And it’s right, in a way. If that’s how you see it, and you can see that it can be a drag for people to sort of say, ‘Look, come to the meeting without her.’ Cause then it starts separating again from her.
“It’s very ideological.”
It’s worth noting — and perhaps Paul himself did too, even if it went unspoken — that the need for John to be near Yoko didn’t mean he can’t be near Paul, too. Just like having Yoko in the room when writing a song doesn’t mean Paul shouldn’t be there either.
Michael repeated his view that the onus was on John and Yoko to be conscious of the effect their behavior is having on the rest of the group and for them to adjust. Paul — again — acted as a contrarian, seeing it through John’s eyes, as perhaps few others had the ability to. He was no mere devil’s advocate. Paul trusted John, and even if he didn’t deep down, it’s what he wanted the others to believe.
“See, they’d say that the other way was true. If we do what we’d want to do it might screw it up for them. [Now speaking softly] And they don’t want to be screwed up.”
Another attempt to reach John failed. “Telephone’s engaged.” Ringo joked they should send a telegram.
After an extended silence, and several audible sighs on the Nagra tapes, Paul uttered five of the most memorable words in all of the Get Back docuseries.
And then there were two.
The moment is gut-wrenching. An uncomfortably long 31 seconds in Get Back. That’s five seconds longer than the entirety of “Her Majesty.” We should celebrate Peter Jackson for the scene’s dramatic effect, and likewise be grateful to Michael Lindsay-Hogg and his crew for capturing this moment in real time.
While it’s arguably the most poignant moment of the Beatles on film, it’s not exactly the same on tape.
Roll the Nagras and you hear:
Paul: And then there were two. [said to laughter and no pause]
Ringo: Tom & Jerry.
Michael: Simon & Garfunkel
Ringo: I know, I said it because you told me. … Simon & Garfunkel used to be Tom & Jerry.
Linda: Oh I know, “Hey Schoolgirl.” (she begins to sing)
Paul: That’s what they used to call themselves?
I’m not suggesting the tears in Get Back were CGI. Compressing more than two hours of dialogue into nine minutes for a TV series seems like a near-impossible task, and to make it compelling while still retaining the integrity of the moment even more so.
“And then there were two” is the emotional heart of Get Back, just as “I’ll play, you know, whatever you want me to play” serves that role for Let It Be. While both lines have become something of catchphrases for their respective films, it’s important to remember the original context surrounding each one as they are amplified, lest these moments get oversimplified.