Tag Archives: January 20

Jan. 10: Go on, as if nothing’s happening

“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.

Yoko: John!

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?

Ringo: No. 

MLH: Have you ever wanted it?

Ringo: No.

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. 

 

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Jan. 8: Look Around

It was 12 days until their scheduled concert, and on January 8, 1969, the Beatles were loose, relatively upbeat and open-minded, uncommon characterizations associated with Get Back/Let It Be sessions. Still, there wasn’t even consensus on what continent to stage the concert, much less what venue or what kind of audience would have tickets to the show.

What they lacked in plans and new material — Paul would insist the group would produce a few “rockers” soon — the Beatles at least had no shortage of live productions against which they could reflect and project.

Two classes of potential inspirations highlighted discussions to this point: recent live broadcasts by their peers (eg., Cream’s Farewell Concert, the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus) and the Beatles’ own history on stage and on the small screen. The audience was as much a consideration as the venue.

In the final hours of the day’s sessions, as the group continued to work on George’s new song “I Me Mine,” John and Yoko waltzed the room right into a continued deliberation of the staging of the imminent show.

“I think the thing to do is just put you all in a framework, which will be just, like, the audience and a stage,” pitched Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who was tentatively willing to settle for a simple approach if his preferred idea — an overseas trip — was denied. “And by the time we get to the stage, we’d have a routine of numbers. We can find each number how they fit theatrically, like your dance for that one, like the song that you cry in and the song you do that brings tears to everybody’s eyes.”  Off mic, it was joked there’ll be the one song that’s done in the wrong key.

Twickenham's Stage 1. What a pretty palette!

Twickenham’s Stage 1. Simply gorgeous!

“Seriously,” the director continued. “Almost, we should end with ‘Good Night’ or whatever song is going to be like ‘Good Night’ this time. … The end of the show should be a tearjerker like ‘Hey Jude’ or like ‘Good Night’ or like something else.”

Two large signs promoting the show’s working title — “January 20, 1969” — would hang as a backdrop. “And it’s the 19th of February, 1982,” John injected for a laugh and commentary on the decision process’ plodding pace.

When Paul asked about the composition of the audience, Michael answered forcibly, “Human beings, and the first thousand who queue up.” John was more specific, positing “pastry cooks from Walton-on-Thames” would be in attendance.  (John’s joke was told nine weeks before the London suburb actually became a footnote in Beatles history: George and Pattie were fined for drug possession in Walton-on-Thames on March 12, 1969 — the same day Paul and Linda married.)

To snickers, Michael proposed voice overs for each song. E.g.: “Now Paul sings a song of true love.” 

The audience seated at Twickenham’s Stage 1 would sit in the round, either at three-quarters or fully encircling the group. “You could build this place great like that, all of it like a coliseum,” Paul said. “Four sides, then on the top of it all, your cameras, or a camera.”

“I still don’t think that’s our best idea, for the record and on tape,” Michael replied, resigned. “But I think if that’s what we’re going to do, it’ll be fine. Because I’ll make it fine, and you’ll make it fine.”

Coliseums real (Sabratha, top) and fabricated (Rediffusion's Wembley Park studio)

Coliseums real (Sabratha, top) and fabricated (“Around the Beatles” at Rediffusion’s Wembley Park studio)

The bar for the Beatles’ triumphant return to the stage re-established at “fine,” Michael conceded “torch-lit is for next time.”

While the coliseum-style arrangement recalled to Michael the currently shelved Sabratha, Paul was reminded of a moment in the group’s history from four and a half years earlier, when Beatlemania was at its peak.

“It’s a bit like ‘Around the Beatles.'”

“Ah, I was thinking about that,” Michael said. “That was a very good show. That’s why I think it should be kind of theatrical. … Also the Presley show they’ve just done, apparently, which has more of an ‘Around the Beatles’ audience.”

In reality, the live sequences in the ’68 Comeback Special — broadcast on NBC as “Singer presents … Elvis” — had more of a “Hey Jude” vibe than an “Around The Beatles” one; there was always a distance between fans and the band in “Around the Beatles,” while “Hey Jude” and the Comeback Special put the musicians within reach of the crowd, and the King several times interacted directly with the commoners. What “Around the Beatles” and the Comeback Special did share in their audiences was its enthusiasm-cum-mania.

The Comeback Special was being cited in discussions of the Beatles ’69 show, but it had no influence on the “Hey Jude” taping, or vice versa. Elvis filmed the concert portion in late June 1968 but those tapes weren’t broadcast until December. “Hey Jude” was filmed in early September 1968 and broadcast days later. The two paths never crossed.

compare

Way beyond compare: Around the Beatles (left), Elvis’ Comeback Special (center) and the “Hey Jude” promo film.

Elvis triumphantly rehabilitated his rock and roll credentials with his special; the Beatles didn’t need to do that. Yet …

“One of the things we’re up against,” Michael continued, “is all the past things you’ve done.”

Here we are with a reference to the past again. The Beatles did a lot. But surprisingly, although they were commonly featured across all facets of the media, they had very few their own television programs.

“There’s only about three of them,” Paul said, and John rattled off the list: “‘Magical Mystery Tour,’ ‘Around the Beatles’ and ‘Shea'” — the latter the landmark 1965 concert at the former New York Mets ballpark that was broadcast a year later on BBC and in 1967 in the U.S. on ABC. (It recently had a run in theaters in 2016, remastered and looking downright fab as the capper to the enjoyable “Eight Days a Week” documentary).

But “Magical Mystery Tour” was a scripted musical, and “Shea” was a concert film. So that means …

“‘Around the Beatles’ is our only ever TV show, isn’t it?” said Paul.

“And it was good,” Michael said, as Glyn Johns — who had long, but falsely  claimed second-engineer duties on the show (see the postscript of this post for more on that)  — called the program “fantastic.”

After John broke into a few seconds of “Shout” — the finale of that show  — Paul complained to Michael about a theater-in-the-round setup, arguing it’s a step backward, replicating the set of “Around the Beatles.”

“I think with every idea we will have is bound to be …  any of us can pick out a negative side to it,” Michael countered.

“Yeah,” Paul replied. “But it should’t be too heavy negative a side.”

Michael asked the others for input, but John replied by playing Chuck Berry‘s “Sweet Little Sixteen” — a song Michael said, without explanation, “always frightens me” — and swapping in a variety of British locales for the original American cities. (John delivered a more serious reworking of the song six years later on his Rock ‘N’ Roll album).

Returning to “I Me Mine,” Michael remarked John and Yoko’s waltz is “kind of theatrical. And it’s also romantic, and it also fits the song.” Michael was also concerned about the complete bill and “what’s going to be our mind-blasting topper at the end, which I think ought to be a weep-weep, myself. A bang or a cry.”

Paul leaned toward the bang, saying, “we intend to write a couple of rockers.” That worked for Michael — at the beginning, at least. “I think you should open exciting and end with the audience in tears.”

John launches into another Chuck Berry number, this time “Almost Grown,” and is soon joined by Paul. Pleased, Michael said, “That’s what January 20, 1969″ is all about.”

The documentary portion of the production returns to Michael’s forefront when he asks his crew if this performance is being filmed — don’t forget, while the Nagra tapes recorded sound throughout the sessions, the group wasn’t consistently filmed.

Despite the illusion, it was time to get back to work, and Paul returned to setting the agenda.

“Are we all right on George’s number (‘I Me Mine’)? I’m not. Are you? Should we keep doing it a bit more?”

And so, for the time being, the Beatles ended negotiations regarding the live show. The metaphors don’t come much easier: The Beatles’ recounting and considering a return to a theater in the round left them talking in circles.

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