The lunchroom discussion on January 13, 1969, winds and turns, overlaps and often overwhelms. It’s sincerely impossible to give a linear rundown of this 30-minute discussion, as it isn’t a linear discussion. So here’s another disclaimer: You may have already read some of the bits below in previous posts, and if you haven’t, you may eventually read some of it again. This isn’t a straight recap — instead I’m trying to follow themes as they developed at different points in the conversation.
Also, please read Part 1 first, if you haven’t already. It’s there I lay out the background of the lunchroom conversation and the key differences between the Nagra tapes and the Get Back docuseries’ portrayal of events. It’s not insignificant.
John, Paul, George and Ringo.
From 1962 to this very moment, it’s how we break down the Beatles. It’s the quintessential ordinal.
At once, it’s a simple accounting of tenure in the Beatles dating back to the Quarrymen days, but also a power ranking, a long-term hierarchy openly affirmed during the January 13, 1969, lunchroom tape. Yet at its most elemental, it’s a listing of four ostensibly separate co-workers assigned to the same group project. They’re still individuals with their own names and agendas.
After all, “we have egos,” to quote John Lennon in the opening moments of this recorded conversation.
The full half-hour of audio from the lunchroom reveals periodic contention between John and Paul McCartney, but it’s based in candor not animosity. You can hear it in their spoken tones.
Still, John is constantly raising the subject of ego and individual and collective self to Paul. At this point early in the tapes, it’s in the specific context of wanting the departed George Harrison to return to the band. From around two minutes into the recording, following John’s “ego” declaration and in a sequence omitted from the Get Back docuseries:
Do I want him back, Paul? … [D]o I want it back, whatever it is, enough? Then if it is, you know, I’ve had to smother my ego for you, and I’ve had to smother me jealousy for you to carry on, for whatever reasons there is.
It’s a strong statement, but Paul likely knew as much all along — he didn’t reply. John said he couldn’t be his real self, or who he wanted to be, to partake in the Beatles experience. He didn’t bury Paul; he’s saying he buried himself for the sake of Paul. John’s jealousy could be rooted in a lot of things — later in the lunchroom we hear John and Paul seriously discussing John’s feelings of submission at Paul’s musical direction. We’ll get to that another time.
John continued to unload in a sequence that’s complicated to follow, speaking at times to Yoko Ono and at others directly to Paul. He may even be speaking just to get his thoughts gathered out loud. Part of John’s argument is that Paul only “this year” came to recognize his own shortcomings and took responsibility not just for Paul’s treatment of George but his relationship with John, too. But he also gets into Paul’s interpersonal approach, too.
There’s plenty to unravel. John’s liberal use of pronouns instead of given names and constant shifting from first to third person is dizzying. I want to get this right, but I’m not sure this can be gotten right entirely. (I covered some of this territory earlier, in the recap of the band meeting the day before.)
John: It’s only this year that you’ve suddenly realized, like, who I am, or who he is or anything like that. But the thing is … you realize that like you were saying like George was some other part. But up till then, you had your thing that carried you forward. … I know, I’d deduced it before you … that would make me hipper than you, but I know that I’d deduced it to you before that for selfish reasons and for good reasons, not knowing what I was to do, and for all these reasons I’d adjusted to all these, and allowed you to, if you wanted to let me be that guy, whatever it is.
But this year, you’ve seen what you’ve been doing and what everybody’s been doing, and not only felt guilty about it, the way we all feel guilty about our relationship to each other, is we could do more.
I’m not putting any blame on you for only suddenly realizing it, see. Because this was my game, you know. It might have been masochistic, but me goal was still the same — self-preservation, you know. And I knew what I liked. I know where, even though I didn’t know where I was at, you know, the table’s there, and just let him do what he wants, and George too, you know? …
But this year, see, it’s all happening to you. And you’re taking the blame suddenly as if he’ll say, “Oh yeah, you know I’m a mean guy” as if I’ve never known it. And then I thought, “Fucking hell, I know what he’s like. I know he used to kick people. I know how he connived with Len, Ivan, and I now know, you know? Fuck him.” And then, “Oh, but right, I’ve done such things.” All that.
So you’ve taken the five years … of trouble, this year. So half of me says, “All right, you know I’d do anything so save you, to help you.” And the other half of me goes, “Well, serves him fucking right. I chewed through fucking shit because of him for five years and he’d only just realized what he was doing to me.”
This is a lot, spoken rapidly and emotionally in a little under three minutes. Some takeaways, from John’s perspective, via my own perspective and listening of the discussion:
• Without visuals to help clarify who John is talking to or any body language we can decode, no amount of AI and crisp audio will get us to understand this sequence satisfactorily, much as we’d like to. It’s in the ear of the beholder whether John was talking about George’s relationship with John and Paul or John is talking about his own dealings with Paul. Or maybe John was projecting! With every repeated listen, I try to convince myself John is complaining about Paul, but if he is, Paul’s reaction (none) is so stark and tame, it forces me to reconsider that it must instead be about George’s relationship with the others after all.
• Not guilty? On the contrary! Not only John, but all the Beatles feel guilty about their treatment of each other, and he believes they can improve. This certainly makes sense. George’s departure from the group, the second by a Beatle in 4 1/2 months over real or perceived treatment from the others, could represent a tipping point to John.
• It’s not just guilt, though. Saying it “might have been masochistic,” John admitted to probably finding pleasure in the treatment of George — and in Paul bearing the recent brunt of the conflict with George.
• John’s explicit goal is” self-preservation,” without any elaboration.
• While he said he didn’t want to put any blame on Paul, that’s exactly what he did throughout.
I’m open to the description of George as “some other part” having a further meaning beyond him simply existing as a separate entity outside the Lennon-McCartney songwriting and social circle. George is literally another part of the Beatles, and wasn’t previously treated as earning that full share.
And then there are the remarks about “this year,” when Paul finally started figuring things out. Not yet a fortnight into 1969, “this year” certainly must refer to part, if not all, of 1968. That’s the year of India, the launch of Apple and the recording of the White Album. And personally for Paul, the end of his relationship with Jane Asher and the start of his life with Linda Eastman. In other words, a transitional, emotional year for Paul.
This was, in large part, a few moments of John speaking openly and directly about Paul (which viewers of Get Back were led to believe were the discussion’s only two participants).
That was enough for Yoko to interrupt at one point and plead for John to shift the conversation, without a spoken explanation. Was she uncomfortable by the discussion? Did she just want John to focus? (Why not both?)
“Go back to … talking about George.”
Moments later, she interrupted again to ask, “What about George?”
I’ve written about this next sequence over several other posts. But it’s worth a revisit and recontextualization. (When I eventually ask you all to buy They May Be Parted: The Two-Ton Tome, this will be a more orderly read.)
Paul was an optimist. He didn’t view George’s absence as a problem quite yet. (This moment comes about 5 1/2 minutes into the full recorded conversation, but it in the closing seconds of the Get Back cut).
Paul: See, I’m just assuming he’s coming back, you know? I’ll tell you, I’m just assuming he’s coming back.
John: What if he isn’t?
Paul: If he isn’t, then it’s a new problem.
It’s at this point — when he suggests that “as a policy” they should retain George in the band — ostensible Beatle boss John pitched a corporate reorg that would essentially result in the Plastic Beatles Band (or is it the Plastic Ono Beatles?).
“The Beatles, to me, isn’t just the four of us,” John said with the implicit suggestion Yoko could be a Beatle if the others acquiesced.
“I think that I alone could be a Beatle. I think [Paul] could. I’m not sure whether [Ringo] could. … I’m just telling you what I think. I don’t think the Beatles revolve around the four people.
“It’s like [Ringo] joining instead of Pete [Best]. To me, it is like that.”
Of course, it’s not really like that. (As I wrote previously, going from Pete to Ringo was a crafty personnel decision and musical upgrade, not part of a disruptive strategy or to keep the band fresh by employing a rotating lineup.)
“You have always been boss,” Paul continued, about 6 1/2 minutes into the near 30-minute sequence on the Nagra tapes and about halfway through the four-minutes dedicated to the lunchroom sequence in the Get Back documentary. “Now I’ve been sort of secondary boss. George has been the third boss.” (Previously, I wrote that it sounded like “third rung” — I even found a picture of George on a ladder to highlight the point! — but on fresh listen prompted by the cleaned-up audio in Get Back, I do think it’s “boss.” Regardless of exact wording, the point is the same.)
In a grand comic concession, Ringo admitted, “I’ve been the rabbit.”
The documentary doesn’t include the reference of George’s ranking, much less Ringo’s joke. Instead it ends with Paul’s placement as “sort of, secondary boss.”
John, Paul, George and Ringo. That’s what the Beatles became when Pete was sacked, and that’s the order they had in place at the beginning of these sessions in January 1969. And that’s probably why Paul was pushing for John to step up.
(Interestingly in a 1971 interview that went unpublished until 1984, John explicitly said, “What I think about the Beatles is that even if there had been Paul and John and two other people, we’d never have been the Beatles. It had to take that combination of Paul, John, George and Ringo to make the Beatles.”)
Paul had been very conscious of this concept of band leadership. Just a week earlier, he gave a vague statement about this very point.
I’m scared of that, ‘You be the boss.’ I have been for a couple years. We all have, you know?
It’s unclear if in that January 6 quote Paul meant “for a couple years, he was scared” of taking on a leadership role or if he was acknowledging he had felt he “acted as boss, for a couple years.” If on the lunchroom tape he’s explicitly recognizing John at the alpha, then it sounds like the former.
Later during the lunchroom Nagras — about 18 minutes in and in a sequence ignored in Get Back — Paul evoked cinema’s rebellious, anti-hero “King of Cool,” Steve McQueen. It didn’t sound like Paul was attempting to fill any power vacuum himself, but instead was giving John the space to fill it again in some fashion.
Rattle the cage. Make a scene. And make a splash — on your own if that’s what it takes.
“You’re unsure because you’re not sure whether to go left or right on an issue,” Paul said to John. “You’ve noticed the two ways open to us. You know the way we all want to go. And you know the way you want to go. Which is positive! … So your positive thing might actually be to kick that telephone box in. It might occasionally be to do that.”
The metaphorical phone booth could be inspired by something in the room, outside the window or simply from thin air.
“Everybody would want to see that, actually,” said Yoko, the first to reply.
“But you don’t want to actually look like you’re kicking the telephone box in,” Paul accused John in this scenario. “So you have to sort of say to everyone, ‘Look at that over there, everyone!’ And while they’re looking, you’ll kick the telephone box in, and sort of [Paul whistles innocently like somebody who’s guilty].”
John laughed and said that wasn’t a fair representation of him.
“But I think the answer is that while you’ve got us all looking at nothing over there, and you’ve thrown us for a minute, we would actually all have dug to see you kick that telephone box in,” Paul said. “Because we wanna see you do it! … We would actually want to watch the Steve McQueen film where he kicks the telephone box in. We all want to see that.”
John: But it must be our own faults that we’ve built it up that I can’t kick the telephone box, apart from it being my fault.
Paul: You can. You could.
In preparing this post, I watched Steve McQueen’s filmography through the beginning of 1969 and asked around to more educated fans of his, and there doesn’t seem to be a scene where he explicitly kicks a phone booth. There are similar moments, like one in Bullitt (which was playing at the very hour of this discussion at the Warner West End theater, just a 10 minute walk from the Beatles’ Savile Row headquarters). McQueen doesn’t quite kick in a telephone box with no one watching, but he does get a little aggressive with a newspaper box.
McQueen was a metaphor. John’s directionless — or is it multi-directional? — impression was a reality. As Paul put it, John was “unsure if he wants to go left or right on an issue.” That included the issue of George, but really the group as a whole. But the solution — John showing some leadership, even if it’s not necessarily something directly leading the Beatles in a specific direction — was all they needed. It feels like Paul just wanted to believe in John and inspire John to believe in himself. An adjacent Plastic Ono Band, in this scenario, was a greater solution to Paul than some kind of expanded Plastic Beatles Band.
A solo career may have even been the better consequence than a compromised Beatles, and would solve the ego problem. Paul made his case by laying out an imaginary scenario in which at the end of the night, he was drunk and got on the piano just because he felt like it and he would be “singing because I don’t particularly want to show off.” In turn “everyone in that room will dig it, because it’s me really doing it.”
By contrast, when he “half-means” — a complaint that had been leveled already during these sessions, like Paul saying “sometimes [we] blow one of your songs cause we come in in the wrong mood” — that’s when the problems emerge.
“What I’d like to do is for the four of us … I see it as you go one way, you go one way, George goes one way, and me another.” Paul worked to continue his point but the conversation veered into a more specific discussion about musical arrangement on recent songs. We’ll get back to that digression in another post.
Sandwiching the invocation of McQueen, Paul and John sounded off on a potential solo project by Ringo, and took opposite points of view in using the LP as a representation for a larger ideal.
“Just you talking about the Stardust album … it isn’t as daft as you sort of find that it might sound,” Paul said.
Still more than a year out from being released, Ringo’s debut solo project was purely in the conceptual phase. (Eventually titled “Sentimental Journey,” the LP wouldn’t begin its recording sessions for nearly 11 months, and ultimately it came out at the end of March 1970, a few weeks before Let It Be.)
“But the great thing is that you singing like you really sing will be it. It will be!”
Ringo: Yes, but the only way is to do it on your own.
Paul: …Until then … you’ll half-sing. … And it’s probably when we’re all very old, we’ll all sing together. And we’ll all really sing, and we’ll all show each other … fucking die then, I don’t know.”
Singing how you really sing is a solitary endeavor. And the reunion of John, Paul, George and Ringo — once the solo careers are have concluded and in their twilight when they reassemble in the departure lounge — that is the epilogue.
Paul’s advice emerged in Get Back in condensed form, with another mis-transcription and served outside of this context as the final statement of the lunchroom sequence (emphasis is mine):
And probably when we’re all very old, we’ll all agree with each other, and we’ll all sing together.
Needless to say there’s a significant difference in saying an eventual reunion would come after “we’ll all show each other” and “we’ll all agree with each other.” Paul very clearly predicated his concept on the Beatles requiring a controlled implosion before the individuals operated apart to some degree to reach their full potential, and then — for the sake of their egos, in part — they would prove their strength to each other. Reuniting wasn’t, as the Get Back transcription asserts, something they would simply do based on unanimous consent.
This is all consistent with Paul’s contemporary statements, like the one before the lunchroom gathering when he went as far as suggesting staging the group’s breakup. (And that’s not inconsistent with various statements the four Beatles made in the breakup period regarding solo projects and an eventual reunion).
Still John echoed Ringo’s insecurities, explaining on the heels of the Steve McQueen thread that it must be “our own faults” he couldn’t kick the metaphorical phone box.
“But the feeling that I …” John stammered, “like Ringo said about his album, that what was it, ‘I won’t do it, ’cause I’m gonna let us down or look a fool.'”
This wasn’t a self-centered approach. Letting the group down. Making them look a fool. This was about the Beatles.
Earlier John made his goal explicit: “Me goal was still the same — self-preservation”
That self wasn’t just John Winston Lennon alone. It was John, Paul, George and Ringo, too.