Get Back/Let It Be sessions: day one

The Beatles’ Get Back project was the group’s attempt to return to their roots. It initially saw them rehearsing and recording songs for a television special and live performance at Twickenham Film Studios, before sessions moved to the Apple HQ later in January 1969.

The Beatles and Yoko Ono – Twickenham Film Studios, 2 January 1969

Motivation was low within the group. Paul McCartney aside, there was little enthusiasm for a mooted live appearance. The Beatles were still exhausted after the lengthy sessions for the White Album, and the presence of film cameras during the rehearsals created a further strain.

Although not all the January 1969 sessions were tense, The Beatles were often at odds with one another. George Harrison found McCartney bossy and domineering, and John Lennon was addicted to heroin and unwilling to be parted from Yoko Ono.

In a nutshell, Paul wanted to make – it was time for another Beatle movie or something, and Paul wanted us to go on the road or do something. As usual, George and I were going, ‘Oh, we don’t want to do it, fuck,’ and all that. He set it up and there was all discussions about where to go and all that. I would just tag along and I had Yoko by then. I didn’t even give a shit about anything. I was stoned all the time, too, on H etc. And I just didn’t give a shit. And nobody did, you know…

Paul had this idea that we were going to rehearse or… see it all was more like Simon and Garfunkel, like looking for perfection all the time. And so he has these ideas that we’ll rehearse and then make the album. And of course we’re lazy fuckers and we’ve been playing for twenty years, for fuck’s sake, we’re grown men, we’re not going to sit around rehearsing. I’m not, anyway. And we couldn’t get into it. And we put down a few tracks and nobody was in it at all. It was a dreadful, dreadful feeling in Twickenham Studio, and being filmed all the time. I just wanted them to go away, and we’d be there, eight in the morning. You couldn’t make music at eight in the morning or ten or whatever it was, in a strange place with people filming you and colored lights.

John Lennon, 1970
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner

The project was initially to have been a live show of White Album songs, but The Beatles decided instead to write and rehearse 14 new songs in just two weeks. The rehearsals took place in Stage 1 at Twickenham Film Studios, which had been hired until the end of May by Denis O’Dell, head of Apple Films, for The Magic Christian, starring Ringo Starr and Peter Sellers.

The initial plan was to also film the TV special at Stage 1, with a dress rehearsal on 18 January, and live shows on 19 and 20 January. Starr was due to begin work on The Magic Christian on the 24th.

George Harrison walked out of the group on 10 January 1969, and the plans for the television special were abandoned. He agreed to rejoin The Beatles only if they moved from Twickenham to their new recording studio in the basement of their Apple HQ in London’s Savile Row. This they did from 21 January, in the process dropping plans for a live concert.

Because the audio needed to be good enough for potential use in a film or television programme, it was recorded on Nagra reel-to-reel ¼” mono tape machines. Two were used, one for camera A and one for camera B. They could capture only 16 minutes on a tape, and so the two machines were started at different intervals.

As a result, the Get Back sessions were extensively bootlegged, providing a fascinating insight into The Beatles’ working practices. A vast number of songs were performed by The Beatles during January 1969, many of which never saw light of day in an official capacity, though works from Abbey Road and their solo albums did emerge, in addition to the Let It Be songs.

They also jammed a great deal; sometimes at length and without much artistic merit. The better attempts were included in the Let It Be film and the 2021 Get Back documentary. The Beatles, whether out of boredom or desperation, played tunes ranging from nursery rhymes (‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’) and rock ‘n’ roll classics (‘All Shook Up’) to pre-‘Love Me Do’ original compositions and improvised songs (the unreleased ‘Suzy Parker’).

The Beatles and Yoko Ono – Twickenham Film Studios, 2 January 1969

The Get Back rehearsals followed a Monday to Friday schedule, and each day started between 11am and 1pm. On this first day the group arrived at Twickenham at 11am, apart from Paul McCartney who was delayed on public transport, and arrived at 12.30pm.

This first day officially began at around 9.30am, however, with director Michael Lindsay-Hogg filming as Mal Evans and Kevin Harrington set up The Beatles’ equipment onto stage one before the group began playing. The shots would eventually be used for the opening sequence of the Let It Be film, and the Get Back documentary.

Watching the first day was Shyamsunder Das, a friend of George Harrison. “Who’s that little old man?” John Lennon asked. “Clean though,” added Paul McCartney, a reference to Wilfrid Brambell in A Hard Day’s Night.

The Beatles spent much of their time working on three songs: ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’, and ‘Two Of Us’.

Performances of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’, ‘Johnny B Goode’, ‘Two Of Us’, ‘Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)’, and ‘I Shall Be Released’ from this day appeared in part one of the 2021 documentary Get Back.

The full list of songs played on this day, including fragments and off-the-cuff, unpublished songs with presumed titles:

* presumed title.
View the complete list of songs played during the January 1969 Get Back/Let It Be sessions.

Lennon and Harrison were the first to arrive, the former with his then-girlfriend Yoko Ono. As they tuned their guitars, the musicians played snippets of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and ‘All Things Must Pass’. Both attempted to play along with each others’ songs, and were joined by a recently-arrived Ringo Starr on drums during a version of Don’t Let Me Down.

Lennon then played a solo version of ‘Dig A Pony’, before improvising a song known as Everybody Got Song. Harrison put forward another, ‘Let It Down’, which was eventually recorded for the All Things Must Pass triple album.

Lennon improvised a guitar instrumental and sang two verses of Chuck Berry’s ‘Brown-Eyed Handsome Man’, joined by Harrison in places. They then turned to ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’, which at this stage lacked McCartney’s contributions. Lennon’s part was based on a 1968 home recording known as ‘Everybody Had A Hard Year’. He also played through an unfinished song titled ‘A Case Of The Blues’, which was mostly instrumental.

Lennon’s ‘Child Of Nature’ – later rewritten as ‘Jealous Guy’ – was introduced on this day as ‘On The Road To Marrakesh’. He sang two verses, with Harrison joining in several places. Its presence here served to highlight the dry spell Lennon was undergoing as a songwriter; the song had been written in India more than six months previously.

Snippets of ‘Revolution’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘I Shall Be Released’ followed, and a new unfinished Lennon song, ‘Sun King’. During the performance, which contains elements of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, McCartney arrived at Twickenham and began playing along.

During the day two Bob Dylan songs and two by Buddy Holly were attempted by the group, along with Chuck Berry’s ‘Brown-Eyed Handsome Man’. Holly’s ‘Mailman, Give Me No More Blues’ wasn’t the take eventually issued on Anthology 3; that was recorded on 29 January.

With all four Beatles finally in the same room, they discussed the purposes of the Get Back project. Lennon expressed dissatisfaction with the large size of the sound stage, and with having cameras present during these early rehearsals, but McCartney defended the set-up. Their words appear to indicate that that the intention at this time was to film a television special inside Twickenham with an invited audience.

McCartney took the vocal lead on several versions of ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’, teaching the others the song’s structure as he went. The Beatles spent some time working on the arrangement.

In the afternoon Harrison led Starr through a cover version of Jackie Lomax’s ‘Speak To Me’, before work continued on ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ – at this stage The Beatles’ most complete song. Numerous run-throughs took place as the group continued shaping it, breaking off for discussions in between.

The Beatles then turned their attentions back to ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, and discussed possible instrumentation. At this stage they were considering bringing in a keyboard player, with Nicky Hopkins’ name mentioned.

During a break for sandwiches Harrison played the Buddy Holly song ‘Well… Alright’, followed by another version of ‘All Things Must Pass’.

Instead of working on Harrison’s song, The Beatles moved on to McCartney’s ‘Two Of Us’. A lengthy rehearsal took place, with McCartney teaching the rest of the group the chord and time signature changes. Evidently The Beatles weren’t familiar with it yet, although they would play it a great many more times during the month.

In a break from ‘Two Of Us’, The Beatles improvised a song known as ‘It’s Good To See The Folks Back Home’, led by McCartney. They returned to ‘Two Of Us’ before the day’s work came to a close.

The 1968 Apple Christmas party
Get Back/Let It Be sessions: day two
Also on this day...

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