Once they started work on the Get Back project, it became clear to The Beatles that their collective enthusiasm was low. John Lennon was addicted to heroin and rarely enthused by the sessions, and arguments among the group eventually led to George Harrison temporarily leaving the band.
At the time The Beatles were exhausted after spending five months recording the White Album, and had also worked on Apple projects by James Taylor, Mary Hopkin, Jackie Lomax and solo works. At Twickenham they were forced to keep to film industry schedules, which involved starting work at 8.30am each day.
The cameras were kept rolling at all times, and captured the strains and tensions of this fragile period. However, there were many moments of true inspiration, and The Beatles’ humour and warmth for one another was often evident.
There was some amazing stuff – their humour got to me as much as the music, and I didn’t stop laughing for six weeks. John Lennon only had to walk in a room, and I’d just crack up. Their whole mood was wonderful, and that was the thing, and there was all this nonsense going on at the time about the problems surrounding the group, and the press being at them, and in fact, there they were, just doing it, having a wonderful time and being incredibly funny, and none of that’s in the film.
The Record Producers
In the studio
The Beatles performed partial or complete versions of literally hundreds of cover versions and original songs in January 1969. These ranged from traditional songs and rock and roll classics to unreleased works-in-progress and those that eventually appeared on Let It Be, Abbey Road, and The Beatles’ early solo albums. Among them were versions of Love Me Do, Child Of Nature, Something, Don’t Let Me Down, All Things Must Pass, songs by Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, George Formby, The Beach Boys and others, as well as blues-based improvisations, aimless jams, off-the-cuff song sketches and many hours of dialogue.
For me, to come back into the winter of discontent with The Beatles in Twickenham was very unhealthy and unhappy. But I can remember feeling quite optimistic about it. I thought, ‘OK, it’s the New Year and we have a new approach to recording.’ I think the first couple of days were OK, but it was soon quite apparent that it was just the same as it had been when we were last in the studio, and it was going to be painful again. There was a lot of trivia and games being played.
As everybody knows, we never had much privacy – and now they were filming us rehearsing. One day there was a row going on between Paul and me. It’s actually in the film: you can see where he’s saying, ‘Well, don’t play this,’ and I’m saying, ‘I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play. Whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it…’
They were filming us having a row. It never came to blows, but I thought, ‘What’s the point of this? I’m quite capable of being relatively happy on my own and I’m not able to be happy in this situation. I’m getting out of here.’
Everybody had gone through that. Ringo had left at one point. I know John wanted out. It was a very, very difficult, stressful time, and being filmed having a row as well was terrible. I got up and I thought, ‘I’m not doing this any more. I’m out of here.’
After Harrison walked out of the Twickenham rehearsals, the other three Beatles carried on performing without him. At one point Yoko Ono wailed some vocals over their jamming. John Lennon can be heard on the tapes suggesting that if Harrison didn’t return within a few days they should replace him with Eric Clapton.
George left because Paul and he were having a heated discussion. They weren’t getting on that day and George decided to leave, but he didn’t tell John or me or Paul. There’d been some tension going down in the morning, and arguments would go on anyway, so none of us realised until we went to lunch that George had gone home. When we came back he still wasn’t there, so we started jamming violently. Paul was playing his bass into the amp and John was off, and I was playing some weird drumming that I hadn’t done before. I don’t play like that as a rule. Our reaction was really, really interesting at the time. And Yoko jumped in, of course; she was there.
Harrison was persuaded to rejoin on 15 January, during a five-hour meeting in which he insisted he would only rejoin if the idea of a live show was dropped. He also demanded that sessions be moved from Twickenham to a new studio in the basement of Apple’s headquarters in Savile Row, London. He didn’t object to The Beatles being filmed making their album, and his conditions didn’t rule out a live performance for the cameras.
I was called to a meeting out in Elstead in Surrey, at Ringo’s house that he bought from Peter Sellers. It was decided that it would be better if we got back together and finished the record. Twickenham Studios were very cold and not a very nice atmosphere, so we decided to abandon that and go to Savile Row into the recording studio.
The Apple Studios sessions began on 21 January 1969. From the following day, until the end of the Let It Be recordings on 31 January, they were joined by keyboard player Billy Preston, who was in London performing with Ray Charles.
The Beatles knew Preston from their Hamburg days, and George Harrison invited him to participate in the sessions to help alleviate the tensions. Five of the songs on Let It Be featured Billy Preston on organ or electric piano, as did Don’t Let Me Down, the b-side to the Get Back single, also recorded during the sessions.
Billy came down and I said, ‘Remember Billy? Here he is – he can play the piano.’ He got on the electric piano, and straight away there was 100% improvement in the vibe in the room. Having this fifth person was just enough to cut the ice that we’d created among ourselves. Billy didn’t know all the politics and the games that had been going on, so in his innocence he got stuck in and gave an extra little kick to the band. Everybody was happier to have somebody else playing and it made what we were doing more enjoyable. We all played better and that was a great session. It was more or less just as it is on the record.