The Beatles’ 19th British single, ‘Get Back’ was the first release by the group from their 1969 ‘back-to-basics’ phase.
The song began as a satirical and critical look at attitudes towards immigrants in Britain. Paul McCartney intended to parody the negative attitudes that were prevalent among politicians and the press.
Race issues evidently played on McCartney’s mind during the Get Back/Let It Be sessions. He led The Beatles through ‘Commonwealth’, an unreleased improvised satire loosely based on British politician Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘Rivers of blood’ speech.
The most infamous of the unreleased ‘Get Back’ versions is known as ‘No Pakistanis’, and contained the line “Don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs”. While mostly unfinished, the song did include a mumbled rhyming couplet which paired the words ‘Puerto Rican’ with ‘mohican’.
Various demo versions of this early version were recorded, one of which contains the following lines:
Meanwhile back at home too many Pakistanis
Living in a council flat
Candidate Macmillan, tell us what your plan is
Won’t you tell us where you’re at?
Despite being satirical in nature, it didn’t prevent accusations of racism being levelled at McCartney for years to come, after the ‘Get Back’ bootlegs became public.
When we were doing Let It Be, there were a couple of verses to ‘Get Back’ which were actually not racist at all – they were anti-racist. There were a lot of stories in the newspapers then about Pakistanis crowding out flats – you know, living 16 to a room or whatever. So in one of the verses of ‘Get Back’, which we were making up on the set of Let It Be, one of the outtakes has something about ‘too many Pakistanis living in a council flat’ – that’s the line. Which to me was actually talking out against overcrowding for Pakistanis… If there was any group that was not racist, it was the Beatles. I mean, all our favourite people were always black. We were kind of the first people to open international eyes, in a way, to Motown.
Rolling Stone, 1986
The origins of the song’s chorus are unknown, although George Harrison’s song ‘Sour Milk Sea’, demoed by The Beatles in 1968 and later recorded by Jackie Lomax, contains the refrain, “Get back to where you should be”. John Lennon, however, later claimed that McCartney’s words were directed towards Yoko Ono.
I think there’s some underlying thing about Yoko in there. You know, ‘Get back to where you once belonged.’ Every time he sang the line in the studio, he’d look at Yoko. Maybe he’ll say I’m paranoid. You know, he can say, ‘I’m a normal family man, those two are freaks.’ That’ll leave him a chance to say that one.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
The Beatles eventually realised that their intentions could be misconstrued, and the story of Jo Jo and Loretta Martin evolved.
Many people have since claimed to be the Jo Jo and they’re not, let me put that straight! I had no particular person in mind, again it was a fictional character, half man, half woman, all very ambiguous. I often left things ambiguous, I like doing that in my songs.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
Whatever the true meaning, ‘Get Back’ served as a neat summary of The Beatles’ back-to-basics musical intentions, and the song became the title track of what they intended to be their next album. Although two different versions of the LP were compiled by producer/engineer Glyn Johns, the January 1969 recordings were eventually remixed by Phil Spector and released as the Let It Be album.
‘Get Back’ is The Beatles’ new single. It’s the first Beatles record which is as live as live can be, in this electronic age. There’s no electronic whatchamacallit. ‘Get Back’ is pure spring-time rock number. On the other side there’s an equally live number called ‘Don’t Let Me Down’.
Paul’s got this to say about ‘Get Back’: ‘We were sitting in the studio and we made it up out of thin air… we started to write words there and then… when we finished it, we recorded it at Apple Studios and made it into a song to roller-coast by.
P.S. John adds, it’s John playing the fab live guitar solo. And now John on ‘Don’t Let Me Down’: John says don’t let me down about ‘Don’t Let Me Down’.
In ‘Get Back’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, you’ll find The Beatles, as nature intended.