The intricacies of The Beatles, which had once worked to offer up a varied taste of personality in their early boyband days, was beginning to weigh heavily on the band some years later. The group had been through one of the most meteoric rises to fame the world had ever seen and the tensions between the members were beginning to grow.
During the group’s ill-fated attempt to initially record the Let It Be album in 1969, those tensions reached boiling point and John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr often found themselves at the sharp end of one another’s temper. It was not a great time to be a Beatle.
Yet, it was also a fruitful time. Though Let It Be may not be everybody’s favourite Fab Four record, much of that disdain arises from the fact it is the last one they ever put out, let alone the trials and tribulations that went into it. A perfect example of the group tearing itself apart at the seams is John Lennon’s interpretation of one of the record’s most cherished songs, ‘Get Back’.
The track started out, according to Paul McCartney, as a deeply political and satirical piece. With the song, McCartney attempted to parody the constant maligning of immigrants by the press and politicians. The song went through several re-writes as Macca meticulously tried to find the right tone for the song but when the bootlegs of the sessions were revealed later, the songwriter had a bit of explaining to do.
“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,” claimed Macca to Rolling Stone in 1986. “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,” confirmed Macca. “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.” While we know that’s not exactly the same thing, it’s clear McCartney’s intent was seemingly pure.
For John Lennon, however, the intent was far more barbed and aimed directly at Yoko Ono, a permanent fixture in the life of Lennon and, by proxy, The Beatles. Ono had become another member of the group by extension and John certainly thought Paul was upset about it.
“I think there’s some underlying thing about Yoko in there,” Lennon once revealed to David Sheff for Playboy in 1980. “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.”
Of course, Macca has always maintained the original concept of the song and has never really wavered on that. But one thing is for sure, at the time of recording all of The Beatles were nearing their breaking point. Increased schedules and pressure alongside each members growing ego and esteem meant working as a group was nearing untenable.
Perhaps McCartney did need some more room to breathe and perhaps he did see Yoko as an issue for the group. Most of which, we’ll never know. But what we do know is that we get out of it perhaps one of The Beatles finest rock and roll songs.