The Beatles have often found themselves in the centre of racial tension. Whether it was their ‘whitening’ of rock ‘n’ roll classics which saw them grab attention in The Cavern Club (something John Lennon always professed to have been ashamed of) or their refusal to play to a segregated audience in America while still in the infancy of their career. The Fab Four have usually been on the right side of history.
It was a trait that was very nearly sullied by the use of one lyric in the band’s huge song ‘Get Back’. Written by Paul McCartney, the track was set up as part of their ‘back-to-basics’ phase and saw McCartney revisit a similar style to that which had propelled the group in the first place. “‘Get Back’ is Paul,” recalled Lennon to David Sheff in 1980. “That’s a better version of ‘Lady Madonna’. You know, a potboiler rewrite.”
Potboiler, toe-tapper or hip-shaker, call it what you will, ‘Get Back’ has since become one of The Beatles most beloved tracks. Featured on the Let It Be album, the song is one of Macca’s finest pieces and is largely thought of as a fine piece of work. However, it was nearly all so different as McCartney was forced to censor himself after realising how his words may have been taken.
All of the members of The Beatles flirted with politics in some form or another, Lennon naturally being more outspoken than the rest of them—but Paul McCartney went about displaying his views through his songs. During the Let It Be sessions, it was clear that Macca was struggling to come to terms with the increased racial tension on both sides of the Atlantic.
As well as writing the song ‘Blackbird’, a track which Macca said: “I had in mind a black woman, rather than a bird,” when writing it, adding: “Those were the days of the civil rights movement, which all of us cared passionately about, so this was really a song from me to a black woman, experiencing these problems in the States: ‘Let me encourage you to keep trying, to keep your faith, there is hope.’” The singer also had the band perform ‘Commonwealth’ during the sessions—a song based on a satirised version of Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.
It meant that when he included the lyrics “don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs” in one of the first iterations of ‘Get Back’ you can be comfortable in the knowledge it was written with the right intent in mind. A later version of the song also made a similar reference, with the lyrics: “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?”. When the bootlegs of the ‘Get Back’ recordings were brought to light, Macca was put in the firing line, despite their satirical nature.
Not forgetting the fact that McCartney chose to censor his art with the knowledge that his words had more weight than others, the Beatles-man was still forced to clarify his position. “When we were doing Let It Be,” he recalls to Rolling Stone in 1986, “there were a couple of verses to ‘Get Back’ which were actually not racist at all – they were anti-racist.”
He added: “There were a lot of stories in the newspapers then about Pakistanis crowding out flats – you know, living 16 to a room or whatever,” continued the singer, highlighting the sensationalist racist headlines that sadly still grace the front of many right-wing papers in 2020. “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.”
Looking back at the band’s history it would be fair to say they are far from squeaky clean. In fact, they’re likely a little more muddied than most. But as McCartney puts it in 1986, “If there was any group that was not racist, it was the Beatles.”