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Music

The racial origins of The Beatles song 'Get Back'

Peter Jackson’s eminent Get Back series helps to dispel many unfounded rumours that have haunted The Beatles over the last 50 years. Billy Preston, we’re told, wasn’t invited into the fore, but happened to walk in on the band mid rehearsal, and sat in with them for a jam. Paul McCartney, we discover, wasn’t the one who carried the band up to the roof, but acquiesced because it meant so much to Ringo Starr. And then there’s the matter of John Lennon, who played lead guitar on ‘Get Back’ with George Harrison’s complete blessing and approval.

But given the unexpurgated nature of the series, audiences also witnessed some less flattering aspects to the band. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg seems obsessed with the “Arabs” that await The Beatles in Libya; John Lennon looks a little “glazed” during many of the early rehearsal scenes, leading many to speculate that he was on some sort of drugs; and Paul McCartney sings a tune about “Pakistanis” and their rising emergence in society.

A canny, bright man, McCartney recognised that the subject – no matter how comedic – might be misconstrued, and he tailored the lyric accordingly. In its new form, it was perceived as some to be a swipe at Yoko Ono, Lennon’s bride to be, and supposedly an intrusive presence on The Beatles during their process of creativity. Imagine the furore The Beatles might have faced had they released ‘Commonwealth’, as was seen in the Jackson documentary.

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The song addresses Enoch Powell implicitly, a Conservative MP who gained notoriety for an incendiary speech he gave in 1968. “We must be mad,” Powell cried, “Literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant descended population.”

It’s not Far Out’s place to express our feelings on the speech, but it must have struck a chord with McCartney, whose mother had spent much of her life growing up on the banks of Monaghan, Ireland. In a perverse twist of fate, Powell served as an MP for Northern Ireland during some of the more devastating years of The Troubles, espousing the importance of “British national identity” and argued against the virtues of an all-Ireland state.

Powell had yet to travel overseas, but his presence was being felt in London. In an almost explosive opening address, McCartney lets out weeks of barbed anger into the mix, entertaining his fellow Beatles with a series of ridiculous, proto Pythonesque, voices.

Lennon seems engaged in the clip, chiming into the lyric with his own assortment of comical falsettos, but it’s his guitar playing that truly soars. Behind them sits Ringo Starr, his beat study, and his snares ready rolling to the march of an Orange Parade striding down the path. By embodying the roles of hateful individuals, The Beatles were setting their targets up with a series of blistering performances.

George Harrison seems withdrawn, which is odd considering how much he valued the importance of integration. By the ’70s, he was advocating for “World Passports”, and seemed tired by the predilection for “nationalism”, in a world that should embody “internationalism”. But that might also be the reason why he can’t muster the energy to contribute to the song, precisely because he is so vehemently against it.

Invariably, The Beatles chose against releasing it, and only the most hardened of bootleg buyers had caught wind of it before it wound up in Jackson’s three-episode series. The words may have dated, but it’s nice to know that The Beatles stayed true to their principles, inside and outside the recording studio.

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