Hard to believe it but I’m nearly at the end of The Beatles’ career. This 16th number 1 was the last to feature John, Paul, George and Ringo together – plus one extra. For the first time, they gave equal billing to another musician – keyboardist Billy Preston.
The Beatles’ eponymous double LP hadn’t made the same cultural impact as Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band upon its release, but it was a wonder it had even been finished, as the sessions had been tense, with Harrison and Starr walking out at separate points. McCartney searched for a new project to keep them afloat.
In January 1969, the same month that the Yellow Submarine album was released, they regrouped. Macca suggested they continue down the back-to-basics road they started on the previous year, but with a twist. They would record an album of new material, rehearse it, then perform it in front of a live audience. The results would be made into an album and TV special called Beatles at Work. They hired Michael Lindsay-Hogg to film them rehearsing at Twickenham Studios that month.
What followed did nothing for inter-band relations. Lennon and Harrison later described the rehearsals as the lowest point the band ever experienced. Harrison, irritated by both Lennon and McCartney in particular, who was captured on camera patronising the guitarist, walked out. He returned five days later, but issued an ultimatum. They must abandon the idea of a live performance, and concentrate on getting the album, by that point known as Get Back, finished, and then use the songs for the TV show. He also wanted out of Twickenham, a cold location that did nothing for the frosty atmosphere amongst the Fab Four (and of course Yoko Ono). The Beatles decided they would relocate to the newly completed Apple Studios and use Lindsay-Hogg’s footage to make a new documentary film.
Among the many songs rehearsed that January was Get Back, intended to be the project’s title track. It originated from a jam session during rehearsals on 7 January. McCartney played with the lyric to a George Harrison tune from 1968. Sour Milk Sea was originally planned for The Beatles but surfaced as a single by Jackie Lomax on Apple Records instead, with bass from McCartney. It featured the lyric ‘Get back to where you should be’.
Two days later McCartney brought a more developed version of Get Back to rehearsals, with the ‘Sweet Loretta Martin’ wordplay pretty much complete. He had also come up with some controversial lyrics that would surface on bootlegs over the years. Paul decided to use the song to satirise the views of people like right-wing politician Enoch Powell’s views on immigration.
While ‘Don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs’ may fit the tune of Get Back perfectly, the Beatles were wise in scrapping this approach. It’s likely not everybody would have got where they were coming from… It also didn’t help that McCartney would look at Ono whenever he sang ‘Get back to where you once belong’, according to Lennon.
Immigration was clearly on their minds, as they also worked on another right-wing satire at the same time, usually referred to as Commonwealth. Again, it’s a good thing this was dropped, and it was musically inferior to Get Back.
Bootleg recordings dating from 23 January reveal a conversation between McCartney and Harrison inbetween trying to whip their next single into shape. McCartney explains it was supposed to be a protest song, but the group then decide that the third verse, featuring the ‘Pakistani’ line, should be dropped.
Instead, the song evolved from an angry rock song to a softer, bluesy sound, no doubt helped along by the ‘fifth Beatle’, who had joined the group the previous day. Enter Billy Preston, who Harrison had invited to proceedings to try and bring an end to the bickering. He wisely assumed a relative stranger among them would put everyone on their best behaviour and give them a kick up the arse. He was right.
Billy Preston, born on 2 September 1946 in Houston, Texas, had been a child prodigy. Self-taught, he never recieved a single piano lesson. He first met The Beatles aged 16 in 1962, when he was playing in the singer’s backing band at a Liverpool show that the Fab Four opened. When Harrison had left the January rehearsals, he had gone to a Ray Charles gig, in which Preston performed on the organ.
On 27 January, The Beatles and Preston made a concerted effort to finish the song, which now featured a false ending and a coda. Take 11 was picked, but it had come to an abrupt end, so they returned to the studio the next day to work on the ending. When McCartney and Glyn Johns came to turn the performances into a single, they opted to go against the ‘as nature intended’ vibe of the project, and tacked on a coda from 28 January to Take 11. But they were right to do so, and did it so well, you’d never know, really. Unusually, the single features Lennon on lead guitar over Harrison on rhythm, as Lennon stepped up during Harrison’s absence.
Before it had even been released, Get Back had earned its place in Beatles folklore, for it was the last song they ever played together live. After much toing and froing about how the project would end, they finally agreed to be filmed performing on the roof of Apple Studios with Billy Preston. They opened the short concert with two takes, and then closed the set with one last version, featuring ad-libs from McCartney referring to the police ascending to the roof to shut the gig down (available on Anthology 3). The set ended with Lennon’s famous, ironic quote ‘I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition.’ Phil Spector would add this to the end of the version that made it to Let It Be.
Although it was a wise decision to remove that third verse of Get Back, it does rob the song of any bite it had. Reduced to two verses that don’t really mean anything, it needs to be musically interesting, and it’s not too good at that really. It chugs along pleasantly enough, and Preston’s solo adds some soul to proceedings, but it’s far from their greatest single and none of the actual band get to do anything very exciting.
It’s not a return to The Beatles’ roots either, which was how it was marketed. Get Back is the sound of The Beatles following the curve, rather than being ahead of it. It is in fact, the boogie sound of US blues rockers Canned Heat, with McCartney even stealing the distinctive vocal stylings of Alan Wilson. But before I make it sound like I hate Get Back, I don’t. As a throwaway bit of fun, it’s perfectly fine. The single version does a good job of sounding both rough and ready and polished at the same time, thanks to the reverb added to the mix. It’s superior to the Let It Be version. But it’s clear to see that at this point, The Beatles were struggling to keep the magic going.
Released with Lennon’s Don’t Le Me Down as its B-side (which is better if you ask me), also featuring Preston, Get Back was Paul McCartney’s fourth A-side in a row. It was also the last of their singles to be released in mono.
And what became of Billy Preston? Quite a lot. He worked with the Beatles again, playing uncredited on superior tracks I Want You (She’s So Heavy) and Something. In the same year he signed with Apple Records and released his fourth album, That’s the Way God Planned It. Produced by Harrison, the title track was also a hit.
Following the split of the Beatles in 1970, Preston continued to work with his friend, and became the first person to release a version of Harrison’s solo number 1, My Sweet Lord. He also featured on Harrison’s triple album All Things Must Pass that year. Not only that… remember Stephen Stills’ excellent single Love the One You’re With? That title came from a saying of Preston’s.
In 1971 he left Apple to join A&M Records, and in addition to his own work selling well, he worked on many Rolling Stones albums, including Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. and was their primary touring keyboardist from 1973 to 1977. In 1974 he co-wrote and released the first version of You Are So Beautiful, a soul classic later made famous by Joe Cocker.
Preston worked with Motown in the early 80s, then concentrated on session work for artists including Luther Vandross and Whitney Houston. Drug issues curtailed his career but he resurfaced in the 90s, playing with, among others, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and the Band.
Following Harrison’s death in 2001, his friend performed three songs at the 2002 Concert for George at the Royal Albert Hall. Also in 2002, Preston played piano on Johnny Cash’s album American IV: The Man Comes Around. Towards the end of his life he appeared on American Idol and worked with Red Hot Chili Peppers and Neil Diamond. His last live performance saw him promote the re-release of the 1972 documentary The Concert for Bangladesh. On his last song on stage he performed Harrison’s Isn’t It a Pity with Harrison’s son Dhani and Starr.
Soon after, Preston suffered pericarditis and fell into a coma. He had been struggling with kidney disease and his drug issues (which many feel stemmed from problems due to being abused as a child and later hiding his sexuality) had returned. He died on 6 June 2006, aged 59.
Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Weeks at number 1: 6 (23 April-3 June)
Actress Kate Hardie – 26 April
Television presenter Tess Daly – 27 April
Actor Cy Chadwick – 2 June
Writer Sir Osbert Sitwell – 4 May
Civil Engineer Sir Owen Williams -23 May
24 April: British Leyland Motor Corporation launched Britain’s first hatchback car. The Austin Maxi was designed to compete with family saloons like the Ford Cortina.
Also that day, the final episode of the long-running BBC Radio drama Mrs Dales Diary was broadcast.
26 April: Manchester City won the FA Cup with a 1-0 win over Leicester City at Wembley.
28 April: Leeds United won the Football league First Division title for the first time.
2 May: The famed ocean liner Queen Elizabeth II embarked on its maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York.
29 May: The release of one of my favourite movies of all time (I’m not even kidding) – Carry On Camping. It became the biggest film at the box office of 1969.