April 1969 – The Beatles Get Back To The Basics

The Beatles waited nearly eight months after the release ofHey Jude” to take any action towards issuing a follow-up single. As was often the case after the death of Brian Epstein, Paul took control. Two weeks after his marriage to Linda Eastman, McCartney arranged for a mono mix of “Get Back” on March 26, 1969, while John was on his honeymoon with Yoko Ono. Shortly thereafter, Melody Maker reported in its April 5 issue that “Get Back,” featuring Billy Preston on keyboards, would be the group’s next single. An Apple spokesman said that the Beatles wanted the disc out by the end of June to coincide with the release of their new album. No decision had been made regarding the single’s B-side.

Plans for the single’s release were put on the fast track when the Beatles provided an acetate of the March 26 mix of “Get Back” to BBC Radio 1 for surprise broadcast on Easter Sunday, April 6. The following day a new mono mix, as well as a stereo mix, was made. In addition, “Don’t Let Me Down” was mixed for mono and stereo. Paul was the only Beatle in attendance. Apple announced a rush release date for the single of April 11, although the disc did not appear in stores until the following week.

Apple’s ad for the single, which appeared in the April 15 Daily Mirror newspaper (at a cost of £2,000) and music magazines a few days later, was titled “The Beatles as nature intended.” The ad, which was reportedly written by Paul, stated that the new record was “as live as can be, in this electronic age” and bragged “There’s no electronic watchamacallit.” “Get Back” was described as a “pure spring-time rock number.” Paul stated that the group “made it up out of thin air” in the studio and that the song was “recorded at Apple Studios and made into a song to rollercoast by.” John was credited for the song’s “fab live guitar solo.” As for the flip side, John was quoted as saying “don’t let me down about ‘Don’t let me down.’”

Record Retailer reviewed the disc in its April 16 issue, pointing out that there were “already mutterings of disappointment in this obvious chart topper–mostly on the grounds that it is not as progressive as some would wish.” “Get Back” was described as having a “straightish rock ’n’ roll sound” with Paul singing “with very great power.” The magazine added that the song was “more subtle than one would think after only one play.” The flip side, “Don’t Let Me Down,” was noted for featuring “John in rough throated mood.”

The music weeklies reviewed the single in their April 19 issues. NME observed that the Beatles were “getting back to their 1964 – 5 approach” with unadulterated rock ’n’ roll, more polished, but still dependent on the beat. “Nothing adventurous or experimental…just honest-to-goodness pop-rock.” The flip was called powerful blues. Record Mirror sought the opinions of six of its writers. All wrote of the rock ’n’ roll revival, with three liking “Get Back,” finding it Chuck Berry influenced. Rex Gomes thought the single could be a double A-side and even preferred “Don’t Let Me Down,” praising John’s soulful performance. The others expressed differing degrees of disappointment, with Lon Goddard asking if the disc was supposed to be a double B-side. Penny Valentine in Disc called the single “brilliant,” saying it would sell on its raw and unsophisticated sound. Disc jockey John Peel described “Get Back” in Melody Maker as a very simple song with a Chuck Berry guitar riff. He said his reaction to a new Beatles song was always the same–first disappointment, then after a few plays, awe.

While some critics may have been initially disappointed with the single, record buyers weren’t. “Get Back” debuted at number one in the April 23 Record Retailer, displacing “The Israelites” by Desmond Dekkar. For the next two weeks, the song held off Mary Hopkin’s “Goodbye.” After six weeks at the top, “Get Back” dropped to number two behind “Dizzy” by Tommy Roe, who six years earlier headlined a British tour with the Beatles. The magazine charted “Get Back” for 16 weeks. “Get Back” was number one for five weeks in NME (11 weeks charted) and Melody Maker (12 weeks charted). It was awarded a silver disc by Disc on May 3, 1969, for sales of over 250,000. Sales would soon reach 500,000. Top Of The Pops aired the “Get Back” promo clip in black and white on April 24 and May 8, 15 and 22.

Americans who were wondering what the Beatles were up to during the first part of 1969 got their first answers in TV Guide. The magazine’s April 19-25 issue contained a two-page spread featuring four individual and one group photo of the band in action. The brief article, titled “Four cats on a London roof,” informed readers of a TV documentary detailing the making of a new Beatles album. It stated that the filming was done to “let the world—all over which the Beatles hope to sell the documentary in a few months—know just how the Beatles go about their work.” Readers also learned that the album was recorded in a studio in London’s elegant Savile Row and that neighbors had called the bobbies (police) to quell the noise. We later learned that the concert has held on the roof of Apple headquarters.

Shortly after the magazine was mailed to households and distributed to stores, radio stations began playing the Beatles new single, “Get Back” and “Don’t Let Me Down.” The former song got the most spins, with its pure rock ’n’ roll sound, propelled by Ringo’s galloping drums, blasting out of radios throughout the land. Paul’s energetic vocal and nifty guitar work by John and George added to the excitement. The flip side, “Don’t Let Me Down,” was more of a soulful blues number with John on lead vocal.

The image of the Beatles shown in TV Guide sprang to life about two weeks after its debut on the evening of Wednesday, April 30, when film of the band performing “Get Back” and “Don’t Let Me Down” was shown on the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. The “Get Back” clip featured the Beatles performing the song during their London rooftop concert with Paul on lead vocals and John playing the song’s rockabilly-styled guitar solo. When the song was over, the camera panned to the crowd forming in the streets below.

The “Don’t Let Me Down” promo film provided additional information about the TV documentary and the recording of the songs. At the beginning, the group is indoors in what appears to be a dimly lit location. John is shown singing lead, with Paul and George providing backing vocals mainly on the chorus. This part of the film was obviously shot before the rooftop footage as John has a scraggly beard. At the beginning of the bridge, as John sings “I’m in love for the first time,” there is a closeup of Yoko’s face, showing that she was present during the sessions. The film switches to a rooftop performance of the song. During this sequence, a black musician (who we later learned was Billy Preston) is shown playing electric piano. The film then moves back indoors during the last chorus. As the song comes to an end, the camera pulls back, revealing what appears to be a film studio backdrop with scaffolded lighting.

While the “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” videos had been shown on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, by the time the “Get Back” single was released, CBS had canceled the show. This led to country singer/guitarist Glen Campbell getting the Beatles for his own show. Campbell provided a wonderful tongue-in-cheek introduction to the “Get Back” promo film, pretending that he was presenting an unknown act discovered by comedian Pat Paulsen: “Well we like to give new talent a break here on the show, and Pat brought a brand new group back from London, and uh, he asked me if I’d give them a break, and I said, ‘well sure Pat, we’d be very grateful to have them on the show.’ So we’re gonna present them right now on the Goodtime Hour. Uh, what’s the name of that group, Pat? Oh yeah, ladies and gentlemen, directly from England, the Beatles.”

Although the single’s official release date is listed as May 5, 1969, the disc was most likely available for purchase on Friday, April 25. Thus, many Americans had already bought the single prior to the promo films being broadcast on television. For those who hadn’t, that broadcast and saturation radio air play sealed the deal. The record was the Beatles first stereo single. The labels to the disc credited the recordings to “THE BEATLES with Billy Preston.” Back then, there was no Internet, so many purchasers had no way of knowing who Billy Preston was even though he appeared in the “Don’t Let Me Down” promo film. That summer, Beatles fans finally got to see a photo of Preston on the picture sleeve to his single “That’s The Way God Planned It,” which was produced by George Harrison.

All three of the music trade magazines ran mini-reviews of the single in their April 26 issues, which also ran the same ad for the single that had appeared in the U.K. Cash Box picked up on the lack of electronics stressed in the single’s ad, noting that the disc “eliminates electronic gadgetry for the simple appeal that marked early efforts by the Beatles, but with the sophistication they have gained.” In describing the A-side, the magazine found the group “Rocking with a blues-ier feel than ever before” and noted that “‘Get Back’ could mark the team’s entrance on a new phase of development.” Cash Box warned not to overlook the ballad B-side, observing that “‘Don’t Let Me Down’ sounds more like the group with a blues/country touch.” Billboard told readers to “Save two places at the top of the charts for these two.” “Get Back” was described as a “driving rhythm with a strong blues feel and good lyric line,” while the flip side was called “an easy-funky number with powerful emotion-packed vocal work.” Record World commented that “The Beatles indulge in some country rock on ‘Get Back’…which echoes some of the cuter sides on their last album.”

While Record World’s classification of “Get Back” as “country rock” seems a stretch, the magazine’s reference to the group’s previous album was more on the mark. That collection introduced us to Prudence, Desmond, Molly, Bungalow Bill, Rocky Raccoon, Sexy Sadie and others. “Get Back” gave us Jo Jo and Loretta. The ambiguity of the second verse was both naughty and edgy: “Sweet Loretta Martin thought she was a woman, but she was another man/All the girls around her said she’s got it coming, but she gets it while she can.” In the song’s coda, even Loretta’s mummy came across as sexy “wearing her high-heel shoes and her low-neck sweater.” And for Americans, the song’s references to Tucson, Arizona and California made the story line even more compelling.

“Get Back” entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number ten on May 10, 1969. Three weeks later, on May 24, the song moved to number one, where it would remain for five weeks during its 12-week run on the charts. To get to the top, the Beatles single passed a pair of recordings of songs from the American Tribal-Love-Rock Musical Hair, “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” by the Fifth Dimension and “Hair” by the Cowsills. That week, “Aquarius” (#2) and “Hair” (#4) surrounded “Love (Can Make You Happy)” by Mercy (#3). The top five was rounded out by the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day,” which would serve as inspiration for George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.” (Although Harrison’s recording of “My Sweet Lord” seems far-removed from the gospel tune, the Harrison-produced arrangement of his composition by Billy Preston, which was recorded first, has an R&B/gospel groove and backing vocals by the Edwin Hawkins Singers.)

The “Get Back” single performed equally well on the other American charts, with Cash Box matching Billboard’s showing of five weeks at number one and 12 weeks on the charts. Record World was similar, with four weeks at one and 11 weeks on the charts. The flip side, “Don’t Let Me Down,” also charted, with a peak of 35 in Billboard, 33 in Record World and 57 in Cash Box. The single was quickly certified gold by the RIAA and sold over two million copies.

Both sides of the single were recorded during January 1969, as part of the sessions that would eventually form the basis for the Let It Be movie and its soundtrack album. From January 2 through January 14, the group was filmed by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg on a Twickenham Film Studios soundstage in London rehearsing new material and loosely performing some of their favorite oldies. On January 21, the Beatles resumed work on the project in a makeshift studio in the basement of Apple’s Savile Row headquarters. Recording and filming continued through the end of the month. Although the sessions were full of tension, bickering and overall bad vibes, the initial songs issued from the project gave listeners no indication of the troubled conditions under which they were recorded.

The genesis of “Get Back” dates to the morning of January 7, when Paul introduced the song prior to John’s arrival. McCartney’s initial rendering of “Get Back” consisted of thumping bass and loose scat vocals. Although George played a few open chord notes at the start, this embryonic performance was essentially all Paul. George joined Paul for the next attempt, which opened with Paul singing the chorus and some incomplete lyrics that would later serve as the second verse. Although Ringo did not play drums, he sang with Paul on the choruses and later verses.

The first real runthrough of “Get Back” was performed as a simple rocker with Ringo supplying a straightforward beat and George adding some wah-wah guitar fills. Paul sings the song in the style of Apple recording artist Jackie Lomax, perhaps realizing that the “get back to where you once belonged” chorus is similar to the “get back to where you should be” line from Lomax’s recording of George Harrison’s “Sour Milk Sea.” Paul acknowledges his Lomax imitation by shouting, “C’mon Jackie!” during the second chorus.

The group returned to the song two days later on January 9, this time with John present and accounted for. Early run-throughs sound more like a jam than a finished song, but elements of the story line, such as references to Arizona and California, begin to appear. Paul then switches direction by temporarily changing the lyrics to political satire aimed at Parliament member Enoch Powell, who was in the news at that time spouting his beliefs that too many nonwhite citizens of the British Empire were immigrating to England and taking away limited jobs. Before launching into this political version of the song, Paul sings “Don’t want no black man. Don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs.” The song’s improvised lyrics include references to Puerto Ricans and Mohicans for the United States, and Pakistanis for England. The group jams behind Paul, who shouts “get back” over and over again in a voice that mocks the hatred behind Enoch Powell’s beliefs. After a few political versions of the song, the band returned briefly to the song’s original story line, with Jo and Theresa serving as the principal characters.

The following day, January 10, the band spent a significant portion of the morning session working on “Get Back.” Prior to the start of band rehearsals, Paul performed the song on piano. After McCartney switched to bass, he led the group through a raucous version of “Get Back.” At Paul’s suggestion, the song was rearranged to open with crashing guitars (somewhat reminiscent of the start to “A Hard Day’s Night”) and a building drum roll from Ringo. The band performed several rocking run-throughs, with some containing bits of the “No Pakistanis” lyrics from the previous day. One of the more spirited performances features John joining Paul on the verses, a jamming wah-wah guitar solo and a Ringo drum fill leading into a third verse, which was later discarded. This verse contains references to living in a council flat (government-subsidized housing) and statements from the candidate for Labour (one of Britain’s political parties). The verse about Loretta is substantially complete, but serves as the first rather than second verse. The middle verse features Jo Jo, Arizona and California, but is not in final form.

Although the group’s progress with “Get Back” gives the impression that things were finally coming together for the band, things were about to fall apart. Shortly after the group’s break for lunch on January 10, George announced he was quitting the group and walked out of Twickenham.

On January 13, the three remaining Beatles returned to “Get Back,” with Paul refining the lyrics. Loretta’s last name alternated between Marsh and Marvin after Paul rejected John’s “suggestion” of “Sweet Loretta Meatball.” Although the group completed a few rocking takes of the song, Ringo’s drum fills during the breaks threw the band’s timing off. John’s guitar solos, which borrow elements from Dale Hawkins’ “Suzie Q,” range from passable to pitiful.

By the time the Beatles returned to “Get Back” on January 23, George had rejoined the band and the sessions had moved to the basement of Apple’s Savile Row headquarters. In addition, Billy Preston was providing keyboards. Preston, who the Beatles met in 1962 when he was in Little Richard’s touring band, was invited to the sessions by George. His presence not only added musical depth to the band’s live performances, but also helped the group to behave in a more civil manner.

Most of the day’s session was devoted to “Get Back.” Although the group did not perfect the song, its structure, lyrics and instrumentation, including Ringo’s galloping snare drum part, George’s chopping rhythm guitar, John’s guitar solos and Billy Preston’s electric piano fills and solo, were taking shape.

The group continued to rehearse the song on January 24, at first without Preston, who did not arrive until mid-afternoon. The most interesting version recorded that day has back-to-back performances of the song, complete with spirited improvisations from Paul during the final coda.

On January 27, the group ran through over 30 takes of “Get Back.” During one of the early performances, Paul sings the first verse with Japanese characters and cities; however, most of the versions of the song recorded this day were serious attempts at a suitable master take. The performances are fairly similar, with the main differences being the tempo, John’s guitar solos and the codas. During one of the codas, Paul sings, “it’s five o’clock, your mother’s got your tea on.” He ends another with the “One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock” opening line from Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock.” On the take that would later be chosen as the master for the single and the Let It Be album, the group fails to play a coda, causing Harrison to comment, “We missed that end, didn’t we?”

Due to the flubbed ending of this performance, the group continued work on the song. The later recordings are entertaining, but do not match the perfection of the master. The most interesting of the bunch has Paul singing pseudo-German lyrics until he switches to pseudo-French for the final chorus. During an instrumental break, Paul once again acknowledges the Jackie Lomax influence on the song by saying, “Yah, that’s good Jackie” in a German accent.

The Beatles recorded additional takes of “Get Back” on the following day. The extended coda from one of these January 28 performances was put to good use. A segment containing the first 35 seconds of the coda was edited to the end of the January 27 performance chosen for the single. A later segment of the coda was used as the “Get Back” reprise that ends both unreleased Get Back albums as well as the Let It Be film. The full coda runs 1:22 and ends with John singing: “Shoot me when I’m evil, shoot me when I’m good, shoot me when I’m hungry, and shoot me when I’m….” The later performances of the song are ragged and have Billy Preston on organ rather than electric piano.

On January 29, the Beatles rehearsed the songs slated for the rooftop concert, including “Get Back.” Because Billy was not present, John vocalized Preston’s piano solo.

The Beatles, accompanied by Billy Preston on electric piano, gave their last public performance on January 30. The impromptu concert was staged on the roof of Apple headquarters and included three complete performances of “Get Back,” two of which appear in the Let It Be film. The group’s final take on the song was the closing number to the concert and the film. This historic performance, complete with Paul’s ad-libbed reference to playing on the rooftops, is included on Anthology 3.

On March 10, 1969, Glyn Johns made stereo mixes of a January 23 and a January 27 performance of “Get Back.” These mixes were transferred to an acetate for the Beatles to review.

On March 26, “Get Back” was mixed for mono at Abbey Road by EMI engineer Jeff Jarratt. The finished master combines the January 27 coda-less performance previously mixed by Glyn Johns with the first 35 seconds of a coda recorded on January 28. An acetate of this mix was played on Easter Sunday (April 6) on BBC 1 by disc jockeys John Peel and Alan Freeman. Because Paul was not satisfied with the mix, the song was remixed for mono on April 7 by Glyn Johns and Jerry Boys at Olympic Sound Studios. This is the mix used on the British single. Johns and Boys also prepared a stereo mix for the American single. Paul was the only Beatle who attended these sessions. George Martin was most likely not present. The 2003 album Let It Be… Naked contains a remix of the January 27 master without the added coda.

“Don’t Let Me Down” was written by John as an expression of his love for Yoko Ono. In late 1968, he recorded a demo containing most of the elements of the finished song.

John introduced “Don’t Let Me Down” on January 2, 1969, as his initial offering for the Get Back project. The first run-throughs, with John playing chords and George adding some lead guitar lines, took place without Paul. After McCartney arrived, he rearranged the song and suggested that it open with the title being sung twice. The group continued rehearsing the song the following day.

When the band returned to the song on January 6, much time was spent on the middle eight. The group experimented with different rhythms, lyrics, harmonies, falsetto voices and call and response vocals, none of which proved satisfactory. The only new idea to survive the day’s extensive and frustrating rehearsals was John’s decision to add a guitar introduction to the song. And while much of the time devoted to the song was unproductive, the group did work its way through a few near-satisfactory performances that showed the song’s potential. At this stage, the instrumentation of the song was still open to discussion, with consideration being given to adding piano. Although George was willing to play bass to allow Paul to move to piano, John wanted the song to have two guitars. During the initial rehearsals of the song, and for the next few days, George used a wah-wah pedal to alter the sound of his guitar.

On January 7, the group continued work on the middle eight. Performances from the next two days show the band making progress in spite of John’s constant inability to remember the lyrics.

Prior to the start of rehearsals on January 10, Paul played “Don’t Let Me Down” on piano. By the time the group returned to the song that afternoon, George had quit the band. The performance by the remaining Beatles was an embarrassing mess.

The group rehearsed “Don’t Let Me Down” in Apple’s basement studio on January 21. During one of the performances, John resorts to laughter and Little Richard improvisations. Another runthrough is tighter, but once again spiked with inappropriate vocal ad-libs. George is no longer using his wah-wah pedal and is playing his rosewood Fender Telecaster through a Leslie speaker.

Billy Preston joined the Get Back sessions on January 22. On his first take of the song, Preston starts tentatively, but quickly falls into a groove with his blues-sounding electric piano riffs. John plays organ on this performance, perhaps to help Billy learn the chords to the song. After a bit of rehearsals, the group performs a fairly solid rendition of the tune, although John has trouble with the lyrics to the first verse and gets a bit silly during the second bridge. As the song reaches what had previously been its end, John says “Take it, Billy” and the band starts up again with Preston taking a piano solo while John ad-libs “Can you dig it?” and “I had a dream this afternoon.” When the song comes to a halt, John says the song’s title and the band adds a brief coda. One of the later takes from this day was selected by Glyn Johns for the unreleased Get Back album.

When the Beatles returned to the song on January 27, they rehearsed specific sections and recorded two full takes. While the song was starting to come together, there were still vocal glitches.

By January 28, the band had finally mastered the song, turning in two near perfect performances. The best of these was selected to serve as the flip side to “Get Back,” although part of John’s vocal from another take was dropped in to cover up some flubbed lyrics during the first verse. In addition, some vocal ad-libs and screams by John and Paul from another take were added to the end of the song.

The following day the group, without Billy Preston, rehearsed “Don’t Let Me Down” for the rooftop concert. To avoid straining his vocal chords, John sang in a deeper and more relaxed voice. Paul stopped the song early on to work on his harmony part with John. During some of the choruses, John sang the title to “Keep Your Hands Off My Baby,” a 1962 hit for Little Eva that was recorded by the Beatles for the BBC. Towards the end of the song, John calls out, “Go Bill,” and does a brief vocalization of the missing pianist’s solo.

The group played the song twice during the rooftop concert. During the first, John forgot the opening lyrics to the second verse, forcing him to ad-lib some gibberish. When the group returned to the song later in the show, John muffed the lyrics to the first verse. The earlier take of the song is tighter and appears in the film. Let It Be… Naked contains an edit of the two rooftop performances.

EMI issued the “Get Back”/“Don’t Let Me Down” single in mono. The disc was pressed with Apple labels and packaged in Apple sleeves.

Capitol issued the single in stereo, making “Get Back” the group’s first stereo single. The U.S. discs were pressed on Apple labels and issued in black die-cut sleeves with “The Beatles on Apple” appearing in script letters.

With the “Get Back” single, the Beatles were able to get back to basics. The group’s line-up for the live recordings was the standard two guitars, bass and drums, augmented by Billy Preston on keyboards (instead of George Martin, who played piano on some of the group’s early rockers recorded at Abbey Road). The A-side was pure rock ’n’ roll with a touch of country in John’s lead guitar solo. The B-side, “Don’t Let Me Down,” featured John in a blues mode. The “Get Back” single was a huge success, topping the British and American charts for over a month and becoming the Beatles fourth largest selling single in America behind “Hey Jude,” “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.”

The above article was extracted from the book The Beatles Get Back to Abbey Road by Bruce Spizer, which will be published in September 2019, and Beatles For Sale on Parlophone Records by Bruce Spizer and Frank Daniels.