Beatles scholar Glenn Gass wishes someone had captured any other phase than the Beatles’ magical misery sessions
Glenn Gass is a Beatles scholar.
The professor emeritus at Indiana University is known for teaching the first for-credit course on rock and roll at any major university in the country – and at IU’s prestigious Jacobs School of Music, no less – and that course focused on the Beatles.
He developed an overseas study program that took students from Bloomington to London and Liverpool to study the iconic band that greatly and forever broadened the boundaries of rock and popular music.
The scholar and aficionado loves the Beatles so much that he and his wife, Julie, named their second son Julian, after Beatle John Lennon’s son, Julian Lennon. He often says the Beatles were as important to music as Beethoven.
So when an old friend, music writer and columnist called him recently and asked him what he had to say about the much-discussed 8-hour documentary, “Get Back”, he said this:
“Er, uh, eee, ah, well … “
Something like that.
“It’s a hard question,” he admitted. “’Let It Be’ was my least favorite Beatles album and that was my least favorite period in the Beatles’ career. Everyone in the band would later talk about how miserable it was.”
Filmmaker Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings” trilogy, among others) did his best to keep the incredible volume of rehearsal material filmed in January, 1969 from looking like a hard month’s nightmare. “I got the feeling that he found every smile he could find in all of that and put it in the film,” Gass said.
Guitarist George Harrison grew so weary of the tensions in the band he quit in the middle of the filming of what became “Get Back” and had to be coaxed back to the group. That bit of drama is among the highlights of the marathon documentary, but even with that, the informed viewer has to suspect that much greater tension and rancor very likely exists in the 60 hours Jackson sifted through, and was avoided at the behest of various interests, including the two remaining group members, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.
It would be difficult to blame them. Who’d want to relive the worst period in the band’s history, let alone burnish it into the memories of AARP-eligible crowd who were around during the Beatles heyday, and moreover, the generations for whom the Beatles are history?
“Part of the problem with ‘Let It Be’ was that Paul was ready and John and George weren’t,” Gass said. “Paul was kind of the schoolmaster and the other guys were just tired of that,” he went on. “At one point Ringo says ‘Here’s a song so just do what you do’ and I think that was kind of everyone’s attitude.”
Except George, who came in fed up, mostly with Paul, but in a larger sense, with how Lennon-McCartney became the songwriting team with the songwriting credits when his own songs were pushed aside, or his contributions to the evolution of songs were judged to not be enough to merit songwriting credit and the recognition and royalties that come with it.
“The guy I feel sorry for in all of this is George Martin, who was bored out of his skull,” Gass said. Martin has often been called the Fifth Beatle for his broad and eclectic musical knowledge and the production and arranging skills that took the Beatles’ raw material and elevated songs to another level with the deft incorporation of a broad palette of musical influences, combined with a mind keen to embrace experimental recording techniques. “The time frame to get this album done pretty much had him on the sidelines,” Gass said.
“The thing that gets me is that the climax of the documentary, the rooftop concert, is fabulous. But it’s like these songs went from embryonic to fully fleshed out overnight (in ‘Get Back’). And then the rooftop concert is cut down so much. If you watch the whole set it’s just really, really good. A lot more interesting than most of what you see in ‘Get Back’.”
(The entire concert reportedly has been remastered for IMAX and is expected to premiere Jan. 30, the 53rd anniversary of the legendary final live Beatles performance.)
Gass is particularly impressed by how Lennon stepped up in a huge way after apparent indifference, and maybe the dysphoria of illicit drug use – OK, heroin – and rising to his rightful place at center stage, or center rooftop, as it were, leading the electrifying performance that would be the Beatles’ last.
“I guess I’m kind of a Scrooge, but ‘Get Back’ is like having an incredible amount of documentation of Beethoven’s Second Symphony. It’s just not the band at its best at the best time. But I’m happy it exists and it’s a great artifact,” Gass said.
“And to add to all of this, four months later they move over to the basement of the EMI Studios, where they’re comfortable, and where George Martin is fully involved, and they make the album, ‘Abbey Road’, a perfect album. The most perfect album I’ve ever heard.”
“Get Back” can be a challenge because of its length, which is at least broken down into three segments as aired on the Disney+ channel, the exclusive source, at this point, for the documentary.
It can be ponderous and simultaneously reflective of a real time look at the “hurry up and wait” flow of things in the recording studio. How people behave when they’re not on stage. How the Beatles and people close to them added to the atmosphere, although they are, at times, very clearly aware that they are being filmed.
A friend of mine said it best. Yeah. But. Could you ever imagine that all these years later, you have eight hours of film you can watch and just hang out with the Beatles? 🐝