On Friday, January 10th, 1969, George Harrison quit the Beatles. He did it over lunch at Twickenham Film Studios in London where he, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were rehearsing for a new album and filming the action for a television special. The project was McCartney’s brainstorm, a back-to-roots campaign – a return to touring and live, honest rock & roll – that he hoped would reignite the brotherly fire of the Beatles’ Liverpool days, of their electrifying shows at the Cavern Club. McCartney even had a title for his baby: Get Back.
Instead, McCartney created a recipe for disaster. When Harrison walked out, he wasn’t leaving the biggest band in the world. He was getting out of a living hell.
The Beatles were a mess in 1968 and early 1969, working together in a shaky truce. They had not played on a stage since 1966. Personal differences blew up into open squabbling during the recording of 1968’s The Beatles, thirty songs that were really four solo albums under one roof – “Me and a backing group, Paul and a backing group,” Lennon said. “I just did it like a job.”
McCartney countered Lennon’s fuck-it attitude – compounded by Lennon’s addiction to heroin at the time – by assuming almost dictatorial control of the group. He pushed the idea of touring, of recording live without overdubs. He wanted to record the Get Back songs in concert – the suggested venue was a Roman amphitheater in Tunisia. McCartney was ready to go to any extreme to keep the Beatles a band. At the same time, he and Lennon treated Harrison like a junior partner, virtually ignoring him as a songwriter, playing his new tunes with little serious interest.
That day at Twickenham, after the Beatles ran through a few sloppy takes of McCartney’s “Get Back,” with its rah-rah chorus – “Get back to where you once belonged” – Harrison snapped. “I’m leaving the group,” he declared. “When?” Lennon shot back. “Now,” Harrison said. He suggested that the others advertise for a replacement, then he split. “I didn’t care if it was the Beatles,” he said in a later interview. “I was getting out.” Lennon was not impressed: “If he doesn’t come back by Tuesday,” he snorted after Harrison left, “we get [Eric] Clapton.”
Harrison rejoined on Wednesday, January 15th. At a meeting in their Apple Records office at 3 Savile Row, the Beatles agreed to scrap the Tunisia gig and record in the new Apple studio under construction downstairs. Filming would go on; the Twickenham footage shot by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg would become part of a feature documentary of the Beatles at work.
But the damage was done. Seven years after recording their first hit, “Love Me Do,” the Beatles were breaking up. A year later, on April 10th, 1970, McCartney made it official, issuing a press release announcing the start of his solo career.
Exactly thirty-four years after Harrison’s outburst, on January 10th, police in the Netherlands recovered more than 500 reels of tape in a raid on a warehouse near Amsterdam. They arrested three people on suspicion of theft and handling stolen goods. British detectives also nabbed two people in London as part of the investigation. The tapes were original sound recordings made at Twickenham and Apple by technicians assisting Lindsay-Hogg as he shot his Beatles movie – released in 1970 and retitled Let It Be after a more appropriate McCartney song of reflection and surrender.
Those reels are genuine rock & roll treasure. They contain hours of officially unissued music and chatter by the greatest band in history. They are also a rare open window into the Beatles’ inner life during one of their last, traumatic months together. With Let It Be, the Beatles – the first in so many things as composers and recording artists – made the first rock & roll film about a band falling apart. Those tapes tell the full story – January 1969, at its best and blackest.
The arrests in Holland and London climaxed a year-round intercontinental hunt for the tapes, which have been missing since the early 1970s. A source close to the Beatles says the tapes were essential to work now being done to prepare the Let It Be film for release this fall on DVD. Previously, to hear this material, you had to go underground. For the last three decades, the tapes have been available to obsessive Beatles fans only on bootleg albums. The recordings first surfaced in 1974 on two double LPs called Sweet Apple Trax, later blooming into multiple-CD sets such as The Get Back Journals and The Twickenham Sessions. The fidelity can be maddening. These were reference tapes, made by Lindsay-Hogg’s crew on monaural Nagra machines with room mikes that often rendered the music murky and distant. The songs in the movie and on the Let It Be album – and the nine outtakes included on 1996’s Anthology 3 collection – came from the multitrack studio masters held by EMI Records.
But Lindsay-Hogg – an American who directed promotional clips in 1966 for “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” – caught the Beatles in the raw, often painfully so. One moment, they are joking between takes. The next, they snipe at each other with barely veiled contempt. “You’re so full of shit, man,” Harrison actually says to McCartney in the film, oblivious to the camera.
Musically, on the Nagra reels, the Beatles veer from numbing monotony to open joy. They rehearse new gems such as Lennon’s R&B prayer “Don’t Let Me Down” and McCartney’s Everly Brothers homage “Two of Us” to near death. They also rip through R&B and early rock & roll covers – Joe Turner’s “Honey Hush,” Arthur Alexander’s “A Shot of Rhythm and Blues,” Little Richard’s “Miss Ann” – like the great bar band they were, in 1961 and ’62, at the Star Club in Hamburg.
The Beatles took that spirit upstairs, to the Apple rooftop on January 30th, 1969, for the hastily arranged lunchtime concert that ended the movie and their career as a live band. The set was five songs with retakes and Billy Preston on piano. But in hot, dirty versions of “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “One After 909” – the latter written, mostly by Lennon, in 1957 after he and McCartney first met at a Liverpool church picnic – McCartney’s Get Back dream briefly came true.
“All the things that have been written about Let It Be – it sounds like the whole thing was doomed and ugly,” says Glyn Johns, who engineered the sessions. “It wasn’t like that at all. It was the four of them playing together without any overdubs. They’d already proved themselves to be the greatest innovators of production of popular music” – on Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1966) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). Let It Be, Johns contends, “was the complete reversal of that.”
Lennon remembered it differently in his two-part Rolling Stone interview, published in early 1971: “[Paul] had these ideas that we’ll rehearse and then make the album. And of course, we’re lazy fuckers . . . . We’re grown men, we’re not going to sit around rehearsing. I’m not, anyway.
“It was a dreadful, dreadful feeling in Twickenham studio. . . . I just wanted to go away,” he said. “You couldn’t make music at eight in the morning, or ten or whatever it was, in a strange place with people filming you, and the colored lights.”
The music – in the movie, on the Let It Be album and on the Nagra reels – proves that Lennon and Johns were both right.
At about 10:30 A.M. on January 2nd, 1969, under the colored lights at Twickenham, Lennon played the first documented notes of the Let It Be sessions: an instrumental fragment of “Don’t Let Me Down.” He wrote the song in 1968 as a plea and tribute to his lover and collaborator, the artist Yoko Ono. The two had been inseparable since the spring of 1968 and would marry in March 1969. In between, all that January, Ono sat at Lennon’s side as the Beatles struggled to hit the natural perfection that came so easily to them in 1963, when they cut nearly all their first album, Please Please Me, in ten hours.
“It wasn’t that bitter,” Ono says of the Let It Be sessions. “The press wanted to sensationalize it, because afterward the group was over. But it was a creative time and a big session. It was not a commercial situation, where the producer was saying, ‘Do this.'”
There was no one in charge. George Martin, the Beatles’ father figure for their whole recording lives, did not go to Twickenham – the group was only practicing for the planned concert recording – and basically rolled tape at Apple, where the group really ran the sessions. Martin received only a “thanks” credit on the Let It Be album.
In the film, McCartney traced the Beatles’ crisis of direction back to the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, of a drug overdose in August 1967: “We’ve been very negative since Mr. Epstein passed away . . . . It’s like when you’re growing up, and then your daddy goes away at a certain point in your life, and then you stand on your own feet.
“We either go home, or we do it,” McCartney said. “It’s discipline we need.” He tried to unite the Beatles with his Get Back scheme and was paid back in resentment.
Ironically, the lack of order meant the Beatles were free to play anything. And they did. Between January 2nd and the last take on the last day of recording at Apple – a fullgroup reading of “Let It Be” on January 31st – the Beatles played, or at least started, more than 300 different songs, not including untitled jams and instrumentals.
Many “covers” were just a few seconds of fucking around: a single jokey chorus or intro lick. But the range was encyclopedic, from Cole Porter’s “True Love” and Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park” to “To Kingdom Come,” a Harrison favorite from the Band’s 1968 debut, Music From Big Pink. The first thing McCartney played on the morning of January 3rd, while waiting for Harrison and Lennon to show up for work, was a solo piano stab at “Adagio for Strings,” a 1938 piece by the American composer Samuel Barber.
The Beatles were not above mocking themselves to break the tension or boredom. The Nagra reels are littered with quick comic flashbacks to old Beatles hits: McCartney’s brief turn on piano at Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” on January 27th; the two of them, on the 23rd, hacking through the first verse of “Please Please Me.”
The tapes also double as demos for the real last album the Beatles made, in the spring and summer of 1969, and issued that fall, Abbey Road. Twelve of that LP’s seventeen songs – among them “Octopus’s Garden,” “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and “Carry That Weight” – first surfaced at Twickenham and Apple. In The Beatles Anthology, the group’s 2000 autobiography, Ringo Starr marveled at the peculiar order of the Beatles’ demise: “It goes to show how quirky the world is – that the next to last album comes out as the last album, and the last album came out before it.”
The Beatles bore down on a handful of the Abbey Road songs more hopefully than others: They devoted a good part of January 7th at Twickenham to arranging “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” McCartney’s music-hall-style confection about a homicidal freak. A meaty Apple jam on Lennon’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” featured Billy Preston on gospel-flavored piano, trading vocal lines with Lennon, while Starr hit a New Orleans second-line drum march – a rhythm that changed to a Latin-metal swing in the Abbey Road recording.
Because the Beatles insisted on recording live without overdubs – they later reneged on that condition – much of what ended up on the Let It Be album went through prolonged renovation. An electric attempt at “Two of Us” on January 6th precipitated Harrison’s steely response to McCartney’s heavy steering: “I’ll play what you want me to play. I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to. Whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it.”An embryonic “Get Back” satirized British racism, in particular the anti-immigration harangues of the English politician Enoch Powell. “Don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs,” McCartney sang. “Get back to where you once belonged.”
“Let It Be” got no raves from the other Beatles when McCartney played its bare bones for them at Twickenham on January 8th. He had started writing the song, inspired by Aretha Franklin, at the end of the sessions for The Beatles. McCartney was still missing a third verse by January 26th; on the 31st, the Beatles finally got the take that mattered. Even that was not perfect. In April 1969, Harrison overdubbed a new guitar break; a second, with more distortion, was appended to the master in January 1970. Both solos appeared on record: the latter on the Let It Be LP; the first, and more thoughtful, on the March 1970 single.
Another McCartney newborn, “The Back Seat of My Car,” got a better reaction from the rest of the Beatles, who likened it favorably to the Beach Boys. But McCartney did not record the song until he was no longer a Beatle, on his 1971 album Ram. In addition to previewing more than half of Abbey Road, the Nagra tapes also contain seeds of the Beatles’ solo futures. There are pieces of Lennon’s “Child of Nature” (a.k.a. “Jealous Guy”) and “Give Me [sic] Some Truth,” both destined for his 1971 LP Imagine. McCartney’s “Teddy Boy,” a bit of kiddie-folk fluff, made it to a test pressing for a proposed Get Back LP, compiled by Johns in May 1969. When the song was dropped from Let It Be, McCartney exhumed it along with “Hot as Sun” – a quirky instrumental he wrote in the late 1950s and pulled out at the January 24th session – for his 1970 solo debut, McCartney.
Today, Lennon and McCartney’s disinterest in Harrison’s writing seems pigheaded and defensive. One of the best officially unreleased moments from the entire Let It Be month is a complete January 6th performance of Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass,” rendered in the garage-church style of Bob Dylan and the Band on the 1967 Basement Tapes. Harrison had spent Thanksgiving 1968 in Woodstock, New York, with Dylan, who became a lifelong friend, and the backwoods spirituality of Dylan’s music in ’67 and ’68 would be as seminal an influence on Harrison’s solo work as his lifelong practice of Indian meditation and chanting. The Beatles immediately connected with “All Things Must Pass” (McCartney’s soaring falsetto in the chorus is the reason why God made bootlegs), then left it at the side of the road along with other Harrison songs: “Isn’t It a Pity,” “Hear Me Lord” and “Let It Down.”
“It’s nothing new, the way things are,” Lennon said in a 1969 interview, without apology. “I’m more interested in my songs, Paul’s more interested in his and George is more interested in his, that’s always been. It’s just that usually, in the past, George lost out because Paul and I are tougher.”
Harrison just waited for his freedom. He took those four songs with him, out of the Beatles, to his 1970 solo masterpiece, All Things Must Pass, where he gave them the craft and audience they deserved.
There has been no public Statement from the Beatles’ company, Apple, about the recovery of the Let It Be Nagra tapes near Amsterdam, or any plans for their release. Ono is open to the latter. “If they are going to be around as pirate tapes,” she says, “maybe it should be done right in the future.”
It will be a very distant future. The tapes’ sound quality is variable, bordering on primitive; they will require major surgery to stand up to digital-era expectations. And it will be difficult to soften or edit out the frustration embedded even in the most fascinating music on those reels. Apple is likely to shelve this material for some time, at least for extensive study.
The Let It Be LP had its own hard road to release. In March 1969, Johns compiled two different acetates of material for the Beatles to evaluate. (One of those acetates made it to the Boston radio station WBCN, which aired it in its entirety.) Johns’ May ’69 Get Back test pressing was rejected by the band; they also turned down a second disc with a new track lineup in January of ’70. In February, Lennon invited Phil Spector to review the tapes. Spector had produced Lennon’s single “Instant Karma!”; with the Let It Be movie slated for May, Spector had two months to make silk out of year-old rawhide.
Spector pulled a meager ten songs from the Apple sessions and rooftop concert for Let It Be. Lennon’s nonsensical two-step “Dig It” was pruned to fifty-one seconds. Spector filled out the LP with a 1968 Lennon outtake, “Across the Universe,” and Harrison’s “I Me Mine,” both topped with mountains of brass and strings. Since the January 1970 master of “I Me Mine” (done without Lennon, who was vacationing in Denmark) lasted only a minute and a half, Spector stretched the track by repeating the first verse. He also infuriated McCartney by pouring orchestral schmaltz all over “The Long and Winding Road.” McCartney later used the word “butchery.”
Press reviews fell on both sides of the fence: The New Musical Express called Let It Be “a cheapskate epitaph.” Rolling Stone praised the rough stuff, such as “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “One After 909,” but gave Spector “stinging slaps on both wrists.” Still, Spector and the Beatles walked off with the 1970 Academy Award for Best Original Song Score.
Lindsay-Hogg spoke freely about the agony of making the film. “It was a terribly, painfully frustrating experience,” he told Rolling Stone in July of ’70. “It’s not that I don’t like them. I do. It’s just that when we were trying to make the film, every day there was a different one to hate.” In turn, his most damning review came from the Beatles themselves. On May 20th, 1970, Let It Be premiered in London. None of the ex-Beatles bothered to attend. The dream was over.
The magic is not. The Nagra reels are not the guts of a Great Lost Beatles Album. But they are a revelation: the sound of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr as ambitious, arguing, fatally human musicians, the four behind the myth. If you ever get to hear these tapes, be prepared for the worst – and the best.