Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. In the original post below he looks at The Beatles in late 60’s Britain.
Forty years ago, on 11 April 1969, the Beatles released “Get Back” / “Don’t Let Me Down” as their second 45-rpm single for their semi-independent label, Apple. In the spirit of an era when live performance had roared back into prominence, the Beatles had begun to feel trapped by their decision to abandon the stage for the studio. This recording represented an attempt to “get back” to their vitality as a band. Ironically, even in the first year of Beatles recordings, artist-and-repertoire manager George Martin and his balance engineer Norman Smith had routinely spliced together different takes to create iconic hits such as “From Me to You,” “She Loves You,” and “This Boy.” “Get Back” would undergo a similar reconstruction. Still, these April 1969 recordings endeavored to re-capture the excitement of live performance.
But the world into which they ushered this music moved differently than the heady days of 1963’s Beatlemania. Britain’s musical, social, and political climate boiled in the stew of late sixties change. In April 1969, Parliament reduced the voting age from 21 to 18 enfranchising and empowering its “bulge” generation and recognizing their powerful influence over culture. Similarly, immigrants from the British Commonwealth transformed the fiber of daily British life and infuriated right-wing politicians and hooligans who resented the social change. And indigenous intolerance flourished as Northern Ireland’s tensions between Protestants and Catholics erupted into firebombs. We rightfully remember the sixties as an era when new paradigms clashed with established prejudices. Throughout 1968, young British mods had latched onto a new music, embracing Jamaican reggae and ska such that on 16 April 1969, Desmond Dekker and the Aces would see their “The Israelites” become the first reggae tune to capture the top spot on many British charts.
In this turmoil, the Beatles struggled to find their place. John Lennon had voiced his political ambivalence in “Revolution” and George Harrison’s “Piggies” chastised the ruling class he had always resented. Paul McCartney’s songwriting fell back upon his love of character studies (“Michele,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and “Lady Madonna”) and his inherent ability to mimic musically (the music hall in “When I’m Sixty-four” and even reggae in “Ob-la-di Ob-la-da” where he references Desmond Dekker).
“Get Back” (built around a groove á la Frankie Laine’s “Rawhide”) became McCartney’s vehicle for social commentary, ostensibly about the desire to return to a simpler style of life (which he would embrace with his farm in Scotland) and briefly about racial politics. McCartney had floated a text intended to ridicule Enoch Powell’s incendiary Birmingham speech of 20 April 1968 in which the conservative had declared that immigration led him, “Like the Romans…, to see ‘the River Tiber flowing with much blood’.” McCartney’s awkward parody joked that Pakistanis who crowded council flats should get back to where they once belonged. Unfortunately, McCartney lacked Lennon’s or even George Harrison’s verbal knack for satire, and he dropped the idea.
Instead of a verse about immigration, and perhaps as a predecessor to Ray Davies “Lola” (recorded a year later), McCartney retreated to character study: Sweet Loretta Martin who, although a man, believes herself to be a woman. Unlike Ray Davies who quite happily accepts Lola’s trans-gendered identity, McCartney seems to urge Loretta (like the Pakistanis) to get back to where she belongs.
Unfortunately, the text and music lacks much of an obvious sense of irony, more a comment on McCartney’s lyrical skills than to any characteristic prejudice. Still, the Beatles would make their own statement on racial and cultural tensions by inviting American Billy Preston to join them on electric piano and crediting him on the record label, something they had not done with Eric Clapton (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”) and certainly not with Nicky Hopkins (“Revolution”) and Andy White (“Love Me Do”).
The Beatles knew something had come undone when they needed an outsider to help them work together. Preston and Clapton only reinforced the internal belief that a door was closing.