Get Back: Watching the Beatles at Work (and Play).

November 25th sees the premier of Peter Jackson’s Beatles docu-series ‘Get Back’ on the Disney+ streaming platform. With the exception of some hotch-potch footage captured during the recording of the ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and the February, 1968 ‘Hey Bulldog’ session, this presentation amounts to the only footage chronicling the Beatles at work in the studio.

While much has been written about the Fab Four’s creative practice in the studio, little has been said about a key ingredient fueling the band’s creativity: their sense of humour and playfulness.

As the ‘Sneak Peak’ footage released late last year illustrates, the Beatles (together with celebrated keyboardist Billy Preston) were adept at lifting the mood of what can so often can be a laborious and exacting process (in this case: having to write, arrange, rehearse and perform an album’s worth of new material in about a month – in a new studio that didn’t initially work – and all the while being shadowed by a film crew). The Beatles’ ‘group glee’, irreverence, self-effacing humour and child-like enthusiasm enabled them to make the best of what was a trying situation.

Humour and play didn’t just keep the Beatles’ unified and motivated during difficult times. Framing work as play was a core component of how the band came up with their ideas and further developed them: as writers, arrangers, performers and (uncredited) co-producers of their records.

Watching ‘Get Back’ will be a wonderful opportunity not only for those wishing to learn more about the Beatles’ creative practice in the studio, but creativity in the arts in general.

Admittedly, the original ‘fly on the wall’ concept of the Get Back film has limited validity since the band would have no doubt ‘hammed it up’ for the cameras, making it difficult to ascertain precisely which playful behaviours were standard fair for a Beatles’ session and which were ‘for the viewers’. However, a few points come to mind: (i) Peter Jackson has confided that the original ‘Let it Be’ director was skilled at subterfuge in the name of art: often filming the band while they were unaware the cameras were rolling. (ii) Bootlegged studio outtakes from previous Beatles Albums (including ‘Rubber Soul’ – available on the internet) document a band that was habitually playful during recording sessions (particularly, during vocal overdubs).

Few realise that The Beatles were originally signed by George Martin to EMI Records’ comedy label Parlophone in 1962 (after being rejected by every other major label in Britain – even the independent producer Joe Meek passed on the band) on the basis of their charisma and wit rather than their ability as performers or songwriters: He elaborates:

[The Beatles] had a zany sense of humor … Without that sense of humor, the Beatles wouldn’t have existed, and certainly we wouldn’t have hit it off as well as we did. Even after the Beatles, I did covers of certain songs with [comedian] Peter Sellers … so it’s a kind of tradition. I don’t think there’s much difference between a performer in music and a performer in spoken word or humor. (Larry the O 2009)

My new book Popular Music, Power and Play: Reframing Creative Practice (Heiser, 2021) features a case study exploring the Beatle’s use of humour and play throughout their career, including their creative practice in the studio. Furthermore, the book unpacks the precise mechanisms by which humour and play facilitate creative flow in music making and record production. If you’d like to read a sample chapter go to https://bloomsburycp3.codemantra.com/viewer/61977c6a5f150300016f108f or click on the image below.

‘The Beatles: Get Back’ screens over three nights starting November 25th, 2021 on the Disney+ streaming platform.

References:

Heiser, M (2021). Popular Music, Power and Play: Reframing Creative Practice: New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.

Larry the O. (2009), ‘To Sir with Love’, Electronic Musician. Available online: http://www.emusician.com/gear/1332/to-sir-with-love/40689 (accessed 17 February 2010).

‘The fetters of tormented mankind are made of red tape.’

I was watching David Cronenberg’s film Naked Lunch last night. I haven’t seen it since its cinema release back in the 1990s. I must confess I went to see it at the time for the wonderful Howard Shore/Ornette Coleman musical score as much as anything else. I was curious to see if it would still have the same (somewhat disturbing) impact that it had on me all those years ago. Yes and no. The impact was there but of a wholly different kind.

Whereas, I had originally interpreted the wry horrors of William S. Burroughs’s landmark work (upon which the film is partly based, along with Burroughs’s journey leading up to writing the book) as the inspired ramblings of a narcotically numbed schadenfreude; now I saw detachment and cool-headed observation of a more journalistic (though of a hazy surreal) kind. In particular, I was surprised that I hadn’t made the somewhat obvious connection between Burroughs’s novel and Kafka’s Metamorphosis, given all the bugs.

So, this morning, I thought I’d do a quick search to see if Burroughs was in fact alluding to Kafka’s work in The Naked Lunch and found the following wonderful journal article ‘”One of the Great Early Counselors”: The Influence of Franz Kafka on William S. Burroughs’ by Adam Meyer at JSTOR online. If you’d like to read it for free, you can at https://www.jstor.org/stable/40246758 without the need to subscribe (at the moment).

I highly recommend reading Meyer’s article particularly if you have ever thought that books like The Naked Lunch overstep the mark when it comes to shock-tactics. After all, there is nothing in it you won’t see in your daily news bulletin (anthropomorphic transformations coming soon: give or take 50 years 😉 ). As the rockband Skyhooks once sang: “It’s a Horror Movie right there on my TV…shocking me right out of my brain…it’s the 6.30 news”.

Try it. Open up any reputable online news site (for example: https://www.abc.net.au/news/), read what has been served up to for your consumption and delectation: Kafka and Burroughs begin to seem like optimists. As Jack Kerouac said when explaining why he came up with the name ‘Naked Lunch’ as an appropriate title for Burroughs’s tome: you get to see what’s really on the end of your fork.

One might well feel ‘triggered’ after reading some of Burroughs’ more unsavory passages, there is, however, equally the invitation to wake up from numbness and complacency. There is, also, the possibility that one might resolve to choose autonomy in place of being a social and cultural automaton. Does the daily news bulletin invite the same reaction? Indignation and self-righteousness are more likely responses.

Meyer’s most timely observation (keep in mind this article was written some 30 years ago) is perhaps:

Burrough’s is “trying to define what it is that’s really anti-human and evil, and he basically pinpoints it in the self-righteous, censorious, repressive mind,” the same place Kafka located it.

The reason this mind set is so evil is that … it always requires one person’s being under the domination and control of another person or force. (1990 p. 215-16)

Having been born in what is a former penal colony (Australia) and having spent the formative years of my life living in a ‘police state’ and seemingly perpetual ‘state of emergency’ (i.e. Queensland as ruled by premier Joh Bjelke-Peterson for some 20 years!!) I can attest to the truth in Burroughs words when he says that ‘… a functioning police state needs no police.’ Bureaucracy, paranoia and conformity, on the other hand, are essential components.

References:

Burroughs, W. S. ([1959] 2016). The Naked Lunch. Penguin Classics.

Kafka, F. ([1915] 2013). Metamorphosis. Random House US Group.

Meyers, A. (1990). ‘”One of the Great Early Counselors”: The Influence of Franz Kafka on William S. Burroughs’, Comparative Literature Studies Vol. 27, No. 3 (1990), pp. 211-229 (19 pages).

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