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.
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).