THE “GET BACK” SESSIONS
I’ll make this easy for you.
You need Purple Chick’s “A/B Road” series. Period. No doubt, using one of my previous books as a template (at least I hope he did – I’d hate to think of two people going through all that work!) Purple Chick has compiled every extant moment from the Nagra A and B rolls and edited them together in sequence.
In January, 1969, virtually every moment of The Beatles’ rehearsals and recording sessions were captured on audio tape as part of the project that ultimately became the film “Let It Be.” For the first part of the month, at Twickenham Film Studios in London, The Beatles’ performances were only preserved on small 16 minute long mono tapes (known as “Nagra” reels) that were recorded for use as the film soundtrack.
Two different tape recorders were running (usually off of the same sound feed), resulting in what was termed “A” and “B” roll Nagra recordings. The “A” rolls generally ran the full 16 minute length of the tape. The “B” rolls were more fragmentary, but often captured performances or dialogue missed while the “A” roll operator was changing reels. In addition, once the sessions shifted to Apple Studios on January 21st, Glyn Johns began recording multi-track tapes of The Beatles’ sessions which, again, sometimes captured performances not heard on either the “A” or “B” roll Nagra recordings.
In 2004, Purple Chick collated these recordings, and issued them in a series of CDs called “A/B Road.”
These are now the most readily available source for the “Get Back” sessions material.
Further history on the Nagra Reels (source of this giant set), By ALLAN KOZINN. Published: January 13, 2003:
To read the statements made by British and Dutch officials after the arrest of a group of bootleggers in suburbs of London and Amsterdam on Friday, one would think that the police had apprehended a band of thieves who for the last three decades had been sitting on a vast trove of long-lost master tapes from Beatles recording sessions. There is an element of truth in what they say, but also a good measure of exaggeration. Whether the seizure of these tapes should be regarded as good news — and for that matter whether it will have any effect on the thriving trade in Beatles bootlegs — is another matter.
What the police seized was a collection of 500 to 550 reels of tape, each running about 16 minutes. They were recorded during the sessions for the Beatles’ ”Let It Be” album — originally to be called ”Get Back” — from Jan. 2 to Jan. 31, 1969. But they are not the multitrack session masters from which the album was made. Those are safely in EMI’s archives. Instead, they are monaural recordings made on a pair of Nagra tape recorders for reference purposes by a film crew that was documenting the sessions for a proposed television documentary. When the television plan was scuttled, the film was released theatrically as ”Let It Be.”
It is unquestionably an important collection. Unlike normal session tapes, which usually include only performances, the Nagra reels, as these tapes are known, run continuously and capture everything: rehearsals, discussions, arguments, clowning and loose jams on Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry classics as well as older Beatles tunes and oddities like the theme from ”The Third Man,” all in addition to the nose-to-the-grindstone work of making an album. No other set of Beatles sessions is so thoroughly documented.
These tapes are well known to collectors. Instantly recognizable because the film crew is regularly heard announcing slate and roll numbers, the material was the source for some of the first Beatles bootlegs in the early 1970’s. Until the early 90’s the trend in Beatles bootlegging was to compile collections of the most interesting performances and discussions. More recently, bootleg labels began releasing these tapes more systematically: unedited, in chronological order and with reel numbers and recording dates fully documented.
These tapes have also been the subject of two books: ”Get Back: The Unauthorized Chronicle of the Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’ Disaster,” by Doug Sulpy and Ray Schweighardt (St. Martin’s, 1994), and ”The 910’s Guide to the Beatles’ Outtakes: The Complete ‘Get Back’ Sessions,” a comprehensive catalog of the material by Mr. Sulpy (The 910, 2002). As originally proposed, the idea for ”Let It Be” was elegantly simple. Having completed the White Album a few months earlier, the Beatles were to convene at the Twickenham film studios in London to rehearse an album’s worth of new
songs. The rehearsals would be filmed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, an expatriate American who had directed their promotional clips for ”Paperback Writer” and ”Rain” in 1966, as would the highlight of the project, a concert at which the Beatles would perform their new material.
What the plan did not take into account were the increasingly fractious relations among three of the four Beatles. John Lennon, more interested in his collaborations with Yoko Ono than in the Beatles, wanted either to involve her in the band or to distance himself from it. He brought a handful of songs to the sessions, and is heard in a few hilarious monologues (including one about how masturbation ”doesn’t make you go blind, only very shortsighted”) but is often passive and uninvolved.
George Harrison, by then a prolific songwriter, was disgruntled about his paltry representation on the Beatles’ albums, which were always dominated by the music of Lennon and Paul McCartney. He was also uninterested in performing in concert, and irritated by what he regarded as Mr. McCartney’s condescension in telling him what to play. At one point Harrison walked out, effectively (if temporarily) quitting the band, leaving the others to pursue a series of aggressive but fascinating jams with Ms. Ono vocalizing. Mr. McCartney is at times almost despondent about his partners’ lack of interest and cooperation. Only Ringo Starr seems to be taking the sessions in stride.
In the end Harrison returned, but only after being guaranteed that his songs would receive greater consideration, and that there would be no more talk of a concert. The project was completed with a series of performances filmed at the group’s new Apple studios, and on the rooftop of their London offices.
What makes these tapes crucial to Beatles biographers and musicians interested in studying the band’s working process is that they capture it all. The rehearsals often begin with one of the Beatles playing a new song while calling out the chord progression to the others. The group joins in and works through the changes, and ideas for arrangements slowly accrue. Some songs — ”Two of Us,” ”One After 909” and ”Get Back,” for example — are tried as everything from sizzling, fasttempo rockers to country-influenced ballads.
The process of lyric writing unfolds before the listener’s ears as well. In one session for ”Get Back,” Mr. McCartney stops during a run-through and says, ”I’ve got it — Jo Jo left his home in Tucson, Arizona.” Lennon asks, ”Is Tucson in Arizona?” Mr. McCartney replies, ”Yeah, it’s where they make ‘High Chaparral.’ ”
There is also a good deal of material that, even for the Beatles-obsessed, can be hard slogging — hours and hours and hours of ”The Long and Winding Road,” for example. And the discussions, which often last several reels at a stretch, range from the amusingly loopy to the contentious. Several are about the proposed concert. Among the plans suggested are playing in an amphitheater in North Africa, or on a cruise ship on the Mediterranean. When Harrison quits, Mr. Lindsay-Hogg suggests going on with the show and saying that Harrison is ill, to which Lennon replies, ”If he’s not back by Tuesday, we’ll call Eric Clapton.” One reel captures a lunch meeting at which the group airs its problems in some detail.
Had these illuminating tapes not already found their way onto the collectors’ market, their seizure would be unfortunate, because it is unlikely that Apple, the Beatles’ company, will ever sanction their legitimate release. Apple has even tried to stifle scholarly discussion of them. When Mr. Sulpy and Mr. Schweighardt were at work on their first book, they naïvely sent Apple a sample chapter and sought permission to hear the studio recordings. Apple responded by threatening legal action.