The data is mixed as to whether The Beatles have broken through to the younger generation. The band which used to make a habit of being number 1, is currently listed as the 93rd most streamed artist on Spotify, with 20 million followers. This pales somewhat predictably when set against the sort of numbers totted up by Taylor Swift (83.23 million), and who recently made headlines by greedily having the whole of the top 10 to herself; The Weeknd (79.04 million) and Ed Sheeran (76.60 million).
Of bands people over the age of 35 will likely remember from their youth, the best performing are Coldplay, who are 12th on the list with 58.54 million, and Elton John who is 21st with just over 50 million listeners.
However the available statistics on the Beatles, while they testify to the fact that Beatlemania itself happened over half a century ago, do show that the band’s popularity endures among the young, with over 30 per cent of downloads coming from 18-24 year olds.
These statistics seem to assure the Beatles continuation in the culture well into the 21st century. This will include not just the music but movies, and therefore Peter Jackson’s epic three-part series Get Back.
The film follows the Fab Four as they record an album which would become Let It Be , the last album the band would release, and a few songs from Abbey Road, which was the last album the group recorded. As the pair meet in Twickenham it seems possible that they will shoot a new film of some kind, but as the hours go by, it becomes clear that nobody has a clear idea of what the film might entail and so it is abandoned in favour of the famous concert on the roof at 3 Savile Row. This would turn out to be the band’s last live performance.
That’s because in this film, all isn’t quite well with the Beatles. We, the viewers, know that the band is in fact close to its terminus: the break-up which coincided with the end of the 1960s and brought that colourful epoch to its conclusion.
In fact, in places the film turns out to be a study in workplace toxicity. Though there are passages where the magic of music-making makes you feel, though you know differently, that the band could continue, the air of tension is at other times unmistakeable.
The dynamic of the four feels dictated throughout by Paul McCartney, sometimes to a surprising extent. We often think of John Lennon as the leader of The Beatles but there appear to have been a few factors which worked against Lennon being in charge by this point in their careers.
The first is that Lennon at times seems disengaged. Whereas Linda McCartney accompanies Paul to the studio only occasionally, and always seems a straightforward and optimistic presence when she does, Yoko Ono accompanies John throughout, sometimes maintaining what must have been an unnerving silence and at others screaming into a microphone in an alarming way.
One might add that it might have been especially alarming on the ears of the man who wrote ‘Yesterday.’ Even so, despite the difficulty, one notes throughout a certain tenderness, which feels heartbreakingly residual, about the way in which Lennon and McCartney look at each other, and converse. It suggests, even as that friendship is unravelling, a profound connection based on having journeyed through strange seas of song together for so long.
But something else is clear. McCartney, certainly at this stage, and perhaps throughout, is in a leadership position because his talent feels of another kind. Lennon’s was always the stronger personality, but McCartney is the one with the preternatural gift, the writer of the melodies which we still sing around the piano today. It is notable that McCartney wrote without much input from Lennon: Hey Jude, Yesterday, Yellow Submarine, When I’m Sixty Four, and in this film he is seen writing Let it Be. These songs are standards in a way which Lennon’s songs aren’t: they have their origins sometimes in music hall or in jazz. They have a capacity to endure in any setting which you cannot say songs like ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ or ‘I am the Walrus’, so tethered to the unusualness of Lennon’s personality, really have.
Genius of McCartney’s kind creates imbalance. In this film it is shown in the way in which McCartney seems to be working on a huge number of songs. By my count he is writing more or less simultaneously: Let it Be, I’ve Got a Feelin’, Oh Darling, Let it Be, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, Her Majesty, The Long and Winding Road, Get Back, She Came in Through the Bathroom Window, Carry That Weight, around half of which are songs now of lasting fame, and the other half of which are musically interesting. Lennon, by contrast, is working on Across the Universe, Don’t Let me Down, Dig a Pony, Polythene Pam, an early version of what would become Jealous Guy, and has the riff for what would become I Want You (She’s So Heavy). These songs are slight by comparison with what McCartney is working on, as well as fewer in number.
Meanwhile, George Harrison is working on I Me Mine and Old Brown Shoe and has the bones of a song which would in time become a standard, Something. One sees here the ludicrousness of Harrison’s position: Harrison is writing a song which will reverberate forever yet there is a clear assumption that his songs are unlikely to be included in any significant number.
McCartney is not only ahead as a composer but as a player of instruments. It was Lennon who was once asked if Ringo Starr was the best drummer. When he replied, “He’s not even the best drummer in the Beatles” he was referencing McCartney. Likewise you sense that McCartney can also play guitar better than Harrison. This knowledge leads him to micromanage and makes you realise that the band can’t function really as a team anymore.
But there’s a paradox here because McCartney’s talent, as we know from the comparative decline of the post-Beatles years, also feels oddly dependent on the Beatles, and so you feel there is more at stake for him in wanting the band to remain together. At one point he plaintively tells everyone: “We can sing together when we’re older.”
Ringo Starr meanwhile is worth watching closely throughout the film as he remains unobtrusive and popular. He is in fact an exemplary study in how to handle workplace toxicity.
At times the juxtaposition between McCartney’s gifts and the others can be almost ludicrous. While the others are talking at one point, we see McCartney in the background writing Let It Be. Nobody looks up to tell him how good it is. Either they are inoculated to his genius by long exposure to it, or they do notice and suppress some feeling of envy.
Sometimes, you feel that the horsing around is irksome to McCartney as it takes him away from the heavier workload caused by his own prolific nature. Yet he takes part anyway, as he senses that whatever else he will go on to do with his abilities, The Beatles will be the end of something important: you can taste his fear throughout.
Then beautifully all this disappears in the final episode which deals with the rooftop concert. Here we see the Beatles perform Get Back, Don’t Let Me Down, I’ve Got a Feeling, One After 909 and Dig A Pony. We get a glimpse of the typical pedestrians on the streets of Mayfair towards the end of the 1960s: most are positive about the concert but enough people in the area have issued complaints to mean that a pair of bobbies, who seem young enough to be alive today, are sent over to ask them to turn the sound down. At one point he mutters: ‘They’re disrupting all the local business.”
The scene is a fascinating snapshot of the police in the 1960s. On the one hand one can see the powerlessness of law enforcement in the face of global celebrity; it is all told beautifully in the delighted smile McCartney gives at the beginning of Don’t Let Me Down when he turns around to see the police have joined him on the roof: this is what he wanted.
During the concert one feels drawn particularly to Lennon; in fact, power somehow seems to devolve to him during the live performance. Public charisma and private force of character seem to be very different things.
What is it that enables someone to have sufficient confidence to insist on their idea of music before allcomers? As we watch Lennon, we see two things. First he is proclaiming the idiocy of the homogeneity of anything establishment. Much of the film shows us how absolutely victorious he had been in pushing back against the dullness of the post -War settlement. Many of the pedestrians are dressed in styles which emanated out of the Swinging Sixties which they themselves had to a large extent brought about. Meanwhile, everybody else has to accept their presence.
But I don’t think Lennon would have got so far with all this if he hadn’t also had positives to offer. Throughout the songbook, love is always being proclaimed. It is the sadness of this film that that ideal couldn’t prevent the break up of a band whose music still matters today.