When The Beatles failed, it was rarely for want of ambition. Take Magical Mystery Tour, for example (the film, not the EP). The group’s only experience of making films had been as actors, and their knowledge of what was involved in scripting and overseeing a production was far too limited. Their ambition outstripped what they were capable of. Yet this was partly rewarded in retrospect: although their naivety made the film incoherent, the same quality also produced something unique, with some interesting imagery and genuinely funny moments.
By contrast, the ‘Get Back’ project – as Let It Be was originally titled – demonstrates that The Beatles’ ambition was failing them. McCartney conceived it as an album written to be performed and recorded live, at an exclusive one-off gig to be filmed for television. (Ian McDonald oddly claims that the gig was originally to be an hour long and feature eight songs, even though the longest eight tracks The Beatles ever recorded add up to less than fifty minutes.) A number of outré, grandstanding venues were considered, including the Pyramids at sunset and the deck of a cruise liner. A perhaps more practical suggestion was the Roundhouse: in the end, the group could only be arsed to go as far as the roof of the Apple building. Iconic as this was, it was indicative of diminishing enthusiasm for the project and was hardly conducive to performance or sound quality, given that these would be the definitive renditions of the songs. The Beatles had essentially decided to perform their new album in the guise of celebrity buskers.
If the gig been done properly, it would certainly have been a huge event and I’m not sure anyone had ever recorded an album of original songs this way (The Yardbirds’ debut ‘Five Live Yardbirds’, for example, was a covers album). Yet would the music have really stretched them? The intent was to refocus on the four of them as a playing ensemble, which was logical in the light of McCartney’s desire to rediscover the unity they’d had in their touring days. Given Lennon and Harrison’s wariness of the project, he probably didn’t want to overcomplicate it. Additionally, in the wider music scene the arena-rock groups of the early 70s were starting to emerge, with a similar emphasis on ‘live’ musicianship ahead of tracks layered up in the studio. But The Beatles’ take on this was disappointingly ordinary. They all seem to have grown tired of studio artifice (particularly Lennon, who was becoming fixated on tedious notions of ‘honesty’ in music) but came up with nothing fresh to replace it. There are good tracks in this lot but other bands could have done it just as well, and that was never what The Beatles were about.
The ‘Get Back’ project should have changed people’s notions of what a rock concert could be. It shouldn’t have just been about getting the group back onto a stage together. They’d quit touring in 1966 partly because they music they were making was difficult or impossible to recreate onstage: perhaps, for a one-off gig, they should have looked to do so. Or injected some unique aspect to the performance, making the event into a piece of performance art incorporating the ‘random’ elements they’d used in their music since ‘I Am The Walrus’. Or radically reworked their existing songs. A group of their talents was capable of creating a late-60s equivalent of The Wall or Stop Making Sense, and if they’d still been at the peak of their powers I think they would have done. But the group was fragmenting, the end was in sight and they just didn’t have the energy.