The Beatles and the Revolutionaries

Peter Jackson’s Get Back, the latest revisionist Beatles product, has glimpses of the political moment that made the band possible — and how distant we are from it today.

The Beatles were kings, and Get Back invites us into the court for their downfall. (Evening Standard / Stringer, Hulton Archive)

On the 2003 release of Let It Be . . . Naked — Paul McCartney’s remix of the Beatles’ final album — Ringo Starr joked that while the new version might indeed sound better, “Now we’ll have to put up with [McCartney] telling us over and over again, ‘I told you.’”

Half a century removed from the original recording sessions, the Beatles’ estate has now found a new, eight-hour way of saying, “I told you.”

Across Thanksgiving 2021, the Disney+ streaming service launched The Beatles: Get Back, director Peter Jackson’s documentary comprised of fly-on-the-wall footage of the Fab Four hard at work in the studio. Originally shot by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg in January 1969 and assembled from fifty-five hours of film and 140 hours of audio, the footage was first released in the 1970 documentary Let It Be, a dour, eighty-minute account of a band breaking up — which they had, by the time of the film’s release. Jackson’s Get Back is merely the most expensive of the Beatles estate’s revisionist histories of that project, accompanied by an obligatory lavish coffee table book and a five-disc deluxe reissue of the music itself.

The Beatles were kings, and Get Back invites us into the court for their downfall. Their finest era of inclusive, popular experimentation had ended by 1967. In 1968, John Lennon would rebuke the Left for its supposed affiliation with Mao’s China in the slow, bluesy White Album track “Revolution 1,” singing, “When you talk about destruction / Don’t you know that you can count me out” — but with the equivocal addendum of “in” at the end of the line, which Lennon said was due to his mixed feelings about the necessity for violence.

By the time of its harder-rocking rerecording a few weeks later, now titled just “Revolution” and released as the B-side to “Hey Jude,” Lennon dropped the “in,” now signaling a firm rejection of violence, even as he added an opening scream and loud, distorted guitars. To make it all even more confusing, this second, unequivocally pacifist version was released first. Global leftist protest during the summer of 1968 would thus be marked by a two-letter shift in the lyrics of a Beatles song.

The fact that the band was even engaged with such concerns is testament to that era’s embryonic celebrity culture. In Get Back, they are neither mobbed by the public nor treated with particular deference by those around them. This freedom accelerated their experimentation and political consciousness, affording them easy proximity to the London avant-garde and New Left radicals. McCartney had become involved in the countercultural Indica Gallery. It was there that Lennon first met Japanese conceptual artist Yoko Ono in 1966, who appears frequently in Get Back, seated beside him on the studio floor.

Lennon’s emerging interest in political struggle is illustrated in Get Back, where he is at his most energized improvising a track around the recently fired Conservative shadow minister Enoch Powell. The previous summer, Powell had made a still-totemic intervention in British politics with his incendiary, highly racist “Rivers of Blood” speech, which incited hatred against British Commonwealth migrants in terms both coarse and grandiose. In one early version of the song “Get Back,” McCartney sings about “dirty Enoch Powell” and the message of “immigrants, you better get back to your Commonwealth homes,” while Lennon tartly adopts a prim, middle-class voice to deem the migrants “much too common for me.”

What would these left-leaning twentysomethings have made of the notion that, five decades later, those debates would be more — not less — central to their country’s politics, now espoused by a prime minister with a mop top haircut?

McCartney eventually scrapped the Powell reference, typifying a new fault line in their songwriting partnership, while Lennon cleansed himself of what he perceived to be the Beatles’ excesses and hypocrisies. Within a year, he would be speaking to New Left figures like Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn about whether Soviet Russia was, in fact, right to view the Beatles as capitalist robots, and photographed carrying a copy of the left-wing magazine Red Mole with the headline “For the IRA, Against British Imperialism.”

Support for Irish unity would be a rare moment of harmony for post-split Lennon and McCartney, coinciding with McCartney’s tub-thumping, underrated 1971 single “Give Ireland Back to the Irish.” This is reflective of the group’s roots in Liverpool, a unique socialist stronghold shaped by inward Irish Catholic migration and, as such, a continued bête noire of Boris Johnson, whose track record of slurs against the city include his 2014 claim that London was more responsible for the success of the Beatles than Liverpool.

It’s only when Get Back reaches its climactic performance on the rooftop of the Beatles’ Savile Row offices in London that we get a glimpse of the Britain outside the studio. Old ladies, vicars, and thrilled female office workers gaze upward from the pavement — the relative affluence of this central London street appearing entirely quaint when contrasted with the superrich opulence that defines the area today. At that point, a few short years away from reaching a historic level of income equality across the nation, material gains for the working class were, in the words of Lennon and McCartney, getting better all the time.

With historical distance, the Beatles’ rise gave dignity and shape to this moment of working-class ascension. Or, as cultural historian John Higgs teased, echoing the ongoing debates over the authorship of William Shakespeare’s plays:

In the future, there will be conspiracy theories arguing that it wasn’t possible for four relatively uneducated working-class northerners to create a body of work like that over such a brief period. The songs must have been written secretly by a group of people from the Oxbridge establishment, we will be told.

The Beatles and Shakespeare are equivalents in the story Britain tells itself about its supposed cultural exceptionalism.

Oxbridge establishment politician Rishi Sunak, in his chancellor’s budget in October 2021, announced £2 million of funding for the development of a new Beatles museum in Liverpool (there are already two). On social media, musicians argued that the money should instead go to support venues and artists. But the Beatles were a product of a rising working class, an expression of the confidence and freedom that comes with real material gains for working-class people. Until that can happen once more, there is no getting back to where we once belonged.