Watching Peter Jackson’s film of “Get Back” is a deeply emotional experience. I’ve watched it all once and Peter and I are watching it an hour or two at a time, sharing our feelings at the end of each section.
There are so many aspects to the film but I’m going to focus on the astonishing creative burst that Paul McCartney went through in January 1969. Bear in mind that in 1968, he wrote and recorded “Lady Madonna”, “Hey Jude”, Back In The USSR”, “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da”, “Martha My Dear”, “Blackbird”, “Rocky Racoon”, “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road”, “I Will”, “Birthday”, “Mother Nature’s Son”, “Helter Skelter” and “Honey Pie”. That’s 13 songs, all of which are very familiar to me and one of which, “Hey Jude”, is still sung by crowds a sporting events, 53 years after its release.
During the first few days of rehearsals in Twickenham, Paul McCartney demos a few new songs that he had either finished writing, or was in the process of writing. These include “I’ve Got A Feeling” (which would subsequently be combined with John Lennon’s “Everybody Had A Hard Year”), “Two Of Us”, “Get Back”, “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window”, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, “Another Day”, “The Long And Winding Road”, “Golden Slumbers”, “Carry That Weight”, “Let It Be”, “The Back Seat Of My Car”, “Oh! Darling”, “Her Majesty” and “Teddy Boy”. That’s another 14 songs in January 1969, less than two months after the release of “The Beatles”.
Neil Young was once asked about why or how he could produce so many great songs in a short space of time and his answer was revealing. He said he didn’t know but he guessed there were times when he had a direct line to God. I don’t think he meant this in the sense of organised religion but simply that a higher power was at work and he was fortunate enough to be able to communicate with it. Between 1972 and 1977, Neil Young recorded “Harvest”, “Time Fades Away”, “On The Beach”, “Tonight’s The Night”, “Homegrown”, “Dume“, Zuma”, “Hitchhiker”, “Chrome Dreams” and “American Stars’n’Bars”. Ten albums in six years.
Obviously, nothing compares to The Beatles whose entire recorded output (with just five exceptions), was recorded between 1963 and 1969. 183 original songs and 25 covers in seven years.
During the rehearsals in Twickenham, The Beatles also played a huge number of songs that had been written by other people. Two of these songs were “I Shall Be Released” and “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo)”, both of which were written by Bob Dylan. George Harrison had recently returned to the U.K., having spent some time with The Band. The first ever bootlegs, “Great White Wonder” (Volumes 1&2 – both double albums) were circulating at around this time and this contained some songs recorded by Bob Dylan and The Band as well as some older unreleased Bob Dylan songs. It’s not clear exactly how The Beatles knew these songs but many British acts recorded songs from a set that would later be known as “The Basement Tapes”. Julie Driscoll and The Brian Augur Trinity had a hit with “This Wheel’s On Fire”. Manfred Mann recorded “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo)” (which is always played at the start of every Harlequins rugby match) and “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” (not from “The Basement Tapes” but included on “Great White Wonder”).
While I’m thinking about individuals writing a huge number of songs, Bob Dylan released nine albums in The Sixties but could have released another nine of original material. When “The Basement Tapes” was given a six CD release in 2014, it included 115 previously unreleased songs, 62 of which were Bob Dylan originals. And that’s not to mention about sixty other original songs not included on these albums.
“Unhalfbricking” includes three previously unreleased Bob Dylan songs: “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” (sung in French as “Si Tu Doir Partir”), “Percy’s Song” and “Million Dollar Bash”. All of these songs were on one of the “Great White Wonder” bootlegs although only “Million Dollar Bash” is from “The Basement Tapes”.
Fairport Convention were also very productive at this time. They recorded “What We Did On Our Holidays” between June and October 1968, releasing the album in January 1969. “Unhalfbricking” was recorded in early 1969 and was released in July 1969. “Liege And Lief” was recorded in October 1969 and released in December 1969. Three of the most wonderful, inspirational and influential folk/rock albums of all time were released by Fairport Convention in one year. Those were different times. Anais Mitchell’s fantastic new album is her first album of all new material in TEN years.
There are many astonishing aspects to “Unhalfbricking”, and possibly the standout track is “A Sailor’s Life”, which is over 11 minutes long. The song originated from the 18th Century and was recorded by Judy Collins in 1961 and Martin Carthy in 1966. The song tells the story of a woman searching for her lover, who is a sailor. There are rarely happy endings in these traditional English ballads and this is no exception as she eventually finds out that he has drowned so she gives up the will to live and runs her boat onto rocks. Sandy Denny started singing this song backstage at a gig on Southampton in January 1969. As Richard Thompson, Ashley Hutchings, Simon Nicol and Martin Lamble listened to Sandy Denny sing the song, they jammed along with her and improvised a rock tempo half way through the song. Liking what they had done, they decided to play it live that night. They’d only played it together once and they decided to play it live that evening. That’s astonishing. Different times.
Two weeks later they went into Olympic Studios to record the song. The band thought it would be an interesting twist to invite another musician to the session who was familiar with traditional British folk music so they invited Dave Swarbrick. He was a well known session musician, having played fiddle on Martin Carthy’s second album (which included “A Sailor’s Life”). When he turned up, he was asked to do two things he had never done before: attach a pickup to his violin and improvise his part. There was very little discussion before the recording started and the first take was all that was necessary to complete a seminal piece of music. In Richard Thompson’s autobiography, “Beeswing”, he describes how Sandy Denny’s vocal sucked him into the story immediately; how Simon Nicol improvised a guitar riff in the middle of the song; how Martin Lamble’s drumming was extraordinarily restrained but most of all how his own electric guitar and Dave Swarbrick’ fiddle played together as if having a conversation that increased in familiarity through the course of the song. He writes “this first take had blown the doors off and revealed another world on the other side”.
Although this song was a landmark recording insofar as it paved the way for the use of traditional folk songs in an electric rock setting, it is far from the only high point on the album. “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” has been voted (by listeners of BBC Radio 2) to be the favourite folk song of all time. It’s a beautiful song, written when she was 16 years old, looking back on happier times, when she was younger and regretting some of her life decisions. Hang on! I wrote that yesterday about “These Days” by Jackson Browne. I’m not sure I was quite so wise when I was 16.
“Si Tu Doir Partir” was released as a single and reached Number 21 in the U.K. Charts. When Bob Dylan first sung this song live at Carnegie Hall in 1964, the audience gasped in astonishment that anyone could write such risqué lyrics about inviting a girl to spend the night with him if she wanted to. Alternatively, if she didn’t want to, she should leave immediately. He didn’t really seem bothered either way. By recording the song in French, the establishment couldn’t really object to the lyrics of Fairport Convention’s version. I guess this was a very 1969 way of sticking it to the man.
Another great album from the Sixties. Were all these albums better because they were recorded quickly? How come artists were so prolific in these times? Does the prism of memory affect my appreciation of this music?