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Get Back: Stealing Some Beatles Genius
Unforgettable lessons from watching the new Beatles documentary.
There are shows and movies that grab you and demand you watch. And not just watch casually, but immerse yourself. Dark, that German show that was basically Back to the Future but with no upbeat music or smiling of any kind, was the last show that really hooked me from the get-go.
With the new “Get Back” Beatles documentary outlining the two-ish weeks they spent creating and recording Let It Be, I was probably hooked before I watched a second of it. The Beatles didn’t start out being mine; they were my Dad’s. He liked Rubber Soul the best so I liked Rubber Soul the best. But I love music and the creative process and so eventually they grew into something I loved on my own. And to see an all-time great band wading through the muck to create a lasting, quality album - that was an opportunity of a lifetime.
It’s certainly not for everyone. My fiancé lasted about 20 minutes before going to bed. When she woke up the next morning her only question was, “did they just continue talking and rehearsing half-finished songs for the next two hours?” The answer was yes, and it was amazing.
Overall there are 3, 2.5 hour episodes. The band broke up soon after the documentary ended - all things must pass - and so these episodes reveal a vibrant portrait of how incredibly talented people collaborate and create under stressful, emotional, and time-constrained circumstances.
Below are the insights I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I watched.
Don’t Start Cold
Let’s start with their warmups. Whether they were walking in “first thing” (11am) in the morning or coming back from lunch, they never seemed to just start working. They sat down and started jamming with other people’s songs, put on voices, or even mixed up the cadence. They just vibed together and got the team and individual juices flowing. It’s almost like they were opening up the pathways of trust, collaboration, and creativity. “Well boys, another day of a lot of things that won’t work and a few that really will. Let’s ease our way into it,” they seemed to say.
What did I learn? I can come in so hot to every meeting or workday. I want to not waste time. I’m like the classic American businessman who gets told by the Russian arms dealer to relax in the 80’s movie. But the beginning is where you should spend time! If people and their ideas are core to whatever you’re trying to do, lay the groundwork for them to do their best work. That applies to negotiation, brainstorming, normal meetings, or hanging out with friends. The beginning is shooting the shit, riffing, vibing, warming up, and being positive.
The Magic of Being In-Person
Taking collaboration even further, one theme that came up a few times was how the band was suffering due to being apart. Paul McCartney reminiscences about those early days of being around one another constantly, even living with each other, and how that led to losing some of the creative connection as people grew up, found significant others, or discovered new interests.
One thing Brian Chesky of Airbnb has said of Y combinator is that they got their best work done because for three months they didn’t leave each other’s sides. This is not where I start to lament remote work but it kind of is. There were plenty of companies back in the pre-covid days that were terrible and not collaborative, don’t get me wrong. But is it harder to be collaborative and jamming on the same frequency when you’re remote? Maybe you have to just sit on a zoom and not do anything. Get the hours in. Figure out what they’re going to say before they’re going to say it. Learn to trust them with half-formed ideas. That’s a camaraderie that’s hard to build.
The Beatles were able to create Let It Be because they had become incredible musicians and were tapping a deep reservoir of shared experiences. It had become a bit harder as they spent time apart, but they could still get there.
Creating Something from Nothing
The most incredible part about this whole Beatles marathon was seeing the real-time creation of a song from 0 to 1. They would start free form. They would strum or hum, and then keep going, seeing where it led. Then a melody or a lyrical rhythm would start to emerge. Then some words, then the other band members would add in some other instruments.
Whenever there would be a pothole, like missing or bad lyrics, they would just patch it up with gibberish or a word that sounded like it belonged but didn’t make sense. John telling George to just use cauliflower over and over until a better word came to him - “something in the way she moves, attracts me like a cauliflower” - was not caring at all about little things like a missing word if they could still move the entire song forward. There was a confidence that the missing piece could come and it always did. Eventually he found “attracts me like no other lover…”
They lived with rough edges and nonsense and poor ideas in the pursuit of creating a cohesive whole that could then be polished. Perfection came at the end; it was not to be played with at the beginning of the process.
Content Lasts, Not Criticism
It was also wild watching their present day world knowing that 50 years later their work would still be celebrated. In the studio they read gossip columns about their supposed fights and how their work was slipping. There was a kid on the sidewalk being interviewed saying he doesn’t like the Beatles anymore because they’ve changed so much since they first started. All of it seems so trite knowing what we know now.
To their credit they never allowed the House of Beatles to become a prison. From album to album they built new houses, different from what they had done before. They were building for themselves, evolving from teeny boppers to complex song writers that would stand the test of time. In a world now where criticism is instant and everywhere, the opportunity to see how weak and transitory all of that really is should spur us to reconsider what types of imagined criticism might be holding us back in our present day.
Finish the Damn Thing
Finally there was their goal of 14 songs in two weeks. Ringo Starr had to start filming a movie soon after and so whatever they came up with at the end of that two weeks was going to be the album with their name on it. Fans may argue about where Let It Be ranks against other albums, but they managed to produce a solid piece of work in a super constrained period of time.
There are plenty of stories of the tortured creative who has been creating his or her masterpiece for 20 years. In the end, it’s the finishing of something that gets you the experience. Do something and finish it. The better you get, the better those finished pieces will be. I recently watched, and loved, Tik Tik Boom about the life of Jonathan Larson before writing Rent. He spends 8 years writing Superbia, only to hear its quality is overwhelmed by its overwroughtness. Then he spends 4 years writing Tik Tik Boom, which actually does make it to off-broadway. Then he spends only 2 years writing Rent, for which he receives the Pulitzer Prize. He got better and faster by completing projects.
We can spend our entire lives editing one thing, or we can release it to the world so we can work on our next one. The compounding experiences make us better.