Rock

The Beatles: Get Back Gives Fans a Look at How Songs Are Written

Watching Paul McCartney form the structure for "Get Back" is mesmerizing.
Watching Paul McCartney form the structure for "Get Back" is mesmerizing. Screenshot
The uniquely unvarnished look at The Beatles in the three-part documentary series The Beatles: Get Back from Peter Jackson is an eye opener for many reasons.

It reshapes the narrative around Yoko Ono and her impact on the band (hint: it was far less important than fans were led to believe though we all can agree it was weird to see her 18 inches from John Lennon at all times), reinforces the close relationship between Paul McCartney and John Lennon, and, most importantly, peeks behind the curtain into the process of one of the greatest group of songwriters in pop music history.

It is the latter that seems to have captivated and surprised many fans of The Beatles and music in general. Rarely has anyone outside the music business had a front-row seat for the inner workings of the song writing process, particularly from a duo as iconic as Lennon/McCartney.

Broadcaster Howard Stern, who has become one of the best radio interviewers in the business, frequently interviews musicians including McCartney. Because he has always wanted to be a musician, his questions often have a childlike quality, equating writing songs and the influences musicians have to an almost magical level. That is a feeling, it seems, shared among scores of those watching Get Back and seeing just how it works.

In one segment, McCartney randomly strums on his bass while singing varying melodies. At first, it just sounds like noodling until, about a minute later, we hear the forming of the song "Get Back," the initial melodies and chord progressions that would constitute one of the greatest rock and roll songs in history. And it all happened in just a couple minutes.

The truth is, when you watch any musician work, famous or otherwise, the writing process can get de-mystified pretty quickly. Obviously, not every great (or awful) songs springs forth nearly fully formed as "Get Back" appears to for McCartney and The Beatles, but it is probably staggering for fans to realize that many of the songs they have loved and sung along to for decades were written in a few minutes during a jam session.

In the classic music documentary Runnin' Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Petty recoils at what he considers a poorly written song for his friend, Roger McGuinn of The Byrds. He blames a record company representative in the studio and rails, "I could smoke a joint and come up with three better lines than that." The truth is, he's probably right. Petty often jammed on songs with the Heartbreakers and developed them in the studio in nearly real time.

That isn't always true, of course. Some songs take months to craft and are treated with the sincerity of a religious experience, but the revelations in Get Back aren't really revelations to musicians. What McCartney did in that scene is part of the normal writing process for most artists, bands in particular where the collaboration process is critical to writing and making what has already been written better.

None of this is meant to say that what The Beatles did wasn't magical. It was. It is precisely that creativity and spontaneity that made them so incredible. This wasn't some end-of-the-album throw away he was writing, after all.

But, it does underscore the fact that much of what goes into writing songs and playing music is that combination of creativity mixed with a relentless pursuit of excellence and lots and lots and lots of practice. Not every musician can do what The Beatles did (almost none could or ever will), but virtually all of them follow a similar path even if the results are strikingly different.

And don't let it disappoint you if you thought everything happened through some unseen inspirational process with chanting and sacrifices to the musical gods. If anything, it should remind us not just how good these guys were but how hard they worked to get that way. That is their greatest legacy.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke