The Number Ones

The Number Ones: The Beatles’ “Get Back” (Feat. Billy Preston)

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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The Beatles – “Get Back” (Feat. Billy Preston)

HIT #1: May 24, 1969

STAYED AT #1: 5 weeks

They hated each other. The version of the Beatles who got together to record the Let It Be album in 1969 was, from a chemistry standpoint, the very worst version of the Beatles. Ringo Starr had already quit the band for two weeks, and his bandmates had to track him down and convince him to return. During the sessions, George Harrison quit, too. He stormed out for five days and, when he came back, he demanded that the band abandon the album’s whole central idea.

The idea belonged to Paul McCartney. The Beatles had quit touring a few years earlier, and McCartney, fully understanding that the band was breaking apart, wanted to try out a back-to-the-roots move. It was an ambitious idea: He wanted the band to write a bunch of songs, rehearse them, and then play them live in front of an audience for the first time. They would release a whole album of new songs, recorded live, and they’d put the performance on film, too, so they could make a movie or a TV special out of it.

It didn’t work. Everyone in the band was miserable. After rejecting a bunch of possibilities, the band’s one filmed live show was a performance on the roof of the band’s Apple Corps building, and police shut it down before it was finished. (It ended up being their first live show in years, and also their last ever.) Harrison had demanded that the album be an actual studio album, and he also recruited a friend, the ace session keyboardist Billy Preston, specifically to help ease the intra-band tension. It worked, at least for a little while.

Preston had met the Beatles when he was 16 and playing in Little Richard’s touring band. This was back in 1962, when the Beatles were still playing Hamburg strip clubs. He and Harrison became close. When Harrison temporarily quit the Beatles, he went to see Preston play with Ray Charles, and then he invited him back to the studio. Preston played a warm, bluesy Fender Rhodes all over “Get Back,” which was supposed to be the new album’s title track, and he became the first and only additional musician ever to be credited on a Beatles song. It’s on the label as “the Beatles with Billy Preston.”

From a certain perspective, you could hear “Get Back” as a song about the Beatles and how they needed to recapture some of their old fire if they were going to remain a band. Paul McCartney wrote the song, and in his first draft, it was a satirical song about the way immigrants were treated in England. (One line: “I dig no Pakistanis.”) It’s not how McCartney meant it, but it’s pretty obvious in retrospect that racists in England and elsewhere would’ve taken the song’s lyrics at face value and made the song into a hate anthem, authorial intentions be damned. So it’s a good thing McCartney changed the song.

Instead, in its final version, “Get Back” is a possibly nonsensical song about a character named Jojo and another named Sweet Loretta Martin. There’s at least some speculation that the Jojo of “Get Back” is John Lennon, and that McCartney means the song as both a dis and a warning. Lennon took it this way, believing McCartney was glaring at Yoko Ono in the studio as he sang the “get back to where you once belonged” line. Other possibilities include Joseph Melville See, Jr., the first husband of Linda McCartney, who lived in Tucson and who took his own life there in 2000. But McCartney himself has written that Jojo was “an imaginary character, half-man and half-woman.” So maybe the song really is just giddy half-gibberish.

It’s pretty good giddy half-gibberish, in any case. “Get Back” doesn’t really sound anything like an early Beatles song, but it does sound like five musicians who, at least for the span of three minutes and change, enjoy playing with each other. It’s a simple bluesy shuffle, played with force and conviction, and Preston’s busy Fender Rhodes and his improvised solo add a lot. The Beatles were never a blues-rock band, but “Get Back” is as close as they ever came. And even without all the requisite vocal grit, it can hang with most of what, say, Creedence Clearwater Revival were doing at the time.

“Get Back” hurtles forever forward, building a tension that it never quite releases. It doesn’t have the big, gleaming chorus of so many other Beatles songs, but it gets over instead on propulsive force. If the experiment had worked, if the Beatles had gone back to playing live in front of people, “Get Back” is a nice preview of a bunch of stars learning how to be a band again. But it didn’t work, and everyone involved probably knew it couldn’t last.

After the band made “Get Back,” Lennon reportedly proposed that Preston become a full-time member of the band. McCartney disagreed, pointing out that it was hard enough to get four Beatles to agree on anything without factoring in a fifth. There’s a parallel universe somewhere where Preston really did become a full-on Beatle. Maybe there, the Beatles are still a functional band. Instead, they finished up the Let It Be sessions, and then they went off and made Abbey Road and broke up before the remixed-to-hell version of Let It Be came out. Billy Preston became a solo star in the ’70s. And John Lennon got killed.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Ike and Tina Turner doing a severely nasty live cover of “Get Back” in 1972: