In Random Tracks, I review a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.
The Beatles- “Get Back” (with Billy Preston)
HIT #1: May 24, 1969
STAYED AT #1: 5 weeks
Listening to “Get Back,” it’s easy not to think too much about it. Like with basically all Beatles songs, it’s a song I’ve heard for all my life as another solid song from a catalog chock full of them. That’s still my view now but there’s a thing about “Get Back” that I and probably you never realized all these years: it started out as a satirical critique of anti-immigrant attitudes in the US and the UK. In the first part of Peter Jackson’s long but entertaining Get Back documentary series, we see the Beatles practicing the song as images and footage of then-recent anti-immigrant statements are shown. Paul McCartney sings lines like “Don’t dig no Pakistanis” and “Don’t need no Puerto Ricans living in the USA.”
Even in the final version that became another #1 hit for the group, the main line of the hook “Get back to where you once belonged” definitely sounds like something an anti-immigrant bigot would say. But instead of using the song as social commentary, McCartney waters it down to a song about two characters named Jojo and Sweet Loretta Martin with one moving from Tucson, Arizona for some California grass and another realizing she was another man. Because of that, you never think of “Get Back” as being anything more than another good Beatles song. Considering how these racists would have taken the original lyrics out of context applying them to their own beliefs as what often happens in these situations, McCartney did all of us a favor in turning “Get Back” into what it became.
It’s also easy to hear “Get Back” in the context of where the Beatles were at the time of its recording in early 1969. As Jackson’s series shows, after quitting the road in 1966 and experimenting so much in the studio on Sgt. Pepper’s and the White Album, a plan was created to bring the Beatles back into performing as a band again with a return to the more stripped-down rock music they did in the early days. After liking the experience of filming the promotional video to their massive 1968 #1 “Hey Jude,” the Beatles came up with a huge undertaking of writing and recording a bunch of new songs that they would debut on a live TV special about the making of their new album leading up to a concert in some exotic location.
Obviously, this did not happen. Tensions were so high during these sessions that George Harrison quit the group for a little bit and when he returned the TV special and live concert was scrapped in favor of a documentary film. The Beatles still decided to go ahead with a performance leading to January 30th when they famously performed on the rooftop of their Apple label headquarters. That would be the last time the Beatles ever performed together in public. Even with all that, the project and album initially titled Get Back still didn’t go anywhere. Burned out from the experience, Get Back is scrapped as the Beatles record Abbey Road and begin their breakup. Before all that, “Get Back” was released as the group’s latest single in April 1969 with Harrison in the Get Back series suggesting it knowing they needed a new single after “Hey Jude.”
Despite all the documented conflict that went on in the studio, you don’t hear much of it on “Get Back.” Like we see in Jackson’s series, even when the Beatles couldn’t stand each other they could still have lots of fun recording together. If you were listening in 1969 then “Get Back” must have sounded like another departure for the Beatles. Instead of the grand orchestras and experimentations of the past couple years of Beatles songs, “Get Back” is a simple yet effective blues-rock jam. I love how the song builds up like a train rolling down the tracks and never loses that energy. Ringo’s cymbals crash at the exact right moments. Ringo’s drumming along with Paul’s bass is simple yet keeps the song going. John plays a really catchy and twangy lead guitar with adds a lot to the jam-like nature of the song.
You’ll notice the Beatles aren’t the only people credited on “Get Back” as they share credit with session musician and future solo star Billy Preston. Preston and the Beatles go way back to 1962 in Hamburg, Germany when Preston was playing in Little Richard’s band with the Beatles opening for Richard. When Harrison was on his temporary leave from the band, he saw Preston performing at a Ray Charles concert and asked Preston to join the Beatles in the studio helping to temporarily alleviate some of the tensions. To me, Preston’s credit makes sense especially after watching the documentary series. When Preston starts adding his Fender Rhodes to “Get Back,” the song falls right into place joining in on the fun with the funky solo Preston contributes in the middle.
In its final form, the lyrics to “Get Back” aren’t much. Many have speculated that the characters of Jojo and Sweet Loretta Martin are inspired by John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and even Linda McCartney’s first husband before Paul who did live in Tucson. But McCartney never delves into any character study on these two people. Ultimately, the lyrics don’t matter all that much as they help to serve a fun groove with Paul not afraid to throw himself into the fun of the song with all the ad-libs he brings to his performance. “Get Back” isn’t an all-time Beatles song but when it’s on it’s hard not to jam out to it.
For a year, “Get Back” was the only artifact of the Beatles’ failed project but going into 1970 as the band was breaking up, Phil Spector was brought in to remix the songs recorded from the Get Back sessions into a new album that would be called Let It Be. Unlike the other songs on the album, “Get Back” doesn’t sound all that different from the initial single release. The only thing Spector added to the album version was audio from the studio and the rooftop concert to give it more of a live feel. Personally, it’s fine but I prefer the single version which is why I embedded it at the top. In it, I like how they do a false ending before fading out with the groove as Paul adds more of his ad-libs. It’s a groove so good that a fade-out sounds better to my ears because you can imagine the Beatles and Preston just continuing with it for as long as they like.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Ike and Tina Turner performing a fiery version of “Get Back” in 1972:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the version of “Get Back” Billy Preston recorded for the notorious 1978 flop Beatles musical movie Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Paul McCartney and Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes performing “Get Back” together at 2015’s Lollapalooza festival:
(Alabama Shakes’ highest-charting single, 2012’s “Hold On,” peaked at #93.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s video of Paul McCartney and the Foo Fighters performing “Get Back” at the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony where McCartney inducted the Foo Fighters:
(The Foo Fighters’ highest-charting single, 2005’s “Best of You,” peaked at #18.)