My Beatles Era, unfortunately, shows no signs of slowing down – yet. So, before I have squeezed every last bit of enjoyment out of catching up with a nearly 65 year old band, there’s a little more I’d like to write about the disintegrating of The Beatles as a band. This time, my lens is less organizational, and more familial. It’s not a stretch to say that a band is a lot like a family, and there are certain interactions that one can observe in The Beatles: Get Back that map onto classic familial dynamics. Because the rift between George Harrison and Paul McCartney informs a lot of the docuseries, I think it’s instructive to look at their specific relationship. I particular, I find their dynamic to be similar to youngest child and older sibling, with George (who Let it Be director Michael Lindsay-Hogg refers to as “Baby George” early on) trying to assert himself in the face of older brothers who aren’t seeing him as the mature, accomplished songwriter he knows himself to be.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am myself a youngest child of three, which may explain why I have so strongly identified with George’s arc in the docuseries. However, I am not the only person who has seen the value of considering The Beatles: Get Back through the lens of family dynamics. In the essay “What The Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ Documentary Can Teach Social Workers About Familial Relationships,” Geoffrey Grief discusses the Beatles as behaving like a group of adults siblings attempting to move forward after the death of their parent. In this case, Grief sees manager Brian Epstein’s untimely death in 1967 as the catalyst for their behavior as we see it in the docuseries. Grief describes The Beatles as a “family-of-orientation,” meaning they were drawn close together through their years of work as a band and through the necessary closeness that resulted. In this family, as in others, [d]eath of a parent can … result in siblings drifting away from each other as they no longer have an older generation to pull them together.” For Grief, looking at The Beatles this way is useful for social work, because it illustrates that “current issues in relationship needs to be addressed with action-oriented interventions while being cognizant of the root of the problem and the impact that the intervention will have on all the family members.” Too bad Grief hadn’t been around during the Beatles’s time!
While birth order psychology is neither scientific nor predictable (there are too many other factors, such as wealth, parentage, the amount of years between siblings, etc), it can shape a child’s worldview and it does involve very real intra-familial dynamics. Every time an older sibling is made to babysit a younger sibling, this dynamic is in play. So, my aim is not to “prove” that birth order is a scientific principle, but rather, to apply what we understand of birth order’s effect to what we can observe in this docuseries in order to more clearly understand what happens, and more importantly, why. So in the rest of this post, I would like to use Grief’s framework for viewing The Beatles as a family to better understand what may have motivated George’s (admittedly brief) split from the band, and how that family dynamic played a part in getting him to return.
Each member of the band was behaving within the dynamics of The Beatles family, while also carrying with them their experiences as children in their own famlies.1 Ringo was an only child (and the eldest member of the band) and John had one younger half-sister, both Paul and George grew up with multiple siblings. Paul was the oldest in his family, and George was the youngest in his. Thus, George was the youngest in both his family and his professional lives, meaning he was never in a position to “catch up,” despite his drive and talent. He was always chasing his elders. Yet, when Get Back begins, George seems prepared, confident, and ready to work – on Day 1, he is one of the first to arrive, and has a truly impressive cache of songs he has been working on. He tells Paul that wants to play a larger role in the creation of this upcoming album (which was, ostensibly, to be Let it Be): “That was the good thing about the last album [The Beatles, or the “White Album”]. It’s the only album, so far, I tried to get involved with. […] So, I feel now I can play things. I can learn things that will sound okay.” George is telling Paul he wants to step up further and that he can do more that simply be “just another guitar,” as he puts it. He wants to add more to the overall sound, but it does not take long – about one week, actually – for Paul to pop that bubble and for George to quit.
Paul does not want this input from George, to put it bluntly. For his own songs, Paul typically was able to hear precisely what he wanted in his own head, and then would try to get his colleagues to recreate that exactly, to the point where he would re-record their instruments (e.g., re-doing Ringo’s drumming on “Back in the USSR”). This leads to some of the friction between George and Paul in the film, because George wants to make a stronger mark on the song, and Paul does not want to hear it. However, as will be explained a bit further below, this disagreement actually occurs over John’s song, “Don’t Let Me Down”:
GEORGE: “I start finding that what I’m doing is starting to have something, to have some sculpture to it.”
PAUL: “Yeah, I know what you mean, it’s just that that way of doing it puts me off the way I’m trying to do it.”
GEORGE: “I can only do me, that one way, however I do it.”
PAUL: “Yeah, let’s do another song.”
GEORGE: “No, come on, we still have to learn this.”
It’s easy to see that George is becoming more and more irritated that Paul is dismissing his input. It’s not even so much that Paul is being resistant to his ideas, but that he is so blasé about what George is trying to tell him. The waving away of this conflict – “let’s do another song” – is such an infuriating move to a younger person; it’s not even worth Paul’s time to have this argument. The older sibling is refusing to acknowledge the development and improvement of the younger sibling, who just wants to be recognized as full member of the group.
Complicating this particular interplay is the fact that John is more or less utterly strung out on heroin, and has not come to the recording sessions with a lot of songs prepared. However, Paul, desperate to keep John’s attention to the tasks at hand and to keep him from leaving, throws nearly all of his attention in his direction, including fighting with George over how to play a song that’s not even his. It’s easy to imagine how insulting that might have been to George, who brought some of the best songs of his career to these sessions, only to have them rejected out of hand while Paul props up John’s half-done songs and devotes more time to practicing them. (Note: because Ringo loves everyone and everyone loves Ringo, he won’t be discussed much in this piece. For more on Ringo in The Beatles: Get Back, see this previous post.) The youngest is passed over in favor of the older siblings, who always to get to do things first, and are (seemingly) given preferential treatment, even when it’s not warranted.
George presents “Isn’t It a Pity,” “All Things Must Pass,” and “Something,” only the last of which ends up on a Beatles album (Abbey Road), despite all being future classics and far more crafted than John’s work at these sessions. “I Me Mine,” a George song that did make it onto Let It Be, was only chosen and recorded because it featured so prominently in the film. For his part, John utterly destroys George’s enthusiasm by insulting George and making fun of the song. But what this all suggests, from George’s potential perspective, is that nothing he can do will every be good enough in the face of the dyad that is Paul and John. Essentially, Paul would rather take any number of crummy songs from John and work overtime to keep him present enough to record them, then he would to just use George’s material and listen to his ideas. John will criticize him and hurl jokes despite not really being a productive band member himself at that time. I could imagine George feeling like wanted out of this family, or at least wanting to be fully respected within it.
So when George leaves, it may feel a little like the kid who runs away from home in order to get attention, but all signs were that he was serious about staying away. As the film notes, the first attempt by the band to talk it through with George fails, and so they have to try a second time. The second time, they agree to George’s requirements: that they move the recording sessions to the more appropriate (though not totally set up yet) Apple studio, and that they abandon the plans for a live concert. I’m sure George felt like he had a little bit more control with these concessions, even if the rest of the project still didn’t go perfectly smoothly.
As a youngest child, you only ever want to be considered at the same level as the rest of your siblings. Being the “baby” means you are constantly marked as different and, in some sense, helpless. You can be brilliant and write amazing songs, but you are always going to be behind the older kids in your family, no matter what you do; even when you do excel at something, it’s only ever within the context of the family, never on your own terms. So it’s no surprise that when the Beatles officially ended in 1970, George Harrison released a triple album, All Things Must Pass, that rivals the best Beatles music in quality and craft. He had built up quite a bit of emotion that needed to be released, and rather than hold back songs for later years, he just recorded EVERYTHING. And that made a huge mark on the music world, and although he never quite attained that level of critical and commercial regard again (at least, not until Cloud Nine went gangbusters in 1987), it was a work to be proud of, made entirely on his own terms.
1Of course, each individual also had a variety of other family experiences that affected them deeply, such as Ringo’s childhood illness and the devastating loss of John’s mother. For the sake of space, I will only be dealing with the roles in family birth order, but with the acknowledgement that those experiences cannot truly be separated from the rest of their childhoods.
Citation: Grief, Geoffrey L. “What The Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ Documentary Can Teach Social Workers About Familial Relationships.” Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services. 103:2, 247-250. 2022.