What does Get Back teach us about Leadership and Creative Collaboration?
It’s January 3, 1969 and Paul McCartney has found himself with an unwelcome list of roles in the Beatles’ latest project: producer, timekeeper, manager, arranger and band leader. He needs to delegate some of that responsibility but crucially, no one is reaching out for the baton.
Within the first 30 minutes of the film, we discover that Paul is the point man for Michael Lindsay Hogg (the Director), Glyn Johns (the Engineer) and Denis O’Dell (head of Apple Films). The film and music production heads confer with Paul about the recording equipment they need, the sound quality at Twickenham, and the proposed television special (Michael Lindsay-Hogg is continually pitching his ideas on this subject to Paul). McCartney then has the responsibility of disseminating this information to the other Beatles at his own discretion, based on what he perceives as their level of interest.
When it comes to the actual writing and rehearsing of the songs, Paul assumes the role of bandleader, but now he is in triage. His co-leader arrives exhausted, struggling with a heroin habit and without much new material. The partnership of Lennon/McCartney is the backbone of the Beatles, and Paul knows it. As half of that songwriting team, he gives most of his attention and energy to John. Unless he does that, John will drift and lose enthusiasm. Together John and Paul can reliably turn their half-baked ideas into hits, but to do that they need to connect and focus on each other.
At the same time, Paul needs to teach the songs to the rest of the band and reign things in when they go off course. This involves a great deal of balance, sensitivity and judgment. He must allow all the players the freedom to experiment, be flexible when things diverge into a potentially productive direction, back off on the instruction when the other players have adequately learned their parts and simultaneously curtail digressions that will lead them off-track.
It’s a delicate and daunting task at any time, but it’s made nearly impossible by the particular circumstances. George Harrison, in January 1969, was experiencing major personal problems outside the studio; his marriage was in crisis and there is a domestic situation that involves Eric Clapton (a name George brings up repeatedly during the early sessions). In addition to the domestic problems, George is also arriving with a fair amount of resentment towards McCartney (and Lennon/McCartney) for his marginalization within the band.
Lesson 1: Delegate
It’s most constructive for teams to delegate roles and divide the labor fairly; this ensures that one member is not left juggling too many obligations (which can lead to feeling overwhelmed and lost productivity). It can also help team members negotiate what they need and want from each other and the project, so it’s more likely that all parties will feel satisfied along the way.
Furthermore, it’s extremely difficult to manage a project on top of being a creative member of the band. Both activities take up a large amount of mental and emotional bandwidth. It’s clear that becoming overwhelmed with the bulk of the creative and logistical responsibilities foisted upon him was a major contributor to McCartney’s occasional impatience with Harrison (and, to a lesser extent, Lennon). In exchange, he was asking for enthusiasm and support from his bandmates, because it was required in order for this project to take off and be seen through to fruition.
Because McCartney mostly handled the extra responsibility competently, the others may have assumed that it was easy for him, when it clearly wasn’t, causing him to feel frustrated and overwhelmed (“I get no support” he complains). A little grace and acknowledgement from the others may have gone a long way towards diffusing difficult confrontations.
On Day 2 of rehearsals (January 3rd), When the band works on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass (38 minutes in), Paul defers to Harrison and relinquishes the role of bandleader. McCartney mostly stays quiet and awaits Harrison’s instructions, but Harrison quickly abandons the song and insteads uses his moment at the helm to talk. McCartney wants to play rather than talk, but he listens respectfully without contributing much. Harrison repeatedly expresses a lack of self-confidence, at one point praising Clapton’s skill at “improvising and keeping it going, which I’m not good at.” Harrison continues that getting the solo to take on a “pattern” and resolve itself is “very hard.”
“That’s jazz” McCartney offers gently, but Harrison immediately disagrees. Paul says basically nothing more, allows George to steer the conversation and eventually All Things Must Pass is abandoned for the moment.
McCartney’s hands-off approach when it comes to All Things Must Pass may be seen as “indifference” or “dismissiveness” by some, but it is an act of deference to the band member whose song they are learning. McCartney is aware that he can easily influence a song’s development and that Harrison is eager to prove himself and be respected as a songwriter, so Paul’s decision to remain in the background here reads like an acknowledgement of this.
On Day 3 of the project, January 6, 1969, the band is rehearsing Two of Us, and the infamous “I can play whatever you want me to play” conversation (hereafter referred to as the “Orange Sweater Fight”) takes place.
During the “On our way home,” run of the song, John is singing, and George is working out a guitar riff. Paul points out, “See we’re all gonna have to sort of bring together, ‘cause we’re all at odds.”
This begins a conversation in which Paul tries to communicate to George that he thinks it would work more efficiently to work on fleshing out the basic structure of the song before adding embellishments.
Paul was trying to offer a workable solution and way forward, since they only had four of the 14 total songs they needed in total to complete the project. His idea to maintain flow and efficiency was that the band could simply work out the bare bones of the numbers they had, without adding embellishments. Then, once they had the bare structure of the songs set to where they were happy with them, they could go back and work on finer details. This conversation seems to be interpreted by George as Paul dictating to George what to play and not being flexible enough to accommodate the way he works best. Given the reality of the time constraints they were under, it seems instead that Paul was simply trying to float a more efficient way to work out the skeleton of the songs first.
Lesson Two: Show Sensitivity
When faced with too much responsibility and pressure, a typical response by workaholics is often to “just work harder.” Grinding it out seems to be the only practical and logical way forward. This usually yields the most results, and in Paul’s case, as a highly creative and inspired person, usually the best results. To people who are accustomed to barreling forward and knocking down obstacles, the idea of breaking momentum can seem highly objectionable, counterintuitive and even frightening.
But most people when faced with too much pressure tend to fold or disengage. In this instance, it seems Harrison needed a space to vent his feelings and voice his concerns. What he required to maximize his creativity was special attention from his bandmates to feel like both a useful member of the team and a valued member of the family.
“It’s gotta just drive along like a car,” John says to Paul while rehearsing Two of Us shortly after the George and Paul tiff. What Paul and John couldn’t see at the time is that rather than push the car forward, at that moment they needed to veer left. If the band had taken a break from rehearsing to find out what was bothering George, it’s possible that things could’ve played out much differently. Although derailing the Beatles’ progress wasn’t the first instinct of this vigorous, prolific, fast-paced band – especially when under such tight deadlines- an hour or two to reconnect as friends and talk things through in a non-musical environment might’ve made all the difference. Sometimes a break actually yields better long-term results than relentlessly grinding away.
On January 8th, Harrison brings in his newest song, I Me Mine (which ultimately ends up on the Let it Be LP). George plays the song for Paul and Ringo as soon as McCartney arrives for the day while they informally stand around waiting for Lennon to arrive. “It’s lovely” says Lindsay-Hogg, but McCartney and Starr merely listen. Neither is particularly exuberant, but both are respectful.
When Lennon arrives, Harrison plays the song again, with more passion this time, as the four bandmates stand in a tight circle. Lennon offers some sarcastic commentary before finally offering his condescending assessment: “Run along, son. We’ll see you later. We’re a rock n’ roll band, you know.” George’s response is succinct: “I don’t care if you don’t want it. I don’t give a fuck”
Lennon’s nasty comment undoubtedly contributed to Harrison’s plummeting self-esteem within the group and his simmering resentments towards both Lennon and and the Lennon/McCartney team. Nevertheless, the band proceeds to work on I Me Mine later that day (while Lennon waltzes with Yoko Ono). It eventually ends up on the Let it Be LP, with no contributions whatsoever from Lennon.
When George abruptly walks off set and (temporarily) quits the band two days later, no one is especially surprised, least of all John and Paul.
When the three remaining band members reconvene the following Monday, the three men have lunch together with Yoko and Linda. John and Paul discuss the underlying issues of George’s departure and how they should proceed (Although Jackson’s film claims that John and Paul are speaking privately, this is certainly not the case, as Yoko Ono, Linda Eastman and Ringo can all be heard contributing to the conversation in the original tapes).
The problem is quickly diagnosed (“It’s a festering wound that we allowed to go on” Lennon proclaims and McCartney readily agrees); the solution takes a bit more work. Lennon tries to articulate the problem of Paul’s creative control from Harrison’s point of view as well as his own (“That’s what we do to him and that’s what you do to me,” he says of McCartney’s intimidating approach). Lennon makes the additional point that although he is equally guilty of marginalizing George for the sake of Lennon/McCartney, he has become more aware of his behavior in the past year and has begun trying to stop it.
McCartney listens and acknowledges Lennon’s feedback before proposing that John step up and be the boss again. Jackson transcribes McCartney as saying “You have always been boss” (“you have always been at the front of the chute” he says in the original tapes) and although Lennon disagrees with this statement, McCartney seems to have identified part of the problem. Although both Lennon and McCartney are guilty of marginalizing Harrison and unconsciously (or consciously) teaming up against him, the simple fact is that Harrison responds better to Lennon’s authority than McCartney’s. For parents, where oversight is shared and roles are flexible according to circumstances, this is a familiar strain: You need to talk to him, he won’t listen to me.
Paul then gives Lennon an extensive, confidence-building pep talk before lunchtime is over. From this point on, it does seem that Lennon takes on more of a leadership role in the creation of Get Back.
Lesson Three: Be Clear and Consistent
If we view Lennon as the leader in this situation, it should be evident that insulting a team member’s song right out of the gate is not advisable to long-term morale.
If we view McCartney as the leader in this situation, what do we take away? McCartney had no reaction to the brittle exchange between Lennon and Harrison; instead he worked with Harrison to help shape the song, both in rehearsals and afterwards in the studio a year later. Nevertheless, McCartney is often blamed for being “unsupportive” of Harrison’s songs.
If there is a lesson to be learned from this, perhaps it’s that sometimes the demands and expectations of others are impossible to control. The fact that Harrison continued to direct his anger and resentment at McCartney rather than Lennon (who he continued to pursue as an ally even after treatment like that described above) suggests a no-win situation for McCartney. The fact that Paul’s polite but tepid reaction to I Me Mine is typically viewed more critically than Lennon’s hostile one reveals a great deal about who we believe wields the most creative power in the band as well as our expectations about both men’s behavior.
Leadership between Lennon and McCartney was fluid throughout the Beatles, alternating in accordance with the circumstances and demands of a particular situation. But leadership occasionally needs to be clearly defined, even if only in a temporary, situational capacity.
In the “Orange Sweater fight” with George, Lennon remained effectively silent until McCartney finally called him out directly (“YOU know I’m right”) at which point John finally stepped in with an opinion. Similarly, McCartney allowed Lennon to first insult and then contribute nothing musically to I Me Mine.
Although George’s marginalization at the hands of Lennon/McCartney is the biggest problem here, Lennon/McCartney nevertheless need to be on the same page in terms of how they are going to manage the sessions. Partners need to agree on a division of responsibility and then back each other up.
Interested in listening to the unedited audio tapes from Get Back session?
Check out this blog: https://amoralto.tumblr.com/getback