The day I bugged The Beatles

The day I bugged The Beatles

June 13, 2020

The day I bugged The Beatles: With Peter Jackson’s remake of the 1970 fly-on-the-wall documentary Let It Be imminent, original director Michael Lindsay-Hogg reveals all about the fractitious atmosphere on set

  • Sir Peter Jackson is remaking 1970 Beatles documentary Let It Be 
  • Original director Michael Lindsay-Hogg followed the Fab Four in January 1969
  • His documentary captured the last time they performed together in public 
  • Here he shares his memories of the experience ahead of the remake’s release 

The prospect is mouthwatering. Take the most intimate unseen footage of the biggest band in the throes of a bitter break-up, and give it to the Oscar-winning director of the highest-grossing trilogies in movie history to polish into cinematic gold.

Sir Peter Jackson, director of The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit, announced 18 months ago that he was to make a new Beatles documentary using material from 55 hours of footage and 140 hours of mostly unheard audio shot and recorded for the film Let It Be, which followed the Fab Four in January 1969 as they rehearsed and recorded their penultimate studio album.

‘It will be the ultimate fly-on-the-wall experience,’ said Peter. ‘It’s like a time machine transports us back to 1969, and we get to sit in the studio watching four friends make great music together. 

The Beatles perform a rooftop concert at Apple Corps HQ, Saville Row, London in January 1969. It was the last time the band ever played together in public. The scene was filmed for the film Let It Be, which followed the Fab Four in January 1969

‘Watching John, Paul, George and Ringo work together, creating now classic songs from scratch, is not only fascinating, it’s funny, uplifting and intimate. It’s an amazing historical treasure trove.’

And now that mouthwatering dish is to be served, with the new film – called The Beatles: Get Back – scheduled for release in September. 

So what can we look forward to? Well, the original has gained almost mythical status since its release in May 1970, by which point The Beatles had split up, because they were at breaking point during filming.

Not only were they finding the strain of being The Beatles intolerable, but John’s obsession with his girlfriend Yoko Ono was altering the dynamic between the four tight-knit members.

Let It Be gave audiences their very first peek at the inner workings of the most famous band in the world. 

It showed the tensions that had been building between John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr after years of unrelenting fame. It also featured footage of their famous concert on the roof of their Apple Corps HQ, the last time the band ever played together in public.

The band on film recording their album Let It Be. Yoko Ono was constantly by John’s side at the recordings, leading fans to believe she’d been the cause of the band’s subsequent split

The original film’s director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, had a meeting at the current Apple Corps HQ in Knightsbridge in October 2018, where they discussed the idea of Peter Jackson doing the documentary. 

‘Peter said that because the original was released after The Beatles broke up, it was viewed as a goodbye-to-an-era film,’ says Michael. ‘But there are lots of moments of them laughing and joking and creating music. Peter thought it would be interesting to see more of that interaction.’

LENNON’S VERY RACY RECORDING

Michael Lindsay-Hogg refutes the idea that Yoko Ono was responsible for The Beatles’ eventual break-up, but there was a bizarre incident when the four band members and Michael met up before they started filming Let It Be.

‘We were all preparing to head off for Christmas when John said, “I want to play you a tape” and put it in the cassette player,’ recalls Michael. 

‘You couldn’t identify what it was at first, but there were people talking in hushed tones and giggling. 

And then we realised it was John and Yoko making love. Once it was over, I think one of them said, “That’s a nice tape,” but other than that no one knew how to react. 

I think John was making a statement saying, “This is Yoko and me and we’re together.”’

Michael Lindsay-Hogg refutes the idea that Yoko Ono (above, with John Lennon) was responsible for The Beatles’ eventual break-up

Peter has used some of the techniques he developed on his acclaimed 2018 First World War documentary They Shall Not Grow Old to enhance the original footage. ‘He showed me some of the new footage and it’s beautiful,’ says Michael. 

‘Whereas in the original you couldn’t see the Beatles’ hair clearly, for example, now he’s buffed it up so you can even see strands of their hair.’

When Michael’s original documentary premiered in New York on 13 May, 1970, it was, he says, ‘a grim affair’. 

None of the Beatles showed up. ‘Peter described Let It Be as like a baby no one really wanted any more,’ he says. Back in 1969, the baby had been conceived as a TV documentary that would air a week prior to a televised Beatles concert at an amphitheatre in Tunisia featuring the songs on the album including The Long And Winding Road, Get Back and, of course, Let It Be. 

But when plans for the concert were dropped, the project became a cinema film instead.

During the filming George Harrison, who described the sessions as ‘the low of all time’, walked out, while John Lennon called the month-long shoot ‘hell’. 

Moreover, Yoko Ono was constantly by John’s side at the recordings, leading fans to believe she’d been the cause of the band’s subsequent split.

Now 80, Michael had been a friend of the band for some years, having directed the videos for their songs Paperback Writer and Hey Jude. 

‘They were all quite tough – they had definite opinions and were able to defend them. But they were all intelligent and funny,’ he recalls. 

‘Ringo was the one I knew least. George was in a way the most sensitive. John and Paul were both forceful and charismatic. Together the two were unstoppable.

‘What was interesting was the paradoxes of their personalities. Paul was more easy-going and charming, but underneath he was the enforcer. John was the witty one, sometimes aggressive but underneath he was less sure.’

Filming of the rehearsals for their new album began on 2 January, 1969 at Twickenham Film Studios. 

‘Things had changed since their early days as teenagers. They’d started to live more separate lives. The old pecking order still held though, so if there were 12 tracks on an album, nine would be written by Lennon and McCartney, two would be by George and one by Ringo. I think George felt he wasn’t receiving his artistic due.’

Incredibly, there were also financial concerns because when their manager Brian Epstein died in 1967 he left the organisation of the company in a mess. 

As tensions mounted, Michael captured one of the most famous exchanges in the movie when George, responding to Paul’s criticism of his guitar-playing, responds, ‘I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play. Whatever it is that’ll please you, I’ll do it.’ 

Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg said Paul McCartney, pictured in the documentary, was more easy-going and charming than John Lennon, but underneath he was the enforcer

Shortly afterwards, Michael reveals, George walked out on the band. ‘I could feel trouble brewing and as we only filmed in the studio, I decided to bug the flowerpot on the table where we were having lunch just in case,’ he recalls.

‘We all used to eat together and on the Friday, it was clear George didn’t want to travel anywhere for the TV concert and that he felt things had reached a crisis point. He said, “OK, I’m off. See you around the clubs,” and left.

‘Everyone was open-mouthed. I was pleased I’d bugged the table, but when I played the tape back all you could hear was muffled voices and the sound of knives and forks. I was thinking, “F***”, because I’d got it, but I didn’t quite get it. That’s why George’s walk-out wasn’t in the film.’

Stunned by their bandmate’s departure, the other three and Yoko returned to the studio. 

Michael Lindsay-Hogg (pictured) reveals all about the fractious atmosphere on set

‘They improvised a really ferocious jam session with Yoko providing this weird, high-pitched vocal,’ says Michael. ‘They were working out their frustrations – and then they stopped and went home.’

Five days after quitting, George agreed to return on the proviso the televised concert was dropped and filming would continue at the band’s own Apple Studio in London’s Savile Row, where they felt more comfortable. 

As the film progresses, it’s Paul who seems the most enthusiastic and in one scene he’s talking to John, who has trouble disguising his boredom.  

‘Paul didn’t want The Beatles to break up,’ says Michael, ‘but I think John wanted a more bohemian way of life.’ 

This was in part down to Yoko Ono, a Japanese avant-garde artist he’d met in 1966 and who remained by his side throughout filming. ‘The other three took it that John wanted her there, so that was that,’ says Michael.

As the TV concert had been cancelled, Michael felt he needed a new ending. ‘So I said, “Why don’t we do a concert on the roof?” Since then everyone has claimed credit for it, including the ladies who cooked lunch!’ 

Before the event, he installed a two-way mirror in the lobby downstairs. 

‘I did it in case the police showed up. I knew some people would complain about the noise and as an American who didn’t really have a work permit, I was afraid of being deported,’ he admits.

As it turned out, he had bigger problems. In the anteroom underneath the roof, Paul was raring to go.

During the filming George Harrison (pictured) , who described the sessions as ‘the low of all time’, walked out, while John Lennon called the month-long shoot ‘hell’

‘Ringo said, “It’s really cold up there” [he ended up wearing his wife Maureen’s coat while drumming] and George said, “What’s the point?” John hadn’t said anything yet and there was a pause where the whole thing was in the balance,’ says Michael. 

‘Finally, John said, “F*** it, let’s do it” and they all walked up the ladder, onto the roof and into history.’

It would be the last time The Beatles played in public. ‘We didn’t know it at the time,’ says Michael. ‘They were really good and really happy playing together. When the police came, the Beatles enjoyed the hoo-ha and seeing the crowds on the street.’

Filming done, Michael screened a rough cut of the film for the Beatles. The next day, Peter Brown, the band’s management rep, spoke to Michael. 

‘He said perhaps we should lose some of the John and Yoko stuff. When I asked why, he replied, “Put it this way – I’ve had three phone calls saying we should take it out.”’ Some of the footage of Yoko was subsequently cut.

The Beatles made one more album, Abbey Road, but by now John, George and Ringo had signed with manager Allen Klein, while Paul was represented by Lee Eastman, his future wife Linda’s father. On 10 April, 1970, a month before the film’s release, Paul left The Beatles. 

‘But I think it was John who didn’t want to do it any more,’ says Michael.

The film won the 1971 Oscar for Best Original Song Score. In hindsight, would Michael have done anything differently? 

‘Probably not,’ he says. ‘Although I might have used a better mic in the flowerpot.’ 

  • The Beatles: Get Back will be released on 4 September.

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