8 Things about Creativity that The Beatles Reaffirmed for Me
Over the last few weeks I’ve been slowly making my way through The Beatles: Get Back, Peter Jackson’s epic 7-hour Disney+ documentary, made from 60 hours of beautifully restored, fly-on-the-wall footage originally shot in 1969.
Regardless of whether you’re a fan of the music – and putting the drama, politics and social history aside – it offers an unparalleled immersive window into the creative process of one of the world’s most successful bands as they write, rehearse and record new material.
While there’s a lot to take in, here are eight key points about creativity that were reaffirmed for me by the film.
1 Get the environment right
Don’t be afraid to go somewhere else entirely if the creativity isn’t flowing. Get Back begins with The Beatles working on initial ideas on a huge set they rented in Twickenham Studios since the original intention was to perform new songs there as part of a TV special. However, it’s clear after a while that the space just isn’t working (Ringo later refers to it as “too big”) and so partway through filming the whole production relocates to Apple Music HQ in London’s Saville Row. Here the group immediately seem more comfortable making music. Never underestimate the importance of place in what you produce.
2 Find a way to document ideas
There’s one sequence* during the seven-odd hours of footage where Lennon and McCartney get into a tangle over the correct order of parts in a new song; finally agreeing things would be easier if they wrote it all down. It may hark back to the duo’s early songwriting days when they didn’t write things down on purpose: the thinking was that if they couldn’t remember a new song the next day then it wasn’t memorable enough to be a hit. But what you do notice is that as soon as they begin recording songs onto tape at Apple and listening back to them, they get a more concrete sense of what they’ve created, what’s working and what isn’t. Finding a way to document ideas or record creative progress – whatever form it takes – makes it much easier to improve.
*Ironically I can’t recall which song this was as I didn’t write it down myself…
3 Everyone feels intimidated sometimes
A period of success can result in creative egos that get in the way, so it’s reassuring to hear a multi-million-selling group talk about other musicians they consider more talented than they are, as well as bands of the time with better songs than theirs. At one point Peter Sellers turns up (working on a movie project with Ringo), and the members of the biggest band on the planet don’t seem to know how to connect with a fellow celeb; leaving him to awkwardly wander off after a while. My take home was that even those considered at the very top of their creative game are subject to the same insecurities as everyone else.
4 Make room for the mundane
In today’s era of on-demand global entertainment choices it’s easy to forget that, here in the UK, the collective evenings of the nation were once shaped by the schedule of just three television channels. And the Fab Four were no exception. For all their superstar friends and party invitations, we still hear them come into their workplace in the morning and discuss what was on TV the night before. “Did you see that sci-fi on BBC 2 last night?” asks George before going into a lengthy description of the plot. But in the ordinary they still find inspiration to create the exceptional: Harrison arrives one day with the beginnings of a song called I, Me, Mine with a melody inspired by the incidental music from a film he’d watched the previous evening, played by an Austrian brass band.
5 Know when to stop
Tempting as it can be to smash through a project, especially when you’re on a roll or, more often than not, up against a serious deadline, it’s just as important to take time out. Yes, a break can be about tired people having a rest, but there’s also the need for creative types to ‘refill the well’ with other activities and time away. Even when faced with a seemingly impossible live performance deadline the band draw a line at working every day of the week. By insisting “I’m happy to work Saturday but not Sunday too; you need at least one day” McCartney is protecting his bandmates and the quality of their music.
6 But also, never stop
We see McCartney playing the same basic riff over and over again while Ringo listens and yawns. Other parts are added as it’s revisited during the sessions and the riff magically grows into the title track Get Back. As well as illustrating McCartney’s work ethic, it’s fascinating to see one of The Beatles’ creative techniques firsthand: rather than waiting for the right lyrics to magically appear, fully formed, or halting the process they preserve momentum by singing headlines from the newspapers lying around or even gibberish. At another point Lennon helpfully suggests to a stuck Harrison “just sing cauliflower”.
7 Take time to play
For many years 1969 was seen as a fractious period in Beatles history that led to their demise, but Peter Jackson’s cut reveals a lighter side to events. Even among the boredom, obvious frustrations and, at one point, Harrison actually quitting the band, there is evidence of much fun being had. Whether it’s singing entire songs in comedy voices, Lennon’s quips or McCartney’s young daughter imitating Yoko Ono screaming into a mic, the ability to laugh together remains a critical part of being in any creative team.
8 Let things evolve
Uncertainty is ok and you may end up in a completely different place than you envisaged. The early song idea we hear Lennon strumming in the sessions with the lyrics ‘On the road to Marrakesh’ eventually becomes Jealous Guy from his 1971 solo album Imagine. Even the filming itself originally began with the intention of creating a TV special and concert before it evolved into a documentary film and rooftop concert. And while you choose where to stop, nothing creative is ever truly ‘finished’, as Harrison says about the Beatles songs – when we play them live, we change them…
Of course, everyone will take something different from finding the time to watch Get Back. At the very least you’ll gain a new perspective on the music that these people, still in their twenties, created over 50 years ago and how, when they really needed to, they came together.
Image generated using artificial intelligence at Wombo.Art using ‘The Beatles and Creativity’ as a prompt