I don’t consider myself a diehard Beatles fan; I’m probably more just a step or two above the millions of casual listeners who can sing along to Hey Jude and Let it Be and not much else. Like a lot of classic rock bands, I’ve listened to most of their studio albums at least once, a couple of them quite a lot, and certain songs more times than I can list. But I enjoy thinking about their impact on music and music history as much as I do actually listening to their music; the amount of things they pioneered or inspired—the music video, the concept album, psychedelic rock, the boy band craze, the entire heavy metal genre (yes, I’m being serious, go look up Helter Skelter beyond just the Charles Manson stuff)—really defies belief for a band that wasn’t even active for an entire decade. You could say I find them almost more fascinating than entertaining.
With that in mind, it’s only fitting that I find my favorite song of theirs both entertaining and fascinating—entertaining because it’s got some of my favorite guitarwork and vocals of anything in that area of classic rock, and fascinating because I’ve spent a long time trying to figure out what it actually means, both in and of itself and in context with its particularly unique position in their canon.
Get Back, though intended to front its own album, became the last song on Let it Be, the last studio album that the Beatles released as a band (yes, there have been a billion more since, with unreleased material and live material and remixes and every piece of moneymaking detritus the music industry could find, but that was the last one released before they actually broke up.) After the music cuts, a brief snippet of dialogue plays: John Lennon, at a performance, saying, “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we passed the audition.” That in itself, on the final song the Beatles released as a band, has a bit of a poetic touch. But it’s more than that—it’s the song itself: what it means, what it doesn’t mean, what they wanted it to mean, and how that all interacts in the court of public opinion.
Or, in other words, what the hell is this song—this coincidental farewell song—actually trying to say?
For what it’s worth, we know why Get Back was written and what McCartney originally wanted it to mean—the Beatles wanted to satirize increasingly anti-immigrant attitudes in Europe, and wrote a song that they thought parodied that attitude about as obviously as possible. As they put it, “get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged.”
I should add a caveat. I don’t think the satire works. From just listening, I never got the vibe that Get Back was a parody in any way, shape, or form, and even after reading McCartney’s statements, I don’t entirely see it. It’s too short for much conceptual development, and its brief narratives about its two main characters are bookended by a chorus that sounds—to my ears—honestly quite earnest. Whether we’re supposed to understand that the Beatles are playing characters is up to interpretation, though I’d guess that was their intention. After all, we have history to tell us that the Beatles wouldn’t have been the type of band to write a reactionary song; in fact, it tells us the exact opposite: Get Back is a satire of reactionary ideas and attitudes.
But I’m still not convinced, not only because of how earnest I think the chorus sounds, but because of the anecdote that goes along with the song’s recording. According to Lennon, whenever McCartney sang that chorus, he would look over at Yoko Ono—the woman who he thought had stolen his best friend and fractured his band.
“Get back to where you once belonged.”
The issue with Get Back’s brand of intended satire is that it generalizes a particularly specific issue into one, massive, overarching emotion—the hatred of change, the desire for a comfortable status quo, in essence the basis of all reactionary attitudes.
The term “reactionary” is thrown around so often in news and online conversation that its actual definition has become a bit obscured; though it’s transformed into shorthand for anything far-right or neoconservative, it actually refers to anyone with political views predicated on returning to a previous status quo. Yes, that attitude is presently the one championed by conservative activists and causes (and not one, full disclaimer, that I politically agree with), but when we generalize it like McCartney and the Beatles did in Get Back, it becomes something more than just a political ideology.
Humans as a species are averse to change. We like status quos, at least in certain parts of our lives. We like our relationships to be consistent, our troubles surmountable and at least a bit predictable. We need some of the future to fulfill our expectations—whatever they may be—or we end up feeling lost and confused and alone. Our expectations define a deceptively large amount of who we are and how we behave in any given moment.
So when change happens, it fucks us up. Hopefully that’s only temporary—hopefully we’ll be able to recalibrate and formulate a new status quo, but in that brief span of time before we manage to make that mental shift, we all become a bit reactionary. For a moment, we all hate change. And perhaps in that moment, we want to look our lives straight in the eye and demand, “get back to where you once belonged.”
This is why I’ve always found Get Back‘s status as the closing song on their final album so compelling. The closest they came to saying farewell as a band—as one of the most influential bands in rock history—was a song that couldn’t help but wish for a return to a comfortable place, a status quo. They tried to be political, but somewhere along the line, some actual emotion seeped into their songwriting, or into their performance, or just into the song itself, to the point where Get Back failed as satire but emerged as something much more universal—something more unabashedly (and yes, perhaps unpleasantly) human than anything they’d ever produced.
It’s a simple idea—that inside our own lives, in our own spheres of being, everyone is a bit reactionary. But the simplest ideas can be devilishly difficult to express, and our visceral reaction to change is not one we neccesarily like acknowledge. And Get Back not just vocalizes that point, but it sounds it too: Lennon’s guitar is angry, enraged, frustrated; the drums and rhythm are simple but relentless; the vocals raw and honest. Even after reading its analyses, and its alternate versions, and hearing McCartney address the conditions of its writing, it’s downright impossible for me to hear all of that as completely insincere.
And for me, that paradox encapsulates the power of this song. My favorite part of the creative process—a process so easy to hijack with concepts and ideas and ideology and didacticisms—is the unintended interpretation, those little subconscious hints that writers and musicians and artists leave in their works that open up a whole new avenue of understanding. It’s that phenomenon that allows me to call Get Back a reactionary song, and that phenomenon that, to me, makes it an incredibly human piece of art. Because it’s only when we cut through to the subconscious, to the accidental implications and unintended consequences, that we can truly derive how an artist, or a musician, or a writer thinks about themselves, and about their work, and about life as a whole. It’s only then that that legendary quality of “meaning”—long sought for and rarely ever found—feels like it actually carries some weight.
Or to put it simply, it’s only in that moment—that guitar shredding, that voice pleading, “get back to where you once belonged”—that something constructed and artificial becomes irrecovably, undeniably human.