How a rediscovered footage of The Beatles proved the 'holy grail' for fans

'The Beatles: Get Back', a new documentary series on one of the greatest bands in music history, is based on recordings from 1969

The Beatles – Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison – in their famous last concert on the roof of their Apple Corps headquarters in Savile Row, London, in 1969. Photo: Apple Corps

For a band that broke up five decades ago, The Beatles are still remarkably productive.

Right now, the remaining members of the Fab Four, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, can be found on the production credits of The Beatles: Get Back, a blockbuster new Disney+ documentary culled from some infamous lost Beatles tapes. Lots and lots of tapes, in fact.

Director Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame shared a making-of clip last year, revealing a whole roomful of film canisters that he was ploughing through.

That may sound a grind, but for Beatles obsessives, getting access to those tapes would be the culmination of an epic, Rings-like quest.

“The January '69 recordings are definitely the biggest holy grail out there,” says Aaron Krerowicz, arguably America’s most dedicated Beatles lecturer, author, and fan. “I have long wondered why the powers that be weren't marketing the stuff like crazy because there's such demand for it.”

That footage was originally captured for a 1970 documentary, Let it Be, about the recording of the similarly titled Beatles album. But only a fraction was used in that rather downbeat film.

“It's not a happy time for this band,” says Krerowicz. “I've heard that Peter Jackson's goal was to change the view of it. The public image is of these four guys bickering. But from what I've heard [of the original tapes], that's pretty accurate.”

It has been an interesting year for the re-emergence of significant music footage.

Belatedly back in the spotlight this summer was the huge but strangely forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival, also from 1969, featuring the likes of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and BB King.

Those tapes reappeared after 50 years in a basement and became one of 2021’s most acclaimed documentaries, Summer of Soul.

Also rediscovered in late November was an evocative moment from Bruce Springsteen’s live heyday – footage from a famous 1979 fundraising gig, which Springsteen manager/producer Jon Landau calls the “greatest document of that era we will ever have".

That old 16-millimetre footage has now been remastered as a full-length concert film: The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts.

The new Beatles series is a particularly epic undertaking, though: three movie-length documentaries, which embed the viewer in those almost mythical sessions, now newly restored and recoloured.

There are glorious revelations – the sheer genius of classic songs being conjured from thin air, notably Get Back, but also the moody drudgery. And these are just edited highlights.

Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon in a scene from the nearly 8-hour Peter Jackson-produced documentary 'Get Back'. Photo: Disney+

Krerowicz has heard much of the original audio, which was leaked years ago on a series of bootleg CDs.

“It's 83 discs long, it has all 97 hours,” he says. “It's not cheap, a couple of hundred bucks. And you’ve got to be a real fan because it is not fun.”

The full-time Beatles scholar has presented whole lectures on those tapes, and some of that darker material did make Jackson’s friendlier cut: George Harrison’s song All Things Must Pass being mocked, then him quitting, and the band limping on without him. There are some painfully ramshackle recording sessions here.

You can understand why the band preferred those tapes to stay shelved for so long, but acquiring the series offers a whole new world of subscribers for Disney + (Krerowicz admitted that “I’ll probably have to” sign up now), which shows the lure of lost footage.

Dusty old tapes can be surprisingly lucrative, if they include film that broadcasters will pay to screen.

Paul Fairweather is the co-founder of Omega Auctions, a UK music-rarities specialist, the sales from which often make headlines. In late November it sold George Harrison’s childhood home. But old tapes are attractive too.

“There are all different types of people who will buy these things,” Fairweather says, from collectors to investors. “If you own the copyright, it adds at least a zero on to what the value could be.”

Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison, and foreground from left, Yoko Ono and John Lennon in a scene from 'Get Back'. Photo: Disney+

Before the digital revolution, storing film took space and effort, so tapes would often be wiped or destroyed. The rare survivors often have a story attached.

One item in Omega’s latest auction was only saved because a worker’s daughter was a fan.

“Pathe did a film about the Beatles in '63, but then it was essentially stored away, lost,” he says. “Somebody whose father works for Pathe, they saved it from a [rubbish] skip.”

Sometimes lost tapes become an unexpected, posthumous gift. Fairweather recently sold audio tapes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono from the 1960s, which were only discovered by the interviewer’s children.

Their father “never actually managed to do anything with them,” he says. “So they were pretty much unheard interviews, and they sold for £30,000 [$39,790].”

Are there tapes still out there, that fans dream of finding? One of Paul McCartney’s more experimental mid-'60s recordings, known as Carnival of Light, is legendary but reportedly less popular with the other Beatles’ rights holders.

Paul McCartney and Mary McCartney attend a preview of the film in London. Getty Images

“Paul wants to release this,” says Krerowicz, who wrote a book about that subject, The Beatles and the Avant Garde. “But nobody else does.”

Fairweather mentions a tape of Lennon and McCartney’s pre-Beatles band, The Quarrymen.

“There's only one known recording out there, which Paul McCartney reportedly bought from one of the Quarrymen members," he says. "People have talked about if that came to auction: a quarter million, half a million, even £1 million.”

Not that this is just a Beatles phenomenon. Elvis Presley’s golf buggy is another notable lot in Omega’s latest auction, and classic rockers tend to excite collectors.

“Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones,” Fairweather says. “Hendrix is big.”

Modern stars attract interest, too. You might assume that amateur footage would be everywhere, as most phones shoot decent video now. But early recordings are still in demand. Take Ed Sheeran.

“Somebody who went to school with him had a DVD of the school play, doing Grease,” recalls the auctioneer. “We sold that for £5,000.”

But the Fab Four are still “top of the tree", says Fairweather, who can see the enduring appeal first-hand.

“My dad was going to The Cavern,” he says. “Now my daughter likes them. She’s 11.” Their songs – and their outtakes, interviews, even childhood homes – never get old.

“The best part about studying Beatles music,” says Krerowicz, “is no matter how much you know about it, no matter how much you've listened, how much you've read, there is always more to find.”

The quest continues.

The Beatles: Get Back is streaming on Disney+ now

Updated: December 9th 2021, 8:14 AM