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“At the back of my mind it wasn’t like that. I just needed to see proof”

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Sir Paul McCartney’s surprising reaction to the Get Back documentary shows the vulnerability of our memories

Photo courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd

Even those of us born some time after The Beatles split know the story of how they fell apart in acrimony. Yet a fascinating interview with Sir Paul McCartney in the Sunday Times discussing the Get Back documentary shed a completely different light on that phase of the band. With it McCartney reminds us of how hostility and dispute can colour how we view events and memory can become unreliable.

Speaking to The Sunday Times’ Jonathan Dean, McCartney was quoted:

“I’ll tell you what is really fabulous about it,” a thrilled McCartney says. “It shows the four of us having a ball.” …

Not the fallings-out?

“Really, yes,” he says. “And there is proof in the footage. Because I definitely bought into the dark side of the Beatles breaking up and thought, ‘God, I’m to blame.’ It’s easy, when the climate is going that way, to think that. But at the back of my mind there was this idea that it wasn’t like that. I just needed to see proof.”

Except of course there were fallings out, and quite significant ones, but perhaps not in the chronology Sir Paul had remembered. Arguments over managers, solo albums and, ultimately, High Court proceedings over the dissolution of the partnership more affectionately known to non-lawyers as The Beatles created incredible rancour.

Perhaps more pertinently, more contemporaneous witnesses took a different view. In his famous January 1971 interview with Rolling Stone, “Lennon Remembers”, an interview given while the legal dispute over the dissolution of The Beatles was at its peak, John Lennon did much to seed the perception of antipathy in the band in his description of exactly the same sessions McCartney now fondly remembers:

I felt sad, you know. Also I felt . . . that film was set-up by Paul for Paul. That is one of the main reasons the Beatles ended. I can’t speak for George, but I pretty damn well know we got fed up of being side-men for Paul.

After Brian [Epstein] died, we collapsed. Paul took over and supposedly led us. But what is leading us, when we went round in circles? We broke up then. That was the disintegration.

Both men surely believed they were telling the truth in interviews 50 years apart, yet the discrepancy is instructive in both the effect of time on memory and how human testimony should be treated. In 1852 the Scottish writer Charles Mackay noted “When men wish to construct or support a theory, how they torture facts into their service!”

Mackay nodded towards what we now call confirmation bias. Writing on that topic in the General Review of Psychology, Ray Nickerson adroitly addressed the challenge: “Philosophers and psychologists alike have observed that people find it easier to believe propositions they would like to be true than propositions they would prefer to be false.”

This can be seen in effect for both men - for Lennon, speaking in the depths of dispute and acrimony, only reflecting the unpleasantness and injustice vindicates the cost and pain of the legal process being followed. He was not alone. In evidence to the High Court in 1971 McCartney asserted that The Beatles had long ceased to be a functioning band, later telling Melodymaker:

“At the time, the Beatles were very strained with each other and it wasn’t a happy time. It said it was a ‘new-phase Beatles album’ and there was nothing further from the truth. That was the last Beatles album and everybody knew it”.

For McCartney in 2021, half a century away from the disputes, and with a great deal of grief and opportunity for reflection passing with it, seeing the contemporaneous footage allowed him to revisit the events outside the perception his experience of the dispute had created of the period.

Evidence and the passage of time

How this relates to the law is perhaps now obvious.

We see clearly how easily allegations can fly that people later reflect on differently. The proceedings in the 1970s and accompanying media battles were not short on criticism from all sides, demonstrating the tendency when dispute arises for the confirmation bias to arise too: a focus on winning the short term fight and only preferring the information that supports your own position.

Most pertinently though, as McCartney himself acknowledges, it shows how an attempt to give evidence on matters at a remove of time becomes increasingly problematic where evidence relies on our recollection of the narrative we wrote for ourselves. We see this both in how bitterly both speak of the recording events within a few years of them happening, and how little McCartney challenged his belief in the truth of that account for the ensuing 50 years up until seeing the evidence to disprove it. This is most stark in the reflection offered to The Sunday Times, “at the back of my mind there was this idea it wasn’t like that”.

Unlike McCartney, today we document thoughts, interactions and reactions digitally in a form far more accessible than relying on a film maker digging up old tapes to jog the memory. Yet our adversarial approach requires us to focus on the things that went wrong and exclude the things that went well, and with it we form intractable views for the purposes of the dispute that don’t stand up to the test of history.

All things pass

As the acrimonious dispute in the ’70s demonstrates vividly, pitting one person’s word against another’s is inherently destructive. Where fragments of evidence exist that speak to a particular narrative it can be easy to manipulate words and infer meaning, particularly communicated by text or email in line with the way in which something has been presented or remembered. With gaps in time that only becomes more dangerous. In a wider context, it is why it is so easy for disputes involving the breakdown of personal or professional relationships to become so destructive as the confirmation bias layers certainty on both sides, with enormous reputation risk built in for both.

We each have the right to narrate our life how we want to, creating our own world, but reputation risk can form in the gap between how a person holds themselves out to be and the observable reality. And peers, the public and the press will seek to correct the record based on available information, which may paint a flawed picture. Unless you attain the celebrity to possess hours of documentary footage, it’s unlikely that the record will be set straight without evidence, transparency and a proactive approach to your objectives.

Seen from 2021 it shows something else too: the insignificance in the long-term of a dispute that at the time clearly felt all-consuming to those involved. It is why with historic matters it is not only important to challenge our recollections and the balance information against the biases that may be in play, but for all disputes to focus on long-term objectives above trying to simply win the short-term battles. To paraphrase one of Lennon and McCartney’s colleagues, all things do pass.

It did not take 50 years to reach that point. Lennon, speaking in 1974 once the dispute had finally settled, provides us a neat conclusion:

“When I slagged off the Beatles thing, it was like divorce pangs and, me being me, it was ‘Blast this! Fuck the past!’ I’ve always had a bit of a mouth and when a thing begins that way you have to live up to it. Then Paul and me had that fight in the pages of MM. It was a period I had to go through. I sort of enjoy the fight at the time -- that’s the funny thing. Now we’ve got it all out and it’s cool. I can see the Beatles from a new point of view.”