The Divisive Interpretations of “Get Back” by The Beatles and Why John Lennon Took It as a Dig at Yoko Ono

The Beatles’ “Get Back” is one of the most commercially sensible rock tracks of their later years, but it came at the price of divisive public interpretation. Was Paul McCartney secretly racist and hiding it behind a blues riff?

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Alternatively, could the band’s No. 1 hit actually be a not-so-subtle dig at John Lennon’s partner, Yoko Ono? If you were to ask McCartney himself, he might suggest either theory takes itself a little bit too seriously.

The Satirical Foundation of The Beatles’ “Get Back”

When Paul McCartney first introduced “Get Back” to the band during their 1969 Twickenham rehearsals for ‘Let It Be,’ the song was a far cry from the single they would release later that spring. The only solid element of the track was its distinct hook: Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged. McCartney worked through various half-formed verses in the multiple track demos the band recorded, some of which proved to be highly controversial. 

One such lyric was on a demo that listeners nicknamed the “No Pakistani” version. In it, McCartney sings: Meanwhile back at home, too many Pakistanis living in a council flat. Candidate Macmillan, tell us what your plan is. Won’t you tell us where you’re at? At first blush, some listeners took this as a sign of McCartney’s (and, more generally, the Beatles’) xenophobia toward immigrants. As he later explained in a 1986 Rolling Stone interview, he intended the commentary to be satirical, not a literal grievance against immigrants in the U.K.

“There were a couple of verses to “Get Back” which were actually not racist at all. They were anti-racist,” he explained. “There were a lot of stories in the newspapers then about Pakistanis crowding out flats—you know, living sixteen to a room or whatever. So, in one of the verses of “Get Back,” which we were making up on the set of ‘Let It Be,’ one of the outtakes has something about “too many Pakistanis living in a council flat.” Which to me was actually talking out against overcrowding for Pakistanis.”

John Lennon Thought “Get Back” Might Be About Yoko Ono

For John Lennon, the potential controversy surrounding “Get Back” was far more personal. In a 1980 interview with Playboy, the ex-Beatle speculated that the catchy hook to their late ‘60s rock tune was about Lennon’s partner, Yoko Ono. “I’ve always thought there was this underlying thing about Yoko in there,” he mused. “You know, ‘Get back to where you once belonged.’ Every time he sang the line in the studio, he’d look at Yoko.” 

“Maybe he’ll say I’m paranoid,” Lennon continued. “You know, he can say, ‘I’m a normal family man. Those two are freaks.’ That’ll leave him a chance to say that one.” A lofty accusation but hardly the worst thing he’d ever said about McCartney, Lennon’s assumptions were a stark reminder of the deep interpersonal conflict within the band during the Twickenham studio sessions, as documented in the Beatles’ Get Back documentary

McCartney, for his part, has always held firm to the idea that the song is satirical at best but otherwise purposefully vague and fictitious. He’s denounced the idea that the characters in the song (like Jo Jo, who was a man who thought he was a loner, but he knew it couldn’t last) were based on any real person. “Many people have since claimed to be the Jo Jo, and they’re not, let me put that straight,” McCartney said in Barry Miles’ Many Years From Now. “I had no particular person in mind, again, it was a fictional character, half man, half woman, all very ambiguous. I often left things ambiguous; I like doing that in my songs.”

Photo by Michael Webb/Keystone/Getty Images

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