[…..] In a recording known as “Back to the Commonwealth” or “The Commonwealth Song,” the band blasts the politician by name. “Dirty Enoch Powell said to the immigrants, immigrants you better get back to your commonwealth homes,” McCartney warbles over a skittering beat. Soon enough, however, we learn that “Heath said to Enoch Powell you better get out, or heads are gonna roll.” As the song slides into a rollicking boogie, McCartney recounts his travels around the old British empire, from the West Indies to India and Pakistan, as Lennon chimes in occasionally, in the voice of a prim old English woman, “The Commonwealth is much too common for me.”
“Getting back” was a major theme of these recording sessions. Powell tells the immigrants to get back to Britain’s former colonies, and the party leader tells Powell to get back in line. The Beatles, for their part, intended the new album to be a back-to-basics affair, trading the experimentalism of “Sgt. Pepper” and the “White Album” for the simpler rock they abandoned in the mid-1960s.
The politics of race and immigration, however, played on their minds too. “Get Back” itself went through several distinct iterations before it became the commentary on counterculture that the public heard in 1969. One mumbled verse mentions a “Puerto Rican living in the USA,” and appears to rhyme “Rican” with “Mohican.” Another version, closer in style and tempo to the final recording, refers to people “living in a council flat” – the British equivalent of public housing – where “the candidate for Labour tells them what the plan is, then he tells them where it’s at.”
Who McCartney was actually referring to is difficult to determine from the recording, but the Beatle later insisted that any pejorative racial tone was not intentional. “There were a lot of stories in the newspapers then about Pakistanis crowding out flats – you know, living 16 to a room or whatever,” McCartney said in 1986, one of the rare times he talked about the songs. “If there was any group that was not racist, it was the Beatles. I mean, all our favorite people were always black.”
Then there is the matter of “White Power.” In this recording, Lennon and McCartney free-associated names of popular figures over a blues jam, drifting from Malcolm X and Cassius Clay to the likes of Judy Garland and British pop pianist Russ Conway. The juxtapositions are intriguing: Mary Whitehouse, a British crusader for morals and decency, comes up, as does Dusty Springfield, the legendary soul imitator. The Beatles were up to something when they coupled Richard Nixon and Malcolm X with the incessant refrains of “white power” and “can you dig it?” but it was not something they intended to share with the public. The recording has never seen release. A somewhat similar song, “Dig It,” made it onto the “Let It Be” album, but the racial dimension was missing. Instead, Lennon rambled about the BBC, B.B. King and soccer player Matt Busby.
“Get Back,” for its part, also shed its racial implications on the way to wide release. Instead of a Puerto Rican and a Pakistani, the official version deals with Jo-Jo, who “left his home in Tucson, Arizona, for some California grass,” and a cross-dresser named Sweet Loretta Martin. McCartney advises Jo-Jo to get back to his roots, while warning that Martin will “get it” some day if she keeps up her transgressive ways. The Beatles evidently felt more comfortable addressing counterculture and sexual liberation in the song, rather than risk releasing a recording whose satirical intent could be misconstrued as an anthem of racial backlash.
In fact, the Beatles’ controversial “Get Back” recordings were among the first to find release when rock bootlegging exploded in 1969. The movement was touched off by the release of Bob Dylan’s so-called basement tapes, which emerged in Los Angeles and soon spread throughout the country, with various compilations appearing under names like The Great White Wonder, Troubled Troubadour, and Stealin’. Soon, a Beatles album called Kum Back appeared on the streets of San Francisco, and live bootlegs of Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix and numerous others followed. The profusion of new and unauthorized music helped the record industry push through its long-desired goal – a 1971 law that provided federal copyright for sound recordings for the first time.
Despite the new ban on piracy, “No Pakistanis,” “White Power” and the other songs of the “Get Back” sessions continued to circulate. Collections like Sweet Apple Trax and T’anks for the Mammaries moved through the underground throughout the 1970s, and mp3s of “Back to the Commonwealth” can be found through file-sharing networks today. Bootlegging provided an alternative channel for subversive and potentially controversial music to reach the public, albeit in a limited way. Those who sought it out could hear “No Pakistanis” and evaluate it for themselves, without the song providing a soundtrack for racism or fodder for public debate. Without bootlegging, we would only know the version of the Beatles that John, Paul, George, Ringo and Yoko wanted us to know: the canonical hits and pseudo-bootlegs of the Anthology series.