Alex Sayf Cummings in Salon:
Imagine that a popular American rock band – say, the Black Keys – wrote a song about immigrants. There are too many of them, the lyrics suggest, and they take jobs away from native-born workers. The chorus recommends that they go back to their countries of origin, where they really belong. Though the song was meant to satirize xenophobia, “No Mexicans” could be easily interpreted as an anthem of racism.
This was the situation that the Beatles faced in 1969, when they first concocted the song that would become “Get Back.” Better known as a playful take on counterculture, starring the gender-bending Sweet Loretta Martin and the grass-smoking Jo-Jo, the song originally dealt with South Asian immigration to the United Kingdom. The strange story of “Get Back,” its politics, and its bootlegs tells us much about the limits of what musicians, even hugely popular and politically engaged ones, can say in popular music — and what’s at stake in the battle over file-sharing and free culture today.
An early version of the song, known to bootleggers as “No Pakistanis,” began with Paul McCartney muttering, “Don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs.” Many Americans have heard similar complaints, having listened to the anti-immigrant invective of Joe Arpaio and Tom Tancredo for years. Brits are also familiar with such rhetoric, seeing the British Nationalist Party ride their slogan of “British jobs for British workers” to prominence in the last decade.
Many who hear the song today are startled to hear this sort of cranky posturing from the Beatles, the lovable moptops who told us that “All You Need Is Love.” Bootleg versions of “No Pakistanis” have even won the hearts of neo-Nazi groups like Stormfront, who believe that the Beatles were really on the side of the white man’s cause all along. (The white supremacist band Battlecry even recorded its own clueless version of the tune.) If released today, a similar song would likely ignite controversy, regardless of the songwriter’s intentions.