Revisit the mother of all music group breakups: The Beatles

A very young Fab Four get down and dirty at a junkyard for this early press photograph . Photo courtesy of Parlophone/Apple Corps Ltd.

By Dave Thompson

It was John’s fault.
No, it was Paul’s.
No, it was George’s.
Or maybe it was Ringo’s.

Or, maybe it was nobody’s fault, and the end of The Beatles, like the end of any other pop group, was just one of those things — four people finally looking around the pressure cooker in which they’d spent the last 10 years of their lives; four people, too, who had grown immeasurably as both musicians and as adults, in the years since they first started, and who finally needed to spread their wings beyond the confines of “the group.”

An easy cameraderie is evident among The Beatles in this early press photo. Promotional Photo

The Beatles weren’t just “a group.” For the generation that had grown with them in the years since their initial emergence, they were so much more than that. Well, we can’t blame the Beatles for that. They just did what any group does — made records, played concerts and talked as knowledgeably (or otherwise) as they could about whatever subjects the chasing journalists might throw at them. And after all that they had achieved, breaking up was probably the only thing left for them to do.

It wasn’t exactly a surprise, either. Rumor had been pushing one or another of the quartet out of the door for the past two years, what with George always grumbling that they never recorded his songs; Paul high-tailing it to the Scottish islands to record low-fi pop songs in the kitchen of his croft; John going all arty on us, and cutting experimental yowling with his new wife, Yoko. And Ringo. It was funny; people always said George was the quiet one, because he had those secretive eyes and he didn’t speak a lot. But go back through all the old newspaper cuttings, or even Google him today, and Ringo was the real mystery man, because he hardly said a word. He was also the first to quit the group, during the fractious sessions for the “White Album.” He came back, of course, but if there ever was a volcano waiting to blow….

Photo courtesy of Parlophone/Apple Corps Ltd.

It was all of them. They all had their flash points, they all had their disagreements, and, most of all, they all had their reasons, and only a few of them were down to the eternal game of Chinese Whispers that has sustained the Beatles biographers of the world since then. Like who said what and sided with whom, and whose lawyer is bigger and badder than the rest… history looks back and slaps Paul on the back; “You called that one well,” it tells him, as it surveys the tangled mess of legal un-niceties that were the legacy of his bandmates’ insistence on recruiting Allen Klein to oversee their affairs. But it also looks back on other events from those last couple of years of Fabs being fab, and everyone made mistakes, because that’s what being young and rich and in the most successful band the world has ever known is all about.

It was Brian Epstein’s fault. If he hadn’t died in summer 1967, it’s very likely that none of the next three years of The Beatles would have played out as they did, and maybe the Beatle fans’ favorite party game, playing “What would the album after “Abbey Road” have sounded like?” would have been answered in late 1970.

Tensions seem evident in this 1969 photo shot during the Abbey Road cover session. Photo by AP Photo/Linda McCartney

“Abbey Road” would not be the last new Beatles album to be released — that honor would fall to the soundtrack to the “Let It Be” movie. But it was the last LP they would ever record together, and if the word “together” hangs awkwardly at the end of any sentence involving the latter-day Beatles, that is because it’s the last word that could describe them.

The sessions themselves, John Lennon later sighed, were “hell… the most miserable sessions on earth.” In the history of The Beatles, added George Harrison, they represented “an all-time low.” Only producer George Martin detected any light at the end of the tunnel. “It was a very happy record,” he insisted. And then he turned the knife. “I guess it was happy because everybody thought it was going to be the last.” “Abbey Road” concludes with a song called “The End.” And it was.

Nobody knew that for sure, of course, any more than they knew that their next photo session at Tittenhurst Park, Lennon’s newly-purchased home in Ascot, would be their last. “It was just a photo session,” Ringo reflected, just as George said of Abbey Road, “I didn’t know… that it was the last Beatles record that we would make.” He acknowledged, “it felt as if we were reaching the end of the line,” but he also insisted, “I don’t recall thinking that was it because there was so much going on all the time.When you pick out all the ‘Beatle days’ and ‘Beatle moments’ or records, there were long gaps in between. If we had a day off from the Beatles, we’d be doing something else. There were plenty of other activities to fill the gaps.”

Behind the scenes, however, Lennon had already made his decision, and was holding off only for as long as it took for Allen Klein to renegotiate the Beatles’ contract with Capitol Records — who would surely not have been so generous with the purse strings if they’d known that they weren’t actually signing a functioning band. In fact, he only told McCartney in the hope of getting him to give up on his latest dream, that the Beatles get back out on the road together and play a bunch of club dates.

“John looked at me in the eye and said ‘Well, I think you’re daft.’ I wasn’t going to tell you until… but I’m leaving the group.”

“I started the band. I disbanded it. It’s as simple as that,” Lennon later reflected, and while he acknowledged that it took “guts” for him to finally make the announcement, “they knew it was for real — unlike Ringo and George’s previous threats to leave.” He felt guilty about it as well… so guilty that he even gave Paul a co-writing credit on “Give Peace A Chance,” rather than handing it to Yoko, who was his real co-writer.

But his bandmates admitted that, after so much indecision and uncertainty, it was good to know where they stood. Nobody doubted that all four would continue to carve careers once The Beatles were behind them; they had, in fact, already set to work on just such a course of action. True, there was the possibility, as McCartney later put it, that the whole thing was “just one of John’s little flings, and that maybe he was going to feel the pinch in a week’s time and say ‘I was only kidding’.”

A week became a month, however, and one month became two, which became three, and “then eventually we realized, ‘Oh well, we’re not in the band any more. That’s it. It’s definitely over’.”

And the cat was still in the bag.

The new record deal had been signed, a new decade had dawned and, so far as the watching, waiting world was concerned, it was Beatle business as usual. The Plastic Ono Band, John and Yoko’s own undertaking, had already been consigned to sideline status by most observers, no more or less relevant than George’s dalliance with Delaney and Bonnie, touring Europe as part of their “and friends” entourage at the end of 1969. “It was very obvious it was finished,” he reflected of The Beatles’ continued existence. “But nobody said ‘Well, that’s it — we’ll never get together again.’ If the newspapers asked us, we were still saying ‘Who knows? Sure, we’re still together.’”

It was McCartney who finally told the world. A squabble with Apple over which album should be released first, his McCartney solo debut or The Beatles’ “Let It Be” was resolved with the Macca platter, and Paul issuing his now-famous statement to the world, a “self interview” inserted within advance copies of the album, and sent to the national press and broadcasters.

The statement, issued late in the evening of April 9, 1970, did not say the Beatles had split, merely that he had left the group. “Business and musical differences” played a part in his decision, but so did the awareness that “I have a better time with my family” than with his bandmates. “I do not know whether the break will be temporary or permanent,” he continued. But “I do not foresee a time when the Lennon and McCartney partnership will be active again in songwriting.”

The following day, PAUL IS QUITTING THE BEATLES was the front page story of the Daily Mirror newspaper.

The reaction to the news was swift and immediate. Distraught fans who began gathering at The Beatles’ Saville Road headquarters in the early hours of the new day were only the beginning; by the time an American film crew arrived on scene, the crowd was so large and voluble that the CBS evening news hypothesized that future historians might “one day, view [this] as a landmark in the decline of the British Empire. The Beatles are breaking up.”

“This is all news to me,” Ringo shrugged.

The Times, for so many years the most level-headed voice in the British press pack, addressed the story the next day, April 11. And the words of columnist William Mann perhaps brought home the sheer finality, not to mention the momentous shock, of McCartney’s declaration.

Himself a long-standing admirer of the Beatles (it was Mann who compared some of their earliest compositions to the work of Gustav Mahler), Mann mourned, “if The Beatles were just another pop group, there would be no cause for alarm in Paul McCartney’s suggestion. The others would simply find another bass guitarist and lead singer, and go on roughly as before.”

The difference was, there could be no other bassist or vocalist to fill his shoes — no, not even the fictional Billy Shears whom sundry conspiracy theorists were convinced had replaced the dead Macca five years before. “The Beatles’ image and influence on pop culture in the last 10 years has depended on four distinctive personalities working well together. They would not be the same without Paul.”

And, in many ways, that was it. There would be all manner of recriminations thrown over the years that followed, but there would be all manner of contradictory statements released as well — such as when John told the BBC in May, “I’ve no idea if the Beatles will work together again or not. I never really have. It was always open. If somebody didn’t feel like it, that’s it.” So far as the future held, “It could be a rebirth or a death. We’ll see what it is. It’ll probably be a rebirth.”

Then he got on with his career, George got on with his, and Ringo got on with his. By the end of the year, The Beatles — individually and collectively — had spent a total of 56 weeks on the Billboard singles chart, including two months at No. 1. In terms of sheer numbers, it was their most successful year since 1965.

Album wise, the figures are even more spectacular. John opened 1970 with a top 10 slot for Live Peace In Toronto and closed it with John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band cruising toward its chart peak of No. 6. McCartney was No. 1 for three weeks. Ringo’s “Sentimental Journey” sold half a million copies, and George’s “All Things Must Pass: would soon become the biggest-selling (six million plus) triple album of all time. It finally topped the chart in the first week of 1971, and remained at No. 1 for seven weeks, almost twice as long as “Let It Be” could muster. Anybody who believed that The Beatles breaking up would bring an end to their indisputable reign clearly needed to think again. Just as anyone who held onto the belief that this was all an awful aberration, and that the moptops would one day be yeah-yeah-yeahing again, was also in for a very long wait.

Because, as Paul said in a handwritten letter to one of the U.K. music papers, “in order to put out of its misery the limping dog of a news story which has been dragging itself across your pages for the past year, my answer to the question ‘Will the Beatles get together again?’ … is no.”

They would not.


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