Rob Sheffield on the Beatles' Solo Wilderness Years

In an excerpt from his new book 'Dreaming the Beatles,' the author looks back at the ups and downs of the former Fab Four adrift in the Seventies

Read an exclusive advance excerpt from Rob Sheffield's new book 'Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World.' Credit: Alvan Meyerowitz/Getty

Rob Sheffield's new book Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World is a celebration of the band, from the longtime Rolling Stone columnist. It tells the weird saga of how four lads from Liverpool became the world's biggest pop group, then broke up – yet somehow just kept getting bigger. Dreaming the Beatles follows the ballad of John, Paul, George and Ringo, from their early days to their Sixties peaks to their afterlife as a cultural obsession. In this chapter, Sheffield looks at the Seventies solo wilderness years – when the four ex-Beatles thought the dream was over, only to find the world kept right on dreaming the Beatles.

Few sounds can traumatize a fan's ear quite like George Harrison singing "In My Life," on his 1974 tour. It should have been a warning sign when he began his first solo tour with the announcement, "Having played with other musicians, I don't think the Beatles were that good." Or when he said, "The biggest break in my career was getting into the Beatles in 1963. In retrospect, the biggest break since then was getting out of them." But who wanted to notice warning signs? People were looking for any glimmer of hope. As Scott Miller of the band Game Theory helpfully wrote, explaining the 1970s power-pop of artists like Badfinger and Todd Rundgren, the Beatles seemed more over than they do now, further away than they'd ever seem again. Billy Joel sang on Turnstiles about a depressed woman who sits around asking why the Beatles can't get back together, and in the Seventies, many people were asking that.

You can hear that melancholy in the bootlegs from George Harrison's live shows – his first proper tour since they waved good night at Candlestick Park in 1966. In the years after the breakup, he looked like the one who had shit figured out. While John and Paul bickered, he serenely scored Number One hits about Krishna ("Give Me Love" even more exquisite than "My Sweet Lord") and organized the concerts for Bangladesh. He also won custody of Dylan in the Beatle divorce, which had to be galling for the others. Now he was hitting the road for two months, with a band of pedigreed pros, Billy Preston on organ and Ravi Shankar's orchestra. Unfortunately, he wasn't up to it, physically or emotionally. His voice was shot from brandy and cocaine. He kept fiddling with the lyrics, singing things like "while my guitar gently smiles" and "something in the way she mooooves it." But the most painful moment had to be when he sang "In My Life," only to revise the words: "In my life, I love God more."

Each night's "In My Life" is horrifying in its own way – slow, sludgy, half-loud reggae, jazzy marimba, horns, the world's smarmiest version of the Saturday Night Live goodnight theme. It's unrecognizable for the first minute, until George begins singing, and you can hear the crowd wake up – hey, this one. Suddenly there's an audience in the room. The excitement is electric – it ripples through the air. It lasts for a couple of lines, and then there's an audible chill. He can't sing it. His pipes choke on the low notes ("though some," "compares") or high notes ("not for better," "never lose affection," "lovers and friends"). For the big climax, he rasps, "I love God more." It's like he summoned up an intimate memory for the fans just to tell them it doesn't mean shit to him.

As the tour rolls on, his vocals get wheezier – by the Toronto gig on December 6, he can barely pronounce "places" or "remember" in the first line. He toys with the words – now it's "people and things I can't recall," then it's "people and things that came and went." He gets cheers when he introduces Billy Preston to play the organ solo. He ends with a benediction: "God bless John, Paul and Ringo, and all the ex-ex-ex-ex-exes." (Some nights it's "ex-ex-exes," other nights it's just "ex-wives." In Seattle, he says, "That was a personal, really, for John Lennon, who wrote that one, because I really love him. He's all right, he's a lumberjack.") It would be one thing if George sounded cynical or dismissive, but he's really trying – this song matters to him. He's coming to terms with his history, but for the renunciation scene to work, he has to perform "In My Life" semicredibly, or even semicompetently, and at the moment it's beyond his ability. All he can do is stand onstage with a sign around his neck saying "This is George Harrison, and I'm about to sing a Lennon-McCartney song, about as well as any random audience member could, even the slob next to you who passed out in a Boone's Farm puddle halfway through 'For You Blue.'"

Every night, he turned over stage time to Preston (who sang his own solo hits) and Shankar (who took over for long orchestral interludes). He complained bitterly about the audience, who got restless during the Shankar sets, and gave stern antidrug lectures. "I didn't force you or anybody at gunpoint to come to see me," he snapped in one press conference. "And I don't care if nobody comes to see me, nobody ever buys another record of me. I don't give a shit." It was the first night of the tour.

It was a terrible time to be George. Patti finally left him for Clapton, a messy split in public. ("In public" doesn't cover it – there's public and then there's "Layla.") He'd sought consolation by having an affair with (of all people) (really, of all people, instead of the billions of other people on earth) Ringo's wife, Maureen. The drugs didn't help his mood swings or voice. To make it all more of a nightmare, the tour was dogged by Allen Klein's process servers. His new album was Dark Horse (or as Robert Christgau waggishly retitled it, Hoarse Dork), with the instrumental theme "Hari's on Tour" and a miserable version of the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love" that featured both Clapton and Patti. His religious beliefs did not seem to comfort him. A year earlier, he sang about feeling trapped on Earth, but with a kind word for old friends: "Met them all in the material world / John and Paul here in the material world." Now even that spirit seemed out of reach.

When the tour reached New York, George asked John to join him onstage at Madison Square Garden. John had done it for Elton the week before, so he couldn't refuse – but it wasn't a corker of a time to be John, either, with his mind and marriage in tatters. Since Paul was in town, the three set up a meeting at the Plaza to sign legal documents – the papers formally dissolving the Beatles. But John didn't show. As he explained, "My astrologer told me it wasn't the right day." Instead, he had balloons delivered. George yelled into the phone, "Take those fucking shades off and come over here, you!" Needless to say, John didn't make it onstage that night. He attended the end-of-tour party, along with Paul and Linda. The next day, he flew to Disney World to spend Christmas in the company of his latest temporary father figure, a mobster associated with the Genovese crime family (and son Julian, and new girlfriend May Pang). He ended up signing the dissolution papers at Disney's Polynesian Village, which made as much sense as any other locale. Everybody had a hard year.

George didn't tour again for seventeen years, until a brief 1991 Japan stint with (who else?) Clapton. His 1975 album Extra Texture had a bitter song about the Dark Horse Tour, "This Guitar (Can't Keep from Crying)," where he complained that the audience and press missed the point, which was that he needed love. People really did love George and wanted him to be happy, yet the sound of a happy George was a sound he held back, because he thought it was beneath them as well as him. I listen to a song like "Give Me Love," and there's a kindly strength behind his wah-wah, as if he's one hippie dad willing to live his ideals and shepherd this world he feels so sorry for. Whatever sanctimony you might hear in this song (I don't hear any myself) there is no phoniness and no stinginess in the peace he wishes upon the world. No ego trip, either – he's just a musician doing his job, and a believer pestering his god to put in a word for the rest of us. That's why the parenthetical subtitle is all wrong – "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)" seems greedy, in a way that doesn't suit the modest beauty of the music.

"Give Me Love" was a hit around the same time as Cat Stevens's "Morning Has Broken," a superficially similar hippiedad prayer, yet I violently hated "Morning Has Broken," just hated it, despised the choked sobs and prissy whispers, still hate it, because it sounded to my ears (and might still sound, if I had the stomach to investigate) like a phony version of what "Give Me Love" does for real. All four Beatles were surrogate dads to Seventies kids, which was partly why we fantasized about them so much, and if George was the dad who's perpetually disappointed in you, "Give Me Love" is a song that did and still does make me fantasize about what a world fathered and raised by George might look like. Yet it's the kind of song George distrusted – a song that could get people's hopes up, making promises he was scared he couldn't keep.

The Seventies were difficult. It's curious how many obscure artifacts the Beatles created in the wilderness years. Did you know John directed a movie? He directed several, actually. John was one of the world's most famous people when he made a film called Self Portrait, which is nothing but a fifteen-minute close-up of his semierect penis. "My prick, that's all you saw for a long time," John said, summarizing the plot. "The idea was for it to slowly rise and fall – but it didn't." It seems strange to think that John made a movie starring his penis, yet the only reason anyone remembers is Yoko complaining, "The critics won't touch it."

That was something all four ex-Beatles had in common. They were surprised it was so much work. Didn't this used to be simple? Didn't "I hope we passed the audition" used to be a joke? They had to invent the "solo career" as they went along, sweating harder for slighter results, no longer able to blame their failures on one another. McCartney kept recording prolifically and at first so did the others, but they found it a challenge without him spurring them on. And since it wasn't as pressing as other personal challenges they faced, music stopped being a priority. Writing new songs must have felt like Father McKenzie darning his socks in the night when there's nobody there. They felt the pain of Fred Kaps – the magician who had to follow them on The Ed Sullivan Show. As a great man sang, it don't come easy.

The Beatles suffered their Seventies ups and downs on separate schedules, making music that resisted fans' best efforts to turn these records into either hits or cult items (though the fans often turned the trick anyhow). As a result, the solo music remains a vast and mangy mess. They made acclaimed albums (John's Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, Paul's Band on the Run and Ram, George's All Things Must Pass) and others just a notch or two below (John's Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey, Paul's Venus and Mars and Chaos and Creation, George's Material World, and can't forget Ringo). Every fan would nominate a few other pet faves. (I'll grant you the Traveling Wilburys if you'll grant me Wings' Back to the Egg, and can I get an amen for Beaucoups of Blues?) Several years into the twenty-first century, the rock world collectively decided Paul's 1980 nonhit "Temporary Secretary" was a masterpiece, and it says something that a song like that could remain hidden so long before turning into a cult item.

In a heart-shredder scene from Richard Linklater's Boyhood, divorced dad Ethan Hawke makes a mixtape for his son, culling the best songs from the solo records into The Black Album, to explain how divorce works and how love will tear you apart. "Basically I've put the band back together for you," Ethan Hawke tells his son. "They were just twenty-five-year-old boys with a gaggle of babes outside their hotel room door and as much champagne as a young lad could stand. How did they set their minds to such substantive artistic goals? They did it because they were in pain. They knew that love does not last. They knew it as extremely young men."

Part of the poignance is that every fan would compile a different Black Album. Mine would be different from Ethan Hawke's, because I wouldn't let "Mull of Kintyre" anywhere near it, but like his, mine would be a labor of lifelong love. I'd have too much John ("Oh Yoko!," "I'm Steppin' Out," "Oh My Love," "New York City," "Nobody Told Me") and too much Paul ("Jet," "Friends to Go," "Flaming Pie," "Too Many People," "We Got Married," "Simple as That," "Hi, Hi, Hi," "You Gave Me the Answer"). Probably also too much George. How much solo Ringo do you need? I happen to have exorbitant Ringo needs. His last album had the wonderful "Rory and the Hurricanes," a landmark because after decades of songs about being a Beatle, Ringo devoted a song to his second-most-famous band. Part of Beatles fandom is living with these fragments and dreaming up ways to fit them together – even though their brokenness is what gives them meaning.

The Beatles couldn't cut it as Seventies celebrities. They flunked the course of obligatory stupid rock-star misbehavior. Sure, there's John's L.A. "Lost Weekend" binge with Harry Nilsson, the night he drank too many Brandy Alexanders and got thrown out of the Troubadour with a tampon on his head. Yet this story is famous only because (1) it happened to a Beatle, and (2) it happened once. It would have been a slow night for John Bonham or Keith Moon or Steven Tyler. (Nobody was even wearing the tampon at the time.) The Stones or Zeppelin or Rod were gathering material, so every night they spent out on the tiles meant another "Star Star" or "Hot Legs" or "The Wanton Song." But the former Beatles, like Dylan, looked out of place in the fleshpots, for better or worse; nobody wanted to hear them sing about groupies, and it's a tribute to their integrity they didn't try, though Ringo's "You're Sixteen" remains a career peak, and one of the most morally unacceptable Number One hits of the rock era.

The Beatles broke up while they were still young, so they did not share a decline phase together. There are no bad Seventies collective Beatles albums, the way there are bad Seventies Stones and Dylan and Neil Young albums. That's a loss, in a way. They didn't pad out their catalog with the flawed oddities fans cherish later. They never made an "is this sloppy Seventies burnout crap or is it great?" album like Tonight's the Night or Desire or Black and Blue. They never made an "is this overproduced Eighties synth crap or is it great?" album like Trans or Infidels or Undercover. They never did a divorce saga like Blood on the Tracks or Some Girls or On the Beach. They never tried a cheese-pop sellout move as comical as "She Was Hot" or "Tight Connection to My Heart" or "Kinda Fonda Wanda." They never did a grizzled resurgence like Ragged Glory or Tattoo You or Love and Theft. We'll never know what it would have been like to see a new Beatle album in the racks – pastel suits on the cover, recorded in the Bahamas – and think, "Good Lord, another one?" We missed out on a lot.

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