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Why The Beatles Broke Up

The inside story of the forces that tore apart the world's greatest group

September 3, 2009
the beatles
The Beatles on the cover of 'Rolling Stone.'
Apple Corps Ltd. 2009

It was a cold January in 1969, and the Beatles were seated on a vast, even colder, soundstage at London's Twickenham Film Studios, in the company of the last people in the world they wanted to be with: the Beatles. They had been trying for days to write and rehearse new material for a scheduled upcoming live show – their first since August 1966 – but the task wasn't going well. The only one among them who had any sense of urgency was Paul McCartney. "I don't see why any of you, if you're not interested, got yourselves into this," he said to the other Beatles. "What's it for? It can't be for the money. Why are you here? I'm here because I want to do a show, but I don't see an awful lot of support."

Paul looked at his bandmates, his friends of many years – John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr – and they looked back at him with no expression. Moments later he said, "There's only two choices: We're gonna do it or we're not gonna do it, and I want a decision. Because I'm not interested in spending my fucking days farting around here, while everyone makes up their mind whether they want to do it or not."

Paul waited, but he got no response. Again, the other Beatles just stared back.

It was far from the worst moment they would go through in those days. The Beatles in their death throes were one of the most mysterious and complicated end-of-romance tales of the 20th century, as well as the most dispiriting. The Beatles hadn't just made music – they had made their times, as surely as any political force, and more beneficently than most. Why, then, did the Beatles walk away? There were many who blamed the Beatles' end on the machinations of Yoko Ono, the legendary love of John Lennon's life, and on the deviousness of Allen Klein, the band's new manager who was also a favorite of Lennon's, but whom McCartney could not abide. But it wasn't that simple.

"I don't think you could have broken up four very strong people like them," Ono said later, "even if you tried. So there must have been something that happened within them – not an outside force at all." Indeed, the true causes were much closer at hand. They had been there for a long time, in a history as full of hurts as it was of transcendence.

These sessions, for what would become both the film and album Let It Be, had started from an inspired place, but there was too much going wrong by the time McCartney issued his plea. For the last year, the Beatles' partnership had been fraying. The long friendship of John and Paul, in particular, was undergoing volatile change. Lennon, the band's founder, had in some ways acquiesced leadership of the band; more important, he was beginning to feel he no longer wanted to be confined by the Beatles, whereas McCartney loved the group profoundly – it was what he lived for. These two men had been the band's central force – theirs was the richest songwriting collaboration in all of popular music – but at heart, the adventure of the Beatles was forged by John Lennon's temperament and needs: He had formed the band as a way to lessen his sense of anxiety and separation, after his mother, Julia, gave up custody of him to her sister, and his father walked out of his life altogether.

The 16-year-old Lennon first met the 15-year-old McCartney in the summer of 1957 while playing with his band the Quarry Men at a parish church near Liverpool, and was impressed with Paul's facility for playing the music of Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. Just as important, the two were also bonded by deep loss: McCartney's mother, Mary, died of breast cancer in October 1956, and Lennon's mother was killed when she was struck by a car in July 1958. Working together, John and Paul found a new mooring in the world. For a long time, they wrote songs together, trading melodic and lyrical ideas, and even after they began writing separately, each still counted on the other to help finish or improve a song. They were, however, men with strikingly different approaches to making music. McCartney was orderly and meticulous, and placed a high premium on craft; Lennon was unruly, less prone to lingering over a song, and despite his cocky front, less secure in his work than his writing partner. The contrasts grew even more stark as the years went on. McCartney increasingly composed everyman narratives and celebratory calls; Lennon was writing from what he saw as a more authentic and troubled personal viewpoint. "Paul said, 'Come and see the show,'" Lennon said later. "I said, 'I read the news today, oh boy.'"

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