Why The Beatles Broke Up

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Lennon's new partnership with Ono meant that he and McCartney would rarely collaborate as composers again. Even so, as the band began work on its only double album, The Beatles (better known as the White Album), the uncommon writing and singing skills of both men had never been stronger or more diverse. In contrast to what he viewed as his own sporadic and inconsistent work during 1967, Lennon was now writing at full force, his creativity apparently revivified by the relationship with Ono. (Such songs as "Dear Prudence," "Julia," "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" and "Revolution" were clearly among his best work.) Harrison, too, had flowered – even Ringo was writing songs – but none of these men was now willing to allow the others to overshadow or direct his work. They had so much material to record, and so much distaste for each other, that they were recording in three studios, sometimes 12 hours a day. Each of the Beatles treated the others as his supporting musicians – which made for some spectacular performances and some explosive studio moments: Lennon storming out on the tedium of recording McCartney's "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da"; Ringo quitting the group for almost two weeks after Paul berated his drumming on "Back in the U.S.S.R."; Harrison bringing in his friend, guitarist Eric Clapton, just to win rightful consideration for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"; McCartney, in a shocking display, telling off George Martin in front of the band; and Geoff Emerick finally walking out, quitting his work with the Beatles over their turbulent and nasty behavior. When it was finished, The Beatles was regarded as a disjointed masterpiece, the sound of a band in top form that nonetheless no longer had hope. In later years, McCartney would refer to it as "the Tension Album."

In the meantime, the Beatles pushed ahead with launching their new record label, Apple. In truth, Apple had started as an investment shelter, but it quickly became something else. Many other things, in fact: an umbrella corporation with film, electronics, real estate, educational, publishing and music divisions – and, most interestingly, an experiment in socialism. "We're in the happy position of not needing any more money," McCartney said in May 1968, "so for the first time the bosses aren't in it for a profit… a kind of Western communism." In practice, the company's chief directive became to cultivate new talent. Apple indeed discovered or helped to develop some worthy music artists – including James Taylor, Badfinger, Mary Hopkin, Jackie Lomax, Billy Preston and Doris Troy (the label also considered signing the Rolling Stones, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Chicago, Queen, and Delaney and Bonnie), but since the Beatles themselves weren't truly Apple artists, the label didn't reap the full benefits of their income. They set August 11th, 1968, as the debut of Apple Records, with four singles to be released that day, including Mary Hopkin's "Those Were the Days" and the Beatles' own "Hey Jude." McCartney had written "Hey Jude" as a paean to Lennon's son, Julian, as his parents divorced, but it took on other meanings as well. McCartney had recently separated from his girlfriend of several years, Jane Asher, after she caught him with another woman, and he was now entering a serious relationship with photographer Linda Eastman, whom he had known since 1967; for Paul, the song came to stand as an anthem of faith in love, of taking risks. When Lennon heard "Hey Jude," though, he received it as a benediction from his songwriting partner: "The words 'go out and get her' – subconsciously – [Paul] was saying, 'Go ahead, leave me.' On a conscious level, he didn't want me to go ahead," he told Playboy near the end of his life. "The angel in him was saying, 'Bless you.' The devil in him didn't like it at all, because he didn't want to lose his partner." Then, the Beatles played "Hey Jude" on David Frost's television show in early September 1968 – their first performance before an audience in more than two years. As the audience joined in on the extended singalong ending, "Hey Jude" became an expression of something bigger, of the sort of possibilities of community that the band, at its best, signified to the world outside.

Inspired by that moment, the Beatles realized they had a hunger to play before a live audience again – Lennon especially seemed excited about the prospects – and they arranged for a January date at London's Roundhouse, the site of several of the city's famous underground rock & roll extravaganzas in the summer of 1967. They also decided to film the concert's rehearsals for TV broadcast, and they invited Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who had made promos for "Rain" and "Paperback Writer" with the band years before, to direct the filming.

There was something else at work in the idea as well: The Beatles saw this as an opportunity to discard the image that they had epitomized in Sgt.Pepper (Lennon had been looking for a way to disavow the album ever since its success, seeing Pepper as an empty show masterminded by McCartney). This new music would herald their return to the simpler formations that had inspired their love of rock & roll in the first place, back in the 1950s.

The new music being made by Bob Dylan's sometime backing group, the Band, had special bearing on what the Beatles were now after. Harrison had recently spent time with the group and with Dylan in Woodstock, New York, and he came back smitten by the collective spontaneous spirit they achieved in the recordings known as The Basement Tapes. Seeking that sort of feeling, Lennon told George Martin, "I don't want any of your production shit. We want this to be an honest album ... I don't want any editing …overdubbing. We just record the song and that's it." Years later, Lennon's implicit repudiation still stung Martin. "I assumed all their albums had been honest," Martin commented in The Beatles, by Bob Spitz. McCartney brought in a second producer, Glyn Johns, which proved something of a relief to Martin: To get the "inartificial" performances the Beatles were now after would require endless rehearsals for an acceptable single-take recording, and Martin found it so tedious that he rarely attended these rehearsals.

From the outset, problems plagued the project. Because the Beatles intended to film the rehearsal sessions, which became known as the "Get Back" sessions after the original title of the album that was finally released as Let It Be, they set up at Twickenham Film Studios, which meant conforming to union filming hours, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. – hardly the Beatles' hours. None of this would have been so bad if they had retained enthusiasm for the idea, but by the morning of January 2nd, 1969, when rehearsals began, nobody but McCartney seemed to remember why they were there. Though the sessions would be uncommonly productive in one sense – the Beatles played 52 original songs in that month of January 1969, several of which would soon make up Abbey Road and would also appear as some of the best material on the group members' early solo albums – all the bad feelings that had been festering for some time would come to the fore. McCartney tried to keep the others on track, but it was a thankless task. The others found his cajoling noxious and condescending. To them, it had become another Paul McCartney affair, with him telling everybody what notes and tempo to play, even telling the film director how to direct. "Paul would want us to work all the time," Ringo said, "because he was the workaholic." George Martin felt McCartney had little other choice. "Paul would be rather overbossy, which the other boys would dislike," he said. "But it was the only way of getting together ... It was just a general disintegration."

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