Why The Beatles Broke Up

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Lennon would in fact send mixed signals in the months that followed. In comments to Rolling Stone and New Musical Express in early 1970, Lennon said the Beatles might record again and might play at a summer peace festival in Canada. Harrison, too, had been talking about a possible new Beatles tour. "It'll probably be a rebirth, you know, for all of us," Lennon said. But McCartney now felt shattered; the band – the life he had been a part of since he was 15 – had been cut off from him. "John's in love with Yoko," he told London's Evening Standard, "and he's no longer in love with the other three of us." Paul stayed at home with Linda, her daughter Heather, and their infant, Mary, and began drinking in evenings and mornings alike. He stopped writing music altogether, and his temper flared easily. He'd fallen into a paralyzing depression, until Linda could take no more. "Here I am ... married to a drunk who won't take a bath," she told a friend, according to Peter Carlin's Paul McCartney: A Life. "You don't have to take this crap," she finally told Paul. "You're a grown man." During Christmas week 1969, McCartney took his wife's advice and started work on his first album as an independent artist. He called Lennon in March 1970 and informed him that he too was now leaving the Beatles. "Good," his longtime partner replied. "That makes two of us who have accepted it mentally."

Any lingering chance of reconciliation was cut short by a series of blunders that Lennon, Klein and Harrison committed in the early months of 1970. By then, the January 1969 rehearsal and recording sessions had been edited, and Klein wanted an album to accompany the film, which was now called Let It Be, after a song by McCartney. (Though Abbey Road was recorded later than Let It Be, it had already been released in September 1969.) Glyn Johns had tried to assemble an album in 1969; Paul indicated he was OK with it, but John hated what he heard. Ironically, the results were too close to the rough-and-raw recording aesthetic that Lennon had originally insisted on, and by early 1970 Klein wanted something more commercially appealing. In March, Lennon turned over the January 1969 tapes – which he described as "the shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever" – to legendary "Wall of Sound" producer Phil Spector, who had produced Lennon's "Instant Karma!" single in January 1970. (Neither Klein nor Spector wanted George Martin involved. "I don't consider him in my league," Spector said. "He's an arranger, that's all.") The changes that Spector brought to Let It Be were, at best, for the worse, stifling both McCartney's title song and his heartfelt ballad, "The Long and Winding Road," with overlayers of orchestration. (Spector's modifications of "The Long and Winding Road" seemed so perverse at one point that Starr, who attended the overdubbing session, dragged the producer from the studio by the arm and reprimanded him.) During this time, Spector never consulted McCartney about the changes he was making, which may have been Klein and Lennon's intention. After finally hearing Spector's new mixes, McCartney requested changes, but Klein told him it was too late. (In late 2003, McCartney and Starr would issue a new version of Let It Be called Let It Be…Naked, free of Spector's arrangements and the jokey asides that Lennon had pushed for.)

The final affront came when Klein, Harrison and Lennon determined that McCartney couldn't release his debut solo album on April 17th, 1970, as originally planned, but had to push back the date to June 4th to allow room for Let It Be, which was now set for April 24th. When Lennon and Harrison sent Starr as an emissary to McCartney's home to deliver a letter to that effect, McCartney reacted with uncharacteristic vehemence; just as the argument might have turned physical, he tossed Ringo from his house. When Starr returned, he felt bad for what they were doing to Paul and asked that they let McCartney keep his album's original release date. Harrison and Lennon consented, pushing Let It Be to May, but they resented McCartney. The feeling had turned mutual. "We're all talking about peace and love," McCartney told a newspaper at the time, "but really we're not feeling peaceful at all." None of them, though, anticipated what McCartney ended up doing. "I couldn't just let John control the situation," he later said. In April, when Paul released his first solo work, McCartney, he also issued a self-interview, in which he made some matters plain:

Q: Did you miss the Beatles ?

A: No.

Q: Are you planning a new album or single with the Beatles?

A: No.

Long before John Lennon told the world, "The dream is over," Paul McCartney had already delivered the news. Lennon took his partner's statement as an unacceptable usurpation. "I wanted to do it and I should have done it," Lennon said. "I was a fool not to do it, not to do what Paul did, which was use it to sell a record." But the resentment went deeper than that. The Beatles had originally been John Lennon's band, and in his heart its fate depended on him. "I started the band, I disbanded it. It's as simple as that," he said. Lennon, it seemed, was upset that it was McCartney who had been seen as leaving him, and not the other way around. "I think it was just straightforward jealousy," Paul told Barry Miles. At the time, McCartney told a newspaper, "Ringo left first, then George, then John. I was the last to leave! It wasn't me!"

The end of the Beatles, however, had only entered a new and strange phase that would go on for years. McCartney wanted out of Apple altogether – he didn't want Allen Klein to have anything to say about his music or to share in his profits – but when he called Harrison, seeking consent to be released from his arrangement, George said, "You'll stay on the fucking label. Hare Krishna." McCartney wrote Lennon long letters, begging to leave the Beatles' organization, but Lennon fired back one- or two-line noncommittal replies. McCartney threatened to sue, and Klein laughed at him. On December 31st, 1970, McCartney sued to dissolve the Beatles. (Klein later admitted that he was caught completely off guard.) The other three Beatles were unified in their response to the court: There was no need to end the group – things weren't that bad, they could still make music together. The only problem was Paul and his domineering ways.

The judge decided that McCartney's request for dissolution was proper, and consigned the Beatles' considerable earnings to a receivership until the varying details of separation – the divorce that Lennon had wanted – could be worked out. In 1973, the remaining Beatles' contract with Klein ended, and they did not renew it; they had grown tired of him. Soon, Harrison, Lennon and Starr would sue their former manager (Lennon admitted to an interviewer that McCartney perhaps had been right all along about Klein), and in a separate, Apple-related matter, Klein would be sentenced to two months in a U.S. prison for fraud. When the Klein debacle was over, Harrison said he wouldn't mind re-forming the Beatles. When the time came for the Beatles to gather and sign the final dissolution to the old partnership, Lennon refused to appear. He was worried that the other Beatles would end up with more money than he would, and somebody close to him at the time said that he panicked, because this meant that the Beatles were truly over with. Maybe he had never really meant to disband the group after all.

Certainly, though, his caprices and rage had destroyed the band. In the same meeting in which he said he was leaving the Beatles, Lennon had also vented years worth of self-doubt and discontent, and placed it all at McCartney's feet. Paul, he felt, had always eclipsed him, taking more time to realize the sounds he wanted in the studio, winning more approval from George Martin for his easy melodicism. Plus, Paul had simply written too damn much, in John's estimation. By the time they got to the Magical Mystery Tour sessions, Lennon said, "You'd already have five or six songs, so I'd think, 'Fuck it, I can't keep up with that.' So I didn't bother, you know, and I thought, 'I don't really care whether I was on or not.' I convinced myself it didn't matter, and so for a period if you didn't invite me to be on an album personally, if you three didn't say, 'Write some more songs 'cause we like your work,' I wasn't going to fight." But, Lennon added, "There was no point in turning 'em out – I didn't have the energy to turn 'em out and get 'em on [an album] as well."

It was a remarkable confession. John Lennon – who until Abbey Road and Let It Be had written most of the Beatles' masterpieces and defined their greatest depths – could no longer bear to divide up his brilliance with Paul McCartney. The Beatles could withstand whatever tensions Yoko Ono brought them. They might have endured Allen Klein. But the Beatles could not survive John Lennon. His anxiety was simply too vast.

So the Beatles ended, never to gather again in the lifetimes of these men. Lennon, Harrison and Starr played together in various configurations over the years, though only rarely did they record with McCartney; once, when Eric Clapton married Harrison's former wife, Pattie Boyd, Paul, George and Ringo played live for a few impromptu minutes. Also, once, John and Paul played music together at somebody's Los Angeles studio in 1974, and Paul took a significant role in reuniting John and Yoko when they were separated during that same period. Lennon and McCartney, the most important songwriting team in history, repaired their friendship somewhat over the years, though they stayed distant and circumspect, and never wrote together again.

Lennon was murdered in 1980. McCartney, Harrison and Starr reunited again as the Beatles in the mid-1990s to play on some unfinished John Lennon tracks for The Beatles Anthology. Harrison died of lung cancer in 2001. Paul McCartney, with the help of Lee and John Eastman, went on to become the richest man in show business, and Linda McCartney died of breast cancer in 1998.

Does this feel like a love story? Does love lose all validity for how it ends? It might, of course, though endings don't easily erase history; rather, they seal it.

The story of the Beatles was always in some ways bigger than the Beatles, both the band and its individuals: It was the story of a time, of a generation reaching for new possibilities. It was the story of what happens when you reach those possibilities, and what happens when your best hopes come apart. Yes, it was a love story – and love is almost never a simple blessing. Because as much as the Beatles may have loved their communion, the world around them loved it even more. That was the love that, more than anything, exalted the Beatles but also hemmed them in with one another, and they could not withstand it. John Lennon, in particular, felt he had to break that love, and Paul McCartney hated to see it torn asunder. Once it was done, though, it was done. Everything it made – every wonder – still resonates, but the hearts that made it happen also unmade it, and never truly recovered from the experience. "It was all such a long time ago," George Harrison said years later. "Sometimes I ask myself if I was really there or whether it was all a dream."

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