The Beatles' Breakup and Why Their Music Matters 50 Years Later - Rolling Stone

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And in the End

Fifty years ago, the Beatles went through rock’s most famous breakup. Inside the heartbreak, the brotherhood, and why the music still matters

It’s a miserable Monday morning in January 1969, and the Beatles are trying to get back to where they once belonged. The Get Back project sounded like a perfect idea: just the four lads and their instruments, ready to hit the studio, return to their roots, conjure up some great songs out of thin air. Just like they used to. John, Paul, George, and Ringo have booked a TV concert special for January 18th — their first live show in years. They’ll rehearse for a couple of weeks, eyeball to eyeball, summon up genius on the spur of the moment. They’ve done it many times before. They’ve never not done it.

The good news: Paul showed up today, and so did Ringo. So did the camera crew — these sessions are being filmed, so the Beatles can show a half-hour clip of rehearsal footage before their TV performance. So here they are on Monday morning, ready to dazzle the world with a blast of spontaneous Beatles brilliance. Or at least Paul and Ringo are. Hey, has anyone heard from John and Yoko? Or George?

With George, there’s a slight complication: He quit the band. On Friday, with the cameras rolling, he was trying to teach them a new song, “All Things Must Pass.” John, strung out on his new heroin habit, sneered at George with open contempt. George finally stormed out, muttering, “See you around the clubs.” John doesn’t take this seriously. “I think if George doesn’t come back by Monday or Tuesday, we ask Eric Clapton to play in it,” he says. “The point is, if George leaves, do we want to carry on the Beatles? I do. We should just get other members and carry on.”

But now it’s Monday and still no George. No John and Yoko. (No Clapton, for that matter.) Paul and Ringo kill time jamming on a current radio hit, “Build Me Up Buttercup.” But everyone gathers to discuss the crisis, complaining bitterly about Yoko’s constant presence. Surprisingly, the one who sticks up for her is Paul. He’s a sucker for a love story — he’s Paul McCartney, for God’s sake. But he also knows how much this romance means to his oldest, closest mate, his most troubled and cruel and impossible friend. “It’s not that bad,” he insists. “They want to stay together, those two. So it’s all right. Let the young lovers be together.”

Paul has to chuckle, thinking about how future generations will look back at this — the Beatles, the greatest of all rock & roll bands, the world’s most legendary creative team, falling apart over such a trivial spat. Even on a winter morning as gloomy as this one, Paul breaks into a laugh.

“It’s gonna be such an incredible sort of comical thing, like in 50 years’ time, you know. ‘They broke up because Yoko sat on an amp!’ ”

Paul wasn’t wrong. Fifty years later, people still obsess over the end of the Beatles. It’s the world’s favorite story about how things fall apart. Like Fleetwood Mac on Rumours, the Beatles’ Let It Be has come to symbolize the whole concept of breaking up. The Beatles are the ultimate archetype of a team of friends working together, scheming together, making music together — and inevitably, tearing one another apart.

We all know how the story went: The TV special never happens. Instead, the Beatles play their famous goodbye concert on the roof of their Apple headquarters in London, until the cops shut them down. Later that year, they make one more masterpiece, Abbey Road, while the Get Back tapes gather dust. New business manager Allen Klein releases the Get Back footage as a feature film, retitled Let It Be, along with an album of the same name. The movie premieres in May 1970, a few weeks after Paul announces the Beatles’ split. All four refuse to show up for the premiere. Phil Spector doctors the tapes into a slapdash soundtrack. Soon, John writes a song called “God,” announcing, “I don’t believe in Beatles.” The four Beatles never set foot in the same room again.

The world has spent 50 years collecting the clichéd narratives: John and Paul were fighting, Paul and Yoko were fighting, John and Yoko became junkies, the moneymen came between them, the drugs came between them, the wives came between them, all things must pass, the dream is over.

But as with most Beatles stories, the truth is a lot more complicated when you look closely. In the end, it’s really a story about four friends trying to hold on to one another in dark and confusing times — searching for a way to shine on till tomorrow. Like everybody else, John, Paul, George, and Ringo witnessed the end of the Beatles with shock and disbelief, no idea how to apply the brakes. None of them really imagined this was the end.

The Beatles, photographed at Tittenhurst Park in Ascot, England, on August 22nd, 1969.

The Beatles, photographed at Tittenhurst Park in Ascot, England, on August 22nd, 1969.

© Apple Corps, Ltd.

How did they pour so much raw emotion into their songs, when they couldn’t communicate any other way? That’s always been the real mystery at the heart of the Beatles’ breakup. In their hour of darkness, how did they come together to create music that has always given people hope, in times of trouble? In 2020, that question has a new kind of resonance.

The Beatles felt relief at the end of their rooftop concert. You can hear it in Paul’s voice when he says, “Thanks, Mo” — a shout-out to Ringo’s wife, Maureen, who was cheering them on, her fan-girl energy more badly needed than ever. They were sitting on 56 hours of film, 200 hours of audiotape, 21 days’ worth of chaos. But they couldn’t stomach the idea of going back through all that footage. As John admitted, “I couldn’t be bothered because it was such a tough one making it. We were really miserable then.”

The movie Let It Be became a cult rarity, only briefly available on video. I saw it at a midnight screening in a Boston theater in the Eighties, with a stoner crowd who booed every time Yoko was onscreen. The film looked grainy and cheap. The mood was ugly, both onscreen and in the audience. Spector’s mix felt like a clumsy coda to the Beatles’ epic run. Even though it was recorded more than a year before the split — with the triumph of Abbey Road in between — Let It Be seemed to document their crash, like some kind of rock & roll Zapruder film. It turned into the Beatles’ accidental tombstone. Let It Be dropped out of movie theaters fast and has barely been seen anywhere since 1970. Most fans only know the famous Anthology snippet of George and Paul arguing over a guitar part. Few films have been so analyzed and interpreted by people who’ve never seen it.

John and Yoko finally saw it in an empty movie theater in San Francisco in June 1970, along with Rolling Stone founder Jann S. Wenner and his wife, Jane. The four of them bought their tickets at the door and sat unnoticed in the afternoon matinee. “Just bought tickets and went in,” Wenner recalled years later. “I don’t think anybody even really knew we were there. It was empty, afternoon, and during a weekday. So the four of us are sitting together in the middle of the theater, watching this thing about the breakup of the Beatles.” John couldn’t hide his tears. “I just remember walking out of the theater and all of us in a foursome huddle, hugging, and the sadness of the occasion.”

Peter Jackson, the director behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, -boldly went into the Get Back vaults to find the rest of the story for a Disney documentary, due out next year. As he puts it, “Everything I thought I knew changed.” Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back is not a remake of Let It Be — it will be a whole new film, showing that Paul and Ringo weren’t kidding when they said Let It Be showed only the negative side of the story.

Jackson’s Get Back footage promises to be full of warmth and camaraderie: John and Paul with acoustic guitars, busking “Two of Us,” when John breaks into “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” to crack up his mate. Paul leading an early romp on “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” with John shouting back at each line. (“Get a job, gob!”) The band having a bash at their 1965 oldie “Help!,” halfway treating it as a joke, but inevitably tapping into the song’s adult despair. You see them write songs that ended up on Abbey Road or solo albums — like when John and Paul whip up the Imagine classic “Gimme Some Truth.” The mischief on their faces, the eye contact, the collective electricity in the playing — there’s a lot more of the Beatles team spirit than you’d guess from the reputation.

When the surviving Beatles asked Jackson to get involved, he wasn’t sure he was up to the job. “As a longtime Beatles fan, I really wasn’t looking forward to it,” he says. “I thought, ‘If what we’ve seen is the stuff they allowed people to see, what are the other 55 hours going to be?’ When I went to Apple, my feet were heavy. I thought, ‘I should be excited, but I just dread what I’m about to see.’ ”

Like most fans, he associated Let It Be with sour times. “Even though Let It Be wasn’t filmed with the breakup in mind,” Jackson says — “it was filmed 14 months earlier — I can just imagine that if you were going to the cinema in May of 1970, and you just heard that the Beatles had broken up, then you’re obviously going to look at the movie through a particular filter. I think that has led to it being known as the breakup film. But it’s not really a breakup film in the slightest.”

Of course, Paul and Ringo have claimed they had plenty of laughs during the Get Back sessions, with only the arguments making the movie. Could they be right about Get Back — and the rest of us wrong? As reality-TV heels always complain, it’s all in the editing.

UNFRIENDLY CONFINES: The Beatles playing on camera for the Get Back project. They were stuck in Twickenham Film Studio rather than the more familiar — and comfortable — Abbey Road.

The Beatles playing on camera for the Get Back project. They were stuck in Twickenham Film Studio rather than the more familiar — and comfortable — Abbey Road.

Ethan A. Russell/© Apple Corps Ltd.

Giles Martin, who recently produced masterful anniversary editions of Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road, and the White Album, memorably tagged the band’s die-hard completist geeks as “the socks-and-sandals brigade.” Jackson admits he’s a proud member of that tribe. “I was buying bootlegs since the late Seventies. I got six of the Get Back session bootlegs on vinyl, like nine LPs’ worth in some box — and I still have the stuff.” But the boots didn’t prepare him for the story he found in the vaults. “Just me personally as a fan, looking at the 56 hours, I get a sense of a group that wants to do something different, but they’ve run out of places to go,” Jackson says. “They never wanted to repeat themselves — they didn’t want to make Sgt. Pepper 2. There’s even conversations we’ve got on film where they’re discussing, ‘Maybe if we went back and became the Cavern Club band again’ — becoming the lunchtime bender gang. Because they can’t play a stadium that’s bigger than Shea. They’ve done complex albums. They’ve done simple albums. You get the sense that they really don’t want to break up. That’s the overriding impression I get. They’re a forward-moving band, but they’ve run out of places to go.”

There’s a hilarious scene where director Michael Lindsay-Hogg first mentions the idea of turning the rehearsal footage into a movie. They all start arguing (of course) over whether it’ll work technically. It was shot for Sixties TV —the 16mm film got blown up to 35mm for movie screens — which is why Let It Be always looked so shabby. (Technically restored, the Get Back footage finally looks like the Beatles.) Paul argues the film will be too grainy for theaters. George just tosses his head: “If they don’t take it, they’re fucking fools!”

All four Beatles, at heart, shared that magnificent arrogance. In a way, that’s what helped keep them together, through all their ups and downs. Without that level of arrogance, there’s no way an adventure as admirably daft as Get Back could happen in the first place.

When the Beatles dazzled the world with Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper, they were on fire with collaborative energy. Sgt. Pepper was their last stand as four lads against the world, released just before original manager Brian Epstein died. Right up until Epstein’s death, they were four soulmates who wanted to spend their free time together, even when they weren’t working. “Most people don’t get across to us,” Lennon said in 1967, in Hunter Davies’ biography. “We never really communicated with other people. Now that we don’t meet strangers at all, there is no need for any communication. We understand each other. It doesn’t matter about the rest.” When they quit touring after Revolver, they tried taking a three-month break, but they missed each other too much. As John said, “I didn’t meet anyone else I liked.”

Epstein had been their biggest fan, their cheerleader. Nothing for the Beatles was ever the same. “We’ve been very negative since Mr. Epstein passed away,” Paul said in the Get Back sessions. “That’s why all of us in turn have been sick of the group.”

The Get Back experiment — the crazy idea of a live show they were too rusty to play, the confidence that they could whip up great songs from scratch whenever the mood struck — came from their love of being Beatles together. They spent five stormy months making the White Album, but as the great 50th-anniversary edition showed, all that late-night madness and chaos produced their most astounding music, way more than they could fit on a double album.

By March 1969, all four were husbands; three were dads. All were trying to build an adult life, figuring out how the band might fit into it, but without any role models to show the way. George was hanging with Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, rock stars who treated him with the respect he craved from his bandmates.

In the spring of 1968, John and Paul had made a quick visit to New York to announce their new Apple Corps venture, dropping by The Tonight Show for an awkward chat with sportscaster and guest host Joe Garagiola and Hollywood diva Tallulah Bankhead, neither of whom knew a thing about them. (Garagiola tried to get them talking about cricket.) There’s a revealing moment when Garagiola asks, “The four of you, socially, are you that close?” John and Paul look at him like he’s from Mars. John snorts, “We’re close friends, you know.”

But within a couple of weeks, John had firebombed his life. He spent a hard day’s night with Yoko Ono, recording their ambient-noise collage Two Virgins, then consummating their affair at dawn. When the Beatles showed up for the White Album sessions, they were surprised to see Yoko at his side in the studio — after that, all access to John was through her. That first day, she joined the band for a jam on “Revolution 1.” Although people called Yoko a visual artist, she was a musician first, a classically trained composer who collaborated with legends like John Cage, La Monte Young, and Ornette Coleman before hooking up with John. Yoko was not one to wait her turn before speaking her mind and had no interest in respecting or even noticing the Beatles’ boundaries. “Yoko was naive,” John told Rolling Stone. “She came in and she would expect to perform with them like you would with any other group.”

BALLAD OF JOHN AND YOKO Lennon and Ono leaving Gibraltar after getting married. John adopted Yoko’s name, becoming John Ono Lennon — a radical step in 1969.

Lennon and Ono leaving Gibraltar after getting married. John adopted Yoko’s name, becoming John Ono Lennon — a radical step in 1969.

"Trinity Mirror”/Mirrorpix/Alamy

Two Virgins came out in November 1968 and remains the most infamously offensive album in history — not because of the songs (there aren’t any) but the cover, with John and Yoko’s full-frontal nudity. “It just seemed natural for us, if we made an album together, to be naked,” John told Rolling Stone. “Of course, I’ve never seen me prick on an album or on a photo before.” Paul contributed liner notes: “When two great Saints meet it is a humbling experience.”

On October 18th of that year, John and Yoko got busted by the Scotland Yard drug squad. Soon after getting arrested, Yoko suffered a miscarriage. The White Album came out to universal acclaim, but devastated by their lost pregnancy, the couple turned to heroin.

In all the turmoil of 1968, there was a moment of brightness: “Hey Jude,” a song Paul made up on a visit to John’s estranged wife and son, checking in on them after the painful split. He brought a red rose for Cynthia, a kind gesture she remembered the rest of her life. For five-year-old Julian, he brought a tune. “Hey Jude” became the Beatles’ biggest hit. They played it on the BBC, surrounded by fans around the piano, lifting the song into a better-better-better climax — their closest encounter with a live audience in years. Get Back was a self-conscious attempt to re-create the warmth of that moment, in the same TV studio with the same director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg.

But the sessions were tough from the start. For one thing, the cars came around to pick them up at the crack of dawn. None of the Beatles were morning people. George later fumed, “Have to get up at 8:00 and get into my guitar,” John and Yoko were zonked by narcotics. Instead of Abbey Road, their own private clubhouse for around-the-clock artistic mayhem, they were stuck in Twickenham Film Studio, surrounded by strangers with cameras. There were plenty of laughs but also nasty fights. Paul shuddered, “I get the horrors every morning about 9:00, when I get my toast and tea.”

They showed up with great songs. On the first day, John brought “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Dig a Pony,” while George had “All Things Must Pass.” Paul worked John’s “Everybody Had a Hard Year” into his own “I’ve Got a Feeling.” “Get Back” began as a political statement, “Commonwealth Song,” defending Pakistani immigrants, a hot topic in England after racist politician Enoch Powell’s anti-immigration crusade. (Paul had already addressed the controversy with “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” an ode to West Indian-immigrant family life — the White Album’s most explicitly political song.) They later tried out songs that would evolve into their next album, Abbey Road: “Something,” “Her Majesty,” “Oh! Darling.”

But within a few days, Paul and George were sniping over a guitar part. Paul said, “I always hear myself annoying you.” George sneered, “I’ll play what you want me to play, or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play. Whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it.”

As rock-star arguments go, this was fairly tame. But the cameras made it worse. The next day, George said, “I don’t want to do any of my songs on the show. Because they’ll turn out shitty. They’ll come out like a compromise.” He added, “Maybe we should get a divorce.” Paul muttered, “Well, I said that at the last meeting. It’s getting near it.”

The mood brightened as soon as they moved the sessions to Apple. They brought in keyboardist Billy Preston as a calming influence. (As they learned when Eric Clapton appeared on the White Album, they had an easier time minding their manners in front of a guest.) The first time Preston sat in, they jammed on “Don’t Let Me Down,” with John yelling in his mock-preacher voice, “I had a dream this afternoon!” After a Preston solo, he marveled, “I say ‘Take it,’ and he takes it! You’re giving us a lift, Bill!” George added, “We’ve been doing this for days, weeks, just choking.” John and George lobbied to enlist Preston as a full-time Beatle, but Paul shook his head. “It’s bad enough with four.”

The Beatles debated endlessly about how to bring this project in for a landing. They knew they wouldn’t be ready in time for the January 18th live show they’d planned. But where should they play these new songs? A cathedral? A hospital? An ocean liner? John scoffed, “I’m warming up to the idea of an asylum.” They realized the answer was right on top of them — up on the roof. The rooftop gig was their first live performance in more than two years, and their last. Nobody realized it would be so cold up there, which is why John and Ringo are wearing their ladies’ winter coats. Even the Beatles seem surprised by how great they sound in the final minute of “I’ve Got a Feeling.” John can’t resist a spontaneous “Fuck yeah!”

As always, they wanted to move forward. John had a new figure in his life he was excited about. In fact, John impulsively signed over complete control of his business affairs to this American stranger — in writing — within hours of meeting him for the first time. John couldn’t wait for the others to meet his new manager: Allen Klein.

In the aftermath of Brian Epstein’s death, four brash New Yorkers entered the Beatles’ inner circle: a Tokyo-born avant-garde artist named Yoko Ono, a photographer named Linda Eastman, a music-biz wheeler-dealer named Allen Klein, and an eccentric producer named Phil Spector. Different as they were, all four had confidence. None of them were intimidated by the band. None were crippled by British manners. Their rough edges appealed to the Beatles and made them easier to trust. All four had a massive impact on the Beatles’ chemistry. Klein is easily the least famous of the four, but arguably the one who played the biggest role in their demise.

MONEYMAN Lennon and Ono with Allen Klein in 1969. Klein had spent years in the business, developing an unsavory reputation, but he won Lennon over immediately. McCartney was much more skeptical: “He’s not good enough.”

Lennon and Ono with Allen Klein in 1969. Klein had spent years in the business, developing an unsavory reputation, but he won Lennon over immediately. McCartney was much more skeptical: “He’s not good enough.”


Klein spent years in the business, working with artists like Sam Cooke, yet developing an unsavory reputation. He had the Rolling Stones under his thumb — and walked off with their catalog. But Mick Jagger, perhaps not scrupulous about his rivals’ fate, declined to warn them. According to Paul, he said, “He’s all right if you like that kind of thing,” washing his hands and helping seal their fate. “Really, it was Mick who got us together,” John told Wenner in 1970. “I had heard about all those dreadful rumors about him, but I could never coordinate it with the fact that the Stones seemed to be going on and on with him and nobody ever said a word. Mick’s not the type to just clam up, so I started thinking he must be all right.”

John and Yoko met with Klein at the Dorchester Hotel. John, always in the market for a new father figure, fell in love. As he put it, “Anybody who knew me that well — without having met me — had to be a guy I could let look after me.” Even Klein must have been surprised how easy it was to flatter John into signing over his life’s work. It was the most feeble effort from a British negotiator since Neville Chamberlain. Once Klein had that signature, the band was doomed.

But Paul distrusted Klein from the start. “I am not signed with Allen Klein because I don’t like him and I don’t think he is the man for me, however much the other three like him,” he told Rolling Stone. Paul wanted to hire his father-in-law, Lee Eastman, which was unacceptable to the rest of the band, who signed on with Klein. John got furious at Paul’s reluctance to play along. “He was playing hard to get, like a fuckin’ chick.” Paul’s suspicions were validated by the early 1970s, when his bandmates had their own lawsuits with Klein; he also went to jail for income-tax evasion. “In the end, we did get rid of Allen Klein,” Ringo said in Anthology. “It cost us a small fortune.”

But Klein had wedged himself between the Beatles. In the summer of 1967, they were hanging out with the Maharishi; two years later, they were spending too much time with lawyers and accountants. As Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970, “It just got that Paul would say, ‘Speak to my lawyer, I don’t want to speak about business anymore,’ which meant, ‘I’m going to drag my feet and try and fuck you.’ ”

Paul and Linda got married in March 1969. Harrison and Pattie Boyd came to the reception straight from the police station, where they’d just gotten busted by the same cops who’d raided John and Yoko. Like John, George insisted the cops brought their own stash. He was offended when they claimed they found pot in his closet, tucked in a sock. “I’m a tidy sort of bloke. I don’t like chaos. I kept records in the record rack, tea in the tea caddy, and pot in the pot box.”

When John and Yoko married, he took her name, becoming John Ono Lennon, a radical step in 1969. But John and Paul were not ordinary rock stars getting married — their new wives were independent adults, artists with their own careers, women who’d already married and divorced and had kids. There weren’t many rock stars of their generation with such a prophetic idea of male-female partnerships. But they were looking to explore new models of monogamy, outside the nouveau-hippie patriarchy. When Mick Jagger sniffed at Yoko and Linda — Paul was fond of quoting Mick — “I wouldn’t have my old lady in the band,” it was exactly the mentality John and Paul were looking to escape.

John and Paul teamed up for a quickie single, “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” neither the first nor the last time John would go a bit overboard comparing himself to Jesus. They recorded as a duo — John on guitar, Paul on drums — while George and Ringo were out of town. In the outtake released on the 2019 Abbey Road box, they begin with a poignant quip. John says, “A bit faster, Ringo.” Paul replies, “OK, George!” The instrumental tag comes from “The Honeymoon Song,” a corny showbiz oldie the Beatles used to play in their Cavern days. It’s a private joke between John and Paul, one they knew would go totally unnoticed by their millions of listeners, including Yoko and Linda. It’s a touching sign of how deeply in love they remained with their band and each other.

But while John and Yoko were on their honeymoon in Amsterdam, doing their weeklong Bed-In for Peace, they got a rude shock: The publisher Dick James took advantage of their absence to begin selling their songs to Sir Lew Grade without giving them a chance to make a bid. It was an ugly reminder that for all their hippie ideals, the Beatles were still prey to the sleaziest music-biz sharks.

The Beatles rebounded from Get Back with Abbey Road. It’s always been their most popular album, mainly because it’s their warmest. John and George wrote self-conscious Beatles songs, as if they knew they’d never get another chance to write for the band. George knew he’d get stuck with his usual two songs per album. But he got his revenge. His tunes — “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something” — were upbeat pop benedictions that scared John and Paul into stepping up their own songwriting game.

Since Yoko was recuperating from a car crash, John had a hospital bed set up in the studio, so she could comment and critique. A weird situation, sure, but why fight it? All four Beatles were making an effort to get along. “Not too much heavy breathing,” as Paul later put it. They were already dreaming of solo success: “Give Peace a Chance,” the anti-war chant John and Yoko recorded in a Montreal hotel bed, was a Number Two smash in the U.K. Ringo was getting groomed for movie stardom. They no longer saw Beatles records as their only chance to express themselves. So they felt confident enough to throw themselves into one more Beatles summer. When they jammed on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” it was the last time all four played together.

B59FGD George Harrison of the Beatles pictured amongst the Buddhist American group, The Radha Krishna Temple. August 1969 ;Z08251-005

Harrison in London with members of the Radha Krishna Temple in 1969, the year he began recording with them.

"Trinity Mirror"/Mirrorpix/Alamy

George made beautiful music with the Radha Krishna Temple, producing their single “Hare Krishna Mantra.” Asked if it would hit Number One, they said, “Higher than that.” (The song made it to Number 12 in the U.K.) John and Yoko held a London screening for their avant-garde films, including John’s Self-Portrait, which was nothing but a close-up of his penis. Yoko complained, “The critics won’t touch it.”

When John told the others, “I want a divorce,” nobody took it too seriously. He wasn’t the first to use this word — both George and Paul talked about “divorce” during the Get Back sessions. They urged him not to go public yet, figuring this was just another John whim, like the Apple meeting where he showed up high and announced, “I am Jesus Christ. I have come back again.” (Ringo’s response that day: “Right. Meeting adjourned. Let’s go and have some lunch.”) The Beatles had another conference, taped for posterity, where they argued over how they’d split the songwriting on any future albums. As George put it, “We worked something out, which is still a joke really — three songs for me, three songs for Paul, three songs for John, and two for Ringo.”

Paul fled to his Scottish farm, to take care of his newborn daughter and have a little peace and quiet. He didn’t get it. The fall of 1969 had another weird twist: the “Paul is dead” rumor. After a Detroit radio station played the White Album backwards, fans began analyzing their Beatles albums for clues that Paul had secretly died in 1966. John called in to the Detroit station to complain on the air: “It’s the most stupid rumor I’ve ever heard. It sounds like the same guy who blew up my Christ remark.” John, looking to promote “Cold Turkey” and his Wedding Album with Yoko, was in no mood to chat about Paul. The dearly departed had a sense of humor about it, telling the Apple office, “It’ll probably be the best publicity we’ve ever had, and I won’t have to do a thing except stay alive.” But in a Life magazine story on the controversy, Paul said, “The Beatle thing is over.” The quote made it into print, yet nobody noticed.

Everything might have been different if the Beatles had taken some time off, like they did after Revolver. They had a great new album — Abbey Road was their biggest commercial smash yet — and plenty of solo projects. They had their wives and kids. They could afford to take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while. But they also had a new business manager, and he needed a new album. So Get Back turned into Let It Be, and the Beatles never recovered.

When you think about people to send into a volatile situation, you picture someone like Billy Preston or producer George Martin or even Ringo Starr — somebody who can cheer everyone up, keep a cool head. A team player who doesn’t bring a lot of their own baggage or ego to the situation. A grown-up. A pro. A diplomat with patience, empathy, and a fine-tuned sense of tact.

The Beatles called Phil Spector.

He did not fire a gun in the studio. He didn’t even punch anybody. So by Phil Spector standards, he was behaving himself. But inviting him to take over the Get Back tapes bordered on sabotage. At the start of 1970, the last thing the Beatles needed was to reopen the previous winter’s arguments. And the last person they needed was Spector, who made his brilliant Sixties records by running the studio as his personal dictatorship. This was like inviting Napoleon to invade your village, as long as he’d tidy up on the way out.

Spector was Klein’s guy, but John was all in. He worked with Spector on his January 1970 single, “Instant Karma,” and liked the way Phil took charge, banging it out in one day. As John boasted, “I wrote it for breakfast, recorded it for lunch, and we’re putting it out for dinner.” “Instant Karma” got John on Top of the Pops, a first for a solo Beatle. Yoko sat on a stool as part of the band, neither singing nor playing, but knitting.

George Martin and engineer Glyn Johns spent 1969 tinkering with the Get Back tapes, compiling them into albums the band rejected as unreleasable. But Klein had an urgent need to get fresh product into the pipeline. He’d just signed them to their lucrative new deal, cutting himself in on the action. As Peter Jackson explains, “Klein needs to get a Beatles album out in the marketplace, even though they have broken up. So, obviously, the Get Back tapes will be sorted as they’re the only material he can release.”

Archive images of Beatles drummer Ringo Starr at his Brookfields Estate in Surrey. He put it up for sale in 1969, a year after purchasing it.

Ringo riding a tractor at his Brookfield Estate in Surrey, 1969, before selling the property to Stephen Stills.

Tom Blau/Camera Press/Redux

The American producer came to Abbey Road in March and began turning the tapes into Let It Be, with overdubs galore. When he got hold of “The Long and Winding Road,” it was a Paul piano demo, with John fumbling along on bass. Spector decided to pile on the cheesy orchestral goop, but he kept Lennon’s inept bass part. It’s still there on the finished record. At the two-minute mark, you can hear Paul try (and fail) not to laugh at his mate’s clumsy playing, in the middle of the line, “You left me standing here.” Paul wasn’t consulted about what Spector was doing to his song. He was a few blocks away at his Cavendish Avenue pad, fiddling with his new home-studio equipment, taping four-track ditties with Linda. The songs were mostly casual acoustic sketches, with one classic ballad cut at Abbey Road, “Maybe I’m Amazed.” He decided to release the tapes as a solo album right away, as if to thumb his nose at how long Get Back was taking.

Paul was delighted at the fresh, spontaneous energy of his solo recordings, with the breezy wit of “Every Night,” “Junk,” and “That Would Be Something.” (McCartney will come out with a 50th-anniversary edition in September, in a half-speed-mastered reissue.) But he planned to rush-release it as McCartney the same week as Let It Be. It was an obvious conflict, especially since Ringo was about to drop his own album, Sentimental Journey, crooning old-time standards like “Stardust” that he’d grown up hearing at home. As he explained, “I did it for me mum.”

The situation called for some delicate negotiation. Needless to say, that’s not what happened. On March 31st, John and George sent Ringo over to Paul’s house with a remarkably bitchy letter, in an envelope marked “From Us, To You,” demanding he push back his album. The letter ends, “We’re sorry it turned out like this — it’s nothing personal.” At the bottom, George added, “Hare Krishna.” Paul was outraged, and Ringo — always the peacemaker — went back and talked the others into letting Paul have his way.

The next day, Ringo was back in Abbey Road doing drum overdubs on “Across the Universe,” “I Me Mine,” and “The Long and Winding Road.” Spector’s studio tantrums reached the point where even Ringo put his foot down and ordered him to calm down.

But that was nothing compared with Paul’s rage at hearing the album. As George Martin said, “That made me very angry — and it made Paul even angrier, because neither he nor I knew about it till it had been done. It happened behind our backs because it was done when Allen Klein was running John.”

Klein and Apple were hyping Let It Be with a cover blurb calling it “a new phase Beatle album.” As the release date for McCartney drew near, Paul prepared a Q&A press kit, where he announced a “break with the Beatles.” Why? “Personal differences, business differences, musical differences, but most of all because I have a better time with my family. Temporary or permanent? I don’t know.” Was he planning to make more music with the Beatles? “No.”

Paul gave Rolling Stone the advance dirt about this press release, right before it came out in April. “We’re doing a kit with the album which is an information thing,” he told Jann Wenner. “But I’m not going to tell you anything about it until it’s laid on you because I won’t be able to explain it. It’s much nicer as a surprise.”

The other Beatles did not seem to enjoy the niceness of this surprise. Nobody did. Paul claimed to be shocked when his press kit made front-page headlines all over the world. He’d said things like this before — all four had — but this time, nobody made a move to deny it. Lennon told reporters, “I was happy to hear from Paul. It was nice to find that he was still alive. Anyway, you can say I said jokingly, ‘He didn’t quit, I sacked him.’ ” George had the wittiest response: “It looks like we need a new bass player.”

But the book wasn’t closed. None of them could picture life without the Beatles, couldn’t even imagine their solo indulgences except as a cheeky riposte to the band. They couldn’t yet see this as the end. “I’ve no idea if the Beatles will work together again or not,” John said. “It could be a rebirth or death. We’ll see what it is. It’ll probably be a rebirth.”

By now, most of their communication happened in the press. But even as they were raging at one another in public, they were talking about the band in the present tense. A few days after Paul’s announcement, John told Wenner, “The Beatles haven’t had a future, for me, for the last two years.” But he also insisted they were still the Beatles. “It’s a simple fact that he can’t have his own way, so he’s causing chaos,” John said. The way John saw it, Paul wasn’t allowed to quit; it was his band, after all: “He used to sulk and God knows what. Wouldn’t turn up for the dates or the bookings. It’s always been the same, only now it’s bigger because we’re all bigger. It’s the same old game.”

ERD0G0 Civil Wedding of Paul McCartney & Linda Eastman, Marylebone Register Office, London, 12th March 1969. Also pictured, 6 year old Heather, Linda's daughter from previous marriage, to american geologist Melville See, which was dissolved 4 years ago.

Paul and Linda McCartney in London on their wedding day in 1969. They’re joined by Heather, Linda’s daughter by a previous marriage, and Martha, Paul’s sheepdog.

Alamy Stock Photo

Even George, so often the group’s resident malcontent, kept talking about their future. He did a New York radio interview in early May. He kept his cool when asked about tension between John and Paul. “I think there may be what you’d term a little bitchiness,” he said. “It’s just being bitchy to each other, you know? Childish. Childish.” But when it came to business, George got corporate, calling Paul’s resistance to Klein “a personal problem that he’ll have to get over.” Why? “The reality is that he’s outvoted, and we’re a partnership,” George explained. “He was outvoted three to one, and if he doesn’t like it, it’s really a pity. Because we’re trying to do what’s best for the Beatles as a group, or best for Apple as a company. We’re not trying to do what’s best for Paul and his in-laws.” Speaking as a company man, George had a rosy outlook. “It’s never looked better from my point of view,” he said, not quite convincingly. “The companies are in great shape. Apple Films, Apple Records.”

George insisted the Beatles were still a group; they just needed to do solo work as well. “I think this is a good way, if we do our own albums. That way we don’t have to compromise. Paul wants to do his songs his way. He doesn’t want to do his songs my way. And I don’t wanna do my songs their way, really. I’m sure that after we’ve all completed an album or even two albums each, then that novelty will have worn off.”

He laid out a rough but realistic outline for a future the Beatles could have had. For him, this was just another we-can-work-it-out argument, no different from the past 10 years. “We all have to sacrifice a little in order to gain something really big. And there is a big gain by recording together, I think musically and financially, and also spiritually. Beatles music is such a big sort of scene. I think the least we could do is to sacrifice three months of the year at least, you know, just to do an album or two. I think it’s very selfish if the Beatles don’t record together.”

The Let It Be film premiered in London on May 20th, 1970. None of the Beatles showed up or even sent any word they weren’t coming. A huge crowd gathered to see them in Piccadilly Circus, but instead got a strange grab bag of red-carpet VIPs: Beatles exes Cynthia Lennon and Jane Asher, A Hard Day’s Night director Richard Lester, a few Hare Krishnas, a few Rolling Stones. The Apple staffers all reported for duty but had no idea where their bosses were, looking around in vain for the band and feeling guilty about participating. “It was bloody sad, bloody, bloody awful,” their press officer Derek Taylor would write later. “In the days after the premiere, I dreaded one of them asking me, ‘Did you go to the premiere?’ ”

None of them asked. The four Beatles never got together to watch the movie or listen to the album. The four Beatles never met face to face again.

Get Back will finally be released in summer 2021, but it still won’t have a happy ending. Questions will persist about whether the breakup could have — or should have — been a temporary glitch in the story. “The whole Let It Be thing, it’s just one snapshot of that time,” Jackson says. “But then the footage for the movie and the recordings for the album, they end up getting presented to the world in May 1970. They’ve gone through Phil Spector’s hands; Allen Klein’s -arrived; the Beatles have broken up. It’s still the January ’69 music. But it’s viewed through a filter.”

Get Back will take a different view of the same experience. “These guys, when they’re together, are not the Beatles,” Jackson says. “They’re not the icons that we know. When they’re together, they’re four guys that have known each other since they were 14 or 15 years old. They talk about Hamburg. They chat about the Cavern Club. They just chat about this echo unit they had at the Top Ten Club. They’re not being interviewed. They’re just four guys who have been through this experience.”

That includes the moment when Paul pleads that it’s crazy to break up over Yoko sitting on an amp. When I mention that line, Jackson knows exactly the moment I mean. As it turns out, that conversation — long bootlegged on tape — was captured on camera. “We’ve got all that on film,” Jackson says. “I’ll tell you what, that film is powerful. I was aware of the audio — it’s one thing to hear the dialogue — but seeing the emotion on their faces when they’re having that conversation, it’s very powerful.”

That’s ultimately the biggest of Beatles mysteries, which neither Get Back nor any other film will resolve: What is it that makes people around the world, from all generations and all cultures, still hear ourselves in this story, 50 years after the end? Jackson, who has spent his whole career working with giant-scale cultural myths, can’t explain away this one. “They’re only the icons they are because the music was so majestically good. I’m not a musicologist, that’s not where I come from. But all I would say is, no matter if it’s two tracks or four tracks or eight tracks, there’s a joy in the songs that they sang. In decades and decades to come, it will never be dulled. It will never be suppressed. That joy, that infectious joy, is part of the human psyche now.”


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