Why the Beatles Broke Up
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.'”
Because Lennon and McCartney dominated the Beatles’ songwriting and singing, they, in effect, led the band, though Lennon had always enjoyed an implicit seniority. Even so, the Beatles abided by a guiding policy of one-man, one-vote, which figured significantly when, in 1966, after years of touring, John, George and Ringo persuaded Paul that they should stop performing their music live. For about three months, all four went their separate ways, and as they did, John Lennon felt sharp apprehensions: “I was thinking, ‘Well, this is the end, really. There’s no more touring. That means there’s going to be a blank space in the future…’ That’s when I really started considering life without the Beatles – what would it be? And that’s when the seed was planted that I had to somehow get out of [the Beatles] without being thrown out by the others. But I could never step out of the palace because it was too frightening.”
Shortly afterward, the band reassembled for its most eventful work, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – but that was also when the Beatles’ inner workings turned strangely complex, even subterranean. The album’s concept had been McCartney’s idea, and though Lennon was primarily responsible for Sgt. Pepper‘s best song, “A Day in the Life,” he later said he saw his contributions to the album as veiled reflections of despair: “I was still in a real big depression in Pepper, and I know Paul wasn’t at that time. He was feeling full of confidence… I was going through murder.” In part, this is how Lennon worked – he either rose or sank by way of crises – but he was truly at a turning point. He believed himself trapped in a loveless and staid domestic life – loveless on his part, that is, because his wife, Cynthia, loved him deeply – and was feeling outdistanced by McCartney, who was an unconstrained and famous man living in London, attending the city’s cutting-edge cultural events and exposing himself to a wide range of avant-garde music and arts. If Lennon didn’t pursue that outer life, he certainly pursued an inner one, taking LSD frequently, to the point that some worried he was erasing his identity. George Harrison later said, “In a way, like psychiatry, acid could undo a lot – it was so powerful you could just see. But I think we didn’t really realize the extent to which John was screwed up .”
In August 1967, leadership in and around the Beatles shifted more decidedly after their manager, Brian Epstein, was found dead in his London town house from an unintentional overdose of drugs. Epstein had been depressed for some time, but he’d remained utterly devoted to the band, and many of the group’s insiders felt that it was Epstein who kept the Beatles grounded and protected. “I knew that we were in trouble then,” Lennon later said. “I didn’t really have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music, and I was scared. I thought, ‘We’ve fuckin’ had it.'”
McCartney, though, didn’t see it that way. Five days after Epstein’s death, Paul convinced the others to undertake a film and music fantasia, Magical Mystery Tour. The band spent the late summer into early winter filming odd reveries and recording music to accompany those scenes, and while it was ostensibly a free-form collaborative project by all four Beatles, there was no mistaking that, in the end, Magical Mystery Tour had been primarily McCartney’s invention. The film debuted on the BBC the day after Christmas in 1967, and the next day it was savaged by critics. (“Blatant rubbish,” wrote London’s Daily Express.) Lennon was reportedly somewhat pleased to see McCartney stumble for once.
In February 1968, the Beatles went to study Transcendental Meditation at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh, India. The sojourn was in part the result of Harrison’s effort to gain more influence on the band’s direction – he was the first among the Beatles to gain an interest in Indian music and philosophies – though at first all the Beatles felt the need to reappraise the purposes of their success. “I think we were all a bit exhausted, spiritually,” McCartney said later. “We’d been the Beatles, which was marvelous … but I think generally there was a feeling of ‘Yeah, well, it’s great to be famous, it’s great to be rich – but what’s it all for?'” However, unease soon set in. When Harrison suspected that Lennon and McCartney might be using the retreat as a haven for songwriting, he grew displeased. “We’re not here to talk music,” he complained. “We’re here to meditate!” Paul’s reply was “Oh, yeah, all right, Georgie boy. Calm down, man.” Ringo Starr and his wife, Maureen, left two weeks after arriving (Starr, who had stomach troubles, couldn’t handle the Indian cuisine), and McCartney and his girlfriend, actress Jane Asher, followed two weeks later. McCartney found the setting too much like school. Harrison and Lennon stayed until Lennon realized he wasn’t any closer to solving the troubles he felt in his heart: the need to renew both his marriage and his artistic purposes. After hearing a rumor that the Maharishi had made sexual advances toward a young woman at the ashram, Lennon became incensed, and demanded that he and Harrison leave immediately.
Something about the whole venture seemed to transform Lennon in ways that nobody readily understood; after that, according to insiders, he always seemed angry. The truth is, he was in great despair; all he had to save him was his art, and even that wasn’t relief. “Although … I was meditating about eight hours a day,” he later said, “I was writing the most miserable songs on Earth.”
Back in London, Lennon soon abandoned Cynthia to begin a serious relationship and artistic collaboration with Yoko Ono, whom he’d met in November 1966. Though Ono has been characterized as an ambitious woman who pursued Lennon indomitably, she went through her own hurt and disappointment in the upheaval that followed, losing access to her daughter, Kyoko, and sidelining her promising art career at Lennon’s behest. As she later said, “We sacrificed everything.” The press and the fans treated her with derision: She was called “Jap,” “Chink” and ‘Yellow” in public, and Lennon sometimes had to shield her from physical harm.
All of this judgment certainly fed into Lennon’s rage, but it paled in comparison to what developed when Lennon brought Ono directly into the Beatles’ world. The group had rarely allowed guests into the studio, and never tolerated anyone other than producer George Martin or perhaps a recording engineer, such as Geoff Emerick, to offer input about a work in progress. (The one time Brian Epstein offered a suggestion during a recording session, John Lennon humiliated the manager in front of everybody.) But Lennon didn’t bring Ono into the Beatles as a guest; he brought her in as a full-fledged collaborator. When the Beatles began work in May 1968 on their first new LP since Sgt. Pepper, Yoko sat with John on the studio floor; she conversed with him continually in a low voice, and accompanied him every time he left the room. The first time she spoke in the studio, offering John advice on a vocal, the room fell silent. Then Paul said, “Fuck me! Did somebody speak? Who the fuck was that? Did you say something, George? Your lips didn’t move!”
Lennon wasn’t somebody who would back off. “He wanted me to be part of the group,” Ono later said. “He created the group, so he thought the others should accept that. I didn’t particularly want to be part of them.” Instead, Ono made her own recordings with Lennon, such as the notorious Two Virgins – an album of experimental electronic music that bore nude photos of the couple. If some found Lennon and Ono’s collaborations indulgent or farcical, McCartney realized that Ono emboldened Lennon. “In fact, she wanted more,” he said. “Do it more, do it double, be more daring, take all your clothes off. She always pushed him, which he liked. Nobody had ever pushed him like that.” But McCartney probably also understood the true meaning of a record like Two Virgins: That John Lennon had an unstoppable will that, unchecked, could redeem or destroy his life, or could undo the Beatles. When the group learned that Lennon and Ono had started using heroin, the Beatles didn’t know what to do about it. “This was a fairly big shocker for us,” McCartney said, “because we all thought we were far-out boys, but we kind of understood that we’d never get quite that far-out.”
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.”
There is a famous scene in the Let It Be film in which McCartney worries that his musical guidelines are irritating Harrison too much, and Harrison replies that he’ll play whatever Paul wants from him, even if it means playing nothing. “You’re not annoying me anymore,” Harrison says, with palpable annoyance. The scene has been taken to represent the crux of the sessions’ problem: that McCartney was pushy and insensitive, and that Harrison got fed up with it all. To be sure, Harrison had legitimate grievances. He had long been relegated to the role of sideman by Lennon and McCartney. But Harrison was troubled by other matters. He had come to dislike intensely the idea of a live show – and as the time grew closer, his protests grew bolder. By then, the Roundhouse date had fallen through, and when Lindsay-Hogg suggested a bigger or more exotic setting, such as a show in a Roman amphitheater, Harrison was sickened. “It would be just our luck to get a load of cunts in there,” he said.
The most dangerous tensions during January, though, passed between Harrison and Lennon. After being sidelined for years, Harrison now found that Yoko Ono sometimes had a voice in band matters that equaled or even bested his. Worse, though, Lennon and Ono were now practicing what was known as “heightened awareness” – based on a belief that verbal communication was unnecessary between people “tuned in” to larger truths. Its real effect, however, was to shut down any meaningful or helpful interactions. When crucial issues came up, Lennon would say nothing, deferring to whatever Ono thought – which drove his bandmates crazy. McCartney had developed an equanimity about it all. There were only two options, “to oppose Yoko and get the Beatles back to four or to put up with her.” He opted for the latter, because he didn’t want to lose John. In addition, he said, he felt he had no place in telling John to leave Yoko at home. It did, however, always rankle McCartney when Ono would refer to the Beatles without “the” – as in, “Beatles will do this, Beatles will do that.” Paul tried to correct her – “Actually, it’s the Beatles, luv” – to no avail.
Finally, Harrison reached a breaking point. Early in the afternoon of January 10th, Harrison and Lennon got into a fight that they had to later deny came to blows (though George Martin would tell Lennon biographer Philip Norman that the argument indeed became physical, but “was hushed up afterwards”). The moments of that confrontation are among the few that Lindsay-Hogg was unable to capture for posterity. He did, however, manage to film Harrison apparently quitting the Beatles. “I’m out of here,” he said, packing up his guitar. “Put an ad in [the papers] and get a few people in. See you ’round the clubs.”
McCartney and Starr seemed shocked, but Lennon was unruffled, launching into a version of the Who‘s “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” essentially mocking Harrison’s anguish. Later that day, Ono took George’s place, picked up a microphone and launched into a wordless blues, as the remaining Beatles joined in, not sure what else to do if they wanted to keep Lennon from bolting as well. (It is, in fact, a fairly remarkable performance.)
Later that afternoon, Lennon suggested recruiting Eric Clapton to replace Harrison: “The point is, George leaves, and do we want to carry on as the Beatles? I certainly do.”
On Sunday, January 12th, all four Beatles met at Starr’s house to try to resolve their differences, but when Ono persisted in speaking out on Lennon’s behalf, Harrison walked out. The Beatles finally reached an accord days later, but Harrison imposed stiff terms: No more talk about any major live concerts, and no more work at Twickenham studios. Ono, however, would remain in attendance at all sessions, alongside John. “Yoko only wants to be accepted,” Lennon said. “She wants to be one of us.” When Starr replied, “She’s not a Beatle, John, and she never will be,” Lennon dug in his heels. “Yoko is part of me now. We’re John and Yoko, we’re together.”
Almost two weeks after George’s walkout, the Beatles resumed playing, this time in a studio in the basement of the Beatles’ Apple headquarters on Savile Row. That same day, Harrison brought in organist Billy Preston, whom the Beatles had met in Hamburg, Germany, in 1962, and who later played with Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. Preston played on the remaining sessions, and his improvisational and professional skills brought a new and badly needed dignity to the final rehearsal days. Lennon found Preston so vitalizing that he wanted to add him immediately as a bona fide, permanent member of the group, a fifth Beatle. McCartney’s response was adamant. “It’s bad enough with four,” he said.
Time was running out on the project. Starr was obliged to begin filming The Magic Christian within days, and it was plain by the end of January that there was no longer time to plan a concert anywhere. Still, the Beatles and Lindsay-Hogg wanted an ending for the film they had begun, and on January 29th, somebody – some say Ringo, others claim it was Paul or even Lindsay-Hogg – suggested staging a concert the next afternoon on the rooftop of Apple’s offices. The following afternoon, waiting in the stairwell just below the roof, Harrison and Starr suddenly weren’t sure they wanted to go through with the venture, but at the last instant, Lennon said, “Oh, fuck, let’s do it,” and he and the others, accompanied by Preston, stepped onto their makeshift stage, overlooking London’s tailoring district. This was the Beatles’ only concert-style performance since August 1966, and it would be their last. That it was also the finest of their live shows says much about the collective power of the musicianship and charisma that they had nurtured over the years, and that even mutual recriminations couldn’t nullify. As they played for that near-hour in the bitter cold, triumphing by way of matchless instincts, Lennon and McCartney trading smiles at every keen or botched moment, their best truth became plain: The Beatles were a true kinship – a family with a shared history that spoke a language they would never forget. Those moments, though, weren’t enough to redeem what was about to happen.
Reportedly, the earlier fight between Harrison and Lennon started with a remark Lennon had made in an early-January newspaper article, in which he said that if Apple kept losing money at its present rate, he – and therefore the Beatles – would be bankrupt by midyear. It was perhaps an overstatement, but Apple was in fact running out of control, and neither Harrison nor McCartney appreciated Lennon spreading that news.
As a result of all the artist signings, and the price of buying the Savile Row building plus paying high salaries to friends and executives, Apple’s expenses soared. Like all the Beatles, McCartney was an Apple director, but in the company’s crucial first year, he was the only one who took a daily interest in the business. (Harrison, always the first to sour on anything, told confidants he hated Apple and its “rooms full of lunatics… and all kinds of hangers-on.”) In those first months, McCartney tried to curb the company’s outlay, but he was met with the other Beatles’ resistance; they had no real conception of economic realities, since they simply spent what they needed or desired, and had Apple pick up the bills. When Paul warned them of the financial problems, he was confronted with the view that worry over money matters was an outmoded mind-set. “It was like a traitorous utterance,” he said. “It was a rather un-communist thing to do … and anything I said seemed to come out wrong.” McCartney recalled trying to alert Lennon that he in particular was spending far too much. “I said, ‘Look, John. I’m right.’ And he said, ‘You fucking would be, wouldn’t you? You’re always right, aren’t you?'”
Matters finally hit a critical point when an accountant quit, leaving behind a blunt memo: “Your personal finances are in a mess.” Both McCartney and Lennon now felt that Apple needed a firm hand – that perhaps it was time for the Beatles to acquire a new manager. They approached various financiers and consultants, and McCartney soon believed he had found the ideal solution close at hand: Linda Eastman’s father, Lee, and her brother, John, were New York attorneys specializing in artist representation. McCartney believed that the Eastmans could manage Apple and save the band’s fortunes, but the other Beatles were leery. All three felt that McCartney already exercised enough sway over the band’s fate, and they did not want his potential in-laws also overseeing their business. John, in particular, thought he couldn’t allow his partner such an upper hand.
For years, New York accountant Allen Klein had been looking for an entree with the Beatles. A brusque and tenacious man, Klein was known for uncovering lost royalties for music artists, and he had managed singer Sam Cooke before his death. More recently, he had been the business manager for such English acts as Herman’s Hermits, Donovan and the Rolling Stones. However, Klein also had a reputation for questionable ethics and was under investigation by U.S. financial authorities. Even so, more than anything, he wanted the Beatles. He had once offered to help Brian Epstein make the band bigger fortunes, but Epstein had declined even to shake Klein’s hand.
After reading Lennon’s comments about the Beatles running the risk of going broke, Klein managed to inveigle a reluctant Peter Brown, a director of Apple, into arranging a formal introduction to Lennon. On January 28th, 1969, two days before the Beatles’ Apple rooftop performance, Klein met Lennon and Ono at a London hotel, and charmed both. He knew the Beatles’ music inside out – and he knew how to get on Lennon’s good side: lauding Lennon’s particular contributions to various songs, and vouchsafing to Lennon Ono’s validity as an artist in her own right. Just as important, Klein convinced Lennon that they shared a similar sensibility – both were streetwise men who had made their own way in a hard world. By the evening’s end, John and Yoko were won over: Lennon and Klein signed a letter of agreement, and Lennon informed EMI and the Beatles the next day. “I don’t give a bugger who anybody else wants,” Lennon said. “But I’m having Allen Klein for me.”
This set off the conflagration that killed the Beatles. McCartney still tried to advance Lee and John Eastman to represent the group’s interests, and arranged a meeting for all the central players. But Allen Klein turned the encounter into a trap, baiting Lee Eastman, accusing him essentially of being a secretive Jew (Eastman had abandoned the family surname Epstein years before), and Lennon joined in. finally, Eastman exploded in fury, calling Klein “a rodent.” then he and McCartney left the meeting. “I wouldn’t let [Eastman] near me,” Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970. “I wouldn’t let a fuckin’ animal like that near me who has a mind like that.” The worse Klein behaved and the more that Eastman impugned his character, the more Lennon and Ono championed him as the Beatles’ rescuer, and Harrison and Starr soon agreed. “Because we were all from Liverpool,” Harrison said in the mid-1990s, “we favored people who were street people. Lee Eastman was more of a class-conscious type of person. As John was going with Klein, it was much easier if we went with him too.” Though Mick Jagger, who no longer trusted Klein at all, tried to dissuade the Beatles – “Don’t go near him,” he wrote in a note to McCartney – it was no use.
This disagreement came at the worst possible time for the Beatles, when everything was happening too fast. In a matter of months, the Beatles lost their chance to commandeer Brian Epstein’s former management firm, NEMS (costing them a fortune), and, more crucially, Lennon and McCartney lost the rights to Northern Songs, their music publisher. In the course of it all, McCartney married Linda Eastman on March 12th, 1969. And Lennon and Ono married on March 20th, in Gibraltar. In addition, on the same day as McCartney’s wedding, Harrison and his wife, Pattie, were arrested for marijuana possession (Lennon and Ono had been arrested on a similar charge by the same police officer months before, and the disposition of that case affected Lennon’s life for years). Klein had been of no benefit in any of the business debacles, despite his assurances, and yet Lennon, Harrison and Starr remained supportive of him.
On the evening of May 9th, 1969, at a recording session at Olympic Sound Studios, Allen Klein waited outside while Lennon, Harrison and Starr, at his behest, demanded that McCartney sign a three-year management deal with Klein immediately. McCartney wouldn’t do it. He told the others that Klein’s 20 percent fee was too high, but in truth he simply couldn’t reconcile himself to the reality of Allen Klein as the Beatles’ manager. The others grew furious, but McCartney held his ground. “The way I saw it, I had to save the Beatles’ fortunes,” he said. “They said, ‘Oh, fuck off!’ and they all stormed off, leaving me with the session at Olympic.”
This was essentially a battle between Lennon and McCartney; these were men fated to prevail, and neither could afford to lose. McCartney eventually succumbed, though with a fine subterfuge: When the Beatles signed their contract with Klein, McCartney refused to put his signature on the document. Neither Klein nor the others believed this mattered – the Beatles had a majority-rule understanding. But in that moment of dissent, Paul McCartney pulled off the only brilliant maneuver that anybody accomplished during the Beatles’ whole sorry endgame: By withholding his signature, McCartney would later convince a court that he was no longer contractually bound to remain with the Beatles and had never been bound to Klein.
By this time, McCartney had lost his heart for Apple, the company that had resulted largely from his vision. In fact, he now hated the place, and stopped visiting the Savile Row offices. When McCartney would try to reach Klein, the Beatles’ nominal manager would sometimes refuse the call.”Tell him to call back Monday,” Klein told his receptionist.
Despite the travail of the “Get Back” sessions, the Beatles reconvened to make another album. Myth later had it that the Beatles knew they were ending and wanted to make a final record worthy of their reputation, but the truth is, no matter their troubles, the Beatles still liked the music they made together, even if they didn’t like one another. They had already been recording intermittently since the January sessions, and had produced “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (with just Lennon and McCartney) and Harrison’s “Old Brown Shoe” (with the full band). McCartney persuaded George Martin to return to the production helm and also brought back Geoff Emerick, under assurances that the Beatles would work on their best behavior. Lennon had to delay his arrival at the sessions after wrecking a car that he, Ono, Julian and Kyoko were riding in, on July 1st, 1969. When Lennon arrived at Abbey Road, he had a bed installed on the studio floor, so his wife could rest and offer commentary. None of the other Beatles dared protest. “The three of them were a little bit scared of him,” recalled EMI engineer Phil McDonald. “John was a powerful figure, especially with Yoko – a double strength.”
There were still disagreements, including Lennon barging into McCartney’s house one day when Paul had missed a session, and in a shouting rage, breaking a painting he’d given McCartney. At another point, John wanted his and Paul’s songs relegated to separate sides of the vinyl album. In the end, a compromise was reached – most of the stand-alone songs on one side, and the suite (known as “The Huge”) on the other. Just as important, Harrison finally enjoyed some long-overdue prominence when his two contributions, “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” were recognized as among the best work the Beatles recorded during the summer of 1969. The resulting album, Abbey Road, provided a sweeping display of the band’s mature strengths and a perspective on its history, whether the Beatles intended it that way or not. Lennon would later renounce Abbey Road as “something slick” that McCartney fashioned “to preserve the myth,” but Lennon had the habit of not appreciating anybody’s depths but his own. McCartney had been watching the Beatles come apart, and he was grieving over it. Talking about the closing segments of Abbey Road‘s suite with Barry Miles, in Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now, McCartney said, “I’m generally quite upbeat but at certain times things get to me so much that I just can’t be upbeat anymore and that was one of the times … Carry that weight a long time: like forever! That’s what I meant.”
By the time Abbey Road was released on September 26th, the Beatles’ fellowship had effectively ended. On September 13th, John Lennon and Yoko Ono performed at the Toronto Rock & Roll Revival, with a makeshift group that included Eric Clapton, and the experience convinced Lennon that he could no longer withstand the confines of his old band. A week later, during a meeting at Apple – with Klein, the Beatles and Ono in attendance – McCartney tried once more to persuade his bandmates to undertake a tour and return to the stage. “Let’s get back to square one and remember what we’re all about,” he told them. Lennon responded, “I think you’re daft. I wasn’t going to tell you, but I’m breaking the group up. It feels good. It feels like a divorce.”
The people in the room didn’t know whether to be shocked or to take the claim as another show of bravado on Lennon’s part. Nobody – including Ono – knew this would happen on this day. “Our jaws dropped,” McCartney said. For once, McCartney and Klein were in agreement: They persuaded Lennon to hold off on any announcement for at least a couple of months. Klein had just finished a new deal that won the Beatles a substantial increase in royalty rates, and he didn’t want to spook EMI with the knowledge that the band was breaking up. Plus, both Klein and McCartney believed that Lennon might reconsider; it wasn’t uncommon for him to swing between extremes. But Ono knew better, and she was as unhappy as anybody else in that moment.
“We went off in the car,” she later told Philip Norman, “and he turned to me and said, ‘That’s it with the Beatles. From now on, it’s just you – OK?’ I thought, ‘My God, those three guys were the ones entertaining him for so long. Now I have to be the one to take the load.'”
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 ?
Q: Are you planning a new album or single with the Beatles?
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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