Friday, September 18, 2009

The Beatles' Break-up


After reading Mojo magazine's latest issue about the recording of Abbey Road, and Mikal Gilmore's article "Why the Beatles Broke Up," in Rolling Stone, I've been thinking a lot more about the Beatles' break-up. Why exactly did it happen? Who or what was to blame? Business squabbles, Yoko, the group just growing apart, Paul being too bossy, Yoko, what was it? I can't claim to answer that question in one mere blog post, but I'm going to explore some of the issues that drove the band apart.


The roots of the Beatles break-up go back to 1967, and the death of their manager Brian Epstein. After Brian died, there was a leadership void within the band. (Obviously, Brian didn't order them around, but he was still an influence on the band.) Paul McCartney was the Beatle who started leading the group after Brian died, despite John Lennon being the oldest and the perceived leader. Paul was the one who came up with the concept for Sgt. Pepper and the Magical Mystery Tour TV special, which he basically directed. In time, I think that Lennon came to resent McCartney's "takeover" of the band, and he felt that Paul was usurping his own place in the band. The group's 1968 trip to India with the Maharishi was one time when George was able to assert his leadership and get all the others on board with him. But after the White Album, it was back to Paul being the leader, as he had the idea that the group should tour again and play some small club gigs. (This started out as the Get Back sessions, which became the movie and album Let It Be.)


Part of the reason that Paul seems to have gotten his way so much in the last few years of the group's life is that no one else seemed to have any alternatives. It wasn't as though John had a different idea that got shot down by everyone else, it really seems like Paul was the only one who was willing to articulate a vision for the band. Why was that? Were the other members just that apathetic? If John was frustrated by feeling like Paul was always getting his own way, why didn't John suggest some alternatives? For whatever reason, John essentially abdicated his own leadership role in the band, and Paul was willing to take on that role. Why did John back down from leading the band? Was it the burden of his drug addictions, (LSD in 1966-67, heroin in 1968-69) his problems at home-his failing marriage to Cynthia and emerging relationship with Yoko? We'll probably never know for sure.


When the Beatles started recording the White Album, things changed dramatically. These sessions, which lasted from May 30th to October 15th, 1968, were fraught with tension among the band members, and it was during these sessions that Ringo quit the band for two weeks. And not only did the Beatles' arguments reach new heights, they now had a new person attending all of their recording sessions: Yoko Ono, John's new girlfriend. John's decision to have Yoko continually by his side at Abbey Road must have rankled the other three members of the group. And, as far as I can tell, there was little discussion between John and the other three about their new addition. One day Yoko was simply there. By his actions, John was straining his relationship with the rest of the band. But somehow the group finished the White Album, which was released on November 22, 1968.


On January 2, 1969, the Beatles met at Twickenham film studios to start recording Get Back. The plan was to film the group rehearing new songs in preparation for a live concert. It was Paul's idea, as he thought they should "get back" to their roots by doing concerts in small clubs. Which wasn't a bad idea, and under different circumstances it might have worked. I've always thought that one of the problems with Get Back is that it followed so quickly on the heels of the White Album. Work finished on the White Album in mid-October, and just two and a half months later they were rehearsing and recording their new album! I think the group probably needed a longer break from each other, they probably should have taken six months off! But anyway, the Beatles were back, and Paul was excited, even if no one else was. So, if no one else was as excited as Paul, why did they agree to the project? Again, it simply seems to be that no one offered any alternative ideas. That's always been a paradox of the Beatles' break-up, the story is that Paul was "bossy," but no one else was standing up and offering alternative plans. What was Paul to do?


The Get Back sessions made the White Album sessions look like fun. On January 10th, just a week into the sessions, George Harrison quit the group. George came back, but on the condition that the concert idea be dropped. It's easy to understand why George was pissed off with the group. He was tired of only getting one song per album side, especially since he was writing songs that were just as good as John and Paul's. (On the White Album, George got exactly one song on each side.) George felt marginalized and neglected by both John and Paul. Although much is made of George's resentment of Paul's bossiness, (see the Let It Be clip where George tells Paul, "I'll play whatever it is you want me to play.") Harrison's relationship with John Lennon was also fracturing. According to the Rolling Stone article, on January 10th, the day George quit, "Harrison and Lennon got into a fight that they later had to deny came to blows." Clearly George's relationship with John had seriously deteriorated.


Somehow the band was able to put things aside long enough to play an impromptu concert on the roof of the Apple building on January 30th, their last live performance. The Get Back project was left not-quite finished, and the group kept recording new material throughout the spring. John and Paul recorded "The Ballad of John and Yoko" on their own during one mid-April session. In July they began intensive studio sessions for what was to become their final LP, Abbey Road. George Martin said, "Let It Be was a miserable experience and I never thought that we would get back together again." And somehow they managed to. Paul McCartney said in Mojo, "We'd had bad times, and the relief of just getting back together again and doing what we knew and not asking too many questions was quite a pleasure." No one walked out during the Abbey Road sessions, so they must have been relatively harmonious. Although, at one point, John wanted all of his songs on one side of the album and all of Paul's songs on the other! (Maybe this is why on side one John's songs open and close the side, and Paul's are in the middle, with George and Ringo's separating them.)


But just around the time Abbey Road was released in September, John Lennon dropped a bombshell on his bandmates: he was breaking up the group. Paul and Allen Klein were able to persuade him to not say anything publicly. So why did John say he was leaving? Why was he so fed up with the band? He had the latitude to release his experimental noodlings with Yoko as solo albums, so what more did he want? I don't know the answer to this question, and I'm not sure that John Lennon himself knew the answer. He just knew that he wanted something other than the Beatles. John was a very insecure person, and I think he felt threatened by Paul's continued leadership of the band. But even though John resented this, he didn't seem to be able to tell Paul this, so Paul just went on leading the group, or trying to.


Would the Beatles have been able to survive as a group if they had let members release solo works? Clearly George would have jumped at the chance to record his own album in 1969. But would everyone have just cherry-picked their best songs for their solo records and left the group with their leftovers? Who knows, but it might have placated John and George, at least for a while.


So for the next six months, nothing really happened with the Beatles. All the members concentrated on their solo work. It was only when Paul tried to release his solo album McCartney, and the date interfered with the scheduled release of Let It Be that things came out in public. John and George tried to get Paul to change his release date, to let Let It Be come out first, and they sent Ringo as their emissary to talk to Paul. Ringo went to Paul's house, and McCartney quickly became incensed, and threw Ringo out of his house. Paul drafted a Q&A to be included with advance copies of McCartney, and he made it clear that he had no plans to record with the Beatles in the future. Lennon was pissed off because Paul had preempted him, as it appeared at the time that Paul was leaving the group. Paul later said, "I was the last one to leave!" What would have happened had Paul not "left" the group in April of 1970? Would anyone have said anything? Would they have somehow recorded more music together? That seems pretty unlikely, as it had been 8 months since the last Beatles recording session, and there were no plans for them to record together again. Really, it was a strange and sad end for the group, but there you have it.


There are so many other issues I didn't even get to, like Allen Klein's attempt to manage the Beatles, and McCartney's battle against Klein, John and Paul losing control of their music publishing, the whole Apple business...there just isn't time right now, maybe in a future post.

2 comments:

Uncle E said...

Excellent writing and a great topic. Funny we're still having discussions on a band that broke up, what, almost 40 years ago? I believe people will be doing this for at least another 40 years as well. What broke up the Beatles? I think you're on the money with the apathy angle. They did it all during their time, the only thing left to accomplish was the solo thing. Plus John and his politics, George and his gurus, Paul and his hash and Ringo and his....well, whatever...urge to act or something...they were going in different directions. Still my favorite band, though listening to these remasters makes it hard for me to listen to anything else now.

Holly A Hughes said...

An endlessly fascinating topic. It seemed as if Paul was the only one left with a work ethic toward the end -- and unfortunately he had (and still has) a work ethic of gargantuan proportions. Taking time off is not something Paul does well. You're right, more of a vacation between projects might have been good ... but I think the seeds of their break-up had already been sown and it was inevitable.

I still get wistful, thinking about how Paul and John's friendship was destroyed in these years. It was a rare and special thing for both of them. There was a great TV movie a few years ago, imagining an afternoon in the late 70s when Paul was in New York and showed up unexpectedly at John's apartment -- how they just hung out for an afternoon, reconnecting. (Not based on any known incident.) I love to think that they may have had a chance to heal those wounds.

For all his harsh later words about the Beatles, I've read that Lennon couldn't bring himself to sign the document that officially dissolved their partnership. He was the last one to finally sign it...and it devastated him.

Truly, I could sit here and think about the Beatles for days on end! Thanks for jogging those memories...