Why The Beatles split: The true story of the break-up of the biggest band ever
Paul McCartney’s 1970 press release was the end for the Fab Four, but it had been coming for years, and by the time Yoko Ono was answering for John Lennon in band meetings, the writing was on the wall. Mark Beaumont details the flash-points, fights, and behind-the-scenes tensions that led to the rift that never healed
even sent McCartney a note warning him not to go near Klein. Nonetheless, Lennon was flattered into signing Klein as his financial representative on their first meeting, and as Klein baited the Eastmans in fraught meetings, Starr and Harrison were convinced to take him on as manager. McCartney reluctantly accepted the group decision, but it drove a further wedge between himself and Lennon, and he refused to put his signature on Klein’s contract. It would prove his escape route from the band.
The flashpointsThe desire to “get back to where you once belonged” wasn’t just shared by Jojo and Sweet Loretta Martin, it was a subliminal mission statement forLet It Be. In the hope of rekindling the band’s old Hamburg cohesion, McCartney suggested they return to their rock and blues roots for a project provisionally entitled “Get Back”. The idea was for director Michael Lindsay-Hogg to film the rehearsals for a live show consisting of new material, to be performed at London’s Roundhouse on 29 January 1969. The end result, however, was The Beatles pretty much breaking up on camera.
When sessions began on 2 January, working an un-Beatles schedule of nine-to-five on a cold Twickenham soundstage, Lennon, Starr and Harrison were unsure about the whole idea, while the “workaholic” McCartney was directing the rehearsals like another of his personal projects. “Why are you here?” he asked the band. “I’m here because I want to do a show, but I don’t see an awful lot of support.”
By now Lennon and Ono were on heroin and communicating via the wordless practice of “heightened awareness” – if a decision was needed, Lennon would stay silent and let Ono speak for him, destroying any real band interplay. The terseness of the recording spilled onto celluloid: “I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play,” Harrison snapped at McCartney during a frayed session for “I’ve Got a Feeling”. “Whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it.”
John Lennon and Yoko Ono arrive at London Airport in 1969Ostracised from Lennon, patronised by McCartney and detesting the idea of the live gig, Harrison was next to quit the band. After a fight with Lennon on 10 January over Lennon speaking publicly about Apple’s looming bankruptcy – George Martin would later claim that punches were thrown and “hushed up” – Harrison left the band on film. “I’m out of here,” he said as he packed up and left, “put an ad in and get a few people in. See you round the clubs.”
An initial attempt to patch up their differences at a meeting at Starr’s house two days later ended badly when Harrison again stormed out when Ono kept speaking for Lennon. Sessions forLet It Be, as it would be renamed, only resumed two weeks later at Savile Row on Harrison’s insistence that there would be no major concert. Instead, the band famously played their last show together on the roof of Apple Corps on 30 January, and even then Harrison had last-minute reservations. “George didn’t want to do it, and Ringo started saying he didn’t really see the point,” said Lindsay-Hogg. “Then John said, ‘Oh, f*** it – let’s do it.’” Forty minutes later, as the police raided the rooftop, Lennon closed the last ever Beatles performance with the quip, “I hope we passed the audition.”
It was perhaps the old spark of playing live, clearly visible in the grins passing passed across the rooftops of W1 that afternoon, that encouraged The Beatles to make one more album together. They reconvened in July to recordAbbey Road, individually inspired (particularly Harrison) but with no impasse in sight. Lennon initially wanted his and McCartney’s songs separated on each side of the album, and insisted on having a bed installed in the studio for Ono. When McCartney missed one session, Lennon broke into his house and damaged a painting. “The three of them were a little bit scared of him,”
engineer Phil McDonald said, and biographer Barry Miles agreed: “The other Beatles had to walk on eggshells just to avoid one of his explosive rages.”George Harrison and John Lennon in a London studio recording 'Let It Be'The Beatles last played together on 18 August, fittingly recording “The End”. With Harrison contributing two of his greatest songs in “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun” and McCartney’s concept of linking songs together into a spectacular suite stretched over side two, they’d pulled a masterwork from wreckage.
Abbey Roadwas the culmination of eight years of inspired exploration, an album that The Beatles deserved to bow out on. Instead, their end would become more of a scramble for the wings.The last monthsOn 8 September 1969, McCartney, Lennon and Harrison met to decide The Beatles’ future, and vent long-held frustrations. With a glut of material, both Harrison and Lennon were tired of having to fight McCartney for the chance to record their songs so Lennon suggested a more democratic approach to the next album – an equal-rights songwriting split of four songs each from Lennon, McCartney and Harrison and two from Starr. The rapturous reception given to his Plastic Ono Band show at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival on 13 September changed Lennon’s mind though – on the plane home, in another airborne revelation, he resolved to leave the group.
At Apple HQ on 20 September, he let loose, blaming McCartney for making him doubt his songwriting abilities and stifling his voice until he’d lost the will to fight for his songs. When McCartney suggested that touring again might rejuvenate their magic, Lennon snapped “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.”
“Our jaws dropped,” McCartney said; the news shocked everyone. Ono hadn’t even picked it up on their psychic airwaves. “We went off in the car,” she revealed later, “and he turned to me and said, ‘That’s it with the Beatles. From now on, it’s just you, OK?’”
Fans gather outside the West End premiere of 'Let It Be' in 1970A new, improved royalty deal with Capitol records was due to be signed, so the band convinced Lennon to keep the split secret. As Lennon talked up the possibility of a new Beatles tour in the press over the coming months, and told a Danish journalist, “We’re not breaking up the band, but we’re breaking its image,” his bandmates speculated privately about whether Lennon was having “one of his flings” and would change his mind.
In his remote Scottish family farm, a distraught McCartney turned to drink, only crawling from the bottle when he found the spirit to record his solo album McCartney.’s new, lushly orchestrated production on his plaintive piano ballad “The Long and Winding Road” horrified him, but with his communication with Klein having entirely broken down he wasn’t able to insist on changes before
Let It Bewas pressed. The final straw came when Starr was sent to his house with a letter from the band insisting he move his album’s release date to make way forLet It Be– McCartney flew into a rage and threw Starr out. The next thing the band knew, McCartney had split the band by press release.
Recriminations were instant. Fans flocked to condemn McCartney for splitting the band, and he rushed to defend himself in the press: “Ringo left first, then George, then John. I was the last to leave! It wasn’t me!” The band’s press officer released a statement citing McCartney’s issues with Klein and claiming The Beatles “do not want to split up, but the present rift seems to be part of their growing up… at the moment they seem to cramp each other’s styles… They could be dormant for years.” Both Lennon and Harrison spoke of the band regrouping – “It could be a rebirth or a death,” said Lennon. “It’ll probably be a rebirth” – and when McCartney called Harrison as he set about trying to extricate himself from Apple, Harrison told him, “You’ll stay on the f***ing label. Hare Krishna.”
In December 1970, with his bandmates still claiming their differences could be resolved, McCartney resorted to the courts to dissolve the band in litigation which would only formally wrap up The Beatles on 9 January 1975. By then the individual Beatles were deep into successful solo careers, and their legacy and legend had long outlasted the scrappiness of their break-up. Yet many early solo records were steeped in regret and, to this day, The Beatles split feels like an avoidable tragedy, the saddest example in rock history of the suffocating effects of untameable talent and success. And yes, they passed the audition.Read more: The Independent »
So, nothing new. Yoko Ono, nuff said Paul McCartney is dead.
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