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Why did the Beatles break up?

Nobody seriously disputes that the Beatles were the greatest band of the 20th Century.

It is as clear that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were the best song writing team of the last hundred years.

 

But as much as we appreciate the genius of the Beatles, we also believe the stories that have been told about the band. Of these stories, none has had more impact than the story of their break-up. In the popular imagination, the Beatles broke up because John Lennon fell in love with Yoko Ono and she turned him against his band mates, destroying the Beatles.

 

   It’s a legend that relies on self-serving testimony and scraps of information. When Yoko entered John’s life she was regularly pilloried ----- often in a casually racist manner ---- by the British and American press. Later, after the band had fragmented, John Lennon gave bitter (and, it now seems, somewhat mendacious) interviews in which he attacked his former band mates for being bad to Yoko. His worst abuses were reserved for his former best friend and song writing partner, Paul McCartney who became the subject of the vicious How Do You Sleep, a song full of hate and bitterness.

 

   Crucial to this characterisation of the end of the Beatles was the film Let It Be, a documentary about the band rehearsing new material in the studio. The film, showed the group bickering unhappily in a cold and cavernous soundstage at Twickenham film studio while Yoko loomed in the background like some malign presence.

 

   Let It Be was edited while the band was breaking up and the film was released after the Beatles formally broke up. Because the Let It Be LP was the last album of original Beatles music to be released, it became, in the popular imagination, a record of the last days of the Beatles, the last music which they created even as the band was falling apart.

 

   The Beatles, who had commissioned Let It Be, were clearly not pleased with this unpleasant reminder of their time together and after its initial release, the film was hardly ever shown. You will struggle now to find it on a DVD or a streaming service.

 

   But even as memories of Let It Be contributed to the legend of the collapsing Beatles, something about that characterisation did not ring quite true. There was one obvious problem with that legend. Let It Be may have been the last Beatles album to be released. But it was not the last one they recorded. After they had finished with the sessions for the Let It Be movie, the Beatles went on to record the excellent Abbey Road, one of their best LPs with a collage of songs on side 2 of the record, that is still widely regarded as a classic.

 

   So, if the band was falling apart during the Let It Be sessions, then how did they get it together for Abbey Road?

 

   Beatles fans debated this question for years till the answer finally arrived a week ago. It turned out that the Let It Be sessions had produced nearly 60 hours of footage of which only a small fraction had been used in the movie. The two surviving Beatles, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney entrusted the footage to Peter Jackson, the director best known for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson took four years on the project during which he used the latest technology to restore the fading footage to its full glory. He also used technology to take apart the mono tracks on which film’s audio was recorded and re-constructed it, voice by voice, instrument by instrument, and sound by sound.

 

   He sifted through the footage, producing a three part documentary that runs for nearly eight hours. Not only is it a fly-on-the-wall account of the Beatles in the studio, it also looks and sounds fresh and bright, as though it was filmed yesterday.

 

   And the story it tells is very different from the legend that has passed into the popular imagination. No, Yoko Ono did not break up the Beatles. And the band members were not at each other’s throats during the making of Let It Be. Yes, there were disagreements but the tone of the sessions was warm and friendly. The Beatles we see in the Jackson documentary are, oddly enough, not so different from the Beatles we saw in A Hard Day’s Night or Help, four witty, playful friends who gelled together musically and were always ready with a quip or a laugh.

 

   The Jackson documentary, titled Get Back, is at its most revealing when it deals with the relationship between Lennon and McCartney. Contrary to the view that the sessions were riven with the tensions between the two men, Get Back shows them as musical collaborators who understand each other’s music and habits. There are warm and affectionate moments between the two of them.

 

"By the time the documentary ends with that famous concert on the roof and with the police trying to break it up, you realise that how much of the legends surrounding the Beatles are pure myths."

   And as for Ono, yes she comes with Lennon to the studio every day but nobody seems to object too much because she is not a disruptive influence. And anyway, lots of other people come to the studio. McCartney’s girlfriend Linda Eastman (later to become his wife) drops in and on one occasion she brings her daughter (who is, actually, a disruptive influence). Ringo Starr brings his wife Maureen. And George invites two Hare Krishna monks to sit in on the sessions. There are other invitees too. The actor Peter Sellers (soon to star with Ringo in the film The Magic Christian) turns up. So does George Harrison’s friend Billy Preston who is immediately drafted by John to play keyboards on the album.

 

   At one stage, McCartney and Ringo talk about John and Yoko and the press speculation that her presence is tearing the band apart. McCartney takes the line that Lennon’s choices are his own business while recognising that if it came to a choice between Yoko and the band, John would choose Yoko over the Beatles. As for the reports about her breaking up the band, Paul says how it absurd it would sound 50 years later to say that the Beatles broke up because Yoko Ono sat on an amp at the sessions. (Would it? Certainly, over 40 years later, that is exactly what people are still saying.)

 

   The original idea, when the sessions begin, is for the Beatles to make a TV special full of new songs. A sound stage is rented at cold and draughty Twickenham Studios and the Beatles, who have not recorded together for months are clearly awkward and uncomfortable. They have to finish writing and recording 14 songs for the TV show in three weeks’ time because, after that, they will not have the use of the soundstage and, in any case, Ringo will have to go to shoot for The Magic Christian.

 

   The tension, at this stage, is not between John and Paul but between George Harrison and Lennon and McCartney. For most of their career, Paul and John have written nearly all of the Beatles songs and Harrison resents being the junior song writing partner in the Beatles. His own writing skills have come of age and he has written, he says, an album’s worth of songs but feels restricted by the quota of songs (about two per album) that he is allowed to record on Beatles albums.

 

   One day, he walks out and leaves the Beatles. The others huddle together wondering what to do, clearly shattered, though Lennon is outwardly dismissive (give him a few days, he suggests, if he doesn’t come back, we can get Eric Clapton instead). Eventually the three other Beatles make two trips to George’s home to persuade him to return which he eventually does, on the condition that they move out of Twickenham.

 

   The band agrees and the sessions shift to a studio in the Beatles’ own office building on Savile Row in London. Suddenly the mood changes and the tensions of the Twickenham sessions dissipate.

 

   So why did Let It Be show us such a different picture of the Beatles? Perhaps it was because Michael Lindsay Hogg, the director of that film had wanted to end it with a live performance by the Beatles at an amphitheatre in Libya (yes, really!) and the Beatles were less than keen.

 

   In Get Back, he is shown hustling the idea only to be rebuffed by the Beatles. Left with what he says is no narrative structure or even a ‘pay-off’ to end the film with, he has to make do with a performance by the band on the roof of their Savile Row building.

 

   His solution may have been to find a story-line for the film by focussing on the tensions during the Twickenham sessions. He knew the film would be released as the band was breaking up. It is significant that the original Let It Be movie hardly features the happier sessions at Savile Row.

 

   So why then, did the Beatles break up? The answer seems to be that it had very little to do Paul resenting Yoko Ono (in fact, a few months after the Let It Be sessions, John and Paul recorded the very supportive The Ballad of John and Yoko together even though the other two Beatles were not around). The problem was money. The Beatles had been screwed over by everyone from their label EMI to their music publisher Dick James (the butt of many jokes in the Get Back documentary). So when the American manager Allen Klein appeared, John Lennon naively saw him as the answer to all their problems and enthusiastically sold him to the rest of the band. Ringo was wary (he saw him as a conman hired by the Beatles to fight the other conmen) while George was reticent. But Paul bitterly opposed any association with Klein (as subsequent events showed, he was right to do so) and John and Paul fell out mainly over the financial future of the band.

 

   The music had nothing to do with it. On the Get Back sessions, we see Paul co-writing Gimme Some Truth with John (the song later appeared on a Lennon solo album with no credit to McCartney) and the two work together on Don’t Let Me Down, probably the best so-called Lennon song on Let It Be. Even Harrison’s Something, benefits from the intervention of the other Beatles. The picture that emerges from Let It Be is of musical collaborators: somebody will suggest a riff here or add a verse there regardless of whose song it originally was supposed to be.

 

   And there are moments of some musical magic, mostly involving Paul McCartney. We see him strumming on his guitar till suddenly the familiar chords of Get Back emerge. He keeps at it till, over the next few days, the full song develops before our eyes. Sometimes he sits alone at his piano working on the melodies that become The Long and Winding Road and Let It Be. When McCartney is at work it is hard to escape the feeling that you are seeing a musical genius at his creative peak.

 

   Lennon, on the other hand, seems to have been stoned for much of the duration of the sessions. (The Beatles biographer Philip Norman has suggested that he was on heroin during that time.) But a stoned Lennon is still better than most other musicians sober and on full form.

 

   By the time the documentary ends with that famous concert on the roof and with the police trying to break it up, you realise that how much of the legends surrounding the Beatles are pure myths. Nearly everything we have been told about their breakup is called into question.

 

   But the music is not a myth. It is their legacy to a world they helped transform. And it lives on.

 

 

Posted On: 04 Dec 2021 01:00 PM
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