Daily Mail, August 26, 2016
We were in Canada when John Lennon told me he’d left the Beatles. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was just before Christmas, 1969, and a few nights earlier, while discussing his Beatles’ song lyrics on the phone, he’d suddenly invited me to join him and Yoko in Toronto where he was going to meet Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
So, there I soon was being driven through snow covered Canadian fields to the home of rock singer Ronnie Hawkins where John and Yoko were staying. Almost as soon as I arrived John, who had just washed his hair, excitedly insisted I follow him and Yoko up to the secrecy of their bedroom. And then, giggling happily, he casually announced his destruction of the world’s most popular musical attraction.
‘I’ve left the Beatles,’ he said smiling, and carried on drying his hair with a towel.
I was speechless. At the time the Beatles absolutely dominated the world of popular culture, with their latest album, Abbey Road, still at number one in the charts everywhere. Why would anyone in his right mind decide to destroy the most popular entertainment ensemble the world had ever known? It didn’t make sense.
But I wasn’t only astonished. I was devastated, too, because I was as big a Beatles fan as anyone. There was, of course, something else. As a journalist, I knew that the break-up of the Beatles would be the biggest story I would ever get in my life.
John, however, had something more to say. ‘Don’t tell anybody yet,’ he went on. ‘I’ll let you know when you can put it out. Allen Klein (then the Beatles’ new manager) doesn’t want me to make it public until after Let It Be (the film) comes out next year.’
As we left the bedroom John was very pleased with what he’d just told me, but I was already hoping that, on reflection, he would change his mind. Later I would learn that that was what Paul McCartney was hoping, too.
Not that I hadn’t seen the Beatles’ problems coming. As a more than frequent visitor to the their Apple headquarters in London I’d been there one afternoon a few weeks earlier playing some of their record out-takes, when I’d heard a great slamming of doors and the sound of people running up and down the stairs. An acrimonious Beatles’ board meeting had, apparently, just broken up.
No-one at Apple was commenting, but the signs were ominous. So a little later, flying a kite, as we say in journalism, I wrote an article for the London Evening Standard outlining the situation. It was headlined ‘The day the Beatles died’, referring, in a metaphorical sense, to how the group’s camaraderie had disintegrated after they’d finished touring three years earlier.
I must admit, I was half expecting a sharp rebuke from Apple telling me that I was exaggerating the difficulties. But the exact opposite happened. The following day a single white rose encased in a see-though plastic box was delivered to my desk. With it was a card. ‘Love from John and Yoko,’ was all it read.
The unwritten message couldn’t have been clearer. I was on the right track. From then on I was to have my own mole, or Deep Throat, as the term then went, inside the Beatles’ organisation, leaking me a steady flow of information.
His name was John Lennon, and over that weekend in Canada he told me how at the angry board meeting Paul McCartney had begun suggesting that as the band weren’t getting on as they used to, they should perhaps go back on the road and start playing in little clubs again. To which John had replied words to the effect of, ‘I think you’re daft, Paul. I’m leaving the Beatles. I want a divorce’.
I didn’t write the break-up story then. I’d promised not to. Looking back with a more cynical point of view, I’ve sometimes wondered if John had actually half-wanted me to make his decision public, thinking that as a journalist I wouldn’t be able to keep it secret. But I could.
Besides, I absolutely didn’t want the Beatles to break up. I don’t think anyone in the world, apart from John, and perhaps Yoko, did. And no matter how much he carped to me about how badly he thought the other Beatles had behaved towards her, and how, as an artist, he wanted the freedom to work with other musicians, I just didn’t get it.
No-one, I thought, would make a better musical partner for him than Paul McCartney. I think events proved me right about that.
So Christmas 1969 came and went and I sat on my big secret, waiting to be given the nod to publish my world exclusive. Then in April, with the Beatles’ Let It Be single now at number one around the world, I was slipped an embargoed copy of a questions-and-answers document that Paul McCartney was issuing the following day to coincide with the release of a solo album he’d made.
In it, he said he hadn’t any plans to record with the Beatles but didn’t know whether the break would be temporary or permanent. That was typical of Paul, carefully hedging his bets. My reading of it was that he was still waiting for John, hoping that his old friend might change his mind and cancel his divorce from the group.
But when another newspaper broke the embargo with the front page headline ‘Paul Quits Beatles’, within hours he became the most hated man in the world.
It was viciously ironic. Paul, the Beatle who had kept the band together since the death of Brian Epstein nearly three years earlier, the biggest Beatles fan of all the Beatles, now got all the blame for their destruction. You had to feel sorry for him.
Nor was John pleased that Paul had made the break-up public knowledge. In his eyes, as he had started the Beatles he wanted to be the one to finish them. ‘Why didn’t you write it when I told you in Canada,’ he asked me when I phoned him that day. ‘You asked me not to,’ I replied.
His reply was withering. ‘You’re the journalist, Connolly, not me,’ he said. Sometimes you just couldn’t win with John.
For two weeks Paul took a hammering for what the world’s Beatles’ fans saw as a terrible betrayal, then one morning he rang and asked me if I’d like to interview him so that he could get his side of the story out.
We met that lunchtime at a fish restaurant in London’s Soho. ‘It was all a misunderstanding,’ he told me, his wife Linda at his side. ‘I just thought “what have I done now”, and my stomach started churning up.’
Then for over two hours he went through the rows, disagreements and misunderstandings between the four young men who had once prided themselves for always acting in total accord.
First he told how Ringo had walked out on the band during recording eighteen months earlier, fed up with all the bickering, only to come back a few days later. Then George had left in a sulk because he felt his songs weren’t being given the respect they deserved by the others. Fair enough, Paul agreed. They weren’t. But George came back, too. Finally John had asked for a divorce. The only Beatle not to have left the band had been him.
Then there were Paul’s difficulties in the Lennon and McCartney song-writing partnership because Yoko would now always be at John’s side, a situation he found creatively uncomfortable. He didn’t even sing the harmony parts with John on the Beatles recent recordings as he always had done, he said, because, in front of Yoko, he felt too embarrassed to ask if he could.
On top of all that there was the disagreement over the management. He wanted his wife Linda’s father, New York lawyer Lee Eastman, while John and the other two Beatles wanted Allen Klein, whom Paul neither liked nor trusted.
On and on went the litany of disagreements. How he was sorry that he’d raged at Ringo when the poor drummer had been chosen as a peace emissary by John and George; but how he was enraged that Phil Spector had been summoned by John to remix the entire Let It Be album, and had added a woman’s choir to one of Paul’s new songs, The Long And Winding Road without his permission. That had really riled him – understandably, I thought.
‘Is that what this is all about?’ John asked me when he read my article in the newspaper. ‘Paul ought to have thanked Spector for all the work he’s done on the record, making it possible for it to be released. None of the Beatles wanted anything more to do with it.
‘Even the biggest Beatles fans couldn’t have sat through the six weeks of misery that making the film (Let It Be) was. It was the most miserable session on earth, with the most miserable music going on and on and on and everyone was expected to have a big smile going.’
If it hadn’t been clear to me before, it was then. Paul’s reason for asking for an interview – an exceptionally rare occurrence for any star – was not solely because he wanted to explain his position to Beatles fans. He wanted to explain it to the other three Beatles, too. I was just the means by which he did it.
As the world knows, the breach was never healed. Lawyers were called in on both sides and the four Beatles never recorded together again. George Harrison was immediately glad to be free of the group to concentrate on his own work, and Ringo got on with a solo career, too, as did John and Paul.
Did the Beatles regret that what had started so well should have ended so terribly? They must have done. Everybody else did. And John and Paul still weren’t speaking.
For a moment eighteen months later I thought there might be a possibility of some kind or small rapprochement between the two song writers. I was in New York with John and Yoko, when John asked me to get in touch with Paul on his behalf when I got back to London. He wanted me to give Paul a message about some business matter that concerned them both.
‘I don’t want to go through Apple or the lawyers or Klein and Eastman, and if I just phone Paul we’ll start screaming at each other again straight away. If you wouldn’t mind, perhaps you could be the go-between and get him to call me so that we can talk about it.’
Unable to contact Paul (he may well have been away) when I got back to London, I posted a message through the letter box he used to have by his gate at his London house. But, as his father told me a few days later, ‘things had already moved on’. It was too late for any healing process. That would take years of legal wrangling.
So, why did the Beatles break up?’
There’s no one answer. Obviously, after their manager Brian Epstein died in 1967, they missed the glue and guidance that he had brought to the group, while John’s insistence that Yoko Ono should be with him at all times was unsettling for the others. Allen Klein as manager was not one of John’s best ideas either. Then there’s the fact that the Beatles simply grew up, married and needed to have individual lives outside the four headed creature they had become.
But it’s always seemed to me that the biggest reason was that all of them were totally mentally and physically exhausted after a punishing seven years of extraordinary musical creativity of writing and recording – twelve albums, twenty two singles, and over two hundred and fifty songs written and recorded.
Added to that, the strain of mass hysteria as they’d toured the world, and the responsibility of carrying the burden of being worldwide cultural leaders must have been crippling.
Weighed down by the pressures, always feeling they had to top everything they had achieved because our expectations of them were so high, they fell to falling out among themselves in a kind of collective nervous and creative breakdown. They needed to get off the runaway train that the Beatles had become.
Watching the new documentary The Beatles: Eight Days A Week recently, it’s shocking to see how the wear and tear of their daily impossible lives seemed to age them prematurely as they went from the enthusiastic, cheeky young boys in 1963 to world weary, unhappy icons by 1969.
Our expectations of them, and their fears that they might not be able to live up to those expectations, must have been unbearable. John wasn’t yet thirty, but he looked forty.
He broke millions of hearts by breaking up the Beatles, not least that of Paul McCartney. And, like everybody else, I thought he’d made a mistake. Only later would I realise that his act of iconoclasm was, deliberately or otherwise, a kind of mad genius.
By killing them at that moment at the end of the Sixties, John Lennon froze the Beatles in time, ensuring that they would never disappoint us, as inevitably they would have done had they stayed together.
Which is why some people still make films about them and others write books about them. And why their music is still all around us.
Adapted from The Ray Connolly Beatles Archive, now available in paperback from Plumray Books.