Beatles fans love anniversaries, but few have been celebrated as much as the one this week when it was fifty years since the release of the group’s last album, Abbey Road.
As expected, there is a remixed version of that swansong LP (that being what we still called albums in those days), complete with the now expected alternate versions of certain tracks. There are some Paul McCartney demos, too, hit songs he gave to Badfinger and Mary Hopkin at the time. Did he think they weren’t good enough for the Beatles?
And, inevitably, there was much to-ing and fro-ing for the cameras on that famous zebra crossing outside the Abbey Road recording where cultural history had taken place.
What there weren’t were any lamentations for the fact that even before the album’s release, John Lennon had already told the other three Beatles that he wanted a divorce from them. That for him, even before Abbey Road was released, the Beatles were already dead. That was a secret – and would remain so for many months.
The occasion for his outburst had come several days’ earlier, during a Beatles’ board meeting at their Apple headquarters in London, when Allen Klein, their new American manager, needed their signatures on a new recording contract he’d only just negotiated.
Before they got the pens out, however, Paul McCartney began talking about how the Beatles should start playing live again – the group having given up touring in 1966.
‘Thinking along the lines of ‘the band that plays together stays together’, Paul suggested that it might be an idea for the group to play surprise one-night-stands at unlikely places, ‘by just letting a few hundred fans into the village hall’ and then closing the door.
Then he asked John and Ringo what they thought – George being away in Liverpool at the time visiting his sick mother.
Only John replied. ‘I think you’re daft,’ he said. ‘I’m leaving the Beatles. I want a divorce’…like, he added, the one he’d had from his first wife Cynthia the previous year.
Paul was distraught. He and John were not nearly as close as they’d been before Yoko Ono’s arrival in the band’s midst, but they’d got along well enough while recording Abbey Road that summer. They’d even talked about doing another album and a Christmas single a few weeks earlier.
John, however, had had second thoughts, mulling about life without the Beatles when he’d suddenly been asked to fly to Canada one weekend to play at a rock and roll peace festival. He’d taken Eric Clapton with him.
He hadn’t, he later told me, gone to the board meeting intending to blurt out his decision. But Paul’s enthusiasm for a Beatles’ future had been the trigger. And, once said, it couldn’t be unsaid, although Paul, who was in shock, hoped it could.
It was a huge worry for manager Klein, too. And, fearing that news of the split might be commercially disastrous for Abbey Road, which was due to go on sale in just a few days’ time, he immediately insisted that no-one breath a word about it and quickly got the band to sign the contracts lying in front of them.
Remarkably, in the circumstances, they did.
‘Listen, do you want to know a secret, do you promise not to tell…?’ had been the opening lyric to one of the first songs John Lennon had ever written. Now his last act as a Beatle was to ‘promise not to tell’ that he’d torn the group apart – something, as I was soon to discover, he didn’t quite manage.
Not surprisingly, the meeting quickly ended, with Paul in despair, Ringo no doubt wondering what was going to happen, because whatever it was would not be of his device, and John and Yoko going back to their home near Ascot. When George Harrison returned from Liverpool he was said to be pleased with the news. He could now get on with his own solo career.
So began the big secret, with the individual Beatles’ lips sealed and behaving in public as if nothing untoward had happened.
Soon Abbey Road was top of the album charts, followed by the new single, ‘Something’, with editing progressing on the film and album of Let It Be. Recorded before Abbey Road, it was scheduled for release in the spring of 1970.
On the surface everything was fine, but Beatles watchers were becoming aware of small changes. After doing his publicity duties for the new album – and he gave no hint to me – the usually approachable Paul was rarely seen at Apple anymore.
Then a rumour took hold in America that said he was dead. I even got a phone call in the middle of the night from a Chicago radio station asking me to confirm that he was still alive. ‘He was when I saw him last week,’ I told the listeners.
But, as the John and Yoko junket of non-stop publicity for the two careered on, with John returning his MBE to the Queen in November, could it be that the most obsessive American fans were intuitively on to something? Paul hadn’t died, but perhaps something else had.
With this in mind I wrote an article for the London Evening Standard at the end of November explaining the general Beatle situation under the headline, ‘The Day the Beatles Died’ – referring to the fact that they rarely played together as a group anymore – not even in the recording studio.
To be honest, I was half expecting an angry letter from their lawyers when the newspaper was published, but instead a single white rose wrapped in Cellophane was delivered to my desk the next day, with the message, ‘To Ray with love from John and Yoko’.
I’d got it right, but to a greater extent than I’d realised. From that day on I would have my own mole in the Beatles organisation, in the figure of John Lennon.
Then, just before Christmas, John invited me to join him and Yoko in Toronto where they were pursuing their War Is Over peace campaign that had begun with their bed-ins and record ‘Give Peace A Chance’.
For me, it was a bizarre weekend as the North American Press flocked to pay tribute to the couple, and John signed hundreds of lithographs he’d drawn of himself and a naked Yoko in various erotic positions.
Then, for reasons that are still unclear, he decided to let me in on the big secret. Beckoning me to his and Yoko’s bedroom (nearly all private Lennon conversations took place in his bedroom), he closed the door and said simply: ‘I’ve left the Beatles.’ Then he giggled.
I was, I think, speechless. All the signs had been there, but all the same, I was astonished, and, I have to admit, devastated, too. I was as big a Beatles’ fan as anyone. I didn’t want them to break up.
As a journalist, however, I recognised that this was the biggest scoop I would ever get in my career.
John, however, had something more to say. ‘Don’t tell anybody yet. I’ll let you know when you can out put it out.’
So, I didn’t tell anyone, and the big Beatles secret continued for another four months.
Paul had taken it very badly. Being a Beatle had been the only job he’d ever known, and, after a few weeks of indecision, he hid away at his farm in Scotland, hoping that John would change his mind and things would return to the way they’d been.
Finally, however, he gave up on his old friend. Returning to London, and, never short of songs, he began a do-it-yourself album on which he played all the instruments. It would be simply titled McCartney.
Occasionally, over these months, I would ask John if it was time yet for me to run my Beatles break up story, but he always asked me to wait until after the Let It Be film was released in April.
By March 1970 Paul had completed his solo album and wanted it released immediately. Manager, Allen Klein, backed by the three other Beatles, suggested he hold it back until after Let It Be came out. To release two albums at pretty well the same time could damage the sales of both, it was reasonably argued.
But then Paul was sent a demo copy of the Let It Be album and heard the female choir that Phil Spector, who had remixed the unfinished tracks, had added to ‘The Long and Winding Road’. He was furious at not having been consulted. ‘I would never have women’s voices in a Beatles record,’ he told me.
At this point it was decided by the other Beatles to let him put his solo album out first, which was accompanied by a Press release in the form of questions and answers. Never once did he say in it that he had left the Beatles, but he did say he wasn’t working with them, had no plans to work with them and wasn’t writing with John Lennon.
Newspapers around the world interpreted his responses to mean. ‘Paul Quits Beatles,’ and that was it. The secret was out. The Beatles had broken up
I spoke to John Lennon at lunchtime (mine) breakfast time (his) that day. ‘Why didn’t you write it when I told you in Canada?’ he demanded.
‘You asked me not to,’ I replied.
His reply was withering. ‘You’re the journalist Connolly, not me,’ he came back.
By keeping a promise, I’d obviously been scooped, but in John’s mind he’d been scooped, too. As he had started the Beatles, he felt he should have been the one to announce their dissolution.
Paul, for his part, must sorely have wished he’d left it to John. Overnight he went from being the most loved Beatle to the most hated. From being the one who loved the Beatles most, he’d turned into their destroyer in the eyes of the fans.
You had to have been there to appreciate the near universal shock, his announcement generated. Tears of Beatlemania hysteria had flowed half-way around the world a few years earlier. Now eyes were wet with abandonment.
The Beatles hadn’t been just another rock group. They’d been the cultural locomotives with which a generation had come to identify. And now they were no more, with Paul McCartney being roundly blamed for the break-up.
A couple of weeks later he put his side of the story to me in a very long lunch. ‘I never intended the statement to mean “Paul McCartney quits Beatles…”’ he told me. ‘It was all a misunderstanding.’
That was ironic, because the Beatles’ dissolution had nothing to do with him. He just happened to be the one who had let the secret cat out of the bag where it had been hiding for the previous seven months.
Legend may still have it that the Beatles split up in April 1970. But the end had really come seven months earlier in September 1969.