Daily Mail – 2.2.19
When Paul McCartney announced in April 1970 that he had no plans for working with the Beatles the world fell in on him. ‘PAUL QUITS BEATLES,’ ran newspaper headlines around the world.
And, overnight, the most popular of the four was demonised as the killer of the most loved entertainment attraction ever.
Although, within a few days he would be maintaining to me that he had been misinterpreted, it was too late. The secret of the Beatles’ rows and in-fighting was out. There would be no going back.
Paul’s mistake had been to let the cat of the bag about the rancorous atmosphere that by 1970 was suffocating the Beatles as they waited the release of their movie Let It Be – dozens of hours of which are now being re-edited by Hobbits producer Peter Jackson for a new film of the group at work in the studio.
As Paul remembered it this week, the filming of Let It Be wasn’t as argumentative as the rumours have since told. Probably not, but maybe only because a lot of tongues were being bitten when the cameras were rolling. Because, for sure, by the time the film was scheduled for release, Lennon and McCartney, the most successful song-writing duo in history, were no longer even talking to each other – let alone writing or playing together.
There was never one single reason why the Beatles broke up. It was a collision of causes, that had started nearly four years earlier, in 1966, when they had decided that the hysteria surrounding them made live appearances and touring impossible.
A band that plays together stays together. But the Beatles couldn’t play together, not in public, anymore. The strain of simply being the Beatles had become unbearable.
Then, a year later, weeks after the release of their ground-breaking Sgt Pepper album, their manager Brian Epstein was found dead after an accidental drugs overdose. He was 32 and had been part of the glue that held the band together. ‘I knew we’d had it then,’ John Lennon would later tell me.
With no-one to guide them and suddenly realising that they were facing a massive tax bill, the Beatles decided to manage themselves. On the advice of accountants, they set up a family of companies called Apple, including a boutique.
But they were hardly shopkeepers. Soon losing interest in it, they agreed to close it down and simply let the customers take away the stock for free.
The idea for the giveaway had come from Yoko Ono, the avant-garde artist who, as his first marriage failed, had become John Lennon’s girlfriend, and would soon become his second wife. In terms of publicity it was a brilliant, zany, generous suggestion as a way of staunching the open wound through which Beatles’ money was pouring, and the other Beatles were happy to go along with it.
Some of Yoko’s other suggestions were, however, less generally welcome. Before the term was invented the Beatles were a boy band, with their girlfriends and wives being left at home when they went out to work.
Yoko, a feminist, didn’t see things that way. Where John went, she went, and, while having had no interest in rock music before she met him, she immediately proceeded to voice opinions about what the Beatles were recording while in the studio.
John loved her making a contribution. The other three didn’t, especially Paul. ‘It simply became very difficult for me to write with Yoko sitting there,’ he would tell me. ‘If I had to think of a line, I started getting very nervous. I might want to say something like “I love you, girl”, but with Yoko watching I always felt I had to come up with something clever and avant-garde.’
In retrospect, Paul was, he supposed, ‘jealous of Yoko…and afraid of the break-up of a great musical partnership’. Events would show that he had reason to be afraid.
Paul wasn’t the only one to be upset. Though the White Album, which was recorded right through the summer of 1968, turned out to be another Beatles triumph, the general atmosphere in the studio was so acrid that, at one point, Ringo decided he’d had enough. Downing his drum sticks, he left the studio and went on holiday, leaving Paul to take over the role of drummer for Back in
Once he’d made his point, Ringo came back, of course, and the album was finished. But the truth was now inescapable. John was no longer in love with the Beatles. He was mesmerised by Yoko. Seeming to fuse his personality with hers, the two became a new entity, calling themselves ‘John and Yoko’, in which they dressed alike, wore their hair in the same way – and shared the same drugs.
They did everything together, to the extent that they took selfie photographs of themselves naked, back and front, and used them on the cover of an avant-garde album of ‘experimental sounds’. Released at the same time as the Beatles’ White Album, at Christmas 1968, it was called Two Virgins.
Paul wasn’t amused, seeing the photos as an inexplicable act of sabotage of the Beatles’ image. According to John, his co-songwriter gave him a long lecture. ‘Is there really any need for this?’ Paul asked.
John clearly thought that there was, his next provocation being to make a slow-motion film of his penis in the gradual act tumescence and then detumescence. It was titled Self Portait. To be fair, the film, which was said to last for half an hour (and which I never saw), was only ever shown publicly once, which implies that John may have had second thoughts about having done it.
It was now becoming clear to all the Beatles that John was, piece by piece, taking a sledgehammer to the monument that the Beatles had become. And there was nothing that any of them could do about it.
The previous year the Beatles’ television film Magical Mystery Tour had been both an artistic and commercial failure – which after all their success was something quite new for them. So now they decided to film the making of their next album. It would eventually be called Let It Be, and would be filmed at Twickenham Studios rather than at their usual musical home of Abbey Road.
Things didn’t go well from the start. It was only twelve weeks since they’d finished the White Album, and, while ever-busy Paul had already written Get Back, The Long And Winding Road and Let It Be, John didn’t have any new songs to offer.
‘Haven’t you written anything yet,’ Paul can be heard asking in unused out-takes of the film – which inevitably found their way into the hands of some fans.
‘No,’ says John.
‘We’ll be faced with a crisis,’ Paul frets.
‘When I’m up against the wall, Paul, you’ll find me at my best. I think I’ve got Sunday off,’ says John.
‘I hope you can deliver.’
‘I hope was a little rock and roller, Sammy with his mammy,’ mocks John falling into wordplay.
There was nothing more that Paul could say. ‘I think we’ve been very negative since Mr Epstein passed away,’ Paul reflected, probably to director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, unaware that he was being recorded. ‘We probably do need a central daddy figure ton say, “Come on. It’s nine o’clock. Leave the girls at home.”’
But John wasn’t going to leave his new girl at home. So, Paul was walking on eggshells., acutely aware of what might happen if he, or the others, complained too loudly.
‘There are only two things to do,’ we hear him reasoning. ‘One is to fight and to get the Beatles back to being four people without Yoko, and to ask her to sit down at board meetings. The other is just to accept that she’s there, because there is no way that John is going to split with Yoko for our sakes. He’s going overboard. He always goes overboard.
‘If it came to the push between Yoko and the Beatles it would be John for Yoko. John would just say to us, “Okay. I’ll see you then”. And, we’re not wanting that to happen.’
Nor was Yoko the only problem during the filming. George Harrison had long felt himself considered less equal than the main songwriters, Lennon and McCartney, and had struggled to get them to record his songs. One afternoon, resenting being instructed on how to play his guitar on one of Paul’s songs, he lost his temper, left the studio and drove up to Liverpool to see his family.
John understood exactly George’s frustrations. ‘It’s a festering wound,’ he can he heard telling Yoko. But he was surprisingly indifferent to the guitarist’s absence. To him the Beatles didn’t just ‘revolve around four people anymore… If George leaves, he leaves,’ the tapes reveal him saying. ‘If he comes back, we’ll go on as if nothing happened…’ And if he doesn’t? ‘We’ll get Eric Clapton to do it.’
George did come back, bringing with him a new song, I Me Mine, which the other Beatles agreed to record.
Whether Peter Jackson’s new Beatles’ film will use these comments when John hadn’t realised he was being recorded, or the time when, clearly bored and irritated by the behaviour of him and Yoko, Ringo said angrily, ‘I think you’re both nuts, the pair of you’, we will have to see.
What ought to be there is an interview John did while at Twickenham with the editor of the Melody Maker in which he talked about the Beatles company Apple being ‘pie in the sky’, adding that they would be ‘broke in six months’ if they didn’t get someone in to sort things out.
Reading that, within a couple of days New York rock manager Allen Klein had flown to London and convinced John to make him the Beatles new manager. John, who always acted on a whim, then recruited George and Ringo to the idea.
Paul, however, said no. He didn’t like Klein and he didn’t trust him. He wanted Lee Eastman, the father of his new girlfriend, Linda – soon to be his wife, to manage the group.
The Beatles had split into two camps, and neither side would budge. Over the next few months, while the Let It Be film was being edited, and during which the Beatles got together to make their final Abbey Road album, an uneasy peace reigned.
Then at a board meeting in the autumn of 1969, after listening as Paul had tried to rally everyone around a new plan in which the Beatles would start behaving like a band again by making sudden unannounced appearances at small halls and colleges around the country, John came out with a bombshell.
Asked what he thought of Paul’s idea, he told him: ‘I think you’re daft. I want a divorce.’
George Harrison, who wasn’t at the meeting was relieved when he heard the news. Ringo has never said. But Paul was in shock. He’d never had a job other than being a Beatle.
At Allen Klein’s request the break-up was to be kept a secret until the Let It Be film and album were released the following April – although John told me a few weeks later if I promised not to write it.
I kept my promise, half expecting John to change his mind. Paul probably thought that, too, hoping for a call from his old friend. It never came.
Meanwhile, although the editing of the film Let It Be was nearing completion, the tapes of the songs from the sessions, over fifty hours of them, had never been satisfactorily edited for the forthcoming album. At Allen Klein’s suggestion, American hotshot US producer Phil Spector was chosen to re-edit them.
Paul didn’t like that decision either – nor did he like Spector. No longer speaking to any of the other Beatles, he was incandescent with anger when he was sent a finished copy of The Long And Winding Road and discovered that Spector had added a female choir to the recording. ‘I would never have a female choir on a Beatles’ record,’ he told me. But it was too late for the album to be changed.
Nor had he been idle while waiting for the release of Let It Be. Not having the Beatles to help him, he’d recorded his own first solo album, playing all the instruments himself, which he wanted to release immediately.
That would have meant that it would clash with the release of Let It Be. So, wanting him to delay it for a few months, it was decided to send Ringo to his house to try to persuade him.
No-one ever fell out with Ringo, the most inoffensive of the Beatles. On this day Paul exploded. ‘I called him everything under the sun,’ he would admit to me later. And then he kicked the drummer out.
Within a couple of weeks, the break-up had become public
So, why did the Beatles break up? With the benefit of hindsight, it has long seemed to me that the exhaustion of seven years of impossible fame and the pressure of having to live up to the unrealistic expectations that they had set themselves must have made their lives impossible.
‘It’s going to be a comical thing in fifty years’ time if people, say that the Beatles broke up because Yoko sat on an amp,’ Paul joked forty-nine years ago in a break in filming at Twickenham Studios.
Well, they did break up, and it still doesn’t feel comical. And although Yoko must bear some of the blame, it wasn’t all her fault. The time had come. And although millions of fans’ hearts were broken, John Lennon’s decision to tear the Beatles apart was, albeit by accident, surely an inspired move.
By killing the Beatles, freezing them at their peak, as it were, it meant that they could never disappoint us, as inevitably they would have done as fashions changed and they no longer defined the moment.
Which is why they still seem so current – why they still fascinate.