Why the Beatles Broke Up

Mikal Gilmore on his new investigation into the Fab Four's fall.

I came of age in the time that was also the age of the Beatles, and I've always been grateful for that simultaneity. Along with the Beatles, and no doubt because them, many of us grew into an awareness that shared tastes in music might also amount to shared community, and that community could amount to new ideals, new oppositions, new fun, art, fear and political power. Now, these years later, I think of the Beatles as one of the most romantic and dramatic exemplars of democracy that helped move youth culture in the 1960s: They were themselves a democratic unit — all for one, one for all, and in times of disagreement, they nonetheless enjoyed a fraternal sense of accord that made consensus a functional part of their shared dreams.

But democracy is always tenuous and, in any real way, ephemeral, and it was how the Beatles exemplified these latter qualities that is what made for the dynamics we saw at work in the Beatles' end story. By the time they came apart, no matter the personal differences and rivalries and any internal pain and madness, the Beatles were just too big and important to break up without saying something about the world that they had helped shape. As the 1960s' hopes of community and free-form democracy gave way to something harder and more bitter, the Beatles too fell prey to the dissolution, and they knew it. After all, they had believed so deeply in love as a means to personal and social redemption, there was no way they could leave each other without breaking both their times and each other's hearts.

This has all been observed in many ways in the past, and will be for generations to come. Yet even if it makes a sad sort of sense — a symbol of unity that ends, like the era it centered, in disunity — there will still always be something mysterious about why and how the Beatles came apart the way they did, in so much rancor and avarice. John Lennon always referred to the band's end as "a divorce," but that was simply how he justified his own leave-taking (and clearly, Lennon was no model for how to separate fairly from others, given how he left his first wife, Cynthia).

What actually happened, I've come to believe, was something different and worse than divorce. I started work on this story well over a year ago, making my way through over 65 texts and taking (exactly) 1,440 pages of notes. Not surprisingly, the various historians, critics, biographers, musicologists, sociologists and journalists I read had strong views about whose motives accomplished what in the debacle, who was guilty and who was simply helpless in the sweep of events. In truth, there were good guys and no villains, but because these were fallible people, they certainly made some grievous errors.

Through all my research, certain conclusions became inevitable, and they managed to surprise me a bit: The Beatles' end was an accident, a maneuver by John Lennon that went horribly wrong.
It's long been known that the Beatles in fact ended when, in September 1969, Lennon announced to his bandmates, to his wife Yoko Ono and to manager Allen Klein that he was leaving his famous group, even as the album Abbey Road was meeting with the biggest sales the Beatles had yet known. Several months later, as this article chronicles, Paul McCartney also announced he was leaving the Beatles, though unlike Lennon, he said so publicly.

Though there are numerous moments in the group's chronology of dissolution that were crucial events, this move by Paul was perhaps the most critical of them all. He had loved the Beatles more than the others had — he had certainly loved John more than John had loved him — and it was due to Paul's resourcefulness and tenacity that the Beatles held together and moved forward so remarkably after the death of the manager who had made them famous, Brian Epstein. Though Lennon is more commonly regarded as the Beatles' true genius (which is inarguable: he wrote the bulk of their masterpieces and until the last couple years of their career, wrote the best tracks on their albums), it is also fair to say that without McCartney, the Beatles would not have mattered in history with such ingenuity and durability. Also, unlike Lennon, McCartney understood that the Beatles' four members would never create so much wonder separately as they had collectively. So for Paul McCartney — the only Beatle who had never left the group in a fit of pique or out of whim — to leave meant, in fact, the Beatles were over. He wasn't about to play any games about his love for what the Beatles were, nor was he going to dishonor his own pain.

McCartney had simply been forced into an impossible position by John Lennon, George Harrison and Allen Klein. At least two of those men should have loved Paul as much as he loved them, but instead they had come to resent what they saw as his drive and his domineering ways. Who knows what Lennon and Harrison thought would have become of the Beatles had it not been for McCartney — the only opinion they ever offered on the matter was that they had never expected to survive past Epstein's demise. The fact that they did is also what made them great forever, but no doubt in the midst of their unprecedented reality, any outside perspective was impossible; they were, after all, a notoriously insular outfit.

To the degree that any of this is tragedy — given that all things must pass — then it's indeed a manifold tragedy. Harrison and Lennon were profound men who understood the necessity for hope and fellowship, and yet they were also men who could be profoundly petty and ungrateful. Both of them early on came to dislike the reality of the Beatles' massive audience — "Fucking bastards, sucking us to death," John Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970 — and both men became uncharacteristically obsessed with financial eminence near the group's end.

But what I found most troubling, most tragic, in all of this was two things: Both Lennon and Harrison (Lennon, clearly, in particular) did their best to sabotage the Beatles from mid-1968 onward, and when it all came irrevocably apart, I believe that both men regretted what they had wrought. I don't think that John Lennon and George Harrison (but Lennon, again, in particular) truly meant the Beatles to end, even though they might not have known it in the moment. I think they meant to shift the balance of power, I think they meant for the Beatles to become, in a sense, a more casual form of collaboration, and I think they clearly intended to rein in Paul McCartney. But they overplayed their hand and — there's no way around it — they treated McCartney shamefully during 1969, and unforgivably in the early months of 1970.

The immediate aftermath was as dramatic as everything that led up to it, though that isn't something we had the room to track much in this article, given its already considerable length. Lennon was furious and hurt when Paul said he was leaving — he too knew there would be no repairing this, even though he had already been indicating he thought the band would resume — and he and McCartney soon launched into some sour exchanges in interviews and in song.

When McCartney sued to dissolve the band's partnership, the three other Beatles claimed in court papers that they saw no reason to dissolve, that there was no real incompatibility that would prevent them all from continuing to make music together. They were saying this for legal and financial reasons, of course, but on some level, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr almost certainly meant it. They had thrown away something special, and the man they chose to align themselves with, accountant and manager Allen Klein, turned out to be somebody they lost faith in. After that happened, they again had Paul McCartney to thank, because his legal actions at the end probably saved their legacy. But the other Beatles never apologized to McCartney for how they handled him in 1970. Some things healed with time, but some losses were eternal. Near the end of his life, John Lennon said, "My partings are not as nice as I'd like them to be. I regret a bad taste to it."

I realize there's an unseemly aspect to concentrating on how terribly the Beatles ended. Clearly, their music outshines the disaster and it always will. And though Lennon and McCartney no longer collaborated in the same ways in the group's last few years, their presence together as they continued to make music, including their contrasts, was still a partnership — one that was too often missed in their subsequent music apart.

Unbecoming or not, though, I've never come across a story that fascinated or moved me more than this particular one. The end of the Beatles was convoluted and acrimonious, but it was also transcendent: No matter their problems, no matter how much they viewed one another with suspicion in their last year or two, the Beatles still knew how to talk to each other through their music, and nobody else has truly matched that heart-to-heart they achieved. Describing working with them at the very end, on Abbey Road, their longtime producer George Martin said, "There was an inexplicable presence when all four were together in a room. Their music was bigger than they were."

That presence went well beyond the confines of room; it was a presence in the world at that time. Better than that, it was a force in history; it made possible the world we now live in, and nothing will ever unmake that. I will always be grateful to have lived in the time of the Beatles.

©Copyright 2009 Rolling Stone


J Neo Marvin said...

It might be 20/20 hindsight, but it seems to me that the Beatles broke up at just the right time, with a perfectly realized body of work that's stood the test of time, rather than lingering on for decade after decade with diminishing returns like the Rolling Stones.

Anonymous said...

Is there any truth to the rumor that the reason the Soviet Union broke up is because Yoko started dating Hungary?

johnnybgoode said...

J Neo has a point, but I personally think the beatles had one more good album in them. i would have loved to have hear the beatles versions of plastic ono band, ram, and all things must pass (OK and ringo's "it dont come easy, which tried really hard to sound like an abbey road outtake)