Get[ting] Back to the Beatles

I have a few other thoughts about The Beatles as an organization, brought up by doing some extra reading about the band (references listed at the end of the post) and spending more time in their musical catalog. While I’ve come to really enjoy their music, their story has become the more fascinating element; while it has been written about and discussed endlessly, the history of the Beatles as an organization has a few interesting components that I think deserve a fresh perspective.

Their last photoshoot as band. They really do hate each other here.

When anyone speaks of the breakup of the Beatles, most fingers point to Yoko Ono’s presence and/or the power struggle between Paul and John regarding the musical direction of the band. It’s only been somewhat recently that Yoko’s “role” in the band’s dissolution has been reconsidered more thoughtfully. At the time, her very existence as John’s partner and her physical proximity to the band during a time when the Beatles were coming apart at the seams meant she was an easy target in the media. Also, as an Asian woman, she came in for a LOT of racist and misogynist treatment. (For a very good primer on Yoko Ono the individual and her life and times related to the Beatles, listen to this episode of the You’re Wrong About podcast.) While the narrative that “Yoko broke up the Beatles” may never fully die, it’s more accepted today that at worst her presence may have just exacerbated tensions in the band, and at best, had nothing at all to do with it. In Get Back, Paul McCartney actually predicts how the story of the Beatles and Yoko will go, saying that in 30 years, people would complain that they broke up “because Yoko sat on an amp!” and it wouldn’t really be true. So if we can now reconsider the narrative about Yoko, perhaps we can reconsider the self-told narratives about how the Beatles broke up.

John Lennon has been quoted (recorded in various outlets, but found in the Anthology book of 2000) as saying “I was always waiting for a reason to get out of The Beatles from the day I made How I Won the War in 1966. I just didn’t have the guts to do it, you see. Because I didn’t know where to go.” This is interesting when viewed through the lens of the tit-for-tat that developed in the wake of the official breakup. Famously, John told the band he was done in late 1969, after the recording of Abbey Road and prior to the release of Let it Be, but Paul managed to convince him to keep this news quiet while the band “renegotiated” its current recording deal and promoted Let it Be. After the release of that album in early 1970, Paul, who had been recording his debut solo album in secret, announces that he is leaving the band and releases McCartney one week later. Clearly, Paul lived for at least some drama.

After the breakup, interviews with all four Beatles, but especially with John and Paul, stirred up more and more bad blood as they each claimed to be the impetus for ending the band to the point that John backdates his desire to leave to 1966. For any number of reasons, John could not abide Paul getting to be the Beatle Who Left First. Thus, the ending of the Beatles is framed as more of a personal issue between John and Paul, and this ignores the fact that both Ringo and George were the ones who actually left the band at points prior to the official breakup. In 1968, Ringo took an “extended vacation” from the band during the recording of The Beatles and in 1969, George quits altogether (only to be wooed back) during the recording of Let it Be. Ringo’s and George’s dissatisfaction tends to get deliberately obscured in the Lennon-McCartney fight and in the media’s obsession with the breakup of the Beatles. Clearly, every member of the band wanted to leave at some point during their history, even if that’s a hard truth for their contemporary fans to accept. But still, the way each Beatle framed their own part in the breakup should be viewed with some healthy skepticism. People are often not the best autobiographers, as we have a tendency to remix and reimagine even the most significant moments of our lives, forgetting that others may have been right alongside us and seen something different. And clearly the press loved getting more and more outrageous quotes and interviews with the former bandmates which furthered this ecosystem of breakup narratives from 1970 onward. Just browse through any of the post-breakup interviews at The Beatles Interview Database and you’ll see what I mean.

As someone new to Beatles fandom, I now understand why fans – especially folks who were contemporary fans – can be so obsessive about all things Beatles. The band is, essentially, a closed system. They had a clear beginning and a clear ending, and for a long time, that was it. Once The Beatles Machine realized how much money and interest could be generated by producing more and more Beatles stuff, fans greedily consumed whatever they could. “New” Beatles material is rare and therefore precious to those who loved this band. No demo is too scratchy, no footage too well-trod that it won’t cause a new wave of Beatlemania all over again. But this also tends to cloud our view of what is also the story of four guys who were thrust into something the likes of which is virtually impossible to imagine and they were just worn out after ten years. No matter what other external factors may have intruded, The Beatles could never really last in that form. And that should be a sufficient enough narrative, even 50+ years later.

References:

Gould, Jonathan. Can’t Buy Me Love. New York: Harmony Books, 2007.

“The Beatles Interview Database.” The Beatles Ultimate Experience. http://www.beatlesinterviews.org. Retrieved 18 June 2022.

The Beatles Anthology. San Fransisco: Chronicle Books, 2000.

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