This fortnight brings you a different kind of book review. After I finished reading You Never Give Me Your Money (The Beatles After The Breakup) by Peter Doggett, I began writing my review. What I found I was writing, to me anyway, was a description of why The Beatles broke up. Because that’s what the book taught me. I will explain.
“Why Did The Beatles break up” is one of the oldest unanswerable questions in popular music history. It is right up there with “Who is the fifth Beatle” or “What could Elvis have done if he was not drafted into the Army.” Everyone has their opinions, of course, and I have always had mine. But for some reason I had always downplayed the role that money must have played. After all, The Beatles must have been swimming in the stuff (they really weren’t -at least not as much as you’d think). But reading Doggett’s book linked a series of events, some of which I had already known, others that I did not know in such detail, and presented them as a clear case as to why The Beatles broke up. I do not know if that was the author’s intention, but it is what I got out of the book.
So I realized halfway through that I was basically writing my thoughts on why The Beatles broke up. If given the chance I could have gone on for another 10,000 words on the subject based on the stories I read in Doggett’s book, but I decided to highlight the three topics that I believe contributed to the break up; the Let it Be project, Allen Klein, and Paul McCartney. Please note that by listing Paul as a contributor that I am not saying “Paul broke up the Beatles.” He didn’t. The Beatles broke themselves up and no one person was solely responsible. But Paul’s actions in 1969-1970 did contribute to the atmosphere (sometimes justifiably, in my opinion) and he was the one Beatle that took matters into his own hands and formally dissolved the partnership legally. But it is not an accusation.
The following information is all available in exhaustive detail in Peter Doggett’s book, which I highly recommend. It is by far the best document of The Beatles breakup that I have ever read and my summary does not do it justice.
Let it Be
When The Beatles began filming the project which eventually became Let it Be in January of 1969 they had no idea where the film was going to go, what they were going to play, or what the climax of the film would be. There was a shared assumption that they would perform live somewhere (The Roundhouse in London and a Roman Amphitheatre were considered) but they began filming rehearsals without a clear vision of what it was they were doing. Almost as soon as they began filming the tensions which had almost derailed The Beatles (aka The White Album) returned.
George had just spent time in America writing with Bob Dylan and had stayed with The Band. He was not the least bit interested in the toxic atmosphere that followed The Beatles when they were in the studio together. John was openly critical of his songwriting talents (he refused to play on most of George’s songs from 1968 onwards) and Paul was critical of George’s contributions on the guitar. He walked out on January 10 and announced he was leaving the band. He returned later in the month, but it was decided that The Beatles had to end. It was only a question of when.
John was reportedly using heroin at this time and was largely disinterested in the project. He and Yoko Ono had begun their relationship less than a year earlier and Yoko was, to the frustration of the other Beatles, a permanent fixture in the recording sessions. Yoko brought out the artist in John and he was far more interested in avant-garde projects with Yoko than he was recording with The Beatles. Add to that the fact that more than one of the other Beatles had expressed their disapproval of her in one way or another and it was only a matter of time before John lost interest in the group entirely.
During the month of January there was another force that was driving the Beatles apart. Money. The Beatles had signed a notoriously bad deal with Brian Epstein’s NEMS Enterprises in 1962 which essentially awarded NEMS 25% of the income from Beatles record sales for posterity. This was not known to The Beatles until after Brian’s death. NEMS’ contract with EMI was set to expire in late 1967 and without Brian The Beatles decided to dive headlong into Apple Corps. By the start of 1969 it was obvious that they were in over their heads. The “western communism” that The Beatles had envisioned had turned into a circus as the handpicked group of friends that they trusted with key decision-making roles within the company had only succeeded in losing money hand over fist. In January, 1969 a man who had twice tried to buy out Brian Epstein (in 1964 and again in 1966) in order to fulfill his goal of landing The Beatles finally got his wish.
A few days before the historic rooftop concert for Let it Be New York accountant/business manager to the stars Allen Klein, at that time one of the most feared, but successful managers of rock acts (The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, the Animals to name just a few) secured a meeting with John Lennon. Klein’s reputation as a hard talking, but effective manager had preceded him, but John Lennon was smitten. The next day he announced that Klein would handle his finances and urged the other Beatles to join him. After an all night meeting a day later George and Ringo were on board.
Paul, on the other hand, was wary. He had been receiving advice from his girlfriend, Linda Eastman’s family (high-powered New York attorneys and business managers themselves) which was to avoid Allen Klein. Paul refused to sign on with Klein and chose instead to be represented by Linda’s brother and father. The Eastmans and Klein were openly hostile to one another and it was obvious that the two camps could not agree in good faith about hat was in the best interests of The Beatles financially. This was a massive blow to the other three Beatles and Paul would be an outsider from that point onwards. The fact that this was all going on during the same week that The Beatles smiled and performed on the roof at the end of Let it Be is amazing.
One has to feel for Paul during this period because for all intents and purposes, Paul was right. History would show that he was correct about Allen Klein (the other three Beatles would unceremoniously drop him in the early-mid 70’s for various reasons -not the least of which was the litigation from his mishandling of the funds from George’s Concert for Bangladesh which caused funds meant to go to UNICEF to be locked in escrow accounts until the 1980s). But in The Beatles democracy he was outvoted on every business decision three to one. Allen Klein was the de facto manager of The Beatles, but Paul and the Eastmans had to fight to be heard. And the personal animosity over his perfectionism, which up to that time had been responsible for some of their greatest accomplishments, had to sting.
But at the same time many of Paul’s reactions to this environment between 1969 and 1972 would help to ensure that the hostilities would remain and would essentially sabotage any hopes of a reunion. After the recording of Abbey Road in the summer of 1969 (a better studio experience, but only barely) John announced to the group that he was leaving. The news came as a relief to the other three, but they had to keep the news quiet as they had the Let it Be film and album scheduled for release in early 1970. The Beatles went their separate ways. But despite their status as “broken up” it was understood that it might only be temporary. Even John was already having second thoughts in 1970. Paul’s behavior would change that.
Paul admittedly went through a period of depression, but managed to record a one-man-band album, McCartney which was ready for release in April, 1970. At that point the U.S. album Hey Jude had only just been released in February. Ringo’s solo album Sentimental Journey was released on March 27 and the Let it Be album was due on April 28. Paul had decided that his album was to be released on April 10.
Apple asked Paul if he could postpone his release in order to allow Ringo’s album more time in the spotlight. The other three Beatles then sent Paul a telegram informing him that they thought it best if he postponed until June because the Let it Be album, which was being assembled by Phil Spector without the input of the other Beatles, was due to be released and they did not think it was a good idea for a Beatles solo album to be in direct competition for sales with a Beatles album. Paul was furious and took his frustrations out on the poor, well-meaning messenger (Ringo).
Paul went ahead with his April 10 release, but with a new twist. As a promotional tool Paul crafted a fake Q&A interview that would be distributed to the press (questions he was basically asking himself). In them he announced to the world that there was no new Beatles song or album on the horizon, that he was no longer a part of The Beatles, and that he did not foresee a time in which Lennon/McCartney would be an active songwriting partnership. The headline went out the next day “Paul is quitting The Beatles.”
The other Beatles were furious. Not only had Paul succeeded in undercutting Let it Be, he had also announced the split without their consent. It was always assumed that when the time came, John would be the one to tell the world. Allen Klein got some measure of revenge by including the legend “Apple, An ABKCO Managed Company” to the print advertising for Paul’s album which infuriated Paul further. Paul begged his former band mates to allow him to dissolve himself from the 25% partnership each had in Apple, but they refused. Paul went a step further and declared to Melody Maker that The Beatles would never reform (even though the others were open to the idea if the opportunity presented itself). Paul’s only option of freeing himself from Allen Klein and Apple was to sue his way out.
On December 31, 1970 Paul sued the other three Beatles. It may sound harsh, but the only way for Paul to remove himself from “The Beatles and Co.” and Apple (their two companies) was to sue the other Beatles as they were the co-partners in the venture. Paul’s goal was to have the court appoint a receiver that would manage the assets of the Beatles until such a time that they could be distributed. The receiver would also look at Apple’s books to ensure that the company was solvent and could meet its income tax obligations (McCartney was basically alleging shenanigans by Allen Klein). After affidavits by Ringo, George and John in support of Allen Klein, the judge ruled in favor of Paul. He declared that Paul should not be forced to remain in that partnership as there was no partnership -just four solo artists.
The decision, while a victory for Paul, was soon to be a financial nightmare for The Beatles. Because of English tax law at that time, if years worth of earnings were to be paid out to The Beatles, those earnings would be taxed at 94%. It was financially irresponsible to expose those earnings to that tax all at once. But to Paul it was a symbolic victory that allowed him to truly strike out on his own.
Apple was not fully dissolved until 1975, but the acrimony caused by the case led to some very bitter feelings for a number of years. The war of words was played out in newspapers, magazines and even in their song lyrics. But as time went on Ringo, George and John would themselves become disillusioned with Allen Klein and within a few short years of the court case he would be out of the organization. The relationship between the four Beatles would never recover. While hard feelings between some members would periodically be removed for brief interludes, there really was no hope of a reunion. John’s murder in 1980 would end that speculation once and for all, but it did create a common bond in the three surviving Beatles.
Both Paul and George, in particular, had idolized John and had never truly regained his approval (George and John had not been friendly in the years leading up to his death), and his death meant that they would never do so. Ringo was lost in alcoholism and substance abuse and would eventually seek treatment in 1989. As the 80’s and 90’s went on, The Beatles became somewhat more friendly. Even though there was a steady stream of lawsuits on one subject or another relating to their royalties or unauthorized use of their recordings, they were largely on the same side this time. The Anthology project saw a long-awaited musical reunion between the three surviving Beatles and John’s voice (via a demo tape), but the results could never have lived up to the image of a Beatles reunion that had grown since September 12, 1969, the last day in which the four Beatles were in a room together.
I am obviously leaving a lot out of this story. I did not even get to the near-miss reunions that almost happened, but did not. I did not mention some of the solo Beatles most significant accomplishments in the 1970s. And I did not mention the thaws in their relationships that occurred at various times throughout the decade. But the question of the events that broke up The Beatles is not an easy one to answer. It was not “Yoko Ono.” To say that would be to discount the very real, but less exciting tales of board meetings and escrow accounts. But from the formation of Apple Corps onwards, that was a very large part of The Beatles lives. And while George still would have wanted the freedom to write his songs and record them without criticism, and John would have still wanted to go off and do things with Yoko, they still had the idea that it was in their best interest to record together, even if just intermittently. It was the financial mess that Apple brought about that frayed those nerves to the breaking point, Allen Klein’s appointment as manager that caused the internal factions, and Paul’s lawsuit that made total reconciliation impossible.