The break-up of the Beatles has been the subject of scrutiny and speculation for decades. It wasn’t a single factor that led to the end of arguably the most important and influential rock band ever. Rather, a perfect storm of elements led to the dissolution of the now unforgettable Liverpool quartet.
The Death of Brian Epstein
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The manager of the Beatles, Brian Epstein, was one of the key components in the Beatles’ rise to fame. He may have had a rather laissez-faire approach to managing the group, but he was vital in keeping the group together and often intervened when difficulties arose between John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Epstein died from a drug overdose in 1967, a year after the Beatles stopped touring. John, who was closest to him, was most affected by his death. Paul tried the hardest to initiate projects for the band, which led to the rest of the band getting progressively more disgruntled with his perceived domination.
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Brian Epstein was responsible for forming Apple Corps, which according to John, was the Beatles way of “playing businessmen”. The intention was to have an expansive string of stores that produced everything from posters and Christmas cards to records and movies. When Epstein died, the Beatles themselves sought to gain control of Apple Corps’ affairs, but without Epstein’s supervision and business experience, this proved disastrous. It contributed to the stress on the groups’ members, and this stress followed them into the studio when they produced The White Album.
George Harrison’s Discontent
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Like Ringo, George Harrison initially played more of a supporting role in the band, leaving song-writing duties to Paul and John. Harrison had some vocal parts written for him for each album, and occasionally covered an old standard or recorded one of his own pieces. From 1965, his compositions began to mature and develop, and although he was recognized by the rest of the band for his potential as a great songwriter, many of his ideas were still rejected, especially during the time they recorded at Twickenham studios – the sessions that became Abbey Road.
At an Impasse
The Beatles stopped touring in 1966 and, with the end to long sessions on the road together, the band members began pursuing individual musical projects. When they reconvened to record in late 1966, their individual tastes were becoming apparent. McCartney remained true to his pop roots, while Harrison had developed an interest in Indian music and Lennon’s tastes were becoming more introspective and experimental. The band’s unity was somewhat undermined, and this is the most evident on The White Album, with each song seemingly dominated by a single artist’s preferences.
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John met Yoko Ono, a Japanese-American conceptual artist, in 1966 at one of her London exhibitions. Their relationship remained platonic until 1968, when she was invited to John’s home. At the time, John’s wife Cynthia was away. The sessions that were released as “Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins” were made that night.
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From that evening, the two were inseparable. Yoko Ono even attended recording sessions, violating a tacit agreement that band members not bring wives or girlfriends into the studio. Even worse, Lennon began to believe that Ono’s input was necessary for the Beatles’ recordings, and she would often make comments and criticisms in the studio. This increased tension among the band members.
The Beatles Double LP, AKA “The White Album”
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By the time they began recording The White Album in 1968, John and Paul’s artistic interests had become even more disparate. Harrison continued to grow as a skilled songwriter, and continued to be ignored as such.
Ringo began an acting career at about this time. He had become upset by the increasingly sour atmosphere in recording sessions, and even took a break from the band for several weeks.
The differences between the four band members were so apparent on the double album that Rolling Stone described it as “four solo albums under one roof”.
After the recording of The White Album, tensions continued to rise. Paul arranged a recording session involving ensemble playing and recording. Only eight days into the recording session, Harrison informed the other band members that he was leaving.
Complicated negotiations brought Harrison back, but the live concert never happened – instead the Beatles appeared live for the last time on the roof of Apple Studios in Saville Row on 30 January 1969.
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Shortly after the release of the Beatles’ final studio album, Abbey Road, John Lennon developed a heroin habit. He wrote a song entitled “Cold Turkey” for the band, but it was met with indifference by the other Beatles. He eventually performed it with the Plastic Ono Band (his band with Yoko Ono) to an enthusiastic reception at Toronto’s Rock and Roll Concert in September 1969. This success crystallized John’s decision to leave the band. On 20 September 1969, John informed McCartney of his decision.
McCartney officially announced his departure from the band too, confirming it in an interview with Life magazine in 1969.
The release date of “Let it Be”, the final song the group released, interfered with McCartney’s impending solo release, titled “McCartney”. He was asked to delay his solo release for the sake of the band, but he refused. McCartney filed a lawsuit against the other members of the Beatles in London’s High Court. Filing for dissolution of their contractual partnership, a receiver was appointed. The proceedings continued all the way until 1975.
By the mid-1970s, relations among the band members had for the most part settled down, presumably without the stress of writing, performing, and dealing with business looming over their heads. George and Paul, however, maintained a strained relationship. In the film “Let it Be”, George says: “I’ll play whatever it is you want me to play or I won’t play at all, whatever makes you happy…” Paul and George did however make their peace eventually, with Paul at George’s side in hospital only weeks before George’s passing.
John and Paul had a strained relationship for the first few years after the band’s breakup. The titanic song-writing partnership that was Lennon-McCartney ended bitterly, as is evident in this clip of a solo number of John’s, “How do you Sleep?”.
Although it’s clear that the Beatles had their ups and downs, it’s undeniable that they were one of history’s most incredible, iconic and best-loved bands. Perhaps Ringo summed up the band members’ feelings towards each other best in a recent song of his own, “Wonderful”, saying “The worst it ever was was wonderful.”