It was a cold January in 1969, and the Beatles were seated on a vast, even colder, soundstage at London’s Twickenham Film Studios, in the company of the last people in the world they wanted to be with: the Beatles. They had been trying for days to write and rehearse new material for a scheduled upcoming live show – their first since August 1966 – but the task wasn’t going well. The only one among them who had any sense of urgency was Paul McCartney. “I don’t see why any of you, if you’re not interested, got yourselves into this,” he said to the other Beatles. “What’s it for? It can’t be for the money. Why are you here? I’m here because I want to do a show, but I don’t see an awful lot of support.”

Paul looked at his bandmates, his friends of many years – John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr – and they looked back at him with no expression. Moments later he said, “There’s only two choices: We’re gonna do it or we’re not gonna do it, and I want a decision. Because I’m not interested in spending my fucking days farting around here, while everyone makes up their mind whether they want to do it or not.”

Paul waited, but he got no response. Again, the other Beatles just stared back.

It was far from the worst moment they would go through in those days. The Beatles in their death throes were one of the most mysterious and complicated end-of-romance tales of the 20th century, as well as the most dispiriting. The Beatles hadn’t just made music – they had made their times, as surely as any political force, and more beneficently than most. Why, then, did the Beatles walk away? There were many who blamed the Beatles’ end on the machinations of Yoko Ono, the legendary love of John Lennon’s life, and on the deviousness of Allen Klein, the band’s new manager who was also a favorite of Lennon’s, but whom McCartney could not abide. But it wasn’t that simple.

 

“I don’t think you could have broken up four very strong people like them,” Ono said later, “even if you tried. So there must have been something that happened within them – not an outside force at all.” Indeed, the true causes were much closer at hand. They had been there for a long time, in a history as full of hurts as it was of transcendence.

These sessions, for what would become both the film and album Let It Be, had started from an inspired place, but there was too much going wrong by the time McCartney issued his plea. For the last year, the Beatles’ partnership had been fraying. The long friendship of John and Paul, in particular, was undergoing volatile change. Lennon, the band’s founder, had in some ways acquiesced leadership of the band; more important, he was beginning to feel he no longer wanted to be confined by the Beatles, whereas McCartney loved the group profoundly – it was what he lived for. These two men had been the band’s central force – theirs was the richest songwriting collaboration in all of popular music – but at heart, the adventure of the Beatles was forged by John Lennon’s temperament and needs: He had formed the band as a way to lessen his sense of anxiety and separation, after his mother, Julia, gave up custody of him to her sister, and his father walked out of his life altogether.

The 16-year-old Lennon first met the 15-year-old McCartney in the summer of 1957 while playing with his band the Quarry Men at a parish church near Liverpool, and was impressed with Paul’s facility for playing the music of Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. Just as important, the two were also bonded by deep loss: McCartney’s mother, Mary, died of breast cancer in October 1956, and Lennon’s mother was killed when she was struck by a car in July 1958. Working together, John and Paul found a new mooring in the world. For a long time, they wrote songs together, trading melodic and lyrical ideas, and even after they began writing separately, each still counted on the other to help finish or improve a song. They were, however, men with strikingly different approaches to making music. McCartney was orderly and meticulous, and placed a high premium on craft; Lennon was unruly, less prone to lingering over a song, and despite his cocky front, less secure in his work than his writing partner. The contrasts grew even more stark as the years went on. McCartney increasingly composed everyman narratives and celebratory calls; Lennon was writing from what he saw as a more authentic and troubled personal viewpoint. “Paul said, ‘Come and see the show,'” Lennon said later. “I said, ‘I read the news today, oh boy.'”

Because Lennon and McCartney dominated the Beatles’ songwriting and singing, they, in effect, led the band, though Lennon had always enjoyed an implicit seniority. Even so, the Beatles abided by a guiding policy of one-man, one-vote, which figured significantly when, in 1966, after years of touring, John, George and Ringo persuaded Paul that they should stop performing their music live. For about three months, all four went their separate ways, and as they did, John Lennon felt sharp apprehensions: “I was thinking, ‘Well, this is the end, really. There’s no more touring. That means there’s going to be a blank space in the future…’ That’s when I really started considering life without the Beatles – what would it be? And that’s when the seed was planted that I had to somehow get out of [the Beatles] without being thrown out by the others. But I could never step out of the palace because it was too frightening.”

Shortly afterward, the band reassembled for its most eventful work, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – but that was also when the Beatles’ inner workings turned strangely complex, even subterranean. The album’s concept had been McCartney’s idea, and though Lennon was primarily responsible for Sgt. Pepper‘s best song, “A Day in the Life,” he later said he saw his contributions to the album as veiled reflections of despair: “I was still in a real big depression in Pepper, and I know Paul wasn’t at that time. He was feeling full of confidence… I was going through murder.” In part, this is how Lennon worked – he either rose or sank by way of crises – but he was truly at a turning point. He believed himself trapped in a loveless and staid domestic life – loveless on his part, that is, because his wife, Cynthia, loved him deeply – and was feeling outdistanced by McCartney, who was an unconstrained and famous man living in London, attending the city’s cutting-edge cultural events and exposing himself to a wide range of avant-garde music and arts. If Lennon didn’t pursue that outer life, he certainly pursued an inner one, taking LSD frequently, to the point that some worried he was erasing his identity. George Harrison later said, “In a way, like psychiatry, acid could undo a lot – it was so powerful you could just see. But I think we didn’t really realize the extent to which John was screwed up .”

In August 1967, leadership in and around the Beatles shifted more decidedly after their manager, Brian Epstein, was found dead in his London town house from an unintentional overdose of drugs. Epstein had been depressed for some time, but he’d remained utterly devoted to the band, and many of the group’s insiders felt that it was Epstein who kept the Beatles grounded and protected. “I knew that we were in trouble then,” Lennon later said. “I didn’t really have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music, and I was scared. I thought, ‘We’ve fuckin’ had it.'”

McCartney, though, didn’t see it that way. Five days after Epstein’s death, Paul convinced the others to undertake a film and music fantasia, Magical Mystery Tour. The band spent the late summer into early winter filming odd reveries and recording music to accompany those scenes, and while it was ostensibly a free-form collaborative project by all four Beatles, there was no mistaking that, in the end, Magical Mystery Tour had been primarily McCartney’s invention. The film debuted on the BBC the day after Christmas in 1967, and the next day it was savaged by critics. (“Blatant rubbish,” wrote London’s Daily Express.) Lennon was reportedly somewhat pleased to see McCartney stumble for once.

In February 1968, the Beatles went to study Transcendental Meditation at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh, India. The sojourn was in part the result of Harrison’s effort to gain more influence on the band’s direction – he was the first among the Beatles to gain an interest in Indian music and philosophies – though at first all the Beatles felt the need to reappraise the purposes of their success. “I think we were all a bit exhausted, spiritually,” McCartney said later. “We’d been the Beatles, which was marvelous … but I think generally there was a feeling of ‘Yeah, well, it’s great to be famous, it’s great to be rich – but what’s it all for?'” However, unease soon set in. When Harrison suspected that Lennon and McCartney might be using the retreat as a haven for songwriting, he grew displeased. “We’re not here to talk music,” he complained. “We’re here to meditate!” Paul’s reply was “Oh, yeah, all right, Georgie boy. Calm down, man.” Ringo Starr and his wife, Maureen, left two weeks after arriving (Starr, who had stomach troubles, couldn’t handle the Indian cuisine), and McCartney and his girlfriend, actress Jane Asher, followed two weeks later. McCartney found the setting too much like school. Harrison and Lennon stayed until Lennon realized he wasn’t any closer to solving the troubles he felt in his heart: the need to renew both his marriage and his artistic purposes. After hearing a rumor that the Maharishi had made sexual advances toward a young woman at the ashram, Lennon became incensed, and demanded that he and Harrison leave immediately.

Something about the whole venture seemed to transform Lennon in ways that nobody readily understood; after that, according to insiders, he always seemed angry. The truth is, he was in great despair; all he had to save him was his art, and even that wasn’t relief. “Although … I was meditating about eight hours a day,” he later said, “I was writing the most miserable songs on Earth.”

Back in London, Lennon soon abandoned Cynthia to begin a serious relationship and artistic collaboration with Yoko Ono, whom he’d met in November 1966. Though Ono has been characterized as an ambitious woman who pursued Lennon indomitably, she went through her own hurt and disappointment in the upheaval that followed, losing access to her daughter, Kyoko, and sidelining her promising art career at Lennon’s behest. As she later said, “We sacrificed everything.” The press and the fans treated her with derision: She was called “Jap,” “Chink” and ‘Yellow” in public, and Lennon sometimes had to shield her from physical harm.

All of this judgment certainly fed into Lennon’s rage, but it paled in comparison to what developed when Lennon brought Ono directly into the Beatles’ world. The group had rarely allowed guests into the studio, and never tolerated anyone other than producer George Martin or perhaps a recording engineer, such as Geoff Emerick, to offer input about a work in progress. (The one time Brian Epstein offered a suggestion during a recording session, John Lennon humiliated the manager in front of everybody.) But Lennon didn’t bring Ono into the Beatles as a guest; he brought her in as a full-fledged collaborator. When the Beatles began work in May 1968 on their first new LP since Sgt. Pepper, Yoko sat with John on the studio floor; she conversed with him continually in a low voice, and accompanied him every time he left the room. The first time she spoke in the studio, offering John advice on a vocal, the room fell silent. Then Paul said, “Fuck me! Did somebody speak? Who the fuck was that? Did you say something, George? Your lips didn’t move!”

Lennon wasn’t somebody who would back off. “He wanted me to be part of the group,” Ono later said. “He created the group, so he thought the others should accept that. I didn’t particularly want to be part of them.” Instead, Ono made her own recordings with Lennon, such as the notorious Two Virgins – an album of experimental electronic music that bore nude photos of the couple. If some found Lennon and Ono’s collaborations indulgent or farcical, McCartney realized that Ono emboldened Lennon. “In fact, she wanted more,” he said. “Do it more, do it double, be more daring, take all your clothes off. She always pushed him, which he liked. Nobody had ever pushed him like that.” But McCartney probably also understood the true meaning of a record like Two Virgins: That John Lennon had an unstoppable will that, unchecked, could redeem or destroy his life, or could undo the Beatles. When the group learned that Lennon and Ono had started using heroin, the Beatles didn’t know what to do about it. “This was a fairly big shocker for us,” McCartney said, “because we all thought we were far-out boys, but we kind of understood that we’d never get quite that far-out.”

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