50 years of The Beatles split: Why even the gods couldn't prevent it

This year marks the 50th year of The Beatles' break-up, which even the gods could not prevent.

 |  11-minute read |   24-11-2020
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Lord Vishnu appeared in the form of Rishikesh (Lord of the Senses) before Raibhya Rishi because of the Rishi’s penance, giving the holy town its name. Who would have known that the Preserver and Protector of the Universe would be helpless in preserving The Beatles?

The Beatles visited Rishikesh to meditate in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram from February to April in 1968. The beginning of The Beatles’ end began in the sylvan foothills of the Himalayas. Having given up touring in 1966, the trip to India was the last time all the four Beatles travelled together. Their self-exploration through meditation led to each of them adopting a more individual focus, at the expense of band unity. Following their return from Rishikesh, Lennon, Harrison and McCartney were three very different personalities who seldom saw eye-to-eye anymore. The break-up was only a matter of time.

You can read more about that in my piece here.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the feud between Lennon and McCartney after their manager Brian Epstein died. McCartney wanted his new father-in-law to manage the group while the other Beatles wanted Allen Klein. The split was not cordial. After the band went their separate ways, bad blood lingered among the former band mates and griping began between them. Lennon made defamatory remarks about The Beatles in a December 1970 interview with the Rolling Stone magazine. McCartney and his wife Linda took out full-page advertisements in the music press, in which, as an act of mockery, towards Lennon and Yoko Ono, they were shown wearing clown costumes and wrapped up in a bag. On top of trading barbs in the music press, McCartney and Lennon took cracks at one another in their solo albums.

main_beatles_in-indi_112420014147.jpgPhoto: Wikimedia Commons

McCartney preferred to couch his slings and arrows in metaphors and ambiguities. Lennon thought that McCartney’s Teddy Boy from his first solo album McCartney (1970) contained personal references to him. In his next album Ram (1971), Lennon thought that the song Dear Boy was about him. Certain lines such as "She was just the cutest thing around" could have referred to McCartney as being the “cute” Beatle. McCartney may have changed the gender to conceal his identity and Lennon mentioned in subsequent interviews that the song had subtle allusions to him and Yoko Ono. However, McCartney denied it.

Lennon thought that other song on the album, such as 3 Legs, contained similar attacks: “When I thought you was my friend/(When I thought that I could call you my friend)/But you let me down (hoo!)/ Put my heart around the bend.” With such lyrics, Lennon could not be faulted for believing the song was a commentary on him, though McCartney denied it. Lennon also believed there were several coded messages in the lyrics of The Back Seat Of My Car from the same album. The back cover of the album also featured a photograph of two beetles copulating, which was interpreted as a commentary on the former members’ treatment of one another.

But there was no doubt about the other song in the same album Too Many People. With the line “That was your first mistake/ You took your lucky break and broke it in two/ Now what can be done for you?/ You broke it in two”, he was making a clear reference to Lennon’s relationship with Yoko Ono. And McCartney did the same with the line “too many people preaching practices/ Don't let them tell you what you wanna be.”

John was not going to let those statements go unanswered.

When the album Imagine (1971) was originally released, it contained a postcard of Lennon holding the ears of a large pig. This was making fun of McCartney’s album cover for Ram, released before Imagine, where McCartney is pictured holding the horns of a ram.

He, however, let McCartney have it in How Do You Sleep? from the same album.

While McCartney’s lyrics had been allusive and non-specific, Lennon’s were direct and pointed. He accused McCartney of being surrounded by sycophantic ‘straights’, having achieved nothing more than writing Yesterday, and trashing his recent works as “muzak to my ears”. To ram the point home, he suggested the believers of the ‘Paul is dead’ myth were actually right.

In its original draft, the lyrics contained the line “The only thing you done was Yesterday/ You probably pinched that bitch anyway”. Lennon’s manager Allen Klein suggested its replacement, “And since you’ve gone you’re just another day” – a reference to McCartney’s 1971 single Another Day – in a wish to avoid a libel action from McCartney. In another studio outtake, Lennon spat out the words: “Tell me, how do you sleep, you c**t?”

Lennon also took a few whacks at McCartney’s family relationships. In a word, he unloaded on his old mate. However, it could have been worse, and Ringo Starr must be thanked for that. Ringo stopped by Lennon’s estate for some of the Imagine sessions and happened to be there for the How Do You Sleep? recording.

Ringo began to object when Lennon and Yoko started battering McCartney in the song. Ringo started getting more and more upset by this and at one point reportedly said, “That’s enough, John.”

Ringo did persuade Lennon to delete a few lines. Without Ringo around, How Do You Sleep? could have been a lot nastier than it turned out.

Many have interpreted the song Let Me Roll It from Band on the Run (1973) by Paul McCartney and Wings as an olive branch offering to Lennon by McCartney: “I can't tell you how I feel/ My heart is like a wheel/ Let me roll it/Let me roll it to you”. However, in an interview, McCartney denied it and explained this was more of a drugs song; the song was just in the style that Lennon was particularly known for insofar as the use of the echo was concerned.

It was not only McCartney who was on the receiving end. Allen Klein, who took over management duties for The Beatles in 1969 and worked with Lennon on his Imagine album, had a souring of relationship with Lennon. In the song Steel and Glass  from the album Walls and Bridges (1974) Lennon sang "Your mother left you when you were small/ But you're gonna wish you were never born at all." Klein was accused of many unethical acts before his death in 2009, but this lyric is especially harsh, as Klein's mother died when he was young.

Even George Harrison, the “quiet” Beatle, did not remain quiet. His musical talent was not always appreciated by his fellow Beatles. He contributed several new songs to the band during their 1969 sessions for Get Back, the album which would become Let It Be. One of these tracks was Something — one of the band’s most popular hits. However, McCartney passed over those songs in favour of tracks he wrote with Lennon. Harrison said McCartney was very difficult to deal with during this period and felt devalued.

Things were not cordial between Harrison and Lennon either. Once they even came to blows. Harrison was so upset that he left the band. Lennon tried to proceed with the Let It Be session unaffected, but he was secretly very worried Harrison had left the band for good. Harrison would come back to the studio, however.

He channelled this anger and frustration into the song Wah-Wah — the first song he wrote for his breakthrough triple-album solo album All Things Must Pass. The song set him down the path to his legendary 1970s career.

Although Wah-Wah seems nonsensical, it is secretly an anti-McCartney/anti-Lennon track. It is an oddly titled song that provides insight into Harrison’s frame of mind.

The song repeatedly references “wah-wah” in lines like “Now I don’t need no wah-wahs/ And I know how sweet life be/ If can I keep myself free – of wah-wah.” It is never explained what “wah-wah” is supposed to be. Harrison eventually commented on the meaning of the track. He said its message is “You’re giving me a bloody headache.” ‘Wah-Wah’ is Harrison’s critique of how McCartney and Lennon treated him.

The album included several tracks that referenced the end of the Beatles without really airing any dirty laundry.

He did it best on Run of the Mill. While singing about lost friendship and bitter endings, it was his farewell to The Beatles. The song comes almost like a peace offering. George starts singing the opening lyrics, which revolve around choice (specifically, people deciding “when to and not to raise their voices”). From there, he sings a chorus section about how “no one around you can carry the blame for you.” Harrison singing these words to McCartney.

Harrison also commented on The Beatles breakup in songs such as Isn't It a Pity, and Sue Me, Sue You Blues.

McCartney contacted Lennon periodically, but was often rebuffed. The last time they saw each other was two years before Lennon's death when they shared a dinner in New York. Before Lennon died, McCartney was back to a good relationship with him. McCartney is quoted in the biography Band on the Run as saying that each member of The Beatles was influenced by outside forces that would pit them against one another. He explained further that they never hated each other but paranoia and frustration would boil over, and as songwriters, their only outlet was to express themselves in song.

Lennon explained: "I used my resentment against Paul to create a song. Sibling rivalry.”

Harrison also came around. When We Was Fab released in his album Cloud Nine (1987) serves as a nostalgic reflection by Harrison on the days of Beatlemania during the 1960s. Ringo Starr is among the other musicians on the track.

Not all bands follow the same routine.

Syd Barrett, co-founder of Pink Floyd, left the group after only playing on their first album — The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967) — in 1968 after suffering a mental breakdown. Pink Floyd have dedicated many songs to him including Brain Damage (1973), Shine On You Crazy Diamond (1975), High Hopes (1994). In fact, many bands/singers have sung songs on Barrett, either referencing him or his mental condition — a condition many music artists have suffered and still find relevant today.

Uriah Heep had to let their ace vocalist David Byron go because of his erratic behaviour due to alcohol abuse. Moreover, Byron and the other Uriah Heep members had disagreed over fundamental issues of group policy.

Byron came out with the song I Remember from Baby Faced Killer (1978). The lyrics suggest that he bore no rancour and that he was just being himself: “I can talk about it now because I'm free/ But I'll always be the same old me / Playing my music is all I can do/ To say all the things that is possible to/ But sometimes I thought that I wouldn't pull through I remember/ So I'll carry on for as long as I can/With hardly a reason and never a plan / 'Cause I'll be contented if I stay the man I remember well.”

On the ‘Equator’ tour, around the time of Byron's death, Uriah Heep dedicated The Wizard to him. There were also tributes to him and deceased bassist Gary Thain on the 1998 album Sonic Origami.

Neil Young in Buffalo Springfield Again from the album Silver and Gold (2000) reminisced fondly about his days with the Buffalo Springfield (of which he was a co-founder). “Used to play in a rock 'n roll band/ but they broke up/We were young and we were wild/It ate us up/ Now I'm not saying who was right or wrong”.

Later in the song, he sings: “Like to see those guys again/ And give it a shot/ Maybe now we can show the world what we got/But I'd just like to play for the fun we had/ Buffalo Springfield again.”

Back to The Beatles. The band members eventually reconciled. In a March 1966 interview, Lennon made a remark that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. He argued that the public were more infatuated with the band than with Jesus. Be that as it may, they certainly were artists who broke through the constraints of their era to come up with something that was unique and original. In popular music, very few have been as revolutionary, as creative, and as distinctive as they were. They changed the way people listened to popular music and experienced its role in their lives. Paeans upon paeans can be heaped on them. The break-up songs they wrote were just an aberration. They were human after all!

These songs are otherwise outstanding to listen to but not really for reminiscing.

They will arguably be the best band the world has ever had. Lord Vishnu may not have been able to preserve the band, but their legacy will forever be preserved and cherished.

Also Read: Why the beginning of The Beatles’ end started in India


Ajay Mankotia Ajay Mankotia @ajaymankotia

The writer is an author, former revenue official, former NDTV executive and a music aficionado.

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