In a decade defined by Vietnam protests, a Presidential assassination and the first Man on the Moon, four chaps from Liverpool, England managed to become cultural behemoths, up-end popular music forever, and shape the 60’s. The Beatles broke up in 1970, at the top of their success, after a few years of virulent contention among band members. As a result of their still-growing cultural capital and ubiquity, when the split occurred the public found themselves grasping at straws for answers. It is hard to imagine today in a fragmented social media age in which no single story has a chance in landing any large share of our collective attention, but at the time it was the story. Everyone wanted to figure out the true originator of the break-up. There is no single reason for the break-up of the Beatles. Though that did not stop popular culture from settling on Yoko Ono, John Lennon’s lover, as the root cause for the Beatle’s end. This is borrowed wisdom that has masqueraded as a viable answer well into the 21st century, but it is no more correct today than it was almost 50 years ago. Rather, the onus can be placed on a bevy of issues straining on the band — some that had laid dormant for years and others more immediate to the break-up — that were exacerbated by their extraordinary circumstances. Complications regarding money, musical roles, the loss of their manager and romance all played important parts in the dismantlement of the Fab Four. Though their dissolution was clearly convoluted, it was not particularly mysterious, nor avoidable. The ending of the Beatles was inevitable and imminent from the moment that collection of musical prowess, ego and business illiteracy materialized with the formation of the core trio of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison in Liverpool in 1960.
Though of course, in hindsight it is far easier to point out this misunderstanding. Ono was an artist in her own right prior to meeting Lennon, an avant-garde conceptualist who collaborated with famed creators such as composer John Cage and George Maciunas (Balmer). Those that still cling to the Ono intimation are treated to a wealth of enigma to fuel their conspiracy. Yoko Ono became somewhat of a mythological being in the 60’s and 70’s. Unlike Lennon and the rest of the Beatles’ reputation for their musical genius, Ono’s identity was constructed, partially by her, to be mysterious, serious and overly artistic. An apt modern day comparison for Ono would be Kanye West. Both are heralded by many as artistic visionaries, and their many followers reduce the views of their many detractors as coming from a place of ignorance despite the musicians often odd and confusing behavior.
Lennon and Ono met in 1966, and by 1968 had begun a romance. Lennon held her artistic views in quite high esteem, so much so that she was increasingly brought into the inner circle of the Beatles. Lennon broke the unspoken agreement to keep wives and girlfriends out of the studio and creative sphere. Lennon once called her “the most famous unknown artist in the world.” (Balmer). Purposely vague, confusing and self-aggrandizing maxims such as that are a sneak-peek into the personality of the couple at the time. Their artistic ego made them insufferable to many, but beloved by their dedicated fans. Many place the blame for the Beatles’ break-up entirely on her shoulders, and Lennon’s for insisting on her involvement in many of the late 60s creative decisions. “The “jealous woman breaking up the band” archetype has become so embedded in our cultural subconscious that the name “Yoko” is lobbed at any woman perceived to be threatening a band’s unity.” (Joffe). This led McCartney to come out years later on the BBC and absolve her of the blame. Pinning the break-up on Ono is like blaming a house’s foundational problems on the cracks you notice appearing in the walls. The institution known as the Beatles was struggling, and the appearance of Yoko Ono was merely a symptom of the disagreement and carelessness forming between the band-mates. Lennon’s insistence on Ono’s involvement in the band he only came about because of his growing apathy for his partner’s input. Without the deterioration of the inner relationships among the Beatles, Ono would not have been a problem because Lennon would not have valued her input over the objections of McCartney, Harrison and Starr.
With regard to the internal strife within the Beatles, Harrison’s positioning in it all is surely the least understood or studied. While some may argue, perhaps rightfully so, that George Harrison was criminally sidelined for much of the Beatles’ lifespan, few would argue against his obvious talent. His contributions to the Beatles’ music and cultural appeal are apparent, from his groundbreaking use of the sitar in “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” to introducing the rest of his band-mates to Bob Dylan and American country music, Harrison’s effects are felt throughout the extensive catalogue of Beatles songs. Not to mention Harrison’s guitar skills. In a 2015 Rolling Stone Magazine ranking of the greatest guitarists of all time he is listed at 11, and is consistently mentioned with the likes of Hendrix, Page and Van Halen. It’s important to attest to his consummate musical talent to understand one of the dynamics that eventually led him to become frustrated and dissatisfied with the state of the peerless rock group.
While it is fair to say that Harrison’s song-writing ability was not at the same level of McCartney’s and Lennon’s early on, his discernible progression was undeniable. “Harrison learned fast and his development is there for all to hear on the Rubber Soul and Revolver albums with his songs, “Think for Yourself,” “If I Needed Someone,” “I Want to Tell You,” “Love You To” and “Taxman,” Elliot J. Huntley wrote in his book: Mystical One: George Harrison: After the Break-Up of the Beatles (11). Regardless of his growing ability and critical acclaim, Lennon and McCartney restricted him to only two songs per album. Lennon famously exclaimed that he felt Harrison should feel grateful to be surrounded by as skilled musicians and song-writers as Lennon and McCartney. As it became more and more clear to Harrison that he was unable to fully exhibit his art within the confines of the band, he grew bitter and resentful of the other two’s dominance. “With insufficient opportunity to display his emerging talents, Harrison was the one who had the most to gain from the break-up of the Beatles” (Huntley 13). Of course, George Harrison was not the only Beatle, nor the most vocal, that felt things were going awry. Though, he epitomizes one of the major ticking time bombs of the Beatles: This band could not fit the talent of its members. Though it feels sacrilegious to make the comparison, the boy band One Direction encountered similar troubles, with the individually talented band members feeling tethered to a group that would not allow them personal success. Though Ringo Starr was talented, he never seemed to have a major problem with any of the other Beatles and in this case is pretty irrelevant to the argument. He appeared to have the best relationship with all the other Beatles individually after the break up. With the exception of Ringo, who seemed to be mostly along for the ride despite his own revolutionary drum innovations, the other three Beatles all had to make serious sacrifices. After all, albums can only be so long, and stages so wide.
Lennon and McCartney, restraining much of Harrison’s involvement, had their own unique relationship when it came to song-writing and song ownership. The two geniuses would often write together, feeding off one another’s talent, and filling in the gaps in the other’s writing (Weber 94). However, this utopic practice was bound to strain their relationship as these songs became world-wide successes and the two were bunched closer and closer together by their songwriter credit: Lennon/McCartney. Many bands and creative teams have withstood this type of trial over the years, to name a few: the Cohen Brothers, Daft Punk and even the very comparable Rolling Stones. The difference between these artists and the Beatles is the key to understanding the Beatles’ break-up. The Cohen Brothers and Daft Punk have virtually no fame outside of their teams. In fact, these days Daft Punk wears helmets to protect their identity. With regard to the Rolling Stones, I think the answer lies in hierarchy. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards can be compared to the McCartney and Lennon of the group, but Jagger is obviously the leader of the band and the most well known. This is what prevents the controversy created by the dueling egos of the Beatles. This is well demonstrated by the Beatles post break-up disagreement over the hit song “Eleanor Rigby”. In the most contentious year of the Beatles break-up, 1971, Lennon claimed to have written at least half of “Eleanor Rigby,” and later increased his claim to 70 percent. McCartney disputed this and claimed he had written 80 percent of the song himself (Weber 95). This bled out into the financial world. McCartney’s post-break-up royalty earnings made up for the lion’s share of the money coming in, which led to legal battles until years after Lennon’s death (Womack 162). The rift between the two stars was even more pronounced by their incredible at-odds personalities and styles. “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.,’” (“Why the Beatles Broke Up”). John’s song’s are deeper and even meta, Paul’s more whimsical and care-free. Lennon took himself much more seriously than the other ‘Mop-Tops’. His overt self-conception that placed himself at the top of the artistic hierarchy was damaging to a band in the midst of so much pressure. The astronomical success experienced by the band left no room for a style that minimized the importance of song-ownership and corroded relationships — from the outset it was doomed to end poorly when egos and wallets collided.
Perhaps the person to be credited for delaying the demise of the Beatles for as long as it was, is Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager.
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 with reference to Epstein’s sudden death in 1967. “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.’”” (Rolling Stone).
Epstein had operated as a guardian of sorts for the young, often reckless Beatles — in 1961 when Epstein ‘discovered’ and signed them their ages were: Lennon, 21; McCartney, 19; Harrison, 18. This held true for Lennon, whose father had been largely absent for much of his life. “[Epstein] had been a substitute father to him and John saw his death as yet another abandonment,” Barry Miles wrote in Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now. Afterward Lennon spurned McCartney’s attempts to reinvigorate the group, and became detached and uninterested (562). Epstein’s management style was very much laissez faire, but was known to step in and moderate disputes between the band when needed. His sudden absence left a gaping hole in the band, leaving no outside forces left to encourage the band in the right direction, nor keep them on track. The Beatles particularly missed his nose for business, as he had handled most of their finances for their entire careers and none of them had any experienced with anything of the sort. The importance of a stellar manager is incredibly important even today. Think of the success of managers like Scooter Braun and the way he helped save Justin Bieber’s career. If the jealousy, talent and success of the Beatles filled the powder keg with gunpowder, Epstein’s death lit the fuse.
Any phenomenon half as influential as the Beatles is bound to be subjected to an extraordinary amount of scrutiny and consideration. For the break-up of the Fab Four, the world administered a sweeping and detailed investigation into possibilities that could be blamed for depriving audiences of more Beatles music. The easy answer was easy to those who wished to not look right in front of their noses. With little effort, one could point to Yoko Ono, the apparently singular change in the latter years of the Beatles and present her as the catalyst for the band’s schism. The ‘Yoko broke up the Beatles” epitaph on the tombstone of the band is fulfilling. It is part of the human condition to seek clean endings, final breaks and immutable inflection points. This is why things like zombies, the threat of Brett Favre coming out of retirement and conspiracies proclaiming the everlasting life of Elvis are so inescapable in our culture. We seek clean endings, which is why this one sticks out. This is not as gratifying as being able to point one’s finger at a single reason, at a single point in time, that initiated their down-fall. It is, however, fitting. The Beatles, a band that at one time somewhat facetiously claimed to be bigger than Jesus, like Elvis, Favre or the living undead, could not have ended any other way than ambiguously and complicatedly.