“I knew that we were in trouble then. 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’.” — John Lennon
It’s fair to say that without Brian Epstein, the man widely referred to as the ‘Fifth Beatle’, the Fab Four would never have seen the wild and widespread fame and fortune that they ultimately enjoyed. Epstein’s drive and determination had galvanised the four individuals into The Beatles and created a rock ‘n’ roll behemoth seemingly overnight.
On August 27th, 1967, that driving force and galvanising entity in The Beatles’ world would sadly pass away after an accidental overdose of Carbital, a sleep aid which when mixed with alcohol can prove deadly. It was a shocking moment in the history of the band as not only did they lose their engine, but also a dear friend.
Epstein had planned to enjoy the bank holiday weekend in the countryside with a few of his friends attempting to orchestrate a little gathering of like-minded men and women. Epstein was a gay man in a difficult era and so was disappointed when the friends he had invited neglected to show up in Sussex.
Instead of being deterred, Epstein realised that even after far too many brandies, he could still make it back to London to visit the West End clubs if he put his foot down. After cruising through he realised that the clubs had all but closed and decided to head home instead. His butler remembers hearing him return in the early hours of Saturday morning.
Peter Brown, who had originally joined Epstein down in Sussex, spoke to him on the telephone on Saturday afternoon, he remembers he “was speaking in a woozy voice. He apologised for not coming back and maybe letting us worry. I suspect that when he went back to London he did go out, cruised the West End for a bit and then went home”.
That was the last anyone ever hear of Epstein as he suffered an accidental overdose and died in his sleep. Before Epstein’s identity could even be properly confirmed, the reporters were already at the door. Alistair Taylor remembers in The Brian Epstein Story, “Within literally very few minutes of the police being informed, there’s a ring on the doorbell and it’s a reporter I knew. He just looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing here? I hear Brian’s ill.’ And I said, ‘No, he’s fine. He’s gone out.'”
Soon the word had spread and The Beatles had been informed that their friend and manager had died in tragic circumstances. At the time, The Beatles were in Bangor, Wales, with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a guru of Transcendental Meditation whose teachings had begun to infiltrate the Fab Four’s very way of life—but nothing could have prepared them for this shock.
Within hours, news reporters and television cameras had descended on Ringo Starr, George Harrison and John Lennon in Wales while Paul McCartney and his girlfriend Jane Asher made their way directly to London.
It is here that one could argue the first cracks were put in the foundations of The Beatles. Swarmed by media and engulfed by a world so desperate to consume them, suddenly John, Paul, George and Ringo looked out on their own. The footage below from a news report just hours after the news had been shared with the band shows Harrison and Lennon dumbfounded by grief and in complete shock. The sharks began to circle.
There are numerous reasons The Beatles broke up that we know of and likely countless reasons that we don’t. But there is certainly some validity in suggesting Epstein was at the route of some of their more obvious issues as a band. After Epstein’s death, a creative lead was needed in the studio. Lennon and McCartney may well have provided the songs but more often than not Epstein had a hand in the vision.
Following the success of Sgt. Pepper, McCartney’s Magnus Opus, the bassist began to take a stronger grip on the band’s creativity. It meant that not only was Lennon passively encouraged to pursue his growing substance abuse and disinterest in the group but Harrison’s frustration and resentment was only multiplying. With Epstein gone, Macca was seemingly now in charge.
Of course, if that is the case, then we have a lot to thank him for. Some of The Beatles’ greatest records followed McCartney’s new leadership, but it cannot be denied that his overbearing tendencies, now allowed to run riot, would accelerate the band’s demise.
Brian Epstein had not only galvanised the group creatively but had done so by taking care of most of the business matters. While it would be ignorant to suggest there were no money issues before Epstein’s death, he certainly centralised all of their projects and by doing so offered the band a one-stop-shop for all of their dealings.
With Brian gone, The Beatles needed a new manager. It was Allen Kelin who then put himself forward to fill the role after the Fab Four had spent the last six months without a man keeping an eye on the bigger picture. Apple Records had begun to lose money badly and the group hadn’t trusted anyone to handle those matters since Brian. Kelin saw his opportunity.
McCartney had been keen to employ his father-in-law Lee Eastman but Starr, Harrison and Lennon rallied and convinced Macca to sign. Nearly. McCartney turned up at the publicity shot to sign the papers but never officially put pen to paper. It would dramatically effect the state of the band going forward, their managerial dispute being one of the most obvious reasons for their split.
But perhaps the real reason that Epstein’s death affected the members of The Beatles so badly was that he was, above all else, a dear, dear friend. “I can’t find words to pay tribute to him. It is just that he was lovable, and it is those lovable things we think about now,” said Lennon at the time. Harrison said of their manager. “He dedicated so much of his life to the Beatles. We liked and loved him. He was one of us,” Starr concurred, “We loved Brian. He was a generous man. We owe so much to him.”
The truth is that we can never be certain whether Epstein’s death did spark off an irreversible chain of events that led to The Beatles break-up. At best, we assume that had he not died the band may have stuck around for a little bit longer, but most of the issues the group were facing had already begun to surface before he passed. What we can be certain of though, is that without Brian Epstein, there would be no such band as The Beatles.