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Did Yoko Ono break up The Beatles?


The long-standing question of whether Yoko Ono broke The Beatles up is a debate that has been outstanding since 1970 when the famed British musical pioneers announced their split. It depends on who you ask as to which answer you will get: some will say, ‘yes, Yoko Ono broke the Beatles up’, while others will come to the defence of the Japanese artist. When all is said and done, the Fab Four themselves, after tensions subsided, admitted that the turmoil was created within the group, and ultimately they couldn’t put all the blame on her. 

Where does Yoko Ono fit into the world of the Fab Four? How did this group of young lads from Liverpool who, at the end of the day, just wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll, end up getting infiltrated (according to some) by one Japanese artist? 

John Lennon first met Yoko Ono on November 9th, 1966, at the Indica Gallery in London, or so the story goes. Ono was an established artist at this time and was a part of the high-art culture scene, whereas Lennon boasted of being working-class and a down-to-earth, no-nonsense rocker. On this day, Ono was preparing for her conceptual art exhibit and was introduced to Lennon by the gallery owner, John Dunbar. What struck Lennon about a particular piece of art called ‘Ceiling Painting/Yes Painting’, was its positive nature. He climbed a ladder and at the top, there was a spyglass, and upon looking through it, he discovered the word ‘yes’. Immediately, Lennon was sold.

Even at this point, Ono’s artistic sensibility sparked Lennon’s imagination as he hammered a nail into an interactive piece of conceptual art. As may be expected, upon any introduction with Lennon, one isn’t going to get a run-of-the-mill kind of experience; instead, it was unpredictable and erratic because of Lennon’s temperamental moods. Ono recalled years later in 2002: “I was very attracted to him. It was a really strange situation.”

Yoko Ono became a great tamer of the many moods that Lennon underwent and helped him deal with his shortcomings. While Lennon was still married to Cynthia Lennon, Ono and Lennon worked on some avant-garde records. It eventually blossomed into a greater romance. Soon, the pair fled to Gibraltar to get married on a whim. 

The question that people should ask in regards to the break up of the Beatles is not, ‘did Yoko break the Beatles up’, but instead, ‘how did she break them up?’ We have talked about Ono being a prime influencer in the break-up frequently – what we don’t talk about is whether her influence that helped cause the break up was a positive one. Because ultimately, her influence on Lennon was a positive one which forced him to shed old skin and grow – and a part of that shedding was letting go of the Beatles. 

Lennon, talking as a 25-year-old man, once explained that he didn’t want to be singing ‘She Loves You’ when he’s 30. “My life changed when I was 30,” Lennon remarked.

Leading up to the eventual demise of the group, each member had left the band and come back again; it was truly an internal band issue, and not so much a Lennon and Yoko issue. With Brian Epstein’s death, came a shift in the paradigm of the Fab Four; Lennon remarked that it was the beginning of the end. Lennon became increasingly scarce and was spending more time with Yoko. In this sense alone, she did break the group up. However, and importantly, there were a whole series of factors that created a fractured and comprised foundation of the group. The other three grew bitter towards Paul McCartney after he assumed control of the band following the death of Epstein and, in 1970, because it could have been perceived that he was using the break-up as publicity to promote his first solo record, but it was ultimately Lennon who pulled the plug. 

Let’s dive in.

Yoko Ono has often been blamed for The Beatles break-up. (Credit: Alamy)

Did Yoko Ono break up the Beatles? And if so, how?

Ono did have a part to play in breaking up the Beatles, but not in a spiteful or malicious way. Her influence and nurturing relationship with Lennon allowed him to explore new aspects of his life, which happened to also coincide with the break up of the band. “I wanted to do it and I should have done it,” he said later. “I started the band, I disbanded it. It’s as simple as that,” Lennon stated once, steadfastly. 

Likewise, Yoko Ono remarked in an interview with Rolling Stone: “I don’t think you could have broken up four very strong people like them. So there must have been something that happened within them – not an outside force at all.”

Yoko Ono began sitting in on Beatles’ studio sessions at Abbey Roads during the making of The White Album. Studio engineer and George Martin’s right-hand man, Geoff Emerick, wrote in his book, Here, There, and Everywhere: “For the next couple of hours, Ono just sat quietly with us in the control room. It had to have been even more uncomfortable for her than it was for any of us. She had been put in an embarrassing situation, plunked right by the window so that George Martin and I had to crane our heads around her to see the others out in the studio and communicate with them. As a result, she kept thinking we were staring at her. She’d give us a polite, shy smile whenever she’d see us looking in her direction, but she never actually said anything.”

Ono eventually grew more confident and began appearing by Lennon’s side more frequently. Tensions arose, specifically between Ono and McCartney and Harrison. McCartney had an outburst one time after she spoke but ever so quietly. “Fuck me! Did somebody speak? Who the fuck was that? Did you say something, George? Your lips didn’t move!” Macca said frustratingly.

While feelings towards Yoko Ono were somewhat problematic for the band, all the members of the group later admitted that they don’t believe Yoko Ono was to blame for the break-up. The most recent one of these times was when McCartney spoke to Howard Stern on his radio show and recalled the time when Lennon made the big announcement that he was leaving. “There was a meeting where John came in and said, ‘I’m leaving the group.’ And looking back on it, he’d reached that stage in his life. We all had.”

When Lennon and Ono appeared on The Dick Cavett show in 1972, Lennon refused to buy into this notion that she broke them up: “Anyway, she didn’t split The Beatles because how could one girl or one woman split The Beatles, they were drifting apart on their own,” he told the host.

Ultimately, it was understood that during this time in Lennon’s life, he needed Yoko Ono, Macca also said, “Even though we thought she was intrusive because she used to sit in on the recording sessions and we’d never had anything like that. But looking back on it, you think, ‘The guy was totally in love with her. And you’ve just got to respect that.’ So we did. And I do.” 

So, to blame Ono for any malicious intent is unjust, but she did help Lennon make his final decision to break up the band, because, ultimately, she helped him be more himself than ever before.

“John needed to give space to his and Yoko’s thing. Someone like John would want to end The Beatles period and start the Yoko period, and he wouldn’t like either to interfere with the other,” McCartney added.

Yoko Ono’s presence cause an issue for some of Beatles members. (Credit: Alamy)

Did Yoko Ono influence John Lennon?

Yoko Ono’s influence on John Lennon is paramount and inextricably linked to his decision to wanting to leave the group. However, specifically writing for The White Album, it could be argued that Ono pushed Lennon to write some of his greatest tunes. In addition and on Lennon’s later solo years, McCartney once said that he doesn’t think that Lennon would have been able to write ‘Imagine’ without the influence of her. 

Lennon began finding his voice in a way that he never had before. Songs like ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’, ‘Dear Prudence’, and ‘Revolution’ can all be sourced back to the thriving relationship between Ono and Lennon.

It all started when Lennon’s wife at the time, Cynthia, had gone to Greece for a vacation and Ono stayed with Lennon. During an all-night creative session, Ono and Lennon created their first few albums together, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins and Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions. 

When we got back from India, we were talking to each other on the phone. I called her over, it was the middle of the night and Cyn was away, and I thought, ‘Well, now’s the time if I’m going to get to know her any more,'” Lennon said, before adding, “She came to the house and I didn’t know what to do; so we went upstairs to my studio and I played her all the tapes that I’d made, all this far-out stuff, some comedy stuff, and some electronic music. There were very few people I could play those tapes to. She was suitably impressed, and then she said, ‘Well, let’s make one ourselves,’ so we made Two Virgins. It was midnight when we finished, and then we made love at dawn. It was very beautiful.”

The album cover of the former of the two records, featured a photograph of the two of them naked. “Even before we made this record [Two Virgins], I envisioned producing an album of hers and I could see this album cover of her being naked because her work was so pure. I couldn’t think of any other way of presenting her. It wasn’t a sensational idea or anything,” he reflected. 

As an important figure associated with Beatlemania, posing naked on an album and creating dissident avant-garde records, was a far cry from Lennon’s ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ years. This is probably the clearest example of Ono’s influence on Lennon and by extension, the rest of the group. “This was a fairly big shocker for us,” McCartney told Rolling Stone, “Because we all thought we were far-out boys, but we kind of understood that we’d never get quite that far-out.”

John Lennon and Yoko Ono became inseparable. (Credit: Jack Mitchell)

Why was Yoko Ono in the Beatles’ studio?

By bringing Ono into the studio, Lennon had broken a sacred rule; the Fab Four weren’t supposed to bring people into their inner sanctum 

It was quite a shocker for all the lads in the band when Lennon started bringing Ono into the studio. “But when she turned up at the studio and sat in the middle of us, doing nothing I still admit now that we were all cheesed off. But looking back on it – [me and Yoko] have talked about this – I think she realises it must have been a shock for us. But lots of things that went down were good for us, really. At the time though, we certainly did not think that,” McCartney told Q Magazine. 

Anyone familiar with the history of the group will know that not only did Yoko Ono spend every waking moment with Lennon and the band, but Lennon even arranged for a bed to be brought into their Abbey Road studio. 

Many may gawk at such a bizarre prospect, but there is a story behind why the young couple would do such a thing. While on holiday in Scotland, the family got into a car accident while the Beatles were scheduled to be in the studio. When they returned to London, Lennon had a bed brought in as Ono was ordered by the doctor to recover from her injuries and to rest as much as she could. Well, this didn’t stop the two from being absolutely inseparable. Now, Ono was with Lennon all the time, while the other Beatles never got their significant other involved. This was their office – you don’t bring your wife or husband to work – this was their perspective. For Lennon, however, being the artist that he was, he wanted to create a nurturing environment for both of them.

Studio engineer John Kurlander who helped on sessions, recalled, “My memory is not so much that it was curious that she was convalescing in a bed in the corner of the studio, but that she had her entourage – She had a lot of visitors.

“It was on the studio floor, so if the guys were working on a song, it was distracting that she had so many people coming to see her.”

According to the engineer, he believes that this was another leading factor to rising tensions that eventually bubbled over, causing the band to break up. 

Yoko Ono and John Lennon enjoyed a whirlwind romance. (Credit: Alamy)

Did George Harrison really hate Yoko Ono?

George Harrison’s relationship with the rest of The Beatles was a bittersweet one; slight feelings of resentment developed between the guitar player and the rest of the band throughout the band’s later years. Yoko Ono’s presence in the studio didn’t help matters.

As a fledgeling songwriter largely overshadowed by the towering Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership, Harrison often trailed behind as he began developing his craft a few paces behind the other two. 

Considering that Harrison was known as the ‘Quiet Beatle’, it would be surprising to find out that he had some growing resentment toward Ono. This could largely be because Harrison’s role in the band began increasing as his songwriting voice evolved. All of a sudden, there was now a de-facto fifth Beatle who seemed to have been contributing uninvited comments in the studio, and what’s more, Ono was protected by Lennon and was therefore encouraged to do so. 

“One must have to wonder about what George Harrison felt about Yoko Ono. When Harrison was interviewed on The Dick Cavett Show, Mr Cavett playfully remarked on the chair Harrison was sitting in, ‘Yoko sat in that very chair’, after which George, coyly, jumped out of the chair, perhaps in a bid for laughs or perhaps as a show of real disdain,” as we once reported in another article.

Lennon bitterly reminisced about Harrison’s reaction to Ono, saying, “And George, shit, insulted her right to her face in the Apple office at the beginning, just being ‘straight forward’ you know, that game of ‘well, I’m going to be upfront because this is what we’ve heard and Dylan and a few people said she’s got a lousy name in New York, and you gave off bad vibes.’ That’s what George said to her, and we both sat through it, and I didn’t hit him. I don’t know why.”

Emerick included an anecdote in his aforementioned memoir, Here, There, and Everywhere: “I noticed that something down in the studio had caught George Harrison’s attention. After a moment or two he began staring bug-eyed out the control room window…Yoko had gotten out of bed and was slowly padding across the studio floor, finally coming to a stop at Harrison’s Leslie cabinet, which had a packet of McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits on top.”

Adding, “Idly, she began opening the packet and delicately removed a single biscuit. Just as the morsel reached her mouth, Harrison could contain himself no longer. ‘THAT B**H!’”.

Like McCartney, while Harrison may have had some ‘complicated’ feelings toward her at one point, he ultimately did not blame her for the break up of the band, saying on the Cavett show, “The group had problems long before Yoko came along. Many problems, folks.” 

You can watch that interview between George Harrison and Dick Cavett, below.