As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of the most controversial albums of all time in The Beatles twelfth and final record Let It Be, it is also worth remembering that the album was a central figure in the eventual disbandment of the Fab Four.
Though the record was meant to be an attempt to free themselves from the shackles of precise studio work and once again enjoy the passion of performance, it boasted a similar formula to the band’s previous records; Paul McCartney and John Lennon were in charge. For George Harrison, the sessions became unbearable.
It would lead to the guitarist quitting The Beatles on January 10th, 1969, in the middle of the Let It Be sessions in Twickenham. He did so unceremoniously and without much fuss externally. Internally though, the frustration Harrison was experiencing was beginning to take over his life.
The irritation was largely born out of Harrison’s growing songwriting talent. He had started to flex his muscles on previous Beatles releases, something which had both impressed and perhaps annoyed the songwriting partnership of Lennon-McCartney. But for Let It Be Harrison had some big plans.
Having spent much of the latter part of the previous year with Bob Dylan and The Band, working on tracks like ‘I’d Have You Anytime’, and with his work on The Beatles White Album so widely loved, Harrison had hope for the future of the Fab Four.
In truth, the band had been squabbling for some time. McCartney’s dominance over the group had been at its height on Sgt. Pepper, his overbearing nature had already forced Ringo into quitting once before, sending the drummer to Italy with heavy insecurities. Meanwhile, Lennon was falling deeper and deeper into his heroin addiction and was being propped up by Yoko Ono. But Harrison was hopeful, “I can remember feeling quite optimistic. I thought, ‘OK, it’s the New Year and we have a new approach to recording.’”
The new album was a chance for the band to reconnect with their music. But things didn’t go smoothly, Macca was quickly taking on the role of conductor, “At that point in time, Paul couldn’t see beyond himself,” Harrison told Guitar World in 2001. “He was on a roll, but… in his mind, everything that was going on around him was just there to accompany him. He wasn’t sensitive to stepping on other people’s egos or feelings.”
Harrison began to pitch new tracks such as ‘Let It Down,’ ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ and even the iconic ‘Something’, Lennon and McCartney continued to shoot down the guitarist in favour of their own songs. Not even bothering to listen. It had clearly been pushing Harrison close to the edge as he traded snide remarks with Lennon over the preceding days.
On January 10th, as the cameras continued to swirl around the Let It Be sessions and capture the fraying tensions something in Harrison snapped. Or as “snapped” as can be from Harrison. Michale Lindsay-Hogg remembered of the moment George quit, “At the morning rehearsal, I could tell by his silence and withdrawal that something was simmering inside him, and so in my role as documentarian, I’d asked our soundman to bug the flower pot on the lunch table.
“We’d finished the first course when George arrived to stand at the end of the table. We looked at him as he stood silent for a moment.”
“’See you ’round the clubs,’ he said. That was his good-bye. He left.” He would go on to write one of his most iconic tunes on that very day, the brilliant ‘Wah Wah’.
As an even clearer indication of the different paths the band had begun to travel Lennon, who only ever reacts with aggression when confronted said: “Let’s get in Eric. He’s just as good and not such a headache.” Despite Ringo and Paul not being drawn into the bitching, it was clear that now the group was only ever on the path to disbandment.
“They were filming us having a row. It never came to blows, but I thought, ‘What’s the point of this? I’m quite capable of being relatively happy on my own and I’m not able to be happy in this situation. I’m getting out of here.’” remembers Harrison.
“It became stifling, so that although this new album was supposed to break away from that type of recording (we were going back to playing live) it was still very much that kind of situation where he already had in his mind what he wanted,” shared Harrison. “Paul wanted nobody to play on his songs until he decided how it should go. For me it was like: ‘What am I doing here? This is painful!’”
“Then superimposed on top of that was Yoko, and there were negative vibes at that time. John and Yoko were out on a limb. I don’t think he wanted much to be hanging out with us, and I think Yoko was pushing him out of the band, inasmuch as she didn’t want him hanging out with us.”
Of course, Harrison would return and contirbute a healthy number of tracks to the band’s brilliant Abbey Road but it was here that the intentions were set. The Beatles would soon enough be going solo and choosing their own paths.
Before Harrison sadly passed away in 2001, the guitarist did share that although the group never truly recovered from this moment, that within the year Lennon would leave and by April 1970 The Beatles were over, the Fab Four did reconcile their differences.
“It’s important to state that a lot of water has gone under the bridge and that, as we talk now, everybody’s good friends and we have a better understanding of the past.”