Footage of John Lennon and George Harrison recording 'How Do You Sleep?'
Credit: NBC/White House

Revisiting the moment John Lennon and George Harrison came to blows

A lot of focus on the break up of The Beatles tends to centre on the fraying relationship between John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and rightly so. The two principle songwriters of the group were bound to be the focus of the split having spent the previous few years butting heads and recording their own virtuoso pieces. But they weren’t the only members of the fab four baying for blood by the end of the sixties and the end of the band.

In fact, shortly before the band’s infamous split letter arrived at anyone’s door, The Beatles almost called it a day following a fight between George Harrison and John Lennon. It was a dispute which led Harrison to quit the band in January of 1969 and Lennon began arranging his replacement in the shape of Eric Clapton.

It’s alleged that the argument, and Harrison’s subsequent departure from the band in January of 1969, came during the Let It Be sessions. The Beatles were hot off their epic release The White Album and their fame and notoriety were only matched by their growing talent as songwriters, both collectively and individually.

On the face of it, more songwriters had to be a great thing, but as George began to rise to prominence he found the old guard of the group unwilling to yield any time or space. Harrison spoke of Paul’s dictatorship over songwriting, as he later told Rolling Stone, “My problem was that it would always be very difficult to get in on the act, because Paul was very pushy in that respect,” he commented. “When he succumbed to playing on one of your tunes, he’d always do good. But you’d have to do 59 of Paul’s songs before he’d even listen to one of yours.”

This was often put to the fans as the main reason for Harrison’s sudden departure but the truth is that it likely lies at the feet of the caustic wit and cantankerous attitude of John Lennon. Harrison and Lennon were possibly the closest friends in the group at the time but their relationship was dramatically withering.

Not only had Harrison become tired of Lennon’s partner Yoko Ono and her continued involvement with not only The Beatles, but he also began struggling with day-to-day life. Lennon, meanwhile, had grown increasingly jealous of Harrison’s improving songwriting ability. Really, looking back, it’s clear to see that both musicians were simply jealous. Lennon of Harrison’s growing ability and Harrison of Ono.

David Stubbs points out in his Uncut article: “Prior to [Ono’s] arrival on the scene, George and John had become tight LSD buddies, at one point to the alienation of Paul and Ringo. Yoko had usurped George’s place in John’s affections. As he admits in the current Beatles autobiography, he ‘lost contact’ with John. That hurt.”

Harrison later reflected on the argument: “They were filming us having a row,” he recalled. “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.’ Everybody had gone through that. Ringo [Starr] had left at one point. I know John wanted out. It was a very, very difficult, stressful time, and being filmed having a row as well was terrible. I got up and I thought, ‘I’m not doing this any more. I’m out of here.'”

But while Harrison denied any physical altercation, the fifth Beatle and the man behind the band, George Martin, insisted that the pair did have a fistfight, just out of shot of the cameras. A Beatles biographer wrote that George Martin described the fight as “completely hushed up at the time”. When you consider their multitude of business opportunities and obligations it would make sense to keep the band’s image happy and smiling.

The fight left Harrison leaving the group and Lennon more determined than ever to be centre-stage. It appeared that Lennon would be his usual stubborn self and promote a ‘good riddance’ attitude to George — even allegedly singing derisory songs in reference to the band’s lead guitarist. Harrison left the band that day and went to prove his worth and write one of his most beloved songs, ‘Wah-Wah’. Michael 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 a 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.”

Meanwhile, Lennon thought it was best to try and move on quickly so suggested a new guitarist for the sessions: “Let’s get in Eric [Clapton]. 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’,” remembered 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!’”

However, the band simply couldn’t go on without Harrison as their principle guitarist — it just didn’t work. So after only 10 days away from the group, they agreed to ask Harrison back. George would agree on two conditions: firstly, that they moved out of the Twickenham studio where the fights had taken place and secondly, that they put the kibosh on their proposed comeback live show which was scheduled for the end of the Let It Be sessions.

It was to be a triumph as the band would go on to provide some of their most impressive and illustrious work with Abbey Road and Let It Be before their eventual split. Harrison would keep his friendship with Lennon as tight as ever following their reconciliation and would remain close friends until Lennon’s untimely death.

Yes, there were issues, yes there were punches thrown, but as they say, you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. And my, oh my, what a beautiful fucking omelette.

Source: Cheat Sheet / Ultimate Classic Rock / Uncut

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