On September 20th 1969, despite calls from Allen Klein not to, John Lennon told Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr that he was quitting The Beatles. While the real announcement wouldn’t arrive until the following year, this was arguably the moment the Fab Four split-up in all but name as their divisions worsened and the dye was well a truly cast.
Klein, the band’s new manager and one of the more pivotal people in the group’s career, had managed to convince Lennon to hold off from announcing his decision until at least The Beatles had signed their new contract. On that day, Lennon told the band shortly before the ceremonial signing of the contract. It remains a key moment in the iconography of the Fab Four.
The Beatles had been stuck in business negotiations since May of 1969. With their contract with EMI almost complete, having produced huge selling albums Magical Mystery Tour, White Album, Yellow Submarine soundtrack and the mammoth selling Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Allen Klein was trying to improve the band’s royalty rate. What’s more, the band also had Abbey Road up there sleeve to leave the group in a very strong position.
With such a strong hand, Klein was able to negotiate the band’s already sizeable 17.5% of retail value to a huge 25%, essentially telling EMI that if the band were to be denied the bump they would stop recording entirely. The group were set to deliver two new albums per year, either as a band or individuals, with the new rates and a few shrewd moves with Apple Corps meant for the first time The Beatles had complete control over how their music was sold and manufactured. It was a huge coup.
You can understand how much time and effort would go into the deal from Klein so can further understand the desperation to not let Lennon rock the boat. Paul McCartney was equally ready to jump ship and was a serious detractor of Klein in the first place—but even he couldn’t turn down this offer and gathered with Ringo Starr at Apple’s headquarters to sign the contract.
Lennon, however, had reached his final moments with The Beatles and he was ready to leave the group: “When I got back [from Toronto] there were a few meetings and Allen said, ‘Cool it,’ ’cause there was a lot to do [with The Beatles] business-wise, and it wouldn’t have been suitable at the time,” Lennon told Jann Wenner in 1970. “Then we were discussing something in the office with Paul and Paul was saying to do something, and I kept saying, ‘No, no, no’ to everything he said. So it came to a point that I had to say something.
Tensions had certainly increased and with Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s divisions feeling more prominent than ever. Empowered by their partners, the duo was starting to see how solo life could be. Back at the Apple offices, “So I said, ‘The group’s over, I’m leaving.’ Allen was there, and he was saying, ‘Don’t tell.’ He didn’t want me to tell Paul even. But I couldn’t help it, I couldn’t stop it, it came out,” he continued. Paul and Allen said they were glad that I wasn’t going to announce it, like I was going to make an event out of it. I don’t know whether Paul said, ‘Don’t tell anybody,’ but he was damn pleased that I wasn’t. He said, ‘Oh well, that means nothing really happened if you’re not going to say anything.’ So that’s what happened.”
Speaking on Beatles’ Anthology Paul McCartney explained: “I’d said: ‘I think we should go back to little gigs – I really think we’re a great little band. We should find our basic roots, and then who knows what will happen? We may want to fold after that, or we may really think we’ve still got it.’ John looked at me in the eye and said: ‘Well, I think you’re daft. I wasn’t going to tell you till we signed the Capitol deal’ – Klein was trying to get us to sign a new deal with the record company – ‘but I’m leaving the group!’ We paled visibly and our jaws slackened a bit.”
Ringo was also present and remembered the moment in the same Anthology, “After the Plastic Ono Band’s debut in Toronto, we had a meeting in Savile Row where John finally brought it to its head. He said: ‘Well, that’s it, lads. Let’s end it.’ And we all said ‘yes’. And though I said ‘yes’ because it was ending (and you can’t keep it together anyway, if this is what the attitude is) I don’t know if I would have said, ‘End it.’ I probably would have lingered another couple of years.”
For McCartney, despite the ‘visible paling’ the departure had been on the horizon: “I must admit we’d known it was coming at some point because of his intense involvement with Yoko. 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. But what wasn’t too clever was this idea of: ‘I wasn’t going to tell you till after we signed the new contract.’ Good old John – he had to blurt it out. And that was it. There’s not a lot you can say to, ‘I’m leaving the group,’ from a key member.”
Of course, it wouldn’t take long for the fibres holding the group together to eventually fray and split. While many have put the blame of The Beatles breaking up at the feet of Paul McCartney, it was this moment that really confirmed things were over. Ringo Starr and George Harrison had both left the group before, taking a few days of cooling down before returning, but nothing had felt as permanent as this.