In not much more than a handful of years, The Beatles had changed the world. When the news broke on April 10th, 1970, that the musical force that had turned the monochrome world multicoloured just like flicking on a light, had suddenly blown a fuse, the mourning took to the streets. “Nobody will ever replace The Beatles,” one fan remarked, “It’s just one Beatles group. We grew up with them. They started when they were younger and we were younger, and they belong to us in a way. There could never be another Beatles, never!”
At the time of that announcement, it was Paul McCartney who was hitting the headlines as the breakaway member, but months earlier, on September 20th, 1969, John Lennon had privately informed the band that he was leaving. Almost 50 years on, McCartney remarked on Howard Stern: “I know who broke up The Beatles. John did… There was a meeting when John came in and said, ‘hey guys, I’m leaving the group’, he had found Yoko.”
McCartney adds: “John loved strong women, his mother had been a strong woman, his auntie who brought him up had been a strong woman, and bless her, but his first wife wasn’t. She once said to me, ‘all I want is a guy with pipe and slippers’, and I thought ‘Woah that’s not John’. So, John had met up with Yoko, and even though we thought ‘oh God it’s about intrusive’ because she used to sit in on the recording sessions, we’d never had anything like that. But looking back, the guy was totally in love with her, so you’ve just got to respect that, and we did, and I do.”
Why then, did Lennon wish to part ways? And this time in a much more serious way than the various petty slammed door exits that seemingly even the didgeridoo player on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had embarked on? Well, if you are to believe what Lennon said on The Dick Cavett Show in the aftermath, he explained it as follows: “[Yoko] didn’t split The Beatles. The Beatles were drifting apart on their own.” Later adding: “A long time ago I said that I don’t want to be singing ‘She Loves You’ when I was 30, I said that when I was about 25.”
This explanation implies a sort of inevitability to the breakup, as they shed their youthful skins having joined the band when they were so young. However, they could’ve just stopped playing ‘She Loves You’, the band was evolving anyway, as all great artists do, so inevitably snapping the shackles to a past they no longer identified with doesn’t quite seem to fit.
Alas, aside from all the speculation, what actually happened on the day they parted in that fateful meeting? The band’s new manager, Allen Klein, had pleaded with Lennon not to tell his friends he was leaving. Amid hectic business negotiations for the group, Lennon was growing weary with it all. “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 band] business-wise, and it wouldn’t have been suitable at the time,” Lennon told Jann Wenner in 1970.
Later adding: “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.” Which is when, back at the Apple offices, Lennon auspiciously announced: “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.”
And his following description of the muted reaction, in both senses, is indicative of the frayed tether the band was hanging on in the first place. “Paul and Allen said they were glad that I wasn’t going to announce it,” Lennon continued, “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.”
McCartney adds a little more drama to the announcement in the Beatles’ Anthology, which clearly had softened somewhat by the time that he appeared on Howard Stern decades later. “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.”
And that was that. All good things come to an end; it’s an old adage with a ring of truth that, sadly, The Beatles bore out. They had wrapped up Abbey Road and their legacy was already long assured. As Ozzy Osbourne said when they arrived, “The only way I can describe it, is like this, ‘Imagine you go to bed today and the world is black and white and then you wake up, and everything’s in colour. That’s what it was like!’” Suddenly, that light was out, Let It Be would be their last flicker and the infinite unfurling reverberations of their illuminating ways.