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Why did the Beatles break up? Exploring the full story

“Who broke it up?” Howard Stern recently asked Paul McCartney in an interview. “John!” McCartney said in a slightly devious tone to suggest that he understood the nature of Stern’s switch and bait style of interviewing. 

Howard Stern, with a glint in his eye, responded to Macca, saying: “And he tried to pin it all on you?!” At this point, the Beatle that we have come to know and love so well over the years returns with his sincerity and generous brand of honesty: “I don’t think anyone tried to pin it on anyone, it just came out that way. That’s a long story.” 

In fact, McCartney might be more cunning than people realise. When manager Brian Epstein and the group’s PR man, Tony Barrow, were discussing who the most difficult Beatle was to manage, Epstein surprisingly said it was McCartney. Barrow said, according to Newsweek: “John may have been the loudest Beatle, but Paul was the shrewdest.”

The dissolution of the greatest band came about from the friction between the two masterminds of the group: McCartney and Lennon.

This long story is one of the most talked-about issues in the history of modern music. When one discusses rock ‘n’ roll music, one would be naive to not acknowledge the impact The Beatles had on the evolution of the genre. During this discussion, it wouldn’t take long until one mentions the brilliance of their short-lived but no less influential legacy. How could a group of four guys from Liverpool create this kind of history in no less than eight years?

As much as anyone wishes that such things could be boiled down to a simple formula, some have been driven mad in an attempt to capture such lightning in a bottle. It is magic that cannot be truly understood or quantified. Don’t be mistaken, this isn’t an article that will blindly idolise a band that merely existed around 60 years ago, instead, it will attempt to come as close as possible to explaining the very mechanics and tangibility of a relationship between four lads from Liverpool, who were, after all, only humans.

The reasons for the break-up of The Beatles have been attributed to various events, and depending on who you ask, the same rotating cast of reasons pop up but just in different orders of importance.

Many blame John Lennon’s second wife, Yoko Ono, which we covered in this article, while some blame Paul McCartney’s controlling nature. It could also be argued that from the moment the Beatles stopped touring, the band began to slowly dissipate as they stopped functioning as a cohesive unit. 

As McCartney reveals in his interview with Howard Stern, it was John Lennon who ultimately pulled the plug – with or without Yoko Ono. The two had built the Beatles enterprise on the foundation of their songwriting partnership; the two were inseparable for the first four-five years of their career, during which they worked together day in and day out while writing one timeless hit after another. “We wrote a lot of stuff together, one on one, eyeball to eyeball,” Lennon told Playboy in 1980.

It is well documented that the relationship between Lennon and McCartney would sour during the last years of the band and worsen through half of the 1970s – tensions that began the moment Brian Epstein died, but more on that later. 

While Lennon had been the first to quit the band, he never announced it publicly, but because of the shady business tactics of their second manager, Allen Klein, McCartney was further pushed away by Lennon, who favoured the new manager.

In retaliation, McCartney publicly announced his departure from the group which royally pissed Lennon off, and to make matters worse, Macca would then openly sue the band and Klein in order to dissolve the Lennon-McCartney partnership. Of course, all this began because their original manager, Brian Epstein, died. A factor that is the most significant cause of their break-up.

“That was business, it got to a point where it really got crappy over business. That rubbed off on me, and for years I thought, ‘oh yeah, me and John, bitter rivals’, all this stuff,” McCartney told Jonathan Ross.

It was one resentment built on top of another – a bitterness that eventually found its way into the music. Macca’s second solo album – written and performed with his late wife, Linda – Ram contained a song that took the proverbial swing at Lennon and Yoko. 

“I was looking at my second solo album, Ram, the other day and I remember there was one tiny little reference to John in the whole thing,” McCartney said. “He’d been doing a lot of preaching, and it got up my nose a little bit. In one song, I wrote, ‘Too many people preaching practices,’ I think is the line. I mean, that was a little dig at John and Yoko. There wasn’t anything else on it that was about them. Oh, there was ‘You took your lucky break and broke it in two.”

Lennon would reciprocate with ‘How Do You Sleep?’, the song that contained the cutting line, ‘The only thing you done was yesterday, ‘and since you’ve been gone you’re just another day’. Manager, Allen Klein contributed the second line. 

It would be a mistake to think that the blame could be placed on one side alone; Lennon had a sharp tongue and was often spouting cynicisms and critiques at the expense of others, sometimes not really meaning the harm that it causes, but no less sowing damage.

Luckily, the two would repair their friendship towards the end of Lennon’s life, as they regained commonality as two fathers. Here though, we delve deep into the contributing factors of the biggest break-up in music history.

The relationship of John Lennon and Paul McCartney broke down. (Credit: Alamy)

Why did The Beatles break up?

While there are a plethora of reasons for why the group broke up, one could argue that there are two main causes out of which a string of other issues developed over the years.

The first major catalyst is when The Beatles decided to stop touring in 1966 after a somewhat disastrous world tour – it prompted them to pack it in and work exclusively in the studio. At this point, the Fab Four were packing medium to large stadiums, and they began confronting major issues on the road which began snowballing from one into the next. 

“In 1966 the road was getting pretty boring,” Ringo Starr recalled in the Beatles Anthology documentary. “It was coming to the end for me. Nobody was listening at the shows. That was OK at the beginning, but we were playing really bad.”

For a band that relied heavily on being a live act, quitting the road is a much bigger deal than people may have realised. While it was an all-around unanimous decision, it did leave the band perhaps slightly fearful for the future. 

Paul McCartney was the odd one out, while he was sick of the road after 1966, it wouldn’t take long for him to want to get back on the road again. After their last gig at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park of the 1966 world tour, George Harrison was quoted as saying, “Right – that’s it, I’m not a Beatle anymore!” 

Adding, “I began losing interest in being fab at that point.”

The most telling comment was made by Lennon. “I was thinking this is the end, really. There’s no more touring,” he said. “That means there’s going to be a blank space in the future. That’s when I really started considering life without the Beatles; what would it be? And that’s when the seed was planted that I had to somehow get out of the Beatles without being thrown out by the others.”

While The Beatles would still go on making great albums – Lennon got a taste for making drastic decisions.

Meanwhile, Harrison was coming into his own as a songwriter and began to resent the others for not paying him enough attention. This would be particularly true on The White Album when he had to bring in Eric Clapton to play on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’.

Yoko Ono’s influence on John Lennon was heavily discussed. (Credit: Alamy)

The death of Brian Epstein

The other major catalyst was when Brian Epstein died in 1967. “After Brian died, we collapsed. Paul took over and supposedly lead us. But what is leading us when we went round in circles? We broke up then. That was the disintegration,” Lennon said. 

He added, “The Beatles broke up after Brian died after we made the double album. Like I’ve said many times; it’s me and a backing group, Paul and a backing group – and I enjoyed it. We broke up then.”

The double album is, of course, The White Album, which, creatively speaking, presented a very divided Beatles. This was also when Yoko Ono started coming into the studio and never left Lennon’s side.

Without any real management to steer Apple in the right direction, the band and the record label’s financial situation was in pretty dire condition.

Almost instinctually, a shoddy businessman and ex-Stones manager, Allen Klein, could smell blood and had been eyeing the Fab Four as a business venture for a long time.

When Lennon had made a hyperbolic statement that appeared in a daily paper on where Apple was headed and that The Beatles will “be broke in six months,” Klein jumped on the opportunity.

The death of Brian Epstein was a huge factor in the Beatles split. (Credit: Joop van Bilsen / Anefo)

Why did Paul McCartney sue The Beatles?

While they didn’t actually break up at that moment, the disintegration of the group was expedited rather swiftly at this point. The group were approached by Allen Klein, who was able to seduce Lennon and Ono, and through them, he got to Harrison and Starr. 

Klein’s proposal to Lennon was to cut the dead weight of Apple and to start making the company money again. “People were robbing us and living on us,” Lennon said about some of the staff of Apple, according to The Wall Street Journal, adding “All just living and drinking and eating like fuckin’ Rome.”

McCartney was the only guy who didn’t fall prey to Klein’s street-like and seemingly down-to-earth demeanour. The cat wasn’t completely out of the bag about Klein just yet – he was, however, under investigation in the United States. He was known for his aggressive tactics and was able to get the Rolling Stones the greatest recording contract with Decca at the time during the ’60s.

McCartney was very mistrustful of Klein, just as Bill Wyman, bass player of the Stones, had been very mistrustful of him a few years prior. Klein’s cheap trick entailed getting his clients large amounts of money in the beginning and seemingly great recording contracts, but as more time went on, it became clear that in the long run, Klein was able to swindle bands through the painstaking detail of the fine print. As was the case with the Stones; while he got them the largest advance in the music industry at the time, this money actually went into his private account and he was able to hold onto it for 17 some odd years.

While Lennon, Harrison, and Starr backed Klein up, McCartney was trying to hire his in-laws (Linda McCartney’s father and brother) as the accountants for the group. One can imagine that, given McCartney’s seemingly controlling nature, that the others would be opposed to a move like this.

Multiple meetings at Apple Headquarters would take place between both parties: Lennon and Klein on one side, and McCartney and Lee Eastman (Linda’s father, an attorney) on the other. The future of Apple and by extension the band and ultimately the relationship between Lennon and McCartney, hung in the balance. These meetings went nowhere, with both sides accusing the other of name-calling and foul play.

“The only way for me to save The Beatles and Apple was to sue the band,” McCartney told British GQ. “If I hadn’t done that, it would have all belonged to Allen Klein. The only way I was given to get us out of that was to do what I did.” 

One of Klein’s alleged business ventures as way of ‘repairing’ Apple’s infrastructure was by giving his own company, ABKCO, the rights to press Beatles CDs in the States. This also effected McCartney’s first solo album which was released through Apple Records. This is what prompted McCartney to sue Allen Klein, which he couldn’t do without suing the band.

Andrew Loog Oldham, who had initially brought on Allen Klein to work with him for the Stones, once wrote: “Allen comes in when your harvest is not as plentiful as your expectations on the sow. And part of the price is that he gets the farm,” which sums up Klein’s tactics fairly well.

Paul McCartney was fighting against Allen Klein. (Credit: Alamy)

Did Allen Klein break up the Beatles?

It is probably very likely that The Beatles were headed for the breaking point even without Klein’s help. In fact, one could argue that in the short term, Klein helped keep The Beatles financially afloat a little longer.

Creatively, The Beatles were not willing to really work together anymore. I believe the most truthful quote on their break up, comes from Paul McCartney, when he said in an interview: “We had come full-circle. We had done it all the first time, what were we going to do? Do it all again?”

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