In 1969, John Lennon delivered the ultimatum that finally ended the Beatles and their 10-year phenomenon.
The following account of the events surrounding the breakup is excerpted from "The Beatles," a new history of the group written by Geoffrey Stokes and published by Times Books and Rolling Stone Press.
Stokes' story begins in mid-1968. The movie "Yellow Submarine" had just been released, "Hey Jude" was a hit single and the group was working hard in the studio on "The White Album." Ringo Starr had walked out of the recording session in frustration, but returned a week later -- to discover that Yoko Ono had moved her bed into the studio.
Yoko -- an ambitious conceptual artist who was always clever, sometimes brilliant and usually abrasive -- was like nothing the Beatles had ever seen before. [Actress] Jane Asher had maintained a certain independence during her long liaison with Paul, but the Beatles' wives were decidedly domestic.Beatles groupies -- the other women in their lives -- were as disposable as Kleenex. Yoko was something else.
John had first met her during her one-woman show at London's Indica Gallery in late 1966. He was fascinated -- first by her work, and then by her. They became friends, beginning a long-distance correspondence that lasted through her stays in America and his Indian trip [to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi]. Eventually, in a reversal of usual Beatle behavior, he fell mind-first in love with her.
To John, she was a revelation. He had begun to detect the glimmerings of a new cause when he read about the women's movement. In Yoko, who was able and eager to spar with him intellectually, he found the movement personified. "I don't know how it happened," he has said, "I just realized that she knew everything I knew -- and more, probably -- and that it was coming out of a woman's head, it just sort of bowled me over. It was like finding gold or something. . . . As she was talking to me I would get high, and the discussion would get to such a level that I would be goin' higher and higher. When she'd leave I'd go back to this sort of suburbia. Then I'd meet her again, and me head would go open like I was on an acid trip." In a way that seems funny, considering the Beatles' sexual adventurism, she shocked the boys' sensibilities profoundly.
She and John became lovers, after a two-year celibate courtship, in Lennon's suburban house. His marriage to Cynthia [Powell in 1962] had become increasingly strained. She was once again away in Spain and, as he told Rolling Stone, "I thought now's the time if I'm ever gonna get to know (Yoko) anymore. She came to the house, and I didn't know what to do; so we went upstairs to my studio and I played her all the tapes that I'd made, all this far-out stuff, some comedy stuff and some electronic music. She was suitably impressed and then she said, 'Let's make one ourselves,' so we made 'Two Virgins.' It was midnight when we started 'Two Virgins,' it was dawn when we finished, and then we made love at dawn. It was very beautiful."
They found it so beautiful, indeed, that they could hardly wait to tell the world about it; they did so by releasing "Two Virgins" in November 1968 -- the same month as "The White Album." "Two Virgins" was remarkable for its music -- two sides of seemingly random bird calls, screeches and nose-blowings -- but notorious for its cover. There, arms around each other and naked, stood the two lovers. . . .
EMI refused to distribute the album. Other companies agreed to try, but covering it with a plain brown wrapper didn't help; thousands of copies were confiscated as obscene. This was not lovable moptopdom, and many of the Beatles' younger fans -- along with virtually all their parents -- echoed the sentiments of a hastily recorded single called "John, You Went Too Far This Time." Paul's coment was both more poignant and less commercially inspired commercially inspired: "John's in love with Yoko, and he's no longer in love with the three of us."
Nevertheless, all the Beatles -- except John, apparently -- found "Two Virgins" more tolerable than the notion of Yoko as the fifth Beatle. Though she was arrogantly sure of her genius, she was a square peg in no hole as far as the Beatles were concerned. They didn't particularyly like her at a distance; as a constant comrade following John into the men's room so they could continue their conversations, they found her unbearable. And when he tried to impose her musical suggestions on their work, they found her a threat. Jilted by both Jane and John, Paul did not stay long alone. After a brief fling with Francie Schwartz . . . he hooked up with Linda Eastman. She had come from the same suburban town as Yoko -- Scarsdale, where her high school yearbook records her as having "a yen for men" -- but their careers could not have been more divergent. Yoko, whether a good one or bad, was a artist. Linda, though a sometime photographer, was best known as a groupie. But she was, it seems, exactly what Paul needed -- or at least wanted. She was the extreme example of the man-identified woman. . . .
Thus John and Paul, each in his own way, offered in their comparative maturity a testimony to the belief that had informed virtually all their early songwriting and recording -- the primacy of romantic love. Living out the myth was harder, however, for remance bumped up against an equally compelling myth -- the Beatles. Seen in this context, Paul's remark about John loving Yoko is a painfully correct analysis of the problem that confronted the Beatles as it would confront their peers: the conflict between the existence of couples and the demands of cooperative group activity. The pain of the Beatles' breakup is proof of just how deeply they believed in both sides of the equation.
"The White Album" was released, with its typical quota of two Harrison songs per record, and promptly went to number one. But as John would later say, "There isn't any Beatle music on it. . . .It was John and the Band, Paul and the Band, George and the Band, like that. . . ."
[From mid-1968 to early 1969, tensions increased as rival business managers offered competing ideas of how to manage the Beatles' holdings.]
Even as corporate sharks tore at chunks of their fortune, the Beatles struggled to make music. They were at Twickenham Film Studios to record an album of "roots" music, the basic rock 'n' roll that had inspired them a decade earlier. To the normal tensions of recording -- and the abnormal strain of their fiscal frolics -- they added yet a third aggravation: the steady, whirring presence of cameras filming a documtary of the fabulous Beatles making a record.
It wasn't so fabulous.About a week after filming began, George became the second Beatle to leave the band. He had come back to England, from a brief American tour with Eric Clapton, full of self-confidence and overflowing with new songs he'd written. He rapidly discovered that Paul was not impressed: "This cooperation (in America) contrasted dramtically with the superior attitude which for years Paul had shown to me musically," he later said. "In normal circumstances, I had let him have his own way, even when this meant that songs which I had composed were not being recorded. . . . wI was in a very happy frame of mind, but I quickly discovered I was up against the same old Paul. . . . In front of the cameras, as we were actually being filmed, Paul started to 'get at' me about the way I was playing."
Paul had indeed done that, but not necessarily from a sense of superiority. If anything, it was more like desperation. In the absence of Brian (Epstein, the group's manager who died in 1967 from an overdose of sleeping pills, and with John totally monopolized by Yoko, Paul either had to face the end of the Beatles or struggle to keep them going himself. He carried the burden with as much grace as possible, as indicated by this bit of tape-recorded dialogue from the studio:
Paul: "I mean we've been very negative since Mr. Ebstein passed away. . . . That's why all of us in turn have been very sick of the group, you know. It is a bit of a drag. It's like when you're growing up -- your daddy goes away at a certain point in your life and then you stand on your own feet. Daddy has gone away now, you know. I think we either go home, or we do it.
"It's discipline we need. Mr. Epstein, he said, 'Get suits on' and we did. And so we were always fighting that discipline a bit. But now it's silly to fight that discipline if it's our own. It's self-imposed these days, so we do as little as possible. But I think we need a bit more if we are going to get on with it."
George: "Well, if that's what doing it is, I don't want to do anything."
Nobody, it seemed, really did, Ringo and Paul stood virtually alone as keepers of the Beatle flame. And because the band was trying for a "live" feeling, the tensions grew steadily worse; each time one of them would fluff a note or miss a beat, all four had to start the song over again. And over.
Finally, for the first time in their career, they gave up and went home, leaving the film, the book, the songs -- and perhaps the Beatles -- behind them.
On March 12th [of 1969], Paul and Linda were married. (George and [his wife] Patti were busted for drugs that day, by the same officer who'd busted John and Yoko the preceding fall.) They escaped the crowd gathered outside the Marylebone Registry office and vanished into seclusion. Eight days later, on Gibraltar, John and Yoko wed in an even quieter ceremony. They did not go into seclusion.
They went instead to the Amsterdam Hilton, issuing a press release inviting reporters to a "happening" that was to take place in their bed. Imagining the obvious, and suspecting the worst, the Amsterdam police issued a statement warning that "If people are invited to such a 'happening,' the police will certainly act."
In retrospect, one sort of wishes they had, for all John and Yoko did was announce that they planned to stay in bed for a week and grow their hair for peace, as "a protest against all the suffering and violence in the world." During their honeymoon they also introduced "bagism" at an Austrian press conference conducted from within a sack, planted acorns "for peace" in front of an English cathedral, and bedded down in Canada.
In the midst of all this, John somehow found time to compose. "The Ballad of John and Yoko," which he wanted very much to release as a Beatles single. Since there is a case to be made that John's love for Yoko effectively ended the Beatles, there was no little irony in his desire. At first, it seemed impossible to realize; Ringo was on location filming "The Magic Christian," and George, perhaps strategically, was also unavailable. But Paul knew what love meant -- he loved Linda, after all, and John -- so he obligingly overdubbed the drums while John took both guitar parts. John returned the gesture when "Give Peace a Chance," which he recorded with the Plastic Ono Band, was credited to "Lennon/McCartney."
"The various honeymoons came to an abrupt end, however, when Dick James, the dynamic duo's long-time publisher, announced that he was selling Northern Songs, which held the rights to all Lennon/McCartney compositions, to an entertainment conglomerate headed by Sir Lew Grade. During the Canada bedin, John was asked a question about the sale and rapidly put aside the talk of peace to reveal his fighting side. "I won't sell," he said. "They are my shares and my songs and I want to keep a bit of the end product.I don't have to ring Paul; I know damn well he feels the same as I do."
John was right. In this battle, at least, he and Paul were as one. They settled in for a lengthy proxy fight . . . [and] though the Northern Songs fight dragged on interminably -- and though the Beatles would eventually lose it -- they were as unified during the summer of 1969 as they would ever be.
Taking advantage of the moment, Paul got them back into the studio once more. This time, things flowed so smoothly that "Abbey Road" was recorded faster than any album since "Help!" It also had the entire group playing ensemble on most of the tracks, and the vocal cuts are Beatle harmonies rather than a single vocalist's overdubs. Though it contains only the usual quota of Harrison songs, one of them -- "Something" -- was actually released as the A-side of a single and became a monster hit. Everything, for the first time since Brian's death, seemed to be going right. And then John made his announcement: "I want a divorce." He was, he said, bored.
There is never an adequate answer to that statement, and with Paul's stunned acceptance of the fact, the Beatles were dead. . . .