To coincide with the 50th anniversary release of Abbey Road, Mark Lewisohn – pre-eminent Beatles historian of our times – undertook a tour of the UK last autumn with a stage show exploring the making of the album.
Mixing archive footage, photos, memorabilia, interview recordings and audio purloined from the sessions (but remixed and/or stripped down courtesy of the 2009 ‘Rock Band’ game), he told the story not just of the band’s final collective endeavour but of all the events going on in their lives which fed into it and swirled around it.
I caught the Southampton show and, apart from a few technical issues at the start, it was a hugely enjoyable couple of hours, with Lewisohn’s forensic but engaging style bringing to life a (relatively) less pored-over period of the Fabs’ career. An evening with the world’s foremost Beatles expert talking solidly about The Beatles – what’s not to love?
But what really made headlines was his use of a little-known tape of John, Paul and George meeting to discuss the band’s future, soon after the album was finished. I had heard talk of such a tape, and claims of what was on it, on music forums but had been exceedingly sceptical of its existence. After all, why on earth would they record such a meeting, particularly at a time when relations between them were becoming so frayed? And they had all but broken up by this point, so what possible future would they have been discussing, right?
Not for the first time, I was completely misguided in my disbelief. They had indeed taped such a meeting at Apple, for the benefit of Ringo, who was in hospital at the time. Not only that, but a concrete reference to the tape’s existence had been made as far back as 1976 in the book ‘One Day at a Time’, written by John’s former personal assistant Anthony Fawcett. But it was Lewisohn who brought the recording firmly into the wider public gaze, using it to promote his stage tour during an interview with the Guardian last September.
To summarise, the juicy talking points of the trio’s meeting were thus:
- They were considering making a new album, plus a Christmas single
- Recognising George’s recent ascendancy as a songwriter, John argued that all future albums should be divided democratically — four songs each for the three main writers, plus one or two for Ringo “if he wants them”
- John also suggested Paul gave his more fruity songs, like ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, to other artists rather than force the band to record them
- Paul was having none of the last two suggestions. And was apparently a bit stoned.
Lewisohn claimed in his interview that the tape “rewrites everything we knew about The Beatles”, in particular the widely-accepted belief that John was the one looking to break up the band at this point, and also that they had recorded Abbey Road knowing that it was to be their final album. But, fascinating though the tape is, does it, really?
Accepting that Lewisohn was taking a leaf out of the Lennon-McCartney promotional handbook and somewhat massaging the facts in order to sell tickets for his show, this statement just doesn’t hold water at all. And I’d also have to take issue with Lennon’s ‘road map’ for the future of the band. Here’s why.
First, while it has been widely assumed over the years that The Beatles intended Abbey Road to be their swansong (if only because it ends so perfectly with, er, ‘The End’), I don’t think there’s much evidence to support this. I feel that, subconsciously, they may have felt the end was nigh while recording it – a wistful, valedictory feeling does inarguably seep through into some of the songs, particularly the medley section – but I don’t believe it was ever intended to be their last will and testament. The fact that they were still discussing possible touring options even later in 1969 (when John dropped his “I want a divorce” bombshell), something we’ve known about for years, shows that. And Ringo confirmed as much during an interview to promote the album’s reissue last year.
Despite that, my view is that John’s departure – and thus, the end of the band – was inevitable from the point he hooked up with Yoko, and could have happened any time after the completion of The White Album. It could have been triggered by the apathy he felt during the Twickenham sessions for Let It Be in January 1969; the increasing hostility of the British press; his preoccupation with his and Yoko’s peace campaign, or the huge success of ‘Give Peace a Chance’ that summer. Up until 1968, his primary focus had always been the band, above everything else — even his family. Once he hooked up with Yoko, however, all that changed. There couldn’t be room for two all-consuming passions in his life. Especially as she encouraged him to give free rein to any artistic impulse that came into his head, whereas The Beatles inevitably represented compromise in comparison. And John’s natural inclinations were never really about compromise. As he explained in 1980, “the old gang of mine was over the moment I met her. I didn’t consciously know it at the time, but that’s what was going on. As soon as I met her, that was the end of the boys.”
That being the case, I think it’s a sign of John’s profound connection with the others that it took him so long to make the break. Even though tensions had begun to mount during that period, their brotherhood was wound tight. He would still have felt joined at the hip. And, when they were all focused and in sync, they still made peerless music together. They got off on each other, and the buzz must have been hard to relinquish. You only have to see the sparks flying and the giddy exchange of looks during the marvellous rooftop gig at the end of the Let It Be film.
Despite the growing business aggravations gathering outside, the Abbey Road sessions proved that magic was still in full flow. I suspect John enjoyed making it – and would’ve been particularly pleased at how songs like ‘Come Together’ and ‘Because’ turned out – and knew they had made something good. It’s also true that The Beatles were probably a comfort blanket for him. Despite everything he had achieved, he almost certainly had nagging insecurities about his viability as a solo artist, and so the band would have been an infallible safety net as he took his first tentative steps towards independence.
So I believe that he probably woke up on the morning of 8 September 1969 in a sunny, optimistic mood, feeling that he could have his cake and eat it. That he could still lead the biggest band in the world, while pursing his peace campaigning and more avant garde musical projects with Yoko. But John was a mercurial character. He changed his mind as often as he changed his socks, and I don’t for one minute believe this stance was anything more than a fleeting fancy. Deep down, he knew the end was coming. And the outcome of his discussions with Paul and George that day most likely confirmed the inevitable – spurred on by new “rules” he sought to put in place for future Beatles albums. If The Beatles were about anything, it was about not following rules.
On the surface, dividing up the bulk of the songwriting contributions three ways made sense. George had truly arrived as a writer on Abbey Road with two of the best, and certainly most commercial, tracks on it. And by this point he had also stockpiled many of the wonderful numbers he would unleash on All Things Must Pass the following year. But how would this carve-up have worked, in practicality? What if John writes eight brilliant numbers, but has to drop four of them to make way for sub-standard McCartney/Harrison songs, or vice-versa? What happens if they suddenly end up co-writing again, where do those numbers fit into the scheme of things? Say they record lots more tracks than they need, who decides which of the allocated four songs each makes it onto the final record? And wouldn’t this push them even further towards being each other’s backing band rather than a fully cohesive, collaborative unit?
In addition, how far would John’s enthusiasm stretch to recording the others’ songs? He hadn’t shown much interest in some of George’s compositions in recent years – he didn’t feature at all on ‘Savoy Truffle’ or ‘Long Long Long’ from The White Album, for instance, and had been more interested in dancing with Yoko when the others ran through ‘I Me Mine’ during the Let It Be sessions. It’s telling that in the alleged transcript of the 8 September meeting in Anthony Fawcett’s book (reproduced in Roger Stormo’s excellent Daily Beatle blog), when George complains of a lack of interest in his material from his bandmates, John can cite only ‘Don’t Bother Me’ to refute this – a song recorded six years earlier.
And what if Paul shows up for the next album with more songs like Maxwell’s Silver Hammer? I know most critics and many fans like to use this track as a stick to beat McCartney with, but I’ve never had a problem with it and don’t understand the hate. Okay, I wouldn’t want an album full of them, but songs like this and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (one of my favourites from The White Album) are as much a part of the Fabs’ oeuvre as ‘I Am The Walrus’, ‘Helter Skelter’, ‘The Inner Light’ or anything else. For me, one of the things I love most about The Beatles is that there were no barriers, they never stayed in one box, they could do anything and everything, and do it brilliantly. To put arbitrary limits on that would’ve been wholly wrong – and, again, who would’ve defined what constituted a Beatles song, or what criteria needed to be met? Because surely ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ was as least as worthwhile as, say, ‘Revolution #9’ or ‘What’s The New Mary Jane’. If that was the only kind of material Paul was bringing in, John might have had a point, but it wasn’t (the fact that Paul sometimes “drove the others into the ground”, to use John’s words, recording endless takes of such songs might have been a more valid point for consideration).
It all strikes me as way too regimented an approach for the band, and could never have worked in practice. We all fantasise about what the next Beatles album could have been like and there was no shortage of great songs ready to go (or at least partly written), even at this point. But maybe, hard though it may be to accept, the group setting wasn’t necessarily the best place for them anymore. After all, John seemed to have no problem recording something like ‘When I’m 64’ just a couple of years earlier, but now – post-Yoko – things had irrevocably changed. While I think they could have always conquered new musical frontiers, they were heading in different places as people. For example, John would soon offer up ‘Cold Turkey’ as the band’s next single, and it was rejected by the others. And probably rightly so. Anything Paul and George would have added would most likely have inflected John’s deeply personal statement and burnished the jagged, harsh nature of the final product. True, they may have helped make it a better, more accessible record — but it wouldn’t have been what John had intended. Likewise, can you really hear John and Paul singing idolatry “Hare Krishna” backing vocals on ‘My Sweet Lord’?
So, no, I don’t believe this tape changes everything we knew about The Beatles’ break-up, nor did it set out a credible way forward for a continuation of the band. It is a precious insight into the tumultuous events of 1969 and the state of band’s dynamic, and we can only hope the whole thing will find its way into the public domain before long (Lewisohn said he was heavily leaned on – presumably by Apple – not to play more than a brief excerpt during his autumn shows). But while it offers a tantalising detour and glimpse of what might have been, it doesn’t alter the main narrative. Without John’s heart-and-soul commitment, The Beatles were finished. And just five days after this meeting, following his first full concert appearance away from the band at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival Festival, he was finally ready to make the break. On 20 September, during another meeting at Apple, he announced unequivocally that he “wanted a divorce”.
For all the inherent problems in the ‘road map’ for future activities he had put forward earlier, John’s overarching instincts – to break up the band – were right. They had already created the definitive road map for every rock group to follow, and would end their collective career still at an unassailable peak. The Beatles would never decline, never blemish their remarkable achievements. They would embark on four solo careers, often brilliant and rarely less than engrossing, and their legend would only grow over time. Some 50 years later, and we’re still wishing they had done more together. Surely that’s the best legacy of all.