‘All You Needed Was Love: The Beatles after The Beatles’ (1981)

The saga of The Beatles, as a group, has been described by one podcast as “the greatest story ever told”. And, without wishing to trigger another ‘Beatles are bigger than Jesus’ furore, it is – certainly in terms of popular music, or 20th century entertainment. No? Tell me one that’s better, has more ingredients or is more complete, or which is broadly known by millions of people the world over. Don’t believe me about that last point? Well, how come the script of the biggest money-spinning film of the past decade, Avengers: Endgame (which was aimed primarily at the under-30s), included a joke comparing the Avengers’ break-up to that of The Beatles, a group which had been defunct for 50 years? The Fabs didn’t just forge the blueprint on which so much modern music is based or evaluated against, they also set the career template which every rock ‘n’ roll band has aspired to ever since. The raw beginnings transitioning into global boy band mania, films and stadium rock, and then increasingly ambitious musical expansion and artistic growth; the screaming fans, the groupies, the drugs, the mysticism, the business problems; the dating of super-models and actresses, the controversies, the internal rivalries/collaborations and, ultimately, the acrimonious split. It’s all there – a tale so rich and layered and fascinating that it never gets old, with new threads constantly emerging which make headlines around the world and keep people like me writing endless articles about it.

By contrast, what happened to the band members after 1970 is generally not granted such attention or accorded such prestige. I think this is partly because the superheroes of the earlier story are revealed to have feet of clay, with all of them making missteps in their solo careers and falling from public favour at one time or another, and inevitably unable to exert the same epochal influence on world culture that they managed as a team of young men. It’s also a more messy, complicated and fractured narrative, a harder story to tell and provide an overview of; not least because, in two cases, it’s still unfolding. And yet, it’s worth noting that they’ve enjoyed far and away the most commercially successful solo careers of any band which has ever existed (try to think of any Mick Jagger or Robert Plant hits, in comparison). Not only that, but the different trajectories their lives took after disbanding form a tapestry just as vibrant and engrossing as the one which played out when they were together. It has more than its share of triumphs, tragedies, stumbles, interactions, fall-outs, reconciliations, weird detours and grand statements; it’s just not been written about as much. One of the few books, and perhaps the first, to tackle the subject was 1981’s All You Needed Was Love: The Beatles After The Beatles.

The eye-catching original cover for the book

Written by John Blake, pop columnist and tabloid journalist (and future editor of the Sunday People newspaper), it was one of a glut of Beatle books which came out in the wake of John’s 1980 murder. Like many of them, it was a pocket-sized paperback, with 228 pages and a clutch of black-and-white photos in the middle, the sort of thing you’d find on a newsstand rack back in the day. I picked it up the best part of a decade later, drawn in by the rareness of its solo Beatles content and also by the fantastic cover, which features a poignant illustration of Paul, George and Ringo wearing both their Sgt Pepper outfits and the ravages of time, while a forever-youthful John looms in the background (a subsequent reprint cover was garish, bland and nowhere near as effective). The back cover boasted of recently conducted “exclusive” interviews, though I’m not convinced there was much of that, in truth. It smacks of a cut-and-paste job, with Blake making good use of newspaper and music press cuttings files at his disposal rather than getting bogged down with too much fresh research. But for all that, and in spite of the obvious haste with which it was produced, it still makes for a lively and informative read.

John and Yoko, with activist Michael X, donate their hair to some cause or other, 1970

Starting off with a vivid couple of pages detailing the January 1969 rooftop concert, it looks like we’re going to dive straight into the turmoil of their final year as a band. Alas, as with so many other volumes, it rewinds back to the start of their recording career, and we get the usual run through the moptop mania and psychedelic years. We don’t get to John’s famous demand for a “divorce” in September 1969 until page 86, or Paul’s coded announcement of the actual break-up the following April until page 109. So even in a book purporting to be about “The Beatles after The Beatles”, almost half of it is taken up with “The Beatles while they were The Beatles”. Frustrating. And some bits of it aren’t even about The Beatles at all – there are several pages on the infamous Beverly Hills murders orchestrated by Charles Manson, for example, a psychopath whose link to the band (basically, a twisted interpretation of some of their songs) was tangential, at best. And yet, Blake’s pithy, sparky tabloid writing style keeps the familiar tales interesting. The rooftop gig, for instance, finds the four “high with the joy of being The Beatles once again”, while on their first trip to Abbey Road to meet George Martin, they turn up “with all the cockiness and excitement of a gang of kids on a school outing.” The book’s full of memorable little vignettes like that.

Ringo on the set of the 1971 western movie ‘Blindman’, with soon-to-be ex-Beatles manager Allen Klein. An image loaded with metaphor, if ever there was one

It really hits its stride in the second half, though, when it delves into the unfolding solo careers. And once it does, you quickly realise how much ground there is to cover. In the early 1970s alone (putting aside their prodigious music output for a moment), you had John and Yoko’s indoctrination into so-called ‘primal scream’ therapy’, their battle to gain custody of her daughter Kyoko, their move to New York and subsequent head-first plunge into radical politics; George’s move to the palatial-yet-quirky surroundings of Friar Park, his involvement with the Hare Krishna movement, the Concert for Bangla Desh, and the developing love triangle between him, his wife Pattie and Eric Clapton; and then there was Paul’s retreat to his Scottish farm, his reluctant decision to sue the other Beatles, his new family and his struggles to overcome critical approbation and get Wings off the ground. Even Ringo, who is afforded fewer pages than the others, was busy making an eclectic roster of films, jet-setting around the world and carving out a super-successful music career almost on the side, all while his marriage to Maureen began to deteriorate. When it’s put together like this, you see how the pace of their lives didn’t really start to slow down for a long time – and that’s without mentioning the on-going business and emotional fall-out from their split, which loomed large over all of them during this period.

Blake navigates all these plot points at a fair lick, in concise, colourful tabloid style, dodging back and forth between short chapters focusing on each Beatle. And I use the term plot points advisedly, because the book is written almost like a novel. In particular, he has a habit of dramatising key moments in the story with imagined (i.e. made-up) conversations and comments, slipping them in among actual interview quotes. There’s certainly no way he could have been privy to John’s therapy sessions with Dr Arthur Janov, for example, or the moment Paul learned that two members of Wings had walked out on him on the eve of the band’s commercial breakthrough. This approach won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I don’t mind it so much. To be fair, Blake only extrapolates from stuff that was on the record, and the words or reactions he occasionally attributes to the Fabs do kind of ring true, in many cases. There’s nothing that makes you howl in disbelief.

Wings in 1977, circa ‘Mull of Kintyre’

What is a weakness with the book is the lack of attention paid to their actual music, without which the narrative wouldn’t be half as interesting. Even the more prominent works, such as John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and All Things Must Pass, merit only a page or two; Ringo’s second solo album, Beaucoups of Blues, gets a couple of sentences, while I’m not sure Paul’s London Town is even mentioned at all. It’s a pity that the creative choices they made after breaking up – surely the foundation on which any exploration of their careers is built – is given such short shrift. If you want a more in-depth look at their music from 1970-80, you’d be better off picking Bob Woffinden’s book The Beatles Apart, which also came out in 1981.

The latter half of the 1970s, perhaps inevitably, is not covered in so much detail, although some omissions are puzzling. For instance, once you get past Band On The Run, Wings’ heyday from 1974-78 is skipped over in three or four pages. John’s fallow ‘retirement’ years of 1975-79 receive more coverage, though it’s all stuff you’ll probably know. Probably the best, most revealing chapter of this section – and one which does actually seem to feature some “exclusive” interviews – is the one on George’s life at this time, recounting his growing interest in motor racing, his marriage to Olivia and the birth of their son Dhani. Inevitably, the awful events of 1980, which began with Paul’s Japanese drug bust (and subsequent brief imprisonment) and ended with John’s death, get plenty of space. The book ends with the various reactions of Paul, George, Ringo and Yoko to the tragedy, which gives it a sorrowful sense of coming full circle (though, of course, we now know there were still plenty of major Beatle events left to unfold). Interestingly, the final paragraphs touch on the-then 18-year-old Julian Lennon making his first strides in the music business, presaging the burst of chart success he enjoyed just three years later.

George with Formula One world champion and pal Jackie Stewart in the late 1970s

All You Needed Was Love has its faults. It certainly would’ve made a better book focusing almost entirely on the solo careers, as its premise suggested, and giving their musical output much more prominence. And given the author’s predilection for mysteriously eavesdropping on private conversations, you may want to take bits of it with a pinch of salt. In addition, the story of The Beatles’ ‘afterlife’ has moved on a great deal in the 40 years since, with plenty of lows (George’s death, Ringo’s alcoholism, Linda’s demise and Paul’s marriage to Heather Mills) and highs (many terrific albums, triumphant tours, the Anthology reunion and so on). But this book remains a riveting read and, as a potted guide to the only period when all four solo Beatles were still alive and active, it’s a good place to start. I’d rank it a 7.

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