40 years after the split, experts say it was time to let it be
By Tony Scalfani
April 7, 2010
Seven years and seven months. That's how long the world officially
knew the Beatles as a recording act, spanning from the date they
released their first single in England to the day their breakup was
announced on April 10, 1970.
Looking back after 40 years, that seems like a ridiculously short
lifespan for such an important band. The time frame seems ever tinier
considering the longevity of other popular bands of their era, like
the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Kinks, or bands that came later,
like Bon Jovi and U2.
Did the Fab Four call it quits too soon? The answer might seem to be
yes, considering interest in the band never really faded. Sales were
massive for both the "Anthology" series from the mid-1990s and last
year's CD remasters. Rolling Stone reported in December the
surprising fact that the Beatles had the biggest selling album of the
last decade with "1," and that they were second only to Eminem as the
top selling artists of the decade.
In 1983, Keith Richards told Musician magazine there "was no need"
for the Beatles to have broken up and that the band "could've taken a
couple of years off, resolved their problems and still carried on."
But as tantalizing as that "what if" scenario might seem to fans,
there was little chance the band could have worked as a unit any
longer, said eight authors of Beatle books (three of whom knew the
band). In both the personal and artistic realms, these writers said,
it was time for each band member to let things be.
By summer 1969, when the Beatles recorded their final album, "Abbey
Road," the musicians were already feeling they'd long realized any
collective artistic aspirations, said Ken Mansfield, the former U.S.
manager of the Beatles' label Apple and author of "The White Book:
The Beatles, the Bands, the Biz: An Insider's Look at an Era."
'No place to go'
"There's one subtlety that people don't realize, and we discussed
this one time at a meeting in a Hyde Park hotel: they had no place to
go," Mansfield said. "They couldn't be more No. 1 they couldn't be
bigger. They had the wealth, they had the success, they had all the
things that would be goals for a rock band. That was one of the
reasons we did Apple Records. It gave them something new to do."
The decision to stop touring in 1966 deprived them of the normal
performer-audience dynamic that keeps bands energized, said Chris
O'Dell, a former Apple Records employee who penned the tome "Miss
O'Dell: My Hard Days And Long Nights With The Beatles, the Stones,
Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton And the Women They Loved."
"As a live band on tour, they had nothing to shoot for," she said.
"They couldn't hear themselves. It wasn't fun for them. George
(Harrison) once told me the best fun he ever had in the Beatles was
in Hamburg, Germany that was like really touring and really being
out there, but that didn't happen for them afterwards."
Because the Beatles in their early days were united like few other
bands, they were able to weather troubles that might have destroyed
other acts, Mansfield said. But by 1969, that unity was coming
undone. Paul McCartney disagreed with the other three members about
who should manage the group, John Lennon was more interested in
working with new wife Yoko Ono, and Harrison was disgruntled at not
getting more songs on the albums.
Bob Spitz, author of the New York Times best seller "The Beatles: The
Biography," said these disagreements alone would have kept them from
sticking around much longer, much less releasing another record up to
the high standard of "Abbey Road."
"It wasn't likely, based on their emotions at the time, that we were
going to get fabulous material as a group from them," Spitz said.
"Emotionally they weren't in any shape to be the Beatles anymore.
They didn't like each other. When the Beatles got together they were
young guys. By the time they put out 'Abbey Road,' their
relationships had no bearing on each other as a group anymore."
OK, but then how did the band exit on such a high note if they were
in such awful shape? Well, to pinch a phrase from the Fabs, they knew
it was getting very near the end. So said Peter Doggett, the author
of "Abbey Road/Let It Be: The Beatles" and the forthcoming "You Never
Give Me Your Money: The Battle for the Soul of the Beatles."
"I think in their hearts they all knew it was the last record, so
they could all say 'OK, I'm gonna be on my best behavior for a few
weeks and then we'll get this over,'" Doggett said. "If they had to
think, 'We're gonna do this one, and then another one in seven
months' time,' I don't think they would actually have managed to work
together with that close knit internal harmony."
Tim Riley, author of "Tell Me Why: A Beatles Commentary," echoed this
sentiment and said that during the 1960s, the Beatles "were all still
really in thrall to their collective muse and that muse carried them
through ruptures and conflicts."
Riley said the band's breakup came about at the right time: "It's one
of the key aspects of their story that they actually found a way to
stay together those last couple of years and turn out a lot of great
material. But it's really in spite of the very stark internal
conflicts that kept arising again and again."
The roots of Harrison's discontent ran deep, said Bill Harry, who
founded Liverpool's Mersey Beat magazine and was a friend of Lennon
and original member Stu Sutcliffe. Although Lennon and McCartney
became the band's main songwriters, Harrison, said Harry, was the
first Beatle mentioned in Mersey Beat as having had an original song
recorded, the instrumental "Cry for a Shadow" (later co-credited with Lennon).
"(Then) when it started with the big Lennon and McCartney thing, and
it was hit after hit, I used to see George and (ask) 'Why aren't you
writing the music?'" Harry said. "I think the Lennon and McCartney
thing was too much for him to sort of handle."
Harry, who has written 24 books on the Beatles, said that fact alone
assured a limited shelf life of the band: "Everyone thinks it would
be nice if the Beatles could have had another five years, but they
couldn't. The time was over."
One more album?
But what if the Fab Four had come together for one more album? This
question was posited by David Furst, a producer at Washington DC's
WAMU-FM for a program in which music writer Richie Unterberger took
part. Unterberger, who penned the book "The Unreleased Beatles: Music
and Film," said fans shouldn't look to the early Beatles' solo albums
to imagine what a group effort might have sounded like.
"A really challenging aspect of trying to predict what would have
happened is that the songwriting would have inevitably changed if all
four of them had been together," he said. "Part of what made the
Beatles so special is they had this synergy where they create more
than they can do on their own."
Unterberger said it was fortunate the Beatles' albums never ended up
deteriorating in quality, like those of bands that had more
longevity. "They went out with a great record, and most importantly,
a record on which the sense of group unity is still really strong," he said.
Steve Turner, author of "A Hard Day's Write: The Stories Behind Every
Beatles Song," agreed: "You can look at some of the songs they wrote
during the Beatles that got left over and put on solo albums but
whether you put all those together and it would have made a follow up
to 'Abbey Road,' I don't know. They seemed to have reached their limit.
"I can't think of anything that they did better in subsequent years
individually," Turner said. "I can't think of a particular kind of
studio development or technical development where you'd think, 'Gosh
if only they'd pursued that.'"