50 Years Ago Today: The Accidental Break-Up of The Beatles

50 years ago today, Paul McCartney issued a public statement that resulted in the break-up of the Beatles. But it needn’t have.

His press release, structured in the form of a self-conducted interview and intended to publicize his first solo LP McCartney, was merely an escalation in tensions that had been rising between all four members of the band for years. But there was nothing final about it. It was the press who transformed his grumbling into a declarative statement that shattered the band, with headlines like “Paul Leaves the Beatles”, and “The Beatles Break Up”, using perhaps the only model they knew, celebrity divorce, for this anomalous event. The tone was like tabloid coverage of Eddie Fisher leaving Debbie Reynolds, or Liz and Dick splitting up. It sold papers.

Yet read the text yourself. It is ambiguous. There is wiggle room you can drive a truck through for the band NOT to break up:

Q: “Why did you decide to make a solo album?”

PAUL: “Because I got a Studer four-track recording machine at home – practiced on it (playing all instruments) – liked the results, and decided to make it into an album.”

Q: “Were you influenced by John’s adventures with the Plastic Ono Band, and Ringo’s solo LP?”

PAUL: “Sort of, but not really.”

Q: “Are all songs by Paul McCartney alone?”

PAUL: “Yes sir.”

Q: “Will they be so credited: McCartney?”

PAUL: “It’s a bit daft for them to be Lennon/McCartney credited, so ‘McCartney’ it is.”

Q: “Did you enjoy working as a solo?”

PAUL: “Very much. I only had me to ask for a decision, and I agreed with me. Remember Linda’s on it too, so it’s really a double act.”

Q: “What is Linda’s contribution?”

PAUL: “Strictly speaking she harmonizes, but of course it’s more than that because she’s a shoulder to lean on, a second opinion, and a photographer of renown. More than all this, she believes in me – constantly.”

Q: “Where was the album recorded?”

PAUL: “At home, at EMI (no. 2 studio) and at Morgan Studios (WILLESDEN!)”

Q: “What is your home equipment (in some detail)?”

PAUL: “Studer four-track machine. I only had, however, one mike, and as Mr. Pender, Mr. Sweatenham and others only managed to take 6 months or so (slight delay) I worked without VU meters or a mixer, which meant that everything had to be listened to first (for distortion etc…) then recorded. So the answer – Studer, one mike, and nerve.”

Q: “Why did you choose to work in the studios you chose?”

PAUL: “They were available. EMI is technically very good and Morgan is cozy.”

Q: “The album was not known about until it was nearly completed. Was this deliberate?”

PAUL: “Yes, because normally an album is old before it even comes out. (A side) Witness ‘Get Back.'”

Q: “Why?”

PAUL: “I’ve always wanted to buy a Beatles album like people do and be as surprised as they must be. So this was the next best thing. Linda and I are the only two who will be sick of it by the release date. We love it really.”

Q: “Are you able to describe the texture or the feel of the album in a few words?”

PAUL: “Home, family, love.”

Q: “How long did it take to complete?”

PAUL: “From just before (I think) Xmas, until now. ‘The Lovely Linda’ was the first thing I recorded at home, and was originally to test the equipment. That was around Xmas.”

Q: “Assuming all the songs are new to the public, how new are they to you? Are they recent”

PAUL: “One was from 1959 (‘Hot As Sun’). Two are from India – ‘Junk’ and ‘Teddy Boy,’ and the rest are pretty recent. ‘Valentine Day,’ ‘Momma Miss America’ and ‘Oo You’ were ad-libbed on the spot.”

Q: “Which instruments have you played on the album?”

PAUL: “Bass, drums, acoustic guitar, lead guitar, piano and organ-mellotron, toy xylophone, bow and arrow.”

Q: “Have you played all these instruments on earlier recordings?”

PAUL: “Yes, drums being the one that I normally wouldn’t do.”

Q: “Why did you do all the instruments yourself?”

PAUL: “I think I’m pretty good.”

Q: “Will Linda be heard on all future records?”

PAUL: “Could be. We love singing together and have plenty of opportunity for practice.”

Q: “Will Paul and Linda become a John and Yoko?”

PAUL: “No, they will become Paul and Linda.”

Q: “What has recording alone taught you?”

PAUL: “That to make your own decisions about what you do is easy, and playing with yourself is very difficult, but satisfying.”

Q: “Who has done the artwork?”

PAUL: “Linda has taken all the photos, and she and I designed the package.”

Q: “Is it true that neither Allen Klein nor ABKCO have been nor will be in any way involved with the production, manufacturing, distribution or promotion of this new album?”

PAUL: “Not if I can help it.”

Q: “Did you miss the other Beatles and George Martin? Was there a moment when you thought, ‘I wish Ringo were here for this break?'”

PAUL: “No.”

Q: “Assuming this is a very big hit album, will you do another?”

PAUL: “Even if it isn’t, I will continue to do what I want, when I want to.”

Q: “Are you planning a new album or single with the Beatles?”

PAUL: “No.”

Q: “Is this album a rest away from the Beatles or the start of a solo career?”

PAUL: “Time will tell. Being a solo album means it’s ‘the start of a solo career…’ and not being done with the Beatles means it’s just a rest. So it’s both.”

Q: “Is your break with the Beatles temporary or permanent, due to personal differences or musical ones?”

PAUL: “Personal differences, business differences, musical differences, but most of all because I have a better time with my family. Temporary or permanent? I don’t really know.”

Q: “Do you foresee a time when Lennon-McCartney becomes an active songwriting partnership again?”

PAUL: “No.”

Q: “What do you feel about John’s peace effort? The Plastic Ono Band? Giving back the MBE? Yoko’s influence? Yoko?”

PAUL: “I love John, and respect what he does – it doesn’t really give me any pleasure.”

Q: “Were any of the songs on the album originally written with the Beatles in mind?”

PAUL: “The older ones were. ‘Junk’ was intended for Abbey Road, but something happened. ‘Teddy Boy’ was for Get Back, but something happened.”

Q: “Were you pleased with Abbey Road? Was it musically restricting?”

PAUL: “It was a good album. (number one for a long time.)”

Q: “What is your relationship with Klein?”

PAUL: “It isn’t. I am not in contact with him, and he does not represent me in ANY way.”

Q: “What is your relationship with Apple?”

PAUL: “It is the office of a company which I part own with the other three Beatles. I don’t go there because I don’t like offices or business, especially when I am on holiday.”

Q: “Have you any plans to set up an independent production company?”

PAUL: “McCartney Productions.”

Q: “What sort of music has influenced you on this album?”

PAUL: “Light and loose.”

Q: “Are you writing more prolifically now? Or less so?”

PAUL: “About the same. I have a queue waiting to be recorded.”

Q: “What are your plans now? A holiday? A musical? A movie? Retirement?”

PAUL: “My only plan is to grow up!”

As you can see, all McCartney has announced is his intention to begin a solo career, much as John Lennon already had done. It does possess a tone of irritation, but there is nothing about it that designates a hard break. Left as it was, McCartney easily could have taken time away from the others (as Ringo and George already had) and they could have gotten together again for a new project when they felt like it.

Another indication that the finality of what happened was unintended was the abruptness of it, which truly added to the public trauma of the press hoopla. It’s very poignant nowadays to come across the Beatles’ press interviews from the weeks and days just prior to McCartney’s announcement. In radio interviews with any of the four of them from that time they are still talking about “future plans” for the quartet.

I recently came across this ad from an issue of TV Guide published just a few days before the break-up, promoting an episode of The Ed Sullivan Show dedicated to the music of the Beatles:

My takeaway is that they didn’t know. None of them knew. Yes, they had been edging toward this moment for years. The seeds of them growing apart were there from the beginning. Lennon was never happy with Brian Epstein’s makeover of his band or the compromises necessary for mainstream success. As early as 1965, McCartney had released “Yesterday”, a Beatles song in which no other Beatle was involved, yet was widely hailed as one of the greatest pop songs of the century. The cessation of touring and of making films in 1966 resulted in more time apart. The death of Brian Epstein in 1967 removed the main force that had disciplined them into a single entity. Their growing confidence in the studio meant independence from producer George Martin by 1968, and by then they were just four cats to herd. They were all making solo records, and Ringo was even starring in movies on his own, his strongest card to play. So four powerful solo careers were inevitable. Permanent break-up wasn’t.

The main sticking point at that juncture had been the brouhaha surrounding a new manager, three of them signing with Allen Klein, McCartney demurring. But the other three later broke with Klein. It seems like the issue of their representation was work-outable, if the will to do so had been there.

So if you think about it, the concept of a break-up was really an accident. I don’t think McCartney really intended the leave the others. He, much more than the others, NEEDED the Beatles. They were his platform, the medium through which he expressed himself. Lennon, having founded the band, was more aloof from it, and indeed, had already started another group, the Plastic Ono Band. He had PRIVATELY announced that he was leaving the Beatles seven months earlier, but that meant that he could still play with them or not as he chose. And Harrison had everything to gain by leaving the Beatles (as witnessed by his creation of the greatest of all post-Beatles albums soon after the break-up). Yet, McCartney floundered and suffered critically without his band-mates. His demanding, suffocating nature meant he couldn’t work with peers (who wouldn’t stand for it), and not working with peers meant there was no check on his worst impulses, and his output would vary wildly between genius and dreck. But that had already begun to happen with the Beatles, post Epstein.

Ironically around the time that the “divorce” was final, meaning the ink was dry on their legal separation (1974), the animosity was largely over. The four had begun to speak admiringly of one another again, and to occasionally bat around the idea of reunion in public. But now playing together was too fraught, too high stakes, there was no way they could live up to the expectations.

If it hadn’t happened this way? There’s no telling! Each of them produced moments of Beatle “magic” in their solo careers, and each of them diverged from that as well. Indeed, when the survivors played together again on Lennon demos in the mid-90s, the result was hardly earth-shaking. Some of what they did together might have been sparkling, some might have been dreadful. But what is certain is that special blending of their talents, the unique interplay of their voices, and the back-and-forth musical conversation they had with their instruments couldn’t happen again. Separately, they could be four delicious ingredients, but never again that particular stew.

I’ve obviously been obsessing on this topic my entire life. For my earlier speculation about what a future Beatle album might have, could have been like go here.