Monday, July 19, 2010

I Don't Know Why You Say Goodbye

At last: this is the research paper I turned in for my Writing and Research class (for which I was awarded an A+, thank you very much). It's a bit long (eight pages, including bibliography), so consider yourself warned.


I Don't Know Why You Say Goodbye: Why the Beatles Broke Up

On April 10, 1970, the Daily Mirror contained a news article that would shock its readers; the opening sentence of the article simply said, “Paul McCartney has quit The Beatles.” After ten years, “the biggest, most successful act the world had ever known was breaking up.” (Miles, 1997, p. 574). What were the causes behind the break-up? Why would four young men who were arguably at the peak of their fame, their creativity, and their success choose to go their separate ways? In the immediate wake of the news, the idea become quite popular, championed as it was by the Beatles' own biographer, Hunter Davies, that Yoko Ono (John Lennon's second wife, whom he married in early 1969) was responsible for the break-down of the band. As is the case in any break-up, however, we are dealing with the dissolution of a relationship (or, in this case, relationships), and rarely can such an emotional unraveling be neatly categorized and blamed on one person. The Beatles broke up for several reasons: because their founder and leader, John Lennon, lost interest in the group; because John Lennon, having lost interest in the band, became wholly preoccupied with Yoko Ono; because Paul McCartney stepped in as the “de facto leader of the group” (Miles, 1997, p. 563), and his over-bearing, dominant personality irritated the others; because their manager died, and they fought bitterly over the appointment of a new manager who was brought in to handle their business affairs; because each of the Beatles individually had grown apart and found their own interests outside of the group. We will consider each of these causes in their turn.

Brian Epstein had been the manager for the Beatles from the beginning of their rise to fame in Britain, and can be given a great deal of credit for shaping their image and giving them the extra edge that they needed in order to become famous. On August 27, 1967, Epstein died from a drug overdose, and many Beatles historians pin-point this event as the moment when the group began to come apart. Ray Coleman, biographer for both Paul McCartney and John Lennon, writes, “things had begun to go awry for the Beatles after the accidental death, at thirty-two, of their manager, Brian Epstein” (Coleman, 1996, p. 96). Barry Miles concurs, stating that John Lennon's “dissatisfaction with the group seemed to go as far back as the death of Brian Epstein,” after which, Lennon “lapsed into a state of lethargy ... sitting around watching television, reading the papers, smoking pot or tripping” (Miles, 1997, p. 562). Part of Lennon's “lethargy” may have been the result of McCartney's blossoming creativity and natural leadership skills. Just prior to Epstein's death, the group had released their iconic “summer of love” album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, an effort which one author describes as “essentially McCartney's idea”, even going so far as to say, “it is surprising in many ways that Pepper does sound like a Beatles album, rather than a McCartney solo project” (Egan, 2009, p. 141). Of this period in the group's history, Lennon said, “Only when I became self-conscious and inhibited ... did Paul start dominating the group a little too much for my liking” (Sheff, 2000, p. 175). Already, then, the key components of the break-up were coming to the forefront by 1967: the Beatles lacked a manager, McCartney was beginning to dominate the group's creative efforts, and Lennon was losing interest in being a contributor.

In 1969, the Beatles finally made an effort to fill the void left by Epstein's death, but this too became a point of contention. Lennon wanted to hire the hard-ball-playing, brash American businessman Allen Klein to manage his personal business affairs, and George Harrison and Ringo Starr were content to let Klein manage the Beatles as a group as well. McCartney, however, “was familiar with Klein's reputation and wanted no part of it” (Spitz, 2005, p. 820). Paul had already been alerted to “the case pending against Klein by the American tax authorities, which did not inspire confidence” (Miles, 1997, p. 544). Complicating matters was the fact that McCartney had become involved with a young woman named Linda Eastman, whose father, Lee Eastman, was a successful and well-known lawyer. McCartney wanted Lee Eastman to manage the group, but because of the apparent conflict of interests, Lennon “suspected that the Eastmans would give Paul an unfair advantage over him” (Spitz, 2005, p. 804), and would not agree to McCartney's proposal. Lennon biographer Philip Norman says of the conflict, “John would not back down, and Paul could not” (Norman, 2008, p. 590), adding that “this first-ever real quarrel between them was to prove fatal” (Norman, 2008, p. 591). In many ways, it was fatal. The other three Beatles out-voted McCartney, and Klein was made the new manager; McCartney simply stopped showing up at the Beatles-owned Apple business offices for work.

It would be a mistake, however, to place too much emphasis on the internal conflicts over business affairs and management. Already by the time Klein was hired to manage the Beatles, there was a tangible rift in the group. Ringo Starr had already walked out on the group during the recording sessions for the popularly-titled White Album, but the other three convinced him to return after a few weeks; George Harrison, too, had made a dramatic exit during the filming and recording of the Let it Be album, “tired of the uncomfortable conditions and, as he saw it, being bossed and bullied by Paul” (Norman, 2008, p. 583). McCartney's tendency to be over-controlling in the studio was becoming too much for Harrison, who “felt he absorbed more than the others what an insufferable dictator Paul had become, instructing him exactly what to play, as well as how and when to play it” (Spitz, 2005, p. 808). There are two sides to every story, of course, and McCartney has since admitted to these faults, but with subtle shades of justification: “Yes, okay, in the studio I could be overbearing ... I wanted to get it right!” (Miles, 1997, p. 579) Rather than sacrifice musical quality, McCartney pushed the group hard in the studio, even at the risk of appearing domineering: “Looking back on it, I think, Okay. Well, it was bossy, but it was also ballsy of me, because I could have bowed to the pressure” (Miles, 1997, p. 467). To be fair, however, McCartney's driving perfectionism was only one component that caused tension in the studio. Egan writes of the Let it Be sessions, “It has long been the assumption that Harrison ... walked because of what he felt to be McCartney's insufferable bossiness but more recent suggestions have been made that in fact George was infuriated by the fact that Lennon seemed more interested in his wife than the band” (Egan, 2009, p. 188).

It wasn't only Lennon who was losing interest in the band, however. With the launch of their new Apple recording label, both McCartney and Harrison were getting involved with other recording artists, helping to produce albums and sitting in with other groups as session musicians. They were finding out what it was like to collaborate with artists other than the Beatles, and they were enjoying it. Lennon was beginning to branch out into new avant-garde recording projects with Yoko. Ringo “had been building a solo career in films and getting a taste for a life where he was his own man” (Miles, 1997, p. 537). Reflecting on this state of affairs, Linda McCartney said, “Everybody was obviously growing up and growing away a bit. The Beatles was Paul's job; he and John were a creative team, but John was with Yoko. Paul never had any time alone with John” (Miles, 1997, p. 513).

Yoko's part in the break-up of the Beatles has been exaggerated, perhaps, but it cannot be denied that her appearance in Lennon's life did have significant negative ramifications for the unity of the group. Her impact, however, must be understood in the context of Lennon's own growing apathy and dissatisfaction with the band. Spitz sums it up quite neatly when he says that Lennon's “collaboration with Paul was over … The Beatles' music no longer intrigued him. Yoko offered John a way out” (Spitz, 2005, p. 797). Lennon's childhood friend, Pete Shotton, recalls John's simultaneous enthusiasm for Yoko and lack of interest in anything that was not Yoko after spending just one night with his new muse: “Pete, this is what I've been waiting for. All. My. Life. I don't give a fuck about the Beatles ... I don't give a fuck about anything. I'm going to go and live with Yoko, even if it means living in a tent with her, I'm going” (Spitz, 2005, p. 765). Lennon was obviously already unhappy being “Beatle John” by the time he met Yoko, but he credits her with giving him the extra push that he needed to separate himself from the group: “Yoko … gave me the inner strength to look more closely at my other marriage. My real marriage. To the Beatles, which was more stifling than my domestic life” (Miles, 1997, p. 562). George Harrison would later reflect, “I don't think [John] wanted much to be hanging out with us ... and I think Yoko was pushing him out of the band” (Spitz, 2005, p. 813).

For Lennon, it was a question of loyalty. He had found the love of his life in Yoko, and he felt it was time to grow up and leave his youthful “boy's club” behind. In an interview with Playboy magazine, Lennon famously opined, “When I met Yoko is when you meet your first woman and you leave the guys at the bar and you don't go play football anymore and you don't go play snooker and billiards ... The old gang of mine was over the moment I met [Yoko]” (Sheff, 2000, p. 48). It was a simple as that, for John; he was done being a Beatle, and he was ready to give his new love interest his full and undivided attention. The transition between these two phases of Lennon's life became the context for the most traumatic conflicts within the group. Yoko never left John's side, which meant that for a time, until the Beatles dis-banded, she effectively became an honorary Beatle (much to the irritation of the other three). In the recording studio, Yoko sat next to John, “ordering Mal Evans to fetch her food and drinks and, worst of all, adding her unasked-for comments and musical suggestions” (Miles, 1997, p. 491-492). Spitz paints an even more incredible picture: “There wasn't anywhere he went that she didn't follow. If John entered the control room to speak with George Martin, Yoko accompanied him. If he huddled with Paul regarding a song or arrangement, Yoko joined the discussion ... Studio grunts watched in amazement as she followed John into the bathroom” (Spitz, 2005, p. 778). During the recording session for what would prove to be the Beatles last album, Abbey Road, Yoko had been injured in a car accident and had been ordered by her doctors to stay in bed. This posed no problem in terms of her presence at the recording sessions, however, because “a huge double bed was delivered to the studio by Harrods and Yoko [was] installed in it with a microphone suspended above her face in case she had any comments to make” (Miles, 1997, p. 552). How did the other Beatles react to this unprecedented situation? Spitz pulls no punches in his assessment, saying, “No matter what they said over the years as a show of unity or to soothe injured feelings, Paul, George, and Ringo absolutely hated Yoko's intrusion” (Spitz, 2005, p. 784). McCartney in particular remembered, with some hint of aggravation still present in his tone, that when Yoko “referred to the Beatles, she called them 'Beatles': 'Beatles will do this. Beatles will do that.' We said, 'The Beatles, actually, love.' ... I mean, she even took our personal pronoun off us, you know?” (Miles, 1997, p. 492)

They were fighting over management; they were becoming resentful of each others' personality traits; they were becoming interested in individual ventures; they were growing apart and going in different directions; even in the studio, their formerly impenetrable and private sanctuary, they could not get along. It was obvious that the group was headed for an irreparable splintering, and on September 20, 1969, “Lennon amazed his colleagues at an Apple board meeting by telling them he was leaving The Beatles” (Egan, 2009, p. 199). Because they had just signed a contract extension, the Beatles kept quiet about the break-up for many months. McCartney went to work on a solo album, and when he released review copies of the project in April of 1970, he included promotional notes in the form of a “self-interview” which effectively let the cat out of the bag. Citing “personal differences, business differences, musical differences” and “most of all because I have a better time with my family”, McCartney announced to the world that the Beatles were no longer a group entity, and would not be working together again. This led to the perception, as indicated in the Daily Mirror quote found at the beginning of this essay, that it was McCartney who had broken up the Fab Four, when in fact, it was Lennon who had pulled the plug, as McCartney himself would later admit: “It was John that broke the Beatles up” (Miles, 1997, p. 566). Lennon readily concurred, stating, “I started the band. I disbanded it. It's as simple as that” (Miles, 1997, p. 562).

In the end, why did the Beatles break up? They broke up because the man who had founded the group and been their leader since the late 1950s no longer wanted to be a part of the band. John Lennon lost interest in the enterprise known as the Beatles, and without John Lennon, the Beatles could no longer exist. When John disconnected himself emotionally from the group, he found a ready-made escape route in Yoko Ono, which left a creative void that Paul McCartney naturally filled, but with too much micro-management and perceived “bossiness” that turned the others off. When it finally came time to hire a new manager to run the group's affairs, they found the hill on which they would eventually die, the “straw that broke the camel's back,” so to speak. The Beatles broke up because they grew apart. The Beatles broke up because they grew up. The Beatles broke up, finally, because they ceased to be a united entity internally, and a house divided can never stand for very long.


Coleman, R. (1996). McCartney Yesterday ... and today. Los Angeles: Dove Books.

Egan, S. (Ed.). (2009). The mammoth book of the Beatles. Philadelphia: Running Press Book


Miles, B. (1997). Paul McCartney: many years from now. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Norman, P. (2008). John Lennon: the life. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Sheff, D. (2000). All we are saying: the last major interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

New York: St. Martin's Griffin.

Spitz, B. (2005). The Beatles: the biography. New York: Bay Back Books.

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