There are a lot of years in between the breakup of the Beatles in 1970 and today. People have had plenty of time to disparage and discredit them. The criticisms of their occasionally crass commercialism not only hold true, but remain an industry standard for popular music promotion. The lessons they teach about the hazards of fame are a warning to every Johnny B. Goode. Still, the Beatles persevere. A young man I occasionally work with was recently telling me about his work creating electronic dance music and a YouTube band called Death Grip. After he finished his five-minute exhortation, he looked at his phone and said “but nothing can beat the Beatles. They were the best.” The song “Something” had just popped up on his phone’s music app.
In early March 1970 I was in the back of our family station wagon. We were on our way Maguire Air Base in New Jersey to catch a military flight to Frankfurt am Main in what was then West Germany. My dad had returned from Vietnam a couple weeks previous. I was listening to my transistor radio hopping stations from DC to New Jersey. I found a fairly powerful FM station north of Baltimore and listened to the deejay promise to play the newest Beatles single. I had not heard it but had heard plenty about it, along with rumors of the band’s imminent breakup. Finally, the first notes of the piano on “Let it Be” came over the air. Paul McCartney began singing and the song that John Lennon jokingly calls Hark, the Angels Come in the film Let it Be was in the public air.
Like millions of others my age, the Beatles were part of my life. I knew their early songs from the radio and had become a hardcore fan in 1968—the year I turned thirteen. It was the song “Hey Jude” that turned my fandom into fanaticism. By the time 1969 became reality, I owned almost every Beatles album released in the United States. My favorite discs were Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The White Album, and Magical Mystery Tour. It wasn’t that I only listened to the Beatles, but I did measure most other music I heard against them and Bob Dylan. Like I said before, I was like millions of other young people in the West when it came to the Beatles. What they did mattered more than what almost anyone else did. Not only did they reflect the world we lived in, their reflection often shone brighter than that which was casting it. They really were more popular than Jesus or any other religious figures among a certain demographic.
Unfortunately, by 1969 the Beatles were nearing their end as a band. Their cultural influence would continue way past their dissolution, as would their popularity, but the music-making outfit known as the Beatles was ending its run. Of course, nobody outside the band and its closest confidantes knew this. If the word got out, it might ruin future money-making opportunities for the individual members and, more importantly as far as the bankers, promoters and other capitalist entities behind the band, it might mean their cash flow would dry up. Besides, the Beatles still had a few more songs left in them.
This is the story told by Scottish journalist Ken McNab in his just-released book And in the End: The Last Days of the Beatles. He tells the story with flourish and erudition. Dividing the year into months, McNab describes the actions of the Beatles as a group and individually. He presents McCartney as the band member most interested in keeping the band together and George Harrison as the one most ready to leave the enterprise. Lennon is portrayed as both impetuous and conscientious, egotistical and tortured. Ringo Starr’s presence is like is drumming, understated yet voluminous in its application. McCartney and Lennon’s girlfriends Linda Eastman and Yoko Ono (both would become wives during the year) are players in the drama, as well. In keeping with a good journalist’s ethos, McNab describes the women’s roles in the breakup of the band with objectivity and a lesser importance than those who blame them (especially Yoko) for the band’s breakup.
The real story here is the money. From Apple Corporation’s debts and expense accounts to promoter Allen Klein’s manipulations and successes; the Eastman family’s intent to profit from the Beatles and the battle over Northern Songs, it becomes clear that capitalism is the primary culprit in the band’s disintegration. In a story that is both familiar in its redundancy and unique as regards the Beatles, the Midas Touch of the capitalist entertainment business did more to break up the band than any personal quarrels. Everything turned to gold and the gold became the focus. Like King Midas losing the things he loved the most because of his desire for gold, the Beatles lost their band. Fortunately, the world did not lose their music.
And in the End is a journey through a tempestuous year in the life of the Beatles and in the world at large. The US war on Vietnam raged and killed, with Richard Nixon’s administration dropping more bombs on that country than ever before. The conservative arbiters of culture and politics intensified their reactionary response to the growing free-for-all that the counterculture represented to them. Consequently, rock music was under fire, especially those bands that were raising the freak flag high—Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Rolling Stones and the Beatles. It was a great time to be a young person; it was a terrible time to be a young person. The fact that the Beatles released a couple singles only made it better. When John and Yoko’s song “Give Peace a Chance” was in the Top Ten, it was almost surreal. The culmination of the annum came in the autumn, when The Beatles released their album Abbey Road and the Rolling Stones did the same with Let it Bleed.
The official end of the Beatles came on April 10, 1970 when Paul McCartney announced his first solo album. Although it was an ambiguous announcement, the fact that Lennon and Harrison had already told the band they were leaving seemed to finalize the end. Although I was saddened when I heard the news on Radio Luxembourg that day, the deaths of Hendrix and Joplin later in 1970 would place the Beatles breakup in a different perspective. At least everyone in the band was still alive. As of then, anyhow.