On this date in 1970, The Beatles officially ended, not with a bang but a whimper. The news didn’t come as too much of a surprise to fans and critics alike, though the odd manner they shared the news with the world at large did. In a 1970 press release for his upcoming solo album, Paul McCartney, the Beatles bassist, answered a series of questions and declared his writing partnership with John Lennon over and his time in The Beatles done. The media seized on the confirmation they had been waiting for—the long and winding road had finally ended.
Ending an association as important as that of the Fab Four doesn’t happen overnight. As early as 1968, it was apparent to John, Paul, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr that the many tensions in the air were eroding the band from within. John Lennon and Yoko Ono were a constant public spectacle, the band members developed vastly diverging musical tastes and inspirations, and the business of being the biggest band in the world was draining the joy out of their efforts. The band had lost the uniting dynamic of regularly traveling and performing together.
While they managed to create some of their finest studio works in that period, the growing musical and personal differences were taking their toll. John Lennon met conceptual artist Yoko Ono and began a relationship and deep fascination with her and her work. George Harrison returned to India, where he had previously recorded his own solo album, Wonderwall Music, and continued his progression as a songwriter and musician. Ringo Starr, who had much enjoyed The Beatles’ earlier career cinematic efforts, sought and developed acting projects such as the farcical classic, The Magic Christian. Paul McCartney, among all of them, retained his fascination with the pop music they had heavily influenced.
Greatly changed from their experiences, they gathered to record songs written during their group lessons in Transcendental Meditation. The result of those sessions was The White Album, which was, essentially, four solo EPs in one package. The variance of styles between Lennon’s eccentric and art-house styled compositions like “Revolution 9” and McCartney’s sugary pop confections like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” illustrated the deep philosophical split between the most successful writing partnership in history. Voices and instruments that had blended together to create some of the most memorable melodies in history had fallen into complete discord.
By the end of 1968, none of the members even knew if they still were a band. Harrison even resigned from the band briefly, before various contractual obligations lured him back. A new project that would call for practice sessions, studio work culminating with a live recording had been suggested by McCartney, and the other three agreed, though history shows their heart wasn’t in it. While they sporadically wrote and recorded over the course of 1969, the band continued to drift farther apart musically and professionally.
Lennon and Ono worked as avant-garde peace activists while also forming the Plastic Ono Band, and during a band meeting, he informed the three men that he was leaving The Beatles. Complicating the dissolution of the band publicly and professionally was a series of intricate and contentious business deals of the kind that come from being the biggest band in the world. The decision was made to keep the departure private for the immediate future to protect various negotiations and deals. McCartney, who had always worked to keep band harmony, retreated to his farm in Scotland with his family, devastated.
Though McCartney had told a Life Magazine reporter who visited him in October of 1969 that he considered The Beatles “over,” it was not widely regarded as the final word. The hybrid studio/live McCartney had conceived needed to be finished to avoid legal action from United Artists, who had contracted filmmakers to produce what would become the Let It Be album. After finishing working with Starr and Harrison on the last few tracks, McCartney lost all interest in going forward in any form with his partners. He retreated to his home studio to finish work on material that would come to comprise the bulk of his first solo release.
The McCartney solo album was added to the crowded roster of Apple Records upcoming releases for April of 1970, raising red flags with the band. Ringo Starr was dispatched to McCartney’s home to ask him to delay the release, to keep it from competing with The Beatles own Let It Be and Starr’s impending solo release. The normally laconic McCartney surprised Starr with his flat refusal to change the date, and his pointed request that Starr leave his home immediately. Once the most steadfast believer in the band, McCartney had apparently made the decision to move on. As the release date of April 17th drew near, Apple executive Peter Brown proposed a written Q & A session to serve as a press release when McCartney expressed disinterest in doing any interviews for the upcoming project.
The question “Is this album a rest away from the Beatles or the start of a solo career?” and its subsequent response, “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.” caused copy editors and news outlets around the world to take notice. Seizing on that statement, word that The Beatles were done spread around the world like wildfire. Though he had not said the words outright, The Beatles were finished as a group, though they were far from done with each other as business partners.
McCartney petitioned in British High Court to dissolve the band on the last day of 1970, beginning what would be a four-year process to finally free himself from any remaining legal obligations and entanglements. The four musicians who had started out together as a scrappy club band turned marketing sensation that catapulted them to the highest order of fame, fortune and creative power were now free to go their own ways. Hopes for a reunion persisted until that tragic December day in 1980, when John Lennon was killed outside of his New York apartment building. In a way, Lennon’s death served to bring together the three remaining Beatles one last time, for a tribute to their fallen friend on Harrison’s 1981 album Somewhere in England.
Though an assassin’s bullet ended any hope of the Fab Four sharing a stage or studio ever again, it was actually success that drove The Beatles apart. When Beatlemania grew to the point when they couldn’t even take the stage and be heard over the roar of the crowd, it was really the beginning of the end. Without the camaraderie of the stage, the infinite distractions that immense wealth and inflated ego made them lose touch with their true selves.
Now, we’re left with the band’s final performance, an impromptu rooftop concert for a Let It Be movie. Enjoy: