Thank God They Let It Be...
Those of us ancient Beatle fans old enough to have been around in the sixties - and who remember that decade - will never forget when we first heard that the Beatles had broken up. It was in April 1970 (and yes that was technically the last year of the 60's - just as 2000 was the last year of the 20th century! There was no year called zero... we started in the year A.D. 1 !) Irrespective of whether it was the last actual year of the 60's or the first year of the 70's - the news was crushing. We knew that nothing lasted forever and there had been break-up rumors for some time. But none of us could quite believe the story. And the bad news of Paul's announcement that he was quitting the band was only the beginning of two years of bad Beatles news. At the end of December of that year Paul sued the other three Beatles. Then there were court hearings, lawsuits, the naming of an official receiver (a court-appointed accountant) to untangle the group's finances. And then those endless snipings between John and Paul. First in print - usually on the pages of the British weekly music papers - then on records. The picture of an insect beetle mounting another beetle on the cover of Paul's "Ram" album... (a Beatle being screwed by another Beatle. Geddit?!) John's response with his picture spoofing Paul's "Ram" photo (John held onto the ears of a pig) and then of course the cruelly effective barbs of John's "How Do You Sleep?" song.
The strangest thing in retrospect is that we Beatle fans were still desperate throughout those years and those that followed for the group to reform! The Beatles literally had disintegrated at that point - and yet we the fans were willing them to settle unfathomably deep differences and make up for OUR sake! What was natural and understandable on our part was actually totally unrealistic. Fortunately for us the Beatles didn't pay any heed to our pleas.
Now that may seem like heresy on the part of a diehard Beatles fan. Since they were undoubtedly the best thing to have ever happened to music surely I should want them to stay together forever? Well I used to feel that way. In fact like most Beatles fans I felt that way all through the 70's. And then after John was murdered i continued to wish that they had reformed before that tragic ending. I thought that way all the way through till one day in September 1995.
If only they had been able to get past their childish disagreements and reach out to each other. What amazing music they might have made together in the 70's... And had John not been murdered - how cool the music would have been in the 80's and 90's...
Well we got some of that music - but it came from their solo careers. Some of it rivaled the best of the music created by the Beatles as a group (albums such as "Plastic Ono Band," "Band On The Run," "All Things Must Pass" and "Ringo") and some of it was worse than anything they ever made as a band (certain tracks on "Sometime In NYC," "Wings Wild Life," "Gone Troppo" and "Ringo The 4th")
As much as I loved the best solo tracks - and shrugged my shoulders at the bum tracks that crept in with much more regularity than in the group years - I always felt that if only they reformed it would have been better. The group dynamic had always acted as a sort of creative checks and balances on the individual members. A lazily-written melody line by John or a sloppily sentimental lyric by Paul would have been tidied up by one of the others in that collective hothouse of their studio environment.
I don't think I'm wrong in that. it's just that in every respect the Beatles were RIGHT to have broken up when they did. Not HOW they broke up. That was an inexcusable fiasco of human relationships that was not worthy of what they had created in the previous ten years. But it was time...
Which of us has not been in a relationship or friendship when the "jones" started to disappear. Now it's never immediately clear if it's just a bad patch that we're going through - or the inevitable end. But there comes a time when we or the other person knows that this IS the end - and calls it quits. And that's a painful time. But it's usually the right decision. After all - even if we think that the relationship should continue - if the significant other doesn't agree - then what are we fighting for? No point if the other person has quit trying.
And that's how it was for the Beatles in late 1969 and early 1970. To quote the great Canadian folksinger Gordon Lightfoot "I don't know where we went wrong, but the feeling's gone and I just can't get it back..." (from "If You Could Read My Mind")
The Beatles knew it was over. The nucleus of John, Paul and George had been together since 1957-8. And they had been a quartet with Ringo since 1962. They had grown from mid-teens to the cusp of their thirties. From first girlfriends to first wives (even second wives/serious relationships in the case of John and Paul.) They had pioneered more cultural changes than can be described in ink in the space of seven short years in the spotlight. And they were tired of being bound to each other. They needed room to grow and breathe. It was time to move on...
And what if the Beatles had papered over their differences (impossible for people as honest as them) - what would have happened? I respectfully suggest that it would have been a grave disappointment for us all.
The Beatles didn't create their magic for the money. They created it because it was in their hearts. They received money because they created magic. If they had reformed for the money - it would have sounded like it.
There are two types of reformation that might have happened. Live performance or a studio reunion.
Live performance would certainly have been a terrible mistake. Of course the technology that made their live performances in large venues so impossible in 1966 had improved by the early 70's - and they could have their music heard properly. But the Beatles were never a nostalgia act - and it would have been appalling for them to go out and play mainly their golden oldies. Not that there was anything wrong with what they had created in the past. Far from it. But concert audiences always demand familiarity. And playing old songs for the audiences' pleasure would not have been as satisfying to them nor as relevant as playing the new music they would be creating.
And there was far too wide a gulf between their individual musical aspirations by the mid-70's. John was using music primarily as a vehicle to propagate his personal artistic and political vision. Paul was resolutely creating music to bring pleasure to fans. George was savoring the long suppressed scope of his writing and Ringo was happy to be the cheerful entertainer - leaving behind the challenges to have his drumming progress and break further new ground.
If those four ex-Beatles had come together in the studio and tried to make an album - it would have been a hodgepodge. The creative separation that had become so pronounced on many tracks on the "White Album" and "Abbey Road" would have broadened into a gaping chasm.. Each composing Beatle would simply have used the other Beatles as a backing group at best.. The happy spirit of collaboration had evaporated - and it wasn't going to come back just for a sentimental journey.
And now I say Thank God! To see the Rolling Stones limping through the last 30 years has been mainly pathetic. NOT because they have aged, That happens to all of us. And some artists - especially jazz and blues performers - have continued to make great music into their 70's. But because by and large the Stones haven't really added to their creative high points by their longevity. There have been the odd good album or songs. But no one seriously thinks that the Stones created consistently great music after the mid-late 70's. They became a fabulous nostalgia act. A modern-age Vegas revue. The Who created some excellent music in the 1970's - but by 1982 Pete Townshend folded the band. And as enjoyable as their tours in recent years have been (especially the 1996 "Quadrophenia" tour) it's not the same. And not just because Keith Moon is no longer there (he's very ably replaced by Zak Starkey!) But because they are replaying the past more than creating the present and future.
I say that the Beatles quit while they were at the very top of their creative powers. There was no one to touch them in the studio. They set the tone for everyone who followed. They never released a bad album. "Let It Be" is certainly not a great album compared to its immediate predecessors - but by any other artists' standards - it was excellent. And there were certainly no stinker albums released. The proportion of bad individual tracks throughout their career was astonishingly low (don't get me started on how "What Goes On" lets down the "Rubber Soul" album" !)
We never had to endure seeing them do bad shows or play poorly because it was just for the money. And as many musical styles as they successfully embraced in their halcyon years - we never had their lame attempt at disco (as both The Stones and Rod Stewart did) nor did we seem them reduced to doing bad films (The Bee Gees' "Sgt. Pepper" movie) or selling their soul to sponsors such as perfume or beer companies to underwrite a tour.
We were spared most of the inigmony that blighted the latter careers of many 60's era stars. And for that we must be grateful.
What turned me around on this? Well it has partly been seeing the mistakes of so many of the Beatles' contemporaries and successors. And partly the wise words of my mentor and friend Derek Taylor - the Beatles publicist in the 60's and again during the marketing of the "Live At The BBC" and "Anthology" albums.
Derek gave me an interview for old times's sake in September 1995 - for my E! TV special about the "Anthology" The break-up he told me was necessary, healthy and good. Yes they had bungled the ending. How much nicer to exit with a beautiful farewell concert. But that just wasn't the way it had happened. And the decision itself - however badly executed - allowed the Beatles to end their career on top.
We the fans were like the children of divorcing parents. The Beatles were our family - and we naturally wanted our folks to stay together. But John told us very clearly in 1970: "So dear friends - you'll just have to carry on. The dream is over..."
The dream WAS over. But the magic that was created during that brief shining dream of the 60's has never died. And it never will. But let's be glad that it can never be overshadowed by nightmares from the 70's or later.
In a way it's like that Seinfeld episode where Jerry teaches George that there's always a perfect time to leave a meeting or a room. RIght after you've delivered your best punch line. "That's it! I'm outta here!" yells George when he finally comprehends the wisdom of this. And - albeit it was a bit messy - that's what the Beatles said in 1970. "That's it! We're outta here!"
Our boys left at the very top of their game. Let it be.