The Breakup of The Beatles

In April, 1970, only a short time after the finish of the 1960s, the formidable activities of The Beatles came to an unhappy conclusion. The four Beatles had been distancing themselves from one another for many months, appearing to have outgrown their once fruitful partnership, but the actual break in their strained relations was finally confirmed in a blunt declaration that came from Paul McCartney, in which he purposefully announced that he would no longer be working with John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. The rampant conjecture in the press had unhappily proven to be true: The Beatles had broken up.

Although news of the breakup arrived at a time when each member of The Beatles already was known to be pursuing musical interests apart from the others, it still was received by the public as an unwelcome surprise. After nearly a decade of living with the unprecedented renown of The Beatles, known and loved as a team of groundbreaking musicians whose songs were heard everywhere and also acknowledged as the leaders of their generation, we all had come to take them, and the music that they had created as a happy foursome, for granted. It seemed unthinkable to us that they would choose to go their own ways.

At the age of sixteen, I had been a fan of The Beatles from the beginning. I had collected their records, I had watched them on television, I had seen their films, I had followed their style in my hair and my clothing, and I had been in the audience at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, on August 29, 1966, for what turned out to be their last concert. For several years, my grandmother in the United Kingdom had been faithfully sending The Beatles Monthly Book to me, but when I received what apparently was the final issue in December, 1969, even I could see that The Beatles were reaching the end of the line. It was hard for me to believe that they would not be continuing as an ongoing force.

At first, when there was a steady outflow of new albums on Apple Records from each of the onetime Beatles, it seemed that their breakup was not utterly unbearable, and might even be for the best. Having four separate Beatles, as opposed to four Beatles working together, meant that four times as much music was being recorded and released. With Paul McCartney releasing McCartney (1970) and Ram (1971), John Lennon releasing John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970) and Imagine (1971), George Harrison releasing All Things Must Pass (1970) and The Concert for Bangladesh (1971), and Ringo Starr releasing Sentimental Journey (1970) and Beaucoups of Blues (1970), most fans were too busy listening to the offerings of fresh music to fully grasp what had happened.

The melancholy truth, however, could not be denied for long. The Beatles had angrily elected to call it a day, and probably would never be a foursome again. When the formal dissolution of their partnership brought forth a snarl of financial questions that could only be resolved by a lengthy lawsuit (commenced by Paul McCartney on December 31, 1970), their situation became much thornier and turned bitterly contentious, resulting in an ordeal of bad feelings and broken friendships. The Beatles had turned out to be less than invincible, after all. When Paul McCartney and his wife, Linda, started a new band, known as Wings, in 1971, it was a further confirmation that The Beatles were now in the past.

Throughout the first half of the 1970s, there were constant rumors that The Beatles might join together again to make a record or to give a performance. George Harrison and Ringo Starr did perform together at the Concert for Bangladesh in August, 1971, and several of the ex-Beatles sometimes played together on their own recordings, but the four musicians never revived their former fellowship. John Lennon preferred to work with his wife, Yoko Ono, and Paul McCartney was keeping himself quite busy as the leader of Wings. As more time passed, and a host of other performers (Elton John, Cat Stevens, Rod Stewart, David Bowie) came to the forefront of current music, it became unquestionably clear that The Beatles belonged to the 1960s, and would not be returning to action in a new decade.

As the 1970s ran their course, the names of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr became firmly (and separately) established. John Lennon recorded a double album with Yoko Ono, Sometime in New York City (1972), and also released Mind Games (1973), Walls and Bridges (1974), and Rock'n'Roll (1975). Paul McCartney became a superstar all over again with Wings, touring the world and releasing Wild Life (1971), Red Rose Speedway (1973), Band on the Run (1973), Venus and Mars (1975), Wings at the Speed of Sound (1976), London Town (1978), and Back to the Egg (1979). In 1974, George Harrison released Dark Horse and did a tour of the United States, followed by several more albums before the end of the decade. Ringo Starr released Ringo (1973) and Goodnight Vienna (1974), which were favorably received, but his musical reputation declined thereafter.

On a fateful evening in December, 1980, John Lennon was murdered by a mentally unstable fan in New York City, a heinous act that painfully crushed any wishful thinking that the four members of The Beatles might ever get together again. Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr each remained active during the rest of the 1980s, but the permanent absence of John Lennon could not be forgotten or smoothed over. In the 1990s, Paul, George, and Ringo combined their memories for The Beatles Anthology, an extensive project that comprised a book, a documentary film, and three albums of vintage recordings that had never been released. They also released two new singles under the name of The Beatles, "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love," adding their own talents to home recordings that John Lennon had made before he was killed.

Now, many years after the breakup in 1970, with both John Lennon and George Harrison (who passed away in 2001) no longer among us, and only Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr remaining to tend the singular legacy of the Fab Four, the end of The Beatles is commonly regarded as an unfortunate milestone in the history of rock'n'roll. It most certainly left a musical void that has never been filled. Their glorious recordings will always be with us, to be heard and enjoyed by successive generations, but the joyous excitement that attended their collective musicality in the 1960s, when all four of them were young and alive and together, can be truly understood only by those of us who are old enough to have directly experienced it.