The break-up of the Beatles was a cumulative process throughout the period 1968 to 1970, marked by rumours of a split and ambiguous comments by the Beatles themselves regarding the future of the group. Although in September 1969 John Lennon privately informed the other Beatles that he was leaving the group, there was no public acknowledgement of the break-up until Paul McCartney announced on 10 April 1970 he was leaving the Beatles.
There were numerous causes for the Beatles' break-up. It was not a single event but rather a long transition, including the cessation of touring in 1966, and the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, in 1967. Conflict arose from differences in artistic vision. Both George Harrison and Ringo Starr temporarily left the group at various points during 1968–69 and all four band members had begun working on solo projects by 1970 as they all realised the likelihood the band would not regroup. Ultimately, animosity made it impossible for the group to continue working together in the years following.
In the years after the break-up there were sporadic collaborative recording efforts among the band members, but never with all four Beatles simultaneously collaborating as a recording or performing group again. After Lennon's death in 1980, the trio reunited for the Anthology project in 1994, using two unfinished Lennon demos – "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love" – for what would be new songs recorded and released as the Beatles.
One of the most pivotal persons in launching and promoting the band's worldwide popularity, Brian Epstein also managed to hold the group together, as his management style was to let the group pursue their musical notions and projects while often mediating when there was a conflict. However, this role began to diminish after the band stopped touring in 1966, although he still exercised a strong influence, settling disputes among members and, most importantly, handling the group's finances. When he died of a medical drug overdose in August 1967, there was a void left in the band. John Lennon had the closest personal relationship with Epstein and was the most affected by his death. Paul McCartney likely sensed the precarious situation and sought to initiate projects for the group. Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr progressively became perturbed by his growing domination in musical as well as other group ventures. Lennon later reflected that McCartney's efforts were important for the survival of the band, but he still believed that McCartney's desire to help came from McCartney's own misgivings about pursuing a solo career.
The foundation of Apple Corps was initiated under the oversight of Epstein as a tax shelter endeavour. His unexpected death left the future of Apple Corps in doubt. The lack of Epstein's supervision and the Beatles' inexperience as businessmen led to an unexpectedly chaotic venture that only added to stress when the band returned to the studio to produce their 1968 double album The Beatles, also known as the White Album. Epstein's role as band manager would never be replaced, and ultimately the lack of strong managerial leadership would be a major cause of the break-up.
George Harrison during an Abbey Road recording session, 1969.
Harrison's emergence as a songwriter
Another factor behind the Beatles' eventual split was Harrison's growth as a composer during the second half of their career. In the early years, Lennon and McCartney were the band's primary songwriters and vocalists, as Harrison and Starr took more supporting roles. Lennon and McCartney would often compose one song per album for Starr to sing, while Harrison would either cover an old standard or record one of his own compositions. From 1965 onwards, Harrison's compositions started to mature and become more appealing in their quality. Gradually, the other band members acknowledged his potential as a songwriter.
Although Harrison emerged as a talented songwriter and producer, he nonetheless continued to have many of his song ideas rejected by Lennon and McCartney, especially from 1968 onwards. While this was partly indicative of the increased competition for space on album sides, with three songwriters in the band, Harrison's frustration fostered in him a sense of alienation from the Beatles. He was the first member of the group to release a solo album, with Wonderwall Music, much of which was recorded in Bombay in January 1968 and featured Indian classical musicians such as Aashish Khan, Shankar Ghosh and Shivkumar Sharma. Speaking to Melody Maker in September 1969, Lennon said: "The trouble is we've got too much material. Now that George is writing a lot, we could put out a double album every month ..."
Japanese artist and singer Yoko Ono. 1967
Difficulty in collaboration
After the band had stopped touring in August 1966, each of the members, to varying degrees, began to pursue his own musical tastes. When the group convened to record Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in November 1966, there was still a camaraderie and desire to collaborate as musicians. However, their individual differences were becoming more apparent. To a greater extent than the others, McCartney maintained a deep interest in the pop musical trends and styles emerging both in Britain and the United States, whereas Harrison developed an interest in Indian music, and Lennon's compositions became more introspective and experimental. Consequently, McCartney began to assume the role of the initiator and leader of the artistic projects of the Beatles.
Each band member began to develop individual artistic agendas, which eventually compromised the enthusiasm among the musicians. Soon, each band member became impatient with the others. This became most evident on the White Album, in which personal artistic preferences began to dominate the recording sessions, which in turn further undermined the band's unity.
Ono's presence Lennon was in a fragile state of mind after returning from the band's sojourn in India in early 1968. He was disillusioned and resentful that their Transcendental Meditation guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, had not fulfilled his expectations.
Coupled with renewed drug use and deterioration in his marriage and family life, Lennon's personal identity and artistic role within the Beatles was a source of discontent. He began to develop an intense interest in the work of Yoko Ono, a Japanese-American conceptual artist whom he had first met at one of her exhibitions in 1966. The pair maintained a platonic relationship until the spring of 1968. In May that year, they spent time together in his home studio while his wife, Cynthia, was away on holiday. They recorded an avant-garde tape that would eventually be released as Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins, before consummating their new relationship. From that point on, the two were almost always together, even as Lennon was working with the rest of the band in the studio. This violated a previous tacit agreement between the members not to let wives or girlfriends into the studio.
In addition, as Lennon's artistic infatuation with Ono grew, he desired that she would be allotted artistic input into the band's recordings. Frequently, Ono would comment or make suggestions in the recording studio, which only served to increase the friction between her and Lennon's bandmates. Ono's intrusive presence was a source of rancour to Harrison, in particular, after his and Lennon's shared experimentation with LSD and Indian spirituality – two experiences that McCartney had approached with a level of caution – had united the pair since 1965
White Album sessions In May 1968, the band met at Harrison's home in Esher to record demos of some of the songs that would be released in November as The Beatles. Contemporaneous reviews and retrospective commentary by the Beatles acknowledged that the double album reflected the development of autonomous composers, musicians and artists. Rolling Stone described it as "four solo albums in one roof".
Lennon and McCartney's artistic venues for the Beatles became more disparate, with McCartney disapproving of Lennon and Ono's experimental sound collage "Revolution 9", and Lennon contemptuous of light-hearted McCartney songs such as "Martha My Dear" and "Honey Pie". Harrison continued to develop as a songwriter, yet he received little support from within the band during the sessions. Feeling resentment from Lennon and McCartney for his role in leading the Beatles to the Maharishi, Harrison's composition "Not Guilty" reflected his state of mind after their return from India. Starr began to develop and pursue acting opportunities during this period, yet as a drummer, he was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the standard of his playing; according to author Mark Hertsgaard, this was "a feeling that [McCartney] in particular had done much to encourage". Distressed also by the sour and tense atmosphere that was characteristic of the recording sessions,Starr felt so isolated that he left the band for several weeks and holidayed with his family in Sardinia. He returned in early September to find his drum kit decorated with flowers, which were a gift from Harrison.
The strain of recording the White Album also took its toll on EMI recording engineer Geoff Emerick. Like Starr, he left during the sessions, which commenced in June and concluded in October. These were the first signs of the group's emerging disunity and antipathy. Upon completion and release of The Beatles, the band no longer gave collective interviews or recorded appearances, and public relations were carried out individually. Other evidence of the group's collective alienation came with the release of their 1968 Christmas fan club recording; the contributions were entirely individual and Lennon made disparaging remarks about his bandmates' apparent disdain for Ono
Get Back and Let it Be sessions By the end of 1968, the Beatles' status as a group entity was in limbo. McCartney suggested a group project involving rehearsing, recording and performing the songs in a live concert. The project soon adopted a working title of Get Back but would eventually see official release as the Let It Be album and film in 1970. Although the sessions for their double album had involved a degree of ensemble playing, the band were ill-prepared to settle comfortably back into this mode; in particular, Lennon had descended into heroin addiction, leaving him variously incommunicative or highly critical of the venture. On 10 January 1969, eight days after filmed rehearsals commenced at Twickenham Film Studios, Harrison's frustration and resentment peaked and he informed his bandmates that he was leaving. Having enjoyed rewarding collaborations outside the Beatles during much of 1968, particularly with Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and the Band, the combined patronising by McCartney and estrangement from Lennon had taken its toll. The band were therefore on the verge of potential collapse and at an impasse. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine cited a recording that exists from the Twickenham sessions the day after Harrison's departure in which Lennon suggests inviting Clapton to take over lead guitar duties.
Ultimately, complicated negotiations brought Harrison back into the group's activities. At Harrison's insistence, McCartney's plans for a full concert were abandoned and the project was relocated to the band's Apple Studio in Savile Row, with the focus now on merely completing a new album of some of the songs rehearsed at Twickenham. The Beatles gave their last public performance on the rooftop of Apple's headquarters on 30 January 1969, as a substitute for an audience-based concert.
Apple Corps during this period was plagued by business problems. On 26 January 1969 Lennon and Ono met with Allen Klein regarding managerial advice. Lennon requested that Klein represent his business interests in the band. McCartney's growing relationship with Linda Eastman, whom he married on 12 March, opened the opportunity for lawyers Lee and John Eastman, Linda's father and brother, respectively, to become involved in advising the band's financial and legal decision-making. In April, after a series of rancorous meetings between Klein, the Eastmans and the Beatles, Klein was appointed as the band's business manager on an interim basis, with the Eastmans as the Beatles' lawyers. However, the band members' quarrels and disharmony over musical matters soon permeated their business discussions.
Dick James, who held substantial rights to Northern Songs (the Lennon–McCartney song catalogue), became increasingly concerned over the band's dissension and resentment towards him. Without informing the Beatles, he entertained offers to sell his substantial shareholding in Northern Songs. Klein and the Eastmans were caught off guard and their attempts to reclaim control of the Beatles (via Maclen Music) failed. It soon became evident that the Eastmans and Klein had developed an adversarial relationship given their disparate advice and counsel. Given a choice between Klein and the Eastmans, Harrison and Starr opted for Klein. The Eastmans were dismissed as the Beatles' legal representation, and on 8 May, Lennon, Harrison and Starr signed a contract with Klein to be the band's business manager. This further aggravated the underlying mistrust and antipathy experienced within the band. McCartney felt that the four members' evolution from musicians to businessmen was the central reason for the band's break-up.
With the troubled Get Back/Let It Be project put on hold, the group continued to record together sporadically during the spring and early summer of 1969. Otherwise, the band members became increasingly involved in activities outside the band; among these, Lennon launched an international peace campaign with Ono, spearheaded by their single "Give Peace a Chance", Harrison continued to focus on producing Apple Records signings, including Jackie Lomax, Billy Preston and Radha Krishna Temple (London), and Starr began to establish himself as a film actor. Their occasional sessions together over the first half of the year ultimately paved the way for the Beatles' last studio recording project, Abbey Road.
Lennon's departure Soon after the sessions for Abbey Road, Lennon's heroin use inspired him to record "Cold Turkey" with his and Ono's conceptual group, the Plastic Ono Band, after the Beatles had rejected the song for release as a single. The formation of the Plastic Ono Band was conceived as an artistic outlet for Lennon and Ono, but the enthusiastic reception afforded their performance at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival on 13 September 1969 ostensibly crystallised Lennon's decision to leave the Beatles, which he made on the flight back to London. During a band meeting at Apple on 20 September, he informed McCartney, Starr and Klein of his decision (Harrison was not present at the meeting), telling them he wanted a "divorce". That same day, the band signed a renegotiated recording contract with Capitol Records, guaranteeing them a higher royalty rate. This was the group's last, transient demonstration of unity, and the sensitivity of the negotiations with Capitol led to Klein and McCartney urging Lennon to keep his announcement private until the release of the Let It Be album and film the following year, which Lennon agreed to do.
McCartney's announcement Having long attempted to maintain cohesiveness within the Beatles, McCartney secluded himself with his new family at his Scottish farm, distraught at Lennon's departure. After being tracked down by reporters from Life magazine in late October, McCartney publicly acknowledged that "the Beatle thing is over", although the full meaning of this remark was ignored. In early January 1970, he, Harrison and Starr briefly reconvened at Abbey Road Studios to record Harrison's "I Me Mine" and complete work on McCartney's song "Let It Be".
Both tracks were needed for the Let It Be album, as the threat of legal action by American film company United Artists led to a decision to finally prepare the Get Back recordings and footage for release. This project was then allowed to languish as before, until producer Phil Spector was invited to revisit the tapes. Although McCartney has claimed that he was unaware of Spector's involvement until receiving an acetate of the Let It Be album in April, Peter Doggett writes of work being delayed for "several weeks" until McCartney returned "a string of messages" requesting his approval for Spector to start working on the tapes.
Effectively estranged from his bandmates and deeply depressed, McCartney had begun making a series of home recordings in London during December 1969. Operating under strict secrecy, McCartney privately agreed on a release date for this proposed solo album, titled McCartney, with Apple Records executive Neil Aspinall. The release was set for 17 April 1970. Once Lennon, Harrison and Starr became aware of it, however, the date was immediately deemed as problematic, due to the existing items on the Apple release schedule – Let It Be and Starr's own solo debut, Sentimental Journey. On 31 March, Starr went to McCartney's house to tell him personally of the decision to delay the release of McCartney, news to which he reacted badly, dismissing Starr from his home, and refusing to cede the date agreed to with Aspinall. Stunned at his bandmate's outburst, Starr relayed the situation to Harrison and Lennon, and McCartney's album was reinstated on the release schedule for 17 April.
McCartney's bitterness over this episode contributed to him publicly announcing his departure from the Beatles. He has also cited Spector's treatment of some songs on the Let It Be album, particularly "The Long and Winding Road", as another factor. The chronological relevance of the latter claim is disputed by Starr, however, who stated that, when acetates of the album were sent out for each of the Beatles' approval, on 2 April: "We all said yes. Even at the beginning Paul said yes. I spoke to him on the phone, and said, 'Did you like it?' and he said, 'Yeah, it's OK.' He didn't put it down."
McCartney's announcement came via a press release distributed to select UK journalists on 9 April, with advance copies of McCartney. The press release took the form of a Q&A in which McCartney discussed his album and, with Lennon's exit still being withheld from the public (for business reasons), matters pertaining to the Beatles' immediate future. While McCartney did not state that the group had broken up, he talked of his "break with the Beatles" and having no plans to work with the band in the future; he also emphasised his distance from Klein's management and ruled out the likelihood of ever writing songs with Lennon again. Although McCartney has said that Apple's press officer, Derek Taylor, submitted the questions, Taylor later insisted that those concerning the Beatles were added by McCartney. On 10 April, having been among the recipients of the Q&A, Don Short of The Daily Mirror reported on McCartney's departure from the Beatles under the front page headline "Paul Quits The Beatles". Newspapers around the world then interpreted McCartney's remarks as an announcement that the band had broken up.
Official dissolution in the British High Court
Paul Doggett writes that, amid the uproar following his announcement, McCartney returned to the issue of Spector's work on Let It Be "like a dog obsessively licking a wound". McCartney had conceived of "The Long and Winding Road" as a simple piano ballad, but Spector overdubbed orchestral and female choral accompaniment. On 14 April, McCartney sent a sharply worded letter to Klein demanding that the new instrumentation be reduced, the harp part removed, and added: "Don't ever do it again." Arriving twelve days after Spector had distributed the acetates with a request for any of the Beatles to contact him immediately with proposed changes, McCartney's demands went unheeded. Klein claimed to have sent McCartney a telegram in reply to the 14 April letter, since McCartney had changed his telephone number without informing Apple, but he received no response. Klein therefore went ahead with manufacturing the new Beatles album.
On 31 December 1970, McCartney filed a lawsuit against the other three Beatles in London's High Court for dissolution of the Beatles' contractual partnership, and subsequently a receiver was appointed. The legal process and negotiations were lengthy and the formal dissolution of the partnership took place on 9 January 1975.