The Beatles' Break-Up, 40 Years Later
For Beatles fans around the world, this December marks a significant milestone in the band's history—and no, I am not referring to their high-profile entrance into the iTunes Music Store. Rather, this month marks the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' break-up in 1970. Forty years after the era of Beatles dominance, any commemoration of their successes and their impact on modern culture has come to follow a certain pattern: columns are written, concerts are performed, and albums are re-mastered and re-re-released. Also, more often than not, the fingers of devout Beatles fans begin to point accusingly in different directions, each seeking the "real" reason that the Beatles broke up in the first place.
They point at Yoko Ono, John Lennon's lover, a mildly terrifying woman who many believe to have been the most divisive character in the Beatles' late years. They point at Paul McCartney, the egotistical solo-act who, at times, seemed to view the Beatles as his personal backup band. And, occasionally, they point to God, the only deity that they believe could have brought such a group together in the first place. As one might expect, much of this finger-pointing derives from a deep-seated anger based on the notion that had these forces not arisen, perhaps the band would not have parted ways. But this belief is undermined by the simple fact that the Beatles had been drifting apart musically since 1968, when they released a magnificent yet scattered collection of some of the most beautiful songs that each of the band's songwriters had ever written: The White Album.
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The White Album is in many ways no album at all. Rather, it is a collection of individual portfolios, all faithfully clumped under one unifying title: The Beatles. The songs were written during the spring of 1968, when the Beatles made their famous trip to India to practice transcendental meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The band members, fatigued from hours of meditation and indigestion, would retreat separately into the privacy of their huts and work on their music. During this period, the Beatles' songwriters wrote some of their most profound and personal songs. John Lennon wrote "Dear Prudence," "Julia," and-according to rumor-even began crafting "Jealous Guy." Paul McCartney penned "Blackbird," "Mother Nature's Son," and "I Will." And George Harrison wrote what many consider to be his finest work: "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."
The Beatles may have produced the songs together in joint recording sessions, but the songs themselves were very much the product of three increasingly different artists. Long gone were the days in which Lennon and McCartney would lock themselves in a room and emerge with an album full of hits. Gone as well were the days in which one writer would add the missing piece to the other's nearly perfect puzzle. With The White Album, even the untrained ear could differentiate the optimistic pop folk of Paul McCartney (e.g., "Martha My Dear" and "Back in the U.S.S.R.") from the angst-ridden sighs of John Lennon ("I'm So Tired" and "Happiness is a Warm Gun"). Their two styles were becoming so distinct that it now seems comical that the songs were published under the joint name, Lennon/McCartney. These artists were growing apart, and during the recording sessions of The White Album, it became clear that the Beatles were not just growing apart musically.
The infighting that came to characterize the Beatles' last few years in the studio really began during the recording of The White Album. With more time and experience in the studio, each of the Beatles had developed a stronger opinion of how a certain song should be produced. Quarreling became so commonplace—and heated—that at one point drummer Ringo Starr abruptly left the studio during the recording of "Back in the U.S.S.R." Paul McCartney is credited for the drumming on that track. At another point, George Harrison brought guitarist Eric Clapton into the studio, in part to record the solo for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," but also to help temper the band's intense fighting. Many of EMI's engineers and studio workers, professionals who had worked alongside the Beatles since the earliest days in the studio, began to resign, stating that they could no longer tolerate the band's infighting. Can you imagine what it would take to make you walk out of a Beatles recording session?
The White Album was the beginning of a long, drawn-out end to the Beatles' career, and all the finger pointing in the world would not reveal the one true reason that the Beatles split up. So I say to you finger-pointers, stop wasting your time. As we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' breakup, don't dwell too long on its cause. Rather, consider the simple miracle that a band like this, with two-and arguably three-of the greatest and most unique songwriters of the 20th century, could have co-existed as long as they did. Recall your fond memories of lining up outside the record store year after year, eager to purchase the band's newest LP or single. Marvel at their legacy, a story and a collection of music that remains as fresh as ever after 40 years. And maybe—just for good measure—repurchase all of their songs and albums a fourth or fifth time on the iTunes Music Store, if only because you can.