A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Why did the Beatles break up?

October 29, 2002

Dear Straight Dope:

Why did the Beatles break up?

Brace yourselves, friends--this may well be the first discussion of the Beatles' break-up that doesn't include a cheap Yoko Ono joke.

Really, the answer is simple. They broke up for the same reason they were successful--they were all extremely talented musicians interested in trying new things. We can argue about whether that describes Ringo or not, but I think in general it's true.

The breakup really began in 1967 with the death of Brian Epstein, who had managed the group since late 1961. Epstein was the one who kept the Beatles working together, resolving disputes between members, soothing bruised egos, and most importantly, handling the money.

After Epstein's death, Paul McCartney tried to step into that role and act as group leader. Unfortunately, Paul's first decision was to involve the group in the film Magical Mystery Tour.  While the associated album did well, the film was a disaster financially and artistically. John mocked Paul for the failure, and while Paul still ostensibly led the group, none of the others paid much attention to him.

Meanwhile, the members of the group began moving in different directions. John Lennon became more interested in the avant-garde art scene. At an exhibit in London, he met artist Yoko Ono. They fell in love and planned art projects together. In the beginning, John tried to get the other Beatles to join in, but they had little enthusiasm for these projects, and eventually John worked with Yoko on their artwork without them.

At the same time, George Harrison was chafing at his role within the group. He felt that he was as competent a song writer as either John or Paul, but the fact that he was only allowed two songs per record--and no tracks on any of the singles--relegated him to a supporting role. In retaliation, George began working on solo projects--including the album Wonderwall, released in 1968 and arguably the first solo record of any Beatle--and playing guitar with other recording artists such as Jackie Lomax and Jack Bruce.

Things really began to go downhill after the formation of Apple Corps. Apple was, in essence, a tax dodge--if the Beatles didn't spend a large portion of their income on "significant ventures," the government would hit them up for more taxes. It acted as a kind of hippie venture capitalist group, offering money to poets and songwriters and fashion designers. Unfortunately, poets, songwriters and fashion designers don't often give as good a return on investment as, say, General Electric. While Apple Corps managed to discover some new talent such as James Taylor and Badfinger, it bled money.

Running Apple Corps was a nightmare--none of the Beatles were businessmen, and they preferred to use Apple Corps to further their own goals, whether it was John sending acorns to be planted as "peace trees," George sending some Hell's Angels over to sort out the mess in Czechoslovakia, Paul hiring brass bands, etc. Word got out that nearly anyone could show up and, with a plausible enough story, get handed a check; without a plausible story, you could just pick something up and walk away. The Apple Boutique lost 50 pounds a week in petty theft. Items stolen from Apple Headquarters, according to Andrew Male, included "four television sets plus numerous record players, electric typewriters, adding machines, cases of wine, wage packets, movie cameras, speakers and fan heaters plus an electric skillet from the kitchen and all the lead off the roof." Accusations of wasted money and incompetence were rife. John and George nearly got into a fistfight after John publicly stated that the company would be broke in six months.

With disaster looming, the Beatles agreed that they needed to hire a real manager. Unfortunately, they didn't agree on who that manager should be. John, George, and Ringo wanted Allan Klein. Paul didn't trust Klein and wanted to hire his father-in-law Lee Eastman. Paul was outvoted, and Klein was set to two Herculean tasks: fixing Apple Corps and turning the Beatles' latest recording project--several tapes of them belittling each other--into a record. The recording sessions for what would become Let It Be had been a disaster--nearly every member of the group fought with every other member over which songs to include, how to arrange the songs, etc. When John brought Yoko in to work on songs and insisted that she be treated as an equal, the others resisted the idea, and John and Yoko got the cold shoulder for the rest of the sessions.

As time went on, it became obvious that even new manager Klein couldn't stop the fighting. Paul was incensed that Klein had hired Phil Spector to work on the tapes and accused Spector of ruining his songs. John was furious that his song "Cold Turkey" had been dropped from the Abbey Road album, and recorded it on his own as a protest, crediting the writing to "Lennon," and not "Lennon/McCartney," the first such song in thirteen years. John's insistence on working with Yoko--and the rest of the band's insistence on not working with her at all--drove a wedge between John and the others. George was furious that Apple Corps was falling apart, and that he still wasn't going to be allowed more than two songs per album. John, Paul, George, and Ringo all spent time in 1969 and 1970 recording their own solo albums while Abbey Road hit the charts and Spector continued trying to shape Let It Be into an album.

On April 7th, 1970, Paul McCartney released his album McCartney despite Klein's demands that it wait until Let It Be was out. Three days later, Paul released a self-interview in which he stated that he never wanted to work with the other Beatles again. The other three claimed there was no real split and that the Beatles would soon be recording together again. (John went back and forth on the issue: in public interviews at the time, he claimed that he was still a Beatle despite having recorded four solo albums, and that everything would be fine; later, he claimed that he had actually been the first to quit the group back in 1969.)

On December 31st, 1970, Paul McCartney sued the other three Beatles for a dissolution of the partnership, and talk of another Beatles album ended--except, of course, among the group's fans, who hoped for years for a reunion that never came.

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Staff Reports are written by the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, Cecil's online auxiliary. Though the SDSAB does its best, these columns are edited by Ed Zotti, not Cecil, so accuracywise you'd better keep your fingers crossed.

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